31 March 2014

Hotel minimalism

Here's where I'm waking up this morning. It's a hotel room at Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris. By the way, I took these pictures a year ago, when I made exactly the same trip.



The hotel is part of the French Ibis [ee-BEESS] chain. The rooms are clean and comfortable, but the style is minimalist at best. The room is costing me a little less than 75 euros for the night. It's all very convenient.



In a couple of hours, I'll be in the air, winging my way to Charlotte in North Carolina. I'll arrive the same day, mid-afternoon, after eight hours on the plane.

30 March 2014

An afternoon in Le Grand-Pressigny

On Monday, we drove down to Le Grand-Pressigny to inspect our friends' (Jean and Nick) kitchen stove. We still haven't decided what brand of new stove would be the best for us to buy, and J & N like theirs. It's what's called a cuisinière mixte — it has three gas burners and one electric burner on the cooktop, with an electric oven, just like the one we are replacing but from a different manufacturer.

While we were in LGP, as we've come to call it, we took a walk around the town and took some photos. I took this picture of the church.


And then I turned around and noticed Walt snapping a photo down a side street next to the Préhisto-Bar, where we were going to stop for something to drink.


That's Jean with J & N's dog Lulu, a standard-size poodle. The café is called the Préhisto because LGP was an important town in prehistoric times and was famous for the flint tools crafted there and widely used all over western Europe.

29 March 2014

Birdsong

At about six o'clock this morning, I went out on the front terrace and shot a short video with my digital camera. Here it is.
video

I'm not posting it for the video, but for the sound track. This is what our hamlet sounds like early on a late-March morning. Turn up the volume and enjoy.

P.S. Unfortunately, the video and sound won't play on my Android tablet, but it works on my Windows laptop. I'd be curious to know if it will play on an iPad or a Macintosh computer.

28 March 2014

Omelette paysanne et pommes dauphine

A paysan [pay-ee-SÃ] is a peasant or "country person." The feminine form of the word is paysanne [pay-ee-SAHN]. We used to have a friend from Paris who had spent a lot of summers during his youth, and the last few years of his life, here in the Saint-Aignan area, and he referred to the local people as les paysans. It's not necessarily pejorative.

One thing that's certainly not pejorative, from my point of view, about being a paysan or paysanne is the kind of food that people cook and eat out here in the countryside. It's not fancy. It is hearty. One example is the omelette paysanne (or omelette à la paysanne) — the peasant-style omelet. It can also be called une omelette campagnarde — "country-style."


The recipe and method are not really written in stone. The ingredients include eggs, of course, and bacon or smoked pork belly (slab bacon, cut into chunks called lardons). And then you can add sauteed diced potatoes, mushrooms, and grated cheese. Everything is more or less optional — you use what you have on hand. That's the nature of peasant-style cooking. And you make the omelet the way you want, as a well-done frittata or as a filled-and-folded omelet, as runny as you like it.

The Larousse Gastonomique food and cooking encyclopedia does include a recipe for an omelette à la paysanne. It says you should cook the omelet flat, like a crêpe. That's what we did, without having looked at the LG.

Instead of putting potatoes in our omelette paysanne, we cooked them alongside. These puffed potatoes, called pommes de terre dauphine, are not done country-style. They are too fancy, and too delicate, to qualify as rustic food. The dauphine in the name is the wife of the dauphin, who was the heir to the French throne (the son of the reigning king). So these potato puffs have royal origins — or at least royal pretensions.


And ours were made with leftovers. I had made a big bowl of mashed potatoes (purée de pommes de terre) a couple of days earlier. What you do is make a batch of cream puff dough, called pâte à choux, by melting some butter in a sauce pan and then tossing in a handful of flour. You stir that vigorously over high heat until it forms a ball that detaches itself from the bottom and sides of the pan.

At that point, take the pan off the heat, let it cool slightly, and then beat a couple of eggs into the dough. Add the mashed potato and let the mixture cool until you can work it with your hands. Roll balls of the potato dough in some flour. Deep fry them. They will puff up and be light and airy, like... well... cream puffs. Pommes dauphine make a good side dish with steaks, chops, roasts, or an omelette paysanne. Don't forget the green salad.

