27 February 2007

Dinner at L'Hôtel du Cheval Blanc in Bléré

Last Saturday night, Peter Hertzmann invited us to have dinner with him at a nice restaurant. He wanted to have a meal at the Lion d'Or (two Michelin stars out of three possible) in Romorantin, but when I called I was told the restaurant was closed for the season. Peter has eaten there before — the chef is a friend of a chef Peter has worked with in the past — and Walt and I had dinner there once as well, on a separate occasion.

We looked at the Guide Michelin web site for comparable restaurants in our area that might be possibilities. Walt and I have been to a couple, thanks to friends, including Le Rendez-Vous des Pêcheurs (one star) in Blois, Le Domaine des Hauts-de-Loire (one star) near Onzain, and L'Hôtel du Cheval Blanc (one star) in Bléré. The Michelin site also listed the restaurant run by Bernard Robin (two stars) in Bracieux near Chambord and Le Choiseul (one star) in Amboise.

L'Hôtel du Cheval Blanc in the town of Bléré, near Chenonceaux

Peter told us to choose the restaurant, and we picked the Cheval Blanc in Bléré, where we had had dinner one night the first summer we spent in Saint-Aignan, in 2003. We remembered that it was very good and that the prices there weren't outrageous. The prices listed on the Michelin site for some of the other starred restaurants were much higher, and we didn't want to abuse Peter's hospitality.

So what were the prices like? There were three menus (which are what we call "prix fixe menus" in good American English). For 60 euros, you could have five courses: a starter, fish, meat, cheese, and dessert. For 49 euros, you got four courses by leaving off the starter and "just" having fish, meat, cheese, and dessert. The fish and meat dishes are of course served with vegetables and sauces.

Finally, for 43 euros, you also got four courses: a starter, a choice of meat or fish as a main course, cheese, and dessert. Walt and I went with the 43-euro menu, and I for one am glad I did because it turned out to be more food than I could comfortably eat. Peter ordered à la carte because he didn't want dessert.

Remember that the euro is worth about $1.30 right now, so those three menus would cost $78, $64, and $56 American.

Here's what we ended up eating. While we were waiting for our starters, the server brought us each a plate of what are called amuse-bouches — we'd use the good American English term "hors d'oeuvres" for the same thing. On the plate were:
  • a tiny dish containing a spoonful or two of a sort of broccoli custard. I thought it tasted too strongly of overcooked broccoli, if you know what I mean.
  • a small glass of warm pumpkin purée or soup mixed with a coulis de tomates (a light tomato sauce) and which posed a dilemma — eat it with a spoon or just drink it out of the glass? We ended doing a combination of both. It was tasty and warm.
  • a tiny, very hot dish containing a few mussels (removed from the shell) in a garlic-parsley butter. It was a little salty and greasy for my taste, but I'm being picky when I say that.
  • another small dish containing some slices of slow-cooked chicken gizzards (gésiers confits) topped with some sliced, slow-cooked onions (oignons confits). It was delicious.
Except for the pumpkin-tomato soup, this amounted to about three tablespoons of food. The pumpkin-tomato soup wasn't much more than half a cup. Remember, though, it is not the appetizer but just a little something to tickle your tastebuds while you are waiting for the meal to begin.

As a starter or appetizer, Peter and I both had what they called un gratin d'huîtres, or oysters au gratin. It was a kind of very creamy soup with about half a dozen raw oysters floating in it. It was more like an oyster bisque than a gratin. There was a well-cooked julienne of leeks floating in the soup, which resembled a crème anglaise (a fairly liquid egg custard) but was savory (or salty) and not sweet. The dish had been set under a very hot broiler (called a salamander) for a couple of minutes so it was slightly golden on top.

Walt had a starter of langoustines, or prawns ("Dublin Bay prawns," to be specific), removed from their shells, cooked, and dressed with a light cream sauce, if I remember correctly. Since I was concentrating on my own appetizer plate, only Walt can give us more details about what he ate.

As a main course, I had a fillet of sandre, which is a European freshwater fish sometimes called "zander" or "pikeperch" in English, served in a creamy sauce. On the plate there was also a little ramekin containing a few sliced scallops cooked under the broiler. There must have been some vegetables, but the only one I remember was a little spoonful of cooked spinach.

As his main course, Walt had what the menu called médaillons de bar, which weren't medallions at all but which looked delicious. Bar is sea bass. The fish looked grilled, and there were vegetables on the plate. Peter had veal sweetbreads — ris de veau — but I couldn't see his plate very well from across the big round table so I can't describe it further. Peter did say it was the best meal he had had during his 10-day stay in France. He was in the Dordogne before coming to see us here in the Loire Valley.

