31 December 2007

Tutoying the New Year

A few days ago, we asked Roselyne, the bread lady, if she could bring us a loaf of rye bread — pain de seigle — on Monday morning, December 31. Rye bread with butter is what you eat with oysters on the half shell, along with some lemon juice or vinegar to sprinkle on them.

Roselyne said fine, no problem. But this morning when she got here on her daily rounds, she told Walt — I was out on a walk in the vineyard with Callie — that the rye bread wasn't cooked yet, so she couldn't bring it. She said the boulangère, Sylvie (the baker's wife, who runs the shop), would deliver it later in the day. Walt told her we wanted it for our mid-day meal, if possible.

When I got back from the walk, I decided to call Sylvie at the boulangerie to tell her there was no need for her to make a special trip and that I would come down to the village and pick up the bread. What time? I asked. She said it would be ready by 10:00 a.m.

I also wanted to get some white wine this week, so I put one of our little plastic barrels in the car with the idea of stopping at the Domaine de la Renaudie on the way to town. Maybe Patricia or Bruno would be there and sell me 10 liters of wine.

Bruno was there and, as he has told me, he is always glad to stop whatever he is doing to sell wine. We talked while he was filling my cubitainer with AOC 2006 Chenin Blanc wine (€19 for the equivalent of 13 bottles). At a certain point in the conversation, he made a special point of saying tu to me instead of vous.

I had always said vous to him up to now, though in 2007 I started calling him by his first name. He is probably 10 years younger than I am. This morning, I noticed that he was making an effort to say tu and toi very clearly as many times as he could in each sentence he uttered, and he talked slowly to make sure I got the point.

I got the point but I never did figure out how to formulate a sentence to say back to him that had tu in it. That sounds silly, because all I had to do was ask him a question using tu as the subject or stick a tu sais ? tag ("... you know?) at the end of any sentence I said. But I couldn't manage to do it.

It wasn't that I didn't want to. It was just that every question I asked him referred to something he and his wife Patricia were doing, usually did, or were planning to do. The plural subject is vous, which is the same as the formal pronoun. So I never did reciprocate when he "tutoied" me. Next time I see him I'll have to remember and make a special effort.

At the bakery, there was an older woman in line ahead of me who was a deaf as ... well, a conch, as we say in North Carolina. She was also getting a loaf of rye bread — I guess she must have been having oysters today too. Sylvie the boulangère was trying to explain to her customer that the pain de seigle had just come out of the oven and was still too hot to slice.

Sylvie yelled and mimed and mugged until she got her point across. She, the customer, and the young clerk were all laughing by the time they got it all straightened out. The hearing-impaired woman apologized for not having put her hearing aid on this morning. Then she said she wondered if the cake she had ordered was ready.

Another round of loud talking, miming, gesturing, and mugging ensued. By then I was laughing too. It turned out that her cake wouldn't be ready until about 2:00, and Sylvie told the woman she would just bring it to her house as soon as it was baked. That seemed to work for everybody involved.

I got my loaf of rye bread, and I told Sylvie I could slice it myself at home, no problem. She asked me if I had already paid Roselyne for it, or was I going to pay now? I said I didn't think it had been paid for. She said she just wanted to make sure I didn't pay twice and looked at me like I was crazy — how could I not know if I had already paid or not? I couldn't think fast enough to tell her it was Walt who had seen Roselyne earlier in the morning, not me. I just paid her, because there were several other people waiting in line behind me.

Sylvie must have been thinking, "First the hard-of-hearing, and now the foreigners who don't understand what's going on!" But she wished me a Bon Réveillon (a good New Year's Eve party) and said au revoir with a smile.

The rye bread was delicious, by the way, especially slathered with butter and consumed with good fresh oysters.

30 December 2007

Our new autoroute, the A85

December 18 saw the inauguration of the new autoroute that links the town of Vierzon, 35 miles east of Saint-Aignan in the Berry, to the city of Angers 100 miles down the Loire towards the Atlantic Ocean in the old province of Anjou.

A lot of people think this is good news. I'm not sure I do. Sign me "Grumpy Old Geezer."

Now you can drive fast fast fast on the A85 from Langeais to
Tours to Saint-Aignan to Romorantin and to Vierzon. Don't blink.

An autoroute is what is variously called an expressway or freeway or superhighway in the U.S. It's the French equivalent of a U.S. interstate highway, except that autoroutes in France are mostly toll roads.

Saint-Aignan and the surrounding region are slowly being opened up to the modern world, and we expect growth and changes. When we moved here in 2003, there was no autoroute nearby. You had to drive 45 minutes north to Blois on little roads to get on the autoroute to Paris, or 45 mintues east to Vierzon to get on the autoroute that goes to Clermont-Ferrand or Lyon and points south. You had to drive about an hour west to get on the autoroute that goes south to Bordeaux or north to Rouen and Le Havre.

A vision of the Cher Valley's future?

