31 December 2006

New Year's food

Our friends who live in the wine village called Mesland, on the other side of the Loire river near Chaumont-sur-Loire (site of a famous château), have invited us to spend New Year's Eve with them. The New Year's Eve feast is called Le Réveillon in French. That means a very late dinner, and very good holiday food.

The menu for this réveillon includes oysters, foie gras, and canard à l'orange — that's duck with orange sauce. Not to mention champagne, cheeses, and desserts. There will be about 10 of us there for the party.

The gâteau basque as it came out of the oven
We were asked to bring desserts and cheese. I made a cake called a gâteau basque and Walt made a tarte aux pommes. The gâteau basque is a kind of cookie dough cake with a filling. I filled this one with plum jam that I made last fall using plums that I had picked in a friend's orchard.

The Basque cake came right out of the pan after it cooled. Chouette !
I left the cake in the pan overnight so it could cool completely, and then I was very happy this afternoon when it dropped right out of the pan after I turned it over. I was afraid it would be stuck in there.

Here's a picture of Walt's tarte aux pommes — apple tart. He makes his own pie crust with butter, what is called a pâte brisée. As a base for the sliced apples (nicely arranged, no?) he sprinkled in some ground hazelnuts and some cinnamon and nutmeg, and then he spread his own home-made apple sauce over that. Then the apples went on top.

A classic French apple tart
I don't think I'll be taking any pictures this evening, but you never know. More tomorrow...

* * * * *

Tomorrow is January 1, 2007. Being a U.S. Southerner, it is my tradition to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day. Eating black-eyes brings you good luck all the year long, or so we say. Luckily, our Intermarché supermarket sells black-eyed peas. They are imported from Portugal (but probably grown in the U.S.) and are kept in the exotic foods section along with the soy sauce, taco shells, and Lancer's rosé wine.

I'm soaking my black-eyed peas overnight in the new dish I bought this
week. I splurged and paid two euros for this nice earthenware terrine.

To accompany the peas, I'm making a confit of duck and pork. I bought four duck leg sections (thigh and drumstick) and a piece of fresh porkbelly (lard frais). This afternoon, I cooked all five pieces of meat in duck fat in a pot on the stove, at a slow simmer. The fat completely covers the meat, which will be tender and juicy, not fried. Tomorrow, I put the pot back on the heat to melt the fat so that I can remove the pieces of meat and serve them.

Duck and pork pieces left to macerate in salt, pepper, and herbs
I sprinkled coarse salt, black peppercorns, dried thyme, and a few bay leaves over the meats and let them macerate for 24 hours before cooking. Then today I rinsed off the salt and spices before I immersed the duck and pork in simmering duck fat to cook for 90 minutes. See this earlier post about making duck confit if you're interested: Making confit out of a duck.

We also have a couple of saucisses de Toulouse to eat with the black-eyed peas, duck, and pork. As you can imagine, this dish will make several meals for us, and it can easily be frozen and eaten later in the winter too. What we'll end up with will be a kind of cassoulet.

I saw an article in the New York Times today about people who moved to a certain neighborhood in Queens because they liked the food there. Walt and I moved to France because we like the food here. Among other things...

Happy New Year's, Eve!

30 December 2006


This post is for Mimi. And Jerry. Mimi will know why. I don't know if they read my blog these days, but I hope they do.

Happy New Year!

It's the last day of 2006. Let's hope for nothing but the best in 2007.

Ghost ad for the apéritif wine called Suze

On the main highway that leads east from the Saint-Aignan area over to Romorantin and Vierzon, there's this old wall ad for Suze. Suze is a before-dinner drink, an appetite stimulant supposedly, that is made from the gentian plant. Before-dinner drinks are called apéritifs.

About gentian, the American Heritage Dictionary says:
gen·tian n. 1. Any of numerous plants of the genus Gentiana, characteristically having showy, variously colored flowers. 2. The dried rhizome and roots of a yellow-flowered European gentian, G. lutea, sometimes used as a tonic.

A Suze ice bucket that I bought in Laon in 1994

According to the official Suze web site, Suze-style gentiane drinks were made as early as 1795, but it was in 1889, the centennial of the French Revolution, when the name Suze was created. That same year, the Eiffel Tower opened to the public.

