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Bicycle GourmetThe Inside Scoop II

Producer/Director/Author Christopher Strong shares the human, senic, cultural, culinary, and historic “Treasures” discovered during the filming of his TV series – BICYCLE GOURMET'S TREASURES OF FRANCE.

The Inside Scoop

- Part Two -

Exiting the pigpen, and entering the pasture, we find the Goose. Source of the delicacy that generates resounding bravos from foodies of all Nations – “Foie Gras.” Literally, “fat liver.” From a (supposedly) free range bird, whose only function in life, is organ donation. Whatever your politics with regard to the method of production, Fois Gras is one luxury food that definitely deserves that over used adjective : ”Decadent.” Velvety soft. Indescribably delicious. No vitamins. No minerals. More fat than a container carload of butter. And a price tag with way too many zeros.

Foie Gras, spread on warm toast, is meant to be accompanied by a sweet wine of the Sauternes (pro – so-turn) variety. The South West of France is “Foie Gras central.” With “buy it from the farmer” signs on every other tree. The other delicacy of that region, is liquid. “Armagnac.” And the older and higher octane, “Bas Armagnac.” These forty percent plus after dinner “Digestifs”, (that’s like………you know…. ….like……..”Digestives?”) are souped up versions of Cognac.

Distilled twice, rather than once. Armagnac production, generally, remains rooted in the ancient tradition of the still that travels from farm to farm. The two most widely known French “speciality foods”, are palette scary only in reputation.. So, don’t fear the frog’s legs. Don’t agonize over Escargot.

Both are bland culinary lightweights whose minimal flavour is highly dependant on secret sauces, herbs and wine. Equally, if not more bland, is an item to be found on every Bistro menu. The “Croque Monsieur.” Melted cheese on toast. Usually with a slice of (you guessed it) Ham in the middle. In a country where alcohol consumption is not merely a historical tradition, but a sacred duty, it’s tempting to cliché-ize the French as Europe’s alcoholics. And, indeed, this is exactly what the French government does. Each time it’s about to raise booze prices!

So – are the French Europe’s heaviest drinkers?, The answer is both relative and subjective. Relative to whether you’ve been in a Scot’s bar at ten am. And, subject to your personal experience(s) with the escargot-quaffing pig lovers. Mine are that wine is generally enjoyed at every meal except breakfast and lunch through the week. When mineral water stands in for the grape. This is “la vie quotedien.” (everyday life.) Nuthin’ fancy. Steak hache. (pre-fab hamburger) Chips. Pasta. Scrambled eggs. Salad. Yogurt.

But – enough of boring everyday life! – Let us, dear reader, advance to special occasions! Let’s find out just how, and to what extent, our Latin cousins “put on the dog” For marriages, graduations, anniversaries (which is what they call birthdays}, And that most special of special occasions - THE WEEKEND! You will begin, bien sur, with aperitifs. And, unless you want to gravely offend your hosts, you will down at least two glass of something liquid and vitamin-destroying.

The first course – usually seafood, will arrive with white wine. Again – a two glass minimum if you want a return invite. Next – the meat dish. This is where the goin’ gets tough. Cuz after four glasses, you’re moderately toasted. And now, your host is gonna simultaneously bar-b-que your brain and sauté your liver!

By rolling out his favourite special occasion red. “Assualtive” is the appropriate adjective here. Two glasses are not an option. But –no worries! Because, at this point, you will feel that you can handle that third glass. And, maybe, you can. Maybe you can nurse it, waiting for the cheese to arrive. Maybe you can raise your glass, feigning a deep eyes-wide-closed sniff of appreciation, as your host attempts a refill. And, maybe you can keep the cream-soaked dessert that follows where it belongs.

And, maybe the after dessert coffee will help you regain partial control of your limbs. I hope so. Because you’re about to meet – “The Terminator!” The French, like most of us, love to do harmless, illegal stuff. In San Francisco, We cross against the light.

In France, the illegal thing they like to do most, is whip up a little concoction called “ Eau D’vie”(”water of life”) However, dear reader, I hasten to add, there is precious little water in the “water of life” – French style. It is a fruit alcohol (the Mirabel plum being the most common) that starts at around forty percent, then goes up into the alcoholic stratosphere, depending on how long it “sleeps”, and how it was made.

The usual method, understandably, is to taste it, as you make it. However, I have a French pal, whose Mother makes it by color alone. So, her moonshine can be anywhere from forty to sixty per cent proof! (Hey, remember “Mother knows best?”) Certainly, making it is harmless. Drinking it is another enchilada. There are two ways. Straight up; in a shot glass. Or pour it in the dregs o’ yer coffee.

What’s it like? Well, imagine your nose hairs bar-b-qued by an alcoholic blowtorch, while your vision is temporarily suspended. The bottom(French) line : If, after all this celebrating you can : A) Speak in complete sentences B) Not drool during the goodbye kisses C) Walk unassisted to your car – You will have made the “A list” of special occasion regulars. (Note : This is not an Olympic event. But, after your first special occasion invite, you will wonder, Why not?)


More articles from the Bicycle Gourmet.

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