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, the Legatus' culinary Tour goes into Alsace and the Vosges for the next three stages which is about the only area of France I have never been to, in over fifty years of travelling there.
My lack of knowledge also applies to the wine and food of the region which is, not surprisingly given it's history, rather Germanic. I 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, my 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 (unlike the Loire, for example, as we shall see later). Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that when I bought the wines to accompany this part of the Tour I had no idea what I was buying.
Stages 9 and 10
These were the first table wines of my vinous Tour, having left the beer and fizz behind in the first seven stages and I spread the two bottles I bought over three stages. Both, at £9.99 and £10.49, were rather more than I 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. I 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 I 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, I 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. I think I'll have to do a post on my favourite cookbooks! 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 the Legatus' copy is very well thumbed indeed. It was a present from an ex-girlfriend, V, who we will encounter later in the post. The Legatus was taught to cook by his father, from about the age of eight. My mother was not much of a cook and struggled to cook toast, let alone anything else. So if we were ever going to get anything decent to eat, it was cooked by my father. By the time I was fourteen I was handling a lot of the family cooking duties, particularly at the weekends. It was either that, live on my mothers key recipes (fish fingers, Bejam burgers (she never did get the hang of defrosting), Fray Bentos pies, spam fritters and Vesta curry) or starve. My father had, coincidentally, learnt a a lot of his cooking technique from one of his friends, a TV chef.
Stages 8 to 10
Anyway, here is my version of the dish. Not ever having had it before it was hard to tell if my 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, I think. Served with a good French, wholegrain mustard, of course, I made so much of it that it easily lasted three days!
So, leaving Alsace, the Tour took one of it's transfers (my daughter thinks this is cheating and that they should cycle the whole way) for a stage from Besançon to Oyannax through the Jura. I'm never going to find a wine from the Jura in a local supermarket, I thought, and I was right. Fortunately, in nearby Cobham we have an excellent shop called The Wine Reserve, which tends to concentrate on the £20 and up price band (which you can do in Cobham). Blow me down they had a wine from the Jura, although this now takes the record as the most expensive wine I have had to buy for the Tour at about £23. This was a direct hit though, as the Tour rote passed through Arbois, which is about 25 miles south-west of Besançon. I can't say I have had a wine made from the poulsard grape before and it reminded me of some of the red Swiss wines I 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 I had some of the local cheese of the Jura, Comté, which was a typical semi-hard cows milk cheese from the region. Frankly, I 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 I 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 my 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 I thought this was worth a go. It was definitely Beaujolais, without taking the enamel off your teeth. Back in the eighties my friends and I 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 I have ever had from anywhere (Waitrose delicatessen counter has it, sometimes). 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. There are UK firms, such as Opies, who purport to sell "cornichons" but you really need to get the ones produced in France to get the correct taste as the UK made vinegar is not right. 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.
In fact it was with pate that I first had them on a French holiday just after finishing law school. I, and three of my friends from college, had arranged to take a driving holiday in the Lore Valley. Well it wasn't a driving holiday so much as an eating and drinking holiday which engendered a life long interest in the red wines of the Loire (a restaurant near Waterloo station called RSJ has the best Loire wine list I have seen in Britain). It all got a bit complicated in the months leading up to our planned trip, however. I had known B for several years at college as we used to go to the student common room to watch Doctor Who every week. He was the first person to buy me any metal wargames figures. I was painting a lot of Airfix plastics and he saw some of the Games Workshop dwarves and bought me a dwarf flame cannon for my birthday. Through this I discovered a whole new world of metal figure painting, as I left the 20mm plastics behind never to return to them. J, a lovely redhead, had the room next door to B in our final year at college. Unlike me, who lived out, these two had snagged rooms in college for the third year. Rather than trudge all the way back to North Oxford when I fancied a cup of tea I used to pop up to B's room. As soon as he flicked on the kettle switch at the wall (students don't seem to be allowed kettles in their rooms these days due to the dreaded health and safety) J would hear the noise and pop in too, so although we had been at college for two years that was the first time I got to know her, as she was a physicist. Also on the same floor was another girl V, who had a tedious boyfriend when we were at college. The tedious boyfriend played hockey (field hockey, for you North Americans) which I always thought a bit suspect as even though I know it can be rough, tough game I always thought of it as a rough tough girls' game.
The Legatus, his girlfriend V, his best friend B and his ex-girlfriend J in Normandy, July 1983
This left me in the slightly delicate situation, six weeks later, of travelling to France for two weeks in a car with my immediate ex-girlfriend J, my new girlfriend V who was J's best friend and B who had been trying to win over both, unsuccessfully, for four years. Fortunately, everything seemed to go well on the ferry over to France and the initial drive through Normandy. It was only when we stopped at the first of the many excellent little French hotels we stayed in (thanks to a hotel guide produced by a man called Arthur Eperon, whose choices were infallible) that we had a problem. Both V and I thought that we would be sleeping in the same room but J flat out refused to share with B (much to his disappointment as he thought his time had come). Sadly, we were too impecunious to have a double and two singles so I had to stay with B while the two girls shared. B and I amused ourselves by imagining what the two girls were up to (usually involving the ewers and basins that were a feature of many of these hotel rooms) but I realised that this was going to be a very long two weeks indeed.
