29 November 2005

Fusion cooking

As I've already said elsewhere, this blog is about food as much as it's about anything else. I love to cook, and I learned to cook in France. It was 1972. I was 23 years old, and I was teaching English in a high school (le lycée Corneille) in Rouen, in Normandy. The job had been arranged by the University of Illinois French Department, where I was working on my master's degree.

I taught 12 hours a week, if I remember, and I didn't give grades -- I was an assistant, not a full-fledged teacher. In other words, I had no papers to correct, and my preparation was minimal. I had lots of time on my hands, and not much money. Half my salary went for rent, and with what was left I had about $5.00 (25 French francs) a day to live on.

I had realized how good French food was when I spent a semester in Provence as an undergraduate student in 1970. It was just as good in Normandy. The difference was that I didn't have enough money to eat in restaurants in 1972. My parents were no longer footing the bill. So I had only one choice: learn how to cook. Either that, or not eat.

All that is to say that I started cooking French food back then. But I also love the food in the Southern U.S. -- yes, even those cooked-to-death vegetables! There are many similarities between French country cooking and Southern U.S. cooking.

So now that I live in France I practice fusion cuisine. I use a mix of Southern and French ingre-
dients and mostly French methods. One prime example of my approach is my black-eyed pea cassoulet. [The sausages in the picture above are Toulouse, Montbéliard, and Morteau -- all standard items in France. The smoked slab bacon (poitrine fumée) is also available everywhere in France -- but not in California.]

Cassoulet is a specialty of southwestern France, especially the area around Toulouse. It's a big pot of slow-cooked white beans (called lingots in French) containing various meats and sausages. Preserved duck -- pieces of duck cooked slowly in their own fat -- is a key ingredient. I've also cooked pieces of turkey the same way -- in duck fat -- and used them in the cassoulet. Toulouse sausages, too, are really good in it. Saucisses de Toulouse are pure pork, and in the authentic version the lean and fat pork are chopped up with a knife, not a meat grinder, before they are stuffed into the sausage casing. Other meats -- chunks of lean pork, or chunks of smoked pork or smoked sausages, make the whole dish even better.

So now that I'm in France, and unempl... er, retired, I have the two things I need most to satisfy my urge to make good food: time on my hands (not to mention thyme in my garden, ha ha ha) and a ready supply of good French ingredients.

So how does cassoulet become an example of fusion cuisine? You substitute black-eyed peas for the white beans in the French recipe. And it doesn't hurt to cook them slowly in a richly flavored duck or chicken broth before you add the meats to the mix. Flavor the broth with herbs (bay leaf, thyme, parsley) and vegetables (onions, carrots, leeks).

What's the method? You cook the beans separately. Then put a layer of them in a big dish or pot that can go into a hot oven.

Put a layer of pre-cooked meats -- pieces of duck, sausage, pork, turkey, slab bacon, etc., simmered for 20 minutes in water -- over the beans, and then put in more layers of beans and meat, finishing with beans.


Moisten the whole dish with the broth the beans cooked in. Put a layer of bread crumbs on the top, and moisten that with (ideally) a little duck fat. Put the dish in the oven and when it's bubbling and browned, it's ready.


Serve it with a big green salad dressed with vinegar and oil or a mustardy vinaigrette.

28 November 2005

Photo of the Day: Bois Blanc

This is my first post to Ken's blog; he was kind enough to include me on his "blog team." Cool, eh?

We had recently ordered 2 stères of bois blanc to use as kindling and it was delivered last week. A stère is a measurement for wood that is equal to one cubic meter; each log is cut into one meter lengths, so it’s pretty easy to measure. Bois blanc is a common term for pine or other light wood normally used as kindling. We had 7 stères of oak delivered a few weeks ago. Of course, being frugal, we decided to cut and split the wood ourselves, so all that work is ahead of us; the chainsaw and the ax will get a good workout this season.

Since we weren’t going to be home, we asked the guy to just dump the wood in the driveway and we’d stack it later. Today was stacking day. It took me about 20 minutes. The oak, on the other hand, took two of us a couple of days to stack under the shed, it being much heavier. A couple of "before and after" photos:


- Walt

Thanksgiving in Blois

Thanksgiving day was gray and chilly in the Loire Valley. There was talk of snow. We left here at about 5:00 p.m. to do the hour-long drive up to Susan's house in Blois. It started raining. The temperature actually rose three or four degrees during the evening.

