Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Lovely Beaujolais from a Difficult Vintage

Those that visit here with some passing regularity may recall me occasionally pronouncing about the importance of not pronouncing about vintages. Sometimes, though, doing so is not only inescapable but can also serve a purpose more meaningful than selling magazines or over-simplifying the never ending process and deeper intricacies of trying to understand wine. So, with that in mind...

2008 was a difficult vintage in Beaujolais, with more rain and less sun than usual through much of the summer as well as hailstorms in late August. Many wines, even from top notch producers, show some of the effects of the growing season. The Fleurie "Clos de Roilette" from Coudert Père et Fils is a good deal more austere than usual, though still very fine. Georges and Jean-François Trichard, who produce lovely fruity-style Cru Beaujolais in more generous years (think 2005 and 2007) turned out leaner, tarter, less giving wines than usual in 2008.

Régnié (Sans Soufre), Domaine Christian Ducroux 2008
$16. 12% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Fruit of the Vine, New York, NY.
Another producer whose wine, like that of Coudert, shows the challenging character of the vintage but is still delivering substance and pleasure is Christian Ducroux. His 2008 Régnié displays some stemmy, green aromatic traits but integrates those with lovely fruit vibrancy and focused structure. Its slight leanness is actually welcome this time of year, rendering it quite refreshing, and also quite at home at the table, providing the requisite cut and freshness for a dinner of roast salmon or grilled chicken thighs. Day two brought a slight loss of focus but a very pleasing development of textural richness and mineral concentration.

Ducroux's vineyards are certified organic (Ecocert) and biodynamic (Demeter). The "label talker" on his '08 Régnié speaks clearly of a man proud of his land and farming practices. When's the last time you saw someone name his horses (Ewan and Raïna; work, not race) right on the bottle?

The fine staff at the shop where I purchased this bottle told me that this particular cuvée is produced without the addition of any sulfur. I can find nothing on the bottle, not even in code, to indicate that's the case, but I have no reason to doubt it. There was actually another bottling, one where Ducroux had added a little sufur, for sale at the shop. Had I been more on my game that day I would have procured some of each, to facilitate a side-by-side comparison. That, my friends, will have to wait for another day.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Buon Appetito, Piemonte

The latest edition of Bon Appetit (August 2010) includes a neat little feature on traveling to — and eating and drinking in — Piemonte. Included among its short list of eight highlights, I was very pleased to see two places that I visited on my most recent trip to the Langhe. The first of the two, staking down the second spot on the list, was Centro Storico, a place I'd like to see replicated, at least in spirit, in every town I have occasion to visit. It's that solid a recipe: great wine (and really great Champagne!), comforting food, no nonsense service and a friendly, makes-you-want-to-stay-there-all-day kind of vibe.

A big congrats to Alessio "Ciccio" Cighetti and his wife Stefania for the recognition in such a major mag. I barely recognized Alessio in the "sultry-style" photo in Bon App (besides which, it's not available in the online version), so I'll stick with my own shot, taken in situ back in May.

When you go... notice I say "when," not if, and use "you" in the universally inclusive sense, not in the one-or-two-folks-who-I-know-are going-to-go-anyway sense. When you go... it'll be fine if you mention the Bon Appetit spot to Alessio, but make sure to tell him you read about it here first! I really do love that place.

Anchoring the B.A. list in the #8 spot is a restaurant of another sort, one that I couldn't imagine succeeding, if duplicated exactly as is, in any city in the United States. And yet, set just off the corner of a beautiful old square in Pollenzo, on the grounds of Slow Food's University of Gastronomic Sciences, it seemed perfectly at home (aside, perhaps, from the gate at which guests have to be buzzed in to gain admittance).

That place is Ristorante Guido. It may be a Michelin one-star, with the white tablecloths, polished service and the ambition to prove it, but one dish in particular that I ate there was among the simplest expressions of the beauty of Piemontese cuisine that I encountered on the entire trip.

Photo courtesy of Viaggiatore Gourmet.

I wish I'd taken notes that night, or asked for a copy of the menu, so that I could tell you the "official" name of the dish; agnolotti al tovagliolo will have to suffice. Meat filled agnolotti. No sauce whatsoever. Nestled in a folded over napkin to absorb any excess moisture and keep the pasta firm. Revealed table-side. And relished for their unabashed, unadorned, purely simple delivery of the art of deliciousness.

To the first: go and go often. To the second: go, it's worth the splurge.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wurst und Cheverny

Though I miss it already, it's amazing how much more time I have in the evenings now that the Tour has ended. Take last night. Cooked an impromptu dinner. Bockwurst from Birchrun Hills Farm — mild, delicately seasoned but deeply flavorful white sausages made from Birchrun's own veal and pork. Simmered 'em in Victory Prima Pils. Meanwhile, I crescent-sliced and sautéed a red onion 'til it softened, then threw in a coarsely chopped head of loose-leaf radicchio. Braised them both in a little more of the beer, tossed in a pinch of salt and a generous sprinkling of fresh ground black pepper, then added a dollop of German-style mustard.

The end result? Moist, juicy, tender sausages offset by a slightly sweet, slightly bitter, very flavorful onion and radicchio hash.

Dry German or Austrian Riesling, of course, would have been natural. But I had something waiting in the fridge. Something that'd been biding its time there, beckoning me since a hot night last week when I succumbed to the motif rather than the gut calling and drank classified-growth Bordeaux instead.