The autoroute is a much faster way to get to your destination. On a good day, we can get to Paris by autoroute in about 2½ hours. If you don't take the autoroute, you can count on a 4-hour drive (or longer, if there's traffic getting into the city). The speed limit on the autoroute is 80 mph, while on other roads it is 55 mph. (That's 130 kph vs. 90 kph.)

But you really pay for the time you save. The toll one-way from Saint-Aignan to Paris is about €20, or $30. That's just the toll. Fuel, even in a little car like ours, will cost you another $35 each way. So the round trip to Paris costs at least $125. It's cheaper to take the train, even if you have a little car with a diesel engine that gets very good mileage. Diesel fuel in France is cheaper than gasoline. Plan accordingly.

A cute graphic of the new section of our east-west autoroute, the A85.

It takes longer, but it's a lot less expensive to drive the little roads. At 55 mph, the car uses a lot less fuel, and there are no tolls to pay. And there are pretty landscapes, villages, châteaux, and churches to see. The autoroute doesn't stop anybody from choosing to drive the little roads, I guess, but time is money.

With the price of oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel skyrocketing, and at a time when pollution from the internal combustion engine is causing radical, maybe catastrophic changes in the Earth's climate, doesn't it seem short-sighted for our countries to continue building new roads, especially high-speed expressways that encourage people to drive more and faster?

The 21st-century landscape
comes to the Cher River Valley

The A85 autoroute from Vierzon to Angers has been in the planning for 30 years. The section from Saint-Aignan east to Vierzon was opened to traffic two or three years ago, since our move to the area. The section from Angers to Langeais, on the other side of Tours, has been open for a few years as well. The part that opened about 10 days ago is the link from Saint-Aignan to Langeais, passing by Bléré, Loches, and Azay-le-Rideau in the southern outskirts of Tours.

One article in the local newspaper said that Saint-Aignan is now only 25 minutes from Tours instead of the 55 minutes the drive on older roads takes. The toll on that 35-mile, 25-minute section of autoroute is €5.00 each way. $7.50! And in fact, in several places, sections of the new road are just one lane in each direction, which was a way to hold down building costs. Maybe it means they don't think there will be all that much traffic on the A85. That's a nice thought.

Even so, they ripped out a lot of vineyards to make way for the new highway. Cars and trucks replace rows of vines. Do you think we might end up making ethanol out of grapes? If so, that was a bad move.

Beautiful downtown Tours — the view from the autoroute

Who will benefit most from having a high-speed highway from Vierzon to Angers? Tourists, I guess, and the Loire Valley gets a lot of them. They won't be sightseeing along the way, however. Truckers, certainly — when the last little section of autoroute around Angers is completed, there will be a complete east-west autoroute link all the way from the big city of Lyon (and points south, including Marseille and Nice) to the other big city of Nantes (and points west in Brittany). Cross-country shipping by tractor-trailer rig will be speedier.

Historically in France, all roads lead to Paris. In the past, if you wanted to go by train or by autoroute from Lyon or Marseille down south to Nantes out west, you drove north to Paris and then back southwest to Nantes. The fastest route was not the most direct. The building of east-west autoroutes like the A85 is seen in France as a great innovation.

The network of autoroutes in northwest France.
Tours and the A85 (dark red) are in the middle of the map.

The other people who will likely benefit most from the Saint-Aignan-to-Tours autoroute are commuters. Which means that Saint-Aignan will probably start evolving into a bedroom community for people who make their living in the big city to the west. Tours has a population of about 300,000, whereas Saint-Aignan is 4,000.

A lot of new houses are being built around Saint-Aignan, though nothing yet on the scale of the sprawling subdivisions of McMansions that you see in the States. A newspaper article said builders are building new houses but there aren't yet many buyers. The Cher Valley and Saint-Aignan haven't yet been discovered, I guess. That's something to look forward to.

Thanks to http://www.cofiroute.fr/ for
most of the graphics in this topic.

29 December 2007

Oysters from the market

It is Saturday, which is market day in Saint-Aignan. Merchants set up their stands or drive their refrigerated market trucks to the main square in the old town to set up for the morning. The trucks are rolling boutiques with side doors that open up and out to reveal refrigerated shelves where meats and cheeses are displayed.

Oysters for sale by the kilogram at the outdoor market

There is a big fish monger's stand, there are several charcutiers and butchers (including one specializing in horse meat), and there are several stands selling vegetables and fruit. The mushroom lady is always there, along with several local farmers who sell their own products, including eggs, vegetables, and goat cheeses. There's a great cheese vendor with hundreds of French cheeses, and there are two stands that sell poultry, including spit-roasted chickens and rabbits. It's a colorful scene.

I've been trying to remember when I went to the market last. I think it was in September. Can you believe that? I was very busy in September, with visits from Evelyn and her friends, and then my sister. Then toward the end of that month, I came down with some kind of pneumonia or bronchitis and was housebound for three weeks.