Gisèle made a flower arrangement in a pumpkin for the occasion.

By 7:30, we were all there. Susan's daughter Flavie had driven in from Paris, where she works. Flavie's husband Olivier drove in from Geneva (6 hours on the road), where he works. Rebecca, an American who lives near Blois, picked up Debbie, and American who is teaching in Blois this year on a Fulbright fellowship, and gave her a ride to Susan's for the evening. Gisèle and Jean-Luc drove up from Saint-Aignan, and Maryvonne and Bernard, who live in Blois but have the country house across the street from us, were there too. We were 11 in all.

Remember, Thanksgiving is not a holiday in France. Susan had the idea of organizing the dinner for our French friends, and Walt, Rebecca, and I volunteered to help by preparing typically American dishes for the meal.

Flavie, Rebecca, Olivier, Gisèle, Jean-Luc, and Maryvonne

Debbie, Bernard, Susan, and Walt

Susan had bought a turkey from a farmer in the town of Montoire-sur-le-Loir, about 30 miles north of Blois. Turkeys are not easy to find before December in France. It was about 15 pounds, and of course was in the oven when we arrived.

I wanted to take pictures of all the food spread out on the table, but it wasn't served that way. Instead, Olivier "presented" the bird to the guests as we were having pre-dinner drinks (apéritifs) in the sitting room. He brought it into the room on a platter and we all oohed and aahed. Then he took it back into the kitchen to carve it. I was able to snap a picture.

We all took our places around the dining room table and Olivier, Susan, and Flavie started bringing in the food and serving up. Each one would bring around a dish -- my cornbread stuffing muffins, for example, and then the carved turkey, and then some vegetables. Only the cranberry relish and the collard greens were actually on the table, to be passed around by the guests themselves. Olivier brought around the turkey, holding the platter for us as we served ourselves a piece or two.

There was a centerpiece of ceramic and glass pumpkins, a kalanchoe plant, and several candles in the middle of the table. Also visible, what's left of the pumpkin pie.

The turkey was good, and Susan had made a chicken-liver-and-sausage stuffing for it. My cornbread stuffing seemed to go over well. Everybody except Jean-Luc tried the cranberry relish; he refused it. Maryvonne asked Walt if he ever thought of cooking it!

Most people tried the collard greens, but I noticed that Debbie didn't eat hers (she was sitting next to me). The only person who commented was Gisèle, who said she like the greens because they were croquants, which translates as crunchy or crispy. In other words, they were not mushy, and I guess that was good. Susan had made a sweet potato puree, and Rebecca had cooked Brussels sprouts and chestnuts.

For dessert, Walt had made a pumpkin pie. Only Bernard refused to try it -- we knew he didn't eat pumpkin or winter squash, so that wasn't a surprise. Maryvonne tried the pie, and she pronounced it edible, if not really to her liking. She said pointedly of the spice cake Susan had made: "Alors le gâteau de Susan, ça c'est bon!" Rebecca had made a fruit salad of orange sections in a red-wine-and-lemon-juice syrup, and that was very good too.

Oh, and the wines. There were four bottles of 1990 Bordeaux and St-Emilion red wines from Susan's cellar. I wish I had had more time and presence of mind to pay attention to them. All I can say is that the two I tried were good.

Flavie kept saying she was so happy to finally taste a real American Thanksgiving dinner, with all the right flavors. And it's true, the turkey was right, the cornbread stuffing was good, and the pumpkin pie was perfect. Gisèle kept saying everything was just delicious, and Susan was beaming all evening. She really enjoyed the dinner, I could tell.

After dinner, we had coffee and Olivier offered to make up a doggie bag (he said "well, a human bag") for anyone who wanted to take some food home. Most people took some, especially the Americans.

Our friend Luke was arriving on Friday and we figured he would like some Thanksgiving food. There were three or four pieces of turkey, some pieces of the two stuffings, and some sweet potato puree, plus some greens, in our doggie bag. On Friday night, that's what we ate, and it was good again.

23 November 2005

Another pheasant

Our neighbor Bernard stopped by tonight and delivered a pheasant. It's one that was shot on Saturday. It still has all its feathers and all its entrails. Last year he gave us one and I got the people at the market who sell and prepare chickens to pluck it for me. I wanted to pay them, but they wouldn't let me. This year I'm embarrassed to go ask them again. If Bernard is going to give us a pheasant every year, I'm going to have to learn how to pluck and clean them myself. I guess this is the year. I haven't taken a picture of the thing yet.

