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Thursday, December 27, 2012

GoSparky!: Booze and Food in Rodez and Le Puy en Velay (7th i...

GoSparky!: Booze and Food in Rodez and Le Puy en Velay (7th i...: Sparky's Blog 12-27-12 Booze and Food in Rodez and Le Puy en Velay A night-time view of Rodez's grand cathedral Rodez vi...

Booze and Food in Rodez and Le Puy en Velay (7th in a series)

Sparky's Blog

Booze and Food in Rodez and Le Puy en Velay

A night-time view of Rodez's grand cathedral

Rodez village and Cathedral tour
With our tummies full of cheese and potatoes and yes, more wine we ventured into Rodez for a guided tour of Vieux Rodez the village and its cathedral.  On our way back to our hotel and upcoming tour, we are driving through France as we always do but I can’t help but wonder to myself that this is an experience that can never be duplicated due to its beautiful nature.  It seems like every other minute we drive by another “post-card” moment.  The country-side is just magnificent and the towns are quaint and idyllic with old-world styles and architecture flooding the eye with historical insight, charm and dreamy-like romanticism.  I’m in love with this land and its people.

The church/monastery on top of the hill in  Rodez
I have to admit that I haven’t found the stereotype in the people here that most Americans speak of….I’m sure it has to do with the fact that most Americans tend to be “ugly” and I have extensive travel experience.  Too bad that Aaron chose to be our “ugly” American….okay I have to let this go.

First of all, this wasn’t our fist cathedral tour (they are all fantastic) but unique in-and-of-itself.  There were stained glass windows depicting, the lunar landing, dinosaurs,  the crusades, heaven and hell, marine life and of course the requisite saints and storybook bible scenes.  I haven’t seen anything like it.  The modern mixed with the traditional.  It was quite contemporary and contests were held to see who would make them.  This wasn’t the only cathedral that had this kind of fashion statement.

Tuesday, May 22
Le Puy en Velay
After breakfast we depart for Le Puy en Velay – this would be our only one night stay and I must admit that the highlight for me was the dinner but first I must mention our visit to the distillery Pages-Verveine. Here we discovered the secrets for making Pages Verveine du Velay, Green and Yellow Verveine liquors and Verveine du Velay Extra.  All this mumbo-jumbo meant was that these cats made some serious liqueurs and aperitifs.  I wasn’t expecting to be drinking anything stronger than wine thus far but this stuff was starting at 80 proof and went up to 120 proof which was just the perfect combination for the makings of a very loose group of culinary students breaking into song and dance. 

Brass containers where the magic happens!

Pages makes many different types of Verveine booze!

We had to be restrained several times from showing our gratitude for being in this booze-soaked establishment awash in tradition and upper-lip hoity-toityness.  It really was their fault for filling us with the fermented juice of sugar-laden fruit.  Several of us decided to buy copious amounts of this magical elixir to share with their loved ones back home.  Trouble is, hardly none of it made it back home as we feasted on this booze ourselves over the next few nights.  You gotta blame the good folks at the Pages distillery for making such a fine product.
That's a lot of booze!

We were suppose to go to a trout farm after our boozy adventure but it was raining so hard that this visit was cancelled and a good thing too because we were in no state to plod along the muddy paths of any area filled with large expanses of water.  Our schedule was rearranged to head on back to the hotel to change and “freshen-up” so-to-speak before dinner.

Ryan and I feeling no pain after a "tasting" of Pages best stuff!

Restaurant Vidal
Dinner was waiting for us a fair ways outside the village of Le Puy en Velay in a regional area in Saint-Julien-Chapteuil.  We dined at Restaurant "Vidal" and the chef Jean-Pierre Vidal Chef/proprietor is a French master chef and Toques d’Auvergne which is fancy-schmancy for bad-ass chef.  He prepared authentic cuisine with light and creative touches that bordered on dinner theater. 