My somewhat grumpy mood was lifted at dinner by a truly excellent meal. The restaurant was so good we stayed an extra day and stayed there on the way back too. I had local pate for my first course and they came with a little terracotta pot of cornichons. I've always liked pickles but these were something else. They became a key feature of our meals and V and I started to buy jars of them for our picnics (we only ate dinner in restaurants). Anyway, J being a sensitive girl and knowing what I was like, took it upon herself to go for a walk with Bill every night after dinner for at least an hour and a half. B was happy because he was with J, J was happy because she didn't have to look at V and I and V and I were very happy indeed; often several times an evening.
By the second week, however, V's levels of passion had increased considerably. It couldn't have been the wine as we were drinking the same amount. It couldn't have been the increased sunshine as we got further south as it was sunny and hot throughout. The only think I can think of was her enormously increased appetite for cornichons. We were now buying a jar a day in the little supermarkets where we got our lunches of bread, cheese and ham. V was polishing off cornichons at an amazing rate. I wondered whether they were raising her heart rate, or something, and increasing the blood flow to her sensitive regions. Well, we were very discrete with each other the first week, as we didn't want to upset the others but she was getting more and more touchy-feely by the second week.
The island in the Loire at Gennes in July 1983
This all came to a head when we arrived in a little town called Gennes, on the Loire. We arrived there just before lunch, checked into our hotel, picked up a picnic and then wandered down to a large island in the river which was just trees and grass with shady beaches by the river. It was wilder than it is now and there were more trees. It is now more like a formal park. We found a quiet spot, bunged some bottles in the river to cool and had another nice picnic. It was very hot indeed and after lunch I was resistant to V's suggestion we go for a walk. Especially as the others were dozing off, which seemed like an excellent post-prandial activity to me. V, however had other post-prandial activities in mind and tugged me off to a secluded spot in the bushes. She wanted to take the picnic blanket but couldn't because J was fast asleep on it. She did, however, take the jar of cornichons, on the rather curious basis that if we were missed we could claim we had gone to have something else to eat. Anyway, some time later after we had got very hot indeed, she started to munch her way through the rest of the jar of cornichons and I wondered whether they were actually addictive (and also whether she might be pregnant - I had already had one scare earlier in the year with a girl at law school)
Anyway, we returned to our picnic site to find that the others were now awake. J raised an eyebrow in a way that would have made Mr Spock proud. V decided that she wanted some apricot tarte for pudding and tried to get me to go back to the village to get some (I think she was planning that we could go up to the hotel room). I refused as it was too hot to trek all the way back across the bridge. I told her to get some Coteaux du Layon to go with the tarte. Sweet Loire wines were another discovery of the trip. This was enough to get B to accompany V as it gave him an excuse to walk with her and visit a wine shop.
Our hotel in Gennes, La Hostellerie de la Loire in 1983
The hotel today. Sadly closed
On my own with J ,she started a "I didn't want to stop seeing you because I didn't like you" speech. Oh dear! Now she was getting all touchy-feely. Then she was saying that it was really too hot for clothes and did I think that anyone would be able to see us from the far bank. Fortunately, it didn't all end in tears but that was due to clever time management, good acting and, eventually, a confession from J to V that was received (thank goodness) with some amusement. V eventually went off with a ghastly South African and I haven't seen her for ten years. B became my best man, lives three miles away in Cobham (where the good wine shop is) and we still meet every week for dinner and lots of wine. J and I kept casually interacting for a number of years despite us both moving on to other partners. She eventually married my other best friend from college which is not too awkward (mostly) and B and I regularly go down to see them in the West Country.
The gherkin last week
Ironically, B now actually works in 30 St Mary Axe, the erotic gherkin itself, as it was dubbed back in 2000. But cornichons are, for the Legatus, the real erotic gherkins, not just, of course, an excellent accompaniment to cooked meats.
The bridge from the Ile de Gennes to Rosiers before the French destroyed it in 1940, This is the bridge ,replaced in 1948, just visible in the shot of the island above
There is a World War 2 story about the Ile de Gennes where all this cornichons-fuelled passion took place more than thirty years ago. In 1940, 10,000 troops of the German 1st cavalry division were held up for several days at Gennes and Saumur by 800 cadets, armed with their training rifles and some light artillery, of the Saumur Cavalry School, as they tried to cross the Loire. The cadets kept fighting despite the fact Pétain had called for a ceasefire and essentially surrendered France to the Germans, The cadets are, therefore, now remembered as one of the earliest examples of the French resistance. At Gennes the French had blown the bridge but on the evening of June 19th (two days after Pétain's call for a cease fire) 500 German assault troops in rubber boats stormed the island only to be seen off by the cadets. Eventually the Germans gave up on trying to get across the Loire in the area and had to go around the cadets. The German commander, General Kurt Feldt, was so impressed by the actions of the cadets he mentioned them favourably in his report and released the 200 captured cadets rather than imprisoning them. The hotel we stayed in in Gennes was actually on the Avenue des Cadets du Saumur.
Make love, not war
I didn't know, at the time of what now seems like a dreamily bucolic episode, that the quiet island we had frolicked upon had been the site of such a bitter battle. The British and French have an engaging distrust of each other, not to say nearly 800 years of conflict, but thanks to George Bush and his "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" slur the French have an undeserved poor military image for many younger people today. The actions of the Cadets of Saumur, I would venture, are more typical of France's proud military history .
I'm sure its down to the cornichons.