19 November 2018

Poached hake...

Hake in French is merlu. The hake is a long, round, fierce-looking fish — a member of the cod family. Look at those teeth. The European hake (Merluccius merluccius), is found in the Atlantic Ocean off the  coast of Europe and western North Africa, in the Mediterranean, and in the Black Sea. That's according to the Wikipedia article on hake.

In La Rochelle back in October, at the fishmonger's in the city's central market, I waited in line, listening, while a woman tried to decide what fish to buy for her dinner. The fishmomger recommended merlu and told her to cook it in a court bouillon and remove the skin after the fish was cooked. He said all the fish he sold was local, so I know that hake live in the Atlantic off the French west coast. That day I  bought a sea bream, but a couple of days later, while we were still staying in the gîte, I bought some boneless hake fillets at a supermarket in Fontenay-le-Comte. We enjoyed those just panned in olive oil.

Back here in Saint-Aignan, a week or two ago we got our regular weekly supermarket, garden center, and DIY advertising flyers in Monday's mail and hake put in another appearance. SuperU was having a big special on Portuguese products — I think a lot of Portuguese people must live around here (I know a few) — and one of the imported products was whole hake at 6.50€/kg. That's less than three euros a pound. Walt went and bought the one you see in these photos.

The hake weighed in at 1.7 kg (3¾ lbs.), so we had leftovers after we poached it and had eaten some for lunch. It had poached lightly in a court bouillon of water, white wine, vinegar, onion, garlic, bay leaf, and leek tops, plus some black peppercorns and allspice berries. What you do is slide the whole fish into simmering bouillon after the aromatics have cooked and given it good flavor. As soon as the liquid returns to the boil you turn off the heat and just let it all sit there and poach for 10 or 12 minutes.

We enjoyed a lunch of fish with garden peas, carrots, and mushrooms. I made a white sauce using some of the bouillon and some cream. But we had a lot of fish left over, and we put it in the refrigerator. A day or two later, I decided to go ahead and take the rest of the flesh off the bones. And I had an idea: crab cakes. Well, not exactly: why not hake cakes? I found a North Carolina recipe for crab cakes and adapted it. More tomorrow...

18 November 2018

The cat

These photos are nine days old. I took them while we were still having sunny weather. For nearly a week now, our daytime weather has been foggy — and I mean the pea-soup kind of fog. In French, they say purée de pois to describe it.

That day, I was taking some photos of our fall colors — mostly yellows —from an upstairs window. This yellow tree is called a tilleul [tee-'yuhl] in French. It's a linden tree, and in some flavors of English it's called a lime tree. That's very confusing, I think, mais passons... And a related tree in North America is called a basswood.

We were having Indian Summer weather then. Anyway, I was taking pictures of the linden tree when I noticed that Bertie the black cat was out sunbathing on the path that runs through the back yard. He was taking advantage of the fine weather and warm sunshine.

So I focused on Bertie with my long-zoom camera and took some photos of him. He'll be 13 years old in the spring, and he's lived with us here for 8½ years now. It hasn't always been easy, but he has stayed with us. Callie the Border Collie, who departed this world in June 2017, never accepted him. The neighbors didn't get along with him. I think black cats don't have an easy life. He's a hunter and a fighter, and he has lost both the upper and lower fangs on one side of his mouth in battles with other local felines.

Bertie, who was named by the English woman who left him with us when she left France to return to the U.K. in 2010, was born here in Saint-Aignan. He is half Siamese and very vocal. At this time of year, he likes to spend time sleeping near a radiator, for the warmth. He and Tasha the Sheltie get along well, so Bert is spending a lot more time in the house than he did when Callie was still with us.

17 November 2018


Nieul is another village on the edge of the Marais poitevin that was the site of an abbey — in other words, a monastery or convent, a religious community. It includes a church and cloister that were restored in the 19th century, after damage done in the Wars of Religion in the 16th century and then many decades of neglect. Nieul is just outside the city of Niort.

One of Nieul's claims to fame is that Eleanor of Aquitaine (Aliénor d'Aquitaine), who was queen of France (1137-1152) and then queen of England (1154-1189) over the course of her 80 years on Earth, lived there for a time. She had 10 children, one of them Richard the Lionhearted.