Bad-ass Chef Vidal with a very willing pupil
We first had an appetizer with popcorn that had pork fat and salt absorbed into it, then there was cherry tomatoes with sesame seeds glued to them that made for an interesting and fantastic taste adventure.  Next on the plate was a cheese mousse canapé that was light and airy with a hint of over-salted flavor that really satisfied.  How do these guys come up with this kind of food?!!

Turbot with potato "scales" -  a very classical dish

Our next course was the foie gras three-ways.  First up was foie gras stuffed cherries glazed with pork fat and red wine – really?  This was divine, just lovely and perhaps the best thing that I have tasted up to this point.  We then had a pan seared lobe of foie gras immersed in nothing but butter, butter and more butter – wonderful.  Our third type of goose liver was ground up with pork fat, rolled into a ball then breaded with herbs de Provence and deep-fried and served atop a small bed of mushroom and red wine risotto.  I’m in heaven…..

Foie Gras three ways

We then had turbot fillets with shaved potato rounds placed on the filet to resemble scales of the fish.  These rounds of potato were affixed to the fish with a thin layer of egg white-wash and seasoned simple with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Quite simple but delivered maximum flavor.  I will do this for my family very soon.

We indulged in pork tenderloin fillet steaks stuffed with apple/sage sausage for our meat course.  This fillet was immersed with a rhubarb type sauce that was toned down a bit with honey and pork demi-glace.  The side dish was traditional pommes frites and white wine braised root vegetables.

A magnificent pork tenderloin!

Our dessert blew my mind as it looked like a plate with a chocolate dome straddling the edges.  Chef Vidal himself came along with cognac and set it ablaze and then poured it on top of this chocolate dome watching our faces as we giggled like school children seeing it melt away revealing a peach glace/ice cream and sponge cake smothered with Chantilly crème.  As the chocolate melted it became a sauce along with the cognac.  I couldn’t believe my eyes and the taste was out of this world good!

On our way to Lyon – but first SNAILS!
We visited a snail farm (escargot) in the morning on our way to Lyon today and I must admit that it wasn’t what I was expecting….I’m not sure what I was expecting as I didn’t think snails grew on trees or anything so much as how they are kept or harvested is what interested me.  They are kept in screened-in, long rectangular hutches with propped up boards every 4 inches or so.  There is vegetation that grows under and between the boards to allow for them to roam.  Now I know what you’re thinking, how much room does a snail need to roam?  Okay, not far; not far at all but let’s just call them “Free-range” snails for this particular story.

The life of a snail is quite leisurely (until it gets eaten of course!)

Did you know that snails have between 10,000 and 14,000 microscopic teeth?  Also, they mate only once a year but they’re mating rituals can last up to 12 hours?  France has about 200 of these farms and each one produces about 150,000 each year.  The demand is slowly but steadily rising necessitating a need to find purveyors elsewhere including Poland and Hungary.

A snail farm complete with electrified fencing

Our host explaining snail stuff

We received instruction on different species (over 2,000) and the types to eat (only about 4).  We also were shown the process in which they are processed for human consumption and that is by means of hot water to kill and sanitize them and then through pressure cooking to raise the water temp. (saving time and energy) as well as finish the cooking process.  This was very interesting and informative and of course the farmer had product to sell as well.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Monday, December 10, 2012

GoSparky!: Rodez, France (6th in a series)

GoSparky!: Rodez, France (6th in a series): SPARKY’S BLOG 12-10-2012 Rodez, France Viaduct (Pont de Millau) over the Tarn valley I’m only writing about this to convey bot...

Rodez, France (6th in a series)


Rodez, France

Viaduct (Pont de Millau) over the Tarn valley
I’m only writing about this to convey both good and bad thoughts.  All of our tours have been experiences of a lifetime allowing us to get up close and feel, touch, smell, taste and hear what we are learning about.  Unfortunately for the viaduct we only were able to take pictures from a location directly under it and then visit a tourist trap filled with viaduct trinkets that were overpriced.

