25 October 2016

Notre déjeuner à Châtillon-sur-Indre

Our reason for going to Châtillon was to have lunch with friends. We were also exchanging garden produce. Our friends gave us a bagful of garden-grown cayenne peppers, and we gave them some little red tomatoes and a French butternut-type squash called « une sucrine du Berry » from our vegetable garden.

Anyway, here's where we had lunch. It's a restaurant called L'Auberge de la Tour which gets a lot of good write-ups on TripAdvisor. The photo above is actually one that I took several years ago, in wintertime, when we were driving through Châtillon on our way to points south.

The first course at lunch was what is called « une mise en bouche » — a little appetizer to "get your mouth going." In this case it was a little bowl of pumpkin and foie gras pureed into a warm soup. It was good, and the dishes it was served in were unusual.

Our real first courses, the ones we ordered, came next. Mine was a plate featuring foie gras with a layer of beet jelly and another of chopped cooked chicken breast. There was some salad, some toast, and a little savory « profiterole » — a cream puff filled with whipped, foie-gras-flavored whipped cream. Nick had the same « entrée ».

Walt ordered what was called « un tartare de bœuf » but which turned out to be more like a kind of carpaccio. That's raw, seasoned beef served in thin slices with some lettuce leaves, an herby green sauce, and a little rolled crêpe filled with cheese-flavored whipped cream.

Finally, our friend Jean chose a first course called « crémeux de fenouil et écrevisses marinées au citron vert ». That's a fennel-flavored cream served with crayfish tails marinated in lime juice. She said it was very good, if I remember correctly. More tomorrow...

24 October 2016

So many “châteaux”

First photo: not a château, but our little house just outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. As I mentioned the other day, we are having a serre adossée set up over our back door. A serre is a greenhouse, and adossée means it leans on or backs up to a house, a building, or a cliff or hillside. In other words, it's a "lean-to" greenhouse. We could have spent a good sum of money to have a new back door installed, but we decided to invest in this greenhouse instead.

So far the aluminum frame is built. It sits on a metal base that is solidly anchored to the ground on concrete footings, and it will be screwed into the exterior wall of the house. It will have a gravel floor. We'll start seedlings it in in the spring before we set them out in the vegetable garden, and we'll keep certain plants in the greenhouse over the winter to protect them from freezing temperatures. The glass will be put in next weekend.

But back to châteaux. The English-language dictionary I just looked at gives that as the plural, not "chateaus." It says a "château" is (1) a castle or fortress; (2) a stately residence imitating a distinctively French castle; or (3) a country estate, especially a fine one, in France or elsewhere...

Where else but in France could you walk right by a château and not even see it? That's what we did in Châtillon-sur-Indre last Wednesday after having lunch in a restaurant there. The photo above shows the back side of the château, which was built in the 13th century. The photo below is a bird's-eye view of Châtillon-sur-Indre, the château, and the 12th century fortified tower (castle keep) in the middle of the town.

We were on the place [plahss] or "square" in the middle of the photo, behind the château and focusing our attention on the old tower (which originally was nearly twice as tall as it is now). The town of Châtillon-sur-Indre is located in the Indre département in central France, covering part of the territory of the historical province called Le Berry. According to this web site, there are 298 châteaux, 17 châteaux-forts (medieval castles) and 46 manoirs (manor houses) in the département de l'Indre, which covers about 2,600 square miles — half the size of the tiny U.S. state of Connecticut. I wonder how many years it would take to find and photograph all those buildings?

23 October 2016

La Tour de César à Châtillon-sur-Indre

The Michelin Green Guide for the Berry and Limousin regions says of Châtillon-sur-Indre: Au centre de la ville, la masse imposante de ce donjon (12e siècle), cerclé d'un deuxième enceinte de la même époque, cache désormais un château d'eau. Du sommet, panorama sur la ville et la vallée de l'Indre.

In other words, the imposing 12th-century hulk called the Tower of Caesar, encircled by a second wall built in the same period, now serves to house a water tower. From the top, there are panoramic views of the town and the Indre river valley. I'd like to go back there and climb up to the top of the tower, and also see what the Friday morning market is like. Maybe in November.