We spent the day cooking. Walt made a beautiful pumpkin pie. He also made cranberry-orange relish. I cooked a big pot of greens and a cornbread. Tomorrow I have to make the cornbread into dressing, with onion, sage, parsley, and red and green bell peppers.

Today on my walk with Collette I took more pictures with my new camera, a Canon Powershot S70. I'm pretty pleased with these, though I'm having trouble getting used to the new camera. As always, click on one of the pictures below to see a larger version.

Here's the beginning of the walk along the gravel road out into the vineyard. The weather is cold and crisp right now. This was at about 9:00 a.m. and is just a few dozen steps from the house.


After cutting through a stand of trees, walking down the edge of a vineyard, and then walking a way down a paved road that has 5 or 6 houses along it, we turn off on a dirt road that runs through some woods and down a hill. It's like walking through a tunnel on a bed of leaves. If you look closely, you can see Collette on the road ahead of me.

At the bottom of the hill, we walk through another stand of trees. This is somebody's yard, but the people seem to have moved out, or at least gone away. For about a month now, there's been no car parked in the driveway, and the house is all shuttered morning and afternoon.


Then we walk up this road back toward the rue de la Renaudière, where our house is. This shot is looking back, after we've walked up the slight hill to this point. We often see deer along this road.


And here is the rue de la Renaudière, and we are walking back up the hill toward the house. The hill is steep and this is where we see the rust-colored slugs as well as deer and woodpeckers and crows and big hawks.


It's a nice neighborhood. The walk is a loop about two miles long.

22 November 2005

Cooking greens for Thanksgiving

We are having Thanksgiving dinner with a group of new and old friends in Blois on Thursday. There will be 6 French people, 3 and maybe 4 Americans, and one Franco-American. The person who is hosting the dinner was born in America but has lived in France since she was six years old. Her mother is French, but her father was American.

The host is cooking the turkey, some vegetables, and a spice cake. Walt is making cranberry relish and a pumpkin pie (pumpkin from our vegetable garden).

The cranberries are a whole story. We haven't been able to find any here in Saint-Aignan or up in Blois. Last year a French friend of mine in Rouen (Normandy) told me she was able to find cranberries up there. I sent her an e-mail and asked her if she could send me some. She found some yesterday and sent them. We should receive them tomorrow. My mother asked me if we couldn't just buy canned cranberry sauce here, and the answer is no. It doesn't exist.

For the Thanksgiving dinner, I'm making and taking cornbread and cornbread stuffing, along with a dish of collard greens. Unless you're a Southerner, collard greens might not seem like a traditional Thanksgiving dish. But it is to me, and I have collard greens growing in my vegetable garden. The weather has cooperated perfectly with my plans. The best collard greens are ones that have been touched by frost, and we've had three or four nights of sub-freezing weather now. So my collard greens should be delicious. I just went out and cut a fine mess of big leaves.

Here's how I cooked the last ones I made. I think I'll do about the same thing this time.

First you dice up a few carrots and chop a couple of onions. Sauté all that in just a little duck fat or vegetable oil or butter, whatever you prefer, at low heat so that the vegetables soften. I happen to have duck fat on hand. Add a little salt and pepper. When they're ready, remove the carrots and onions from the pan and set them aside.

Then wash and chop 20 or so big collard-green leaves. You can also use a couple of pounds of Belgian endive, all chopped up, or a chopped up cabbage — whatever you like. Cook the greens or cabbage or endive with a little chicken or duck broth or water until they have softened some. I happen to have duck broth. A little glug of white wine is always good too — in the pan, I mean. Salt and pepper again, just a little. Let the greens cook until they are starting to wilt.

Add the carrot-onion mixture to the pan. Then add some little pieces of chicken or duck or other meat, whatever you like. Or no meat. Put 6 or 8 peeled potatoes on top, if you want them. Cover tightly and let cook for a hour or so at low temperature, until the potatoes are nice and done. If your greens are collards, they should be meaty and good.

Doesn't that sound and look delicious? I don't think I'll put in the meat or potatoes this time. The turkey is going to be stufffed with sausage meat and foie gras. That'll be enough.

