30 April 2012

Late April, looking toward May

I imagine you're tired of hearing about it, but — if you haven't been paying attention — we've been getting a lot of rain here France this month. Today the month of April ends, and we will have had the rainiest and chilliest April in the past 10 years. It came on the heels of the warmest, driest March in recent history. Talk about des hauts et des bas... ups and downs.

Yesterday, it again rained for most of the day, and it came down hard in the afternoon. There was a lot of wind, pushing big purple-gray clouds across the sky from the southeast toward the northwestat a fast clip. The ground was squishy wet underfoot, since it had rained most of the night.

Looking across the vineyard toward La Renaudière,
outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher


We didn't have damaging winds here in Touraine, but the Alps region and the Massif Central to our south and east did, with a lot of trees down across roads and power lines. The news is reporting right now that many households are still without electricity and some have had their roof blown off. There's been flooding in areas along the Atlantic Coast, where rivers have overflowed their banks, and there was a tornado down near Toulouse.

Lots of cloud on a Sunday morning

That said, it didn't rain during my morning walk in the vineyard with Callie, and the rain also let up late in the afternoon, when we went into Saint-Aignan and had a glass of wine with friends at the café called Le Lapin Blanc (The White Rabbit). We took Callie on a stroll around the town in advance of the appointed meeting time, and she enjoyed an urban kind of walk for a change. Dogs are welcome in French cafés and restaurants.

The greening of the vineyard is very late this year.

Tomorrow is a holiday in France. Le premier mai (May Day) is when labor unions organize marches and parades, when the right-wing Front National celebrates Joan of Arc and her victories against invading foreigners (those perfidious English) 600 years ago, and, this year, when the candidates in the presidential election will be holding rallies. A lot of people will also take today off work, it being a single workday stuck in between a Sunday and a holiday. That's called a pont, or "bridge," in France — les gens font le pont (they "make the bridge") so that they can enjoy a four-day weekend.

The dirt road through the Renaudière vineyard

In addition, Tuesday May 8 is also a holiday — it's Victory in Europe (VE) Day, marking the end of World War II. That'll be another pont for a lot of people. May is full of holidays in France, including not just the 1st and the 8th, but also the 17th (Ascension Day, a Catholic holiday that always falls on a Thursday) and the 28th (La Pentecôte, another Catholic holiday, which includes a Monday off work and out of school for many in France).

The presidential election is next Sunday, the 6th. The latest poll shows Hollande leading Sarkozy by 53 to 47%. Everybody here is hoping for good news in May on the political front (however each person defines that) and on the weather scene (unanimously wishing for sunshine). And, especially, for some nice long weekends.

29 April 2012

Haricots de Soissons and cornbread

Our bread delivery service suddenly stopped on Thursday, with no warning. La porteuse de pain ("the bread-bringer") stopped by Tuesday morning as usual, and she didn't say anything about vacations or boulangerie closures. Usually she gives us advance notice when she won't be making her rounds, and even leaves us a little printed note specifying stop and re-start dates.

On Friday morning Walt drove down to the village — it's two miles — to see if he could buy a baguette and find out what was going on. The boulangerie was closed, with the big window shades pulled down. Fermeture à partir du mardi 24 jusqu'au dimanche 6 mai, a note on the door said. Mystère, for us.

I hope the baker will come back. The unannounced closure is so unusual that it makes me wonder what is really going on. This baker, who took over the business a couple of years ago when the old baker and his family moved to Saumur, makes some of the best bread around. His bread is so good that I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up in a bigger town where he'd have more customers.


American-style cornbread made with yogurt
instead of buttermilk


Walt drove into Saint-Aignan to get bread from another baker there, whose baguettes are also very good. On Thursday, we had thrown together a pan of cornbread at the last minute, when 11:00 came without the familiar horn toot announcing the arrival of our daily baguette. Cornbread is easy and fast, as long as you have the ingredients: cornmeal, flour, sour milk (or yogurt), an egg, and some baking powder.

Cooked Soissons beans with a teaspoon for scale

And cornbread is good — no doubt about that. It was perfect with the lunch we were having: Soissons beans and sausages. Haricots de Soissons are giant white beans that I've written about before, here. Soissons is a town in the north of France, in Picardy and near Laon and Reims (Champagne), and I did a post about it here.

