Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.
~George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday was somewhat of a Breton train wreck at the Tour…some ten crashes, two riders out, a half dozen injured, and egos bruised. The peloton snaked through stingy ancient roads, then formed eschelons to evade the ever changing Atlantic winds that buffeted the riders as they approached a perilous finish.

Today, the pack licked their wounds and began their invasion of Normandie—a rolling 226 km conquest from the architecturally awesome Dinan to the idyllically Norman Lisieux. One long day in the saddle. With the exception of sprinters, discretion seemed to form the better part of valor on this stage. While braving heavy rain showers and even some hail, riders appeared more cautious and teams seemed to be conserving energy for the decisive mountain stages. Yet the ride was not without breakaways, drama and a scintillating dash to the finish.

Tomorrow, the race begins to turn south in a transitional stage, one of the flattest of the Tour. After that, the climbs become more somber, with several less than leisurely rides in the lofty Massif Central, before more menacing stuff unfolds in the sheer Pyrénées and the Alpes. There, men will be separated from boys.

For now, the Tour is in Normandie, home of sublime cream, butter, cider, veal, duck, offal, sausages, Calvados, Camembert, Livarot, and Pont-l’Évêque.

Poule au pot has a tradition that harkens back to the Middle Ages. Then, cooks used heavy cauldrons placed directly on open fires, either on the hearth or in the farm yard. They would cover everything and anything in water and let the whole meat and vegetable mix simmer for a long time. While poule au pot may have originated in the Béarn region in southwest France, birthplace of the bon vivant king Henri IV, it is typical Sunday country fare across France.

There are as many variations as there are kitchens, some stuffed (often with chopped giblets, Bayonne ham, bread) and others not (as below).

LA POULE AU POT A LA NORMANDE

1 – 4 lb chicken
Chicken broth and water, in equal parts

Bouquet garni (bundled parsley, thyme and bay leaf)
3 carrots, peeled, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
1/2 celeriac bulb, trimmed, peeled, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
3 medium turnips, trimmed, peeled, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
2 medium leeks, light green/whites, washed, cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
1 fennel bulb, cored, and cut into thick juliennes 2″ in length
1/2 plump, fresh garlic head, separated into cloves with skins intact

1 C crème fraîche or heavy whipping cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Fresh tarragon or sage leaves, chopped

Truss chicken and place into a Dutch oven. Cover with chicken broth and water and add bouquet garni, carrots, celeriac, turnips, leeks, fennel and garlic. Bring to a hearty boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer for 1 1/2 hours or so. Cook until chicken is tender and juices run pale yellow when pierced from the thigh. Transfer chicken to a cutting board, breast side down, and carefully transfer vegetables to a large bowl using a slotted spoon. Loosely tent both with aluminum foil. Discard bouquet garni.

Return pot to stove over medium high heat and bring stock to a vibrant boil. Cook until liquid has reduced by half, about 20 minutes. Reduce heat to low, vigorously whisk in crème fraîche and simmer until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Season to taste.

Meanwhile, untruss chicken and cut into serving pieces. Ideally, the meat should almost fall from the bone but the pieces should remain firm, moist and tender.

Serve chicken over rice pilaf or couscous in shallow bowls with the vegetables…or with small new potatoes or noodles which have been simmered in the broth toward the end of the cooking cycle.

Spoon over crème fraîche sauce to your liking and garnish with fresh tarragon or sage.

Pourboire: Classic poule au pot is usually made without the addition of crème fraîche or cream. You be the boss.

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In Paris, they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.
~Mark Twain

The peloton is now squarely in Bretagne. The narrow, winding 4th stage began in the sportive town of Lorient and finished on the summit of the Mûr-de-Bretagne, at the end of a challenging 2 km straightaway ascent. This so-called L’Alpe-d’Huez of Bretagne will sow the seeds of many helmeted doubts.

The Tour began with 198 riders on 22 teams. Unfortunately, some 20-25% of the riders are forced to abandon the race before the finish often due to injury or illness (and banned substances).

The three time defending Tour champion, and a narrow second in today’s stage, Alberto Contador, has been riding amid controversy. Apparently, he tested positive for the banned muscle enhancer clenbuterol during the Tour last year, but has denied any wrongdoing. Contador claims that the lab findings were miniscule, and that the clenbuterol found in his blood was the result of innocently ingesting tainted meat.Even though the Spanish cycling federation cleared Contador and allowed him to compete this year, he could still be stripped of his latest crown if the Court of Arbitration for Sport rules against him next month. So, even if Contador ascends the podium in Paris, he still may be ordered to disgorge his titles for the past two years.

Language and culture are so tightly interlaced. In the early 20th century, France remained a pastiche of isolated pays, autonomous tribes, clans and hamlets. Each valley was a little world which often differed from its neighbors by language, custom, governance and opinion. Cultures and dialects were distinctly separated by mountains, rivers, gorges, plateaus and forests. While French was the language of civilized Europe, it was spoken by a minority at home. When the Third Republic (1870-1940) was formed, Parisian politicians amassed legions to wage war against local languages, attempting to colonially eradicate those which least resembled the homeland tongue, e.g., Breton, Provençale, Flemish, Basque, Catalonian, Corsican. Linguisitic homogeneity was in full swing.

