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Eat France

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SOME CYNICAL MEDIA ORGANIZATIONS will have you believe that the Tour de France is all about bike racing. It is not. Nor is it about money, despite appearances to the contrary. It’s not even about promoting healthy lifestyles through exercise. The Tour de France is the vehicle by which several thousand people eat their way around France: journalists, soigneurs, team managers, podium girls, the guys who string up the red kite…. They all enjoy sampling the best of French cuisine, and who can blame them? (Note, I didn’t mention riders; their days of trying the local dish with a glass of something fruity will have to wait a while.)

Words: Paul Maunder
Image: Yuzuru Sunada

Mornings on the Tour look pretty similar wherever you are—croissants and baguettes by the bagful, and enough espressos or cafés crème to clear any fuzzy heads from the night before. After the inconvenient and often rather stressful bike race that occupies the middle of the day, this traveling circus sets about the much more gratifying business of the evening meal. And every region of France has something mouthwatering to offer. So if you’re not able to spend July loafing around France, here is peloton’s roundup of the best of the regional meals on offer on this year’s Tour route. Now you can cook your way around France, and that shows you really understand cycling.

UTRECHT. When choosing Grand Départ host cities, Tour organizer ASO doesn’t seem to have culinary considerations very high on its list of priorities. There’s more to Dutch cuisine than pancakes and potatoes, but not much more. Utrecht is great for solid, carbohydrate-heavy meals, but seeing as there will be plenty of pasta and bread available for the next three weeks, why not kick things off with something more exotic? Holland’s colonial links to Indonesia mean that some of its most interesting restaurants are from that region. Indonesian cooking is characterized by color, complex and deep flavors, and diversity of ingredients. Nasi goreng is a contender for national dish and there are many variations on its core ingredient of fried rice. Peloton’s favorite? Fried egg and prawn cracker nasi goreng. A beer would be more appropriate here than a Beaujolais. And if you’re lucky enough to be in Utrecht for the opening days of the Tour, book a table at one of the many Indonesian restaurants and try rijsttafel, an array of dishes that showcases the best of Indonesian cooking.

THE BELGIAN ARDENNES. As opposed to the Luxembourg Ardennes, or the Pennsylvania Ardennes, this year the Tour de France is going on a pilgrimage to one of cycling’s most iconic landscapes. The stage to Huy, finshing atop the infamous Mur, could give an early indication of who has the legs to win in Paris. But more importantly, the Ardennes is the heartland of Belgian cuisine. Its dark forests are home to wild boar, game and mushrooms. Its rivers are full of trout and pike, and in its meadows the pigs grow fat on acorns until they’re turned into delicious paté and ham. Beer—the national religion—complements the hearty fare, and should always be of the bottled variety, preferably brewed by a secret order of monks.

The dish of choice here is carbonade flamande: chunks of local beef stewed slowly in a dark ale and seasoned with thyme, bay and mustard. Serve it with fries or boiled potatoes. For a truly Belgian experience it should be cold and raining outside your kitchen window. Even in July.

NORMANDY. At last, French soil. And French food. The stage from Abbeville to Le Havre promises to be both scenic and dramatic, with crosswinds blowing across the exposed coastal roads. Normandy is famous for its apples, and the drinks—Calvados and cider—that are produced with them. Camembert is another famous export, but the region has many other specialties, such as Isigny cream, cold pork sausage and Pavé d’Auge cheese. Peloton’s favorite is saucisson de marin, or sailor’s sausage, an entire pork backbone stuffed and dried for months before being sent out with a fishing boat crew.

As the sea winds may play an instrumental role in the race, let’s take our cue there. In the restaurants of Le Havre you can expect to see winkles in cider, mussels, salt cod and monkfish. And for a truly aristocratic fish stew, stop off in Dieppe, where the fishermen go out at night in small boats to catch turbot, brill and monkfish. The Dieppe fish stew includes these three varieties, plus langoustines, scallops, mussels and shrimps. Delicately flavored with cayenne powder and smoothed with local cream, this could be the best fish stew of your life.

