Wednesday, 18 July 2012

STAGE 16: PAU - BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON

After a second rest day, the riders face a gruelling day in the high Pyrenees, and no matter what the time gap is, the race leader and wearer of the Maillot Jaune (yellow jersey), Bradley Wiggins, may dread this stage for he will have to defend his position while climbing some of the most monstrous "cols" (mountains) of the Tour - the Tourmalet, the Aubisque, the Aspin and the Peyresourde.
An earlier Tour de France ascent of the Col du Tourmalet

In 1997, my husband, then a keen and very slim road cyclist, took part in the amateur Tour de France, the Etape du Tour, which features a single stage, in the Alps or the Pyrenees. The route he rode was the same one the riders will take today. And so, watching the highlights, as we do every evening, he will no doubt relive every single painful pedal turn of that memorable day in the mountains, and the massive and very drunken celebrations that took place that evening, and the next evening, and possibly the one after that. Oh, and he was on French TV too.....

A French 'classic' for today's stage of the Gastro Tour de France, gigot of lamb. This is a Pyrennean version, ideally suited to the hardy mutton that lives on the lower slopes of the mountains. The long cooking time ensures the meat is meltingly tender and full of flavour. In fact, in his article about this recipe in 'The Guardian', Heston Blumenthal says that seven hours is "the shortest time you should cook it for". Fortunately, it's one of those dishes that requires little preparation and only a few tweaks during its cooking: for the most part, you can leave it alone, giving yourself time to watch the live coverage of le Tour!

This recipe is from Anne Willan's excellent book French Regional Cooking. It's a one-pot dish par excellence, a tender roast surrounded by vegetables

Gigot de Sept Heures

Total time: About 7 hours (mostly unattended)

Serves: 6 to 8

Note: Don't hesitate to add generous amounts of vegetables as they lose a surprising amount of volume and contribute intense flavor to the cooking juices. To make this a one-pot meal, add unpeeled potatoes, cut in quarters, about 40 minutes before the lamb is done.

1 (2-3kg/5- to 6-pound) leg of lamb, on the bone
22 to 27 garlic cloves, divided
Salt and pepper
1 bouquet garni (2 bay leaves, 3 to 4 sprigs thyme and 5 to 6 parsley stems), tied with kitchen string
4 leeks (about 675g/ 1 1/2 pounds total), white and light green parts
1 medium celery root (about 675g/1 1/2 pounds)
4 large carrots (about 450g/1 pound total), peeled and each cut into four lengths
4 turnips (about 450g/1 pound total), peeled and quartered
4 onions (about 450g/1 pound total), peeled and quartered

1. Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Trim the meat of excess fat and any skin (fat on mature lamb can be very strong). Peel and cut 12 of the garlic cloves into slices lengthwise. Poke holes in the meat with the point of a small knife and insert the garlic slices. Tie the meat as tightly as possible with kitchen string, first across the entire length, then around the lamb at intervals of about 2 inches. Season with salt and pepper. Put it in a large, flameproof casserole with the bouquet garni, 1 teaspoon of salt and enough water to cover it by three-fourths.

2. Bring the water slowly to a boil on top of the stove, skimming often, 15 to 20 minutes. Cover the casserole and transfer it to the oven. Poach for 3 to 4 hours, checking every hour or so, turning the meat and adding more water if it evaporates rapidly. If the water starts to simmer, lower the heat as slow cooking is important.

3. Cut the leeks into 2-inch lengths, wash them and tie them in bundles of two with string. Peel and quarter the celery root and cut each piece in quarters to make 16 chunks. Season all vegetables with salt and pepper.

4. After 3 to 4 hours, or when the lamb is fairly tender when pierced with a two-pronged fork, lift it out and transfer the meat to a baking pan. Add the leeks, celery root, carrots, turnips and onions to the pot with the remaining 10 to 15 peeled garlic cloves and set the meat on top. If necessary add water so the leg is half covered. Continue cooking until the meat and vegetables are very tender, about 2 hours more.

5. To finish the dish, lift out the lamb again, place it on the baking pan, cover it with foil and set it aside. If the vegetables are not very tender, simmer them, uncovered, on top of the stove. Transfer them with a slotted spoon to a deep platter, discarding the bouquet garni and the strings for the leeks. Boil the cooking broth until well reduced and concentrated -- this may take 15 to 20 minutes. Skim the fat from the surface, taste the broth and adjust the seasoning.

Sheep in the Pyrenees

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