27 March 2014

Staying busy

The trip is coming up fast. I leave Sunday at noon from Blois, by train, to go to Paris. Then I'll take the regional train (the RER) from central Paris out to CDG airport at Roissy-en-France.


I'm making lists. Choosing the suitcase and carry-on I'll take with me. Deciding what clothes to wear and what ones to pack. Shopping for small gifts for relatives in North Carolina (cookies, chocolates, mustard, wine...). Making sure I have my camera, some SD cards, my Android tablet, the power supplies, USB cables, and battery chargers.


Walking the dog. Processing pictures and blogging. Cooking (blanquette de veau on this gray day). Still working on setting up the new computer and sorting out all my files and photos. Those are my days right now.


Posting three probably familiar photos of the Renaudière vineyard, where we live, to show what it looks like in late March 2014.

26 March 2014

The annual American trip


I'll be making my annual trip to the U.S. next week. I have my plane ticket, my train ticket, and a hotel room reserved at the airport in Paris. My plane departs before noon, so I have to be in the airport pretty early Monday morning. The only way to be sure I don't miss the plane is to go and spend a night either in Paris or out at CDG/Roissy. Staying at the airport is kind of boring, but it's a lot less stressful the morning of the flight — I'm right there.

When I arrive in Paris on Sunday afternoon, I think I'll take a long walk across the city, pulling my suitcase behind me. The exercise will do me good. The walk from the Gare d'Austerlitz over to Les Halles won't take more than an hour. It all depends on the weather, of course, but it's supposed to be dry and fairly mild over the weekend. That's the weather I'm hoping for.
Being in central Paris is always a thrill. I'll be able to take some photos, of course. I'll walk along the Seine, I think, along the right bank, past the Ile Saint-Louis and the Ile de la Cité, with views of Notre Dame, the Hôtel de Ville, and the Place du Châtelet. I used to live near Les Halles, years ago, so walking into that neighborhood will bring back good memories.

Maybe I'll stop along the way at the Café Louis-Philippe and have a glass of wine or a cup of espresso, or both. I'll eavesdrop on the conversations going on around me. In fact, maybe I'll have lunch. It will be about 2 p.m. when I get there. I used to spend entire weeks, months and even years in Paris. Nowadays I make do with a few hours every once in a while. If I still lived in the U.S., I might not get even that short glimpse of Paris every year.


I don't look forward to spending 8 hours on an airplane and at least 6 hours in airports to get to my destination, but I do look forward to arriving over there and spending time with family and friends. The two weeks will just fly by.

Meanwhile, above are some photos of the big forsythia bush in our back yard here in Saint-Aignan. It's been in full bloom for a while now. As always, you can click or tap on the images to see them at a larger size.

25 March 2014

The naked vines

Late March. The pruning work continues, but not for long. Soon the vines
will sprout leaf buds on the few canes that are left on each pied de vigne.


It's raining this morning, but the sun was bright early on Sunday when
I went out to walk with Callie. The light had a slightly blue tint to it.


This is Callie's "natural" world, which isn't natural at all, but shaped by human hands... and machines.
It's all geometrical and highly ordered. In France, people seem to like to keep nature under strict control.


The whole of France resembles a big park, in fact. Manicured, cropped,
pruned, and planned. The vineyard is the model for that.

24 March 2014

Ducasse: there's a limit to the concessions I'll make...

Here is the second part of the interview with prominent French chef Alain Ducasse — the first half is here. And here's a link to the original, in French. Ducasse was asked about the growing number of restaurant customers who cite "special dietary requirements" when they place their orders and ask for changes in the way dishes are normally prepared. Is that trend fundamentally altering French cuisine?
Q: Can all these customer-imposed constraints on the ingredients you use in your cooking have a positive impact?

A: Yes, in certain ways. I’ll give you an example: we work more and more under pressure from customers who call themselves “locavores,” from the name a diet born on the other side of the Atlantic that means only eating products grown and raised within a radius of a few hundred kilometers. This new constraint encourages us to act responsibly, to protect the limited resources of our planet, and to be conscious of the effects on the environment of the choice of foods we prepare and serve.

Q: Have low-calorie diets also required you to modify your menus?

