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Taste of the Tour: Hunting with dogs for ‘Black Diamonds’

The pack ride during the eleventh stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 167 kilometers (103,77 miles) with start in Albi and finish in Toulouse, France, Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus) ORG XMIT: ENA119 (Thibault Camus / AP)
The pack ride during the eleventh stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 167 kilometers (103,77 miles) with start in Albi and finish in Toulouse, France, Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus) ORG XMIT: ENA119 (Thibault Camus / AP)
By John Leicester Associated Press

CESTAYROLS, France – When he got the call that Monsieur le Directeur of the Tour de France and friends would be dining in his restaurant and would it be possible, please, to serve them truffles, chef Georges Bermond sprang into action.

Sourcing fresh truffles in the July heat of southern France, before end-of-August rains entice the fragrant fungi to grow and swell, is no easy feat.

But Georges knows Serge, a truffle farmer, and he called his buddy with a truffle-hunting dog. The dog came up trumps, sniffing out from under trees a bowlful of the rough dark pungent lumps nicknamed “Black Diamonds” because they’re so pricey.

And so, that night, Tour director Christian Prudhomme’s dinner party got grated summer truffles on their juicy beef-steaks in Bermond’s restaurant in Albi, where Stage 11 of the race started on Wednesday.

Caleb Ewan, a Tour rookie from Australia, won the 167-kilometer (104-mile) stage to Toulouse with a magnificent sprint finish, justifying his billing as one of the brightest stars in a new generation of super-quick finishers in cycling.

The yellow jersey stayed firmly on the shoulders of French rider Julian Alaphilippe, who has held it for seven stages but could lose the race lead when the Tour heads into the Pyrenees mountains from Thursday.

Summer truffles, a creamy white inside, are a less fragrant cousin – but nevertheless still nutty and earthy in flavor and smell – of the even tastier black winter truffles so prized in French cuisine, which fetch many hundreds of euros (dollars) a kilo (a couple of pounds).

A dog that finds one is indeed man’s best friend. Serge Bouthonnier, the truffle farmer who came through for chef Bermond in his hour of need this week, trained his truffle-hunting dog, Louki, by rewarding him with chunks of gruyere cheese.

One small chunk for each black diamond the fluffy 3-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo sniffs out and digs up from the soil under trees in his truffiere, or truffle plantation, in Cestayrols, which the riders zipped through on Wednesday.

Bouthonnier’s favorite way to eat truffle is grated into an omelet. Simple, delicious.

Or thinly sliced onto toast, with a sprinkling of sea salt and drops of olive oil.

“Magnficent,” he says. “Finding a truffle is fabulous.”

Bread and butter

After their first off-day Tuesday, and on a stage without major difficulties, riders chasing the overall victory in Paris on July 28 did not take any risks Wednesday and there were no significant changes in the standings behind Alaphilippe. Defending champion Geraint Thomas is still second, 72 seconds behind the Frenchman, with Thomas’ teammate Egan Bernal third.

Quote of the day

“Guys like that are good for nothing!” – French rider Stephane Rossetto, furious with Belgian Aime De Gendt. They’d been part of a four-man group that sped off ahead of the main pack, chasing the stage victory. But De Gendt then left the breakaway group in his wake nearing the finish, infuriating Rossetto who felt they should have chased together for the win. In the end, the pack caught De Gendt, too.

Stat of the day

10. The number of different winners in the first 10 individual stages so far at this Tour. The last time that happened was 1996.

Next on the menu

Food-wise, in Toulouse, the start of Thursday’s Stage 12, the race is deep into the region of cassoulet, a thick bean stew with roasted sausages and slow-cooked duck. Race-wise, Stage 12 takes the race to Bagneres-de-Bigorre in the Pyrenees, over two sizeable ascents that will test the legs of overall Tour contenders and climbers before even harder mountains that lie ahead.

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