24 April 2017

Pain de campagne

About 10 days ago, the woman who delivers bread four days a week to people in and around the village — she's called la porteuse de pain or "bread carrier" — let us know that the local bakery would be closed from April 18 to 25. Therefore, we'd have to make do without deliveries of baguettes for more than a week. Deliveries start up again tomorrow.

The first thing I did last Monday was to make a big loaf that would tide us over for a few days. Then the next time one of us went out in the car for any reason, we'd be able to stop in a boulangerie or even the supermarket and pick up some bread for the rest of the week.

I went down to the cellier (the cold pantry off the utility room) to check on our supply of flours. There I found a partially used bag of whole-grain rye flour and another of whole-grain wheat flour. Combined with some all-purpose flour, yeast, salt, and water, those would make a good loaf of the kind called pain de campagne — country-style bread — in France.

Here it is. I included one secret ingredient, which was about a tablespoon of American molasses that I brought back from the U.S. in February. Molasses is known as "black treacle" in the U.K. and other countries. I'm not sure you can find a French equivalent very easily. The big loaf I made baked up crusty on the outside and tender in the middle, with a nice crumb and a nice taste. It made good toast, and was good with cheese.

23 April 2017


Compare these photos to the ones I posted yesterday. Leaves in the vineyard that were green and tender are now brown and crisp because of the recent freeze.

The damage is spotty. Don't get the idea that the whole vineyard looks like this. But too much of it does. The weather has warmed up now, but predictions are for more cold weather later this coming week.

On some "canes" (or sarments), one set of leaves is green and untouched, while another, nearby, is crinkled and brown. It's hard to understand how some leaves froze and others didn't.

Nobody yet knows how much the 2017 grape harvest will be reduced because of these two or three cold April days. As a consumer, it matters to me, because wine prices will inevitably go up. I've already seen local prices double over the past 14 years. And it certainly matters to people who are trying to make a living by growing grapes and making and selling wine.

These are the "smudge pots" that the owners of the Domaine de la Renaudie wine operation set out and lit in a couple of vineyard plots to try to limit the damage. They're called bougies antigel in French — bougie means "candle." I think the theory is that the heat released from the fires in these pots creates air currents that keep frigid air from settling at ground level and freezing tender new growth. These bougies were set out in every other row of a parcel of vines (Chardonnay grapes) and every few meters for the length of the long rows.

22 April 2017

La gelée noire — “black ice”

It's too soon to know how extensive the damage is, says an article in the regional newspaper (La Nouvelle République), but a major freeze has affected many of the vineyards around Saint-Aignan and the town just across the river, Noyers-sur-Cher. Ground-level temperatures have plunged into the mid-20s in ºF over the past two or three mornings.

The smudge pots in the Renaudière vineyard just outside our back yard were lit again last night, for the third night in a row. According to our own outside thermometer, the temperature this morning is 6 to 8 ºF higher this morning than it was day before yesterday, but I took Callie out for a walk in the vineyard yesterday afternoon and I was surprised to see so much of the new, tender growth on the vines has been completely burned up — grillé — by freezing temperatures. Shriveled. Drooping.

That includes the leaves on our little fig tree, both in the far western end of our yard, near the garden shed. It has definitely been colder out there than closer to the house. I haven't had a good look at the cherry tree back there yet. I'll do that this morning, and take some photos. When the damage is so clearly visible to the naked eye, you can be sure that it's pretty bad. It takes a few days to measure accurately because the tender growth is still slowly dying. Ironically, it was so warm yesterday afternoon that I was out in shirtsleeves on my walk with Callie.

The NR newspaper article lists as hard-hit the vineyards around Cheverny, Oisly, Châtillon-sur-Cher, Saint-Romain, and Noyers, on the north side of the Cher river, but also Saint-Georges on the south bank about 10 miles west of Saint-Aignan. It doesn't mention Saint-Aignan and Mareuil-sur-Cher specifically, but I can attest to the fact that the damage is disheartening. I'm glad I don't depend on agriculture — that's what grape-growing is, after all — for my living.

Over in Montlouis, the television news reported, grape-growers have hired helicopters and pilots to fly low over their vineyards to stir up the air and keep the cold from settling at ground level. Drastic measures are called for. Montlouis makes some of the best white wines in the Loire Valley, along with Vouvray. The Touraine-Amboise vineyards have also suffered major damage from the extreme cold, according to a separate article in the paper.

I also want to go see that long patch of orchids again too. I took the photos here 48 hours ago, before the effects of the freeze were visible.

