This year's second stage in the Pyrenées will no doubt bring back melancholy memories for old fans of the Tour, as it was on the descent of today's second climb, the Col de Portet d'Aspet, that Fabio Casartelli met his untimely death in the 1995 Tour de France. Casartelli's then Motorola teammate, Lance Armstrong, racing in his pre-cancer diagnosis days, went on to a storming solo victory a couple of stages later, dedicating his win to Casartelli's memory. I'd hazard a guess that it still – even after seven overall victories in the Tour de France – ranks as one of Lance's most personally meaningful victories.
Photo courtesy of Star Bikes.
It's been long enough now that the riders and race caravan no longer stop at the memorial to pay their respects. On this day, two more mountain passes, including the hors categorie Col des Ares, and a perilous finishing descent into Bagnères-de-Luchon still loomed ahead. But I'm sure that more than a few members of the peloton honored the memory of Casartelli in their own ways this afternoon.
Today's route, scenic as it was, passed through what is essentially a no-vine zone, starting just west of the environs of Toulouse and just east of the deep southwest, where things will be headed tomorrow. While there may be little wine rooted along the route, there's no lack of Pyrenéean sheep and, by extension, some fantastic areas for the production of mountain sheep's milk cheeses.
One such production zone can be found in the town of Belloc, roughly 20k north of St. Girons and very near the mid-point of today's stage, source of the namesake fromage, Abbaye de Belloc. According to the fine cheese mongers at Artisanal in New York:
"Abbaye de Bel'loc is still made in the traditional manner by Benedictine Monks at the abbey of Notre-Dame de Belloc. A French Pyrenees sheep's milk cheese, Abbaye has a fine, dense texture and is high in fat. The milk comes from the red-nosed Manech ewes (an old local breed) whose milk is brought into the monastery from neighboring farms. Abbaye de Belloc has a true Basque character, and it is believed that many centuries ago the monks from the Belloc Monastery first taught the Basque shepherds how to make cheese. Proper care in the right maturing conditions will accentuate the rich, caramelized flavors that make this cheese so addictive. Pair Abbaye de Bel'loc with Château Margaux or Pacherenc du Vic Bilh."Abbaye de Belloc is one of my favorite examples of the sheep's milk cheeses from Southwest France – mild enough to be a crowd pleaser yet displaying enough depth of flavor to satisfy big time cheese heads. While recommending it with a bottle of Château Margaux may be a bit over the top, the disparity of Artisanal's two recommendations do make a good point. This is wine friendly cheese, just as at home with a white from Jurançon, Irouléguy or, yes, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, as with a red from Cahors, Corbières or, leaping across the border and mixing culinary cultures, even Rioja.
After today's stage finish, the next two days in the mountains promise to be very interesting indeed.
Up next: On to Pau.