To wash all this down, we ordered a bottle of Quincy wine. Quincy is a small grape-growing area about 25 miles east of Saint-Aignan, near the bigger town of Vierzon. Only white wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape are produced in Quincy, and ours was a 2005. When the time came to order a second bottle (twist my arm!), we chose a Reuilly. Reuilly is another small wine region and is adjacent to Quincy. The wines are also Sauvignon Blanc, and ours was a 2004. Both the wines, meant to be drunk young (the wines, not the drinkers) were delicious. The Reuilly was fruitier, and the Quincy was slightly more acidic.

There were two choices when it came to the cheese course. You could select samples of three or four cheeses off the restaurant's copious cheese cart, or you could order a salade de chèvre chaud — a mixed lettuce salad in vinaigrette served with two little rounds of bread with slices of goat cheese on them, slightly melted and browned under the broiler. I had the salad but I couldn't eat all of the cheese toasts. Peter had the same salad, and Walt had three pieces of cheese off the cart.

And dessert was still to come! I really wasn't hungry any more, but dessert was part of the menu I had ordered. There must have been a dozen desserts to choose from. I ended up ordering grilled pineapple slices with a scoop of mango sorbet served with two little macaroon cookies. I ate some pineapple and tasted the sorbet, but I didn't touch the macaroons. Walt had an assiette de sorbets, a selection of three fruit-flavored sorbet concoctions, which he said was very good. Peter skipped dessert.

I should mention that the desserts at the Cheval Blanc are served under what the chef calls a "gold dome". It's not gold but a few "threads" of hard, golden caramel shaped into a dome by dribbling the caramel over the outside of a bowl. You'd have to see it to imagine what it looks like, and I didn't take pictures. It's more of a gimmick than anything else.

We had coffee. We drove home. It had been pouring rain when we arrived, and it was still raining when we left. The drive takes about half an hour.

On the way home, Peter said he could see why the restaurant had only one Michelin star and not two, even though the food was very good. The service was a little rough. Our server was a young woman who had to take care of six tables simultaneously — at least 20 people in all. She was stretched to the limit, although she did have some help from the kitchen when it came to bringing dishes out to the tables.

All the customers in our dining room (which was one of two) appeared to be French, with the exception of us and a British couple at a table across the room. The British gentleman spoke French but I could hear his accent.

The restaurant's glassware was fairly crude by Michelin standards, Peter pointed out, and the flatware wasn't perfectly matched. One table knife, in particular, had been damaged; it looked as if somebody had tried to open a can with it. Before the main course came, the server laid out new silver, and by mistake she put the fish knives and fork at Peter's place and the silver that went with his food at mine. We had to point it out to her. She also dropped something on the floor at one point.

All those "defects" and errors would keep the Michelin inspectors from giving a restaurant a second star, even if the food was out of this world. And it was very good.

25 February 2007

Beans for lunch, crosnes for dinner

Yesterday, Saturday, was a full day. We started it in the morning, between rain showers, with a trip to the farmers' market in Saint-Aignan. We had three meals in the planning: Saturday lunch, and then lunch and dinner on Sunday. I've always said that life in France is essentially planning your next good meal. Whatever else you do is just filler.

Peter Hertzmann is visiting for the weekend. He's the cook, and the food is excellent. Have a look at his web site, which is called A La Carte.

Crosnes. They look a little like worms, don't you think?

At the market we found an heirloom vegetable that Walt and I have been wanting to try. These little corkscrew-shaped roots are called crosnes in France, and Japanese or Chinese artichokes in English. The French name apparently comes from the name of the town in France where they were first cultivated, Crosne, which is near Orly, just south of Paris.

The woman who was selling them said we should trim off the little rootlets and then wash the crosnes well to remove any sand. Then rub them in a towel with some coarse salt to remove some of the skin, which on these looks to be pretty thin anyway. To cook the crosnes, you poach them in simmering water or broth for 10 or 12 minutes. Then you sauté them lightly with a little butter and parsley, adding some cream if you want. Un peu de crème ne gâche jamais le plat, the woman at the market said. She said to serve them with grilled meat — pork chops or veal cutlets, for example.

Big flat green beans that Peter will cook with tomatoes and onions

What else did we buy at the market? Some mushrooms from the mushroom lady, some chicken breasts and eggs from one of the poultry vendors, some sausages from Mme Doudouille, and some Brussels sprouts from one of the vegetable stands.

Yesterday Peter cooked a mushroom and cheese omelet for lunch. Today we'll have chicken breasts and green beans (from the supermarket) for lunch, and then sausages with crosnes and Brussels sprouts for supper. (Some of you are interested in this level of detail about food, I believe.)

A bakery in the town of Levroux

After lunch yesterday, Peter and I drove over to Valençay to see the château there. It's about 25 km from Saint-Aignan. Peter was especially interested in seeing the kitchens there, which were once managed by the famous chef named Carême. Unfortunately, the château de Valençay was closed for the winter. It re-opens on March 25.

We then took a drive south to the town of Levroux, where we walked around and took some pictures of the early Gothic church there. More of that in future posts. We drove on through the country, and even though the fields are very green, the weather was dreary.

