Today's post comes to us courtesy of Claudine Knapp, author of the blog Real Nobody's Like Us and a regular contributor to Bonjour Paris. 2010 marks Claudine's fourth year of following Le Tour via her daily series of posts on French cuisine.
While I am trying not to have a panic attack that we are now on the downward slope to the end of the Tour de France I will soak in every one of these last ten stages. Today the Tour leaves the Alps behind and starts to head southwest to the Pyrenees. After the last few days in the Alps, today’s stage at times looks like a lovely stroll through the park on a Sunday afternoon. It will be a day for the sprinters so it will be fast and the GC contenders will stay back in case of pileups which this year’s Tour has been filled with.
The start town of Sisteron is known as the “Porte de la Provence,” the Gateway to Provence, but this year it will be just a quick pass through. Each year the Tour de France flips between clockwise and counter clockwise, this year we are moving in a clockwise pattern. Sitting on the banks of the River Durance and in-between two mountain ranges the town of Sisteron is more familiar with the “Race to the Sun” Paris-Nice. As with most of the towns and villages in this part of France, Sisteron was first settled by the Romans and left their mark on a rock near the town. In 118 BC, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus built a road that would like Spain with Italy. Traveling through the Alps at the Col de Montgenevre, through the valley of Durance, the stage town of Sisteron, across the River Rhone through Nimes and then along the coast to Spain. Paved with cobbles the Roman road is also said to be the same route used by both Heracles and Hannibal.
It was another historical character that would also make a large impact on the town, Napoleon Bonaparte passed through the town on his way from the Island of Elba, before he reached Laffrey that was on yesterday’s stage as well. On March 8, 1815 when Napoleon was making his way to retake his seat of power he and his troops came upon Sisteron. Since it was being held by the Royalists he knew it was essential for him to defeat them so he can move on. Napoleon and his General Cambronne and the more than 600 soldiers took over the city from the Royalists and were allowed to advance through. Eighteen days after his arrival on the shores of France, March 19th he was back in Paris. But he would not stay in power long, 100 days after his arrival to France he would be defeated at Waterloo. The Citadel of Sisteron dates back to the 12th century, with additions being made in the 14th century and again in a large renovation in the 19th century. Within the citadel there is a room dedicated to Napoleon with more the 50 items marking his return from Elba in 1815.
The Drôme department of the French Alps region gets its name from the River Drôme that is a tributary of the River Rhône. Flowing more than 68 miles and through the stage 10 towns of Die and Crest before meeting the River Rhône again in Loriol-sur-Drôme near Valence. In the heart of the Provencal Drôme region it is the mix of agriculture, wines of the Hermitage and Clairette de Die and the Nyons oil and truffles that give the area its distinction above many others. Nyons is known for one thing, olives. Because of its location at Les Baronnies, which is the region East and North of Mont Ventoux and just under 775 square miles in size it is protected from the Provence Mistral winds and makes a perfect place for growing olives. There are more than 250,000 olive trees in the area and will produce over 420 tons of olives for eating and 200 tons of olive oil per year. Nyons received its AOC distinction in 1994 for the Tanche olive, which is a sturdy olive with a large pit and a sweet meaty flavor. The appearance of the Tanche olive is black and somewhat wrinkled due to the fact that they are harvested in December and they have fully ripened and began to shrivel in the cold weather. Italy may be more recognized for Olive Oil, but some of the best ones come from France (would I say anything else?).
The town of Die, pronounced like the letter D, was home to the French Catholic diocese until the French Revolution put an end to it but the Die Cathedral still stands there today. Built over Roman ruins from the 11th to the 13th century only to be destroyed in the 16th century, in 1777 it was rebuilt from the local red sandstone and today the stone pulpit that dates back to the 13th century can still be seen in this lovely church. Die sits southeast of the well known wine growing region of Rhone and is well known for its sparkling wine Clairette de Die. Like most of the great products of France, the Clairette de Die under an AOC distinction. It was first given the Appellation d’Orgine in 1910 and the Appellation d’Orgine Controlee in 1942 the wine must be made mostly of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains grapes, 75% and 25% of the Clairette grape that make of the Clairette de Die under its distinction. The Clairette de Die is best served young and chilled and the flavors of stone fruits and aromas of honeysuckle and roses round it out nicely. The Cremant de Die also from the same area is a dry sparkling wine that was originally 100% Clairette but that is now beginning to change and incorporate more Muscat and Aligote grapes. The Cremeant de Die is made in the same methode champenoise that is used in the Champagne region and is a light and crisp wine with a citrus and green apple finish. Some of the best known wines in the area are Chatillon-en-Diois, Jean-Claude Vincent and Domaine de La Mure.
