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From Inside Peloton: Digesting Milan-San Remo

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Like many of cycling’s Grand Tours and classics, Milan-San Remo was originally organized by a sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, as a way of generating more interest in the publication. Since those early days, the race has become one of the most anticipated of the spring calendar, giving fans everywhere a look at who is entering the season in good form and able to withstand the demands of this longest one-day endurance test of 298 kilometers.

Just a few years after Milan-San Remo’s initial race in 1907, the 1910 edition may have established itself as the most dramatic in the race’s history. In a well-storied adventure of man’s ability to overcome the most brutal conditions nature has to offer—and to do so exposed to the elements on bicycle—Frenchman Eugenio Christophe won the race, putting in a total of 12 hours and 24 minutes in the saddle, exactly six hours more than Giani Bugno’s 1990 fastest recorded time for Milan-San Remo: 6 hours, 24 minutes.

Words: John Madruga
Images: Susan Madruga

Forget about racing strategy—getting over the climbs in the lead group so as not to be dropped on the frantic descent toward San Remo and still having the legs for the inevitable sprint finish there. Out of 94 riders who entered (63 started) in 1910, only four finished. And it’s a wonder they survived.

“The weather had been good at the start of the week but it turned really bad and Alphonse Baugé [the manager] told us that we’d be going over the Turchino even though the road was bad and covered with snow,” Christophe recalled.

And so it was no surprise that when the race approached higher elevations, things took a more serious turn. “We got to the notorious Col de Turchino. The clouds were low, the countryside was unattractive and we started to feel the cold more and more. The half-melted snow made the race very hard and we were struggling too with a glacial wind,” Christophe remembered. “Not far from the summit I had to get off my bike because I started feeling bad. My fingers were rigid, my feet numb, my legs stiff and I was shaking continuously. I began walking and running to get my circulation back, looking at the countryside. It was bleak and the wind made a low moaning noise …. It was hard to keep going. In places there were 20 centimeters of snow. Each time I was obliged to get off and push. Then I had to stop with stomach cramps. I collapsed onto a rock at the side the road. I was freezing. All I could do was move my head a little from left to right and right to left.”

Physically compromised and probably very unsure of what he was doing and seeing, Christophe then spots a house in the distance. A man crossed his path and the rider nodded toward the dwelling. “He took me by the arm and led me to the house, which was a tiny inn. The landlord undressed me and wrapped me in a blanket. I murmured aqua caldo [hot water] and pointed at the bottles of rum,” Christophe recalled.

The Frenchman was in a desperate state, however fortunately for him he wasn’t stuck in the middle of nowhere—a desolate, barren region devoid of natural resources and restorative ingredients. Here he was, on the way to San Remo in the region of Liguria, where basil, wild mushrooms and artichokes grow regionally and where focaccia, salame de Sant’Olcese and marinated anchovies are a part of just about every home table. No doubt the region offered plenty of possibilities to nourish the depleted, frozen rider, but it was also his own strength of will—and the promise for a good payday—that also helped Christophe continue: “I just wanted to get to San Remo first …. I thought too of my contract with the bike factory. I’d get double my wages if I won, as well as primes, and there’d be my 300 francs for first place.

I wonder what was given to Christophe at that tiny inn on that fateful day in 1910. I wonder what it was that brought him back to life, inspired him to get back on the bike and finish what still remains today as the most brutally difficult Milan-San Remo every completed. “At the control at Savona everybody was astonished to see me alone,” remembered Christophe. “I was sure of my victory and with only 100 km to go I felt a new strength. The idea of crossing the line alone brought back all my energy.”

Following the route of Milan-San Remo—from to Milan to Pavia to Genova to San Remo—here are a few traditional recipes from this prolific gastronomic area: spare ribs slow cooked in a full-bodied wine broth, Torta Paradiso, linguini fini with pesto beans and potatos, and stuffed mussels. They might just help you in bringing back some of the energy you will need to get back on the bike when the weather is not working in your favor and you need something extra to make it through. Enjoy!

Milan
Not far from Milan is the region of Piemonte, where in Alba the white truffle captures the taste and imagination of locals, tourists and restaurateurs alike. But since the prime season for truffles runs from October to December—and are not at their best during March of La Classica di Primavera—we should begin our culinary ride of Milan-San Remo with something hearty and warm, slow-cooked to bring out its full range of flavor. These short ribs from Piemonte fit the bill.

Brasato Al Barolo
• ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
• 4 16-ounce beef spare ribs
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
• 1 onion, roughly chopped
• 2 celery stalks, roughly chopped garlic cloves, thinly sliced
• 2 cups Barolo, or other full-bodied red wine
• 1 16-ounce can of peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand with their juices
• 1 cup brown chicken stock
• ½ bunch thyme
• ½ bunch rosemary
• ½ bunch oregano

Gremolata
• Leaves from 1 bunch of flat leaf parsley
• Zest of two lemons, cut into julienne strips
• ¼ pound fresh horseradish, grated

Process
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F

In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over high heat until smoking. Season the ribs with salt and pepper and cook them over high heat until deep brown all on sides, about 15 minutes total.
Remove the short ribs to a plate and set aside. Add the carrots, onion, celery and garlic to the pan and cook over high heat until browned and softened, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the red wine, tomatoes and juices, chicken stock and herbs, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to dislodge the brown bits. Bring the mixture to a boil and return the short ribs to the pan. Cover with aluminum foil and place in the oven. Cook for 2 hours, or until the meat is very tender and literally falling off the bones.

