Many thanks to my friend Ryan over at the excellent Service Course blog. We’re big tifosi, but never coulda woulda shoulda ridden in Le Tour. If there’s anything amateur racing teaches you, it’s that No, You Probably Can’t Make It. Guys with ungodly talent, all the advantages, perfect training, utter drive and discipline and good teams, don’t make it. But knowing that you don’t have the goods is no barrier to being a damned good fan.
Another thing races teaches you is to never ever quit. You can go way, way deeper than you would ever imagine. Until you know how far you can go, how far past your perceived limits you can travel, you just don’t know. So we race because we just don’t know how good we can be. Like salmon heading upstream, some of us are going to make it. The rest of us… well…
Those two lessons put together help teach the third lesson that racing has to offer. Don’t just race, but enjoy the ride no matter what it entails. I think Gustav Hasford, in The Short Timers, said “the Dead know one thing: it is better to be alive.” So too racers – we know that racing is better than not racing, and watching races is better than not.
The bottom line is life is short – you need to wring as much out of it as you can. You get just one shot.
But how can you make your TdF experience better? Would you hire a soigneur to rub your ass, when it gets sore from sitting on your old sofa while you watch the telly? Would you invite Johann Bruyneel and Levi Leipheimer in (what the hell... they aren’t doing anything) to team up, with Bruyneel driving your wet bar and Leipheimer bringing you drinks and snacks every few minutes?
Well, maybe so, if you've got Michael Ball's money. But a good place for the rest of us to start is by making the TdF a little bit less of a three hour nightly punishment session for your wife, husband, SO or roommates. Make an event out of watching the Tour. Have some fun with it. And treat yourself right in the process.
One of the best ways to do this is the way we keep non-football fans pacified during football season – good food and drink. Over the next few weeks I’ll work with Ryan to try to lay out some regionally appropriate snacks and drinks to enjoy with particular stages of the Tour. If you make a little effort to turn each night into an event, you might find yourself converting a few of your prisoners to fans.
For our first treat, one you probably won’t have a chance to purchase, let’s try a cheese appropriate to Brittany, Chaubier. Chaubier is a workmanlike cheese from the Nantes region where today’s stage ended. Perfect for the early stages, it has a cheddary texture, yet is still sort of creamy with a tangy, nutty flavor. It’s really good with grapes and strawberries, and would benefit from being paired with a solid white or a gentle French red, or, what the heck, some nice cider as Ryan suggests.
Matter of fact, while you're considering getting some cheese, let’s look at what cheeses you’d like for various stages. You may be able to get these from the local fromagerie, Dean & DiLuca, or a local gourmet shop. Or you can do what I do and order an assortment from I-Gourmet through Amazon.
There are a lot of stages going through and around the Massif Central, the immense range of mountains and plateau in south central France. Fittingly, there are several cheeses appropriate to these stages. Ryan may offer drink suggestions, I may offer a few of my own.
One cheese from the Massif Central is St. Agur Cheese, a Blue (Bleu?) from the Auvergne region, which covers much of the Massif. Massif Central, mild blue, modern in origin (1988), a double cream cheese with lots of butterfat. We're told it is excellent on apple slices or on raisin bread, or just plain French bread accompanied by fruit. I might actually throw some in an walnut/vinaigrette salad with lots of fresh baby spinach, and some thin sliced Granny Smith apples.
Another cheese from Auvergne, one of the great cheeses in the history of the world is Cantal. It is an ancient and honorable cheese, mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Historia Naturalis, which was the first encyclopedia. It is an excellent nutty, buttery cheese, firm with a tangy kick at the end - just like we hope we'll see in Stage 7, which travels through the Cantal mountains. I'd be inclined to have this cheese with a slightly sweet farmhouse ale or one of the sweeter lambic beers (peche, framboise). Ryan may have other ideas.
Going into the Pyrenees on Stage 9 on July 13, riding from Toulouse to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, the start of the Pyrenees, I'd recommend Frommage Abbaye de Belloc, from the Pays Basque region of Aquitaine, a gateway into the the French Pyrenees. Dense, rich textured sheeps milk cheese, it has carmel flavors.
On July 14th, Bastille Day and the second day in the Pyrennees, a fitting cheese would be Bethmale – a famous cheese of the Pyrenees. It is a somewhat hard goats milk cheese, with a bit of solid flavor to it. Excellent served with nuts, olives, ham (I might rock some Proscuitto here) and a robust wine (like a Spanish Rioja, a Beaujolais or maybe a Languedoc) that can hold its own against this character-filled cheese.
Moving into the French Alps later in the tour, I'd recommend a French Emmentaler, from Chamonix, near Mont Blanc. Emmentaler is a subtle cheese, it melts well, should be creamy, and may taste a bit like walnuts. Yeah, you can make fondue with it, but I'd be inclined to eat it with a white German halbtrocken or maybe even a sweet gewurztraminer. This would be a good cheese for Stage 16, from Cuneo, Italy to Jausiers France, in the French Alps.