A: Yes. Because of of new nutritional standards, French cooking contains less fat and oil than it used to, and the portions served are smaller. As a result, French food has never been better, fresher, and lighter than it is today. Forty years ago, when I cooked sole with an herb sauce, there was more butter in the sauce than herbs. Today, thanks to better low-temperature techniques for extracting authentic herb flavors, I hardly put in any butter at all.

I wonder if Alain Ducasse serves curly kale and pulled pork in his restaurants.
But the concessions we make stop there: we will not take the butter out of our recipe for frog legs at our Allard restaurant in Paris, which we just acquired. It takes half a pound of butter to make two servings of frog legs and we haven’t found any better way to prepare this classic French dish.

Q: And what is your own diet like?

A: I am a real Frenchman, in the sense that I have a hedonistic and carnal approach to food, without phobias or restrictions. But I won’t lie to you: I like to taste everything, being curious and fickle, and even if I take care to eat a balanced diet, I regularly indulge in tasting sessions, consuming as many as 15 dishes in a row in my restaurants. It’s impossible, in fact, for me to be consistent in respecting the sacrosanct rule that says we should all eat three square meals a day.

23 March 2014

Are people's special dietary requirements changing French food?

Here's a translation of the first part of a March 15 interview with superstar French chef Alain Ducasse, who has restaurants in France and in the U.S. He is asked about the rising number of diners who cite special dietary requirements when they go to restaurants.

Alain Ducasse: We must protect our cultural model
The star of French haute cuisine, a chef and restaurateur who has earned a total of 18 Michelin stars, says that the French “way of food” is the world’s best. But it needs to be protected.


“French cuisine now relies much less on oil and fat than it used to,”
says Alain Ducasse. “As a result, it has never been better!”
Photo credit: AFP/FRANÇOIS GUILLOT and L'EXPRESS

Q: Are you seeing a growing number of French restaurant customers who have special dietary requirements?

A: No doubt about it. Behaviors are changing. Until now, the only special requests we had to deal with in our restaurants were based on religious principles or weight-consciousness issues. Our staff was used to hearing questions such as: “What pork-free dishes do you serve?” or “Can you cook my fish without butter?”. But now we have to be conscious of other issues. Gluten-intolerance and meat-free diets are much more widespread.

Q: How do you explain this change?

A: For a certain customer segment, eating has obviously become a more source of stress rather than of pleasure! The desire to have control over what appears on one's plate sometimes goes to extremes; it is a direct reaction to food-industry scandals. It's also the result of the influence of the Anglo-Saxon countries, where Protestantism causes people to be more puritanical and individualistic when it comes to the foods they eat. In England, people are very accepting of other people's dietary requirements and restrictions.

Q: What effect might this new “dietary individualism” in France have on our national cuisine?

A: If these dietary restrictions continue to spread and grow, we will see, in the long term, the development of new types of  “food ghettoes” and our national art de vivre will be seriously threatened. But that isn't the situation for the time being. In our U.S. restaurants, often when we serve a party of five, two or more of the diners will report having some food allergy, an intolerance, or a specific dietary requirement of some kind. For now, in our Paris restaurant Le Meurice, only one or two diners out of forty will raise such issues.

Fortunately, our food culture, founded on the principles of companionship and sharing around the dinner table, continues to hold its own. I don't know of any country besides France where people are capable of sitting down together and enjoying a meal composed of an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert while having lively conversation about what they ate yesterday, what they are eating at the moment, and what they will eat tomorrow...

People in the English-speaking world, in fact, joke about the French obsession with food and cuisine. They often consider us to be “foodies” who over-indulge and spend entirely too many hours around the dinner table...

Our way of eating is, nonetheless, one of the main economic and cultural advantages of France as a tourist destination. Last August when I walked into Benoît, our Paris bistrot, two Americans were there enjoying a dish of cassoulet and a nice bottle of Bordeaux wine together. They recognized me and thanked me for all I do to sustain the famous “French paradox” that keeps us all healthy.

If our food culture were to disappear off the face of the earth, Anglo-Saxons like these would be more disappointed than anybody! It's not for nothing that UNESCO declared French haute cuisine a winner of its world heritage award in 2010. To protect our “cultural exceptionalism,” we really must be very vigilant, but without becoming alarmist about it...

