For every night that I camp out for free, I consider myself a wad of cash richer. And what trivial luxuries I may miss in the way of a bed, pillows, sheets and all that fuss, or simply the security of knowing I won't be mugged in the night or trampled by giant red deer in the woods---such sacrifices I make up for by spending lavishly on food. Between grocery stores, wine shops, artisan bakeries and farm stands, I regain each calorie I burn in style and taste---and with the pickiness of a connoisseur. For I won't eat just anything out here. Fast food, that gel junk that athletes suck from foil pouches, quick-cook camping meals, even baguettes and butter: I don't want any of it, because in this country there's much better food to eat, and following are a few of my camp favorites and standard staples of the road.
Beet, orange and avocado salad, with eggs and a walnut vinaigrette. This dish is more substantial than it sounds. I go heavy on the beets, for one thing, and I get liberal with the avocado---an entire fruit or two. Vine-ripened tomatoes add still more bulk. Once all is tossed with a dressing of walnut oil and red wine vinegar, two soft-boiled eggs are splayed on top. Meal time begins as the yolks drain into the nooks and crannies of this sweet and savory salad. I take the science of wine-food pairing very seriously when I camp in the bushes, because a famished cyclist can't have conflicting flavors skirmishing with each other in the mouth at dinnertime. And so I've thoroughly explored the wine options for this dish, and I've found that a bulk-bin red Gascogne suits it perfectly, the zesty bite of the wine's acids going nicely with the beta carotene and citric acid.
Smoked herring, cantaloupe and Chantecler apple. Sometimes, the wine of choice must determine the meal, and when in Sauternes country I sought fatty, salty foods to cut the sweetness of the area's white dessert wines. Roquefort cheese and fois gras are considered the legendary pairings for this wine style, but after experimenting with other items I nailed a winner: a halved cantaloupe, several fillets of smoked herring and a Chantecler apple, a local favored variety. The honey-sweet fruits prep the palate for the wine to come, after which the salt and oils of the fish allow the Sauternes' delicate flavors to truly sparkle. Note: You may sink into a blissful stupor during this dinner, but don't forget to mind your surroundings, and don't neglect to duck each time those car headlights pass over your camp.
Green lentils drizzled with olive oil and topped with toasted hazelnuts and white asparagus. A dish both rich and starchy, this protein-packed salad makes an ideal recovery meal after an especially rigorous day in the saddle. In Bordeaux, after pedaling through the rain without food for six hours and nearly suffering an emotional meltdown when it began to look like I would find no shelter for the night, I prepared this spread in sky-high spirits on my hotel room's bathroom counter. The 30-minute cook time on the lentils nearly killed my canister of butane before I even got started on sauteing the asparagus and toasting the nuts, and I advise all travelers to keep a second can of fuel available to avoid the heartbreak of a half-cooked dinner (and keep the window open to let the fumes out). In fact, my stove conked out just as the hazelnuts began to turn color, and by the time they went over the lentils and asparagus, they were crunchy, lightly blackened and perfect. Dress with a Tuscan olive oil. Enjoy with a crisp white wine.
Chicken of the woods mushroom, sauteed and sprinkled with melted blue cheese. I lucked out near Bordeaux one afternoon when I found an out-of-season chicken of the woods sprouting from a lumber pile by the road. This strange fungus, as spectacular in sight as it is delicious, is a fall bloomer that grows directly out of tree trunks and which rarely occurs in the spring. Camped among the noble vines that night, I sauteed the mushroom, which was as fresh and tender as tofu, until brown, deglazed the pan with some red wine and drizzled the reduction over the steaming heap of golden fungus, topping the plate with some crumbled cave-aged blue cheese from the Pyrenees. The wine match was a spicy red from the Rhone Valley.
Salad of endive, beet and eggs over a bed of bulgur. A pair of red deer charged wildly past my camp as I cooked this dish the other night in a meadow surrounded by chestnut forest near Lourdes. The animals, which can weigh half a ton, have a habit of hollering like drunken cavemen that is quite unnerving for travelers unaccustomed to the species, and I almost knocked over my entire dinner in alarm when they came crashing out of the brush. When these wild boys saw me, they fled, and I carried on with my business. Now, I have one cooking pot, one eating dish and one utensil---so logistics must be factored into meal prep. For this bulgur salad, I suggest starting by cooking the grain. Once it's al dente, toss the rustic kernels with the vegetables (buy your beets pre-cooked at a farmers market), then cook the eggs and scrape them out and onto the salad before the yolks turn solid. Lay the endives on top. Dress with a vinaigrette.
Eggs poached in white wine, garnished with wild mint. Get the wine boiling in your steel bowl, then drop in the eggs without breaking the yolks, and voila---this dish practically makes itself. Remove from the heat when the whites have congealed, and the yolks will settle into gooey perfection as you make your cowboy coffee, softened with farm-fresh goat milk. Eat the eggs straight, or serve on a halved mini baguette of whole wheat bread.
Other staples of the road: Pain complet, or whole wheat bread, drizzled with local walnut oil. Cherries straight from the tree; now is the season. Dried figs, stuffed with chevre. Whatever you eat, don't squander a good appetite on less than the best. That next grocery store may be 15 miles away still, and you might go hungry for a few miles, but nobody starves in the country that first said, "Bon apetit."
Find the Beer: In Sauternes, on road D116 E1, in the base of the cobblestone rock wall facing the entrance to Chateau Lafaurie-Peyragney, a can of beer now dwells in a hole just 40 meters west of the four-way intersection. Let me know when you find it. The beer's name starts with an "M," is as strong as a wine but a whole lot cheaper than Chateau d'Yquem's latest release.