21 April 2017

La maison au printemps

The smudge pots in the vineyard near our house were burning at 2:30 a.m. but they seem to have gone out now. Our temperature this morning is just slightly higher than it was yesterday this morning — still just a few degrees above freezing. The afternoons are sunny and pleasant, though.

The house creates its own little heat bubble. Just a few steps away, out in the back yard, it's colder early in the morning. Walt just told me that he noticed yesterday that the leaves on our little fig tree have frozen and shriveled up. We'll just have to wait and see if it will recover. Same for the apple trees.

The greenhouse so far is proving to be a major improvement. It really dresses up the back of the house, and it's useful as well. It has stayed warm inside, and you can really feel the difference when you come back from a walk out in the cold. In these photos, you can see a wisteria, a lilac bush, and a stand of lavender that we've planted over the past 10 years.

Our house is a really typical 20th century French house. It's called a pavillon sur sous-sol — a pavillon is a small, single-family house, usually surrounded by a yard, and a sous-sol is a basement. In this case, and often, the basement is not actually below ground level. Our sous-sol has lower ceilings than the floor above it (which is the main living area, with kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms) and is made up of a big garage, a cold pantry (un cellier), a utility room, a small front porch, and an entry hall with stairs up to the main level. And now a greenhouse.

A few years ago, when we had a mid-April freeze like the current one, we didn't get any apples at all. Also, the local grape harvest was reduced by about 30%, according to reports. People here like to tell us how they got 6 inches of snow one year back in the '70s or '80s on about May 10. So there's nothing unusual about this weather. April being cruel and all...

20 April 2017

Orchids and apples

It's pretty cold this morning, and the next three or four mornings are supposed to be cold too. When I got up this morning, I looked out the north window of the loft and I saw sparkling lights through the trees. At first I thought they might be some kind of reflection in the window glass, but I couldn't see any lights in the house that would be causing reflections. Then I realized that the owners of the vineyard had set out smudge pots to protect the vines down below from freezing. I hope for them that the pots are effective. See Walt's blog for photos.

Depending on how much frost there is a kilometer out west from our house, these orchids might be finished for the year. I'm not sure how frost-tolerant they are. I stood between the orchid pictured above and the rising sun so that I could get a photo of it in shade.

The photo above gives you an idea of how small the orchids are. They are wild, so they aren't planted in a bed but are spread out in a long strip of grassland about a hundred meters long next to a vineyard parcel.

I'm posting all these photos now rather than spreading them out over several days. I'll go out for my walk with the dog and inspect the place where the orchids are growing to see if they've survived the frosty morning.

Bright sunlight at sunrise makes for very high-contrast photos.
Remember that you can click (twice) on the images to see them at full size.

In my title today, I mention apples. About every other year we get a bumper crop of them from the four trees in our yard. We spend days and days raking and picking up fallen apples so that Walt can run the lawn mower under the trees. This morning's freeze may take care of that problem by killing the blossoms on the trees. The same thing happened on April 17 a few years ago. We'll see.

19 April 2017

The 2017 wisteria bloom

I thought these turned out to be nice clear closeups of the flowers on our wisteria plant this spring. The plant is on the west side of our house, and I took the photos early in the morning when it was in deep shade.

Here's a view of the whole plant, with all it's flowers. We planted it in 2006, three years after we moved into the house.

Back in 2012, a bad windstorm tore the whole wisteria plant off the wall. We found it lying on the ground one afternoon. But we were able to put up better support wires for it and get it back up there after pruning it some.

18 April 2017


There is a place out in the Renaudière vineyard where hundreds, literally, of the wild orchids you see in these photos are blooming right now. It's about half a mile, a kilometer or so, from our house.

The middle photo in this set shows a place in the vineyard near where all these orchids are growing. Callie is looking into the woods because she has detected movement in there.

17 April 2017

Sweet and savory sauteed rabbit with peaches

We had our Easter rabbit yesterday. It was good, and it's a really simple recipe. You could make this with chicken or turkey if you can't get or don't want rabbit.

The first step is to sauté the rabbit pieces. Use a whole rabbit, cut into serving pieces, or use just the hind legs and the saddle (le râble) as we did. When it has good color, take the rabbit out of the pan.

Next, slice up a couple of onions and garlic cloves and sauté those in the same pan. Then cut 5 or 6 peach halves into wedges. Put them into the pan with the onions and let them caramelize slightly. We used peaches out of a can, since it's not peach season now.

Take the peach wedges out of the pan, leaving the onions and garlic in. Add a tablespoon of Chinese five-spice powder and one piece of star-anise and stir. Optionally add in some cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes for heat.