L'eglise Saint-Sylvain à Levroux, près de Châteauroux

Last night we had dinner in the restaurant at the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc in the town of Bléré, near Chenonceaux. It's a Michelin one-star restaurant and was not disappointing. We ate fish and drank local white wine. More about that later too.

24 February 2007

Weekend of restaurants and food

We have a visitor from California this weekend. His name is Peter Hertzmann, and he's an expert cook and a grand amateur (enthusiast, lover) of French cuisine. Here's a link to Peter's web site, which is a treasure trove of recipes, food ideas, and cooking techniques.

Ironically, since he arrived, instead of cooking we have been out to restaurants for two meals so far. The first was kind of a bust. We wanted to go to a restaurant in Saint-Aignan called Le Crêpiot Thursday night after Peter came in on the 7:30 train. But the Crêpiot is closed until March 14. The owners are taking a vacation.

Cycling on a damp February morning at La Renaudière

The idea was to eat something simple — what they call une grillade in French — a steak or some other grilled cut of meat, with a salad or French fries or both, for example. We ended up at a place called La Taille Rouge in the village of Couddes, 6 or 8 miles north of Saint-Aignan. Walt and I had driven by the place innumerable times and always thought we would stop for a meal. It's on the main road linking Saint-Aignan to Blois. It advertises itself as a grill — a place that would serve grillades.

When we got there, the place was totally empty. There was a big fire burning in the fireplace (even though it was not cold outside) and it must have been in our honor, since we turned out to be the only customers for the entire evening. The food -- a mixed salad as an entrée, then a piece of onglet (hanger or skirt steak in English) for Peter and me and a bavette (flank steak) for Walt — was acceptable (correct in French) but not outstanding.

Walt's flank steak was cooked on a grill in the fireplace. The skirt steaks were not grilled but pan-fried. I thought the home-style potatoes served with the meat were good, and we drank a bottle of Chinon red from Cravant-les-Côteaux. It was a quiet evening, and it is always a little sad and disconcerting to have a big restaurant all to yourself on a winter evening.

Yesterday we went to the restaurant I call "the truck stop" for lunch. It's official name is Le Grill des Nouettes and it's located next to the cemetery on the main street in the town of Noyers-sur-Cher, right across the river from Saint-Aignan. I've eaten at the truck stop half a dozen times and have always enjoyed the food. Yesterday the place really lived up to its name.

La Renaudière sunset, 22 February 2007

One friend from California said the Grill des Nouettes reminded her more of a midwestern church supper hall than a truck stop on the day we had lunch there, and she was right about the atmosphere that day. Yesterday, however, the place was packed with truck drivers and the big gravel parking lot out front was occupied by half a dozen big-rigs, plenty of little white vans (the kind used by local contractors and vineyard workers), and a dozen or so cars. Inside the restaurant there were a couple of dozen tables taken by groups of working men. And there were maybe half a dozen women diners in all.

When we walked in, the woman who runs the place called us into the bar next to the dining room and asked us if we all three wanted the daily special. We did. She had us pay up front, and asked if we would want coffee after lunch. We said we would. We paid our 36.30 € (about $15 per person) and she gave us a little red laminated card that was a token good for a cup of coffee. She said to show the server our receipt as proof that we had paid for the lunch special.

The Grill des Nouettes features an all-you-can-eat salad or hors-d'œuvre bar (un buffet) and the lunch special includes that plus a main dish (either meat or fish) and then cheese and dessert. Unlimited wine is also included in the price.

The owner seated us and told us to go serve ourselves at the salad bar. There we found vegetable salads (leeks in vinaigrette, for example, along with sliced boiled potatoes, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, beets, and grated carrots) and pâtés, rillettes and rillons, along with pickled herring, boiled eggs, and a big bowl of mayonnaise. There were sliced sausages and even big chunks of black pudding (blood sausage or boudin noir). It was easy to fill up a plate with nice little appetizers. It's all pretty rustic, but, well... appetizing.

Neighbor Jean-Michel walking
one of his grandchildren along our road

The main courses proposed yesterday were fillets of white fish in a cream sauce or pork ribs in a red sauce. We all three had the pork ribs, which were served with a mix of vegetables — broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. The vegetables were sadly overcooked, and downright mushy, but the pork was good and the sauce was tasty. At the truck stop, red wine is served out of the jug or barrel in a quart-size glass carafe. It's a local "vintage" I'm sure, and it's drinkable.

The plate of cheeses that the waiter brought to the table when we finished our main course included a big piece of blue (probably bleu d'Auvergne), a chunk of what might have been coulommiers, and another that was probably Port-Salut, plus a log of goat cheese. Something for everybody, in other words. I noticed that the cheese platters were left sitting up by the salad bar at that point. The waiter didn't leave ours on our table very long, but we could always go up to the salad bar and get more if we wanted it.

