As this year’s Tour de France wends its way around the country we take a look at the gastronomic delights of the regions it passes through. This year it is very nearly 100% French with only a tiny 15km detour into Spain.
Le Grand Départ is on July 7 on the Ile de Noirmoutier in the Vendée, where the most expensive potatoes in the world are grown. These are the small, round Bonnotte potatoes which chefs seek out for their subtle chestnut flavour.
The production of this old variety was relaunched in 1995, and a year later it was put up for auction, as a marketing gimmick, at the Hôtel Drouot, which specialises in art collections. 5 kilos sold for 15,000 francs or €2,286 euros – €457 euros a kilo.
The cyclist could savour these pricey potatoes together with the emblematic white bean, the Mogette which is traditionally served with butter and can be eaten with the Jambon de Vendée.
Unlike many other hams it is pressed, which makes it rectangular in shape and as a result the drying stage is short. It is cured with salt, and flavoured with a wine based eau de vie, cinnamon, pepper, thyme and bay leaves.
Préfou is the local aperitif. It is a flattened dough which was originally used to make use of the otherwise empty bread oven as it was coming up to temperature. It is served with butter and rubbed with garlic. The name comes from préfour, pre-oven.
Brioche is the other speciality which comes from the Vendée bakeries. It has been eaten in the region since the Middle Ages. It is typically sweet and flavoured with eau de vie and/or orange flower water and plaited in form. There is a tradition a bride would be offered an enormous brioche weighing up to 30 kilos.
For protein, the 250km coastline provides plenty of seafood, with sardines from Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, which were the first wild fish to be awarded the Label Rouge, which marks it as superior to other comparable products. Monkfish, turbot, hake, whiting, sole, lobsters, crabs, oysters and mussels are among some of the highly prized catches.
All of this can be enjoyed with the wines of the area which are mostly grown in the South of the department, and there are five distinct terroirs: Brem-sur-Mer, Chantonnay, Mareuil-sur-Lay, Pissotte and Vix which make up the Fiefs Vendéens which have had an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée since 2011.
Cider and seafood in Brittany
Brittany is associated above all with pancakes and cider. But the region would like to make it clear that these are not its only specialities and that here too riders can boost their protein levels with seafood.
As well as oysters and mussels there are unusual foody treats from the sea: Huile de homard from the Ile de Groix is made using lobster, grape seed oil and herbs and spices; smoked scallops caught in the bay off Saint-Brieuc; the only farmed abalone shell fish in Europe; and from the rivers come the biggest production of trout in France and a Brittany caviar, the orange coloured trout eggs.
The traditional meat dish is Kig ha farz, the Breton version of pot-au-feu. It is made up of pork cooked with vegetables and served with a farz, a buckwheat-based dough cooked in a cloth bag.
There is a strong tradition of market gardening, with of course onions, but also artichokes, cauliflowers, potatoes and carrots grown in sand.
The desserts are calorie-laden, so good for sporty cyclists. There’s the famous Kouign-amann which is made with a butter and sugar rich pastry, and le Far Breton, a simple but basic recipe with flour, eggs, milk, butter and sugar, which often has plums in it.
However, pancakes will do for both savoury and sweet courses, and each crêperie has its special recipe depending on quantities of eggs, milk and flour which can either be buckwheat or wheat and the thickness it is cooked. In Lower Brittany both wheat and buckwheat pancakes are called crêpe, but in Higher Brittany those made with buckwheat are savoury and called galettes.
Brittany is the second biggest producer of cider after Normandy. It is often served in big earthenware cups.
It will be a quick tour through the Centre Val de Loire region with a stage ending at Chartres and the Dreux to Amiens stage. This region is known for its cheeses such as the soft, creamy Feuille de Dreux, recognised by the chestnut leaf which was originally placed to stop cheeses from sticking together. There is also the Chartres pie, which is made with game and the Tours Nougat cake made with apricots and candied fruit. A quick stop in the Hauts de France with the Arras to Roubaix stage (July 15). Local specialities in Arras are andouillette sausages, chicken cooked in beer, moules-frites, the emblematic dish eaten at the annual huge flea market in Lille and mint flavoured sweets known as Les Bêtises de Cambrai.