Soissons beans cooked with Toulouse sausages

Soissons beans are a little like big white Lima beans, which are also called butter beans in some places. They certainly aren't native to Soissons, but they've been a major crop and gourmet specialty there since the mid-1700s. Like black, kidney, white, and pinto beans, they were originally a South American plant. Beans were brought to Europe during the period of exploration, a few centuries ago.

Another shot just because...

The difference between Soissons beans and big Lima beans is that the 'soissons' [swah-'sõ] are fatter and keep their shape better when you cook them. The skins don't slide off as easily. Still, you have to cook them at very low temperature for a long time, after soaking them in cold water for 12 hours. Then other day, I cooked them at a bare simmer for three hours, at least. And then I put them in a baking dish with poached sausages — Toulouse sausages, in this case — and let them good for another hour at 325ºF, until the sausages had browned.

The beans are flavored with diced onions and celery.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the acceptance of the potato in France as food fit for people and not just farm animals nearly killed off the Soissons bean. It had been the major source of dietary starch until Parmentier popularized the spud. The cultivation of the big beans declined over the decades, until a group of bean farmers around the town of Soissons started growing and selling them again. To promote Soissons beans and encourage production, 15 or 20 years ago they formed an association called La Confrérie Gastronomique des Compagnons du Haricot de Soissons.

Walt put some chipotle tabasco sauce on his beans.

Actually, the beans I cooked the other day came from a supermarket up in Picardy, but they were imported from Spain — but I don't know where they were grown. I've never found them here in the Loire Valley. Often when I buy bags of dried beans here, they are imported from Portugal but the label will specify where they were grown (often in the U.S. for black-eyed peas or pinto beans).

Whatever the case, it seems that the climate and soil in northern France are perfect for Soissons beans. The mild weather encourages the beans to grow big and fat and to remain tender. The skins don't toughen up the way they would under a hotter sun. They really are excellent.

28 April 2012

Blogger bottlenecks

Okay, I'm having so much trouble with this new Blogger authoring tool that I'm about to give up. This morning I wrote three or four paragraphs about my subject of the day, including several links to earlier posts on related subjects. Then it all just disappeared.

I'm also having a lot of trouble inserting pictures and resizing and placing them in the page layout. No setting seems to stick. You do a lot of fiddling, and then suddenly everything reverts to an earlier form and locations. There's no explaining it. Getting line spacing right is also problematic.

Now that I have the old authoring tool back, I can post this picture
to show you how recent rains have turned everything very green.


So I give up for today. Later today I'll work on the post I wanted to publish and schedule it for tomorrow. Sorry.

I need to find out if there's a way to go back to the old Blogger interface for composing posts.

Sunset on a rare recent clear afternoon

P.S. I found a way to get back to the old interface. If you don't have a Blogger blog, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about...

27 April 2012

Donkey tail plant

A few years ago I went to North Carolina to visit family and friends. When I came home, I brought back to France a tiny cutting — not more than three or four little round leaves on a stem — of a plant known commonly as a Donkey's Tail. It's a sedum — Sedum morganianum is the Latin name. It's from Mexico and is sometimes called Burro's Tail or Lamb's Tail.

I don't think I had ever seen such a plant before, even though I had a lot of succulents planted in pots and in the ground when we lived in San Francisco. Out there, where the temperature very rarely goes down to freezing, you could grow plants like these outdoors year-round. But I'd never seen one like this before.

On a subsequent trip to N.C., I went to visit an old friend — a distant cousin I grew up with — who had bought an old house in the neighborhood where we lived and was in the process of renovating it. I was surprised to see that he had a gigantic Donkey's tail plant in a hanging pot on his south-facing back porch. The long leaf-covered stems hung down a foot or more in a huge mass of fat green leaves.