Put the rabbit pieces back in the pan and pour in half a cup (120 ml) each of chicken broth and white wine. Also add in two tablespoons of the syrup from the can of peaches. Don't forget the salt and black pepper.

Let the rabbit cook for 30 to 40 minutes at a low simmer, covered. Toward the end of that time, take the cover off the pan so that the liquid will reduce slightly. Five minutes before serving, put the sauteed peach wedges in the pan to heat through.

Serve the braised rabbit and peaches with rice or pasta. We had both, actually, because Walt made a batch of a Lebanese rice pilaf that we like. It's the home-made version of American "Rice-a-Roni" — white rice, vermicelli or angel-hair pasta, onions, and chicken broth. Here's Martha Stewart's recipe. I can recommend it.

Garnish the rabbit dish with some chopped pistachios (Walt found these nice unsalted pistachios at the supermarket) and some chopped cilantro (if you like it) or some other fresh herb like parsley, oregano, or thyme.

Here's the finished dish. We enjoyed it with a red Pécharmant wine from the Bergerac area in southwestern France. It would also be good with a semi-dry white wine like a Vouvray.

16 April 2017

Pâté de Pâques and a rabbit for Easter dinner

We went down to the Saturday morning market in Saint-Aignan yesterday. We were shopping for a rabbit that we will be cooking as our Easter dinner today. We wanted to buy it from our favorite poultry vendor, and we wanted some more asparagus from the man who comes down here from Contres to sell the white asparagus he grows near Soings-en-Sologne.

We also bought a big piece of what is called pâté de Pâques (Easter pâté) in the Loire Valley and the Berry regions. I don't know if the pâté is a regional specialty, or if people in other parts of France have the same thing at Easter. It's a puff-pastry shell filled with an herby meat stuffing and hard-boiled eggs.

I forgot to take my camera to the market, but I took a few photos of our purchases this morning. After a walk around the vineyard with Callie the collie, I'll come back and start cooking. By the way, a lot of people here raise rabbits for food, and rabbit (like chicken, turkey, and duck) is always available at good prices in the supermarkets and on the open-air markets.

The liver or foie...

...and the kidneys or rognons visible after the liver is removed

This year we decided to buy parts rather than a whole animal. For the two of us, it's plenty. We got a piece of what is called the râble, which is the "saddle" in English, like saddle of lamb. It's the back, with its two nice tenderloin pieces, and with the liver, and the kidneys attached. Those are good to eat too.

For good measure, we also bought two rabbit legs. The back legs are very meaty, and we chose those. As you can see, the meat is very white and lean. We'll be cooking the rabbit as a sweet-and-savory dish with onions and peaches. More about that tomorrow.

15 April 2017

French dressing

Are you old enough to remember the bottled salad dressing that was called "French dressing" in America? I sure am. I suppose it's still available in supermarkets. It was big in the 1950s and '60s, when I was growing up. That was before I first came to France and realized that the real French salad dressing was home-made vinaigrette.

According to the Wikipedia article about French dressing, it was made with olive oil, vinegar, tomato paste, ketchup, brown sugar, paprika, and salt. Notice the ketchup and the brown sugar, both of which are not only sweet but have very strong flavors. I say: leave them out.

Recently, I've been making a dressing that I'd call vinaigrette à la tomate, or tomato vinaigrette. It turns out to be really good on salad greens. It looks like the old American "French dressing" but its taste is clean and fresh, not cloyingly sweet. The ingredients are tomato paste, Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and salad oil (olive or other). Actually, for years I've been making tomato vinaigrette using finely chopped fresh tomato (in season), but not with tomato paste.

For the day's salad, spoon one generous tablespoon of tomato paste into a big salad bowl. Add a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a teaspoon of white wine vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and stir well. Once it's well mixed and the salt has dissolved, whisk in 2 or 3 tablespoons of oil. Optionally, add some onion, shallot, garlic or herbs like parsley, tarragon, or oregano. Toss salad greens in it. You'll like it. It's just a vinaigrette with tomato paste added to it.

14 April 2017


Yesterday morning, I lost more than half of the photos that I had taken since about March 20. The SD card I was keeping them on, before copying them into the photo archives on my desktop computer, suddenly wouldn't work any more. It's a Kingston brand card, and this will be the fourth Kingston card or flash drive that has failed me over the past two or three years. Be warned.

This time, something happened to the card either when I stuck it in or pulled it out of the old digital camera that I use most of the time. The file system got corrupted. I spent a couple of hours trying to recover the files that had been on the disk, because I didn't really remember what all was actually on it. I recovered some photos, but finally I just had to reformat the card and take the loss. The rest of the photos are history, except of course the ones I've already posted on this blog.