BRITTANY. For many, Brittany is the spiritual home of French cycling. Bernard Hinault says so, and who would argue with the Badger? This year the Tour heads for Mûr-de-Bretagne, where Cadel Evans took a famous stage victory in 2011. The next day sees a team time trial from Vannes to Plumelec. Having left pancakes behind in the Netherlands, we now find ourselves faced with their close cousins, crêpes and galettes. Made with buckwheat flour, galettes are served with a chocolate filling or simply sprinkled with sugar. Sardines, butter and chestnuts are all Brittany favorites, and the apple theme continues from Normandy. If it’s something solid to slip into a jersey pocket you’re looking for, try kouign-amann gâteau (butter cake), a rich, golden slab of loveliness. Perfect with a café-au-lait.

PYRÉNÉES-ATLANTIQUES. A quick air transfer and the race takes on a different dimension. Now we’re in the mountains, the weather should be warmer, and the fans will be speaking Spanish as much as French. Three tough days in the Pyrénées will likely give the race its first big shakeup. And for us gourmands, it affords an opportunity to try Basque cooking. Here, pork is the dominant ingredient. The Basques have found many uses for this versatile meat, whether it’s marinated loin, sausages, dried sausages, chorizo, pork stew, confit of pork or rillettes. Fried ham with peppers and tomatoes is good too. Very good.

However, for our dish du jour, let’s go with a new ingredient—veal. Hachua basque is a traditional ragout dish, composed of Bayonne ham, shoulder of veal and bell peppers. Cooked by braising in a heavy pan, this dish is always served with sautéed potatoes. And if you’re having trouble sleeping for worrying about the performance of your favorite rider, a bedtime glass of Izarra Verte may help. Served neat or on the rocks, this liqueur has a closely guarded secret recipe, including some 48 types of plants and spices. Back when the Tour de France was in its infancy, Pyrenean residents used to drink it with snow.

LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON. With the Pyrenees behind us, we head inland and into the traditional transitional stages. By now the riders are hot, tired and fed up. They’ll happily let a break go down the road and get 15 minutes up. This part of France feels remote and there is something of a clash of cultures: the rural landscapes of the Massif Central meet the flavors of the Mediterranean. While those breakaway riders begin arguing among themselves, we can enjoy some of the regions produce—chestnuts, cheese from ewe’s and goat’s milk, and paté with juniper berries. For the stage into Mende, get some friends around and cook them oreille farcies sèches, or stuffed pig’s ear. Simply take a pig’s ear (you’ll have some at the back of the freezer, everyone does), stuff it with ground pork tenderloin, lard, garlic, red wine and seasoning, then tie it up with string and simmer in a stock with potatoes and cabbage. This is a dish with noble origins; it was cooked as a mark of friendship and enjoyed by the gentry of ancient France. Your friends may drink red wine with this dish, and no other options shall be entertained.

PROVENCE-CÔTE D’AZUR. As we head back into the mountains, let’s make the most of Provence’s sunny disposition. This region is home to many famous dishes: bouillabaisse, ratatouille, daube, omelette-aux-truffes and Brigitte Bardot’s favorite dessert, Tarte Tropézienne. Any of these dishes would be a wonderful way to celebrate the Tour’s visit to Provence-Côte d’Azur, and for your starter the only real option is tapenade. Whether it’s made from black or green olives, or sun-dried tomatoes, a good tapenade thickly spread on a crouton and washed down with a glass of dry rosé is the perfect way to unwind after a day spent driving up and down mountains in second gear.

RHÔNE-ALPES. The riders (remember them?) are now moving into the final stages in the battle for yellow. We are also close to the end of our culinary odyssey around France. But before we jump on the TGV back to the big Parisian smoke, we can lose ourselves in cheese. The Savoy region in particular is known for its many varieties, tending toward being harder and stronger than cheese in any other region of France. Alongside all the wonderful cheeses, try the tripe, cured hams and yet more of those lovely chestnuts. And when you fancy something sweet by way of contrast, head to Saint-Genix-sur-Guiers for one of the Labully family’s famous brioches. In the 19th century, Pierre Labully invented a round brioche bun, flavored with orange flower water and filled with pink pralines. He took his bun to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 and it was such a success that the family have been selling it ever since.

PARIS. The journey is over. Three arduous weeks of eating and drinking. You’re exhausted. You have blisters from all that onion chopping, you’ve furred up your arteries and put on 15 pounds. And, let’s face it, you’re dying for a Starbucks. If you’re in Paris, head to the Avenue de l’Opéra and get yourself a chai crème frappuccino. You’ve earned it.

From issue 43. Buy it here.