31 August 2011

Mortagne-au-Perche

Mortagne-au-Perche is one of the three main towns in the Perche region, which at one time was a county ruled over by a count. All three — Mortagne, Bellême, and Nogent-le-Rotrou — claim to be the ancient capital of the county.

Mortagne is known as the center of blood sausage production
in France, and that's one of the reasons why I wanted to go there.

Our gîte was closest to Mortagne, where we went to the tourist office to get Internet access. We also spent a morning in Bellême, which was beautiful. Mortagne has a fine old historic district, and I'll post pictures I took there later.

The white paint job makes the building stand out.

Across the street from the Mortagne tourist office was this old house with a turret. According to the plaque on the side of the building, it was built in the 16th century and was an inn. It's been remodeled and modified over the centuries, like most old buildings, but much of it is still intact.

Un cadran solaire, or sundial

The sundial is a striking feature, along with the turret on the corner. The plaque says the sundial was probably carved into the façade in the mid-1600s.

The "house with a turret" in Mortagne-au-Perche

Mortagne was a prettier, livelier town than I thought it would be. The blood sausage —boudin noir in French — was excellent, by the way.

30 August 2011

Restaurants, croissants, and friends

We've gotten busy again. Our friends Evelyn and Lewis arrived in Saint-Aignan yesterday afternoon. They're staying with us. We met them through an Internet forum 10 years ago. They came to visit us in Saint-Aignan the first time in 2004, and this is their fourth visit I think. We've also visited them at their house in Alabama — me twice, Walt once.

Last week, in a town called Le Mêle-sur-Sarthe, we saw
a man selling live chickens and ducks at the market.

Last night we went to the Agnès Sorel restaurant in Genillé, down near Loches, for dinner. We were joined by other American friends who live just down the road from us, on the other side of Saint-Aignan. The conversation was good, the food and service were excellent, and the view from the restaurant window out onto the Genillé church was gorgeous.

In Le Mêle-sur-Sarthe, where we went on vacation last week

We ate gaspacho, gambas, pigeon, tournedos, sweetbreads, turbot, foie gras, pineapple, mousse au chocolat, goat cheese, camembert, and many more delicious foods (not everybody had everything on that list!). We had a bottle of Touraine Sauvignon (Blanc) from a winemaker in nearby Saint-Julien-de-Chedon, and a bottle of red Cabernet Franc wine from a vintner over in Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, on the other side of Tours.

A woman selling strawberries at the market in Le Mêle

This morning I have a pan of croissants aux amandes in the oven, because I know Lewis loves them (and so do I — here's a link to the recipe). Yesterday I made a big pot of sauce bolognaise (ragù in Italian) using fresh tomatoes from our vegetable garden and meat from the supermarket that we ground ourselves. If their are any ripe eggplants in the garden, I'll make lasagne at noon. Otherwise, it'll be spaghettis bolognaise. Meantime, I'm writing this blog post.

The Bœuf Noir — Black Ox — hotel in Le Mêle,
between Mortagne-au-Perche and Alençon

As you can tell, it's busy. The weather is beautiful. We plan to go to the zoo this afternoon, after a morning of taking it easy. Tomorrow we'll drive over to Bourgueil to have lunch with Amy, the blogger who writes (or used to) the blog called Chit'lin's and Camembert.

An old house down an alleyway
in Le Mêle-sur-Sarthe (Perche)


Amy is also the the author of a recently published book called Die for Me. She is making lunch for us. On Thursday, E & L are driving back to Paris for a few days there, and Walt's going with them. A cousin of his just got married back in Albany and the couple are coming to Paris for their honeymoon. Walt wants to take them out to dinner in a good Paris restaurant as their wedding present.

I don't have any slivered almonds to put on top, but the
croissants with almond cream cooked inside will still taste good.


Okay, the croissants aux amandes are ready. The sun is streaming in through the front windows. The cat is fed, and I hear Walt coming back from his walk with Callie the Collie. Another day in paradise...

29 August 2011

Walks, Perche-style

When we go for walks at La Renaudière, which is the name of the hamlet and vineyard where we live near Saint-Aignan, we sometimes see deer, rabbits, badgers, or foxes. We see a lot of birds and sometimes other dogs and people. We even see a donkey now and then.