To make the gremolata:
In a small bowl, combine the parsley, lemon zest and horseradish and toss loosely by hand.

Place one short rib in each bowl, top with a little of the pan juices and a handful of the gremolata, and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings

Pavia
In 1910, Eugene Christophe claims that he scouted the course as far as Pavia, about 30 km, days before the race. Had he known then what he was about to endure on race day, he may have very well stayed in town and rested at the Vigoni pastry shop with a cappuccino and a slice of the shop’s most famous creation, Torta Paradiso, created in 1879.

Torta Paradiso
• 3 eggs
• 7 egg yolks
• 7 oz sugar
• 5 oz all-purpose flour
• 2 oz potato starch
• Vanilla to taste
• Lemon zest
• 2 oz melted butter

Process
Take the butter out of the refrigerator and melt over low heat. Remove and let cool. While the butter cools, place the eggs, yolks and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over a medium-sized pan filled halfway with water, whisking continuously. Once the sugar is melted, remove from the heat and beat with an electric mixer for about 10 minutes.

Once the batter is airy, add the grated lemon peel and vanilla. Then add the sifted flour and starch, stirring with a spatula. Add the butter to a small part of the batter, then incorporate this back in to the rest of the batter using a whisk.

Grease a round cake pan and line inside with parchment paper. Pour the batter into the pan and bake at 375°F for about 30 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with powered sugar.

Genova
Heading toward the finish line in San Remo, the peloton moves along the beautiful Ligurian coast. The natural dishes to think of here would come from the sea, but this is also the area of Pra, a town prized for growing the best Basilico Genovese in the world. And when one thinks of Genoese basil, one thing comes to mind: pesto.

Trenette Genovese
• 6 new potatoes or small red potatoes
• 1 cup trimmed young green beans or haricots verts
• 1 pound trenette or linguine fini
• Pesto
• Freshly gated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving

Process
Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan, add salted water to cover generously, and bring to a boil. Boil gently until the potatoes are tender; drain. Cut the potatoes in half, and set aside.

Meanwhile, cook the beans in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until tender, 4 minutes. Have an ice bath ready. Drain the beans, plunge into the ice bath just to cool, and drain again. Set aside.

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt. Cook the pasta until al dente; drain.

Pour the pasta into a warmed bowl, add the beans, potatoes, and pesto, and toss to coat the pasta and to warm the beans and potatoes; do not return to the heat. Serve with grated Parmigiano on the side. Makes 6 servings.

Pesto
• 3 tablespoons pine nuts
• 2 cups fresh basil leaves
• 1 clove garlic, peeled
• Pinch of salt
• ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
• ¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Process
Combine the pine nuts, basil, garlic, and salt in a large stone mortar and grind with the pestle until the mixture forms a paste. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, beating all the while with a wooden spoon. Add the Parmigiano 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until the mixture forms a thick paste. The pesto can also be made in a food processor. The pesto can be stored in a jar, topped with a thin layer of extra-virgin olive oil, for several weeks in the refrigerator. Makes 1 cup.

San Remo
With six hours already spent in the saddle, getting to San Remo means fist tackling the Poggio, a short but pivotal climb where the race is often won or lost. While not as technical or scenic or difficult or legendary as other well-known climbs in cycling, any sprinter who gets over the top in the first group will be well placed to win. For that, the Poggio gets the respect it deserves. Celebrate in San Remo with a meal that does justice to the beauty of the Ligurian coast, and have these mussels be part of your menu.

Stuffed Mussels San Remo
• 3 to 4 pounds fresh large mussels, scrubbed and debearded
• 4 ounces Prosciutto di Parma
• 2 bunches of mint, leaves only, to yield ½ cup
• 2 bunches basil, leaves only, to yield ½ cup
• 1 bunch oregano, leaves only, to yield ¼ cup
• 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1 clove garlic, peeled
• 1 cup breadcrumbs
• 1 cup basic tomato sauce

Process
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large pot, steam the mussels over 2 cups water, covered until open, about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove half shell and lay flat on a cookie sheet.

Cube prosciutto into ¼-inch dice and place in bowl. Place mint, basil, oregano, oil and garlic into blender. Process until smooth. Remove and pour into bowl with prosciutto. Add breadcrumbs and tomato sauce and mix well.

Pack each mussel and shell full with green mixture. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly golden brown on top and serve.

RESOURCES FOR RECIPES:
Brasato Al Barolo: The Babbo Cookbook by Mario Batali (2002)
Trenette Genovese: from Mario Batali
Stuffed Mussels San Remo: from Mario Batali
Torta Paradiso: from academiabarilla.com

From Issue 19. But it here.