14 February 2016

Early blossoms and late greens

Thursday afternoon when I went out with the dog, I was surprised to see that my plum tree, which I grew in a pot and then planted in the ground 4 or 5 years ago, is already in blossom. I think it's nearly a month earlier than usual. Friday afternoon I went out there and took some pictures.

I have no illusions. I think these extra-early blossoms are going to freeze. I see predictions on MétéoCiel, one of our weather services on the internet, for temperatures as low as -4ºC on Tuesday. That's 24ºF, and it's cold enough to freeze plants and blossoms, especially if the temperature remains that far below freezing for a couple of hours.

In contrast, the weather Friday afternoon was absolutely spring-like. All day, we had showery periods off and on — you can see one coming in the photo above. I was lucky to have a dry walk in the morning. Then it rained hard for several hours before and around noon.

In the afternoon, I turned on the television and watched a documentary film that I recorded a while back and wanted to see. It was called Les Chèvres de ma mère (My Mother's Goats) and was about a woman who had given up city life years ago and moved to a farm in the southern Alps, near the Gorges du Verdon, to raise goats and make goat cheese for a living.

There were a lot of scenes of the woman helping her goats give birth to their kids, and toting huge, heavy rectangular bails of hay across the rocky farmyard to feed them. There were also long segments showing the cheese-making process. It was all very rural and agricultural. She appeared to be about my age, by the way. I enjoyed the film.

So there I was sitting on my behind watching this woman do all that work and go to so much trouble when I noticed that the sun was shining brightly outside. I thought, well, I wanted to take some pictures of the plum blossoms and, finally, cut down my collard plants and get the greens in and processed before they freeze later this week. That's what I did, as you can see above. A few minutes after I got back inside, the bottom fell out again.

13 February 2016

The Big Blow

After a couple of days of high winds and driving rain, I finally made it back out into the vineyard — and around the edges — for a walk on Wednesday morning. I wasn't willing to walk through or near stands of trees until the wind stopped blowing so hard.

Above you see why. A big tree fell across the path that Callie and I almost always walk on when we go out together in the morning. The dog and I both enjoy walking through the woods, and then along the path behind the big woodpile out there. But there are a lot of dead trees standing along the way. The one that fell was already dead, I'm sure.

Fact is, we mostly had a lot of branches down — big ones, in many cases. I don't want those to fall on me either. It was better just to stay out of harm's way. Beside, that driving, sideways rain...

On another path through some woods where Walt and Callie often walk, and where I walked Thursday afternoon, there were two or three trees down, blocking the path. Callie could slip under them, and I was able to climb, carefully, over them. We had wind and rain squalls again yesterday, but nothing like the ones we had last Monday and Tuesday. We are supposed to have strong winds again today [sigh].

12 February 2016

Not in brick

These are some more photos from my pre-blogging days — June 2004. I started blogging in October 2005. The summers of 2004 and 2005 were some of the best we've had since we moved to Saint-Aignan, with bright, clear, warm sunny weather. Click on these photos to see them at full size.

This little chapel sits on a plot of land next to a main highway across the river from Saint-Aignan, maybe five kilometers from our house, in the little town of Noyers-sur-Cher. I must drive by it several dozen times a year. And I've posted pictures of it before.

In a way, it's too bad the old chapel, dedicated to saint Lazarus, can't be picked up and moved to a new site. As I said, it's on the edge of a big highway, and you can really only see it from the side or from the back. There's a high hedge mashed right up against the front of the building. Actually, the chapel has been sitting in this same spot since about the 12the century, according to what I've read.

One time when I went there to take photos, years ago now, I did find the front door unlocked. I pushed it open and was disappointed to see how falling-down the chapel was inside. In fact, a big white owl was living in there, and when the door opened he swooped nervously, like a winged ghost, from one perch to another on the walls and beams. He was startled by the sudden brightness, I guess. I posted about it back then, with some photos of course.

Since then, the chapel has been refurbished inside, with new wooden floors and cleaner interior walls. It's open periodically and is used as an art gallery for temporary exhibits. Since it's dedicated to Lazarus, they say there must have been a leper colony here all those centuries ago when the chapel was built.

11 February 2016

Le Château de Carrouges in Normandy

After I mentioned Le Château de Carrouges yesterday, I went back to see if I had taken photos there other than the ones I'd already posted on this blog in years past (2006, 2011 (exteriors), and 2011 (staircase). It turns out that I've been to Carrouges four times, including two times before I started blogging. Carrouges is located on the southern edge of Normandy, between Alençon and Domfront, near Bagnoles-de-l'Orne.