This is two pictures of the same cow, pasted together.
Looks like a typical Normandy cow to me.

At La Bouée in the Perche, we got a new view of the world. We saw horses and we saw cows and steers. Callie is not used to being close to such big animals, and she was afraid. One morning, a whole herd of white cattle came right up to the fence along the road to check us out. Callie kept her distance. She was obviously nervous.

These white cows and steers came over the ogle the tourists.
I think they might be Charolais cattle.


Up the road between La Bouée and the main highway is a farm complex called La Bodonière. It includes a huge barn/stable along with two big farmhouses. A couple of times we saw a car parked in front of one house, and once or twice the shutters on that house were open, so there were people there. We never saw them.

The road out of La Bouée one morning...

...and one of the farmhouses down the lane, near the highway

The weather in the Perche region was iffy. It rained. The sun shone. Clouds formed. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled. Two evenings, we had a fire in the big fireplace to take the chill off and try to dissipate the damp. Le Perche is not far north but the weather there is different.

Meuh !

In fact, the Perche includes the northern part of our département, the Loir-et-Cher, and La Bouée is just over 100 miles from Saint-Aignan. But when Walt came home on Thursday, he said the temperature was 25ºC here and he was sitting out on the terrace in shorts and a T-shirt. At La Bouée, we were wearing fleece and sweaters and we had built a roaring fire.

28 August 2011

The gîte near Mortagne

The gîte rural is located at a place called La Bouée, on the territory of the commune (township) of Coulimer and eight kilometers south of the town called Mortagne-au-Perche. Le Perche is the name of the old province. It's the lower edge of Normandy, squeezed in just above the Loire Valley and the Beauce wheat-growing region southwest of Paris. It's three hours north of Saint-Aignan.

La Bouée, near Mortagne-au-Perche

La Bouée is about a mile off the main road, the D931, from Mortagne to Mamers, and a few miles south of a village called Parfondeval ("By the Valley Bottom"). You turn off onto a narrow paved lane, go about a mile, and then turn left onto a gravel path. It goes up for a few hundred meters through a "tunnel" of overhanging tree limbs and you arrive at the house. It is nearly totally isolated. There's one other house on the lane, out near the main road. It's a big farm. There are two other houses at the end of the paved lane, but they're far enough away to remain unseen.

A view of the house and barn from down on the road.
Walt built a fire in the fireplace Wednesday afternoon.


I wondered about the name La Bouée. A bouée is a buoy — what's called a "sea buoy" on the North Carolina coast, where I grew up. It's a kind of floating channel marker that helps ship captains navigate dangerous waters, find their way into port, and avoid sandbars and reefs. Why would a place out in the middle of farm and horse country be called "The Buoy"?

Marie and Callie walking down the road toward daylight

The woman who owns and operates the house called La Bouée as a gîte rural — a furnished vacation rental, we would call it, or, in British, a self-catering holiday accommodation — gave me an answer. The house was home to several hermits, or monks, 200 or 300 years ago. It had a connection with an abbey —in French, une abbaye, pronounced [ah-bay-EE]. It's not far, phonetically, from l'abbaye [lah-bay-EE] to la bouée [lah-boo-AY], and the local pronunciation ended up changing the name in an unexpected way. That's what she said.

Another view of the road out

The house is isolated, so you have to drive everywhere (except for walks with the dog). The big town, Mortagne (pop. 5,000), is five miles north, with shops, restaurants, cafés, and supermarkets. The village of Coulimer is three miles west, but there's no bakery there, only a little grocery store. When we tried to buy bread in the store, we were told there was none available. We could see half a baguette on the bread shelf, but it must have already been spoken for. North, at Parfondeval, we saw no shops at all.

The barn as you arrive at La Bouée

The house itself is an old stone farmhouse with two large bedrooms, a small kitchen, a decent-size living/dining room, and a bathroom downstairs. A third bedroom (smaller) and second bathroom (more modern) are upstairs. The kitchen is well equipped, and there is plenty of hot water. There are three fireplaces in the house, and we used the big one in the living room. There's an old stone barn right next to the house. This year, the whole property is surrounded by fields of tall corn.