À demain, et bon dimanche...

22 March 2014

Paella — rice, chicken, pork, seafood, and sausages

It had been years since I had cooked or even eaten the Spanish rice dish called paella. I remember that we bought some at the market in Amboise ten years ago when friends from San Francisco were visiting. A vendor there prepares paella in gigantic pans on Sunday mornings (or used to), in quantities that can feed a hundred people.


It dawned on me Thursday morning that we had nearly everything we needed for a good paella: rice, chicken broth, chicken parts, spicy Spanish sausages, roasted red peppers, pork belly, shrimp, onions, garlic, herbs, and spices. Walt was going to the supermarket to buy some fish fillets, so I told him to pick up a few ripe tomatoes too. The ingredient list was complete.


And I had forgotten how easy it is to make paella. It's not necessarily a quick job, because you have to slice and dice a lot of the ingredients before you put the whole dish together. Tomatoes need to be peeled, seeded, and chopped. Red peppers need to be roasted, peeled, and sliced. (Of course, you can buy them already prepared, if you're lucky.) Shrimp need to be shelled and deveined. Or not...


The first step is to sauté the chicken parts (I used four drumsticks) and some big chunks of smoked pork belly (lardons fumés) in olive oil until they are browned and at least partially cooked. Then you add in a chopped onion and three or four chopped garlic cloves, all peeled.


When the onion and garlic are starting to cook, add in the tomato, the roasted red pepper, a bay leaf or two, and some sweet paprika, some cayenne or other hot pepper powder, a dozen or so fennel seeds, a good pinch of dried thyme, and some saffran or turmeric (curcuma) for color. Don't forget the salt and black pepper. Let it all cook for another five minutes.


Finally, add a pound (500 g) of rinsed raw rice to the pan and stir everything together carefully so that the rice gets coated with the flavorful oil in the bottom of the pan. Pour a liter of boiling chicken broth (or water) over all, and again gently stir everything together one last time so that all the rice is moistened. Put a lid on the pan or baking dish, and cook it at a low simmer, covered, for about 25 minutes, either on top of the stove or in a hot oven.

Taste some of the rice to make sure it's done. Add more liquid (water) and extend the cooking time for five minutes or as needed. Almost as a garnish, when you are about five minutes from taking the paella off the heat, push a dozen or so raw shrimp and some chunks of raw fish down into the rice and let them cook. You could also do the same with some whole mussels or small clams and give them just enough time to open up in the hot rice.

 A 2002 photo of the gigantic pan of paella cooking at the Sunday morning market in Amboise

Optionally, a couple of pre-cooked Spanish chorizo or chorizette sausages (our SuperU has them) are good with the paella. Serve the dish with lemon wedges. Here's a recipe similar to mine, for proportions and ingredients, but in French. It could serve six with six pieces of chicken and three sausages:

Paella valenciana

1 poulet (1,5 kg environ)
400 g de palourdes
12 grosses crevettes décortiquées
500 g de riz
250 g de lardons
2 petits poivrons rouges
3 grosses tomates
1 oignon
5 gousses d'ail
1 feuille de laurier
piment doux en poudre
2 doses de safran
1 l de bouillon de volaille
1 citron
8 c. à soupe d'huile d'olive
sel, poivre

Préchauffez le four à 240°C.

Lavez les poivrons, ouvrez-les et épépinez-les. Passez-les 10 à 15 min au four, jusqu'à ce que la peau soit brune et se boursoufle. Ôtez la peau et détaillez la chair en lanières. Réglez le four à 180°C.

Ebouillantez les tomates 1 minute, rafraîchissez-les et pelez-les. Ouvrez-les en deux, ôtez la base du pédoncule et les pépins. Détaillez les moitiés de tomates en morceaux de 2 cm. Pelez l'oignon et l'ail, hachez-les menu.

Découpez le poulet en morceaux et le lard en dés de 3 cm de côté. Faites revenir le tout dans une large poêle avec 6 c. à soupe d'huile d'olive. Ajoutez ensuite l'oignon et l'ail, faites sauter pendant 2 minutes. Assaisonnez.

