The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
~Albert Camus

Yesterday, the Tour field opened up (perhaps hemorrhaged), with many of the men being separated from the boys on a steep finishing climb in Switzerland. Today is a no-rest-for-the-weary day which does not always translate into better performances tomorrow as riders can fall out of psychic and physical sync.

The next stage (numéro 16) mercilessly traverses 160km up and down the majestic Alps of Switzerland, Italy and France. After a precious few flat miles, riders will crawl up the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard (HC), the pinnacle of this year’s Alpine summits (8,114 feet). The final 5km is tortuous and never ending, with an average 6.2% grade, and some pitches as steep as 10%. Pains my quads to even tap, tap about it. After cresting the peak, the riders will descend into Italy at breakneck speed heading toward the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard (Cat 1—a smidgen less steep) for another punishing ascent. Really? Again?

A symmetrical, buxom, double breasted race profile—the myth of Sisyphus times two, except unlike the tale, there is a finish to the stage.

The brief run through Northern Italy in tomorrow’s stage warrants a risotto recipe…a dirty, rustic one to be savored with the lights on.

RISOTTO SPORCO

8 C chicken broth

1/4 lb pancetta, chopped
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
1 C porcini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 t dried thyme

1/3 lb chicken gizzards, chopped
1/2 lb chicken livers, patted dry and chopped
1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 C yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
1/2 C poblano chili pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely diced
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 C Arborio rice
3/4 C red wine
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
1 T Italian parsley leaves, chopped

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a simmer. Cover and keep warm over low heat.

In a large heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until rendered, about 4-5 minutes. Pour out some, but not all, of the pancetta fat. Set aside and drain on paper towels.

Heat some more olive oil and butter in the same large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt and thyme, and sauté until just browned and the juices begin to exude, around 2 to 4 minutes. Remove and set aside on paper towels.

Meanwhile, melt more butter and olive oil in the same large skillet over medium high heat. Season livers and gizzards with salt and pepper. Add gizzards then livers a little later to skillet and sauté until not quite cooked and still pink in the center, about 2 minutes. Remove and set aside on paper towels.

In a large heavy sauce pan or dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium high heat, add the onion and poblanos, and sauté until tender, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the rice and stir to coat. Add the wine and simmer until the wine has almost completely evaporated, about 1 minute. Ladle in 1 cup of the already simmering stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has absorbed most of the stock, about 1-2 minutes. Add another ladleful of stock, and stir regularly until all of the stock is absorbed. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 20 minutes. The risotto should be smooth and creamy.

Remove from the heat and stir in the mushrooms, pancetta, livers, gizzards and most of the parmigiano reggiano. Transfer the risotto to shallow serving bowls. Garnish with the remaining parmigiano reggiano and parsley and serve immediately.

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Great things are done when men and mountains meet.
~William Blake

The Tour has moved beyond the fluid team time trial in Montpellier, down the coast to Barcelona and has now begun the up the crucial mountain ascents in the Pyrenées into Andorra. Here, the wheat begins to separate from the chaff in the peloton. The sprinters and time trial specialists who mastered the relative flats in earlier stages will now hit the proverbial wall in the mountains while the seemingly indefatigable climbers take center stage.

With its deep canyons, folded mountains and virid upland meadows, the breathtaking Pyrenées form a natural geographic border between France and Spain, separating the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of continental Europe—leaving the independent principality of Andorra sandwiched in between. A rugged, yet supple range. Even if you do not share my regard for the cycling world, it is worth following the coverage for the eye-popping scenery alone.

The Tour organizers classify mountain stage climbs by number based upon difficulty, ranging from category 4 (easiest) to category 1 (hardest). The most arduous climbs are so agonizingly steep, they are considered beyond category, or hors catégorie (HC)…suited only for even the most tireless mountain goats.

Categorizing climbs has both objective and subjective components. There is consistency for the most part, but no hard and fast rules. The length of the climb, the gradient, and where the climb is positioned in the stage are the most common variables considered. The elevation of the climb’s summit and the width and condition of the road are sometimes taken into account.

But, back to food. As we get a last whiff of Spain in this Tour, it seems only natural to add some more tapas (pinchos or pintxos in the Basque Country) to the table.

Piperada, a sauté of multicolored peppers and garlic of Basque origin has a close French cousin called Pipérade (often sans tomatoes)—a condiment which has broad use with eggs, fish, poultry, and pizzas. Ajo Blanco is not some nouvelle creation. Rather, this almond, garlic and grape gazpacho is the Andalucían ancestor of red gazpacho, the renowned tomato based cold soup. Remember, tomatoes were not brought to Spain until discovered by explorers in Peru and Mexico in the New World, so ajo blanco was the forerunner of the red variety which has become so modish.

PIPERADA (EGGS BASQUE STYLE)

4 T extra virgin olive oil
2 small yellow onions, peeled and finely diced
3 Anaheim peppers, stemmed, seeded and sliced into thin strips
1 medium red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and sliced into thin strips
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 slices serrano ham, cut into strips
2 medium tomatoes, chopped

See salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
6 organic, free range eggs

Sheep’s cheese, such as Idiazabal or Manchego, thinly sliced
Sliced baguettes

Preheat oven to 400

Heat the oil in a skillet on medium high and sauté the onions, peppers, and garlic until tender. Fold in the ham and tomatoes, and season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook until almost done as they will cook some with the eggs later.

Place cheese slices on bread and place in oven until melted.

Reduce heat to medium low and whisk the eggs together. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the eggs over the vegetable and ham mixture and cook until the eggs are thick but still soft. Serve eggs with cheese topped baguette slices on the side.

AJO BLANCO (WHITE GAZPACHO)

3/4 C lightly toasted almonds
2 plump cloves fresh garlic, peeled and smashed
2 C white seedless grapes
1 C white grape juice
1/2 C water
1 t sea salt
2 slices baguette, crusts removed and torn

1 cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
2 T sherry
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Mint, for garnish

Red and white seedless grapes, sliced in halves for garnish

Place almonds, garlic, grapes, grape juice, water, and bread in a blender and purée by bursts until fairly smooth. Do not overblend the mixture. Strain the contents through a fine sieve into a bowl and discard the solids. Chill the soup in a covered bowl for at least 1 hour.

Remove soup from refrigerator and fold the whipped cream into the soup with a few tablespoons each of the sherry and olive oil. Place four grape halves in the bottom of each shallow soup bowl. Ladle the ajo blanco into the bowls over the grapes at the table. Garnish with a couple of mint leaves in each bowl.

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

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.