The barn at La Bouée, right out the living room door

We enjoyed it, despite the fact that there was no internet connection or cell phone signal. That took some getting used to. It was very quiet. Staying there for a few days made us realize how much we have come to depend on being able to look up everything, from words to maps to tourist information, on the web. We had to go to the tourist office in Mortagne to get a wifi connection and an internet fix.

The old house named La Bouée

I'm back in Saint-Aignan now. And BTW, my family in N.C. is fine as far as I know. I talked to my mother yesterday at about noon her time. She said there was a lot of wind and rain, but nothing terrifying. The worst problem was that the electricity had gone off so she couldn't make coffee or cook — or use AC or heat or look at blogs. It's a big pain when the power is off. I'll call again in a few hours and get an update.

27 August 2011

Valençay's wine cellar

Valençay is where the great French chef Carême worked in the early 19th century, when Napoleon's foreign minister Talleyrand lived in the château there.

The wine cellar at Valençay...

...is right under this end of the château.

You can visit Carême's kitchen and wine cellar in the basement of the château de Valençay.

26 August 2011

Palluau scenes

Last weekend, I noticed this window and this door in an old wall up near the château and church in the village of Palluau-sur-Indre, about 25 miles south of Saint-Aignan.

A window and a door in Palluau-sur-Indre

Palluau is one of just a few "perched villages" in the area around Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. It's also one of my favorite places. In summer it feels méridional ("southern") and in winter it feels abandoned.

Palluau

The massive towers of the old château rise up over the village at the top of a steep hill above the Indre River.



25 August 2011

A castle made of sugar

Over in Valençay last Saturday, we stopped in at a pâtisserie — a French pastry shop — that Marie had read about in the French Routard guidebook. The pastry chef's name is Jacky Chichery, and his shop is on the little traffic circle at the end of the street that leads to to the château entrance.

Valençay en sucre

Jacky Chichery has "built" a model of the Château de Valençay out of sugar and it's on display in the tea room next to his pastry shop. Because it sits in front of a big mirrored wall, you can see me taking the picture, and Marie as well.

The J. Chichery pastry shop is...

...just across the street from the « Prince de Talley Rand »
café and bar.

24 August 2011

Valençay perspectives

A view of the château terrace from inside at Valençay

The church in Valençay, which you can see
in the distance in the first photo

23 August 2011

Berry farmhouses

Rural scene near the village of Pellevoisin
in the Berry province


22 August 2011

Two more castles in the Berry

The Berry is an old French province that has only historical and cultural significance nowadays. Its largest city is Bourges, with its amazing cathedral. Saint-Aignan is located at the northwest edge of the Berry province and the extreme eastern edge of the old province called the Touraine (where we live).

One of my favorite places in the Berry is a "perched village" on the north side of the Indre River, downstream from Châteauroux, called Palluau. It was the home territory of Louis de Buade (1622-1698), governor of La Nouvelle-France, which became the Province of Quebec in Canada. Louis de Buade's noble title was Comte de Frontenac et de Palluau.

The Frontenac family's chateau in Palluau-sur-Indre

The Château du Mée is out in the countryside a few kilometers northeast of Palluau-sur-Indre, sort of on the way to Bouges and Valençay. I posted about it once before — here — with more pictures.

Le Château du Mée between Palluau and Pellevoisin

I haven't been able to find much information about Mée. If you look at my older post you'll see comments from Marie, whose been visiting for a few days. And you'll also find this anonymous comment: This chateau is indeed privately owned! It's empty inside, but they restored the outside. It's on a big domain, and about 1 km further on the domain there's another chateau, but then a chateau where the owners live. That chateau is even more beautiful and bigger and in perfect shape, also inside.

21 August 2011

Bouges-le-Château

The Château de Bouges is in the town of Bouges-le-Château just a few miles south of Valençay. Both are in the ancient Berry province and the modern département de l'Indre. My friend Marie and I drove over there yesterday afternoon, just to look around.

A restaurant in Bouges-le-Château

We also went out to enjoy the air-conditioning in the car. Yesterday was the hottest-feeling day we've had all summer. Walt says we might already have had a day with a higher high temperature, but the humidity yesterday was unusually high for the Loire Valley area and you could really feel the heat.

