topics: oysters (food), Football/Soccer (HISTORY), the World Cup, Montpellier, Béziers; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log

France

Rider Notes: June 8-9, 1998

Food of the Day: huîtres (oysters)

We have already mentioned the passion with which the French approach food. Yet another example of this is how the world of oysters is represented in French cuisine.

To begin with, it is not a simple world. Add to that the fact that we are talking about the French, who love to take something wonderfully simple, like wine or cheese), and create something terribly complex - with a classification system that confuses everyone except the French. Oh sure, the French produce some of the world's best oysters (and the wine isn't bad either, nor is the cheese), but come on! We are talking about a simple marine bivalve mollusk. Of the 50 different species, only a handful is even edible. How complex can this get? Well, pretty complex.

Oysters have been enjoyed at meals since the ancient times. Still, their popularity really increased (for obvious reasons) when methods for transporting them were developed that guaranteed their freshness. This was during the Roman times. Then the love affair with the oyster began, bestowing the mollusk with mythic qualities, and even crediting them with certain "emotional powers of persuasion" by various people. Oyster consumption today is such that many of the best oyster beds in the world (including the Chesapeake Bay, one of the largest oyster area beds in the world) suffer from over-fishing. Pollution is also a problem as the oysters are particularly susceptible. Though oysters are found throughout the world (usually in warm waters ranging in depth from the tidal zone up to 30 meters -100 feet), the harvesting of oysters has largely been relegated to the world of oyster cultivation. (In oyster cultivation, baby oysters (seed oysters) are placed in suitable underwater areas littered with artificial objects (such as tile) upon which they can affix themselves. Those in the wild behave similarly but use natural rocks.

Oysters are classified according to where, when, and how they are harvested, as well as their size, color and flavor. Basically, the BikeAbout team's understanding of this classification system is limited to the fact that the N° 1 oysters cost more than the N° 2-4 oysters, and that the oysters from the area around Béziers are some of the best in France. In fact, as we biked into Béziers, we even saw some of the "oyster farm" beds for which the area is known. Ethan waxed poetic for a moment about the lifestyle of an oyster, one in which you lounge in bed all the time, but Anthony quickly reminded him that at some point most of these oysters are rudely roused from their peaceful slumber in "bed" and end up on their half-shell in restaurants all over France.

This, in fact, is how oysters are traditionally served. Usually, people order a dozen of them as an hors d'oeuvre, and they arrive served on a platter of crushed ice (with seaweed for decoration) on the half-shell - that is on one of their two shells - with an abundance of freshly cut lemon. Often a dish of red-wine vinegar (with a small amount of diced red onions marinating inside) and small pieces of rye bread are served on the side.

To eat the oyster you first squeeze the lemon over it, then, using a special fork/knife, you free the little bugger from the half of its former home in which it is served, and then toss 'em back (you can add a little vinegar and onion if you like). They are truly a delight (well, if you like this sort of thing). A proper oyster has a fresh and crisp flavor that is reminiscent of the ocean on a slightly chilly day. Seriously.

Oh yeah, we forgot to mention that they are eaten raw. Actually they can be cooked (oyster stew for example) but the purists of the world will claim that in any state other than raw and on the 1/2 shell, oysters do not achieve their full potential. Like we said, some people are passionate about them and others, well, they choose to give 'em a miss. To each his or her own. (Anthony's passionate about them, hence the above six-paragraph devotional - all for a simple bivalve.)

Person of the Day: a dashing trio of hardworking French students

Today we have the pleasure of presenting three people of the day: Sylvère, Stéphan and Bernd. The latter two are currently university students in Montpellier, while Sylvère has finished his studies but continues to work in areas that keep him in contact with the university. In particular, Sylvère and his friends belong to an organization called GUEPE (Groupement Universitaire d'Echanges et des Projets sur l'Environnement), which uses the cultural diversity that the large university system brings to Montpellier in an effort to teach their fellow students about other cultures as well as environmental issues. (If you wish to contact them and/or learn more about them, you can reach them at guepe@crit.univ-montp2.fr.)