Here are some photos that I took in June 2001, the first time I saw the place. I was with CHM and we were doing a château marathon on a drive from Rouen in Normandy back down to Vouvray in Touraine. Walt was in Vouvray waiting for us, and I had to call him on the phone three or four times during the day to give him and then modify our ETA several times. (ETA means "estimated time of arrival," in case you don't know the expression.)

In fact, the drive took us about 12 hours instead of the four or five hours that Google Maps estimates it to take. That included a two-hour lunch, of course. We admired at least half a dozen châteaux along the way, just driving by some for a quick view but getting out of the car and walking around the grounds at others. Looking at the 16th-century châtelet (the entry tower) above, at Carrouges, you can see why I was reminded of Le Moulin, which I posted about over the past three days.

It is true that Carrouges is much more formal and blocky than Le Moulin, as far as the main buildings are concerned. It is built of brick, and much of it was thrown up about a century later than the Sologne château. These buildings replaced or extended even older ones at Carrouges, I believe. They are in a more classical style, and place seems more open and less vertical than Le Moulin. It's in a beautiful setting, with it moat draining into a pond that is full of croaking frogs at certain times of the year.

Here's a shot that shows the blockiness of the place. As I said, these are photos from June 2001, and I have others from May 2005, when Walt and I visited Carrouges on our way back to Saint-Aignan from the Cotentin area of Normandy (Carteret, Barfleur, Saint-Vaast, etc.), where we had spent a few days driving around. Actually, every time I've been to Carrouges, and despite the fact that it's located in rainy Normandy, the weather has been sunny and gorgeous...

10 February 2016

Le Château du Moulin (3)

Here are a few detail shots of the château from different angles. Just looking at them boosts my morale a little. I can console myself right now with the idea that it will be June again soon and I'll be able to go back to Le Moulin and other beautiful Loire Valley places before too long.

According to the official web site, the Château du Moulin is closed for the winter season until Easter. Even if it were open, I wouldn't have driven there over the past few days, what with the stormy weather we've been having.

Strong winds have blown limbs out of some of our trees. Heavy rains have created torrents of water on some streets, and big ponds of water in low spots. I had to go out in the car yesterday, so I can report from personal experience that it was a wild and woolly day in Saint-Aignan.

But back to Le Moulin: as I've said, I would never have made the hour-long drive from Vouvray, where we were staying, to see it in October 2000 if I hadn't noticed an almost stray photo in the Michelin green guide. I had never heard of it before. It is off the beaten track of the major Loire sights, over in the Sologne woods. As it was, we didn't get there until late in the day — there was a lot to see along the way.

The Cadogan guide says of Le Moulin: "The brick changes colour here and there, going from orange to purple. The typical Sologne lozange patterns in the brick give way at one point to an intriguing pattern of squares within squares." You can see that in my close-up photo above.

09 February 2016

Le Château du Moulin (2)

We're having really stormy weather right now. Yesterday morning the winds were hard and gusty. When I went out with the dog, it started pouring rain and we got soaked. This morning a new storm front is moving in, so we can expect more of the same.

Meanwhile, here are a few more photos of the Château du Moulin, near the big town of Romorantin. The village right next to the château is called Lassay-sur-Croisne, and at the church there you can see a wall painting showing what Le Moulin looked like centuries ago, before all the modern modifications were made.

When the last descendant of Philippe du Moulin died in the year 1900, the château was bought by a certain Maurice Compaignon de Marchéville, who he spent a dozen or more years having it modernized. His descendant still occupied the place as recently as 15 years ago, when we caught a glimpse of her on our guided tour, and maybe she still does. She discreetly closed the door to what looked like her upstairs kitchen as we trooped into her bedroom to see all the old furniture, furnishings, and paintings.

One of the most interesting rooms to visit is the old kitchen, which dates back to the Renaissance, I think. It features a cavernous fireplace with a spit for roasting meat, and there's a little round cage that they put a dog in. When the dog ran, the spit turned. As the guide told us when we did the tour, that might have been the invention of the hot dog!

The Château du Moulin web site says that Philippe du Moulin's birthdate remains a mystery to this day. There is one figure in a wall painting in the church at Lassay-sur-Croise who might well be du Moulin. He died in eastern France in 1506 in the town of Langres, of which he had become the governor, and he was buried there — but his heart was removed from his body and brought back to the church in Lassay, according to his wishes.

I'm translating from the Château du Moulin web site. All the photos in these posts are ones I took on June 27, 2004, when CHM and I went and walked around the château.