The Château de Bouges, between Châteauroux and Valençay

The château at Bouges is what is called une folie — a folly — and was built in 1765. The village itself is much older. The château is owned by the French government. It's in a big park that includes formal gardens, an arboretum, extensive greenhouses, and stables where visitors can admire a collection of old horse-drawn carriages that belonged to the last private owners of the property.

Nice perspective, very French

The church isn't very old either. A more ancient one was demolished over the course of history, and the current church dates back to the late 1700s, like the château. It felt nice and cool inside the church yesterday afternoon.

The church in Bouges and one of its windows

The Château de Bouges appears to have been modeled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, but since it was built at exactly the same time it can't really be a replica of that more famous building.

20 August 2011

TGIF (or ...T or ...S or ...M or ...W)

This blogging thing is out of control. I just don't have time to keep up right now. And I keep forgetting to take my camera when I go out on excursions and shopping trips with our friend Marie who is visiting from Normandy. I may not be able to post much next week, because I won't have either the time or an Internet connection while we are on "vacation."

The weather finally turned sunny and warm yesterday. Our afternoon mission, after a morning at home cooking and then a lunch that lasted until 3:00 p.m., was a shopping trip. Marie wanted to go to a town called Château-Renault, just north of Amboise, to buy some shoes in a factory outlet store she knew about. She bought three pairs.

The company that makes shoes in Château-Renault is called Arche. The shoes are apparently very stylish and trendy. Marie says the prices at the factory outlet are much lower than prices for the same shoes in the shops in Rouen or Paris. I'll take her word for it. I looked at men's shoes for a few minutes but realized immediately that I'm neither stylish, trendy, nor rich. So I went out and sat in the car (which was parked in the shade), listened to Les Grosses Têtes on the radio, played with the GPS, read maps, and just bided my time.

When we left Château-Renault, we drove little backroads through villages called Morand and Dame-Marie-les-Bois toward Mesland (a well-known Loire wine village) and Onzain. At one point we drove over the Bordeaux-Paris TGV line just as a high-speed train whizzed by, direction Paris. The we crossed over the A10 autoroute, which was crowded with cars and trucks headed somewhere à fond la caisse — "like bats out of hell." We just toddled along on country lanes, looking and talking.

I thought Dame-Marie-les-Bois was especially pretty, and I'd never driven through the village before. I'll go back with my camera one day. Mesland is pretty too. We knew people who lived there when we first moved to Saint-Aignan, so we went up there frequently. Now those friends have moved to Nice.

One of our "goals" on the way back to Saint-Aignan was to buy some food for today's lunch. There's an Intermarché supermarket in Onzain, and I wanted to stop and shop there because it was after 6:00 p.m. and the supermarkets here don't stay open past about 7:00 or 7:30. We might not get back to Saint-Aignan in time to do our courses, I was thinking.

We bought a pintade for today's main meal. That's a guinea hen, and it's a standard bird here in France. Marie asked the butcher if the pintade came with les abats — that's the "giblets," meaning the liver, heart, and gizzard. The butcher said no, no abats. Marie asked why.

"These days, most people don't know how to cook the giblets," the butcher said (I'm translating). "Customers don't usually want them. The people who process the poultry for sale have figured that out, and also realized that they can sell the livers, gizzards, and hearts separately to people who do like them. That way, they make more money." So that's the story of giblets. When we buy chickens or guinea hens from the vendor at the open-air market, les abats are always there inside the bird, ready to cook and savor.

As we looked around in Intermarché, I happened to see pizzas in the freezer cabinet. I told Marie I wanted to buy one for our supper, because Walt especially likes pizza. Marie stopped me. Isn't there a good pizzeria in Saint-Aignan? she said. Let's go there and get pizza. It'll be better. So that's what we did.

The woman who runs the pizzeria, Véronique, is a good businesswoman. She sort of vaguely recognizes me, because I do go there once in a while and used to have dinner there more often. She always greets me warmly, kissing me French-style on both cheeks and generally making a fuss about seeing me again, as if I were a long-lost friend. Besides, the pizzas her restaurant makes really are delicious.