Cheverny "Frileuse," Clos du Tue-Boeuf 2007
$15. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
When last I tasted this, it was at The Ten Bells, poured by Thierry Puzelat himself, at a L/D Loir et Cher tasting event. Back then, right around Halloween I believe it was, the wine was tight as a drum, nervy as all hell, and needed a ton of air to show its stuff. Thierry had carafed it, mentioning straight up that it needed the decant to throw off its "burnt rubber" aromas, its reduction.

There's none of that now. Instead, the wine's wide open, very forward and ever so slightly volatile on the nose. The nose suggests citrus and cream. Not at all cheesy. Just a little tangy and sweet, like an icy orange creamsicle. Take that and lace it with intense, broad minerality and the faintest onset of oxidative character. Then you'll have an idea of what I found in my glass last night.

Hard to resist. And damn, damn tasty with those Bockwurst.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Le Tour est Fin

The 2010 Tour de France: twenty-one stages, twenty-three days (24 for me... apparently I needed a rest day, too) and twenty-six posts. It's come to its end. Though those three weeks must have seemed like a veritable eternity to the racers and workers of the Tour, for fans like me it can seem the quickest three weeks known to man, over and done with far too quickly.

Calling this year's edition exciting and leaving it at that would be a short sell. It was exciting, but it was also the most open the event's been in years — a little predictable as always but also full of surprises.

I was jazzed to see Alessandro Petacchi return to near-top form, taking the green jersey for the first time in spite of Mark Cavendish's near invincibility in the majority of the sprint stages. There were revelatory performances by former mountain bike pro Ryder Hesjedal (7th overall), Belgian Tour rookie Jurgen Van Den Broeck (5th overall) and, most of all, veteran Chris Horner, who finished 10th overall with next to no fanfare after his team leader (Armstrong) and team heir apparent (Levi Leipheimer) both failed to perform up to expectations.

While I've written periodically of Le Tour de France and occasional other races for as long as I've been musing here at MFWT, 2010 marks the first year that I've actually provided coverage of every single stage, following along with the race route in something approximating real time. It wouldn't have been possible – or at least it would have been much, much harder – if not for help from a bunch of friends, both old and new.

So, here's a big shout out to Jeff, Greg, Dan, Benoit, Jim, Cory and Guilhaume, Wink, Brett, Claudine, Ben, Karen and Joe. I'm not sure I would have made it to the finish without them. You'll find links to their coverage (as well as my own) and their own home sites via the wrap-up list below.

I could never pick a favorite post from the bunch; that would be like trying to pick a favorite wine. Impossible. I am comfortable, though, with picking a favorite photo. It speaks for itself.

The 2010 Tour in review:
  • Prologue: a taste of things to come, some French, some not

  • Stage 1: thoughts of a quick Gueuze (or three) after the stage from Rotterdam to Brussels

  • Stage 1 Revisited: Jeff Appeltans, owner of Go Cycling, on the pleasures of Belgian beer and a tour through his homeland

  • Stage 2: for which Greg Gaughan kicked out a great culinary and brewery tour of Brussels and environs

  • Stage 3: one of my favorite beer importers, Dan Shelton, on the history of French farmhouse beers in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais

  • Stage 4: the first of two consecutive days on which I was forced – forced! I say – to drink Champagne

  • Stage 5: my second day of disgorgement

  • Stage 5 Revisited: the esteemed Benoit Tarlant came to the rescue, on a day of sun, fun and Le Tour along Épernay's Avenue de Champagne

  • Stage 6: Jim Budd of Jim's Loire got us as close to La Loire as this year's route allowed

  • Stage 7: in which Cory Cartwright and his suddenly silent biz-partner at Selection Massale tag-teamed their way through the hills of the Jura

  • Stage 8 Preview: my tongue-in-cheek press release for a quick, Jura-inspired trip to New York

  • Stage 8: Andy Schleck's first stage win, and an actual Jura-inspired trip to New York

  • Stage 9: Wink Lorch, of Wine Travel Guides, on wine, cheese and the Tour passing through her own mountainous back yard

  • Stage 9 Revisited: Wink's partner, Brett Jones, shared some real deal shots of the race in the Alps

  • Stage 10: Bugey-ing out of the Alps on Bastille Day

  • Stage 11: A day to Die... on which Claudine Knapp shared part of her annual culinary odyssey based around Le Tour

  • Stage 12: Remembering an old hero, and considering some possibilities as the race crossed the Rhône

  • Stage 13: A trip through Gaillac country, brought to us by Django-ologist Ben Wood of 67 Wine

  • Stage 14: Some thoughts on the origins of bubbles and the arguments for cassoulet on the roads near Toulouse

  • Stage 15: Memories of another hero (this one fallen young), and a lactic diversion

  • Stage 16: Day one in Jurançon country, in which I dropped the big d-word

  • Stage 16 Revisited: More on the land of Pau, and a personal journey through the culture of bike racing via Karen Ulrich of Imbibe New York

  • Stage 17: Posting outside the time limit on the Col du Tourmalet

  • Stage 18: The stage may have ended in Bordeaux but Joe Manekin took us on a journey SW to Irouléguy

  • Stage 19: For which I drank classified growth Bordeaux, almost as painful as riding an individual time trial

  • Stage 20: Dreaming of the past, present and future on the Champs-Élysées

The final podium at the 2010 Tour de France: Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck and Denis Menchov. Predictable, perhaps, but not without plenty of surprises along the way.

I had a great team helping me along the road this year, and I hope to build an even bigger team for next year. Cheers, all! Thanks for taking your pulls and thanks for following along. Hope you enjoyed the tour as much as I did.