It was very cold this afternoon. I went out with Collette and took these pictures as the sun was starting to go down. One is a wide-angle shot, and the other is a close-up of the same thing. You can click on the pictures to see an enlarged view.


21 November 2005

Healthy dog, icy weather

It has turned really cold. At least the sun is shining brightly, so it's not gloomy and gray. Collette has been fine since we put her on the new diet last week. She's again running and jumping (a little) on our walks and around the house. She plays with her chew-bone. She's eating well.

Here she is on the walk this morning. There was a heavy frost. Following are some more pictures of the frosty plants out back.

This is the kind of contraption they use to burn the clippings in when they prune the grape vines in the fall and winter. They are very common around here, and I think they are used all over France. Somebody told me the reason for burning the clippings is to kill pests.

19 November 2005

Turkey

My friend Sharon asked me if turkey is as popular here in France as it is in the States. That made me think about the differences.

The first Thanksgiving I spent in France was in 1972 (I'm dating myself). I was living in the city of Rouen in Normandy and teaching English in a high school there. That fall I had made friends with the family of one of my students. Around November 20, the mother of the student showed up at my apartment -- I didn't have a phone back then so she just had to drop by -- to give me a turkey. She said she had read that late November was when Americans celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday and that the traditional meal was a roasted turkey. So she brought me one, because they weren't easy to find.

Well, it was the scrawniest thing I had ever seen. That's all I remember about it. I and my American friends in Rouen (there were 6 or 7 of us there from the University of Illinois that year) must have cooked and eaten it, but I don't remember that part very well.

Later, when I lived in Paris in the mid-'70s into the early '80s, the University of Illinois Architecture School's year abroad program in Versailles would always have a big Thanksgiving dinner and invite the students from the University of Illinois French Department's program in Paris. We would take the train out to Versailles on a cold, wet November night and sit down to a big Thanksgiving feast. The problem was that the food was usually pretty awful. It was a French effort to reproduce the American meal, and it wasn't very successful as I remember it. And then we all had to rush to get the last train back into Paris late at night and try to get home before the subway shut down at midnight or so. So it was always kind of a disappointing experience -- it just didn't live up to our expectations and memories of good Thanksgiving holidays at home.

Jump forward to 2003. Walt and I arrived in France in June, and that year was our first holiday season in Saint-Aignan. At Christmas, we ordered a small turkey from the butcher in Saint-Aignan. We wanted to get a good turkey, farm-raised, free-range, Label Rouge -- all that-- rather than just buy one in the supermarket. It was delicious, I remember, and was very different from the turkeys we were used to getting in California. It wasn't scrawny, but it wasn't butterball fat either. It seemed closer to nature, somehow. There were still some feathers on it, and it was lean and gamey looking. But there was a thin layer of fat lying just under the skin, and when we roasted it that fat melted and tenderized the breast meat. It was delicious.

Turkeys are not available year-round here, and it can be hard to find one even in November. You have to order one, as the friend who is organizing our Thanksgiving dinner this week told us. Even then, you have to wait a while to get one because they just aren't widely available before December. There is no Thanksgiving holiday in France.

We often buy turkey legs/thighs at the supermarket. We eat them ourselves, or I cook them for the dog. It's easier to cook and debone a big turkey leg than it is to cook and debone a whole chicken, and you end up with about the same amount of meat. So that's what I often buy for Collette.

The other thing that is not available here is ground turkey. I wanted some this week to make a meat sauce for spaghetti, so I bought a turkey leg, deboned it raw, and then put the meat through the meat grinder. We also grind our own lamb and chicken when we need those. Ground beef is available at the butcher's or at the supermarket, as is ground pork (sausage meat), seasoned or plain. But not other ground meats.

What do French people eat for the Christmas feast? Sometimes turkey, but probably just as often a roasted capon or goose. They don't do bread stuffing, either, as far as I know. They use chestnuts or sausage meat or foie gras to stuff the bird. I'll be making cornbread stuffing for our Thanksgiving dinner this year. We'll see if anybody likes it.

18 November 2005

Collette's better...

For now at least, Collette is feeling a lot better. We've put her on a diet of plain, home-made chicken broth and poached chicken, with a little bit of yogurt to help settle her stomach. We don't know what was wrong with her, of course, but we're hoping for the best. The good news is that she is eating and enjoying going out for walks. And she doesn't seem to be in pain. Thanks to our friend Helene J. in New York for all the advice, and to her sister Harriet M. in California putting us in touch with Helene again.