After that, I went to the U.S. for a month. When I got back just before Thanksgiving, the cold weather and chilly rains had set in, so I still didn't go out to the market. And I had a cold.

Oysters for sale in bourriches at the Saint-Aignan market

Well, guess what. Today it is raining. It's not terribly cold, but there's a fine mist falling, and it's supposed to turn into a steady rain over the course of the morning, according to what I'm hearing on the radio.

I think I'll go to the market anyway. I really want to get some good oysters for New Year's Eve, and they have the best ones there. You can buy them by the bourriche (that's the little basket they are packed in) in the supermarkets, where you get between two and four dozen oysters of a single variety and origin. But what I want is a selection of different varieties — fines de claires, belons, creuses — from several locations — Bretagne, Normandie, l'île d'Oléron, and so on.

Oysters washed and waiting to be opened on New Year's Eve 2005

I believe I can buy oysters that way at the market; I think I have done so in past years. Besides, I also want to get some good local goat cheese, and the market is the place for that. I also want to stop at Doudouille's charcuterie stand to get some rillettes and maybe some sausages. Here's my topic about the New Year's Eve market in Saint-Aignan two years ago, with pictures.

And here they are — we eat oysters raw on the half shell with a
mignonnette sauce (vinegar with chopped shallot and black pepper),
accompanied by rye bread and butter. And white wine of course...

So I guess I'll dress warmly, put on my rain gear, and brave the wet weather. My friend Harriet, who's here from California for the holidays, said yesterday she wanted to go with me if the weather didn't turn out to be too bad. I'll call her in an hour or so and see what she thinks.

28 December 2007

Changing colors

Not much to say today. I don't feel optimistic
about the dawning of 2008. Not yet, anyway.

Christmas Day, about 8:15 a.m.

The Christmas morning sunrise was spectacular.
At first, the sky eastern sky was a brilliant red.

Farther out in the vineyard and 10 minutes later

The light slowly became less intense,
with oranges and yellows replacing the deep reds.

Pretty in pink

Then, for a few moments, the vineyard
was bathed in pink light.

I see the moon and the moon sees me.

Looking west, you could vaguely see the full moon
behind hazy pinkish clouds, with the rusty gold of
the vines and scrub oak trees in contrast.

The silvery gray of December's cold

By the time I got back to the house at 9:00 a.m.,
the landscape had reverted to the silvery gray tones
to which we have become accustomed.

27 December 2007

Who is Carla Bruni?

And for that matter, who exactly is
Nicolas Sarkozy?

Has news of Nicolas Sarkozy's post-marital shenanigans made it to the U.S.? I'm sure people know that his wife Cécilia left him not long after he became the new French president last summer and the legal system pronounced a divorce for the couple in record time.

That was after Cécilia refused an invitation from George W. Bush to come to a picnic at Kennebunkport, Maine, while the Sarkozy's were spending their summer vacation at a resort in nearby New Hampshire. Cécilia said she had a sore throat, but after turning up her nose at the Bush invitation she was seen out shopping in New Hampshire the next day.

Of course, Cécilia had already left Nicolas for a while before he declared his candidacy for the French presidency in 2006. She was reportedly living with another man in New York City. Why she came back to stand at her husband's side during his presidential campaign, nobody knows. The cynical say she was probably paid to do so, the reinforce Sarkozy's respectability. She didn't bother to go vote for him on election day, however.

Now Sarkozy is creating a stir by appearing in public with another woman, Carla Bruni. Sarkozy and Bruni were seen together at the Eurodisney theme park outside Paris last week. Now they have gone on holiday together in Egypt for a few days. They are making so secret of their relationship, even though few know the intimate details.

Who is Carla Bruni? Thirty-nine years old to Sarkozy's 52, she was born in Italy but came to France with her family when she was five years old and has French citizenship. She had a career as a fashion model from 1987 to 1997, and then started a career in pop music.

So Bruni is a songwriter and singer. She wrote the lyrics for an album, released in 2000, for the singer Julien Clerc (who writes his own music). Then in 2002 she released an album she herself wrote and recorded, under the title Qulequ'un m'a dit ("Somebody told me"), on which she sings and accompanies herself on the acoutic guitar. In 2007 she did a second album, No Promises, in English, putting to music poems by such English-language writers as Yeats, Auden, and Dickenson.

Carla Bruni's father was the wealthy industrialist and opera composer Alberto Bruni-Tedeschi, who died in 2006. He moved his family from Italy to France in the early 1970s because he was afraid they might fall victim to the kidnappings the Italian Red Brigades were known for at that time. Carla's older sister is the actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (who happens to have a new movie out right now).

Over the years, Carla Bruni has been linked to and photographed with a series of "Anglo-Saxon" celebrities that includes Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Donald Trump, and Kevin Costner. In France, there have been real or rumored relationships with the actor Vincent Perez and the Socialist Party leader Laurent Fabius.