Monday, July 26, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 20: Longjumeau to Paris Champs-Élysées

The peloton winding down one of the final laps of the Champs-Élysées in this year's Tour. I'd love to be there to witness the spectacle one day.
Image courtesy of Fotoreporter Sirotti.

As many reading today will realize, my daily coverage of the 2010 Tour de France is drawing near to its close. The Tour finished in exciting fashion yesterday, with the now traditional slow dance — full of camaraderie and publicity opportunities — through the suburbs of Paris, followed by a ceremonial entrance onto the Champs-Élysées and finally ending with eight fast and furious circuits around the Champs, from the Jardin des Tuileries at one end to a 180 degree turn just short of the Arc de Triomphe at the other.

It's been nearly ten years since I was last in Paris, a shortcoming that's sorely in need of remedy. I've walked the boulevards and parks along the Champs-Élysées, stared up at the Arc and back down at the dizzying traffic 'round the Place Charles de Gaulle but never have I been there on that special day in late July when, as it has for the last 35 years, the Tour de France passes through, shutting down the grands boulevards for its swan song, the last of its annual 20-21 stages.

The idealist in me imagines sitting at a café table outside a little bar à vin on the Champs-Élysées, snacking and sipping the afternoon away while watching the peloton zoom by in the final throes of competition. The realist in me knows that no wine bar I'd enjoy could possibly afford the rent on such a prestigious stretch of real estate. And besides, I'd never be able to see anything over the throngs of fans, ten-deep so I'm told, that line the sidewalks. So, I suppose I'd have to settle for a brown bag lunch and a bottle or two to share with friends, that is assuming the local gendarmerie would tolerate such behavior. In either scenario, I could easily imagine enjoying wines such as those below.

The 2009 Rosé de Loire "Le P'tit Rosé" from Domaine Ricard and 2007 Morgon Côte du Py" of Jean Foillard would be perfect choices for a hot July afternoon on the streets of Paris. Bright, focused, terroir-driven expressions of the winegrowing arts, yet both unabashedly gluggable and perfect served with a refreshing chill.

Some of the most memorable stage finishes on the Champs-Élysées in the last 25 years have been the results of individual exploits: Greg Lemond's defeat of Laurent Fignon to claim the stage and overall victory in the 1989 Tour and Frankie Andreu's near success in a solo breakaway in the 1994 Tour come immediately to mind. More often, though, the Champs-Élysées is the sacred battleground of the field sprinters, as was the case this year and last with Mark "The Manx Missile" Cavendish taking out stage honors in beachstorming style.

Mark Cavendish celebrating his fifth and final stage victory of the 2010 Tour.
Photo © Roberto Bettini.

Then there's another kind of memorable entirely... regard, the Tashkent Terror on the Champs-Élysées in 1994.

Up next: Le Tour in review, a thank you or ten, and a look forward to next year.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 19: Bordeaux to Pauillac

Even after arrivals and departures in towns like Reims, Epernay and Pau throughout the 2010 Tour de France, I think it's safe to say that no stage route screamed more obviously, more de rigueur, of a particular wine or food focus that Saturday's Stage 19 from Bordeaux to Pauillac.

The only full length individual time trial in this year's Tour — more typically there are two, plus a prologue — started in Bordeaux, winding through city streets for 15k before emerging from the relative shelter of an urban setting for the final 37k trek northward along the left bank of the Gironde estuary. Each rider, racing only against the clock, the elements and their own limits, would travel a route more or less identical to La Route du Médoc — the Chateaux road. Each would pass through Cantenac, Margaux, Tayac, Arcins, Beychevelle and St. Julien en route to the finish in Pauillac, home to more estates registered in the classification of 1855 than any other Médocaine commune.

Along with the better part of three weeks of cumulative fatigue, the wind blowing along the vineyard road proved the nemesis of most riders on the day. That wind favored the earlier starters, such as stage winner Fabian Cancellara, and battered the higher placed racers with later start times. I can't remember an eventual tour winner placing so lowly in the final time trial as did Alberto Contador, who finished only 35th on the stage, a major letdown relative to his triumph in the final TT in the 2009 Tour. Nonetheless, it was enough to keep him in the maillot jaune as he finished 31 seconds ahead of his main rival, Luxembourgian Andy Schleck, in 44th place.

The fact that Contador's final margin of overall victory, 39 seconds, exactly mirrors the amount of time that he gained by taking advantage of Schleck's mechanical difficulties in Stage 15 puts a permanent (if only implied) asterisk next to Contador's name in the annals of Tour victors.

Even though I was craving something white and, even more importantly, refreshing to accompany dinner and the stage viewing on a sweltering July night, I gave in to the greater calling of Le Tour and delved into the cellar for something appropriate to the day's finish line.

Pauillac, Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste 1995
Price on release unknown (gift); $125+ on current market. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Seagram Chateau & Estate, New York, NY.
There are the famous three of five firsts, then the somewhat less illustrious twelve of eighteen fifth growths, Grand-Puy-Lacoste generally being considered one of the better performers among that lowest ranking in the commune of Pauillac. From my perspective these days, that's trivia and little else, for I rarely buy Bordeaux of late and drink it with not much more regularity. Though far from bad, this bottle reminded me why.

Actually, there was a lot for someone to like. Still plenty of vigor in the fruit department. Pretty classic structure, with firm, slightly astringent yet well-integrated tannins. It's medium-bodied; a true 13% unlike so many of the Bordeaux I've tasted over the last few years that are still labeled at 13 but drink more like 14.5. There's even a clear sense of terroir, of the classic Médoc gravel, cassis and graphite. But the wood...