It turns out that Sedum morganianum is very easy to grow, despite its fragile appearance. One web site says: "Donkey's tails are pretty forgiving plants — if you forget to water them once or twice, they'll probably be just fine. If you want your plant to really thrive, make sure to provide strong light, fertilizer during the growing season, and adequate moisture during the growing season. Too often, these are left to fend for themselves, simply because they can. But with a little effort, the plant can be a remarkable specimen." I bring it inside in the wintertime.

The Donkey's Tail is easy to propagate too. I have a second one in another pot that came from a cutting. It's been neglected. Last summer I put it outside and hardly watered it at all. I thought keeping such plants dry was the key to keeping them alive. The neglected sedum has grown to be about as big as the parent plant in these pictures. This summer, I plan to fertilize and water the plants more generously to see how big I can get them to grow.

Caution: I just read on another web page that the sap from this sedum's leaves can cause infections and even blindness if you get it in your eyes. I don't know if it's true but better safe than sorry.

26 April 2012

« Alouettes sans tête »

Yesterday I made the beef roll-ups that are called « alouettes sans tête » in French — "headless larks." Another name for them is simply "headless birds" — « oiseaux sans tête » — which some sources say is a Belgian term. And finally, they are called « paupiettes » or "roulades." You might find all these terms used interchangeably. And there are no actual larks on the ingredient list.

The recipe I made came from an idea that a Frenchwoman named Françoise left in a comment on my earlier post about turkey breast paupiettes. Françoise said that, in Provence, people cook thin slices of beef rolled up around a stuffing of pork, onions, garlic, and herbs. They cook them in tomato sauce with green olives. "The name of this dish is alouettes sans tête. Try it, it is delicious !" she wrote.

Making paupiettes for alouettes sans tête
So I did. I used the same pork, mushroom, and onion stuffing I had made for the turkey breast roll-ups and saved in the freezer, adding to it some chopped sun-dried tomatoes and green olives for extra flavor. Then I made the paupiettes by just spreading the stuffing on beefsteaks flattened with a meat pounder/tenderizer before rolling them up and tying them into little packets. I didn't think I needed to wrap them in strips of bacon this time.

Brown them in oil or butter
The next step is to brown the paupiettes in butter or oil, turning them so they brown on all sides. That takes about 10 minutes.

Pour on tomato sauce and let them simmer
When they are browned, add about a cup of good tomato sauce to the pan and let the paupiettes simmer in it for an hour or so, adding wine or water as needed to keep the sauce from drying out. You can let them simmer, covered, on top of the stove, or in the oven.

Alouettes sans tête with macaroni
We ate these alouettes sans tête with pasta, but they'd be good with polenta or even rice, I think. One per person is probably enough. Good bread, good red wine, and a nice green salad complete the meal.

25 April 2012

Looking forward

It's another windy, rainy day, with strong gusts from the south bringing in more noxious — for me — pollen. Yesterday wasn't as bad, so at least I had some temporary respite. This morning, my eyes are weepy and my nose is runny. I'm a sight to see, but my allergies were much worse in California than they've been here in the Loire Valley.

That's the sun, not the moon, over the vineyard

I went to see Madame Barbier for a haircut yesterday morning. I told her about my allergy attack — it was obvious that I wasn't feeling or looking great, and I didn't want her to think I had come down with something contagious. When I brought it up, she said her young son has terrible allergies and has been seeing an allergist over in Romorantin for a few years now. He's undergoing désensibilisation treatments. Poor kid.

 A rain of petals under this flowering tree
The French presidential election grinds on, with each candidate accusing the other of pandering to the extremes. They have to get votes somewhere, and there just aren't that many to be had in the political "center" — about 10% of those who voted in the first round of balloting.

Red leaves on my "wild" plum tree

Marine Le Pen has managed to put her far-right Front National party at the center of the top candidates' attention. Both François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy need to appeal to the nearly 20% of the voters who supported Le Pen the other day. French politics is ending up as polarized as U.S. politics. I guess it's always been polarized, but in decades past the Communists and various workers' parties and labor unions were more powerful than the right wing.

Nine years already...
Exactly nine years ago we became the owners of this house outside Saint-Aignan and started winding down our time in California. It'll soon be ten years since I withdrew from the working world. Yesterday on the radio, I heard an interviewer ask a guest where he thought he would be in 10 years' time. His answer was: who knows? I wonder if I wouldn't have given the same answer in April ten years ago.