For dessert, Peter and I asked for fresh fruit, and the waiter brought us a big bowl of bananas, oranges, tangerines, pears, and apples. He left it on the table. I noticed guys leaving the restaurant with a piece of fruit in hand — an afternoon snack, I guess. Walt had a choux à la crème for dessert. That sounds like cabbage, but it's actually a cream puff filled with whipped cream. He said it was good — not sickly sweet, and very tasty.

That was it. Coffee, of course. I still think the truck stop is a good place to have lunch. Great atmosphere.

Last night Peter cooked. He had brought us two nice duck breast fillets from the Dordogne when he came, and he cooked those by searing them in a pan on the stove and then putting them in a hot oven for five or six minutes. He then took them out of the oven and let them rest, covered with foil and and a kitchen towel, so that they heat would spread through the meat and finish the cooking evenly. The duck was pink and cooked through but not overcooked or dry.

Typical tile floors in our French house

While the duck breasts rested, Peter made a cream sauce with crème fraîche, a reduced duck stock (which he had made during the afternoon using a duck carcass, a chicken carcass, onions, leeks, carrots, herbs, and black peppercorns), and as a seasoning some chopped green peppercorns that we had in the refrigerator.

He also made a sauté or stir fry of vegetables: sliced onions and julienned carrots, red bell peppers, and zucchini. The vegetables were cooked quickly on high heat so that they caramelized a little in the pan but stayed slightly crunchy and crispy. Delicious. Nothing like the mushy truck stop veggies.

So up to now, the best meal we've had since Peter got here is the one he cooked in our kitchen last night. I don't think our knives are up to his standards, and our pots and pans are just adequate, but he didn't let any of that stop him from producing an excellent meal. Walt took some pictures and will be posting them on his blog, I'm sure.

Tonight we have reserved a table for dinner at a Michelin one-star restaurant called Le Cheval Blanc, which is in the town of Bléré. That's just on the other side of Chenonceaux, about 18 miles from Saint-Aignan on the Cher river. More on that experience tomorrow or Monday.

22 February 2007

My father's family

My grandfather, father, and I were all named Charles. Granddaddy was the only one who was called Charlie. A lot of people, including my mother, called him Mr. Charlie. My father was called Kenneth or Buddy, and I ended up as Kenny, now Ken.

None of this has much to do with life in Saint-Aignan, except that it's my life and that's the one I'm living, here in Saint-Aignan.

One of Mr. Charlie's grandmothers was a Cherokee woman named Sabrina, I learned after his death. Nobody in the family ever told us about her. It was my father's youngest sister's husband, an Irish-American from Chicago named Johnny Doyle, who did the genealogical research and told me about it all. That was in the early 1970s. Uncle Johnny said he hadn't succeeded in tracing the family name back any farther than that.

Miss Daisy and Mr. Charlie in the early 1950s

I remember that Granddaddy kept chickens in a coop in his back yard. He also had a couple of pear trees that produced good fruit, and a grape arbor. He and Grandmama lived just three blocks up the street from us. At one point, they had a two-tone, red and white, 1957 Chevy.

Grandmama's name was Flora Bell Gaskins. They called her Daisy, or more properly, Miss Daisy. Some of her ancestors were native Americans too, my mother says. I don't know anything else about her family. She did have sisters named Thelma and Nellie that I remember knowing, and a brother named Billy who ended up living in Louisiana. He was in the shrimping business.

Grandmama always kept bags of hard candies in her kitchen cabinets. All of her grandchildren knew it, so when she wasn't looking we would climb up on the kitchen counters, reach for a bag, and steal a few candies, which we took outside to eat in secret. I liked the butterscotch ones. She died in 1977. She seemed lonely after Mr. Charlie's death in '69.

My father and me in about 1951.

I was living either in France or in Illinois when she died. I've been in France when a lot of big family events took place. Weddings, births, and deaths kept right on happening, in my absence. I was the one with wanderlust. Here I am again, except that I don't wander much any more.

I don't know much about Granddaddy's family either except the name of the town where he was born. It was about 75 miles inland from my home town. Mr. Charlie and Miss Daisy had five children. All but two are now deceased, including my father, who died in 1990. There were 16 or 17 of us grandchildren.

In 2005 I went "home" for a couple of weeks. While I was there I went to see my father's surviving older sister. She was 82 or 83 by then. Her name is Geneva, and at that point she had a house full of paintings that we had done or was working on. She has since moved to Florida to live closer to her daughter.

Aunt Geneva showed me a painting of the house that she said Mr. Charlie and Miss Daisy lived in when their children were growing up. She had painted it from memory, she said. The house had been was a few miles west of town and down on the shore of Bogue Sound. Geneva said they were very poor, and the house was built of rough boards and never painted. Poor people lived on the shoreline back then; people who had means didn't want to live that close to the water. That certainly has changed!

My mother says that when Kenneth was growing up, one day a week he had to stay in the house because his only set of clothes got washed and hung out to dry that day. He didn't have anything else to put on.