It's not that the oak was overly sweet, toasty, chocolaty or (fill in your favorite pejorative barrique-ism). But the wood treatment nonetheless dominated the wine — on the nose, to the tactile senses and on the palate. I found it too obtrusive, as if the barrels had sucked the energy out of the wine while asserting their presence, leaving little sense of purity or pleasure in their wake.

One could argue, and I'm sure some would, that the wine was simply too young. Certainly it had plenty of life ahead of it if left dormant in the cellar. But as dominant as the oak is today, I don't see it ever finding balance.

Up next: Paris, a day late and a bottle short.

Friday, July 23, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 18: Salies-de-Béarn to Bordeaux

Joe Manekin authors Old World Old School, a most excellent blog about wine, food, music and pop culture. Read it, dang it!

Allow me to begin with two confessions.

First, I have not yet watched any portion of the 2010 Tour de France. I have been catching up on the various stage results, strong individual performances, strong proclivity towards acts of douchery (this is a real word, by the way -just like 'hateration' or 'dancery') by a certain Spanish cyclist. Anyway, I have yet to really get into watching the Tour and 2010 does not appear to be the year to change that. Not sure if McDuff would have accepted this post had he known this, but I shall do my best to hang with the rest of the contributors and their wealth of cycling as well as geographic and vinous knowledge.

Second, up until a few nights ago I had never drunk an Irouléguy. Tasted, yes, but drunk, no. I admit that over the past several years, I have shown lots of love for wines from Euskadi South (Spanish Basque country) while not drinking nearly enough from Euskadi North (French Basque Country).

Stage 18 starts from Salies-de-Bearne, which lies about 61 kilometers east of Bayonne, the closest city proximate to the Irouléguy AOC. Granted its status as an AOC in 1970, Irouléguy is the westernmost AOC region in France, literally a stone's throw from the Spanish border. In fact, San Sebastian, Spain is much closer to Irouléguy than it is to this stage's destination city, Bordeaux. Vines are planted along the slopes of the Pyrénées mountains surrounding the town of St. Jean Pied de Port and eight other villages that make up the region of Irouléguy. Vineyards are south facing on hillsides with fairly steep slopes, and therefore they are often terraced. Tannat is the star grape, and it is typically blended with cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. If you are thinking that tannat reminds you of the word tannin, then you would be correct; the wines composed of tannat, specifically those from the Madiran AOC, can be noticeably firm and tannic. In fact, the technique of micro-oxygenation as a means of reducing the perception of tannin in red wine was originally developed here.

Earlier this week I opened two bottles of Irouléguy rouge, which presented significant enough stylistic differences to make them good studies over the course of a few days. days. Two Irouléguy from two different vintages, imported by two excellent locally based importers (Charles Neal and Kermit Lynch, respectively), primarily drunk over the course of two nights.

About the closest to regionally typical food I had to accompany these wines was an eggplant heavy variation on a pisto, with healthy amounts of flat leaf parsley and garlic, as well as a smattering of arugula and pimenton, to brighten and embolden the dish. I also whipped up some kale sauteed with garlic, garbanzos and bacon (sort of a riff on a Cal Pep dish which I quickly discovered and whipped up thanks to the internets). For night two, I roasted chicken. There was also petit basque cheese on the second night.

Photo courtesy of Cherries and Clay.

Let's start with the 2006 Domaine Ilarria Irouléguy. Proprietor Peiro Espil owns six hectares, primarily of tannat but with some cabernet franc and a bit of cabernet sauvignon. The vineyards are farmed organically and are certified by Ecocert. This wine is truly a delight to drink: red fruited, a bit savory in a spicy (think paprika) and subtly green vegetal kind of way. There is wonderful minerality and a freshness that make it terrific with food; even on the second day this wine was showing terrifically. Honest, traditional Bordeaux comes to mind if you're looking for something familiar as a frame of reference. Just a bit lighter and more mineral. Somewhere between humble, traditional, well made Bordeaux and a good Chinon is stylistically where this wine lies.

Photo courtesy of Manuel Camblor.

The 2005 Domaine Etxegaraya "Cuvée Lehengoa" is clearly a bigger wine. Composed of 80% tannat and 20% cab, from 150 year old vines, this is richer and black fruited on the nose. The wine also has a wonderful lavender like florality to its aromas and building inner mouth fragrance. Initially it struck me as the more impressive and serious of the two Irouléguy. It also revealed itself to be more extracted and woody; wood tannins might be a bit much for some drinkers who prefer less of an overt oak influence. That having been said, while I did not empty this bottle as quickly as the Ilarria (always a surefire way to determine preference), this wine still went very well with food, even the difficult to pair tomatoey pisto.

Back to cycling and TDF. Stage 18 is a flat one - 198 km of flatness. A good thing after all the climbing which the riders have had to endure over the past several stages, particulary up the grueling Col du Tourmalet. It looks like Alberto Contador, aka "la bolsa de ducha," all but has the tour wrapped up. However, this is an important stage as it relates to team standings, so we'll see what happens.

Up next: yes, we might actually speak of Bordeaux.

TDF 2010 Stage 17: Pau to Col du Tourmalet

I wonder what the time limit was for "today's" Stage 17. It's a moot point now, for no matter how generous the officials may have been to the flatlanders of the Tour peloton, I'm finishing way outside the limit — and breaking my own promise of posting on a same day, every day basis throughout Le Tour. What can I say? Yesterday was just too busy. An early day at the office. Co-leading a wine and chocolate pairing seminar at Tria Fermentation School. Dinner in town after class. And I still had to watch the Tour! No time left to post, my friends. So here it is, my Stage 17 report, a day late. Relegate me if you must but please don't send me packing. There are only three more stages to go!