The weather has suddenly turned cold. After a week or more of chilly, damp, gray days, it's suddenly bright sunny but very cold outside. This morning everything was frosty white outside, and it's supposed to be even colder tomorrow morning (-3ºC is the prediction). I picked the last eggplants in the garden a couple of days ago, and it's a good thing I did because the plants froze last night. All the dahlias froze too. We had brought a lot of other plants in already -- geraniums, kalanchoes, and nasturtiums in pots, so they are safe.

We're going to have Thanksgiving dinner next Thursday with some people in Blois. There will Amercians and French people there, a total of 10 or 11. We'll have turkey and stuffing and all the other trimmings, including pumpkin pie. Meanwhile, the days are short and the weather is cold, but the sun shines brightly. Here are a few pictures I took this afternoon on my walk with the dog.

Collette out on the road, looking good.

Some nice colors in the back yard.

A trail in the woods out back.

The vines are gold- and copper-colored right now.

The last flowers of summer.

16 November 2005

Collette is feeling poorly

Collette, our dog, hasn't been feeling well for more than a week now. Over the last few days, I've come to realize she's been having the same symptoms off and on for nearly six months.

Back in June, she had a very bad week. She stopped eating and then she stopped wanting to go for a walk. Before she just refused to go out with either of us, she began walking very very slowly, with her head hanging low. On June 25, our neighbors had a big, all-day party. At one point, late in the afternoon, we went and let Collette out so she could come see what was going on. She wandered around the neighbors' yard in a daze, eyes glazed over. A friend who was there later told us she thought Collette was a zombie that day.

We took her to the vet, who did blood tests but didn't find anything unusual. He diagnosed arthritis and treated her for that, and he said the really hot weather we were having right then might be a factor.

Now I should point out that Collette is 14 years old. We got her from the Humane Society in Santa Clara, California, in July of 1992. She was about 6 months old then, according to the vet we took her to see after we adopted her. If you use the 1 dog year = 7 human years formula, that makes her 98 years old. She moved to France, which meant flying in the baggage compartment of an airplane, in a cage, when she was 12, or 84. She's no spring chicken. But she doesn't look her age at all. And she has enjoyed the freedom of living in the country for these past two years, after living the city life in San Francisco and Sunnyvale for all that time.

It's of course very sad to see Collette in decline. About 10 days ago, she was out for a morning walk with Walt. About half-way into the 2-mile walk, she suddenly began walking really slowly, as she had in June. Her eyes seemed to become opaque.

Collette and Walt walked on back to the house, at a very slow pace. I was upstairs in the kitchen when I heard the door open and close downstairs. Then I heard Collette yelp -- almost a shriek, really. When they came upstairs, I asked Walt if he had accidentally stepped on the dog's paw or something. He said no, he was just drying her off with a towel when she yelped. He had touched her belly.

Collette had come upstairs under her own power. She ate her breakfast of rice and beef as usual. But then, instead of going and lying down as she usually does, she just stood around with her head hanging down. She tried to lie down a couple of times, but she couldn't. She would sit and then start to ease herself down by moving her front paws forward one at a time. About three quarters of the way down, she would change her mind and stand back up. She was obviously in pain.

We started to examine her. Every time we touched her belly, she would shriek with pain. Maybe I'm exaggerating, but not much. I called the vet and his receptionist said he could see her in about 90 minutes -- he was in surgery.

We couldn't leave Collette standing the way she was, so Walt managed to get her down on her side on a rug on the floor. He lay down beside her and kept her comfortable while I went out and took the back seat cushions out of the car and folded the seat backs down to make a flat platform. We put down a thick blanket all folded up to make a soft surface. Then we carefully lifted Collette into the back of the car and got her down on her side again.

We drove slowly over to the vet's office, three miles from the house. We got Collette out of the car and she walked into the waiting room on her own. She stood there for about 10 minutes while we waited for the vet to see us. When he called us in, Walt carefully lifted Collette up onto the examining table. The vet touched her abdomen and she moaned. He said he wanted to do an x-ray.

The x-ray didn't show anything out of the ordinary. We looked at it and could see Collette's stomach, small and large intestines, and spleen. There were poops in her large intestine waiting to come out. All was normal.

The vet gave Collette two shots -- an anti-spasmodic and a pain-killer -- to treat the symptoms of her malaise. He said he didn't know what was really wrong with her. We took her home and she slept the rest of the day and night.