I asked Aunt Geneva how it was that Mr. Charlie had come to live in our town on the coast. She said he met Miss Daisy when she traveled the 75 miles inland by train to visit cousins in the town where he lived. He saw Daisy in church and ended up asking her to marry him. If I'm doing the arithmetic right, they must have been in their mid-20s when their first child, a daughter named Juanita, was born.

After their wedding, Charlie and Daisy lived for a short time in his home town, but Daisy missed her family too much. They ended up moving back to the coast, and stayed there for the rest of their lives. Geneva said her father's parents were also desperately poor. A lot of people were, back then. I don't know what Charlie did for a living before World War II.

Life in Saint-Aignan reminds me a lot of life as it was in my little town in North Carolina forty or fifty years ago. It certainly very different from life in other places I've lived since 1970: a big Midwestern university town; Washington DC; Paris; and San Francisco. In many of those places, hardly anyone was a native. We mostly came from elsewhere and didn't have family ties.

In 1961 we took a car trip to Washington DC and New York City.
My father must have taken this snapshot of my sister,
me, and our mother on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Can you tell that those were the Kennedy years?

The people I've met here in Saint-Aignan have mostly always lived here, with a very few exceptions (including some British immigrants). Some moved to Paris or another big city when they were younger and had a career there, but now they've come back to live out their lives in the place where they grew up. I guess I did the same thing, on some level.

If there were a pattern to life, I suppose I would end up living out my second "retirement" (if I get one) back in North Carolina, where I had my first "growing-up." Right now I'm working on the retirement that corresponds to my second "childhood" — the one I had here in France in the 1970s.

20 February 2007

Why France?

It was the mid-1950s, the years when I was between 5 and 10 years old.

The United States still had military bases in France. World War II had ended less than 10 years earlier. De Gaulle finally closed down the U.S. bases in the 1960s and all the Americans came home, or were "re-deployed." France no longer wanted to be occupied.

Before the bases closed down, a man from my home town was stationed in France and married a young French woman. When he was discharged from the service, he and his wife, Colette, went to live in the small town where I grew up in North Carolina.

Colette and her husband had two daughters. The older girl, Patricia, might have been born in France. The younger one, Debbie, must have been born after the move to N.C. Patricia was several years younger than I was.

I remember knowing that Colette was from Verdun, in France. That meant something to all of us, because my Uncle Henderson (that's what we called him, though his first name was Rudolph) had been in the Army during World War I and had fought at Verdun. We knew that there had been a fierce battle there. That was exotic and exciting.

And then Colette and her husband separated, as often happens with bi-cultural couples. I'm not really sure how long she had been in N.C. at that point, or how long she lived there in all. Not very long, I think.

A picture Colette sent us after she moved back to France.
This is her with her mother and her daughters,
in the late '50s or early '60s.

When she was "single" again, Colette became good friends with my mother's younger sister, who was also single and in her 20s. They spent a lot of time together, going to the beach and double-dating, my aunt says. Colette also became friends with my mother. My sister and I got to know the French woman and her little girls.

Colette spoke French to her daughters. I think the girls spoke English too, but it's hard to remember. I was fascinated with the fact that they spoke a language other than English. I got it into my head that I had to go to France one day.

Then, just a few years later, Colette went back to France and took her daughters with her.

When I started high school in the mid-60s, I had to choose between taking French classes or taking Spanish classes. French was a four-year program, but Spanish was limited to two years. I wanted to go to college (there were language requirements for admission back then) and I wanted to go to France, so I chose the four-year French program.

I was good at it. French was fairly easy for me. My mother said I inherited the interest and ability from one of my father's Huguenot ancestors. I wasn't embarrassed to try to make the funny sounds and lip movements required by French because I knew that it was really spoken that way by real people. Starting at age 14, then, France and French became an integral part of my life.

I didn't actually get a chance to go to France for the first time until I was in college, but I was determined that one day I would. That was 37 years ago. I spent a semester in Aix-en-Provence in 1970 and it was everything — more — than I had thought it would be. Something really "clicked" in my brain that semester, and really started speaking French. The sound and the rhythm of the language became real to me. My accent was good. I needed to be in France.

I ended up living in France — mostly in Paris, but also a year in Rouen, in Normandy — for about 8 years as a young man, working as a teacher. I like to say I grew up twice — once in America as a child, and again in France when I was in my 20s.

When I was in my mid-30s, I worked as a French-English translator in Washington DC. It was as close to living in France as you could get without living there. All my colleagues were French (well, francophone) and I spoke French every day at work. My French got better, and I learned more from the man who hired me for that job than I had ever learned from anyone. He is a good friend still.

Then I moved to California in the mid-'80s. I felt a little cut off from so many things I loved. I thought San Francisco would feel like Paris, but it didn't. They didn't speak French there, after all. I loved it anyway, for other reasons, but not enough to forget France.