A close-up shot of the wall sign on the N76 highway near Saint-Aignan

* * * * *

Correction and addendum to yesterday's post about the house across from us at La Renaudière. It is not being sold. The son and daughter of Mme Simonnet are having it appraised for other reasons. I imagine they will inherit it 50/50 and they want to know the value in case one of them wants to buy the other's stake in the place.

29 December 2006

Winter scenes

Yesterday morning as I was posting some pictures I took in springtime nearly two years ago, the weather was putting on a wintertime show outside our house.

View over the Renaudie vineyards, 29 December 2006, 9:00 a.m.

I went upstairs and opened the shutters on the kitchen window at about 8:30 and saw that the sky was clear for the first time in nearly a week. The fog was gone and there were patches of blue. There was, especially, a pink sunrise glow instead of the dull gray we had gotten used to.

Our frosty back yard
[Click on the pictures to enlarge them.]

The sun was coming up and everything white had a pink hue. The trees and grass were all covered in a heavy frost. The last of the overnight fog had crystallized on everything available.

The road out into the vineyards at sunrise on a cold December morning

The temperature was probably 25ºF but I grabbed my camera and ran outdoors to take some pictures. There was no wind so I could stand being outside without a coat for a few minutes.

Frost and frozen plants out in our back yard

A few hours later, the temperature started rising really fast. By early afternoon, it was up to about 45ºF and all the ice had melted. This Saturday morning, the temperature outdoors is 8ºC, compared to the -4ºC we had 24 hours ago. That's more than twenty fahrenheit degrees warmer.

Out front, the carport/woodshed is sheltered by an icy weeping birch tree

The large high pressure area that had been sitting over northern Europe, north and east of us, and pumping icy Scandinavian air down over the northern half of France, moved off to the east yesterday. A rainy warm front then started moving in off the Atlantic, bringing showers and temperatures in the 50s F to the Brittany and Normandy coastal areas.

The frosty vineyards bathed in pink sunlight

This morning it is windy. I can hear the gusts, but I haven't opened any shutters yet. It's 7:15 and the sun doesn't come up until about 8:30. It's supposed to rain later, maybe by noontime.

Icy rose bushes along the fence at Mme Simonnet's house

I'm glad it has warmed up but I would like the rain to hold off long enough for me to go to the outdoor market in Saint-Aignan this morning. I'm looking for some saucisses de Toulouse — Toulouse-style sausages. They're just pork, salt and pepper, and maybe some garlic, and I like them. I want to cook them on New Year's Day to go with my black-eyed peas, along with the duck legs I bought yesterday.

The Renaudie vineyards with woods behind

It's good luck to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, you know. Not that I'm superstitious or anything.

Our frosty back yard with the vineyards just over the hedge

By the way, there's a house for sale at La Renaudière (our hamlet). Mme Simonnet, who is 94 years old now, has moved out of her house and into a retirement home. Her son and daughter, who live in Paris, have decided not to keep the house, which is just across the road and behind ours. It faces the little pond out back and has sweeping views out over the vines.

Mme Simonnet's house seen from one of our back windows

I'll be interested to see what the asking price turns out to be. I know the real estate agent who is doing the appraisal, so I'll be able to find out pretty fast. And I'm sure I'll get to see the inside of the house. It's hard to tell how big it is from the outside, but you can tell it is pretty old.

It started raining a few minutes ago so I'm not sure about the market trip now.

Spring fever already

It has been cold in Saint-Aignan for the past two weeks. How soon we forget the extra-warm autumn we had. I'm shivering this morning. We haven't had any snow yet, but we have had very heavy frosts and some freezing fog this week.

The woods that surround La Renaudière

The temperature outside this morning is -3.5ºC — that's about 26ºF. It's been gray and foggy all week, and the temperature has hovered around freezing. It gets depressing after a while, despite the fire in the wood stove and the good Christmas dinner leftovers — not just turkey and dressing, but foie gras and brussels sprouts with chestnuts. Yesterday I made a big pot of turkey soup that helped fend off the chill.

Primroses are about the first flowers we see in the spring.