The town of Crest sits along the River Drome and below the Tour de Crest. The Tour de Crest, or Crest Tower is what remains of the Chateau de Crest. The Chateau was built over time during the 11th and 15th century on a rock spur on top of Roman ruins overlooking the valley below to watch the trade routes into France. It was destroyed by Cardinal Richelieu under the orders of Louis XIII, the only thing that remained was the tower. The tower was turned into a prison and used until 1873, inside the walls are marked by those jailed during the Second Empire. Today it belongs to the town and can be reached from the central square of the town and up the 184 rough rock steps. On Fête Nationale, July 14th it was decked out with a large French flag visible from miles away and bathed in light as the sun set.
The finishing town of Bourg-les-Valence sits just outside of the larger city of Valence. With its close proximity to Valence and only a 30 minute trip to Lyon via the TGV it has become a welcome place for businesses to set up shop. What was once one of the oldest churches in the Valence region, the Eglise Saint Peter was destroyed in 1597 during the Wars of Religion. Rebuilding the church began in the 17th century but the most significant changes came during the late 19th and early 20th. It looks quite modern in the grand scheme of French historical churches.
Tarts filled with a custard base may be what the Lorraine is known for, but it can also be found in the Alps region as well. Just make sure you use the cheese of the area to keep it authentic. This Tarte aux Asperges is simple and delicious and is just as good cold as fresh out of the oven and would be the perfect light lunch with salad or appetizer at the beginning of a lovely outdoor dinner.
You can buy a pie crust, but really the thought send shivers down my back, it takes less than 45 seconds to make a light flaky crust so just try it once, you won’t go back. This one trick and rule you must ALWAYS follow, all the items need to be cold, you can even put the dry ingredients in the refrigerator to chill, and the reason is you do not want the butter to melt. If it stays in nice little pieces before it goes into the oven it will give you a flaky light crust.
Tarte aux Asperges
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water
In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt, and sugar. Add butter, and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds. With machine running, add ice water in a slow, steady stream through feed tube. Pulse until dough holds together without being wet or sticky; be careful not to process more than 30 seconds. To test, squeeze a small amount together: If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time.
Divide dough into two equal balls. Flatten each ball into a disc and wrap in plastic. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill at least 1 hour. Dough may be stored, frozen, up to 1 month.
2 lbs asparagus
Salt and pepper
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup flour
Pinch of fresh grated nutmeg
½ cup grated gruyere or Comte cheese
2 eggs beaten
3 tablespoons heavy cream or crème fraiche
Peel the asparagus and trim off the bottom halves. Cook the asparagus tips in boiling salted water, the time will depend on the size of the spears, for thicker it can be up to 8 minutes, but you want it just crisp tender. Drain and rinse with cold water and completely dry.
To prepare the sauce in large saucepan melt butter, add flour and whisk until combined and cook 1 or 2 minutes until lightly browned, slowly add milk whisking the entire time until thickened. Remove from the heat, add salt, pepper and nutmeg and let cool slightly. When cooled add in grated cheese and mix, add eggs and taste for seasoning. Set aside 1 cup of the sauce.
Line a 9 to 10 inch pie or tart pan with Pate Brisee and spoon in sauce. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes or until the edge of the pastry is brown. Remove and turn the heat up to 425 degrees F. Into the tart lay the asparagus with the tips pointing outward. To the reserved sauce add in cream and blend, pour over the base of the asparagus spears and sprinkle with more cheese if desired. Bake for 10 more minutes or until a light golden brown.
Next up: crossing the Rhône.