The cyclists will spend some time in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region which has a gastronomic reputation for both its wines and its food, in particular cheese for which it has nearly half the AOP cheeses in France, including Reblochon and Beaufort.
There are Puy lentils, the famous Bresse chicken, the top producer of mineral water including Volvic and Evian. Wines include Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhône and the Vins de Savoie.
Dishes with altitude
The cyclists will pass through the mountains of Savoie and Haute-Savoie where the food is simple, but satisfying after a days sport, be it skiing, climbing or cycling and nearly always featuring cheese.
There could be a Fondue Savoyarde – the recipe given on the Savoie-Mont Blanc tourism web site uses four cheeses; Comté, Etivaz, Beaufort and Abondance and white, sparkling wine from Ayse. There is a pasta dish, with a rich Beaufort cheese and crème fraiche sauce and the local tiny squared shaped pasta called crozets.
Tartiflette with potatoes, reblochon cheese, lardons and onions, potatoes served with Abondance cheese and white wine, baked in the oven; and if you want to get away from cheese, the Savoyard sausages called diots. The local dessert is le gateau de Savoie, a quite plain cake with 200g sugar, 75g flour, 75g cornflour, one lemon and butter.
Martine Bridier, spokesperson for Food and Wine Tourism in the area suggests a typical meal from the region could be:
Green Puy Lentil salad
Quenelles with Nantua Sauce
Cheese plate: Beaufort, Reblochon, Saint-Nectaire, Picodon, Cantal.
Fruit from Vallée du Rhône orchards.
The Quenelles Sauce Nantua are one of the specialities from Lyon, which calls itself the World City of Gastronomy. The quenelles are made with pike and the classic béchamel sauce, named after the town of Nantua in the Ain, is flavoured with crayfish.
That should give the cyclists enough energy to continue on to Carcassonne, where the traditional dish on offer is cassoulet. The key to its success is to cook it for a long time, at least four hours. The main ingredients are white beans, grown locally. Traditionally these are cooked with goose or duck confit, pork shank, chunky Toulouse sausages, herbs, garlic and nutmeg. The dish is named after its traditional cooking pot, the cassou.
Pyrenees and Basque country
The Pyrenees have their own mountain traditional recipes, to feed people up to keep out the cold. One is garbure; a soup which is a meal in itself made with a base of cabbage and potatoes, but with any other vegetable in season. Pork shanks, duck confit and ham are also added. The dish comes from Bigorre and is eaten both in summer and winter. As for the cassoulet, the longer it cooks, the better it is, and traditionally it was sometimes left to simmer for several days.
The local dessert is the Gâteau à la Broche which is served at local festivities and which is made by layering the mixture of flour, eggs, butter, rum and vanilla little by little onto a horizontal and conical mould which is turned and cooked on a spit. They range from 10 to 65cm in height and weigh from 5 to 150kg.
At Lourdes there is also La Touradisse, a cornmeal and milk dough made in copper pot, and stirred with a wooden pallet. It was the traditional evening bread but can be eaten as a dessert by frying the dough in butter sprinkled with brown sugar, then flambéed with rum.
The last stop before Paris is the Basque country, which has not seen the Tour de France pass by since 2006.
There the local people will be keen to serve up the ttoro, a traditional fish soup, made with what is in the nets that day. It used to be made on the boat by the fisherman. A similar dish is the marmitako, a fish stew with tuna as its base.
The Piment d’Espelette, is only grown in a small area in the Basque country and the chilli peppers which decorate the outside of houses as they are left to dry in red strings are used in a Piperade made by frying the Espelette with onion and then mixed with tomatoes to produce a sauce.
This is in turn used as a base for a veal stew called l’axoa. The local cheese is tangy and made from ewe’s milk and this can be accompanied by a glass of Basque cider which prides itself on being different from other ciders with very little fizz as no carbon dioxide is added. It loses most of its sugar and so is dry and a little bitter.
To finish a typical Basque meal, you could have the Gâteau Basque, an almond pastry tart filled with a cream filling or cherry jam.