Yesterday's leg began in Pau, again in the heart of Jurançon country, more or less running in a reverse direction to that taken in Stage 16, to an eventual finish atop the Col du Tourmalet, the last classified climb in this year's Tour. In spite of the two tough Category 1 climbs — the Col de Marie-Blanque and Col du Soulor — encountered near the midpoint of the day's course, the real fireworks waited for the final ascent up the big mountain. All the way up the big mountain. The Tour has visited the Tourmalet on 73 occasions over the last 100 years (remember, this year marks the centennial of the Tour's first trip to the Pyrénées); however, this was only the second time in the history of the race that a stage finished at the summit, the other being in 1974.

Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, the top two men in the 2010 Tour de France, fighting it out on the slopes of the Col du Tourmalet.
Photo courtesy of and © AFP Photo

While much of Stage 17 was fought at elevations too extreme for wine growing, the course very much ran through a rugged area of France with very strong ties to the culture of food and wine: Basque country. If there's anything the citizens of the Basque country are crazier about than their local drinks and foodstuffs, it's cycling — and rugby, but that's a topic I'll leave to others. If you had a chance to watch yesterday's stage coverage, you'll have seen throngs of rabid cycling fans lining the slopes of the Cols, and a preponderance of orange shirts and red, white and green flags: the Ikurriña, the official flag of Spanish Basque country and the widely adopted symbol of Euskal Herria, the entirety of Basque country. In this part of the Pyrénées, the cultural border blurs. Even though the Tour commentators pointed out that the majority of fans lining the slopes of the Tourmalet had traveled across the border from spain, it's also quite likely that many of those orange shirted, flag waving schmengies (to borrow a Bob Roll-ism) live on the French side of the border. Either way, it's clear from the number of Ikurriñas on display that they'd rather think of themselves as Basque citizens, official borders be damned.

If there was a benefit to not finding the time for my same-day coverage yesterday, it was the opportunity to revisit a restaurant in Philly that I hadn't been to in quite some time, José Garces' second spot in town, the Basque-inspired Tinto. The increasingly all-Spanish wine list at Tinto also gave me the chance to explore something I drink all too rarely — a wine from the southern side of the Basque country (exactly the opposite of "tomorrow's" guest blogger, as you'll soon see).

The cold, rainy, foggy conditions faced by riders and fans alike in yesterday's Pyrénéean escapade may not have been evocative of ideal rosado weather. Nonetheless, I'd still be hard pressed to think of anything I'd rather drink with a sandwich of Jamón Ibérico while waiting to cheer the racers up the mountains than the 2009 Getariako Txakolina "Rubentis" from Ameztoi, which the sommelier at Tinto poured for us by the glass last night. Delicately fruity, decidedly saline and mineral, low-alcohol and ultra-refreshing given its light effervescence. Killer stuff, and it made me want to return to San Sebastian — for more Txakoli, a little Basque cider, and some real-deal pintxos — in a big way.

Up next: another side of Basque country.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 16 Revisited: Where's Ulrich?

For your rest day reading pleasure, a look back on yesterday's Stage 16 by Karen Ulrich, author of Imbibe New York and, like me, a "retired" regional bike racer.

It’s been a few years since I’ve followed the Tour with fervor—the same number of years since I sold my Zipps to study wine. For four to five seasons I raced, following the wheels of a one-year romance with my first road bike. Racing became everything, and then, worn from training and competition, I picked up the bottle to study and started to run.

“Andy Shleck is out for blood,” the announcers state and set the tone. Eight seconds behind Contador, who took the yellow on Andy’s mechanical, Schleck begins the race with a protest, situating himself in the back of the pack.

I’m glad to see that Andy’s got game.

Though so out of the loop, my Comedy Central team bike still hangs from the rack. Cannondale System Six. I open a bottle of Chateau Jolys Jurançon Sec "Terrae Escencia" 2007, as the lead group of ten shatters the peloton and begins to climb. Up Col de Tourmalet—2,115 meters of grind. Armstrong, Vinokourov, Sastre—the old names are still players, but I miss Jan. Yearning for Ullrich—and not for name’s sake—I think back a few years and swirl the straw yellow contents of my glass.

Jurançon—nearly 2000 acres of vineyards dot the foothills of the Pyrénées near today’s finish line at Pau. Undetectable from the motorcade, vines on steep inclines produce Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, and Courbu. The thirty-fifth time I hear Armstorng’s name mentioned, I lift my glass. Floral lemon with a whiff of chalk and a touch of licorice—the acidity sears as they begin their descent around technical bends—fearless at 62 mph.

Jurançon Sec is typically made from Gros Manseng, while Petit Manseng is reserved for the production of sweet. Climbing the Col d’Aubisque, Armstrong and Barredo go off the front. Fedrigo follows. Damn that’s got to hurt. Another acceleration by Armstrong on a 7-8% grade…where’s Ullrich? Lungs afire, legs screaming, deplete. The Chateau Jolys finishes with an ocean mist that coats my tongue with salinity. Watching, I break a sweat. Armstrong dons a poker face. I always found it difficult to think in this state, which made it hard to react. Chess played at high speed, my teammate Sarah used to say. And so I favored time-trialing, the individual’s race against time.