Yesterday afternoon I was looking at some pre-blog pictures and found a little set that I took in early April 2005. I say "pre-blog" because I didn't start blogging until about 6 months later, in October 2005.

The woods start to green up again by March.
There's Collette a year before her passing.

Back then, I would send out such pictures to a small group of friends. Nowadays, those same friends have to look at the blog to see what's doing in Saint-Aignan, and it's less personal in a way. But I also don't have the feeling that I'm clogging up people's e-mail boxes with pictures. People can look at their own leisure — or not.

The Renaudie vineyards, our extended back yard, in early April 2005

Saint-Aignan is pretty in the spring. Most places are, aren't they? The days have gotten significantly longer by March and April, and warm breezes start to blow. The trees bud out, and bulbs push up new greenery and flowers. Getting out for a walk in the vineyards is fun, and it was especially pleasant when we had Collette to go walking with. We plan to get a new dog this spring. Maybe a Border Collie.

A neighbor's open storage hangar contains lots of interesting stuff.

28 December 2006

Ghosts of advertising past (1)

A few times a year we get a magazine called Loir & Cher Info in the mail. It's published by our local authorities; we live in the Loir-et-Cher département. The magazine contains articles about events and developments in our area, as well as some entertaining feature articles.

The December issue includes an article called "Les Murs-Réclames" — it's about old advertising panels that are painted onto the walls of buildings along the local roads. That reminded me that I've taken many pictures of such advertising. An American friend calls them ghost ads. A lot of them date back to the first half of the last century.

Here's an example that is located on the road leading into Saint-Aignan from the north. The Peugeot dealership/garage advertised here doesn't exist today, to my knowledge. The current Peugeot dealer in Saint-Aignan is the Garage Danger, which is owned and operated by Thierry Danger. He took it over when his father retired, I understand, so the Garage Danger has been in business for a few decades. (I bought my car there in 2003.)

Here's a close-up of the old ad.

Over the next few days, I'm going to publish pictures of some other ghost ads I've spotted as I've explored our area.

27 December 2006

Lapwings — Vanneaux huppés

Out near Orbigny this time of year, the fields are full of birds called lapwings. Their most distinctive feature is their long wispy crest. Their colors catch the eye too — their plumage is partly an iridescent greenish-black, with large white areas on the breast and tail. Lapwings are members of the plover family (Lat. Vanellus vanellus; Fr. Vanneau huppé).

A lapwing in a field near Orbigny in Touraine

Lapwings, like most birds, are hard to photograph. The other day, when I was near Orbigny, about 10 miles south of Saint-Aignan, I stopped the car on a little narrow road when I saw the birds in a field. They of course scattered as soon as I got out of the car.

[Click on the picture to see it full-size.]

But I was patient and waited for them to come back and settle down. I got a few decent pictures with my long zoom-lens Canon camera. The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe says lapwings are "gregarious, often in huge straggling flocks in winter." That's what I observed too.

Interesting how the house in the background is below the crest of the hill...

26 December 2006

Swiss cheese and French bread

Not long ago, a friend from America came to visit. He wanted to eat ham and cheese sandwiches with mayonnaise on sliced bread, American style. He liked the bread, the mayonnaise, and the ham he found at the Intermarché supermarket in Saint-Aignan.

"Where can I find some Swiss cheese?" he wanted to know. He wanted thin-sliced pale yellow Swiss cheese like you find at Safeway. I had to explain that "Swiss cheese" is an American abstraction. There's nothing called that in France, and I'm sure there's nothing called Swiss cheese in Switzerland.

What we call Swiss cheese is an American version of several different cheeses that are made in the Alps in France and in Switzerland. The best known is Gruyère, which is sometimes used as a generic term in French to describe these Alpine cheeses. Gruyères, by the way, is a small town in Switzerland where the famous cheese was first made and is still made today.

Another cheese that is similar to Gruyère is Emmental, which was originally made in Switzerland but is now made in France as well. The Alpine cheese I like best is called Comté, which is made in the area called Franche-Comté in France, near the border with Switzerland. Another cheese variety in this category is called Beaufort. It's made a little further south, in the high Alps.