24 April 2012

Rainy pictures

That's enough about politics for a while. Back to the (lousy) weather. A news story on Télématin a minute ago said that the French are feeling depressed and tired because of the cold rain that has been falling intermittently for weeks now. In fact, at this point it's raining pretty much steadily. Lack of sunshine means lack of vitamin D, and a general imbalance for the human organism.

This flower is no more than a centimeter across — less than half an inch.
I think I wrote earlier than in this part of France you have to make sure you take advantage of every spell of nice weather you get, because it won't last. A while back, we helped our neighbor unload a big piece of furniture out of a truck and put it in his house. He's lived here is whole life. "We really need some rain," he said at that point. "But then when the rain starts it probably won't stop again for a couple of months." Bingo.

Sage getting ready to flower
When I hear people from Great Britain say they come to France for the nice weather, I wonder what it must be like up there. No wonder so many Brits emigrated to North America, Australia, New Zealand, and other sunnier climes over the past four centuries.

I hope the rain will be good for these little plums.
Everything is getting green, though, and there are wildflowers all around. The grapevines are an exception. It must too chilly for them, because their leaves seem to have stopped growing. I'm sure the vines need the moisture, however, and the first sunny days, when they come, will see all the rest of the leaves just pop out.

Buttercups
And it is going to get warmer, according to the forecast. This latest rain episode was brought in by winds from the south. I know, because my pollen allergies kicked in big-time yesterday. Teary eyes, nasal congestion, violent sneezing. It happens every spring, but less here than what I used to suffer in California. I'm allergic to cypress tree pollen, and the cypress grow mostly south of the Loire Valley. So when we get a southerly flow, I'm miserable.

Afternoon skies
 Yesterday was a gloomy day and today looks to be the same. I hope April showers will bring May flowers even prettier and more plentiful than the ones in the photos here.

23 April 2012

Hollande's in the lead, but...

Not to focus on the negative, but IMO the bad news (and biggest surprise) yesterday was the high score of the right-wing Front National candidate in the first round of the French presidential election. Marine Le Pen, successor to her father as head of the FN, pulled in 18% of the vote. That's a higher score than her father ever won. There's a history of people refusing to tell poll-takers that they intend to vote for the far right. They then do it anyway.

The good news, I guess, is the turnout. Slightly more than 80% of the registered voters in France actually voted. They voted in spite of the fact that election day fell right in the middle of spring school vacations, when many people are away from home. Predictions had been that turnout would be much lower.

For the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, the picture looks better than it did a couple of days ago — in a way. If you add up his votes — 27% — and Le Pen's 18%, you get close to the 50% he would need to win a second term in office. His problem, however, is that he can't move too far to the right in an effort to attract the FN vote without risking alienation of the moderate base that is an important part of his party. Besides, Le Pen has never had much good to say about Sarkozy.

In fact, this is the first time that an incumbent president has not won the largest share of the vote in a first-round election. The Socialist Party candidate, François Hollande, got 28% to Sarkozy's 27%, and he is still out-polling the incumbent for the second round of voting, with a 54-to-46 percent advantage. Of course, the voting is still two weeks away...

The centrist candidate, François Bayrou, got just under 10% of the first-round vote this year, after getting twice that in 2007. Who his voters turn to will be an important factor on May 6.

Here's a map showing the French départements and who won the most votes
in each one — red = Hollande, blue = Sarkozy, and black = Le Pen.

Some commentators are saying that the results of the first round constitute a double slap in the face for Sarkozy. Not only did the Socialist candidate get more votes than he did, but the Front National candidate did much better than expected. Sarkozy's effort to get people to vote for him rather than for Le Pen wasn't very effective. In fact, he may have actually helped Le Pen do better.

For the Socialists, just getting through the first round is an important step. They did well in the last election, in 2007, but not quite well enough to win the presidency. Their candidate, Ségolène Royal, got into the second round and actually won 48% of the final vote to Sarkozy's 52%.