Slapped in the face by flags flown in the crowds, the riders peak Aubisque and begin their descent. Barredo rips down the mountainside and now they are five. Watching, I recall a few memorable descents—at Bear Mountain, Fitchburg’s Wachusett Mountain Road Race, and Housatonic Hills. It’s no small feat to fold oneself inside the pack at 50 mph, while maintaining position for the next ascent.

En route to Pau, I watch the terrain for vineyards without a glimpse. Rocky mountains and verdant grass. Somewhere off in the distance vines grow, but for now I return to my glass. Peloton +9:07, with Contador and Schleck tucked safely inside the pack. At 44 km to go, Barredo attacks—time-trialing his way home—5-4-3-2-1 km to go, Barredo gets caught. I feel for the guy, but that’s the nature of the sport. Sometimes you flat or crash, only to watch your goal race for the year slip through the cracks…a year’s worth of training for that A race and now you’re done.

Rooting for Schleck, I hope he takes his 8+ seconds back. As Contador steps to the stage to accept his yellow, boos from the crowd emulate and indicate that I am not alone.

Colette, a writer who knew her men, fancied Jurançon—its steely sec known to encourage thirst, leaving one’s appetite whet and forever wanting more….

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 16: Bagnères-de-Luchon to Pau

The logic exercised by the organizers of the Tour de France sometimes befuddles me. Take today's stage. Lead what's left of the original peloton, after two-plus weeks of long miles around the French countryside, up four massive climbs, two of them Category 1, the other two beyond category. Put one of the most famed, most feared climbs in Tour history, the Col du Tourmalet, at the midway point of the stage. Then plan the same stage to culminate in a long, flat run-in of over 40k from the top of the last climb to the eventual finish...? It's like unabashed punishment for the pure sprinters, who will never make it over all those climbs with a chance, and painfully titillating torture to the pure climbers, who won't attack for fear of spending themselves — or simply being caught by the less gravitationally gifted — on the long, flat run to the finish. Such was the case today....

One of the most inspired rides up the Col du Tourmalet I can remember witnessing — albeit from afar and via the wonders of modern technology — was that of Claudio Chiappucci in the 1991 Tour. A climbing specialist who raced on pure grit (and a little EPO as was later discovered...), Chiappucci made up in spirit for what he lacked in form and style. He was all over his bike, never the epitome of elegance, but nonetheless a force to be reckoned with. After coming oh so close to robbing Greg LeMond of his third Tour wine in 1990, Claudio went on to win the polka-dot jersey and to finish third overall in the '91 Tour, a dual success based largely on his performance up and over the Tourmalet (the highest point in this year's Tour) and on to a victorious stage finish at Sestrière.

Claudio Chiappucci, winner of the Maillot à Pois and first to crest the Col du Tourmalet in the 1991 Tour de France.

I've been loath to comment on the intricacies and specifics of this year's Tour for fear of playing spoiler to those who are running behind, as I often am myself, with catching the details of each day's stage. But after yesterday's action, I can't hold back.

Those of you who have been following the Tour closely will know that SaxoBank team member Andy Schleck, riding in the yellow jersey, dropped his chain just after putting in a strong attack on the upper slopes of the day's final ascent up the Port de Balès. Astana rider Alexandre Vinoukourov, who had been monitoring Schleck's wheel, put in an instant attack, followed closely and swiftly by an even more explosive attack from Alberto Contador. The twice winner of the Tour went on with his attack, joined by contenders Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel).

A good friend of mine, in a brief discussion that night, excused Contador for his actions. The ensuing film footage, just after Schleck's mechanical, showed Contador glancing back over his shoulder, suggesting he may have been concerned as to his competitor's misfortune. On top of that, as the race continued, he was just following along with the driving pace of Menchov and Sanchez....

At first I was inclined to agree. But after watching several repeats of the footage, it's clear to me that Contador knew perfectly well what had happened to Schleck. And he purposefully chose to attack, and to continue with that decision through to the stage finish.

I generally make an effort not to make gratuitous use of f-bombs and other such curses here at MFWT. One such word, one that I wouldn't have expected to ever have need of in this forum, cropped up in a comment from a cohort of mine just the other day. Who knew I'd find use for it so quickly....

Alberto "Douchebag" Contador, no doubt relieved to have a reprieve from Andy Schleck's promised vengeance in today's stage. Thursday should prove interesting....
Photo courtesy of Roberto Bettini.

Alright, that's enough venting for now. Did I mention that today's stage finished in Pau, just after crossing through the town of Jurançon, one of the most important white wine producing regions of Southwest France. No? Well, I should have....

For those who don't know Jurançon, it's a white-wine-only AOC centered around the village of Pau in the northwestern foothills of the French Pyrénées. The long standing tradition in the area was for production of medium sweet to sweet white wines made in the passerillage method from Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng, varieties specific to the southwestern corner of France. Though current trends of ambivalence toward if not dismissal of sweet wines has led to a more prominent market position for the dry wines of Jurançon, such dry wines still bear the add-on tag of "Sec" to designate their dryness, in respect to the old traditions in which Jurançon was generally expected to be moelleux in style.

Jurançon Sec, Camin Larredya (Jean-Marc Grussaute) 2004
$15 on release. 14% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.
One of my long-time favorite producers of Jurançon is Jean-Marc Grussaute at Camin Larredya. Grussaute's Jurançon Sec is a blend of roughly two-thirds Gros Manseng and one-third Petit Manseng, with just a dash of Petit Courbu thrown in for nuance. This is the cuvée now known as "a l’esguit," but in 2004 it was still simply labeled as Jurançon Sec.