I enjoyed taking photos of some of the mythical creatures carved in stone on the façade of the church. Once again, we weren't able to go into the church or cloister, not only because of have Natasha traveling with us but also because some special even was under way in those buildings.

I think the animals in the first two images above are birds, but I'm not sure what the creatures in the photo directly above are. They seem to have duck-like beaks, but the legs are not birdy at all, and I'm not sure I see any wings.

In the square in front of the Nieul church was a tall column — a war memorial — crowned with a carved crowing rooster, one of the symbols of France. It has to be much newer than the carvings on the front of the church.

16 November 2018

Vieilles pierres dans le Marais poitevin

The man we rented the Vendée gîte from was pretty talkative, wired even, when we arrived three weeks ago. That's not a criticism. He showed us how the kitchen was set up, how to work the satellite TV system, and how to connect the the internet. Then he started telling us what the local sights to see were, writing down 15 or 20 names of villages and other attractions in a stream-of-consciousness-style delivery. Our heads were spinning.

We decided not to go on any long drives the next day, but to stay close to "home" and see local sights before heading further afield over the week to come. We wanted to see places like La Rochelle and the Île de Noirmoutier, but doing that required long car trips. One thing the gîte owner told us we should try during our stay was a Vendée bakery specialty called un préfou, which turned out to be garlic bread, and is very good.

The best bakery for préfou was in the neighboring village of Fontaines, we were told. So we headed there first. It was mid-morning on a Sunday and the boulangerie/pâtisserie in the village would be closed for the afternoon. It was located just 2½ miles from the gîte. There were half a dozen other customers in the bakery, buying baguettes, croissants, and, yes, for some of them, a préfou. We were in the right place.

We drove away toward the east after getting our breads, thinking we'd go see three or four other villages — Maillezais, Nieul-sur-Autise, and Vouvant among them — and then return to the gîte in mid-afternoon, take the dog for a long walk along the Vendée river, and generally just relax and enjoy the fine weather. But of course we got lost. We came upon the church in Fontaines, but all the roads around it seemed to be sens uniques running in the wrong direction, or impasses leading nowhere. I got out of the car and took some photos of different features of the church, which I'm posting here. Then we had to backtrack to get to where we wanted to go.

The arch in the photo above looks like it used to be a doorway, but a blog post I found describing the Fontaines church, called Notre-Dame-des-Sources, says no, it was always just decorative. The church dates back at least to the 12th century. Here's a link to another blog that has a lot of photos of the church in Fontaines.

I took the photo above of the stone wall of a barn, I think it was, in Fontaines, just because it's interesting to see how these buildings are constructed. Carved stones of all sizes are go into the mix. The formerly independent commune (municipality) of Fontaines, by the way, merged with the neighboring commune called Doix in 2015. The newly formed commune is called Doix-lès-Fontaines ("Doix next to Fontaines"). We were headed to Doix [dwah].

15 November 2018

La Venise verte

One of the main villages in the area called La Venise verte, "green Venice," goes by the name of Maillezais [my-yuh-ZAY]. It's an old place. Over the course of the 11th century, starting in around the year 1000, a great abbeywas built here and became a cathedral in the 1300s. It's now in ruins, a victim of the 16th century Wars of Religion between Protestants and Catholics; abandonment by the Pope in the 17th century in favor of a new cathedral in La Rochelle; and sale to a man who exploited it as a stone quarry from the time of the 1789 French Revolution and well into the 19th century.

La Venise verte is more officially called Le Marais poitevin — the Poitou Marshlands (wetlands, swamp). It's just outside the city of Niort, and not far east of the big town of Fontenay-le-Comte, in the Vendée département of western France. The marsh was drained over the course of the 11th century, and rivers were channeled. The canals nowadays are a tourist attraction. Maillezais is one of the major "ports" in La Venise verte.

You can rent barques (flat-bottom boats) and paddle or pole them around on the canals through the marshes. Or you can ride in a boat with a tour guide who serves as the batelier (boatman) and learn about the history, geography, and wildlife of the area.