During our discussions over a lunch taken in the grass on the university campus, we discovered that Sylvère and Bernd have also bike toured, but mostly in Eastern Europe. We shared horror stories about getting bikes on trains, and hilarious tales about the joys, trials and tribulations of traveling in new and different cultures by bike. We greatly enjoyed the company of these three guys (and we are not just saying that because they bought us lunch) and sincerely wish them good luck in their future plans. Perhaps in the future we will meet up and take a bike trip together!

Place of the Day: Montpellier

The beautiful provençal city of Montpellier is located in southern France and is capital of the Hérault Department (a Department functions in a similar way that states do in the USA). Montpellier is also a commercial and manufacturing city and one of the premier educational centers of France.

The name Montpellier first appeared in 985, well after the city was founded near the Via Domitia, the Roman road that stretched to the north and was named after the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus (51-96 AD - the second son of Emperor Vespasian and the brother of Emperor Titus, whom he succeeded). The via Domitia was of great importance to trade in the area and also became a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Founded originally in the 8th century, Montpellier has been an educational center since the 13th century (that's over 700 years of exams!) - the famous 16th-century French humorist, Rabelais, received is degrees from a university in Montpellier. It is now home to three different universities and over 60,000 students (one-fourth of the city's population - how do you like those numbers?). It is also the site of France's oldest botanical garden (founded in 1593 - somehow we missed this one). In the 17th century, Montpellier became the capital of the Langue d'Oc region of France.

But, really, all this silly history means little since Montpellier finally "arrived," historically speaking, this year: it is one of the host cities for the World Cup tournament being held in France.

(For more on this riveting, city-making, sporting event, check out today's Rider Notes and Tech Fact of the Day.

Tech Fact of the Day: Football

Get ready sports fans, today's Tech Fact of the Day is a bit of a departure from our normal technical tidbit. Today we are going to talk about the history and importance of... football. Yep, that's right. Football. The most important, widely played, and influential, sport in the world. If we were to state that the world spins around the sun because of football, there are not many in the world that would argue with us. This is a sport that, perhaps more than any other sport, inspires a state of euphoric love or demoralizing depression amongst its fans that is incomparable. This, simply, is the raison d'Ítre (reason for living) for millions upon millions of fans throughout the world.

First of all, let's get one thing straight. If you think football has something to do with huddles, nose guards, helmets, shoulder pads, touchdowns and field goals, you are wrong. No, this is not the football of which you are probably thinking. It's soccer. That's right. What the rest of the world calls football is known in North America as soccer. We hate to break it to you, but your entire life you have been lied to. We're sorry, but we're outnumbered here - you might as well start getting used to it. You don't really want Brazil to invade now do you? So repeat after us: "Soccer is actually football, football is actually soccer."

So what is all the excitement about? Let's start at the beginning. Evidence strongly suggests that, even though games played with the feet are found almost everywhere, credit for kicking games goes (surprise, surprise) to the ancient Chinese, Greek, Mayan, and Egyptian cultures. (Too bad none qualified for the '98 World Cup.) That said, natives of Polynesia are known to have played similar games with a ball made of bamboo fibers, and even the Eskimos were hip to this latest fad and played a form of football with a leather ball filled with moss (apparently the ice ball they had developed was too painful).

Obviously the game has undergone many changes and variations over the centuries (the Mayan version actually called for the winning team to kill the losing - talk about a sudden-death competition!) but we have the English to thank for the versions with which we are most familiar today.

Foot ball games have been played in England since the 12th century. However, the defining moment in football's evolution came during the 19th century when, during a meeting (in 1863) of the London Football Association (remember, keep telling yourself that football = soccer, soccer = football), the world of games played with the feet and hands was divided. The first category included what is now known as rugby football. The name "rugby" was taken from Rugby College in England where, one day during a game of football (i.e., soccer), a player picked up the ball, tucked it under his arm and dove into the goal. Half the football world saw this as a great innovation while the other half looked on in horror. Those inspired by the change went the way of rugby, which has become a particularly violent sport similar to North American football (indeed, this is where American football evolved from), except that the players do not wear any protective gear. Instead they do silly things like tape their ears to their head so they do not get ripped off. We're serious. (There is also a variation of rugby called Australian Rules Football in which, we think, they still eat the losing team.) In rugby, football players can use their hands and feet (for example the ball can be kicked and caught, but not thrown) and the ball is a slightly larger version of the North American football.

