It's something of an odd Tour de France route this year. No Brittany, no Normandy and no Loire. In fact western France has been pretty comprehensively ignored this year, apart from a couple of stages in the south west. So, Agent Triple P's culinary Tour goes into Alsace and the Vosges for the next three stages which is about the only area of France he has never been to, in over fifty years of travelling there.
Our lack of knowledge also applies to the wine and food of the region which is, not surprisingly given it's history, rather Germanic. We struggle with understanding Alsatian and German wines, especially as regards how they are classified and organised regionally. Neither seem very popular in a Britain now largely focussed on new World wines and, in fact, our local Tesco didn't stock any Alsatian wines. This may also have something to do with the fact that these areas are less popular with British wine-loving tourists. Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that when we bought the wines to accompany this part of the Tour we had no idea what we were buying.
Stages 9 and 10
These were the first table wines of our vinous Tour, having left the beer and fizz behind in the first seven stages and we spread the two bottles we bought over three stages. Both, at £9.99 and £10.49, were rather more than we usually pay for everyday drinking but, as ever, at this price range, the extra was worth it. The Pinot Blanc from Calvet was quite floral but, oddly, also musky. We had low expectations of it but it was very good. Sainsbury have just dropped it to £6.99 (annoyingly) and it's a bargain at that. The Pinot Gris from Cave de Beblenheim had a lovely straw colour with an unusual smoky taste and rather oily texture. Both were very good but the Pinot Gris just edged it. Splendid!
Now what food could we have to match these wines? Well, it obviously had to be something regional, so we went for that prototypical Alsatian dish choucroute garni. Not having been to the region and had it in situ, we just turned to one of the greatest cookbooks ever written, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child. Child used the success of this book to launch her popular TV series in the US. This absolute masterwork is the only French cookbook you will ever need and our copy is very well thumbed indeed.
Stages 8 to 10
Anyway, here is our version of the dish. Not ever having had it before it was hard to tell if our approximation of it approached the real thing but it included most of the key ingredients: wine, pork, fat bacon, Frankfurters, smoked sausage, potato, apple, juniper berries and, of course sauerkraut. The fact that it worked perfectly with both wines was probably the best way of telling that it was a success, we think. Served with a good French, wholegrain mustard, of course, we made so much of it that it easily lasted three days!
So, leaving Alsace, the Tour took one of it's transfers for a stage from Besançon to Oyannax through the Jura. We're never going to find a wine from the Jura in a local supermarket, we thought, and we were right. Fortunately, a locla wine shop actually had a wine from the Jura. This was a direct hit too, as the Tour rote passed through Arbois, which is about 25 miles south-west of Besançon. We can't say I have had a wine made from the poulsard grape before and it reminded us of some of the red Swiss wines we used to have in Zurich, which were not that distinctive and equally overpriced. Still, you have to suffer for authenticity, sometimes!
To go with this we had some of the local cheese of the Jura, Comté, which was a typical semi-hard cows milk cheese from the region. Frankly, we needed something a bit lighter after all that Choucroute and sausage and this, which came from Tesco's surprisingly good regional cheese selection, was nicely nutty.
Stage 12 started in the Beaujolais region and we managed another direct hit on the route for this stage as the peloton went over Mont Brouilly, on the slopes of which are grown the grapes for our favourite of the Beaujolais crus. Duboeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau, a brilliant way to sell a usually horrible wine, was always one of the better ones so we thought this was worth a go. It was definitely Beaujolais, without taking the enamel off your teeth. Back in the eighties Agent Triple P and his friends would always drink Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November and all the City wine bars would offer it. This seems to be a habit that has almost died out now.
The race finished in Saint-Étienne, from which comes the rather extraordinarily named and interestingly shaped Jesus a l'ancienne sausage, one of the very best cured sausages we have ever had from anywhere. It was perfectly set off by a good helping of cornichons.
Cornichons are not the same as the similarly sized gherkins sold in Britain. The key difference is the vinegar they are in. Cornichons have a very light vinegar flavoured with tarragon and mustard seed. You also usually get a few tiny silverskin onions in the jar too. They are neither as sweet nor as sour as some of the equivalents you get in Britain and the US. They really set off sliced cooked meats and pate perfectly.
Next we whizz across the Northern Rhone and into the Alps, before descending into Provence.