As we parked the car on the market square, I saw our friends C. and D. sitting at a table outside Chez Constant, one of the town's main café-restaurants. They were basking in the warm late-afternoon sun and enjoying a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. We went over and talked to them for a few minutes. Then we came back home, opened a bottle of Chablis Premier Cru (Chardonnay) wine, and sat out on the terrace until about 10:30 eating our pizzas and talking.

La vie est belle, n'est-ce pas ?

19 August 2011

Winery visit but no photos here

Our visit to Catherine Roussel's Clos Roche Blanche wine-making caves yesterday was really interesting. Mme Roussel said it was okay for us to take some pictures, but she asked that no pictures be posted on the 'net. I'll honor that request.

One of Saint-Aignan's restaurants, Chez Constant

Clos Roche Blanche exports a lot of its wine to the U.S. The wines are whites from Sauvignon Blanc grapes in several styles, and red from Cabernet Franc and Côt (a.k.a. Malbec). The cave is a series of "galleries" carved out of the soft limestone rock of a steep hillside. The spot where we stood around a barrel talking and tasting wines was 20 meters (70 feet) below ground. Again, sorry about the lack of photos.

A shop called "The Workshop" in old Saint-Aignan

The rain held off in the afternoon, and we had a good lunch with our friends but we ate inside because it looked like the skies might open up any minute. After lunch, we went outside and played with Callie and our friends' Bernese Mountain Dog, Gracie.

Two very old buildings just off the main square
in the old part of Saint-Aignan


The sun's out this morning and we are supposed to have a hot, dry weekend. The grapegrowers, including Catherine Roussel and our neighbor Bruno Denis (Domaine de la Renaudie) will be able to relax for a few days. I saw Bruno out in the vineyard a couple of days ago and he said the stress level was high because of the negative effects the recent damp, warm weather could have on the grapes, which are nearly ripe.

The church in Saint-Aignan dominates the "skyline".

The harvest, called les vendanges in French, will start in 10 or 12 days, which is earlier than usual. With any luck, the weather will be nice and the grapes will continue to ripen and sweeten up, sans mold or mildew, over these last days of August.

18 August 2011

Showers of rain and wine

Our friend Marie from Rouen arrived yesterday for a short stay before we all drive up to the Perche to meet other friends at the gîte we've rented up there. Marie is an English teacher. I met her 10 or 11 years ago on an Internet forum where the discussion was all about English grammar, pronunciation, and expressions.

Since I spent a year in Rouen long ago (1972-73) as an English-language teaching assistant, Marie and I had a lot in common. In fact, she was a student back then and I lived in a little apartment right next to a school cafeteria where Marie says she often had lunch or an afternoon cup of coffee on school days. We figure we probably passed each other on the street several times during that year I spent up there, but we didn't meet until 30 years later.

Can you see the rain in the photo I took from our "front porch"?

It was in 2001, while Walt and I were on vacation in the Loire Valley, that Marie first invited me to her house for dinner with her family. I've been there several times since, including a weekend Walt and spent there when we went to Normandy in 2006 (links to posts about Rouen and Dieppe). I can't believe that was already five years ago.

It's obviously raining in this picture
taken out the kitchen window.


This morning we are going over to the Clos Roche Blanche winery on the other side of our village to taste and buy some wine. Clos Roche Blanche is owned and operated by Catherine Roussel and Didier Barouillet, who grow grapes "biodynamically" — in other words, organically. Their wines are recognized as some of the best wines made in the Loire Valley. There's a good article about Clos Roche Blanche, with photos, on the blog called wineterroirs.com.

It's good we have a covered terrace...

The weather yesterday turned warm, muggy, and thundery, with frequent showers all afternoon. It was warm enough for us to be able to sit out on the terrace until late evening after Marie arrived. We were glad there were no mosquitoes. We did have a bat or two gliding all around the terrace right around nightfall.

The weather is still muggy this morning, with some wind. Thundershowers are supposed to continue today. Our plan is to have lunch outside with friends, who intend to grill some chicken sausages. Let's hope the rains stay away.