Those who were horrified by the "innovation" were so aghast that they actually formed the other division, devoted exclusively to football (soccer). This division was called "association football." (The word "soccer" is a slang derivation of the abbreviation "assoc." so if you are still confused by the nomenclature in today's Tech Fact, blame the English.)

OK, enough about nomenclature.

There are basically two reasons why association football (or as it is now known - football) has reached the levels of popularity that it has (rugby not having achieved similar levels as a result, we suspect, of the player mutilation we mention above). The first is that in the 19th century, England was at its influential and economic best. In England, football, despite having been developed in private schools and elite universities, soon became a sport of the working class (it was not until 1885 that the Football Association recognized the legitimacy of professional players). As these middle class fans - sailors, laborers, soldiers and traders - traveled the world for their Queen, they spread their passion for football everywhere they went. The popularity of football with the working class is largely the result of the game's simplicity and the minimal amount of necessary equipment (which is also reason number two for its popularity).

The playing field varies in size, but it must be longer than it is wide and is usually around 90-120 meters (100-130 yards) long and 45-90 meters (50-100 yards) wide. In the center of the field, at each end, is a goal 2.4 meters high (8 feet) and 7.4 meters (8 yards) wide, into which the players attempt to kick the football, which is 68-71 cm (27-28 inches), in circumference (and round, unlike the oblong rugby ball). Only goalkeepers are allowed to handle the ball with their hands; the rest of must make do with their feet, thighs, chest, and head (basically every thing but their arms). The two teams are composed of 11 players each with the uniform consisting of shirts, shorts and socks (usually in team colors). Goaltenders have special gloves and usually wear clothing colored differently from that of their teammates. While shin guards are obligatory, the only other rule is that nothing may be worn that is dangerous to the other players (leave those switchblades at home, boys and girls). A football game is composed of two 45-minute "halves" during which the clock never stops ticking. In the event of a tie, two additional 15-minute periods can be played. If at the end of these overtime periods, if the score is still tied, there is a kickoff in which 5 players from each team go head-to-head, one at a time, with the opposing team's goalie. The team with the most kick-off points wins.

[Note: you may notice the similarities to American football - 11 team members, rectangular field, goals, two halves, hotdogs... err, well, you get the idea.]

In reality, many of the above "regulation" game requirements are optional and in many countries, football is played with anything round (rolled up papers, knotted T-shirts, balloons, plastic bottles), and anywhere relatively flat (parking lots, mostly empty streets, hotel lobbies, parks, beaches etc). The goal area may be a chalk mark on the pavement, or two hastily arranged chairs or backpacks, or even a handy doorway. This is part of the appeal that the sport has had in the poorer parts of the world. Indeed many countries of the "developing" world produce some of the best and most passionate players (and fans), some of whom dominate the sport.

Back to England though.

The first Football Association tournament was held in 1871 - a game between an English and Scottish team in 1872 signaled the beginning of international play (we are not sure who won) - and by 1888 regular league play commenced throughout Britain. This tournament is still held today and called the Cup Final, held at Wembley Stadium in London.

Somewhat to the London Football Association's chagrin, in 1904, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was created to provide a governing body for the world of football. Composed of teams from France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, FIFA decided to organize a world championship competition. However, it took 26 years before conditions were considered suitable (namely that non-European countries had reached a level of play on par with "international" standards) for this competition.

This competition is now known as the World Cup and (except for a break during and after the Second World War) is played every 4 years. Interestingly, England, content with its own league action and Cup Final and probably slightly peeved over not having been included as part of FIFA, ignored the World Cup until 1950. That year, it was eliminated in the first round by the United States - hee hee.

While football has not enjoyed the level of popularity in the United States that it enjoys in the rest of the world, it is the fastest growing sport in North America (and the world). This growth was helped along by FIFA's decision to allow the 1994 World Cup to be held in the United States.

[For more on the World Cup, check out today's Rider Notes.]

Webmaster's note: Congratulations to the French football team, winners of this year's World Cup!