In the 2002 election, however, the Socialist Party candidate, Lionel Jospin, was edged out by the FN's Jean-Marie Le Pen, setting up an all-right-wing run-off with incumbent Jacques Chirac. Chirac won a second term as president with more than 80% of the vote. The only Socialist president of France since the 1960s has been François Mitterrand, who served for 14 years (1981-95).

What does the Front National want for France? I'm no expert, but one thing Marine Le Pen says is that France needs to leave the euro zone and go back to using the French franc. She also wants to clamp down on immigration and beef up law-and-order forces. Her party is would try to isolate France and protect it from globalization. Could France go it alone in today's world? Probably not.

Locally, Saint-Aignan and the village we live in gave Sarkozy the most votes, followed closely by Le Pen and Hollande. But on the other side of the river, many of the villages near us went for Le Pen. Blois and its suburbs gave the Socialist Hollande more than 30% of the vote.

But overall in our département, the famously rural Loir-et-Cher, Sarkozy got 28%, Holland got 25%, and Le Pen got 21%. Hollande did slightly better in neighboring, less-rural Indre-et-Loire, centered on the city of Tours, and Le Pen did worse there. Interestingly, Hollande out-polled Sarkozy in the even more rural Indre département just to our south.

22 April 2012

Election Day No. 1 in France

It's finally election day in France. It's the first of two rounds of presidential voting, unless the unexpected happens and one of the 10 candidates gets more that 50% of the vote today. The French president is required to win more than 50% of the vote, so usually there's a run-off election between the top two candidates. That run-off is scheduled to happen in two weeks, on May 6. And by the way, there will be parliamentary elections in a month or two...

Out of the 10 candidates who qualified to be on the ballot, five are polling in double digits this time. The centrist candidate, François Bayrou, will get about 10% of the vote, if the polls are right. The main leftist (Front de Gauche) candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, will get 14% or 15%, as will the extreme right (Front National) candidate, Marine Le Pen.

The top two candidates, according to the polls, are the incumbent (le président sortant), center-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, with 25%, and the center-left (Parti Socialiste Français) challenger, François Hollande, with close to 30%. If things go as predicted, Sarkozy and Hollande will face off on May 6. So we have two more weeks of listening to campaign rhetoric ahead of us, in all likelihood.

Some polls are saying that 30% to 40% of the respondents in all those polls have admitted that they might change their minds at the last minute, so anything can happen. Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, could knock out either of the two leaders. That would essentially ensure the other, more mainstream candidate of victory. The leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon could conceivably do the same — he surged in the polls a couple of weeks ago, but his numbers have since settled back a little.

Sarkozy says a vote for Le Pen, whose supporters he needs, is a vote in favor of his main opponent, the Socialist Hollande. Outgoing president Sarkozy is not popular, and he's afraid Le Pen might beat him in the first round. Even if she doesn't, it's not clear whether her supporters will vote for Sarkozy on May 6, or whether they will just stay home.

On the left there's probably more enthusiasm. Besides Mélenchon, there are four "minor" candidates on the left who will get some votes. It seems reasonable that most of those voters will turn to Hollande in the second round of balloting, if he's still in the running. Polls of voters' intentions in the second-round run-off have been showing Hollande beating Sarkozy by 10 points or more. People who want change might be more likely to turn out for the left-leaning candidate than are disappointed right-leaning voters who are tired of Sarkozy and would rather have Le Pen as president.

It's all speculation at this point of course. We'll be following the results on TV tonight. Coverage starts at about 6:30 and will run on for hours. By law, the results of the election can't be announced until 8:00 p.m., when the last polls close. The big private TV channel TF1 reported that restriction last night, reminding all that it would be illegal to announce any results  « même en tweetant » — "even on Twitter" — before the appointed hour.

The vote tallying begins at 6:00 p.m., however, so there could be leaks. And the fact is that French law doesn't apply in the two neighboring regions of Belgium and Switzerland where people speak French and are interested in the outcome of the election. The Belgian and Swiss media are free to announce any results they can get their hands on, at any time they choose.

