Stage 16: Le Puy-en-Velay > Romans-sur-Isère

We come back from the rest day with a relatively short 165km that looks as though it will start off lumpy, with a Cat 3 followed by a Cat 4, then a descent and a set up for a sprint finish. Beware adding “false flat” to your drink card, as it is only Tuesday… As much as we love sunflowers, it’s time for a change – hopefully we’ll see some lavender.

We’re still in the region of Fin Gras beef du Mézenc, so perhaps that will mean more of those happy cows grazing on the mountainsides.

According the the Tour website, our starting department – the Haute-Loire – produces “Cow cheese Artisou”. Finding out about this cheese has proved challenging as all the information is in French, which leads me to believe that you are not going to stroll into your local deli to pick some up for your cheese platter. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from French Wikipedia, FranceInfo and Google Translate. The “artisou” of the name refers to mites that develop on the crust of the cheese and assist in the ripening process. The cheese is made from raw cows milk, some of which is partially skimmed milk from the previous day’s milking combined with milk from the morning of the cheese-making. After the rennet is added, it is salted and placed in moulds, and allowed to dry for two to five days. The mites are then put on the crust and the cheese is left to mature for anywhere between three weeks and two months.

The cheese has been produced in the region around Puy-en-Velay since the 1700s and producers keen to preserve their traditions. In November last year, 40 producers met at the Puy-en-Velay town hall to request AOP status for their cheese. The process can take up to ten years, but the producers believe the effort will be worth it, as gaining the recognition will enable them to market their cheese more widely.

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The Tour website also tells me there are three AOC cheeses in the Drôme, which is the last of the departments visited in this stage. As far as I can see, two of these are goat cheeses; the third is a blue cheese we have met before in our travels, the Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage, another cheese that you’re unlikely to find here. This year’s Fête du Bleu, the 17th edition of the festival of this local specialty, will be held on the 29th and 30th of July, in Sainte-Eulalie-en-Royans, a mere 30 minutes from our finish town.

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Stage 15: Laissac-Sévérac l’Église > Le Puy-en-Velay

Today’s 189.5km stage starts with a Cat 1 climb – the Montée de Naves d’Aubrac – which is quickly followed by the Cat 3 Côte de Vierauls. There’s a bit up up-and-down across the plateau, before a descent to Saint-Arcons-d’Allier and the climb up the Col de Peyra Taillade, a Cat 1 climb making it’s Tour debut. The final run into le Puy-en-Velay is a descent broken by the Cat 1 Côte de St-Vidal. I’m not sure whether he’s the patron saint of wit or good hair. We’re in Romain Bardet country, so I’m putting my money on the AG2R rider.

As we cross the Aubrac – for the first time! – keep an eye out for the pretty Aubrac cattle.

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Image: Michel Foucher

The 2014 census counted around 170,000 of this breed, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say the chances of a sighting are good.

As we near the end of the stage, we are back in the region of the AOC Fin Gras beef of Mézenc. This highly prized beef is raised on the Mézenc Massif. They spend two summers grazing above 1100m, and in winter they are fed on hay grown in the summer pastures, mixed with alpine fennel.  According to the Association, the cattle are

Salers, Limousine, Charolais and Aubrac in pure breed or in crossbreeding between them.
The cross between a female of race “Montbéliarde” or “Abondance” and a male race “Charolais” or “Limousin” is also accepted.

The beef is only available between February and June, so if you are in France right now… you’ve just missed out. A festival is held in the region on the first weekend in June, to celebrate the end of the season, with a parade of the cattle, markets and – naturally – dishes prepared with the beef. If you are in the area, La Maison du Fin Gras is a good place to learn more about the beef. They are currently running an exhibition called “Oh, les vaches!”.

Presented by the children of the school of Fay sur Lignon and Emilie Delmas, visual artist. Drawings, engravings … of cows!

Bless!

How good is the beef? Here’s a description from an old menu at the Alain Ducasse restaurant, Aux Lyonnais:

“Fin Gras du Mézenc” beef is a Designation of Origin that distinguishes heifers and steers reared on natural mountain grass and hay, in the heart of the Massif Central, respecting a traditional and secular method of rearing that gives the flesh a marbled texture of exceptional tenderness and aromas. A really unique product only available from March to July. It is so exceptional that our butcher Gabriel Gauthier compares selected heifers to « young girls in their Sunday best».

Okay, so that young girls in their Sunday best thing is creepy…

Why not simulate the Fin Gras du Mézenc experience, and try one of the Association’s recipes. You will need some help from Google translate if you don’t read French!