Incorporez les tomates et les poivrons, faites revenir quelque temps, puis ajoutez les aromates et le riz. Versez le bouillon. Laissez cuire 25 minutes à feu doux sans remuer. Lavez les palourdes dans plusieurs eaux.

Faites revenir les palourdes dans le reste d'huile jusqu'à ce que les coquilles s'ouvrent. Ajoutez les palourdes et les crevettes au riz, laissez cuire 5 minutes à feu doux. Garnissez de quartiers de citron et servez chaud.

21 March 2014

Vines in bottles

Not only is wine put in bottles — so are vines. New vines that have just been planted must need extra protection from hungry animals — maybe the local roe deer — that would like to nibble on tender new leaf buds.


All around the vineyard stand little stone or concrete-block huts or sheds like the one above, or nicer. Some seem to have fireplaces and chimneys. It's easy to imagine that in the days before motorized cars and trucks, the vignerons who tended the vines might have needed places to take shelter against the weather, or even to spend the night if the walk home was a long one. They also needed places to store their tools, since they couldn't just throw them into the back of a truck and haul them away.



Nowadays, when the vigneron plants a new vine to replace one that has died and been pulled out, he's likely to place a cut mineral water or fruit juice bottle over the shoot to keep pests away. The vine starts its vineyard life in a bottle, and the juice from the grapes that grow on it ends up in bottle too.


So what gets stored nowadays in a shed like the one in the first picture above? Well, just guess. I poked my camera inside...

20 March 2014

Digging in the dirt under sunny skies

I didn't finish working on the computer yesterday, but I made significant progress. I copied all my photos off an external hard disk onto the 1 GB disk inside the Acer CPU. That was 350 GB of photos, and the copy operation took at least four hours. I didn't sit there and watch, so I'm not sure when it finished copying. Finally,  thought, my photos are back up on our home network, so that I can work with them easily.

You can just see Walt sitting in the sun outside the back door of the house.
The afternoon temperature today will be near 20ºC / 70ºF.

But the biggest news from yesterday is that we were able to start getting the garden ready. Until now, the ground has been just too soggy. The last time it rained, however, was on March 3. We've noticed neighbors down the hill, closer to the river, out with their tillers turning over the soil, getting their gardens ready for planting. Down there, the soil is sandier and looser, so it dries out faster, I assume.

We'll do more yard work today. Walt plans to mow the grass. For me, there's another garden plot or two to till up.

As I've said before, probably many times over the course of the past 8½ years of blogging, most everybody in this part of France has a vegetable garden. It's just part of the culture. It was one of the first things we noticed about the Saint-Aignan area when we arrived here in June 2003. We started our garden in 2004, and it was an immediate success. The biggest disadvantage of living on this particular plot of land is that our soil is rocky clay, and very alkaline. Grapevines do well in it, but not much else. Drainage is poor, and when the ground is dry it's like concrete. We've been amending the soil in our garden plots for 10 years now, adding leaves and kitchen-waste compost.

This spot in the back corner of the yard was where the man who owned the house before us kept
his compost pile. I've grown greens and potatoes in this rich, loose soil over the years.

When I took the cat to the vet's the other day, the vet and I chatted about the weather, of course. We found a tick on Bertie. The vet said we'd need to expect to see a lot of ticks and other noxious bugs and insects this spring and summer, because we had almost no freezing weather over the winter to kill them off. She said, as if it were obviously the case, that we must be out in the yard a lot these days, getting our vegetable garden ready for the growing season. That's a safe assumption in this area at this time of year.

Callie the collie likes to run after the ball when we throw it, but she's not very good about bringing it back.

Callie enjoyed being outside in the dry, warm weather yesterday afternoon. I'm not sure what she was looking at when I snapped this photo. I think she might have just been looking away from the camera, or maybe a bird had made some noise up in the tree the dog was sitting next to. Today, she's going to the groomer's.

19 March 2014

Histoires de chats et de souris

Cat and mouse. That's not quite the game I'm playing, but almost. Yesterday, between continuing to get my new computer set up (including the mouse — la souris) I took Bertie the black cat to see his veterinarian. He gets his shot once a year, and gets weighed and examined.