17 August 2011

For Bill in NH California

I can't remember exactly when "Bill in New Hampshire" first started commenting on this blog. I think it was about 2½ years ago. If you've been reading the blog and the comments for a while, you surely know him. His were the comments that often made you — or me, anyway — laugh out loud. They were always good-natured and sensible. The humor never felt forced and was generously shared.

"Bill in NH" on his 2009 visit to Saint-Aignan

Bill became "Bill in California" a year or more ago, when he and his wife Mary moved from NH to Modesto to be closer to family. They had lived in California, including in the SF Bay Area, way back when, for 20 years. He was happy to be back there, and wrote in an e-mail:
"Well, we've gotten mostly settled in but I still quiver and cower at the sight of a cardboard box. We couldn't have done it without the help of our children and grandchildren. It's being a lot of fun being this close to them; we've always all hit it off well with each other with much humor involved. Giggling with bright teenagers makes Grandpère feel young again."
Bill in California sent me this a few months ago, captioned
"Best product award for the 350th year in a row...."

Bill had also traveled to France several times over the years, including a trip to Saint-Aignan a long time ago, evidently. In the summer of 2009, he wrote to me and said he wanted to return to Saint-Aignan and stay again in the Grand Hôtel down on the river. He wanted to meet me and Walt. Here's how he introduced himself, to prepare us for the visit:
"It seems unfair that I know so much about you whereas you know almost nothing about me. In very brief, I'm a 69-year-old retired software developer who grew up in Minnesota, spent 20 years in California, 3 years in Boston, 2 years in Edinburgh, and now 18 years in balmy New Hampshire. I'm an affable geezer who loves France. My first visit was a business trip in about 1965 to Paris. I should have just stayed there. I have no criminal record as long as you don't count 'creating a public disturbance' while protesting at a Sarah Palin rally. If I had a religious affiliation it would be with the New England chapter of the Holy Moley Society. I spend much of my time now supporting a dog rescue group and vicariously living in France via the internet."
He took the train down from Paris in September and we picked him up at the gare d'Onzain. We had lunch at a restaurant called L'Herbe Rouge in the village called Valaire — here's a link to the post I wrote about it.

Walt and Bill after lunch at our house in mid-September 2009.

Bill loved France, dogs, and wine, he told us. How could we not hit it off? And his humor. Here's an example of a joke he sent us:
An Englishman, a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman, a Gurkha, a Latvian, a Turk, an Aussie, a German, a Yank, an Egyptian, a Japanese, a Mexican, a Spaniard, a Russian, a Pole, a Lithuanian, a Swede, a Finn, an Israeli, a Romanian, a Bulgarian, a Serb, a Swiss, a Greek, a Singaporean, an Italian, a Norwegian, a Libyan, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Zulu, an Indabele, a Xhosa, an Afrikaner, and an Ethiopian walk into a night club.

The bouncer says, "Sorry, I can't let you in without a Thai."
Groan. LOL. Before the trip, he asked me for copies of a few of the photos of Callie the Collie that I had posted here over the months and years. As I knew he loved dogs, I didn't think much about it. When Bill came to Saint-Aignan, he brought us this set of photos that he had had printed and framed for us. They hang on a wall downstairs now.

When our friend Jean-Luc died here in Saint-Aignan a month or two after Bill's visit, I think I wrote something about how my father died suddenly in his sleep at age 64. Bill told me in an e-mail:
"My father also died suddenly, at age 59, of a stroke. He was on an airplane and had just finished sharing a joke with a friend. After a few moments his friend looked over and he was dead, still with a smile on his face. That's what I'd like."
And that is what has happened. I got an e-mail day before yesterday from Bill's wife Mary telling me that Bill died suddenly last Friday, August 12. He was 71. He had been in declining health for a while. I'll always remember him with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. I wish he had been able to bring his family and friends to France for one more trip, as he told me he dreamed of doing. He asked us if we knew of a big gîte near Saint-Aignan that could accommodate a crowd.

That's not going to happen now. I'm just glad he had the gumption to tell us he was coming to Saint-Aignan back in 2009 and that he wanted to meet us and (I think especially) Callie. I'll miss his e-mails and his comments. Rest in peace, Bill.