Notice that the comté cheese that came in the green wrapper is an A.O.C. product. That means it is made in a very specific region by very specific methods using milk from cows raised in that region.

The strict standards are designed to protect the quality and reputation of Comté cheese, which has been made in the Franche-Comté province since Roman times. It's not made in a factory somewhere the way a lot of American "Swiss" cheeses are. And it tastes it.

The situation is the same with what Americans off-handedly call "French bread." Sunday afternoon I went to buy bread (no bread lady delivery on Sunday, and none on Monday because it was December 25) at a local boulangerie called Robert.

Which "French bread" would you buy after looking at the list below?

Your choices are: pain solognot, pain au son, pain complet, pain aux céréales, pain de campagne, miche d'antan, pain bricheton, and pain de seigle. In the store itself, you also had these to choose from: flute, baguette de tradition, baguette du patron, and then something called just pain — bread.

If you want to know what bread to serve with what course or dish you are treating your family or guests to, you can consult this list.

The Robert publicity specifies that the bread is made exclusively with stone-ground flours and grains (farines de meules or farine faite sur meules de pierre).

Want some Swiss cheese on that French bread?


P.S. In the rush and commotion of getting dinner on the table yesterday afternoon, I neglected to take any pictures of the poached turkey after it was browned in the oven. Needless to say, it looked exactly like a roast turkey. And the meat was good. It wasn't dry, and it had picked up subtle flavors from the aromatics and spices I put in the poaching broth. I made a cream gravy using the broth and added a pinch of curry powder to liven it up.

25 December 2006

Turkey Day

I wasn't sure I wanted to post anything about Christmas this year. I'm not a scrooge, but I think a lot of people, including myself, are not that interested in either organized religion (my beliefs are none of your business) or the commercialism that Christmas has come to embody in the Western world. But as you might imagine, I do like the gastronomical aspects of the winter holidays!

On French TV this morning, I heard a report saying that polls show that only 12% of French people view Christmas as a religious holiday. At the same time, 90% of the French see Christmas a a family celebration.

The French are big advocates of family values — in the real sense of the term. Our summer neighbors who live in Blois have all their children and grandchildren in for Christmas dinner. There are 35 of them in all.

Last year I posted some pictures of the Christmas decorations in Saint-Aignan. The same ones are out this year. And here's a posting dated Christmas Eve 2005 with some more pictures of Saint-Aignan at this time of the year. Plus another with a French Santa Claus climbing up the side of a building.

So here it is, Christmas Day 2006. We are cooking a turkey. At Thanksgiving, we had a leg of lamb, because we prefer lamb to turkey, so why not? Besides, it's not easy to get a turkey in November in France, since there's no holiday in November here. Turkey is traditional Christmas fare in France, however. Some people cook a goose, or a capon, instead.

The turkey from Intermarché looked kind of purple, but it turned white
as soon as I lowered it into the poaching liquid.
It weighs about seven pounds (3.25 kg).

I bought a turkey at the supermarket this year. Two years ago, we ordered one from a butcher shop in Saint-Aignan. It was delicious, but it was very expensive. This year, the Intermarché supermarket had ready-to-cook turkeys on sale about ten days ago, so I bought one at put it in the freezer to keep.

We have friends from California coming for Christmas dinner this afternoon, along with a couple of British friends who live down the road. In France, the big meal is normally eaten on Christmas Eve, so not many people will be gorging themselves on fine foods today. Instead, they will be recovering from last night's feast while we are ... eating. We will try to be reasonable.

Cornbread stuffing from a recipe in the American Joy of Coooking book.
It includes chopped and "sweated" onions, celery, and garlic,
along with red and green bell peppers from our garden.

The menu includes cornbread stuffing which I made yesterday and will re-heat in the oven before we sit down at the table; a purée of butternut squash (which we grew in our garden last summer); brussels sprouts with chestnuts that our British friends are brings; and desserts.

I'm poaching the turkey. Poaching is a method I've used very successfully with ducks over the past two years, so I'm hoping it will be good. It's supposed to make the turkey juicy and evenly cooked.

The turkey in its poaching liquid with carrots, leeks,
onions, garlic, bay leaves, and spices.