The vet pronounced him in good health. His weight has been steady for the four years we've had him, at 6 kilograms (just over 13 lbs.). Yesterday, we found a tick on him, even though he gets his Frontline treatment every month. The vet removed the tick. She asked me if he was an outdoor cat and I said yes. Does he fight with other cats? Yes. The vet looked at his teeth and pointed out to me that one of his lower crocs (fangs) is missing. I'd never noticed. He must have lost it in a fight. The vet said it wasn't a problem for the cat.


Meanwhile, I went to the computer store on the way to the vet's and bought a new USG wifi adapter for the computer. When I got home, I plugged it in and crossed my fingers. I have read so many web forums about incompatibilities between USB adapters and Windows 8 that I wasn't optimistic about this one. But in fact, it seems to work fine — I didn't have any instances of lost signals or connections all yesterday afternoon and evening. What a relief! It just goes to show you that you can't believe everything you read on the 'net.

The manufacturers of such devices have probably made repairs and improvements in the software drivers they supply for Windows 8, after having so many customers complain that the things didn't work right. Speaking of things that work right, one feature of Windows 8 and 8.1 that I find to be a vast improvement over what I've ever seen in any other operating system or software I've used since the 1980s is its language capabilities.


Usually, if you buy software in France, the interface language is French. I use a French version of Photoshop to process my photos for this blog. I've used it for years, and I now know the terminology of photo editing tasks better in French than in English. I'm more comfortable with French Photoshop, but it's about the only application I use in French (even though I read French almost as well as English). Android tablets, by the way, come only in English, as far as I know. French people have to just deal with that, I think. Tell me if I'm wrong.

I received a French copy of Windows 8 with my new computer. I figured I would just get used to it and learn the vocabulary. I quickly realized, however, that doing the setup and configuration work I needed to do was going a lot more slowly because I wasn't familiar with the French names of all the control panels I needed to be using. Device Manager, for example, turns out to be Gestionnaire des Périphériques (never mind that a lot of the devices are not peripherals at all, but are located inside the CPU...).


I mentioned this language issue to Walt, and he told me he had a copy of Windows 8 with an English-language interface. How'd you get that, I asked him, because he also bought his computer, pre-loaded with Windows 8, in France. He didn't remember at first, and then he said he thought he had had to download something to get the English version. That's when I noticed a Windows control panel named Langues.

I clicked on the Langues control panel, and I learned that I could download a languages module for Windows and switch the interface to just about any language I desired — including, of course, American or other varieties of English. So that's what I did. All of a sudden, there was all the old terminology I have grown to know and love over all these years. It's amazing. In all, it took maybe 20 minutes to download the language module and set it up. If I ever want to go back to the French interface, it'll be easy.

Hope you've enjoyed the daffodil photos. I took them a week ago.

18 March 2014

Au secours ! Venez m'aider ! Je suis toujours en rade !

If you need me, you'll find me hovering over this evil-looking box, muttering venez m'aider — mayday! — or worse, under my breath. Talking to myself again...

I made one big mistake. Without noticing, I bought a computer that does not have integrated wifi. That means I need to use a USB wifi adapter, but the two that I have are incompatible with Windows 8.

Walt has a Windows 8 computer (a Dell) that has integrated wifi, and the adapter in his machine works fine. So I know that such adapters exist.

My other option is to downgrade the system to Windows 7, for which I have a license and therefore legal installation disks.

I have to take Bertie to the vet's this morning for his annual checkup and shots. There's a computer store close to the vet's office. I'll stop in there and see if they have a Windows 8-compatible adapteur I can buy. Meanwhile, I have a long wire running through the house to connect the computer to the router and give me an internet connection.

A part ça, tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise !

To all of you who commented on my post a couple of days ago about the importance of having a computer in good working order and shared your memories of the early days of personal computing, thank you. I sincerely intended to respond to your comments, but... well, you know.

17 March 2014

Waiting and working

According to the tracking information provided by Amazon.fr and Chronopost.fr, my computer is on the delivery truck, which is on the road. It comes from Tours, about 45 minutes west of here. Now I have to wait.