Speaking of history, one of the sets of files I lost when the Kingston card got corrupted was the partially filled-out French citizenship application that I've been working on, or thinking about working on, for the past few months, ever since we had all our birth certificates (ours, our parents') and other U.S. documents translated by a court-certified translator last fall. Luckily, I had backed up the application files to the hard disk on my laptop, so they weren't actually lost. I wish I had gotten around to backing up all the photos more recently than March 21.

Later yesterday morning, I thought I might as well fill out another section of the naturalization application form. It's eight pages in all. One page asks for my parents' and siblings' birth dates and birthplaces, as well as their current addresses. My father died in 1990. My mother is still living. I have just one sister. So that page was easy. Another asks me to give the names, addresses, and other information for all my children — but I don't have any. Easier still.

The next page was the hard one. I needed to detail my professional history. I am supposed to list all the employers I've worked for in my life (I'm 68 years old now), the jobs' start and end dates, what I did at each place, and my former employers' addresses. Wow! I got my first job in about 1964. I've lived in North Carolina (2 cities), Illinois (2 cities), France (4 cities), Washington DC, and California (2 cities) over the course of my existence, so you can imagine how many different jobs I've had (not being independently wealthy...)

The interesting part of thinking back over all the places I've worked and writing it all down was that I realized that very few of the companies or even institutions I've worked for since the mid-1960s even exist any more. They are nearly all "history" now. When I told Walt about it, he said: "Wow, you've closed down a lot of companies!" LOL.

Some of the organizations I've worked for do still exist. The University of Illinois, for example — I taught French language classes there for nearly a decade — and Alma College (I ran that Michigan school's study abroad program in Paris for a couple of years in the early 1980s). The Sorbonne in Paris, where I taught American history and language for a little while, still exists, of course. And so does the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, but it's no longer located in Paris, where it was when I taught English there, but in Strasbourg.

In the early 1980s I left France and moved to Washington DC to see what kind of job I could find there. I ended up being hired by CHM (you'll know who I mean if you've been reading this blog for a while) as his assistant in the publications department of the United States Information Agency. That agency no longer exists — it was absorbed into the U.S. Department of State years ago. I don't know what address to list for USIA, now defunct. I was a translator, writer, and editor there for a few years.

Then I moved to California, and that's where I really started closing things down. In 1987, I went to work as managing editor of a computer magazine, UNIX Review, that was published by a company called Miller Freeman Publications, in San Francisco. I stayed there only about three years — didn't really like the job. And now Miller Freeman is history. Gone. Kaput.

Next I went to work for a Silicon Valley software company called SPC (Software Publishing Corporation) which was a great place to work — I was a technical editor and manager there — for about three years. The company started falling apart because the end-user software business was being taken over by Microsoft and Windows — we did DOS software back then. I moved on. SPC went out of business two decades ago.

My next gig was for Apple, in the company's Claris software subsidiary, where I was hired as an editor, soon became a manager, and ended up as one of the company's directors, reporting to the vice-president for product development. Again, it was a great place to work, and I still have many friends who were my co-workers there.

I stayed at Claris for six years (to the day, it turned out) before getting laid off when Steve Jobs made a deal with Bill Gates that required closing down the Apple software business (Microsoft didn't like the competition, and at Claris we were producing software for both Macintosh and Windows). Claris disappeared as a brand in January 1998. I had been right on the verge of resigning when the lay-offs hit, and I ended up with a nice severance package. So I took a year off.

Starting in 1999, I had a series of jobs with smaller companies, including start-ups. My heart wasn't in it any more. I went to work for a company where several ex-colleagues from SPC had found work. That company was soon bought out by an outfit called Hyperion, which was eventually acquired by Oracle. The work culture changed, and I moved on. Other friends — ex-colleagues from both SPC and Claris — were working at a start-up (Extricity) not too far from San Francisco (an easy commute for me at that point), and they took me in as an editor in 2000.

That start-up was sold to a San Diego company and no longer exists. The new owners merged us into an established software company called Remedy Corporation. Then the San Diego company fell victim to a serious accounting scandal and many of its top executives ended up in prison. It went bankrupt, and Remedy went with it. Remedy doesn't exist any more, and neither does the scandal-ridden San Diego outfit, which was called Peregrine Systems.