One thing that was surprising is that the school just below the old tower was open and we could hear children's voices inside when we walked by.

Apparently, there is also a château in Châtillon (the word derives from château) but we didn't see it. Next time... We did notice a number of ornate buildings, treasures from another era, all around the town.

P.S. Our new lean-to greenhouse, attached to the back of the house, was built yesterday. The aluminum structure is in place, and the concrete footings will dry and set up this week. Then the glass panels can be installed next weekend.

22 October 2016

The streets of Châtillon-sur-Indre

You almost have to add the « sur-Indre » to the name Châtillon. It means that the town is located on the Indre river. There's another Châtillon even closer to Saint-Aignan called Châtillon-sur-Cher — not to mention Châtillon-sur-Loire, Châtillon-sur-Seine, Châtillon-sur-Saône, Châtillon-sur-Oise, Châtillon-sur-Meuse, and so on. French Wikipedia lists more than 35 towns that have the word Châtillon in their name.

Yesterday our plumbing and heating contractor was here doing work. I asked him if he had lived in Saint-Aignan for a long time. « Toute ma vie... » was his answer. I told him about our recent visit to Châtillon-sur-Indre, and how surprised we were that the place felt so abandoned. He told me that there are a lot of personnes âgées down there and in that whole département, which is very rural. It seems the hospital and a retirement home in Châtillon specialize in caring for Alzheimer's patients.

That was interesting, because the 87-year-old man I mentioned earlier, who rode up on a bicycle and talked to us about how all the young people had moved away and so many businesses had closed down, might need that kind of care. After talking to him, we and our friends continued our walk around the town. About 30 minutes after our first encounter, we ran into the same man, who obviously didn't remember us at all. He told us the whole story a second time, in almost exactly the same words. I know it was the same man because I recognized the shoes he was wearing — they looked like bedroom slippers.

In French, to say that the streets were deserted, you can say: «  Il n'avait pas un chat. » We couldn't really say that about Châtillon-sur-Indre. We saw about as many cats as people as we walked around.

21 October 2016

Dried cayenne peppers, etc.

On Wednesday, friends — and not the same ones who gave us the figs — brought us a big bag of beautiful cayenne peppers from their garden. To preserve them, I got out the food dehydrator that I bought a few weeks ago. The result is beautiful, don't you think? The long hot peppers are perfectly desiccated, almost weightless, and dark red. You can hear the seeds rattling inside them when you shake them.

We many decide to turn these into crushed red pepper flakes, but not today. This morning we have a plumbing and heating contractor coming in to begin work in our bathroom, putting up a towel warmer to replace the old radiator, changing out the old faucets on our bidet, and, finally, plumbing in a new shower stall.

I'll get back to Châtillon-sur-Indre tomorrow.

20 October 2016

Rooftops in Châtillon-sur-Indre... but not much else

Yesterday we drove 30 minutes down to the town of Châtillon-sur-Indre to have lunch with friends at a restaurant called L'Augerge de la Tour. More about that later... After lunch we took a walk around the town. The streets were basically empty on a Wednesday afternoon. It was picturesque in a ghost-town kind of way.

Châtillon-sur-Indre, like many places in rural France, has lost a lot of its population over the last few decades. From 3,600 in the 1970s, the number of people who live there is now is down to about 2,700 — a 25% drop. The town has existed since at least the year 850.

Many storefronts are empty. Shutters on houses are closed up tight. It's all slightly run-down. While we were walking, an 87-year-old man rode up on a bicycle (he told us his age) and asked us if we had come as tourists to see Châtillon. We said yes, and he told us we would pretty much have the town to ourselves. "All the young people have moved away," he said. "There's not much left." Disappearing France...

19 October 2016

Encore des figues

Our friends' fig tree just won't quit. Day before yesterday we received an impromptu delivery of another 3 lbs. — 1.4 kilos — of ripe green figs. It was a nice surprise.

This time I thought about making fig newton cookies — or as somebody on the web called them, "fig chewtons." I washed, de-stemmed, and cut up all the figs into quarters.

Here you can see that they might be called green figs — figues vertes ou figues blanches en français — they are pink inside. And ripe.