According to Grussaute, this wine is best kept for about two years from the vintage. Having enjoyed his wines for years, though, I've always had a gut feeling that his Sec has the potential to grow a good deal further than that. While I've enjoyed bottles at 3-4 years of age in the past, I'm not sure I'd ever drunk one quite as old as this... at least not until tonight.

Straight off, I was surprised at how little obvious evolution the wine had undergone, still displaying a really solid tone in the glass, morphing only slightly from its original silvery green tones to its now subtly golden hue. A whisper of volatile acidity has developed in the bottle, but not nearly enough to be off-putting. What has more markedly changed is a rounding of the wine's textures and flavors, to a more honeyed, caramelized and intensely apple-y flavor profile. While it's much rounder and more perceptibly sweet-fruited than when young, it's still packing a monster punch of acidity, a signature of honest Jurançon Sec. Seriously masculine wine that's very interesting to drink at this point in its evolution.

Am I saying you should age your Jurançon Sec? No. I'm not sure this has "improved" so much as it has simply changed. But I am suggesting that, should you find occasion to procure three-to-six bottles of said wine in the current vintage, it wouldn't be a bad idea to forget about one of the bottles for several years, just for the sake of experience.

By the way, I'm drinking this as I watch today's stage coverage, eat my dinner and write this post. Whoever it was that said men can't multitask was cleerly worng.

Up next: Tomorrow is a rest day at Le Tour, but there's no rest here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 15: Pamiers to Bagnères-de-Luchon

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.

The Fabio Casartelli Monument, erected by the Motorola Cycling Team and the Société du Tour de France on the Col de Portet d'Aspet.
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.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 14: Revel to Ax 3 Domaines

Today's stage from Revel to Ax 3 Domaines saw the race make its long awaited and much anticipated entry into the Pyrenées, for the first of four consecutive days of serious mountain climbing. Before reaching the mountains, however, the riders faced about 140k of twisting, rolling terrain through the Midi, along the western outskirts of the Languedoc-Roussillon.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Le Tour's first passage into the Pyrenées back in 1910, perhaps the reason why the race organizers have put so much greater emphasis on the mountains of the Southwest versus the Alps.

I'd originally anticipated writing about (or having someone write about) the wines of Limoux, one of the westernmost outposts of the Languedoc, as today's route passed not far west (and, later, south, as the route bent to the east) of town. Sounds confusing, I know, but a look at the map above should help sort things out.

It's worth seeking out the Blanquette de Limoux "Le Berceau" of Maison Vergnes (Domaine de Martinolles). For this imbiber, it's among the finest wines of the AOC, if not the finest. And at around $12-15/bottle, it's a tremendous value in the ever price-escalating world of sparkling wines.

It's been quite some time since last I drank a bottle of Blanquette though, so after another look at the map of today's course, I decided to shift gears from wine to food. To cassoulet.

Cassoulet is one of those classic French dishes that instills fervid regional pride. There are well known traditional versions as far west as Gascony and east as Marseille, but it's perhaps the area surrounding Toulouse that can lay greatest claim to being it's true home. The town of Castelnaudary, located about 50k southeast of Toulouse, has done just that, proclaiming itself the "world capital of cassoulet."

I've adapted the following recipe, as best I could, from that put forth by the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary. If you prefer, you can follow the recipe in the original French at the Confrérie's website.

Le Cassoulet de Castelnaudary
Serves 4


12-14 ounces of dried lingot beans
2 legs of duck or goose confit, cut in half
4 3-ounce pieces of Toulouse sausage
4 2-ounce pieces of pork shank or pork shoulder
9 ounces of pork rinds
1 ounce of salt pork
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 chicken carcass, or a few pork bones


Day one:

Soak beans overnight in cold water.

Day two:

Prepare the beans:
Drain the beans then place the beans in a saucepan with three quarts of cold water and boil for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, drain the water and reserve the beans.

Prepare the broth:
To three quarts of water, add pork rind (cut into large strips), the poultry carcass or pork bones, a few onions and carrots (to taste). Season generously with salt and pepper. Simmer the soup for one hour then strain. Recover and reserve the pork rind.

Cook the beans:
In this strained broth, simmer the beans until they are soft still whole (approximately one hour).

While the beans cook...

Meat Preparation:
Warm the duck or goose confit in a large frying pan to release some of the fat, then set aside the confit. In the rendered fat, brown the Toulouse sausages then remove and reserve. Finally, brown the pork shank/shoulder and, again, reserve.

Once the beans have completed cooking, drain them, reserving the broth and keeping the broth warm over low heat. Grind the salt pork and garlic cloves with a mortar and pestle, then add to the beans, along with the tablespoon of tomato paste.

Assembling the cassoulet:
Ideally, a "cassole," the earthenware dish (pictured above) for which Cassoulet is named, should be used. Alternatively, a flat bottomed earthenware casserole dish will suffice.

Line the bottom of the cassole with the pieces of reserved pork rind, add about one third of the beans, place the confit and pork on top, then top with the remaining beans. Place the sausages on top, pressing them into the beans but allowing them to remain visible. Pour on just enough of the warmed broth to just cover the beans. Generously sprinkle with cracked black pepper and add a tablespoon of the duck/goose fat used to brown the meats.

Bake in preheated oven at 300-325F for two to three hours. A golden brown crust will form as the dish cooks. Check periodically and, as the beans start to look dry on top, add a few tablespoons of the reserved broth.

Serve hot, directly from the "cassole," without stirring.

