Our departure point Monday is Granville, also known as the Monaco of the North, due in no small part to its majestic harbor. It is also the shell-fish capital of France, netting approximately 8.5 million tons of the delicious critters each year. In fact, Granville natives love the local seafood so much that they have devoted an entire day to its celebration: Toute La Mer Sur Un Plâteau, which translates loosely as The Entire Sea on a Plate. Sounds good to me!
The race route, entirely flat today, is also one of the longest of this year’s Tour. It brings us to our first stop in the Loire Valley, the Garden of France. Angers, where the riders will disembark after 222 kms on the bike, is an interesting mix of forward-thinking entrepreneurialism and royal history. It is the birthplace of the Plantagenet Dynasty, the royal house of Anjou. Along with the Angevins (as natives of Anjou are called) the Plantagenets included the English houses of Lancaster and York, responsible for placing Henry II and Richard III on the throne. The rivalry between the Yorks and Lancasters was the basis for the War of the Roses, which ended in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, when Richard III was killed. That left Henry VII (Henry Tudor) to ascend the throne. His subsequent marriage to Elizabeth of York effectively ended the conflict.
Today, Chateau d’Angers, the home to Louis I, the Duke of Anjou, is a must-stop on any visit to the area. It boasts the largest medieval tapestry in the world, the Apocalypse Tapestry. Its many panels depict the book of Revelations by Saint John the Divine, and its origins date back to 1377.
Modern-day Angers has also positioned itself as a sort of incubator of technology. The Cité de l’Objet Connecté (COC) bills itself as a “business accelerator” whose goal is to help innovative enterprises shorten the time it takes to get new products to market. It accomplishes this by facilitating access to designers, systems integrators, and digital, mechanical, and plastics manufacturers. Entrepreneurs can communicate with all the necessary experts right under one roof. The ultimate goal is to “make French technology more visible.” It’s an interesting concept and one that is partially underwritten by the French government.
Wine and Food
Angers sits within the Anjou-Saumur commune of the Loire Valley, which is best known for the unfortified sweet wines of Côteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume, and Bonnezeaux. These heavenly dessert wines showcase one side of the Chenin Blanc grape –hedonistic and honeyed, with the potential to last for decades. Similar to their better known cousins from Sauternes in Bordeaux, they are products of a rather unusual wine-making process.
Come autumn, vineyards in comparatively humid climates may be subjected to evening mists that blanket the vines. Sounds quite nice, you say? Well, this humidity creates a welcoming environment for a fungus called Botrytis cinerea, more commonly known as noble rot. The fungus attacks the almost-ripe grapes, and causes them to shrivel up and rot. The silver lining here is that the end results, concentration of the grape sugars and production of glycerol, both contribute something to the end product: more intense aromas and flavors, as well as increased body and smoother texture.
Wines as treasured and sought-after as these are expensive to make, as they are crafted according to Nature’s timeline, not the winemaker’s. When noble rot affects a vineyard, it usually does so in patches, making it impossible to predict when (or if) there will be sufficient quantities of grapes to make a wine. Harvesting presents another challenge, as it must be done in multiple rounds. This is because grapes in the botrytis-affected areas are unlikely to reach the desired stage of ripeness all at the same time. And, as you might have guessed, the shriveled, raisin-like grapes that are the keys to this seductive wine are quite fragile. Ensuring their safe passage into the winery means they must be picked and sorted by hand. Every effort must be made to preserve the liquid gold they contain!
If you’ve tried the dessert wines of Bordeaux, you’ll have a reasonably good idea of what these wines will taste like. They are elegant and voluptuous, full of honey and a tiny bit of funk. The natural acidity of the Chenin Blanc grape lends itself to the potential longevity of these wines. Many can be aged for years. Food partners for a dreamy wine like this? Mild blue cheese or lemon and olive oil cake come to mind, but you’re limited only by your imagination. Here’s a recipe I particularly like – a not-too-sweet shortbread cookie that goes well with just about any type of wine but really sings with an off-dry Chenin.
Nutty Blue Cheese Wedges (from The Complete Cookie; Barry Bluestein and Kevin Morrissey)
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
¼ cup crumbled blue cheese
1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 16 pieces
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
Heat oven to 325.
Combine nuts and sugars into food processor; process one minute. Add cheese and butter and process until it forms a crumbly mixture. Add the flour and pulse until small pebbles of dough form. Press mixture into a non-stick 8” pan, and score the top of the surface into 12 slices like a pie. Bake 15 minutes, then re-score the surface. Return to oven and bake 15 minutes more, until golden on top. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes. Gently unmold from pan and slice.
As we toast the riders during Stage Three, let’s do it with one of the delicious Chenin Blanc dessert wines I mentioned earlier. If you’re not much of a sweet wine aficionado, go ahead and try one of the dry versions. There are many to choose from: Savennières, Jasnières, Vouvray. Just ask for some guidance at your local wine shop, and get ready to enjoy. These wines share many of the same flavor characteristics as their sweeter brethren, just without the residual sugar. They are remarkably food-friendly, too, and will pair wonderfully with the shortbread recipe above.
Until tomorrow: Vive le Tour!