I figured if I cut them up and cooked them down to make a compote, I could freeze the compote in small containers and take some out whenever I wanted to make some cookies or enjoy some compote de figues avec du fromage de chèvre, du roquefort, ou du foie gras.

Here's the compote after two or three hours of cooking. I'm not sure if it's done yet, and I'm wondering if I should puree it. Maybe I'll puree a mall batch and see what that's like. I cooked the figs with sugar, honey, lemon juice, port wine, and pinches of powdered cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.

18 October 2016

Magret de canard aux navets

I just searched my blog from top to bottom and back again to see if I could find a recipe with photos of the classic French dish called « canard aux navets ». I could not. I can't believe I've been blogging for 11 years and I've never posted about Duck with Turnips — especially since I love glazed turnips.

Usually duck with turnips is made with a whole roasted duck and the standard purple, white-fleshed turnip. What inspired me to make the dish yesterday was two things — we had a couple of very large duck breasts, or magrets de canard, in the freezer, and at the supermarket on Saturday I found some pretty little yellow turnips. One piece of magret was easily enough for the two of us. The yellow turnips were a little smaller than a tennis ball.

All I did to cook the duck breast was to sear it in a hot frying pan, cooking it skin-side down first to render the fat under the skin, which I had scored with a sharp knife to keep the breast from curling. Then I set it in a warm oven to wait while I glazed the turnips, which were first steamed in a steamer pot along with some pearl onions. I sauteed the partially cooked turnips and onions in the duck fat and then added some teriyaki sauce as a glaze. I could have used honey or sugar, but I had made up a batch of teriyaki sauce a few days earlier and decided it would be good in duck with turnips. I laid the duck breast back in the pan, surrounded by the vegetables, covered the pan, and let everything finish cooking that way. Duck breast is served rosé, as we say in France, meaning it is medium-rare. It tastes more like beefsteak than like poultry.

Yellow turnips are not the same thing as rutabagas, but from the little bit of reading I've done there's a lot of confusion about that in the U.S. Rutabagas are also yellow, and they resemble giant turnips, but they are not of the same species as turnips. The navet jaune « boule d'or » is a variety of turnip and its scientific name is Brassica rapa. The rutabaga — known in the U.K. as "swede" because it supposedly came from Scandinavia — is a turnip-cabbage hybrid (Brassica napobrassica), and is called « un rutabaga » in French as in the U.S. It is also sometimes called « le chou-navet ». What I had was not at all rutabaga, but real yellow turnips.

17 October 2016

Fall colors and activities

I don't think all the grapes are in yet. Well, there are always some white ones that say on the vines much later than others. They are used in making late-harvest vin doux or vin demi-sec — sweet apéritif or dessert wines. I think there are some red-wine grapes still out there too.

Last week, the two Domaine de la Renaudie guys were harvesting right outside our hedge. Below, the one driving the vendangeuse is emptying its bins of grapes into the trailer for transport down to the winery. We'll see if they come back to harvest some more grapes today.

Grape leaves and others are just starting to take on their fall colors. Below is a blackberry leaf. Soon the vineyard will be yellow, orange, and red instead of bright green.

Yesterday for lunch we had teriyaki-glazed turkey wings with sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Today, lunch will braised duck breast with yellow turnips. Canard aux navets is a classic French dish.

16 October 2016

Vingt-cinq figues... confites

Generous friends with a prolific fig tree gave us about three pounds of these green figs a few days ago. They're Americans who live just a few miles upriver from us. Walt made a tart using the few figs we got from our little tree, plus some of these. I set about candying the green figs to preserve them for the winter. They're really good with cheeses like goat and Roquefort, and especially with foie gras.

The way to confire or "candy" the figs is to cook them in a sugar syrup. Put them one layer deep in a wide, shallow pan. Cover them with sugar as on the left. Set them on a burner at medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes and let the sugar melt. Add just a few drops of water if you need to as the figs get hot and start to release some juice.

Then set the pan aside and let it cool. Leave it in a cool place for 24 hours — I set it outside on the terrace, well covered. Then the next day, put the figs back on the heat and let them come to the boil. Simmer them again for 10 minutes, let them cool, and leave them in a cool place for another 24 hours. When you re-heat them, they plump up noticeably from absorbing the sugar syrup. Don't throw the syrup away — it's figgy and delicious.