Walt has to go out this morning, to the lab to have blood drawn for routine tests. I have to stay here until he gets home, just in case the delivery truck pulls up early. When he gets back, I can go out for the walk with the dog. One of us has to be here to receive the delivery whenever the truck shows up. In the past, deliveries have shown up as early as 8:00 a.m.

The collards right out of the garden, still on the stem, after a first washing... I found one slug and no bugs.

Meanwhile, I decided yesterday morning that there was at least one time-consuming task that I needed to get behind me before the new computer arrives: harvesting and processing some more greens for the freezer. The plants were starting to bolt. I forced myself to go out there in the cold with the required tools, and I did it.

A big basket of collard leaves that have been stripped off the thick, rough stems

I pulled each plant out of the ground and then cut off the root ball to leave the dirt behind. I put the greens, still on the stems, into a big plastic container and hauled them to the outdoor spigot, where I gave the plants a good washing. Then I brought them upstairs and washed them again with the shower attachment in the bathtub (which we never use except for washing house plants). I cut all the leaves off the stems, pretty much one by one, and then I washed the leaves again in a large bucket of water, trimming them to remove any blemishes.

After I packed the greens into containers for the freezer, I poured a little bit of the cooking liquid, known as "pot liquor," into each.

The greens were ready to cook. These are collard greens, and the leaves are small and very tender because it's springtime and we had a mild winter. I cooked them in a big stainless steel pot with water, duck fat, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. They required only 45 to 60 minutes of cooking to be extremely tender. I packed the greens in saved crème fraîche containers, and they came to exactly six pounds, without the cooking liquid — that's not quite three kilos.

I like to cook and eat greens like spinach. So-called bitter greens like collards, kale, and mustard are good cooked with animal fat (bacon or duck), or in chicken broth, and served with hot red pepper sauce or vinegar at the table. They are also good chopped up and put into soups — white bean soup, for example — with pork or poultry sausages. The hot pot liquor is good to dip bread or cornbread in when you eat the greens.

16 March 2014

Computers and me

Last night, I got my first good night's sleep in days. I think it was the computer problem. In fact, one night I know it was specifically the computer problem. I woke up at 2 a.m. and tossed and turned for a while trying to figure out what I was going to do to get the old machine up and running again. I got out of bed at three. Yesterday morning, I reconciled myself to giving up and I ordered a new computer, which should be delivered tomorrow.

My psychological dependence on having a computer that's running normally is nothing new. As soon as we started getting personal computers at work, back in the 1980s, they became a major part of my life. I got my first computer in about 1984 in Washington DC — it was a laptop, and was really more a dedicated word processor than a full-fledged PC. I tinkered with it until I succeeded in making it capable of displaying and printing the accented letters that I needed if I was going to write documents in French. When I have a computer that isn't working right, or won't do what I want it to do, my whole psyche is perturbé, as they say in French. And I want to fix it myself — not ask anybody else to do it.

A non-working computer is about as useful as this brick. I use bricks like this one as door stops here.

Walt and I moved to California in late 1986, and I somehow ended up working in the computer business. First I was managing editor of a computer magazine, and then in 1989 I went to work as an editor and then manager at what was a well-known software company back then. I never really liked living in Silicon Valley, but I loved my work there for years. I bought my first real PC, which was a DOS-based IBM-compatible that had one of those black screens with a blinking cursor and green characters, and no graphical capabilities. I taught myself at home and at work how to take the computers apart and add new components or swap out defective or outdated ones. In general, I'm not a very mechanically inclined person, but with computers it's different.

This tangle of trees looks a little like the inside of a PC — a tangle of wires.

I've always had a computer since then, mostly running Windows. Keeping it upgraded and running smoothly has been a major preoccupation. I even had a Mac once, but I didn't keep it very long — that was when I was working for Apple in the mid-1990s. Then I bought a slide scanner and started taking photos that I could store and view on my PC. By 1998 I had my first digital camera, and the rest is history. Now I have literally hundreds of thousands of photos archived on my PC and on CD/DVD disks. And I have two Android tablets for viewing them over our home network (among other tasks).