The Viaduct PONT de MILLAU
 On the other hand, I was able to see a program featuring the viaduct back in the states a few years ago chronicling its assembly and design.  It was a fascinating program on one of the more intelligent cable channels like Discovery®, History® or NatGeo®.  The building of this modern marvel was a real feat of engineering prowess and human fortitude.  I enjoyed watching this special on American TV not knowing that someday I would be under it taking pictures just a few short years thereafter.

(May 21st)
Rodez (even more cheese)
 The Village of Laguiole was home to our visit to the Fromagerie Jeune Montagne (producers of the famous Fromage de laguiloe AOC and l’Aligot del’Aubrac).  Okay all this AOC fromage stuff is a bit overwhelming to me but the French take it VERY seriously and I can see why as this cheese had the most refined and smooth flavor accompanied with a very pungent overtone.  I was taken aback by the surprise nature of the ying and yang (smooth/tart) all in one package.  We also were treated to a taste test of various types by method as well as length of aging.  This product is quite nice.  The French know a thing or two about this food business don’t you thnk?

Rodez, France reminds me of the hilly streets of San Francisco
 Of course we had to have more wine with this cheese tasting and I’m starting to get the fascination the French have with this wildly popular grape product.  It seems that wine is the basis for all things here in France as the roadsides are densely populated with vineyards just like we see corn fields in America.  It’s crazy how the wine industry is so expertly woven into the fabric of society and industry.  The whole culture is awash in wine and I wouldn't even think about abstaining from this “nectar of the gods” while in the company of the French.  I love these people!

Charcuterie on top of vino?  It worked and I loved it!

The beginnings of .....

..... a great lunch!

The Laguiloe knife factory and showroom
After our cheesy experience we next visit the Laguiloe knife factory and showroom.  I don’t know why but maybe it’s the testosterone in me that has such a gripping allure to sharp shiny things.  I love knives and we were able to see production of this particular type of cutlery and have the opportunity to purchase if we so choose.  Oh, I chose alright…I bought two for me and one for my brother-in-law and was tempted to buy more for friends and cousins but, alas, they are a bit pricey.

Costs a few thousand Euros if you can afford it!
The blades are legendary as they are tempered and processed by hand and last a lifetime with an edge enduring weeks or months between sharpening.  The handles are all works of art being made out of anything from artisan woods to bull horns and deer antlers.  The process is painstaking but precise resulting is one of the world’s finest blades attached to a handle that is crafted by a skilled journeyman.  They are magnificent to look at and even more awesome to own.  My brother-in-law will do a back flip when he gets his.

A group history lesson on the legendary knives
 These knives are so legendary that there is a black market for them with knock-offs coming out of China and Afghanistan.  The Laguiloe Company has tried to come up with ways to combat this namesake piracy but they failed to trademark their name.  They instead came up with a logo and registered it to ensure their treasured product would be recognizable at an instant to the knowledgeable eye. 

If it hadn't been for this bit of knowledge we were given at the Laguiloe factory we would have been duped at one particular hunting store we entered in Lyon a few days later on our trip.  One of the group members had entered this shop and found the Laguiloe name on numerous knives hoping to get at least one more but remembered the lecture centering on the logo.  He immediately told the shopkeeper about this bit of information and the shopkeeper was horrified that he was embarrassed by mendacious black-market shenanigans.

l’Aligot del’Aubrac cheese
By now it’s lunch time and we were told at the Fromagerie that there is a traditional dish that revolves around the l’Aligot del’Aubrac cheese - so off to the Bar Hotel restaurant l’Aubrac for the regional potato and cheese dish w/ MIXING.  It’s very important to mention the mixing as we would be entertained once again during this very special lunch.  Turns out the cheese is mixed with crème fraîche and mashed potatoes but it’s the ratio that makes this dish interesting because it’s about 50/50 cheese/potatoes. 

Cheese is a close second to wine in culinary importance for the French

Meticulous care is taken in the production of France's cheese

The mixing process is steeped in pomp-and-circumstance as a costumed character comes out with a wooden tub filled with this potato and cheese concoction and also has a large wooden paddle.  This paddle is used to stir and mix and then stir some more with additional mixing….after all that they stir and mix some more.  You get the idea?  So, since there is so much labor involved; the costumed gentleman enlists the help of our group which goes over very well.  He immediately gets all the help he needs and then some.  He don’s the head of each volunteer with his traditional cap and we all then circle the process taking pictures much to the delight of the crowd of onlookers.