On the third day, plump the figs up again by putting them back on the heat to simmer for 10 more minutes. Let them cool for a while. Then arrange them on a sheet pan on a silicone pad or parchment paper. Set the pan in the freezer. On the fourth day, take them out of the freezer and transfer them to a plastic container or bags. You'll see that they don't freeze hard because of their sugar content, but they won't really stick together and you can keep them for a few months in the freezer. Take a few out every week or so and enjoy.

15 October 2016

Poulet à la créole

I got an unexpected prize from the vegetable garden a few days ago — four very nice bell peppers that were two-toned. Green, and partly red. What came to mind was Shrimp Creole, a New Orleans dish. The last time I made that was more than 10 years ago. You can make it as spicy as you like, adding cayenne pepper or bottled hot sauce to taste.
I didn't have any shrimp in the freezer, but I did have chicken breasts. So it would be chicken creole, or Poulet à la créole. The first step is to make the creole sauce. It's onion, bell peppers, and celery (the "Louisiana trinity" of flavor ingredients) cooked in oil, with chopped tomato and sliced or chopped garlic added. The first step is to brown the chicken breasts in vegetable or olive oil, and then take them out of the pan when they are pretty much done and set them aside. Cook the vegetables in the same pan.
When the sauce is just about done to your liking, with the peppers cooked as much or as little as you like, add the chicken back in and cover the pan for a few minutes to make sure the chicken is cooked through. One final ingredient we had was some fresh basil growing in pots that Walt brought inside when the weather turned cold outside. You can see I just tossed in a handful of whole leaves and let them collapse into the creole sauce.
When all was said and done, and we were at the table enjoying our lunch, Walt said:  "So what's the difference between this and Poulet basquaise?" Good question. I made that Basque specialty just a couple of weeks ago. It's basically the same thing, but spiced with piments d'Espelette from SW France.

Here's a recipe for Chicken Creole using tomatoes out of a can, just in case you don't have any fresh garden tomatoes.

14 October 2016

Scènes de la saison

There aren't many apples on the trees around the hamlet and vineyard this year, but there are a few. Maybe I should pick these before they fall and get lost in the high grasses and weeds. That's part of the vineyard in the background, with our house on the right. The harvesting of grapes is ongoing, by the way.

Yesterday was a foretaste of winter. We expected rain, but all we got was a fine mist that turned into a soft drizzle every now and then. This morning it's 10 degrees F warmer than it has been for the past week or so at this hour.

Here's a closer shot of the house seen through the weeds around the pond out back. The image above is a close-up of the plant I was looking through when I took the photo below. You can also see the garden shed and back gate, below.

And finally, tall artichokes. Obviously, we haven't had a lot of wind lately or they would have blown over. All that fluff would have blown away. Those are apple trees and a hazelnut hedge behind them, and then the woods on the north side of the yard.

Yesterday we had teriyaki-glazed parsnips and sausages for lunch. Today it will be chicken creole, using the some of the bell peppers I picked a couple of days ago and some of the tomatoes too. I'm hungry already and it's not even 7 a.m. yet.

13 October 2016

Les dernières tomates

I woke up this morning to the sound of radiators popping and cracking as they heated up and expanded. In other words, it's cold outside. Yesterday when I went out in the vineyard there was a fairly heavy frost in places that weren't sheltered by trees. I was wearing two fleece jackets, a hat, and gloves. I should have put on long underwear, but I hadn't thought to.

When I got back home, I decided to go pick the rest of the tomatoes and peppers out in the garden. There were quite a few fully ripe tomatoes to be gathered, and a lot of tomatoes that were just starting to turn pale pink. I picked them all. The pink ones will continue ripening. I also gathered up half a dozen bell peppers that are partly green and partly red..

Now the weather is supposed to turn rainy, and warm up. The kale plants will enjoy that. On dry days, we'll go pull out the tomato plants and get rid of them. Maybe we'll bring in some green tomatoes and see what we can do with them. We'll also gather up the winter squashes and pumpkins and store them somewhere. Let's hope that the rain isn't too constant and that we'll have decent working conditions.