In the late 1990s Bruni was living with a well-known French literary editor but then got involved with the editor's son, married him, and had a child with him in 2001. At the time the younger man was married to Justine Lévy, the daughter of the French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy. Justine Lévy wrote a book about the whole affair in which Carla Bruni is one of the main characters.

Nicolas Sarkozy is certainly stirring things up in France. I'm sure there are many conservative French people who long for a return to the days of upstanding, even moralistic, political icons like Charles de Gaulle and his wife, "Tante" (Aunt) Yvonne.

No other French president — not even François Mitterrand, about whom it was revealed toward the end of his second seven-year term as president that he had had a long-lasting relationship and a daughter with a woman to whom he wasn't married — has flaunted his celebrity and his glamorous, rich friends the way Sarkozy is doing it.

Of course, most Americans' reaction to the whole Sarkozy lifestyle would be: Hey, he's French, isn't he? What do you expect?

26 December 2007

That poularde

Still no phone here. Friends of ours from California were supposed to arrive yesterday, but we have no way to contact them. They have their own house, about 10 miles south of us out in the country. Their plan was to spend Christmas Eve in Paris, and then drive down to Saint-Aignan on Christmas Day. I knew which hotel they had booked. So I sent an e-mail to the hotel and asked the staff to transmit the message that our phone was on the fritz. I have no way of knowing if our friends got that message. They might just be wondering why we don't answer the phone. Maybe we'll hear from them today.

Meanwhile, that poularde we cooked yesterday was the best chicken I've had in a long time. I wish I knew what we call such a bird in American English. I know a French chapon is called a capon and is a castrated young rooster that is all fattened up. We would have cooked a capon, except they are big birds (8 to 10 lbs.) and it would have been too much for the two of us.

This is a poularde ready for the oven.
Thanks to Walt for the photo.

The young hen we roasted — a poularde is a hen that is fattened and then killed before it ever starts laying eggs — weighed about two kilos, or just under 4½ lbs. We have plenty of leftovers. The Joy of Cooking says that "Large chickens — generally those weighing 5 to 7 pounds, though some producers include chickens weighing as little as 4 pounds in this category — are marketed today as roasting chickens or roasters."

In the French-English dictionary, the entry for Fr. poularde says it is a "cookery" term and that the word used in English is also poularde.

Other hens that are sold fall into two categories. Some are raised for the eggs they produce and those eggs are sold. Others are raised as breeders; the eggs they lay are hatched. These layers are called stewing hens in the U.S.; in France, they are sold as poules and the only way to treat them is to boil or stew them. They make great broth or stock, and if you boil the meat long enough you can eat that too. Think chicken noodle soup.

A couple of years ago I bought two poules at the supermarket by mistake. The price was good, and I didn't pay attention to the label. It looked like chicken to me. I cooked it as I would have cooked a bird marketed as a poulet and was I disappointed! The meat was tough as shoe leather. I looked up poule in my cookbooks and realized the mistake I had made.

In France you can buy sevreal different varieties of poulets too. The standard supermarket chicken, called a poulet industriel, is also called a poulet blanc. A farm raised chicken is a poulet fermier and can be either white or yellow, depending on whether it has been raised on a diet of corn or not. In France, most of the farm-raised chickens carry a Label Rouge, which is the industry's guarantee that the birds are raised and fed according to high standards.

This is a poularde cooked on a spit.
Thanks to Walt for the photo.

Free-range chickens are called poulet de grain and farm-raised chickens that are kept indoors are called poulets reine. I think these can have the Label Rouge too. So-called "industrial chickens" cannot.

At the outdoor markets, where they have those big racks of rotisseries with many chickens and other fowl and meat roasting out in the open air, you can get either a poulet blanc or a poulet fermier, as you prefer. The former are less expensive, of course.

The special birds sold for the end-of-the-year holidays are turkeys (dindes), capons (chapons), poulardes, and geese (oies). I don't think I had ever in my life bought a poularde before this year. But I knew what they were, because I had seen pages and pages of recipes for them in the Larousse Gastronomique food encyclopedia.

Actually, the Larousse lists 98 recipes (unless I miscounted) under the category Poulardes et poulets, and then another 100 or more under the category "Farm-raised chickens." You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Just to be sure, I asked the butcher at the supermarket about the poularde before I bought it. He said it would be a very good chicken to roast in the oven. This morning I checked a couple of my books, including one called Les Bases de la Bonne Cuisine (Monique Lansard) and another called Je Sais Cuisiner (Ginette Mathiot), and they say that poulardes should always be poached. Oh well.

We roasted ours on a spit. Our oven has a rotisserie built in. We chopped up a small onion and put it inside the chicken with a bay leaf and some salt and pepper. We trussed it up tightly and then Walt gave the bird a butter massage à la Julia Child. Then we put it on the skewer and started it cooking at about 250ºC (480ºF).