A demonstration of mixing the cheese and potatoes

Lisa gets in on the action with her sister Liat looking on ...
 I’m thinking to myself….I hope all this pageantry isn't just a ruse to make us forget about the actual taste of this “traditional dish” of Aubrac.  My fears were laid to rest with the first bite as my whole mouth was immediately filled with flavor.  My test to good food is if you can immediately taste it and you then love it.  Most times food enters the mouth only to gradually build flavor on your tongue with a few seconds elapsing before you realize what it is.  This is poorly flavored food and I have no use for it.  didn't encounter "elapsing seconds of flavor" much while in France.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Monday, December 3, 2012

GoSparky!: Albi, France III & Rodez (5th in a series)

GoSparky!: Albi, France III & Rodez (5th in a series): SPARKY’S BLOG 12-3-2012 Albi, France III & Rodez (May 19 th ) Albi (tour) – Without Aaron in tow, we had a guided visit of ...

Albi, France III & Rodez (5th in a series)


Albi, France III & Rodez

(May 19th)
Albi (tour)
Without Aaron in tow, we had a guided visit of Albi and this proved to be a blast as we walked past Toulouse Lautrec’s home and learned of his prowess with the women.  Not sure if I believed most of what was said as this man’s diminutive size would normally preclude him from attracting the fairer sex altogether.  Needless to say, I knew it was all true and felt that perhaps there is hope for me as well….okay enough about me.

Cathedral / Sainte-Cecile
Our next visit was of the cathedral located smack-dab in the middle of the town nestled along-side the Tarn River.  The spectacular Cathedral Sainte-Cecile of Gothic origin and style was built in the 13th century in the heart of Cathar country, is the largest brick building in the world. Perched high on a hill above the River Tarn, it looks more like a fortress than a cathedral. The interior is opulent with frescos and very interesting stained glass windows depicting not only medieval times but those of modern events as well.  I was enthralled with the “open-minded” attitude of the ruling clergy to allow such free thinking to enter their religious domain.

Votive candles sending prayers

The opulence is magnificent!

The entrance to the cathedral is grande

Gargoyles are rampantly adorned 

Boat ride of “Gabarre”
The boat ride of “Gabarre” on the River Tarn was nice but all too short.  The ride and tour lasted about 45 minutes but proved to be a visual spectacle of flora and fauna creeping into and onto the local architecture that was damaged and bombed in World War II.  The remnants were quite stark and there was evidence of great destruction and I became a bit melancholy at the thought of seeing German war planes dive bombing such splendor as the surroundings of Albi, France are quite beautiful.

A view from our boat on the Tarn River

Looking through the aqueduct and bridge

The Cathedral reigns supreme over Albi

Albi has enough charm for two cities

We retired to the bus to head to lunch at restaurant L’Ispien Port in Les Brisses Gaillac…former rugby play Revallier is a chef/proprietor of this establishment and one would wonder what a ruffian like a former rugby player have to offer us?  Charcuterie, squab atop haricoverts, cheese dumplings and wicked aperitifs!  I ate too much and didn’t care as I tortured myself before this trip losing 15 lbs. knowing that I would put it all back on.

Wine, food and new friends made for a perfect trip!

More wine tasting
Our next stop is a visit La Cave de Tecou for another wine tasting.  It’s a wonder that France’s population isn’t totally plastered all the time as we, seemingly, drink wine all day long.  Regardless, we tasted a very tart white as our first offering (I didn’t like it) but then came the full-bodied reds with undertones of earth, pepper, nutmeg, pear, faint citrus with fragrant and flowery grapes.  Absolutely fantastic stuff and I was very pleased – probably due to the fact that I had become inebriated - a detail that gave me shivers as I had given Aaron a serious tongue-lashing in our hotel room prior to our day’s departure for doing this very same thing.  I was quite secure in my resolve to keep my clothes on and gave my drunken state a pass as I was going to enjoy myself albeit in a responsible manner.