By 1988 I started coming to France as often as I could wrangle some vacation time out of my managers and employers. I'm sure I have flown across the Atlantic close to 50 times in my life. Finally, in 2003 I quit my job in California and relocated myself "permanently" to the Loire Valley. (It is always a good idea to put the word "permanently" in quotes, don't you think?)

All thanks, on some level, to Colette, Patricia, and Debbie. And to some good teachers, professors, and editors, as well as some good friends in France.

* * * * *

After writing this yesterday, I looked at the French phone directory on the Internet and found an address and phone number for someone who might well be Colette's daughter Debbie. The last name is right, and the first name is spelled Debi. This person lives in the part of France where we last heard that Colette was living (but that was 35 years ago).

Now I wonder if I am going to call this Debi person. I know my mother and aunt would love to hear that Colette is still living and let her know that they still think of her. Then again, she would be in her middle to late 70s, so maybe she is deceased.

Debbie (or Debi) must be about 50 years old now. She was such a little girl when they left N.C. that I'm sure she won't know who I am at all. But her father and paternal grandparents stayed in North Carolina, after all, and she must at least have known about them as she was growing up. When I say North Carolina, she will perk up if she is the same Debbie. Should I call her?

My mother's family

My mother just "celebrated" (c'est le terme consacré) her umpteenth birthday, and I will be observing my énième anniversaire (French for the same expression — it's number "N") in a couple of weeks. That has gotten me to thinking about family.

I was nosing around in the files on my hard disk this morning (so much stuff!), and came upon a batch of old pictures I scanned about 10 years ago.

Ann, Aunt Liz, and Mary Allen (my mother) in the early 1940s

My mother was brought up during her adolescent and teen years in large part by her great Aunt Elizabeth, known as Aunt Liz or "Ear" (for reasons that have never been clear to me). Aunt Liz was 88 years old when she died in 1948. That means she was born in 1860. As the Civil War began.

Ear was my mother's grandmother's sister, I believe. They say she smoked a pipe, and what she smoked in it was not always tobacco! She died about a year before my birth, so I never knew her, but I feel like I did.

Ida was one of my great-grandmothers,
and her sister Elizabeth was Aunt Liz.

My mother's father had died when she was nine years old and her little sister, Ann, was just three years old. So I never knew him. He lived to be just 39 and was born around 1900.

Ben and Ida, my great-grandparents, on their front porch
in our little town on the coast of North Carolina

After her husband's death, my grandmother's health declined rapidly. She was only in her 30s but she was no longer able to take care of her children. At that point my mother and aunt were taken care of by a great-uncle. It was a responsibility he shared with his wife and his Aunt Liz. He was called Uncle Gene, or just "Uncle," and he was virtually a grandfather to me.

My grandmother (l.) and a cousin of hers
in about 1923. Her
name was
Mary Daniels Willis — "Mary D."

My grandmother, Mary D. as they called her, died one month after I was born, so I never knew her either. I just know stories.

Uncle Gene and his wife, Aunt Ethel, had five children themselves. Their children were all about 10 years older than my mother, and they were already setting out on their own when Gene and Ethel "adopted" their niece Mary D. and her children — my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt. All of Uncle Gene's and Aunt Ethel's children, who were like aunts and uncles to me, have passed on now.

Joe Miller and Mary D. on the front porch of their house
in South Carolina,
where my mother (also in the picture) was born
at the beginning of the Great Depression. Photo from about 1934.

My grandfather, died at home of peritonitis caused by a burst appendix, by the way. He was a young man still. He didn't want to go to the doctor, they say. He was sure he would just get better.

He, Joe Miller from South Carolina, was 6'6" tall (that's 1m98) and Mary D. was 4'11" (about 1m25). They were an odd couple but according to legend were devoted to each other. She was never the same after he died.

My mother at about age 5 in South Carolina,
during the Depression

All this petit monde ("this crowd" is the expression we would use in our N.C. dialect) lived out their lives in the first half of the 20th century in a town of about 3,000 souls on an isolated section of the North Carolina coast. The family has lived there since the 1780s. I was born before 1950, so my life started there in the first half of the 20th century too.

19 February 2007

Spice blends

When I'm feeling like a purist, I don't like the idea of using packaged mixes of spices in my cooking. In reality, however, I use them, and I think most of us do.

It's better to use the individual spices and herbs you like, so that you can control the amounts. That's a good rule, but it is more honored in the breach than the observance, as they say.

The famous Emeril of New Orleans and TV Food Network fame uses his own spice blend in a lot of his recipes. I once heard Julia Child say that Emeril was a good cook, but that he needed to let go of the spice blend and do real cooking.

Tony Bourdain is outrageously disdainful, as usual, of Emeril's spice mix: "...for the record, his spice blend, 'Essence of Emeril' is labeled with total accuracy," Bourdain says. "I can rub it onto any meat, and the result tastes just like Emeril has sweated all over it. Horrific."