I put an oval-shaped baking dish with about half an inch of water in it under the bird in the oven. That way, the drippings from the roasting process would fall into water and not burn on the oven pan as it cooked. And the humidity that pan of water would add to the interior of the oven would help keep the bird moist as it roasted. Besides, with the drippings you can make a very good gravy.

This a poularde ready for carving.
Thanks to Walt for the photo.

The poularde cooked for an hour or more. At the end, we checked the temperature with an instant-read thermometer and it was up to 190ºF at the thigh and over 180 in the breast. That would normally be overcooked, but the bird turned out to be perfect and not at all dried out. Maybe it was the butter massage. Or maybe it was just a fine piece of poultry. It was probably a little of both.

25 December 2007

A quiet Christmas

It's especially quiet because the phone is silent.

Sunrise over La Renaudière
Christmas Day 2007

Peace on Earth

24 December 2007

No phone service today

It seems very strange that we have DSL/Internet service and I can get e-mail and post on the blog, but we have no phone service. The phone is dead when you pick it up — no dial tone. It went out sometime yesterday, before about 3:00 p.m., which is when I picked up the phone to make a call.

I don't think the outage is weather-related, but who knows? Our DSL went out a couple of times, each time for two or three minutes, around noon yesterday, but it came back each time. And it still works this morning.

The neighbors' house at sunrise

I thought at first that I might have to drive to town to call the phone company repair service from a phone booth. And then I remembered I have the key to the neighbors' house across the street. I can go use their phone — if it works. They are in Blois right now, celebrating Christmas today with all their children and grandchildren (and a couple of great-grandchildren, actually).

Better get busy on the phone problem. Happy Christmas Eve to all.

* * * * *

Update: I just got back from the neighbors' house. Their phone works fine. I called the phone company's repair line. The agent said a technician would verify and repair my line on Wednesday, December 26. So I won't have service until then. No Christmas calls from me this year. Ma and Joanna, if you're reading this, Merry Christmas. Cheryl and Sue, you too.

23 December 2007

Glaze and haze

Everything is glazed over today, including the road out front and all the plants outside. The temperature was about 30ºF or -1ºC this morning. But yesterday we hit +3ºC or even higher in the afternoon, and it rained. It was raining when I went to bed at 10:30 last night. So that little bit of moisture froze over before morning. And the haze is our morning fog, under perfectly clear skies. By now the sun is shining brightly, but it was icy when I went out with Callie.

Yesterday morning I needed to go to the supermarket to get some cheese, eggs, lettuce, milk, and so on. So I had mentioned prices — it's been really surprising to me to see them spike up so fast. A couple of months ago, I was paying 47 cents for a liter of skim milk; now it's 66 cents. Butter has gone from about 85 cents for 250 grams to between €1.20 and €1.25. Store-brand chicken has gone from €2.50 to €2.99 a kilo. Flour from 37 cents a kilo to 56 cents. Cream has jumped from 85 cents to just over a euro.

All those price increases for basic food items represent inflation on the order of 15% to 25% or even higher. And don't even mention oil, of course. Four years ago, we paid 45 cents a liter for fuel oil and 85 cents a liter for diesel fuel for the car. Now those have jumped to 85 cents and €1.16 respectively. But we all know oil has gone up.

I attribute the price increases to energy costs and to the lousy summer we had last year in Western Europe. It costs more and more to feed livestock and poultry because grain prices have shot up. I guess it was inevitable, anyway, given how all our gardens failed last summer. It's amazing that I haven't noticed bigger increases in the prices of fresh produce, but I haven't. They are higher, but they vary greatly from market to market. I saw sweet potatoes for €2.99 a kilo at Intermarché but at €1.99 at SuperU. Same for broccoli.

Speaking of which, at the Ed supermarket yesterday, where the parking lot was iced over like a skating rink, most of the the lettuce looked pretty pitiful. I would normally buy what is called a laitue (butter or Boston lettuce) or a batavia (grean leaf lettuce) and eat those with a vinaigrette. Given the sub-freezing weather we've had for the past two weeks or so, I imagine most of the local lettuce crop is frozen in the fields. There are big truck farms along the Cher River on the east side of Tours, and I imagine a lot of our lettuce comes from there.

Iceberg lettuce on an icy morning

So the normal lettuces looked pretty sad — wilted and frostbitten. Then I noticed a variety of lettuce you don't see here very often: iceberg. The heads of iceberg (labeled Eisberg) lettuce looked fresh and green. They came from Spain, the label said. What the heck, I thought. I bought one. Une fois n'est pas coutume. — it would make for a nice change.

I also got some eggs (those have gone up in price by 25% to 33% too, by the way). When I got everything home, I opened the carton and found two broken eggs. What a pain! So I took the one that was really broken, quickly separated the white from the yolk, and with the yolk I made mayonnaise. I put the other cracked egg in a pot of water and hard-boiled it.

Mayonnaise is easy to make — it's an egg yolk, a few drops of vinegar, and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard whipped together with salt and pepper, and then about ¾ of a cup of vegetable oil slowly beaten into that. It emulsifies. It always works fine for me.