I love having easy access to all my photos, so I need to have a computer in good working order. I guess that means I'm a nerd. I don't think I could live a happy life out here in the French countryside, or maybe anywhere else, without a computer (or two or three), good Internet access, and a digital camera (or two). It's hard to imagine how we young American students lived in France back in the 1970s, with no computers, no e-mail, and not even a telephone at home! The only way we could communicate with people was to see them face-to-face, which meant contact with our family and friends back home in the U.S. was limited to letter-writing and snail mail. The good old days... maybe they weren't so great after all.

15 March 2014

En rade

En panne. Kaput. "Dead in the water." I think it's not worth repairing. That's the story of my life right now. First it was the car's speedometer. Then the kitchen stove. Now it's my computer.

It all started two or three days ago when I suddenly saw an error message on the screen during startup. "Your system battery is very low," it said, or something like that. Okay, no problem, right? I turned the computer off, unplugged it, and took the battery out. I went to the store and bought a new battery.

There's only so much tinkering I can do. I give up.

Ever since, I haven't been able to get the computer to start up again. When you take the battery out, all the computer's configuration settings revert to the factory defaults. So if you've customized them, you need to re-enter your specific settings. My problem is that I can't even get the computer to go into its setup mode, so I'm stuck.

Maybe it's bugs like these that have gotten into my old Dell desktop.

I've got 15 years' worth of photos are on the hard disk, but I have no reason to believe I've lost anything. Anyway, I also have nearly everything backed up on an external drive that I can plug into the laptop. And also on CDs and DVDs. I'm not too worried.

I should be outside smelling the roses or, in this case, the peach blossoms, instead of tinkering with an old computer.

So I'll be buying a new computer. Maybe today. I've been doing research for a few days. Wish me luck. The Dell computer that's en panne will be seven years old in June. I'm sure it's time to replace it.

14 March 2014

Côte de bœuf au barbecue

A côte is a rib, and a côte de bœuf is a rib of beef, a rib steak, or a rib roast. It's thicker than your average steak, but smaller and thinner than a full roast. In France,the côte de bœuf is generally a single rib, unlike American prime rib, which is several ribs cut to be cooked as a roast in the oven.


We cooked a côte de bœuf on our new gas barbecue grill yesterday. It was a big success. Delicious. It's not something we eat often. But Walt has mastered the new grill already. He seared the meat on both sides on a very hot grill. Then he turned the heat down and let the meat cook for 10 or 15 minutes. After that, it went on the warming rack under the domed lid of the grill with the burners turned off and it rested for as long as it had cooked, about 25 minutes.


This côte de bœuf was 2 inches (5 cm) thick and weighed about 800 grams, or about 1¾ lbs. It cost just less than ten euros. I removed the bone with the idea of cutting the beef into two steaks, each one inch thick. I dropped that idea, though, and decided to pound the boneless steak with a batte / attendrisseur à viande to tenderize it and flatten it a little, for quicker cooking.


Some people from other countries tell me they aren't crazy about French beef, but I don't understand why. It might not be as fatty and tender as American beef, but it is tasty cooked either fairly rare or slow-cooked (braised, boiled) until it's nearly falling apart. American beef can't be imported into France because the French authorities object to the growth hormones that beef cattle are treated with. French cattle are grass-fed rather than fattened on so much corn, so the meat is leaner and has a different appearance and taste.

13 March 2014

Fleurs rouges du printemps

This bush full of red flowers puts on a display every year in early spring across the street on our neighbors' property. I have never known what it was, exactly, but after some Internet searching I think it might be a flowering quince.




The mild but wet winter we've had this year, and now this early spring, have brought out flowers like I haven't seen before. Two camelia bushes on the east side of our house — bushes we are considering digging out because they've never flowered very profusely — are making us re-think our plan. Maybe we can move them to a better spot.


And finally, Josette's primrose garden is spectacular right now too. She's the woman who sold us this house we've lived in since 2003. Her husband had died a few years earlier, and she wanted to move to Tours to be closer to her daughter and grand-daughter.


Josette is in her late 80s at this point, and she moved to Tours  nearly 10 years ago, so she doesn't get to see this springtime bloom any more. Maybe she'll see this blog post. I know her daughter sometimes checks in here.