It seems strange not to be voting. In 2007, being a non-voting foreigner didn't bother me as much, because, I think, Sarkozy's election seemed to be a foregone conclusion. This time, change is in the air, as it was in the U.S. in 2008. I would have liked to be able to vote in the U.S. in 2008, and I'd like to be able to vote here this year. That's one of the reasons why I think I might apply for French citizenship later this year, once I can get all the required paperwork together.

No pictures today. The morning has dawned bright and sunny, after a few days of showers and sleet. We have fresh local asparagus for lunch. Life is good.

21 April 2012

Instabilité

That's this April. March was more April- or even summer-like. And now April is more March-like.

On most days right now, our sunset looks like this.


On a good day, it looks like this.

Either way, it's damp. That's France for you. And April 2012. But everything is greening up.

20 April 2012

Dazed and confused, sort of

Blogger, the tool we use to create these blogs by writing and formatting text and placing photos in a post, has a completely new interface this morning. I'm having a hard time — half-awake, waiting for the coffee to kick in — figuring out new ways to do things that had become so familiar. It's going to take some time to get used to.

Sunrise in the vineyard yesterday morning. We're in a rainy
period now, and the moisture is really needed.

Another reason I'm off to a slow start is that we had a little party last night and got to bed a bit later than usual. I got some good sleep, but I still feel slightly groggy. We had Linda, Jack, and their daughter Laura over for an apéritif dînatoire, as they call it — a light dinner and a few glasses of the local wine. It was good to get to know them better.

You can see that the vineyard plot in the background is being protected
from the damage hungry deer can do at this time of year by the strips of
white tape on each side — the deer are supposedly afraid to cross them.

One thing I hope the Blogger software engineers and interface designers haven't changed is the way the system handles spam. I turned off word verification on this blog weeks ago, making it a lot easier for you readers to leave comments. Since then, I've had no trouble at all. Blogger's spam filter seems to catch all the objectionable comments and lets the legitimate comments get published. I'm pretty happy with it.

The vines on April 19 — these have more leaves on them than most.

These days, we're still eating "escaped" green asparagus that we find growing out in the vineyard. We hope, however, to get some nice locally grown white asparagus tomorrow at the Saint-Aignan market. I hear that prices have come down now and the supply is fairly plentiful despite the very dry weather we had in March and earlier in April. This month is when the aparagus and strawberries start to appear on market stalls, and we're looking forward to both.

Looking west at sunrise yesterday morning

Bertie the black cat is sitting on my lap as I type this post. He likes the warmth of human contact right now, I think. He's spending more and more time in the house with us, even though we have to keep Bert and Callie separated. Callie the border collie still won't leave Bert alone when she's in the same room with him. She tries to bite is back legs, and she drools on him. The cat doesn't like it, though now he just hunkers down and endures it, no longer fleeing as if in danger. Maybe that's progress.

19 April 2012

Le « pain japonais » de CHM

My old friend (no pun intended) CHM might not recognize his bread recipe in this guise, but I have to say it makes a very good bread. I took the recipe that was written for use with a bread machine and made it "by hand" — using a KitchenAid stand mixer to do the kneading.

Sesame-seed buns for sandwiches

Walt shaped the dough into buns and let them rise while I was out running some errands and meeting some visiting Americans in Saint-Aignan. He stuck sesame seeds on the buns and baked them. We made sandwiches. Très américain, non ? These are the kinds of things we bake on days when we don't have a bread delivery.

Une belle mie — a nice crumb

Here's the recipe we were working with. It's succinct. CHM posted it in a comment on Susan and Simon's blog (Days on the Claise) a few days ago. He calls it his Japanese bread because he uses a Japanese-made bread machine to mix, knead, and cook it.


Here is what I do. I put in the pan, in this order:

½ tsp. salt
1½ cups whole milk or half milk and half water
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. instant yeast


French setting. 1.5 lb.
The machine does the rest in 3-1/2 hours.
CHM told me that the machine does an initial kneading and rising, then a second kneading and a second rising, over a period of a couple of hours. That's what we did — the ball of dough rose once in a big bowl, got punched down and divided into four smaller balls, and then rose again before it was baked.

When I mixed up the dough, I put in the salt, the milk, and half the flour, which I mixed up first. Then I added the rest of the flour and the yeast and let the mixer knead the dough for about 10 minutes. Then it was ready for that first rise.