Does this look like something out of the 1960s or not?

What I had in mind was an American style salad dressing for that iceberg lettuce. Thousand Island! Do people still eat that in the U.S.? It doesn't exist here. Take a cup or more of mayonnaise, mix in a few tablespoons of tomato ketchup, and then add chopped shallot, pickles, capers, garlic, and parsley. Plus the chopped hard-boiled egg. You have made Thousand Island Dressing. Serve it over a wedge of iceberg lettuce. Delicious.

With that, we had the pumpkins soup I described yesterday. I made a couple of quarts of chicken broth (poaching chicken legs to be processed into food for the dog) with a few carrots and some bay leaves for flavor. Then I "sweated" some onions and garlic in butter and put them into the finished broth to cook for an hour or so. At the end, I added some cream and skim milk (whole milk would have been good but I didn't have any), some dried oregano, tarragon, and thyme, and one big baking potato plus a good amount of pumpkin, all sliced up.

Pumpkin-potato soup as I remembered it

The potato and pumpkin didn't take longer than 15 minutes to cook. The vegetable pieces started falling apart in the soup, including the onions rings that had cooked for a long time and really sweetened up. It was hot, tasty, nourishing, and good. And it was a pretty good version of the pumpkin soup I remembered eating in some little restaurant way out in some rural French province so many years ago.

22 December 2007

What's cooking?

Yesterday we made our steak au poivre, a tradition for Walt's birthday. That's the only time we make steak au poivre during the year, and this year Walt decided to use poivre vert — green peppercorns — instead of crushed black peppercorns. A little bird told me Walt is going to do a post about it on his blog (I caught a glimpse of his screen as he was uploading photos).

Recently, we had a zucchini quiche.
Grate and sauté a couple of courgettes (green and yellow in this case),
and cook some chopped onion and smoked pork lardons too.

Today I'm making pumpkin soup, using a pumpkin we grew in our back yard patch last summer. In fact, Walt used part of the pumpkin flesh yesterday to make a really good pumpkin pie for our desserts over the next couple of days.

Get the cream, milk, and grated cheese ready.
Use skim milk and cream combined, or use whole milk.

The pumpkin soup I have in mind is one that I had in a restaurant somewhere out in the French countryside way back, I believe, in the 1970s or early 1980s. Or maybe it was in the late 1980s, on a trip Walt and I took back then. I can't remember where I was or who I was with, but I remember a soup with big thin slices of onion and pumpkin flesh in it. The base was, I believe, chicken stock and milk. I'm going to add some garlic. Most of the pumpkin or butternut squash soup recipes and soups you see these days call for pureeing the pumpkin, but that's not what I want.

Pre-bake the pie shell and scatter the lardons on the bottom.
Don't forget the nutmeg for the filling, along with some black pepper.
Lardons = U.S. bacon, by the way.

So that's what I'm going to do today. I saved out some pumpkin flesh and then we roasted the rest of the pumpkin, scaped out the cooked pulp, and froze it in plastic containers to use later. I'm going to make chicken stock this morning and sauté some onion and garlic slices in butter. Then I'll pour on the stock, add a bay leaf and maybe some other herbs, stir in some whole milk, and let that cook until the onions are limp and tender. At that point I'll put in the pumpkin slices and maybe one thin-sliced baking potato. As soon as the pumpkin and potato slices are cooked, we'll eat it.

I hope it's as good as the soup I have remembered all these years.

Make the filling and pour it into the pie shell.
Mix together the milk, cream, eggs, cheese, courgettes, and onions.

For Christmas, we are going to make a cheese fondue, which is something we do every Christmas Eve. Then on Tuesday we'll have a roasted poularde, which is a specially fattened immature hen that has not started laying. It's the hen equivalent of a capon, which is a young rooster that is castrated and fattened. The poularde weighs in at just under two kilograms, or more than four pounds. That should be enough for the two of us, with some good leftovers.

The finished quiche.
Nice for lunch with a green salad.

With the poularde we'll have a cornbread stuffing, some collard greens, and mashed potatoes. I grew the collards in my back yard garden and have them in the freezer. We have to get a pan of cornbread made tomorrow or Monday. I just happen to have brought back a couple of bags of cornmeal from my trip to North Carolina in November.

Oh, and for New Year's Eve, it'll be oysters and champagne (or Vouvray). And for New Year's Day a sort of cassoulet made with lamb, duck, Toulouse sausages, and (for good luck in 2008) black-eyed peas.

Happy Holidays and happy eating to all...

21 December 2007

Unexpected visitors

A frosty morning out back

Monday afternoon about 3:30, somebody rang the bell outside our front gate. I looked out and saw a red 2CV parked there with two men standing next to it. I didn't recognize them.

I went downstairs to see who it was. "It's because of your blog," the men said in French. "We are faithful readers and we wanted to meet you." I asked them if they spoke English and they said they could read just a little but they especially enjoyed the photos.

