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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Bocage country could be a nightmare, you could only see as far as the next field and in the lanes, only as far as the next bend.
Harvey Smith, of the Royal Engineers

Maybe part upbringing, pinches of observing, or just a zeal for history…but, I am still “studying” that abhorrent human endeavor called war. Although ever coveting peace and diplomacy, always innately inquisitive about conflict, strategy and the human suffering inflicted by wars. Probably a little incongruous. So, please bear with me, as this chapter came to mind when posting about Calvados.

Intimate documentary footage has recently emerged on the home screen depicting the battle for Normandie. Beginning with an amphibious invasion in early June, 1944, the campaign did not end on the heavily fortified beachheads, but raged into late August. Several days after the sand was secured, the Allies moved inland in several directions, including toward St Lo and the lethal bocage—where German 7th Army garrisons and SS Panzer divisions lay in mortal wait.

On peaceful days, the Norman bocage was a pastoral checkerboard of lush meadows dotted with apple orchards from which the local brandy, Calvados, was crafted. Each rectangular meadow was surrounded by thick hedgerows to block the winds from verdant pastures and plump cattle.

During war though, the bocage formed a lethal labyrinth of defensive barriers. Some hedges were eye level bushes while others were densely matted walls of earth and briery hedge, some 10 feet high and stippled with trees. Many were impassable for tanks, and communication between troops in the fields was limited. Slender lanes, crisscrossing and bending throughout, created ambush points and access to fields far away from regular routes.

The bocage concealed pockets of elite German infantry, including the vaunted 3rd Parachute Division. The hedgerows nested snipers, shielded point blank machine gun ambushes and concealed small arms fire…with only the entrenched defenders intimately acquainted with the lay of the land. Oncoming troops often found themselves exposed, naked in the open field. Close combat raged in thickly vegetated mazes bordering open space and replete with deadly incoming from concealed Tigers, the feared 88mm and mortars.

Typical tactics were ineffectual in the bocage. Hemmed in by hedgerows, platoons lost their sense of direction during skirmishes. Confusion and disorientation reigned. Agonizing missions rampant with carnage. Some of the fiercest fighting in the war took place in the bocage whose hedgerows and lanes formed killing zones not unlike those devised by trenches in World War I. As with the Great War, left behind were battlefields rife with dead and ruin. Shattered farmhouses and villages slumped as memorials to abolition. Tangled wire littered the fields and hedges, all barren of life but teeming with the stench and waste of war. Broken guns, downed tanks, bits of clothing, empty helmets, spent shells, and the sad remains of life.

And that was the abridged digression. Sorry, but seems such short shrift to me.

Calvados, a French apple brandy which is labeled for the terroir of the same name. Calvados, a notable apple and cider producing region, is located in Basse-Normandie in north France which borders the English Channel. The brandy is made from carefully culled apples, and it is not unusual for a producer to use over 100 different varieties in crafting this velvety hooch.

Like other chosen French food and drink, Calvados is governed by appellation contrôlée regulations. Calvados Pays d’Auge (AOC) is made through a two-step process called double distillation. Using a traditional alembic pot still, apple cider is heated causing the alcohol vapor to rise and collect and then ultimately course down through a coil and drip into a cold tank. On coming into contact with the coolant, the vapors condense into a liquid. The vapors at the beginning and end of first distillation process (heads and tails) which are and will be redistilled with the next cider, are eliminated to obtain the petite eau (small water). The heads, too high in alcohol, and the tails, lacking harmony, are carefully removed and distilled over again to perfection. Then a second heating occurs to further distill this petit eau. As before, the heads and tails are again separated off to preserve only the heart of distillation called the bonne chauffe. This staged process imparts complexity and concentrates the most delicate aromas and bouquet of the spirit, retaining only the finest components and eliminating the mediocre.

After distillation, the end product is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. As with many things in life, the longer it is aged, the smoother the end product.

VEAL SCALLOPS WITH CALVADOS & APPLES

3 medium apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2″ slices
5 T lemon juice

10-12 veal scallops (1/2″ thick)
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Dried sage
2 C flour

2 T butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C tablespoons calvados
1 1/2 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 170 F

Place apples in a bowl, add lemon juice, mix thoroughly so apples are thoroughly coated. Set aside.

Season veal scalloops with salt, pepper and a few pinches of sage. Then dip in the flour on a deep plate or dish, shaking off any excess. Heat butter and olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat. When hot and shimmering, add veal, spaced well, and saute until lightly brown on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. You should cook the veal in batches so it is not crowded and do not overcook or they will become shoe leather. Err on the low side of doneness. When the veal is cooked, arrange on a platter, loosely tent and place in the warm oven.

Add apples with lemon juice and Calvados to the pan. Scrape up all pan encrustations & cook over medium heat to deglaze for about 3-4 minutes. Add cream and continue cooking until the sauce has reduced by half and coats a spoon, about 8-10 minutes. Adjust seasoning to your liking with salt and pepper. Plate the scallops with apples artfully adjoining, spoon sauce over and serve immediately.