What do you think of our buns?

The nice thing about this bread is that it's soft enough to make a good sandwich bun but it's not cake-like or spongy. It has good texture. I of course used the French equivalent of all-purpose flour, which is the least expensive flour sold at SuperU (farine ménagère, or "household flour"). And I used French instant yeast (Francine brand). CHM says he uses King Arthur flour in the U.S. and SAF or Red Star yeast.

A North Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich

For sandwiches, the first time we made them on these buns was on Monday. I had some "pulled pork" that I had made earlier. That's pork shoulder cooked very slowly and for a long time in the oven with a sauce composed of vinegar and hot red pepper, along with a little Worcestershire Sauce (which in France is sometimes called sauce anglaise) and some smoked paprika, salt, and pepper.

French-style hot dogs but on a round bun

Yesterday we had sandwiches again, this time with saucisses de Strasbourg (frankfurters), bacon, melted Gruyère cheese, and mustard. That's the recipe for what in France is called un hot-dog, but we used our round bun instead of the usual elongated bun. These were ingredients we happened to have in the refrigerator.

TMI, I guess. But the bread is good. When I used to visit CHM out in the Southern California desert, he would make his bread-machine loaf overnight and we'd have thick slices of it toasted, with butter and jam, for breakfast. It was always delicious, and now I know that the recipe also makes nice hamburger or hot dog buns. They're much better than the buns we can buy in the supermarket here in Saint-Aignan.

18 April 2012

About Saint-Aignan

Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher is a little town — population 3,500 — built around a huge church and an enormous château. It's on the Cher River, in the southern section of the Loire River Valley — the Cher is a tributary of the Loire. Like many medieval towns, Saint-Aignan was built on hilly terrain dominated by a high promontory that could be easily defended from attack.

A Saint-Aignan landmark is the café called
Le Lapin Blanc — The White Rabbit.


Saint-Aignan is more prominent now than it has ever been before on the national level in France. A good part of its modest renown is owed to the existence of the Zooparc de Beauval, an internationally known zoo on the south side of town. Recently, the zoo acquired two giant pandas from China. It's by far the town's biggest tourist attraction, especially since the château is not open to the public.

The church up close — nice pink stone

Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher used to be known as Saint-Aignan-en-Berry. Le Berry is an old French province that no longer has an administrative or official existence. Saint-Aignan is located at the historically rural Berry province's northwest limit, where it borders on another historic province called La Touraine. La Touraine, centered on the ancient city of Tours, is known for its wines and its royal Renaissance châteaus. The wines made in the Saint-Aignan area are AOC Touraine, soon to be AOC Touraine-Chenonceau.

A new street decoration near the church

When I moved to Saint-Aignan in 2003 — my partner and I actually live in a neighboring village, but our house is just two miles from the center of Saint-Aignan — I didn't know the town at all. We had spent a couple of vacations in nearby Vouvray, Amboise, and Montrichard, about ten years ago. It was a real estate agent who told us we should consider finding a house to buy in the Saint-Aignan area if we wanted to relocate to this region. You'll get more for you money, he told us. We are happy that he gave us that advice.

Saint-Aignan's hulk of a church

Yesterday I met up with some Americans who lived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, when I did, back in the 1970s. We didn't really know each other then, but we've learned now that we had more than a few mutual friends. Linda and Jack are spending a week in Saint-Aignan with their daughter, Laura, who is spending a year in France. It's always fun and interesting to meet people through this blog. Many people we've met this way have become new friends.

View from the market square

So I went into Saint-Aignan yesterday morning to run an errand and to meet these visitors in a café (Aux Cépages a.k.a. Chez Lily, a wine bar — but we just had coffee!). I took advantage of the outing to take some pictures of Saint-Aignan's church from different perspectives, and a few other scenes. It was a cold gray morning, with a biting north wind. Everybody was talking about the unusually chilly weather. Some were saying it's better to have a cold snap now than in May...

17 April 2012

Up go the fences

Yesterday afternoon when I went out with the dog, we turned right on our way out the back gate and started down the hill. Going that way, you're not exactly on a road — it's grassy, not gravelly — but the vineyard workers drive down there in their cars or tractors when they are tending the vines on the north side of our property.

