BEST OF THE TASTE: What a feast! Tour food and drink gems

Italy's Fabio Aru rides during a reconnaissance run of the track prior to the the twentieth stage of the Tour de France cycling race, an individual time trial over 22.5 kilometers (14 miles) with start and finish in Marseille, France, Saturday, July 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

BEST OF THE TASTE: What a feast! Tour food and drink gems

For three weeks, as the Tour de France riders did their thing, a team of Associated Press journalists who followed them valiantly ate and drank their way through the gastronomic offerings along the 3,540-kilometer (2,200-mile) route. From the start in Germany, through Belgium and Luxembourg, and around France they sampled the local beverages and dishes, sifting good from bad so you won't have to.

"Taste of the Tour," a daily sporting, cultural and gastronomic guide to Stages 1 to 20, recorded their findings.

Here, as the Tour wraps up Sunday with the final Stage 21 to Paris, is their "best of" — the gems and must-try treats waiting to be eaten, drunk and discovered by anyone who follows in the 104th Tour's footsteps:

PLAT DU TOUR: In many ways, it's unfair to single out just one dining experience from the three-week gastronomic marathon also known as the Tour de France. The stinky Herve cheese in Belgium, for example, was as memorable as the pungent blue Roquefort sheep's cheese served by young farmers on Stage 14 to Rodez. And the Japanese food at the race start in Duesseldorf, catering to its large Japanese population, held its own against some of the signature dishes that towns across France proudly offered to Tour visitors. But in this exalted company, one dinner surpassed them all. The Gouts et Couleurs (Tastes and Colors) restaurant in Rodez has one star in the famed Michelin food guide. The only question, after a five-course treat of gastronomic inventiveness that bordered on art, was why the cozy place doesn't have more. The veal and the chocolate sorbet dessert were otherworldly.

VIN DU TOUR: The Tour champion traditionally waits until the very last stage into Paris to enjoy a flute of celebratory Champagne in the saddle as he rides to the finish on the Champs-Elysees to collect his winner's prize of 500 000 euros ($582,000). Those who follow the riders around France, writing about, filming and recording their feats for history, cannot in good conscience show such restraint. And that's not their fault. Honest. Invariably, Tour towns proudly ply race visitors with their local tipple: a cherry brandy in eastern France, boutique Champagnes on Stage 6 that went past the home of France's wartime hero and former President Gen. Charles de Gaulle, and some Burgundy reds so memorable on Stage 7 that it became increasingly hard, as the glasses added up, to remember what they were called. But a highlight from the multitude of vineyards crossed or neared in the past three weeks would be Condrieu, north of the finish of Stage 16. The appellation spreads over just 100 hectares in northern Rhone, close to the vineyards of Cote-Rotie. Its wines are dry with floral and fruit flavors. They don't come cheap, but these exceptional elixirs need to be tried at least once.

HOME DU TOUR: The bed and breakfast revolution that has swept across France, producing an astounding array of alternatives to featureless hotels, has made following the Tour a far more pleasant and livable experience. Cheaper too, because comfortable homestays are often better value than ho-hum hotels. How does a night in a medieval fortress sound? In Baraqueville in the south of France, one family of dairy farmers charges just 20 euros ($23) per person per night for a bed in their giant fortified home, with a breakfast of fresh bread, jam, milk straight from the cow and as much coffee as your heart can handle. The web site https://en.gites-de-france.com/ is a good place to start the hunt for worthwhile homestay experiences that won't, to borrow cycling parlance, push your bank balance into the red.

JAM DU TOUR: If there was a yellow jersey for the best home-made jam, Marlene Gosset would win it. Her Matin Tranquille bed and breakfast on a hill overlooking Liege in Belgium, the finish of Stage 2, is a haven of comfort, tranquility and good taste. Marlene is a delightful host. And her jams ... oh! Made from fruits from her back garden, full of flavor and not too sweet, they turned breakfast into a ray of sunshine. Chapeau.

BEST STAGE: Stage 12 to the Peyragudes ski station in the Pyrenees seemed tailor-made for Chris Froome to execute one of his devastating uphill attacks and put the Tour beyond his rivals' reach. But on the absurdly steep final ramp on a high-altitude landing strip, the three-time champion suddenly ran out of gas. The Briton's wheels seemed to be glued to the road. He huffed and he puffed but he couldn't bring his race lead home. French rider Romain Bardet scrambled up the 16-percent gradient to win the stage, and Italian Fabio Aru took the yellow jersey of Froome's shoulders. The mountain airstrip was a filming location for the 1997 James Bond adventure "Tomorrow Never Dies." Twenty years later, it provided the most dramatic twist in the story-line of the 104th Tour.

BEST SCENERY: Because it mostly takes smaller roads, the Tour is treated to some of the best scenery France has to offer. The Izoard pass in the Alps was the high point, with the highest mountain-top finish, won by Warren Barguil on Stage 18, and the most breathtaking views. At an altitude of 2,360 meters (7,742 feet), only a few hardy flowers and trees have adapted to the rarified air. The huge gray slopes of scree lend the place a surreal feel. This was the first time in the history of the 114-year-old Tour that a stage finished at the top of the punishing and famous climb. The ascent took the riders through the Casse Deserte, a moon-like rocky landscape. Unforgettable.

NEXT STAGE: Thankfully, after Sunday's Stage 21 that will finish with a sprint on the Champs-Elysees, there isn't one. All good things must come to an end.

See you next year.

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