First I made a vegetable broth: a couple of carrots, some onions, some celery stalks, a few cloves of garlic, and plenty of bay leaves. Then I added a couple of whole cloves (clous de girofle), some black peppercorns, and some sea salt. When the liquid reached the boil, I carefully lowered the turkey into the pot and turned the heat down so it is cooking at the barest simmer. I'll let it poach for a couple of hours. It's important not to let it boil, evidently.

Once the turkey is poached, I'll baste it with fat — melted butter, duck fat, or olive oil would be good — and then put it in the oven for 30 minutes or so to let it brown and dry out just a little. I think I'll use melted butter this time. For duck cooked this way, I've always used duck fat.

Our holiday desserts will include two especially English ones: Christmas pudding and mince pie. Our British friends are bringing those. Meanwhile, Walt is making a chocolate Yule log. I'm sure he will take pictures.

I just took the turkey out of the poaching liquid. I think it is very well cooked after only about 90 minutes of poaching.

This is the poached turkey. It still needs to be brushed with butter
and browned in a hot oven for 30 minutes or so before it's served.

Happy winter festivities to all. Don't eat too much!

22 December 2006

Walt's birthday steak au poivre

If you read Walt's "Another American in France" blog, you know yesterday was his birthday. This was the 25th birthday of his that we have celebrated together. C'est incroyable, non ?

In the fall of 1982, we were living in Washington DC. Well, Arlington, Virginia, actually. We didn't live together then. We had met in Paris in 1981 and become friends. Walt was working for BlueCross/BlueShield in Washington as a phone rep, and I was still looking for a job as a translator.

When Walt's birthday rolled around in December, he told me that he had had the most amazing dinner on his birthday the year before in France. He was in Nice, and in a restaurant he ordered a steak au poivre avec frites. It was the best thing he had ever eaten, he said.

Big thick steaks warming up in the bubbly cream sauce

"I can make that," I told him, "if you want to have it for your birthday dinner again this year."

I don't think he believed me. But it was a meal I had been preparing for the past three years, during the time I lived in Paris and cooked a lot of dinners for a group of French friends. Everybody loved it. Sometimes I made it with bifteck haché — ground beef — because it was always good and was less expensive. And I always served it with sautéed potatoes, since making french fries in my small apartment in Paris was not an option.

Obviously, my version of steak au poivre has legs. Twenty-five years later, we still enjoy it, but only once a year. Maybe this year I'll make it more often.

We have a deep fryer (thanks, Cheryl) so now we can make
"proper" frites to go with the steak au poivre.

How do you make it? Rub coarsely ground black pepper or chopped green peppercorns on thick steaks and let them "marinate" in the pepper for 30 minutes to an hour. Then sear the steaks in a hot skillet. Take them out of the pan and deglaze with cognac or armagnac (¼ to ½ cup, I'd say). Let that boil down for two or three minutes, scraping up the pepper and meat juices, and then put in enough cream (French crème fraîche is best of course) to make a nice sauce. Add some salt at various points in the process.

When the cream sauce has cooked down for two or three minutes, put the steaks back in and turn them over to coat them in sauce. Let them heat back up and cook a little to get them the way you like them: rare or medium or whatever.

Serve with french fries or sautéed potatoes and a green salad.

P.S. I bet this would be good made with big thick tuna steaks. Now there's an idea...

19 December 2006

Contrôle technique — passed!

I took the car in this morning. The man in charge at the inspection station checked the lights and then looked under the hood (at I don't know what).

Then he drove the car into the garage so that the two front wheels were stopped on two rubber pads in the floor. Sitting at the wheel, he used a remote control to activate the pads, which vibrated and bounced violently, fast at first, and then more and more slowly.

Then he drove the car forward until the back wheels were on the pads and did the same thing. The car shook and bounced but not too much, I guess.

In between vibrating the front end and the back end, he drove the front wheels down into a little recess in the floor that had rollers in it. He started the car, which is a front-wheel-drive model, and gunned the motor. The wheels spun and the rollers rolled. After vibrating the rear, he drove the rear wheels into the roller-equipped recess and turned on the roller so that the back wheels spun really fast.