Moving on... What is "poultry seasoning" anyway? I'm sure most of us don't know. Do you ever use it? And what is in Old Bay seasoning? Let's not forget chili powder. The container of Schilling/McCormack chili powder I have contains standard ingredients including chili peppers, cumin, oregano, salt, and garlic, and then for that certain je ne sais quoi a dose of silicon dioxide ("added to make free flowing," it says). Yum.

And then there are the liquid blends: Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mustard, and barbecue sauces including my favorite Wilber's sauce from North Carolina. So many of those contain too much sugar or corn syrup for my taste.

A favorite North African spice blend is called harissa. It's a spicy-hot vegetable paste made with:
  • beets
  • carrots
  • chili peppers
  • water
  • vegetable oil
  • salt
  • modifed sweetcorn starch
  • coriander
  • caraway
  • citric acid
  • garlic
Harissa is an indispensable ingredient and table condiment for North African couscous and many other dishes. The harissa I have is in a tube like toothpaste, looks like tomato paste when you squeeze it out, and is a product of France. Couscous, by the way, has now replaced steak-frites — steak with French fries — as France's favorite dish, just as salsa has replaced ketchup as American's favorite condiment.

Like anything else, pre-mixed spices aren't all bad. The one I used to flavor the chicken breast pictured on my previous post is called Muzzy's Magic Texas Heat Seasoning. (Actually, the names of some of the blends might be one reason why I feel so funny about using them! Muzzy? Magic? Texas? Heat? Oh well.)

Muzzy's "Texas" mix (here's the web site) contains:
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • cayenne peppers
  • garlic
  • thyme
  • basil
  • celery
  • bay leaves
The labels specifies: Contains No Preservatives. I guess that's good, except that salt is one of the most ancient preservatives we use! All the ingredients, in fact, are ones that I put in food, indivudually, all the time.

Wilber's eastern N.C. barbecue sauce lists these ingredients:
  • vinegar
  • water
  • black pepper
  • red pepper
  • salt
  • spices
They don't say what spices (trade secret?) but the label proclaims: Cholesterol Free. My jars are ones I bought a few years ago. Walt said the new Wilber's label probably says: Low Carb. There is also no sugar or ketchup in Wilber's sauce. That's what I like about it.

American cooks aren't the only ones who use pre-mixed spices. In France, the best known such mix is probably something called Quatre Épices — Four Spices — which according to at least one web site usually contains five:
  • pepper
  • nutmeg
  • cloves
  • cinnamon
  • ginger
Instead of Quatre Épices, I'd rather use (and often do use) what is called here Piment de la Jamaïque — Jamaican Pepper — which in English is called allspice. It's not a blend but rather the berries of a plant that you can use like black pepper, either whole as peppercorns or ground into a powder. I like the flavor of allspice and usually use a mixture of allspice berries and black peppercorns whenever a recipe calls for black peppercorns and cloves (as so many French stews, soups, broths, and sauces do).

Other widely used spice mixtures are curry powder, which I guess is a British attempt to reproduce the spicing used in Indian cooking, and the blend called ras-el-hanout (rah-zel-ah-NOOT) used in Moroccan cooking.

The first package of ras-el-hanout that I bought in Paris contained just six spices:
  • cumin (cumin oriental is specified)
  • turmeric (curcuma in French)
  • ginger
  • nutmeg
  • coriander
  • cardamom
I did some reading on the web and in books and found out that some ras-el-hanout mixtures include as many as 27 spices! I haven't found one that complex. Another package that I bought spells the name with a Z (raz-el-hanout) and contains:
  • coriander
  • turmeric
  • cumin
  • pepper
  • caraway (carvi in French)
  • sweet peppers (piment doux)
  • fennel
  • fenugreek
So it's pretty different. I guess using those lists you can make up your own ras-el-hanout powder if you want to. It's a good seasoning for Moroccan dishes like couscous and tagines.

I have a couple of cans of curry powder that Walt brought back from London when he went there in 2005 on his way to New York. I know that different curry powder blends vary a lot. Here's what's in a can of Bolst's Hot Curry Powder (product of India, it says):
  • coriander
  • turmeric
  • chillies
  • mustard
  • ginger
  • cumin seeds
  • fenugreek
I think one of the big differences between curry powder and ras-el-hanout is the presence of mustard in the curry powder.

Another curry powder I have, Cap Burung Nuri Parrot Brand Meat Curry Powder has many of the same ingredients, but a pretty different list overall:
  • chili
  • coriander
  • cumin
  • fennel
  • black pepper
  • cinnamon stick
  • turmeric
  • cloves
  • cardamom
  • fenugreek seed
  • star anise
  • curry leaves
  • bay leaves
Just to contradict what I said earlier, it contains no mustard. But then it is a product of Malaysia, not India or the U.K. The label also specifies: 100% Natural Spices, No Preservatives, No Colouring, No MSG.