Okay, so I closed down Peregrine, Remedy, Extricity, Hyperion, Claris, SPC, Miller Freeman, and USIA! When I was researching all this yesterday, I discovered that one of the companies or business units I worked in was finally absorbed by Hewlett Packard, but I can't even remember which one it was. In 2002, I resigned my last job in the U.S. (I wonder how many jobs I've resigned from in my life...) and moved to France. I hope I don't end up closing this place down.

13 April 2017

Asparagus x 2 x 2

My post title is shorthand for "two kinds of asparagus, cooked two ways" but it's probably not clear. The fact is, it's asparagus season in the Loire Valley. Walt bought a bunch of local white asparagus spears from our favorite vendor in the market on Saturday morning. Then at the supermarket on Sunday morning I noticed bunches of green asparagus spears imported from Spain for just 2€/lb. So I bought a bunch.

We trimmed up the asparagus spears — the white ones need to be peeled, but the green ones don't — and cooked them in a steamer pot. We also cooked some potatoes in the steamer, and we sauteed a couple of little fish fillets and a few big shrimp in olive oil. I made a batch of fresh mayonnaise using an egg yolk, a mixture of olive and sunflower oil, and some white wine vinegar. We had our Sunday lunch, served warm but not hot. I thought the white asparagus tasted sweeter than the green, maybe because it was grown locally and didn't have to travel.

Then, yesterday, Walt made one of his superb asparagus and ham tarts, using both green and white asparagus spears (they're the same plant, just grown differently). The spears are wrapped in ham slices (jambon de Paris), 4 to 6 spears each, and then arranged in a pre-baked pie crust. A savory egg custard containing cream and Parmesan cheese gets poured into the pie shell, and the whole thing is baked in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. Delicious.

12 April 2017

Slow-cooker carbonade à la flamande

When I went to Intermarché, one of our local supermarkets, one day last week, I noticed that they had nice trays of what is called bœuf pour bourguignon, or stew beef, on sale for a good price. I couldn't resist, even though I hadn't planned on buying any meat.

Bœuf bourguignon, or beef Burgundy, is a red wine stew made with onions, herbs, stew beef, and mushrooms, and it's of course really good. The problem was that I had made a beef Burgundy just a couple of weeks ago, so I wanted something different. Walt and I talked about it, and somehow we came up with the idea of making a beef stew cooked in beer that's a Belgian specialty.

Or a Flemish specialty, really, because there are also recipes for the stew from the Flemish part of northern France as well as Belgium. It's called carbonade flamande or carbonade à la flamande. The main ingredients are beef and onions, and the cooking liquid is a combination of beer and either beef or veal broth.

There's also sugar in the recipe — some raw sugar (called cassonade or sucre roux), and some brown sugar (vergeoise brune) — along with bay leaves, thyme, mustard, wine vinegar, and spices including allspice and cloves. I had most of the ingredients in the house, and I made carbonade in the slow cooker. It is really good served with (it's Belgian) frites. The Belgians supposedly invented pommes de terre frites, which we in America call French-fried potatoes.

There are a lot of recipes for carbonade on the internet, of course, in French and in English. I also found one in the Larousse Gastronomique food encyclopedia. Here it is, in French. 

Carbonade à la flamande

Émincer 250 g d'oignons. Détailler en morceaux ou en tranches minces 750 g de hampe de boeuf ou de paleron, les faire colorer vivement dans une poêle avec 40 g de saindoux, puis les égoutter. Faire dorer les oignons dans la même graisse.

Disposer des couches de viande et d'oignon dans une petite cocotte en les alternant ; saler et poivrer à chaque fois. Ajouter 1bouquet garni.

Déglacer la poêle avec 600 ml de bière et 125 ml de bouillon de boeuf.

Préparer un roux brun avec 25 g de beurre et 25 g de farine, l'arroser avec le mélange à la bière, ajouter 1 c. à café de cassonade. Rectifier l'assaisonnement. Verser cette préparation dans la cocotte, couvrir et laisser mijoter 2 h 30 à feu très doux. Servir dans la cocotte de cuisson.
See the comments for my translation of the LG recipe.

I decided to sweat the onions with some of the herbs directly in the low cooker for a couple of hours on the cooker's high temperature setting, with some herbs and spices. Then I cut the meat into smaller pieces and added those to the cooker, without putting in any liquid. I let the meat cook for a couple of hours too, and it released some juices as it slowly browned.

Then I added the beer, broth, and sugar, including a squirt of molasses that I brought back from the U.S. in February — I didn't have any brown sugar but I did have cassonade (raw sugar) in the house. Molasses, called "black treacle" in the U.K., gives the flavor you want. With everything in the cooker, I let it cook for nearly 10 hours overnight on low temperature. It was just right at that point.