Group Dispatch, June 8-9
picture of Anthony

Waking ourselves early-ish, we were, in no time at all, back in our Selle Royal saddles for one last roll through medieval Aigues-Mortes. We were sorry not to be able visit what we had missed the evening before, but, even though we did not have that far to go to get to Montpellier (our Place of the Day), we did have a lunch date to keep (which is our favorite kind of date - well, the only kind of date we've had in a very, very long time).

So, with nary a croissant for breakfast, we headed down to the Mediterranean and skirted its coast. In fact, aside from the seemingly endless amount of suburbs on the way into Montpellier), the whole ride was along what seemed like a very nice beach. A beach that under normal circumstances would not have been missed. However, not having eaten breakfast, we were quickly becoming obsessed with lunch and were not about to be swayed by an endless stretch of what Padraic was convinced was "really nice sand." Sure it was a beautiful day, sunny and warm. OK, OK, perhaps it was hot even, and yeah the beach was completely empty and the water looked a delightfully crisp shade of blue. But we were HUNGRY! There was no dilly-dallying, idle wandering, or time for pensive moments. Any attempts to separate from the group were dealt with harshly. Sluggards were threatened with the business end of a bike pump. And any confusing turns in the road were studied as though they were life or death situations. (That said, Anthony, after careful subterfuge, did manage to sneak down to the beach and, for remembrance's sake, snap a couple of photos of the joy we had deprived ourselves. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph)

Not surprisingly, we got to Montpellier in good time (but without much to spare). Once we had armed ourselves with maps from the tourist office, we spun up to the proper university grounds (there are many) and rendezvoused with today's People of the Day - Sylvère, Stéphan, and Bernd. Ethan had met Sylvère last year when they were both members of an international environmental network that had not survived. Still, we hoped to get some inside information about life in Montpellier from there and enjoy the moment of reacquaintance.

We quickly developed a healthy respect for these young men when they offered us lunch. Oh sure, it was a school lunch... but it was a FRENCH school lunch! So we worked our way through the cafeteria line and carried trays of food to a nearby lawn where we picnicked, learned about Montpellier, and swapped bicycle touring tales. click to view a photograph Hopping back inside for a post-meal cup of coffee, Ethan then gave them all a quick demonstration of the BikeAbout site and talked about possibilities for the coordination of future activities. click to view a photograph Unfortunately, all too soon they were forced to run off to class or work. We bid them all a fond farewell and rolled back into the center of town to look for a hotel.

It was not until we actually found a hotel that we realize how lucky we were actually to find one. Not only is it football season all over the world, but this is the year that the World Cup is being held... in France. Not only that, Montpellier is one of the venues for the World Cup matches! It is hard to describe the passion, euphoria and drama that the World Cup evokes in its fans (the players reportedly get excited too). Nor, despite having already mentioned how Marseille - another World Cup host city - was gearing up for its share of the matches while we were there (we were lucky to escape with our lives), have we really talked about what the World Cup is... for those of you who don't already know.

OK, picture the Super Bowl. Well, that's just the start. Because of you thought the Super Bowl was big, then imagine a competition that involves teams from 32 different qualifying countries - counties from every corner of the globe, from Chile to Cameroon and Scotland to South Africa (we would list all the teams but you can go to the official World Cup Web site and see for yourselves). But first let's imagine a season that stretches out over four years and during which the various teams (of which there are hundreds) must qualify in their own league for the championship. You're beginning to get the idea, right? Well, at the end of the fourth year, gather the 32 qualifying teams in a host country and have a playoff that lasts about a month and involves 3 rounds of play all culminating in the championship game. Now add the passion and devotion that we have mentioned above (and in today's Tech Fact of the Day), a pinch of national pride, a fair dose of competitiveness, and bucketsful of bravado, and you have a recipe for a crazy, crazy month of festivities and a lot of booked-out hotels. It has been estimated that over 1/6 of the world's population (that is more than a billion people) will tune in to a live teleplay of the championship game, and we strongly suspect that the rest of the world has traveled to France to watch the games in person. Talk about expectation.