The next morning she was completely back to normal. That lasted more than a week. She loved her walks, trotting right along, sniffing everything along the way, and chasing cats when she saw or thought she saw one. It was like old times. Her appetite was good, her bodily functions were normal, and we were very happy.

Then, this past Sunday, we left Collette alone at home on Sunday afternoon while we went up to Blois to have lunch with some friends there. When we got home at 6:30 p.m., Collette was obviously not well. She had that hang-dog posture; her eyes were dull; she didn't want to go outside. We made her go out anyway, because we figured she must need to. She didn't stay long and when she came back in we realized her belly was tender again. She yelped when we touched her.

By Monday morning, everything was fine again. We had good walks Monday morning and afternoon, and a good walk on Tuesday morning. That was my turn to go walking with her, and I was happy to see how energetic Collette was, how interested in everything. She did a good poop. But I noticed again how her hearing is failing her -- if you speak to her when she's walking ahead of you, she doesn't seem to hear. When you are facing her, her hearing is better.

Then late Tuesday afternoon the symptoms came back. She again was unable to lie down. At one point she kind of got herself wedged in between the coffee table and the sofa and wouldn't move. I took ahold of her thighs and slowly backed her out of her predicament, but she suddenly went limp and fell over on her side on the hard tile floor. She didn't hurt herself, but she was in no hurry to get up.

It was after 9:00. We got her up onto the bed and she was stretched out on her side. Walt lay down next to her and looked into her eyes. "She keeps looking right into my eyes," he said, "as if she wants to make sure I'm here." We went to bed an hour or so later -- Collette hadn't moved.

During the night, she got up and went and drank a lot of water. Her movement woke me up and I heard her slurping and slurping water for what seemed like forever. Then she came back into the bedroom but didn't jump up onto the bed. I don't think she was able to.

A while later, I realized Walt had gotten up. He put Collette back up on the bed. When I got up at 7:45 this morning, Collette didn't stir. Walt got up a few minutes later. Collette still didn't move. It was nearly an hour later when she got up. That is highly unusual behavior. Normally she wakes us up as soon as it's light outside because she's ready to go.

She had drunk so much water during the night, we figured she must need to go outside. It was drizzling rain, but Walt took her out for a short walk. He said she walked very slowing on the way out, but when he turned around to come back to the house she started trotting along beside him.

Since this morning, she's been sleeping. She didn't eat at her normal time, right after the walk, but she did eat a little at noontime. She sleeps on the sofa as I write this. At least she is comfortable lying down today.

I suspect liver or pancreas problems. Those organs weren't visible on the x-ray the vet did about 10 days ago, but in fact the blood test back in June didn't show any abnormalities in Collette's liver functions. We are going to be careful of the dog's diet for a few days -- no more food from the table, and no cheese! -- to see if that might make a difference.

These are sad days. Collette has never been sick before, so we don't know what to do or what to expect.

Have a look at her adventure last July, chasing the deer.

15 November 2005

Today's pictures: autumn leaves

Click on the picture to see an enlargement.

Fall colors and wintry weather are what we have now. We went almost immediately from summer (the last week of October we had temperatures near 80ºF) into winter (highs now between 40º and 50º). The picture above is about an hour old. I took it from the front deck with my new camera, a Canon S70. That's a stack of firewood under the blue tarp.

Here's a picture I took on November 5, before the weather went cold and damp. These are the vineyards out back, looking back toward our house and the neighbors'.

Click on the picture to see an enlargement.

14 November 2005

Car Talk

When I arrived in France in June 2003, I rented cars for the first couple of months. I had an Opel Zafira, a sort of minivan, which I picked up at Charles de Gaulle airport on arrival. Opel is a German brand and is owned by General Motors. I had an Opel back in the 1970s, which I lived in Champaign-Urbana. They were sold by Buick dealers in the U.S. back then.

I needed a minivan when I arrived in France because there were two of us, and as you can imagine, we had quite a bit of luggage with us. We also had our dog Collette in her kennel. We couldn’t have fit all that into a smaller car. The Zafira was nice -- spacious, peppy, air-conditioned -- but it was fairly expensive. After we arrived in Saint-Aignan, I realized we didn’t need the van any more. I called Hertz in Paris and they said I could come to the city and turn the van in for a smaller, less expensive model. It was a good excuse to drive to Paris and back.

