Le Tour, La Camargue & Red Rice

July 6, 2009

Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.

Given the rancorous francophobia engendered stateside by some in recent years, it is sweetly ironic that the epic and often dramatic Tour de France commenced on Sunday, July 4. This three week rolling postcard not only showcases the varied history and awesome beauty of France, but it has been dubbed by many to be arguably the most physiologically demanding of athletic events. Running until Sunday July 26th, the 96th Tour is comprised of 21 different stages and covers a total distance of 3,500 kilometers (2,174.8 miles).

This year’s 21 stages sport these profiles:

10 “flat” stages
7 mountain stages
1 medium mountain stage
2 individual time trial stages
1 team time trial stage

There were 20 teams that took to the start line in Monaco when the race got underway, composed of some 180 hopeful riders. There is an attrition rate, as not all riders will be able to or allowed to finish the Tour.

Brimming with the complexities and tactics of road cycling, the Tour is a vivdly tinted pastiche of jousts, sometimes almost transcendental, between men and teams on once ancient and now NASA spec’d wheeled machines.

The times to finish each individual stage are totaled to determine the overall winner at the end of a particular daily race, and the rider with the lowest cumulative time at the end of each day dons the prestigious yellow jersey (maillot jaune). At the completion of the Tour, the rider with the lowest overall time is declared the winner and ascends the final podium. While the course changes each year, it has always finished in Paris and in more recent years along the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées.

There are also other individual colored jersey competitions that progress through the race: the green jersey (points leader/sprinter), polka-dot jersey (king of the mountains), white jersey (best young rider), and a jersey number printed white-on-red instead of black-on-white (most aggressive rider). Individual stage winners are honored, and finally there is the coveted award for overall best team in the race. Yes, the Tour is intensely teamwork oriented too with domestiques (worker bees) selflessly sacrificing themselves daily to assist their team leaders onto the podiums.

Now, this is embarassingly far from even a primer, but little worry as there will be more Tour blather to come as the race progresses. Or should I say, bear with me.

During the first week this year, the Tour hugs close to the Mediterranean coast. But during today’s third stage, the route diverted away from the sea to pass by Les Baux de Provence, a cherished hilltop town (village perchée) which is inland some. Van Gogh stayed at a nearby hospital and was inspired to create some of his most famous canvasses with irises, olive tree rows, wheat fields, and the Alpilles range rising in the background.

This stage also passed through the marshlands of La Camargue. The wicked Mistral head and cross winds which course down the Rhône Valley will place a premium on the echelon—an aerodynamically angled line of single riders which rotates as the riders on the leeward side move forward and those on the windward side move back, and so on (think geese).

West of Marseilles and a little south of Arles, the Camargue lies between the Mediterranean and the flat Rhône delta with its numerous rivers, brine lakes, rice fields, black bulls and wild white horses. A good part of the Camargue is a nature reserve, and it is considered one of the most famed bird watching spots in Europe during the migration seasons. The region’s fragile ecosystem is also home to a rich variety of agriculture. Cultivated crops of wheat, sunflower and rice abound with sand dunes, market gardens, orchards, the fleur de sel de Camargue, olive groves of the nearby Baux valley, and herds of sheep and goats of the Crau.

Produced in this effluvial plain is a unique red rice (riz rouge) which is maroon in hue and similar to brown rice with a nutty flavor but firmer and less sticky. The rice is held in such high esteem that the government has granted it AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) status which is meant to assure good grub.

So you thought this might end with a recipe…be patient as red rice from the Carmargue is a difficult commodity to find here.

Oh, and tomorrow, stage 4 is the lissome, harmonious team time trial in the comely city of Montpellier (Occitan: Montpelhièr)—recipe included on the next post.


One Response to “Le Tour, La Camargue & Red Rice”

  1. Such a sad end to such a brilliant painter, enjoyed reading your post.

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