When we say "devotion," you might ask yourself (go ahead now), "What do they really mean?" Well, in England, upon their death and subsequent cremation (never vice-versa), many fans have as their last wish the desire for their remains to be spread on the grass in front of their favorite team's goal (so that they can help "guard" the goal). This is such a popular request that on some home fields, if they were all honored, there would be so much ash to spread that the grass would be smothered. (We probably don't have to mention the obvious problems that would occur if it happened to rain - which, in England, it does every once in a while). In Brazil, for example, when the national team plays, the government ceases to function, the stock market grinds to a halt, businesses shut their doors, phones go unanswered, streets are deserted, the birds stop singing, and electricity consumption drops to record lows (just enough to run the TVs and air conditioning). Now that's devotion!

With our great skill in timing (and a whole lot of luck), we arrived in Montpellier just before the first games were to be held (between Norway and Morocco) and just as the fans were starting to swarm in. Even though we were two days early, it was a little overwhelming: Norwegians were running around with Hagar the Horrible hats and Norwegian flags the size of small buildings, and Moroccans were doing similar things (but without funny hats). There were spontaneous parades in which fans would walk through town arm-in-arm, singing national songs, honking air horns, and yelling out their favorite football club chants while imbibing their preferred chilled beverages. It was all very exciting.

So exciting, in fact, that after our arrival in the hotel, Padraic and Anthony took a nap (they are a little jaded).

Soon though, the boys roused themselves and, after having a drink on the Place de la Comédie (a large central square in the old part of Montpellier) and watching the frolicking of the Norwegian fans (in their goofy hats), they set off for dinner. (Corinne stayed at the hotel and picnicked while getting caught up on some work.) They were forced to settle for a delicious dinner of rillons de canard (a type of spread made of duck meat), carpaccio du saumon (raw salmon), salade Perigordine (gizzard salad), magret de canard à l'orange (duck breast with orange sauce), cassoulet, and then profiteroles for desert. You can imagine how they suffered.

Then we honestly had every intention of staying out; Anthony wanted to try and conduct "social research" into the "passion and devotion" of the female Norwegian football fans (Padraic and Ethan rolled their eyes too). But in the end, they returned to the hotel and slept like the dead. (Anthony thereafter gave up on his budding career as a social researcher.)

The next morning, Ethan roused himself early - really early - and hopped on a train to Nîmes in an attempt to visit a potential sponsor. Meanwhile, Padraic and Corinne sought out a café in which to spend the morning working and Anthony, struck by the beauty around him, wandered the city.

Starting at the Place de la Comédie click to view a photograph, so named because of the Opéra Comédie which sits majestically at the end of the square. click to view a photograph Cafes, and restaurants line the edges of this sizeable square and provide some choice people watching locations. Heading uphill and into town, from the Place de la Comédie towards the Place Royale du Peyrou, he soon came upon the town's Arc de Triomphe. Actually there are two arches on this avenue and they line up perfectly with a statue click to view a photograph, large cupola, and reflective fountain that are placed at the end of the Place Royale. click to view a photograph Stretching out on one of the city's hills, the Place Royale du Peyrou click to view a photograph occupies a beautiful position that overlooks the entire area and also provides a great viewing point for the city's former aqueduct. click to view a photograph

Montpellier is the kind of town that is great fun to wander around, as it seems that every turn reveals another quaint square or majestic building. click to view a photograph

Eventually, Ethan returned from Nîmes (having successfully met with the people he sought), and, once Corinne was located, we all ate a late breakfast (lunch really) and hit the road. We had wanted to ride all the way to Narbonne, but it was more than apparent that, with our late start, this would be impossible. So, pulling out our map, we picked the lovely town of Béziers as our new goal and after a pleasant afternoon/early evening of riding through vineyards, fruit orchards and past a bunch of oyster farm beds (see today's Food of the Day), we arrived in Béziers.

Even though we were momentarily delayed by Anthony's flat tire just as we hit the city limits, we still found a hotel, showered and sat down to dinner by 10 p.m. It was a lovely dinner too: fish soup, oysters, and confit du canard (preserve of duck), topped off with one of the best chocolate cakes we have had in months. It was enough to inspire us to... well, sleep.

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