We ended up with an Opel Corsa. It’s a pretty small car, but it had a diesel engine. I liked that because diesel fuel is cheaper than gasoline, and a diesel gets much better mileage than a gasoline engine. So you win on two fronts.

When I turned the Open minivan in in Paris, the procedure was that I dropped it off in an underground parking lot and then walked about 10 minutes up to the rental office to turn in the papers. There the clerk gave me the paperwork and keys for the smaller car and I walked the 10 minutes back to the parking garage to get the car.

2003 was the summer of the great heatwave (la canicule, or dog days) in France. The temperature was in the 90s, and often the upper 90s, for weeks on end. It was already very hot that June day when I drove to Paris. So I asked the Hertz clerk, just to be sure, whether the Corsa were we getting was air-conditioned. After hesitating for a second, he said yes, it was. He lied.

We walked back down the street to the parking garage, got in the car, and started driving out of the city. We pushed a lot of buttons on the dashboard to get the AC going. We were getting some cool air, we thought.

But by the time we were 10 miles out of the city, we realized there was no AC, just a fan. Should we turn around and go back to try to get a different car? No, I said, it never stays really hot in France for very long. And we don’t plan to do much driving anyway -- just trips to the stores as we settle in. And we planned to buy a car as soon as possible anyway.

Was I wrong or what? First, the weather never seemed to cool down. 90, 95, even 98 degrees became the norm through July. I went to a Citroën dealership near Saint-Aignan in July and asked about buying a new car. (I have wanted to own a Citroën for years, just because...) The salesman explained that he would have to order me a car from the factory. And because it was summer vacation, he couldn’t guarantee delivery before mid-October, at the earliest -- the factory shuts down for the month of August. That was discouraging. The rental car was costing about a thousand dollars a month.

A few days later, I was driving past Saint-Aignan’s Peugeot dealership, the Garage Danger. Yes, Danger -- Mr. Danger is the owner. There on the lot was a light-blue Peugeot 206, used but new-looking. I could probably buy it right off the lot. I thought it over and decided to go talk to Mr. Danger. He named his price. I said OK and returned home. The next day I called him and said I wanted the car but the price was too high. He knocked off a thousand euros ($1200 or so) and I said great, I’ll take it.

But first I had to get the money transferred from the U.S. That took a good week. And then Mr. Danger had to get the car ready, including getting it registered in my name with the proper authorities up in Blois, the capital city of our département. By the time all that took place, it was August 8, if I remember. And it was still as hot as blazes outside.

I’ll never forget the day we got the Peugeot. We had been suffering in the heat in our un-air-conditioned house. It would be 85º outside and inside when we got up in the morning, and 95º outside and close to 90º inside in the afternoon, and it was miserable. After eight years living in San Francisco, we had longed for some hot summer weather, but this was too much. The Peugot has AC!

That hot August day, I said that it was a good day to go for a ride. We put Collette in the car and headed out into the countryside with the AC on full blast, and spent the afternoon blissfully. The car’s thermometer said it was 40ºC outside that day -- it always reads a little hotter than the actual temperature when it’s sunny outside. 40ºc is 104ºF, by the way. We were in heaven in our air-conditioned Peugeot 206.

A couple of days later, we had another excuse to go to Paris: we had to turn the Opel Corsa in. I drove up in the Peugeot (with the AC on full blast again) and poor Walt drove up in the no-AC Corsa. Collette rode with me. But all three of us got to ride back in the cool Peugeot.

The Peugeot 206, a 2001 model, actually has what they call automatic AC. On the display, you just set the interior temperature you want and the AC does its job. Very nice. It also has automatic windshield wipers. There’s a rain sensor built into the middle of the windshield, so when it rains the wipers start working. They swipe across the glass intemittently as required by the amount of rain hitting the windshield, and they work great.

The 206 is a very small hatchback car with four doors. The back seat is small but OK, and the front seats are comfortable. It has a 5-speed manual transmission -- only a small percentage (somewhere I read 6%, I think) of the cars sold in France even now have automatic transmissions. Personally, I’ve always driven a stick shift.

And the 206 has a big engine for such a small car. How small is the car? It’s 23 inches shorter than a Toyota Corolla, and 35 inches shorter than a Honda Accord. The engine is a two-liter, 90-horsepower, four-cylinder, sixteen-valve, fuel-injected, turbo-powered diesel. It has plenty of pickup and develops a lot of torque for going up hills.