December sunrise

Because I was basically napping in front of a movie on television at that hour, I was a little groggy. I probably should have invited the guys in, but I didn't. I just stood out there and talked to them for a few minutes.

Sun! But cold!

One of them said he lived in Saint-Aignan, down by the river on the other side of town. He said I had actually taken a picture of his 2CV one day and posted it on the blog. It's here. When I took the picture, the car was parked on the main square in town, in front of a house that was then owned by an Englishman named Douglas. I told my visitor that I remembered that picture, and that I do know Douglas.

Vines and shadows

The other visitor was the first one's brother-in-law. He said he lives in Cannes but he's originally from Saint-Aignan and visits fairly regularly. His wife is the other man's sister, and he has a 2CV that he said I had photographed as well, but I can't find that picture. It's beige, he said.

I'm not sure how I feel about being discovered. I asked them how they located me, and they said that since I had given the street name and posted a picture of my house, it wasn't exactly difficult. I guess I didn't think there were actually any local readers of my blog.

Callie in the vines

The two men stayed just five minutes. They are both about my age. One of them said I should stop by his house for a glass of wine one day during the holidays. "If the red 2CV is parked out front, that means I'm there," he said. I thought I understood where he said he lived but yesterday I was out and over that way and I'm not sure it's clear to me where it is.

18 December 2007

Brrrrr! An early winter

OK, back to the future. Saint-Aignan is living through a prolonged cold wave right now, as is all of northern France. It's not even winter yet. This morning our low temperature was -6.2ºC — that's about 20ºF. We awoke to thick fog, which is freezing on the ground and on all the trees and vines. Luckily, freezing fog doesn't cause the damage that freezing rain can cause.

Those apples, again touched by hoarfrost

On our thermometer, the temperatures have been in the 23º to 26ºF range (that's -6º to -3ºC) other mornings, and we are lucky if the temperature gets above the freezing point in the afternoon. Roselyn the Bread Lady tells us our thermometer reads high; it's much colder according to hers. She lives about 6 miles east of us along the Cher River.

Birches bordering the vineyard —
you can see the sun was out yesterday afternoon

Shady spots in the yard and around the vineyard — in the shadow of our bay laurel hedge, for example — stay frosty all day. The frost is building up and some patches of it are starting to look like snow, although we haven't had any precipitation for a while.

Barbed wire on the donkey pen

Luckily, we haven't had any wind to speak of either. That would make it really unbearable. I know it's all relative, and some of you reading this may be in areas where the weather's a lot colder and nastier than it is here. But our basically uninsulated concrete and tile house feels chilly these days. This is very cold weather for the Loire Valley.

Callie coming when called (but not thrilled about it)

We also just had to order 1,000 liters of fuel oil to keep our boiler and radiators going through the winter. The price we paid for fuel oil is €0,83 a liter, and that comes out to 264 U.S. gallons of oil for about $1200.00 U.S., or more than $4.00 a gallon. How much does heating oil cost in the U.S. these days?

Frosty blades of grass around the vineyard

We still take Callie out for her morning and afternoon walks, despite the cold weather. She doesn't mind. Walt and I both have long johns (des caleçons longs) to wear on cold mornings. I brought two pairs back from my trip to North Carolina, and I'm glad I did. I sure needed them this morning. I put on a short-sleeved tee-shirt, a long-sleeved tee-shirt, a corduroy shirt, a fleece vest, and my heavy coat. Not to mention the long johns, gloves, and a wool hat. Callie just wore her regular coat.

A dried-out hydrangea flower lasting into the winter

I'm not sure it feels a lot like Christmas, but that's because we have no special plans and I don't go out much. There are Christmas decorations around town and in some of the stores. OnTV, the national news is running a series this week showing different chefs and cooks trying to plan and buy the food for a Christmas dinner for six people on a budget of €150.00 or less, including wine. It's not easy.

Oak leaves turn golden but stay on the trees all winter.

Has anybody else in France noticed how much food prices have jumped up this fall? Vous qui habitez en France, êtes-vous d'accord avec moi que les prix des produits alimentaires montent en flèche depuis la rentrée ?

January 1973: arsonist strikes

Another letter and a newspaper clipping from my year in Rouen as an English-language teaching assistant:

Rouen, February 5, 1973

Dear Ma,

We've had another eventful period in our stay here in Rouen — starting two weeks ago, as you can see by the enclosed newspaper clipping. A student was arrested on January 27 for setting fires in various parts of the main building of the lycée.

Headline in Rouen's daily newspaper, 27 January 1973

On the Tuesday night before, he had used kerosene to set the staff room on fire, and he had poured a trail of fuel oil down the two halls and into 26 separate rooms on the first floor. Luckily, the fire was seen and extinguished before it spread.

The lycée Corneille with traces of the second fire

Then on Thursday night he did the same thing on the second floor, burning out the principal's office. This time he had poured a trail of kerosene up the stairs and into his own dormitory on the third floor. Again the fire was put out before it had a chance to spread far. A lot of people could have been injured or killed otherwise.