Stage 14: Blagnac > Rodez

The 181.5km route from Blagnac to Rodez looks to start gently enough however once the sprint point is passed, the profile goes from lumpy to more zig-zaggy which should keep things interesting. The French will be fired up after two victories in a row. Tony Gallopin’s name has been mentioned for this stage, as has Lilian Calmejane’s, but perhaps we should skip national pride and stick with the initial prediction for the stage: Greg van Avermaet, who won in Rodez in 2015. If this happens, we might finally get Mah Nà Mah Nà from TrollDJ.

According to French Entree, the Aveyron is the biggest meat producer in the south of France, with veau de l’Aveyron being a particular specialty. The breeds used in the production of this veal are Limousin and Blonde d’Aquitaine, and the calves graze on outdoor pasture. Hopefully this means we will see some this stage.

Limousin near Limoges from DiscoverVin

Image: DiscoverVin

The Tour website tells me that the folk in these parts are partial to a bit of cheese soup. Cheese soup! Why not, when there are some good regional cheeses to be had.

Tradition has it in the Aveyron that this soup is taken to newly wed couples in their bedroom. On this occasion it is cooked in a chamber pot reserved for them that has an eye painted in the bottom!

This recipe uses either Lagioule or Cantal cheese, but I think substituting a tomme is just fine. Perhaps don’t cook it in a chamber pot? You might need to use your powers of interpretation a bit with the recipe… or find somewhere that sells it in a jar.

Stage 13: Saint-Girons > Foix

We have three climbs over 101km to see whether the peloton will wait for Aru if decides he wants to stop to take a selfie or grab a coffee. We can be fairly confident that the French teams will put on a good show for us today, given that it’s Bastille Day. There is likely to be a higher level of crazy amongst the roadside randoms, too, for the long weekend celebrations. Here’s hoping they are eccentric rather than obstructive. PSA: I’d advise crossing “tacks” off your drinking games list for this stage if you have any respect for your liver.

As for cows, perhaps this will be the year to spot the elusive Aure et Saint-Girons?

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Image: Roland Darré

A quick scan of the archives suggests it’s unlikely as the population remains quite low. We first noted the numbers as 255, according to a 2008 census, although other figures suggest the population climbed as high as 427 in 2005. The most recent estimates put the herd strength at 320. Let’s hope somebody has thought to bring them all together for us in a spectacularly vache-tastic interpretation of time for the field art competition.

Studying the form guide, our best bet for cow-spotting looks to be Port-de-Lers.

Port-de-Lers is a busy place all year round, visited by fans of Nordic skiing or snowshoes in the winter, by fishermen, cows, sheep and horses in the summer. The pasture of Port de Lers extends over 2,000 ha, where animals live freely from May to October. A shepherd is there to monitor the livestock. Gascony cows, horses of Mérens, of Castillonnais.

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I know some of us have been questioning the wisdom of this year’s route planners. After all, it seems there have been far greater numbers of viewers in these parts abandoning each stage out of sheer boredom. We have also noticed more, and more frequent, tour-snacking. Perhaps this was taken into consideration for this stage, as we will pass through Aules-les-Bains:

one of the few French spas whose effects on cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose levels have been audited. The main indications of the waters produced by the four sources of Aulus are the treatment of metabolic diseases such as obesity and diseases of the urinary tract and kidneys. They are particularly effective in treating hypercholesterolemia by decreasing total cholesterol and increasing good cholesterol.

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I’m booking my ticket, now…

It’s unlikely you will find the stage’s cheese, Bethmale, at your local providore. A pity, as it sounds delicious, if you can get past the image of it “weeping” due to “glowing with fat”.

mild, buttery and nutty, with distinct notes of mushroom, caramel and hay, and has a tanginess and subtle bite which tends to linger in the mouth and belies the initial impression of being a purely mild cheese

Cheese Notes

If you are following Le Tour with wines from either DiscoverVin or The Drinks List, tonights local choices are both white. The Château Jolys Jurançon Sec Blanc 2014 is said to pair well with runny cheeses, whilst smashed broad beans and pecorino on toast is the mortgage-friendly suggestion for the Mas Amiel ‘Vertigo’ Blanc 2015.

Stage 12: Pau > Peyragudes

We have 214.5km of Pyrénéan climbing ahead of us! Will we see the French riders battle it out, or will they save their legs for tomorrow’s Bastille Day stage? ¿Por que no lo dos?

We are really in cassoulet country – think duck and goose confit, with beans and pork sausages, however there is a tradition of raising veal in these parts. The race guide tells me that the Lauragais veal is a specialty of the Haute-Garonne. The breeds used for producing this meat are the Limousin, Blonde d’Aquitaine, Montbéliarde and French Brown.

WP_20161130_09_08_59_ProImage: Le Veau Fermier du Lauragais

The veal farmers have helpfully collected some recipes for their produce. If you feel the Tour Snacks to date have been wreaking havoc on your cholesterol levels, we are in a region famed for its beans, so something beany might offset some of the excesses. I’m not exactly sure that this garbure is the answer, but it sounds mighty appealing.