The Breton (Ar Brezhoneg) language, closely related to Irish and Welsh and reflecting the deep rooted Celtic heritage in Bretagne, was one such cultural target. Bretons were labelled as remote and romantic separatists, prone to cultural rebellion against the state. Patois was banned and standard French was strictly imposed in schools, railways, newspapers, magazines and even popular tunes. Children were force fed approved French and told to discard their cradle language under threat of punishment and humiliation. It was a complicated social conscription as are many drafts. But, some even assert that the life of this provincial dialect was prolonged by promoting “proper French”…and many now say that without Breton, the identity of Bretagne would be lost.

On to a Breton fave, pommes de terres primeurs. Symbolic of the vegetable rich coastal areas and gentle climate of Bretagne, these hand harvested new potatoes have thin, delicate skins. They owe their subtly sweet flavor and melt in your mouth texture to very early harvesting and immediate marketing. This preserves the sugars before they are converted into starch.

It is unlikely that you will find these Breton gems around town, so just forage for new potatoes from locals at farmers’ markets. While this presentation may seem overly primitive, fine new potatoes need little embellishing. Kalon digor!

NEW POTATOES & HERBS

25 or so smaller new potatoes
Cold water and whole milk, in equal parts
Sea salt

3-4 T unsalted butter
2 T combined fresh thyme, parsley and sage leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently wash, scrub potatoes so as not to mar the skins. Place in a heavy pot, add water and milk to cover and season generously with salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat to a gentle roll and cook, partially covered, until tender. Cooking time varies depending on potato diameter, so be poised with fork nearby to pierce for doneness.

Using the cover, carefully drain well and return pot to burner over low heat. Gently shake pot just until the remaining liquid has evaporated. Then add the butter to lightly coat potatoes, again swirling the pot some. In stages, add fresh herbs and salt and pepper to taste in so that the potatoes are nicely coated.

Le Tour & Turnip Soup

July 3, 2011

When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.
~H.G. Wells

Please excuse my exuberance, but it’s that time of year again.

Yesterday was the grand départ of this year’s ever epic Tour de France —3,430.5 grueling kilometres (2,131.6 mi) over three weeks. Customarily, the Tour has begun with a prologue stage where riders raced solely against the clock. In a break with tradition, the organizers opened with a road stage on the Atlantic seaboard which proved fairly flat but closed with an undulating finish and a brief, yet deceptively arduous, climb. A route which favored riders who can unleash rapid, potent bursts of uphill acceleration.

The supple grace, suffering, precision and outright speed of the team trial was held today…a precise race against the clock, and a reminder to even the most casual observers that the Tour de France is a team sport. Sheer beauty on wheels.

The Tour’s field now heads into Bretagne (Brittany), an almost mystical region defined by the sea and perched on the northwest tip of France. Bretagne stands apart from the rest of France, its peninsular thumb jutting into the blue, separating the English Channel from the Bay of Biscay. The modern administrative region roughly silhouettes the historic province, and is now comprised of the départements of Côtes-d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan.

Although inhabited by peoples as early as 8,000 BCE and conquered by Romans who occupied the region for several centuries, Brittany’s true birth was forged during the Dark Ages. Then, waves of Irish, Welsh and English immigrants (Bretons) “invaded” and profoundly altered the character of the peninsula, which became Bretagne. They spread their own brand of religion as well as a fiercely insular, sometimes resentful, spirit. A wary sensitivity about their environs. This ruggedly independent attitude is reinforced by landscape—a land which boasts a staggering 1,700 miles of contorted coastline characterized by windswept cliffs, capes, islands, and rocky ports, many with ominous sounding names. While the seascapes tend to be dramatic, the landscapes inland are more mellow. The interior lies on the Argoat plateau (wood country) where small farm plots are surrounded by hedgerows, a patchwork known as the bocage.

The sea’s and land’s bounties are jealously guarded yet so copiously displayed at local markets. A cornucopia of varied flat fish, oysters, sea urchins, scallops, mussels, whelks, langoustines, crevettes, lobsters and crabs rest on ice. Other stalls brim with produce grown on the Argoat farmlands: cauliflower, onions, peas, turnips, cabbages, white beans, and the omnipresent Breton artichokes. Also displayed are lamb raised on nearby salt marshes, along with prized chickens, geese, regional sausages and various offal. Farmers sell fresh milk and the region’s esteemed butter, apples from the Argoat orchards, strawberries from Plougastel, and famed new potatoes from the inland sandy flats.

POTAGE AUX NAVETS BLANCS (TURNIP SOUP)

3 T unsalted butter
2 leeks, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts only)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced

5 medium white turnips (about 2 1/2 lbs), peeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
1 medium russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
5 C+ chicken broth

1 3/4 C whole milk
1/4 C whipping cream
Grating of nutmeg

1 turnip, peeled, cut into small matchstick julienne

Fresh fennel fronds, chopped

Melt butter in heavy large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add leeks and onion and sauté until onion is translucent, about 10-12 minutes. Add turnips and potato and sauté 2 minutes. Add broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Purée soup in processor or blender in batches until very smooth, then return to Dutch oven. Add milk and cream and bring to a simmer. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Cook julienned turnips in pot of boiling salted water until just tender yet crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain.

Bring soup to simmer, thinning with more broth if necessary. Ladle into bowls and garnish with turnip strips and chopped fresh fennel.