08 February 2016

Le Château du Moulin (1)

The Château du Moulin was built over a period of 25 years starting in the year 1480. It's located near Romorantin, the biggest town in the Sologne region of the Loire Valley, and about 20 miles or 30 km east of Saint-Aignan. The Cadogan Loire guidebook calls it "one of the most romantically moated of all Loire châteaux, among the finest."

Philippe du Moulin was a loyal servant of Charles VIII, who was one of the first French kings to mount a military campaign in Italy. Du Moulin rescued him when ignominious defeat faced the French forces in a battle in 1495. Charles VIII was born in Amboise in 1470, became king at the age of 13, and died in 1498. Du Moulin lived until 1506. That period marked the end of what is now called the Middle Ages, and the beginning of the French Renaissance that was inspired by contact with Italy.

The Château du Moulin was built as a fortress, surrounded by a moat, high walls, and defensive towers. Those forbidding fortifications were torn down in later centuries to let in some daylight and turn the place into a more comfortable residence. As far as I know, it is still privately owned today and occupied for at least part of the year. When we visited for the first time in the year 2000, we caught a glimpse of the owner, a woman who was living in the main tower.

There are quite a few brick châteaux in the flat and forested Sologne region, where there used to be a lot of marshland and there wasn't much building stone readily available. While more Renaissance and less Gothic in style, the Louis XII wing of the Château de Blois is a notable example from about the same period. The author of the Cadogan guide calls Le Moulin "a dreamy place, hidden in the countryside...." The visitor's impression is that it's deep in the woods, really.

07 February 2016


Yesterday was a scramble to get a plane ticket, a train ticket, and a hotel room in Paris. It's done, though. So my departure date is set. I'll be flying from Paris to Atlanta on Air France and then from Atlanta to New Bern in North Carolina. I'm looking forward to being there again.

I'll be spending one night at the Hôtel des Carmes in Paris. It's in the Latin Quarter, and it has an elevator! It's in the same neighborhood where I first spent time in Paris 46 years ago, and I've stayed at the Carmes several times over the years. I always enjoy being in Paris, and I'm hoping for decent weather.

The photos here have nothing to do with my trip. I just decided to post them today. But it's true that getting out of Saint-Aignan and over to the States is a little like trying to get out of a spider's web. It's a struggle.

06 February 2016

Same old same-old

Since I'll be traveling next weekend, maybe I'll come up with some new material for this blog. As for the next four or five days, it's supposed to... wait for it... turn rainy again. Are we all surprised?

It's nice that the local oak trees keep their leaves all winter. They give us some gold color when the sun shines. The gold leaves fall when new leaves start to appear in the spring.

The photo above shows, from the foreground to the horizon, new vines just getting started, productive old vines, and neglected old vines that have been taken over by a new stand of locust trees. The vineyard evolves.

05 February 2016

Callie and her trunks

Here are a few photos that I took one week ago today (Jan. 29, 2016). It was one of the few days we've had recently when skies were clear and the sun was shining during my morning walk with Callie the collie.

It was a pretty morning because there was a light white frost on the green grass, and there was enough sunlight to bring out the colors in the woods around the edge of the vineyard.

When I put "trunks" in the title above, I didn't mean swimming trunks. I meant grapevine trunks, which Callie collects. Whenever she finds one along the edge of the dirt road or at the end of a row of vines, she picks it up in her jaws and brings it home. Nobody taught her to do that. She just enjoys it. We save the trunks with the idea that one day we'll burn them in the wood stove.

Callie and her souches de vigne and Ken and his collards... The weather has been so mild this winter that I haven't yet done the final collard harvest. There are six plants, and the one in the photo below is the most spectacular one.

I may harvest the greens over the next day or two, depending on how rainy the weather gets, because I am getting ready to go back to North Carolina in a few days and I'd hate for a hard freeze to kill the collard plants while I'm away.

04 February 2016

Deux arbres

Un noyer (walnut)...

Et un pommier (apple)...

The walnut tree is out in the vineyard, along the gravel road. The apple tree is in our back yard.

03 February 2016

Wine and cheese

I won't go into recipes for soupe à l'oignon gratinée again. I just like this photo. I had beef broth left over from our recent pot au feu (boiled beef dinner), and we always have Comté cheese in the refrigerator. I had just bought a bag of yellow onions too. Voilà.

Usually you'd have a red wine with French onion soup, but here's a white wine that would be good with it too. It's a fruity, off-dry Sauvignon Blanc made up in Limeray by François Péquin at the Domaine des Bessons. It's rich-tasting, not acidic, and that would make it good with the cheese.