Anyone for some wine?

This stuff was pretty wonderful!

Enjoy myself I did
As it turned out we all wanted a bit more fun after such a long visit and we had a long bus ride to Rodez the next day and figured we could sleep on the bus if needed.  We just so happened to be staying in a hotel where the lobby also doubled as a bar and the beer was flowing quite nicely.  I led the way with a round on me and we started to play cards and then the laptops came out to facilitate our fellow students need to become Facebook® friends.  Some of the older students didn't even have accounts but after much prodding; they gave in to the peer pressure and signed up for a share of the fun in the distribution of photos, comments and overall merriment.

Bailey enjoying a nice French beverage while a pregnant Tiffany looks on...
 Some members of the group made up songs and words (me) to go along with various tunes that were playing on the hotel sound system.  Others were engaged in hangman, chess (yes, the hotel had a board available), checkers and euchre (a nice Midwestern game).  Suffice it to say, we had a good, clean, all-American time and we kept our clothes on.

Come morning, we straggled downstairs one by one wearing sunglasses, wrinkled clothes and sporting a lot of wet hair as time ran short to use a hair dryer (that extra few minutes in bed really DOESN'T make a difference on how you’ll feel the rest of the day).  Our last night in Albi would be my last one of being “over-served’ as my father would call it.  Most of the group would not venture down that slippery slope of alcoholic messiness including me for the rest of the trip but I must say…..we had a swell time that night and I’m glad we all enjoyed ourselves and developed a nice bond among the group.

(May 20th)
The Roquefort cheese cellars were a treat just to understand how the process evolved.  First we were schooled on how the geography had changed over hundreds of thousands of years.  The earth literally broke away from what eventually has become a small mountain and fell hundreds of feet below.  This process of the earth breaking apart and falling formed the caves of Roquefort and started a process of drafts that would carry with it spores of penicillium that imparts the cheese with its sharp and full-bodied nature.

 The process was discovered, of course, by accident when a Sheppard laid down a piece of bread and cheese but forgot it over a period of a day or so.  When the Sheppard returned he discovered a type of mold had grown on both pieces of food.  The bread tasted foul but the cheese tasted divine and thus the process was born and refined over hundreds of years becoming a legendary food product of France.

After our history lesson, we entered the caves and immediately felt the drafts that were spoken of in the video and lecture we received.  The second thing that you notice straight away is the smell which is that of a peculiar type of mold that is musty but also fragrant.  It’s kind of funny how the air doesn’t smell like the cheese itself as there is loads of it lining the shelves that are built to house it for storage during its curing process. 

Getting into the French spirit!  Yes, that's a genuine beret (I had to right?).
 If memory serves me correctly there are five stories of shelving just like that of an actual building.  That doesn’t mean that there are only five stories of cave – oh no, there is an undisclosed number of levels as some of the facts regarding the Roquefort caves are cloaked in secrecy.  I’m not sure why but were also instructed to NOT take pictures during our stay beneath the earth’s surface.  I still heard a few clicks as some group members did not heed the rules set forth by our guide.

Of course there are stories of ghosts and tragedy strewn along our walk throughout the tour but most of that went in one ear and out the other for most of us.  I was really looking forward to the tasting that came after and I was not disappointed!  There were several variations (aged at different periods) that were very different.  I wouldn't think that a few months would make that much difference in the taste of the cheese itself but it really does. 

After our Roquefort tour - full of cheese and wine; I was VERY happy!

We first tried 3 month, 6 month and 12 month variations.  The longer aged cheeses were, of course, much stronger in flavor but this doesn't mean better.  We all spied a 24 month old cheese and assumed that this would be the best tasting but it was not…..be careful of the theory of diminishing returns.  In my opinion, this older variety was musty and dull tasting but I was assured by our tour guide that it is a delicacy.  Most of our group felt much the same way I did.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)