12 October 2016

Forbidden fruit

C'est-à-dire « cépages interdits ». According to an article I just read, there are six grapes varietals that are "outlawed" in French wine-making. Apparently, the grapes can be grown but they can't be made into wine. It's not really clear why. The ban dates back to 1935.

One day years ago I was talking to a neighbor who has about 15 acres of vines up behind our house. I don't know if I brought up the subject of outlawed varietals, or if he did. Either way, he told me that one of his fellow vignerons had a row of such grapes planted among his "legal" vines. He treated the news like a big secret, but he told me more or less where the banned grapes were planted.

Walt located them a while back, once they had grapes on them. I'd never noticed them. I see two signs that they are the ones the neighbor told me about. First, they are planted in a short row on the edge of a plot of white-wine grapes, but half the grapes in the row in question are red. Also, the white grapes in the forbidden row are different from the white grapes planted next to them, and they haven't yet been harvested, while the grapes in the rest of the parcel have been.

Why are these varietals — clinton, noah, jacquez, herbemont, othello, isabelle — unfit to be turned into wine? People whisper that the wine made from them would drive people crazy, the way it was rumored that absinthe did. Others says wine made from them just wouldn't taste good. There is some evidence that the ban might date back to the 19th-century importation of vines from North America that brought the phylloxera scourge to French vineyards and nearly killed the wine-making business here.

I don't know what the grapes in my photos here are, but they are the ones. I've tasted a grape of each color and I don't feel any crazier than I did before. Here's a link to the article (in French) that I read this morning.

11 October 2016

Left behind

Harvesting continues in the vineyard. Les vendanges continuent. Now the Renaudie guys seem to be working not just mornings but also afternoons to bring the rest of the grapes in. The weather is supposed to turn rainy in a day or two, and the rains will continue next week. That's normal for the second half of October.

I went out with the dog yesterday morning and I was admiring the grapes all around us as we walked. Walt went out in the afternoon and said two big plots just on the north side of our yard have now been stripped of their fruit.

I took these photos farther out in the vineyard, about half a mile (nearly a kilometer) from our house. I don't know what this thing is called that is left behind when the grapes are harvested by machine. I heard or read the word last week, but now I can't remember it and I don't know where I saw or heard it.

One thing I read about machine-harvesting as compared to hand-harvesting is that when bunches of grapes are cut by hand, the woody structure at the center of a bunch goes with the grapes. It can impart a flavor to the grape juice and resulting wine that is not necessarily desirable. So chalk one up for machine-harvesting.

10 October 2016

Hunters, grapes, and leaves

Yesterday afternoon I took Callie out for our walk at about 5:30. It was Sunday, and at this time of year, that means there were hunters out there. I could hear gunshots off in the distance. As we went out the back gate and started down the hill, I saw a little brown dog, a terrier of some kind, just disappearing between two rows of vines. I told Callie to stay close to me.

Our relatively new neighbors have a little brown dog like that, and I figured he was out there, maybe having escaped from their fenced-in yard. And then I saw a hunter. He was dressed in camouflage — a real costume, right out of central casting. He was carrying a rifle and it was not "broken" — not open but, I assume, loaded and cocked. Most hunters don't carry guns around like that when they're in the vineyard. With this hunter was a little boy, maybe 10 years old.

I was close enough to the man and the boy to shout a big Bonjour! to them. The hunter looked at me and almost scowled. That's never happened out there before. Most hunters flash and smile and return the greeting. They chat, and they are curious about Callie. What kind of dog is she? A hunting dog? No? And so on. This surly hunter just turned and walked away. I didn't enjoy the encounter. It's strange having unfriendly people carry and even fire guns just a hundred yards of so from our house.

Meanwhile, the vines in a lot of vineyard plots and rows all around us are still heavy with big bunches of purple grapes. This is the latest harvest we've seen since we came to live here in 2003. The grapes are beautiful, and you really are tempted to pick some and take them home. Of course you don't do that. But you can pinch one here and there and taste the differences between different varieties. At this point, they are all sweet and juicy.