Some details of the story

The student was homesick. He wanted to be able to tell his parents back in Algeria that there was a lot of trouble in the school and that it was dangerous for him to stay there, so that they would take him home...

I didn't live in the school, so I wasn't directly affected by this story. I didn't know the student who was so troubled. But the whole place was in an uproar over it for weeks, as you can imagine, and I learned a lot of French reading about the fires and the arrest and listening to students' and teachers' stories about it all.

In my letter to Ma, I concluded:

So there you have a picture of the front section of the lycée. Gray, cold, and old.

17 December 2007

Rouen letter, part 4

Here in Saint-Aignan in 2007, it is very cold these days. The sun shines brightly for the few short hours of daylight we get, but the temperature in the morning is in the mid-20s F (i.e. close to -5ºC) with afternoon highs in the low 30s (around 0ºC). The house is chilly even with the heat on. We spend afternoons and evenings sitting around a hot fire in the wood stove.

The weatherman on France 2 television just said temperatures are about 12ºC below seasonal averages. That's more than 20ºF below normal. France is a deep freeze.

Here's the end of the 1972 letter. I promise.

Later in the evening

I had my first dinner in tonight. It’s good to be able to eat at home and not have to pay a $3.00 to $5.00 bill at the end of the meal. You know, Coke is cheaper here than at home. I can buy a liter for 25 cents. Wine costs about 35 cents a liter. And a loaf of good French bread costs 20 cents. Meat is expensive. Inflation here is worse than in the U.S., according to Time magazine.

City Hall in Le Havre, built after World War II
June 2003

It’s really nice having the kitchen stove hooked up. I’ve been busy heating water for various uses — face-washing, dish-washing, shaving, etc. — all day. I thought I had got used to washing up in cold water after more than two weeks doing it that way at the temporary room I had in the school, but I hadn’t! Being able to heat a pot of water on the stove is pure luxury.

The main courtyard at the Lycée Corneille in Rouen
August 2006

You should see this apartment. The ceilings must be 15 feet high. The way the house is built, I have nobody living directly above, below, or on either side of me. Right under me on the first floor is a garage/work-shed area. My windows look out on a gravel courtyard/driveway and onto other houses. I’m away from the street, so there is no noise from outside. (Right outside my window in Urbana there was a busy intersection.) Here there’s a school, so I get a lot of noise at noon and at 4:00, but it only lasts about 10 minutes, and it’s not the same as traffic noise....

I have of course edited a lot of personal things out of the old letter, parts that talked about family matters and events in the U.S.

Fishing boats at Le Havre
June 2003

And I never made it to Le Havre until Walt and I went there in 2003, more than 30 years later. Even then, some French friends in Rouen couldn't believe I wanted to see Le Havre. "It's all new — you won't find the beautiful old stones there that you have in Rouen. But since you're American, you might like it," they said.

A close-up of the stamps on the letter. It's ironic that one of
them bears an image of the Sologne, which is where I live now.

That year in Rouen was crucial in my French life. I've never stopped going back there. After that year, I lived for about five years in Paris, and it's an easy trip by train. Rouen is one of the most beautiful cities in France, even though it has some of the worst weather.

16 December 2007

Rouen letter, part 3

Postmarked Rouen, 06 october 1972

I got moved into the little apartment near the train station in October 1972, after living for two or three weeks in a tiny room up in the attic at the Lycée Corneille, which was a boarding school.

Excerpt of the letter, written longhand

I had left Illinois for France with about $700 in my pocket, and that was all I had in the world at that point (besides my family and a sense of adventure, I guess — not to mention a job in Rouen). I got the $700 by selling my 1966 Ford Fairlane when I left for France.

On the boulevards of Rouen
September 2001

The letter continues:

Since I have cooking facilities now, I’ll start eating at home and saving some money. I have a little more than $500 left, and everything except groceries is paid for October. I’ll get paid my first $250 by the school around November 1. Rent is $70 now, and will go up to $80 when they get the hot water and radiators installed. That includes everything. I didn’t have to sign a lease or pay a damage deposit, so all is well.

So I’ll survive, but I won’t be able to travel much. It is just as well. I haven’t been to Le Havre yet — I have a couple of American friends working in schools up there, so I will go sometime. I’ve heard that the whole downtown is new. It was all destroyed in the war. I can imagine what it looks like, because a good part of Rouen was also destroyed and rebuilt too.

Street scene in Rouen near the Lycée Corneille
April 2002

Mostly it’s the waterfront, since there is a port facility here that serves ocean-going ships.
All the area within two blocks of the river has been rebuilt since the war. Other parts of the city, right next to the new, are made up partly of buildings 300 to 500 years old. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the old marketplace where I go to get groceries. That was 540 years ago, and Rouen was already a big city then.

Here is a link to part 4 of this topic about an old letter from Rouen.