You'll want to double the recipe (at least!), as leftover cassoulet is a precious commodity. The only question remaining will be what to drink. I can think of many a fantastic option but I'd love to hear what your preferences may be.

Up next: Day two of four in the Pyrenées.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 13: Rodez to Revel

Up today is Ben Wood, gypsy jazz guitarist, cycling enthusiast, wine buyer at 67 Wine, and all around good guy.

Hi all,

Today I'm honored to be guest posting on David McDuff's blog. He has covered the Tour De France in a vinous way for the last several years. We managed to have him up to 67 wine for a tasting last week (while the race was in the Jura region). Today, I am writing about Stage 13 from Rodez to Revel. The course for this day is a fast rolling romp through the southwest part of the French countryside. The riders roll quite near to one of my favorite wine regions, Gaillac, and also pass Fronton, another great wine region in the southwest of France.

Unlike the stereotypical professional cycling racer, these wines are not steroidal monsters with chemical injections (kidding). The wines are, however, racy, controversial and fascinating. All of the great wines of these areas are made from native grapes that grow for the most part only in the southwest. Fascinating grapes like Braucol and Duras for red wines; Ondonc, Mauzac and Len De l'El for white and sparkling wines. These are unique grapes rescued from obscurity by winemakers like Patrice Lescarret at Domaine de Causse Marines.

These are wines of whimsy, interest and intensity. A member of the "vins naturels" movement, Lescarret practices organic farming with some biodynamic ideas as well as extremely minimal intervention in the cellar. The wines are focused on the native grapes in the region and include a cuvee named "Les Greilles," an AOC Gaillac made from all of the local grapes. A beautiful crisp white wine with honeysuckle and mineral notes, dry on the palate and refreshing, one of my favorite wines to drink.

There are some telling images on the label:

(the saluting mouse, and the no badger symbol) involving the personal mythology (M. Lescarret is called the mouse, and badgers hunt mice . . . This was the story I was given. A good mystery for you!).

A second wine from Gaillac that I love is made by Brigitte and Alain Cazottes of Domaine des Terrisses. Racy and good, the red from this estate has proven to be one of our best selling wines. The grapes are farmed biodynamically, and the soil site has quite a lot of clay (up to 60% in some parcels); because of this the wine comes through with strong aromatics and great flavor. Firmly in the Syrah camp, this wine smells of garrigue (a bit) and dark red fruit, with soil-y mineral notes and a hint of game. Beautiful and complex, it is racy and thirst quenching with just enough weight to make you know it is wine!

Tomorrow will be a fast and hopefully interesting stage as the riders pass some very great vineyards. Makes me wish I was there to eat the food, drink the wines and cheer on the riders!!

Up next: your guess is as good as mine....

Friday, July 16, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 12: Bourg-de-Péage to Mende

Today's étape, the 12th of the 2010 Tour de France, could be thought of as a bridge stage, as it sees the race leave the Alps clearly behind, along with eastern France, while it also begins the inevitable march toward the Pyrenées.

While the Alps may have been left behind, there's no lack of climbing today. The stage includes five categorized climbs, culminating in a finish atop the Category 2 Côte de la Croix-Neuve, now known as the Montée Laurent Jalabert in honor of the multi-faceted French champion who won there after a long solo escapade on Bastille Day, 1995. I can still remember watching — a beautiful victory from one of my favorite all-time riders. Jalabert went on to finish 4th overall that year, his highest GC finish ever and a tremendous result for a rider who started his career as a field sprinter.

Laurent Jalabert, resplendent in the maillot vert at the 1995 Tour.
Image courtesy of Graham Watson.

The route of today's stage also acts as a bridge from the cool climate wine growing regions visited during the first half of Le Tour to the warmer, drier climes of the more southern and southwestern portions of France. Beginning in Bourg-de-Péage, about 18k ENE of yesterday's finish in Bourg-lès-Valance, the riders head roughly due west, crossing the Rhône near the aptly named Tournon-sur-Rhône. Here, we're in Syrah country, at the foot of the Northern Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage immediately to the north and Cornas, along with the white and sparkling wine region of St. Peray, just a tad further to the south.

Syrah isn't happy much further north than this; Côte-Rôtie is about as far north as it goes in France. Go just a touch further south, though, and the scorching heat and dry summers can be a bit much for it, pushing its ripeness levels past the point of elegance and making it more appropriate as a blending partner rather than a soloist. For my two cents (or more often $20-50 plus), there's no place on earth where Syrah finds a finer, more expressive, sometimes even elegant voice than in the Northern Rhône.

One of these three is going down tonight. The question is, which? Depends on what's for dinner... and my frame of mind after a day at the office. Whichever the choice, it will surely be enjoyed while watching today's (recorded) coverage of the Tour; I'd much rather listen to Paul and Phil than Hummer and Roll (sorry, Bobke).

The race won't dawdle for long in the Northern Rhône, though, as once across the river the peloton will quickly head WSW toward the finish, a total of 210k later, in Mende. Much of this time will be spent traversing the ups and downs, twists and turns of the Monts du Vivarais, home on the southeastern side of the range to one of the more obscure wine regions of the Southern Rhône, the Côtes du Vivarais. It's cool enough in the high altitude vineyards of the Vivarais that Syrah is still most important here, at least at the Mas de Bagnols, but Grenache often joins it, bringing a warmer flavor profile to play.

If time permits, I'll report back on this evening's stage, sup and sip.

Up next: to the Tarn we go.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 11: Sisteron to Bourg-lès-Valence

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

Pâte Brisée

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
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.

Bon Appétit!

Next up: crossing the Rhône.
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