As Callie and I walked along, she wanted to smell every blade of grass along the way, so it was slow going. Then we saw a little white Peugeot coming around the bottom of the vineyard, driving up the hill toward us. I didn't immediately recognize the car. (No pictures, because I didn't have my camera with me.)

The deer like to munch on the new growth in April.

When the car stopped and a man got out, I certainly recognized him. It was Bruno, who owns the vineyards all around our house and lives about a mile down the road. Bruno and Patricia operate the Domaine de la Renaudie winery — he's a third-generation vigneron. He had the stub of one of those smelly yellow French cigarettes sticking out of his mouth, the smoke half-hiding his face. That makes him sound a lot older than his approximately 50 years (a youngster in my eyes).

It does look almost good enough to eat, n'est-ce pas ?

« Salut ! », he yelled. « Comment vas-tu ? » He started saying tu to me about five years ago. Patricia says vous to me, but we do the French cheek-kiss bises whenever I see her. Bruno wanted to give Callie the collie a caresse on her head, but she was being stand-offish. He persisted, and for the first time Callie gave in. She loves Bruno's father Jacques, who's in his 80s now, but she's always been afraid of Bruno.

Danger

"I've had to put the electric fences back up," Bruno told me. "Sorry." He knows that the electric fences block off the path that takes us down through the woods, where Callie likes to walk in the afternoon. No problem, I told Bruno, I understand. Deer come up out of the woods and eat the tender new leaves on the vines at this time of year.

This was the fence a few days ago, before Bruno pulled
the wires back up and turned on "the juice.
"

He said that he had neglected to re-electrify the fences around some parcels of vines he owns over on the next ridge, and deer had done significant damage there. Now that some farmers are growing grain in fields down below in the river valley, Bruno said, the deer seem to spend more time down there. He's happy about that. I told him I don't see as many deer as I used to, but Callie certainly does smell them, and you can see the tracks they walk as they feed at night.

Fields of grain down the hill and through those woods from the vines

We chatted about how cold it is here right now. I used the word for chilly — frisquet — and Bruno used the term for cold — froid. "I just hope it doesn't freeze overnight," he said. Weather reports had been predicting temperatures right at freezing for this morning. The weather widgets we have on our computer screens says the temperature in Saint-Aignan is –5ºC right now, but I don't see any frost out back. The thermometer on the north side of our house reads about +3 right now. I can't explain the discrepancy.

You can see here how one vigneron has already applied
herbicide to his parcel, while the other hasn't.


Bruno got back in the Peugeot and Callie and I continued our walk down the hill. The dog, of course, jumped right through the electrified wires of the fence and headed down into the woods. I called her and told her we couldn't go that way, but she refused to jump through the fence a second time. I continued walking along the fence and Callie kept running along on the opposite side, getting into deeper and thicker woods and brambles.

Grape-vine leaves

Bruno drove over to where I was standing and calling the dog. He got out holding a big red-handled axe. "The dog went through the fence, didn't he?" Bruno said. Yep. "Here, I can let you step over," he said as he held the wires down with the axe handle. "But you'll have to walk all the way down to the bottom and then back up the hill." He doesn't know that we do that exact walk on very many afternoons.

Lichens on the north side of a tree trunk

But then there was Callie, coming over to watch what we were doing. Bruno let the fence wires spring back up, and then he pulled the bottom wire up, still using the axe handle. "Dogs can feel the current in the ground before they even get to the fence," he said, "and they don't like it. They don't wear shoes the way we do — they just walk on their little coussinets" — their paw pads. I've been shocked by the fence before, touching it to see how it would feel, and it's not pleasant.

Remains of last year's growth in the vineyard

Callie didn't want to come back through the fence, but with both of us calling her — Viens ! Come! — she screwed up her courage and scooted under the wires. So that's it for the long walks through the woods, down the hill, and back up the paved road — for the near future, anyway. After the leaves are completely developed on the grape vines, the fence will come down again. The deer don't like the tough mature leaves, and I don't think they feed on the grapes either.