Notice that this Arroma is an AOC Touraine, not a Touraine-Amboise. That's because it's made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes and not Chenin Blanc. Touraine-Amboise whites, like Vouvray wines, are made from Chenin, and range from dry to sweet.

François Péquin is a « vigneron indépendant » — an independent "vinesman." That's a word I just invented to mean grape grower and winemaker. He displays the logo of an association he belongs to on his corks and marketing materials.

02 February 2016

Lunch like in Toulouse

We're still eating confit de canard — slow-cooked, long-preserved duck. I made it nearly two months ago, and it's been curing in duck fat since then. The duck legs and thighs had been slow cooked in the same fat. The meat is falling off the bones, and it's delicious.

I've kept the cooked duck pieces down in the cold pantry off our utility room. It hasn't been as cold in there as it might have been if we'd had more freezing temperatures outdoors more frequently, but still. To enhance the lunch experience, we had well-seasoned white coco beans and a couple of poached Toulouse sausages.

Beans are of course good food — good for your heart! And so is, they say, duck and duck fat. It's the French paradox. Eat what you want, within reason, and stay in good health. Always have some red wine alongside the food. (My blood pressure, as tested by my doctor last week, was 120 over 70.)

01 February 2016

The vines on a rare bright morning

Yesterday I posted about wines, so today I'll post about vines. These are not photos of the vineyards around Limeray but of vineyards near Saint-Aignan. I'll limit myself to four.

Our rainfall total for January climbed up to 99 millimeters over the last two days of the month. That included one short-lived snow episode earlier. Ninety-nine millimeters equals about 4 inches, which is twice our normal monthly amount of precipitation. It's sloppy out there and the pond is overflowing.

Rain had just ended overnight on Friday when I took these photos. Everything was dripping, but the clouds had suddenly blown away and the sun was rising in a clear sky.

Callie was patiently exploring as I took the time to snap photos. She does an awful lot of sniffing out there. I'm sure deer, badgers, foxes, and who knows what other animals — maybe wild boars — are active during the overnight hours, leaving their scent scattered all around.

We had about 24 hours of steady but fairly light rain over the weekend. It finally ended Sunday around noontime. I got soaked twice on my weekend walks, and so did Callie. It's warm though — over 50ºF (11ºC) this morning before dawn. Our true winter will have lasted about three days this year, unless the weather really changes this month.

31 January 2016

Going to Limeray for Touraine-Amboise wines

Last Wednesday was "Winesday" for us. We drove up to the Touraine-Amboise wine production area on the north side of the Loire river, between Blois and Tours. It's a "sub-appellation" that is basically a mirror image of the string of Touraine-Chenonceaux wine villages along the south bank of the Cher river, closer to Saint-Aignan and Montrichard. Here's a link to a map of the eastern part of the Touraine production zone, which includes the Vouvray, Chinon, Bourgueil, Montlouis, and Mesland appellations, among others.

Our first stop was the Domaine des Bessons, right on the border between the villages of Cangey and Limeray. It's a winery we discovered two or three years ago and we've now been there three or four times. On Wednesday, it was François Péquin himself who "received" us and poured us tastes of two wines that we ended up buying. The winery's brochure says that no pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used in the Domaine des Bessons vineyards.

The wine that Walt wanted, called Les Silex, was out of stock until the 2015 vintage is bottled in March. It's a very dry Chenin Blanc. Mr. Péquin introduced us to two other white wines, one a fruity, off-dry Sauvignon Blanc called Arroma and the other a late harvest Chenin Blanc dessert white that he calls Médium. Both are sweeter than the white wines we normally look for, but both tasted delicious. We bought six bottles of each, at 6 euros per bottle, for special occasions.

Our second stop was the Cellier Léonard de Vinci in Limeray. It's a cooperative operated by a group of local vignerons to make and sell red, rosé, and white wines made from the grapes they grow. We bought 10 liters of dry Chenin Blanc and 10 liters of Gamay red wine made from what the woman at the co-op called '"pure Gamay-Beaujolais". Both are sold en vrac (in bulk) and we will bottle them ourselves (10 liters is the equivalent of 13 bottles).

We also got twenty liters of red wine in "bag-in-box" packaging, one a Gamay-Côt blend and the other a red vin ordinaire (now called vin de France) made using a blend of two or three different local varieties of Gamay. I'm looking forward to tasting the difference between the two Gamay wines and also comparing them with the Gamay blend that includes some Malbec, which is known as Côt here in the Loire Valley.