So two years later, what do I think about the Peugeot? What are French cars really like? Are they comfortable? Reliable? Fun to drive? Economical?

I say yes to all of the above. The 206 has 60,000 miles on it now. I recently had a breakdown when I was out on the road about 75 miles north of Saint-Aignan. It was something called the Damper pulley that failed. I limped into a Peugeot garage that afternoon. They replaced the Damper pulley because it had broken, and also the timing belt because it’s supposed to be replaced at 65,000 miles anyway. Peugeot picked up 40% of the cost of the Damper pulley repair when I called the company’s customer service line a few days later. They said the Damper pulley wasn’t scheduled for replacement until 100,000 miles.

I get between 40 and 50 miles to the gallon of diesel fuel. Diesel fuel costs about 1.05 euros a litre right now, at the best prices -- that’s about $4.75 a gallon in U.S. terms. The tank holds 50 liters, or about 13 U.S. gallons, so I can easily go 500 miles on a tank of gas or even 600 miles if I’m on the road and driving at no more than 60 mph.

The one thing the Peugeot doesn’t have that I would really like is cruise control (un régulateur de vitesse in French). I have a heavy foot, so I have to be careful. The car will cruise nicely at 80 mph or even 90 mph, but speed limits in France are strictly enforced now. On two-lane highways the limit is 55 mph, on four-lane roads it’s 65, and on the autoroute it’s 80 mph or so (130 kph).

Some of the other good features of the Peugeot are headline-aiming -- you can adjust the headlight beam up or down to adapt to the load you are carrying or to traffic conditions. It also has removable rear seat cushions, so the rear seat backs can fold down pretty flat and give you a lot of cargo or dog room when you have only two passengers.

13 November 2005

Two more Chinon wineries

Finishing up my account of our trip to Chinon in late October, I want to mention two more wineries that we think make very good red wines. One is a place we have been to three or four times now, the Château de Ligré in the village of Ligré on the south side of the Indre river 5 or so miles southeast of Chinon itself. Here's a site in French.

Ligré has a modern tasting room run by a very vivacious and talkative woman that we like. We have bought some bottles there before, but normally we buy the wine in bulk. We have our own little plastic barrels that they fill up for us. The 2004 red is very good -- fruity but with good body and fairly dry. The woman who runs the tasting room always calls on an employee to take us down into the cellar, where she fills our 10-litre jugs using what looks a little like the hose and spout you use to fill your car with gas at the service station.

The employee is a wiry little woman in her 50s, I imagine. She is also very friendly and talkative. We chat about the weather and the grapes, and once she told us that she has been an employee and resident at the château since she was young girl. I got the impression she was raised by the older woman who still lives part-time in the château, and who she called la grand-mère, the grandmother. Thanks to Candy and John, here's a picture of her and us tasting the wine.

You can see our white plastic jugs, not yet filled. When we buy 20 litres, we have the equivalent of 26 bottles of good red Chinon for about three euros a bottle. We bottle it ouselves, at home. Here's a picture of Walt bottling this batch a day or two later, down in our "cellar".


Our last wine stop of the day was at a place that we hadn't visited before but that came highly recommended. It's Charles Joguet in the village of Sazilly, just a few miles from Ligré. We were lucky to have one of the winery's owners, Alain Delaunay, host a tasting for us. Mr. Delaunay speaks English and has traveled to California -- Kermit Lynch of Berkeley is his importer -- so we were able to ask him a lot of questions about the language of wine and the process of wine-making. It was a very nice session, and the wines were fabulous. We tasted the 2003s, at least 6 of them. We saved the 2004s for a future visit. The 2003s are especially good, I think, because the weather that year was so hot and dry. The 2003 Chinons resemble California wines, I think -- they are much fruitier and more alcoholic than Chinon reds normally are.

On the way back home that night, we stopped in a SuperU supermarket in the town called L'Ile-Bouchard. We bought chicken thighs and fresh vegetables, and a baguette, and we drove the hour or so back to Saint-Aignan. We cooked dinner and had a nice meal with good Charles Joguet 2003 Chinon red and some cheese. Here's a picture of some of the cheeses we had that week, including Epoisses, Neufchâtel, chèvre, tomme de Savoie, Sainte-Maure, bleu de Bresse, mimolette, and of course camembert.