After all that, he drove the car over one of those underground pits that make the old pneumatic racks obsolete. I don't know what he did underneath the car, but five minutes later he came and told me everything checked out fine.

« Tout est impeccable là-dessus », he said. Everything is impeccable. I paid my 60 euros and drove on home. He never said a word about the brakes or the tires.

18 December 2006

Jours et brouillard

Temperature: just above freezing.
Humidity: very high.
Atmosphere: spooky.

That's December in the Loire Valley. The days are short, and just to make it feel even more like winter, a thick fog sticks close to the ground on days when there is no wind.

There's no point in going sightseeing — visibility is too low. You can't work in the garden. Going for a walk is an option, but it's pretty cold and damp out.

About the only thing left to do is to cook. But as soon as you get a pot of water boiling on the stove, all the windows fog up. So it seems even darker and gloomier.

Thank goodness for the fire in the woodstove. In just four days, the hours of daylight will start increasing and, before we know it, it will be spring again.

17 December 2006

Deux mésanges

Five or six species of birds are the most frequent feeders around La Renaudière. There are European robins [rouges-gorges], chaffinches [pinsons des arbres], blackbirds [merles], European jays [geais], nuthatches [sittelles], and tits [mésanges].

There are several types of tit birds, but the two most common here seem to be great tits [mésanges charbonnières] and blue tits [mésanges bleues]. I'm learning how to tell them apart.

You can see the differences in color above.
The great tit (called charbonnière, coal-colored,
in French) is black. The bird on the right is definitely blue.
It also has an eye-stripe that the great tit doesn't have.

Here's a second view. The great tit is clearer here. It has a black cap,
without the eye-stripe. The blue tit's head is blue (quelle surprise !).

So this is a blue tit, judging by the eye-stripe.
The blue color is just barely visible.

Other birds we see a lot of are wood pigeons, green woodpeckers, spotted woodpeckers, treecreepers, and other finches including goldfinches. I've also seen rarer birds, like a kingfisher [martin pêcheur] and a hoopoe [huppe fasciée]. Plus pheasants and ducks, bien sûr.

15 December 2006

The Saint-Laurent priory at Palluau

One place I wasn't able to see on my first trip to Palluau-sur-Indre was the old priory dedicated to Saint-Laurent (Saint Lawrence). It was built in the 11th century and its walls are covered in polychrome frescoes dating back as far as the 12th century. I saw it and took these pictures there in July 2006.

The polychrome walls at the Saint-Laurent priory

The Michelin guide says these are some of the finest frescoes in the region. The painted figures include a Christ "in majesty" — that's an art term meaning he is sitting on a throne and wearing a crown — a Virgin Mary also in majesty, and an unnamed bishop or abbey who is holding a crozier (a staff).

La Vierge en majesté

A priory, by the way, is a small monastery or convent. This one was de-sacralized and turned into living quarters at some point in its long history. A fire in the 19th century destroyed all the archives that might have detailed the priory's history, so not much is known about it.

A wider view of the Virgin Mary in majesty

I found a couple of Web sites that give information and show some pictures of the frescoes in the Saint-Laurent priory. One has descriptions in English and French, and the other in French only. In all modesty, I think the pictures I'm posting are better than the ones on those sites (thanks to Photoshop).

The priory is open to the public. Rough wooden stairs and railings have been put up to make the place a little safer. The main chapel is above the old crypt (no frescoes there) and up half a level off the street.

There is enought paint and color left on the walls to give you a good idea how highly decorated the old priory really was. I've seen similar frescoes in the old church at Saint-Aignan, for example, and especially in the enormous church at Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, about 65 km SW of Palluau. Both are worth a visit.

Le Christ en majesté

Here are a few more pictures.

I don't know how the wall paintings managed to survive for nearly 1000 years. Evidently they were painted over by residents of the building centuries ago. Village children discovered them just before World War II, according to the site in French I gave a link for above.

Serious restoration work began in the late 1970s and continued until about 1990.

Above and below, an unidentified bishop holding his crosier, or staff

The Saint-Laurent priory is on this fairly non-descript street, with a café-tabac, a grocery store (Alimentation), and an empty storefront on the other side. The town's main church and the château are on another street, parallel to this one and up higher on the hill the town sits on.