The only thing to do with these spice blends is to read the ingredients to see if they sound appetizing (and natural) and then try them to see what the flavor actually is. They are hard to avoid, especially for "exotic" dishes that you don't cook every day.

I would never use a spice blend in a classic French dish like Bœuf Bourguignon, Blanquette de Veau, or Coq au Vin, of course. But for a roasted chicken breast, sprinkling on a good spice mixture can produce delicious results.

By the way, I have been known to add a squirt of ketchup to a Bœuf Bourguignon or Coq au Vin when I don't have any tomato paste handy. The ketchup mainly adds color to the sauce and you don't put in enough so that the taste is noticeable. I saw Jacques Pépin do it on TV!

18 February 2007

Aimez-vous les carottes ?

A California friend of ours who came to spend three months in France a few years ago said he liked French cooking overall. "But you have to like carrots," he said. "They put carrots in everything!"

I had never thought about that before. But I guess it's true, compared to American food. It's especially true of what they call plats cuisinés — long-cooked, braised meat dishes and stews. One classic is bœuf aux carottes, which is stew beef cooked long and slow in white wine with a lot of carrots.

Carottes glacées au miel

There's also carrot soup (called potage Crécy), made with carrots, onion, and sometimes rice, all cooked and blended into a creamy soup. And there's purée de carottes, which for some will call to mind jars of baby food.

One very French carrot classic is a starter salad of what is called carottes râpées — finely grated raw carrots dressed with vinaigrette. You'll find it on nearly every café menu in France. It is nearly always one of the components of an assiette or salade de crudités, which is a plate of mostly raw, dressed vegetables that can also include sliced tomatoes, shredded celery root or red cabbage, diced beets, and even a boiled egg or some diced, boiled potatoes.

A recent lunch: honey-glazed carrots
with a roasted chicken breast

The Socialist politician Laurent Fabius, seen as an egghead intellectual, was trying to improve his image with the "common folk" in France. In a book about his campaign tours — he wanted the Socialists' presidential nomination — Fabius waxed eloquent in a book over what a good salad these carottes râpées make. It was as if he had never been served them before.

He saw them as the expression of some kind of culinary folk wisdom, apparently, and praised the common people of France for devising the recipe. Even though he was right, the press, pundits, and satirists made fun of him mercilessly, saying it was about time he discovered how regular people live and what they eat.

The chicken breast has not much to do with carrots,
but it was good.
I sprinkled it with a spice mixture
our friend Cheryl gave us and then basted it
with butter while it was roasting in the oven.

I know people who will eat raw carrots but not cooked carrots. I wonder if there are people who will eat carrots cooked but won't tolerate them raw?

Did you know that carrots were white until the 1600s? The first orange carrots were developed in Holland 500 years ago. Did you know that in Asia there are purple carrots that have a yellow center? That carrots actually come in a range of colors: white, yellow, orange, red, and purple?

How about this? The flowers we call Queen Anne's Lace in English are called carottes sauvages in French. Wild carrots. If you let carrot plants go to seed (it takes two years) the plants grown from those seeds will be Queen Anne's Lace and the roots, while edible, will be tough and fibrous.

Carrots originated in Afghanistan.

There are new carrots and old carrots, culinarily speaking. New carrots are young, tender, and sweet. Old carrots can be bitter and need to be blanched briefly in boiling water before being added to a dish, according to many French recipes.

They say you should cut carrots on the bias when chopping them into chunks. The bias cut lets more of the carrot flavor be released into any sauce they cook in. I'm skeptical. Why not cut them down the middle lengthwise, then, to really expose the heart. In fact, I read in Harold McGee's book on the science and lore of the kitchen that the flavor of the carrot is not in the heart but in the darker-colored part surrounding it.

You know those baby carrots they sell by the bagful in the U.S.? Well, those are not baby or new carrots at all. They are big, old carrots that have been ground down in a factory so that only the little heart is left. And the heart is the part with the least flavor. I wonder what the do with the part they grind away. Put it in Campbell's vegetable soup? Feed it to cattle? Lucky cattle.

Oh yeah, carrots are good for your eyes, improving your night vision. And Bugs Bunny loves 'em.

16 February 2007

Sunrise, sunset, & shutters

Well, sunset, sunrise, actually, in this case. February has been mild and mostly damp and gray, but we have now had a couple of pretty nice afternoons. It's such a pleasure to live in a place with nice views of both sunrise and sunset.

Sunset at La Renaudière, 15 February 2007

When it is time to close the shutters for the night, on nice days we get gorgeous views of the sunset from our back windows.

Shutters (in French, volets) are funny, aren't they? I don't know exactly why we take the trouble to close them at night, but that's the way things are done here in France.

Closed shutters make for a very dark room. I guess they have some value as insulation against the cold. And of course it's reassuring to close them on very windy days and nights, to protect the windows against flying objects. I've never seen any flying objects, besides pigeons, woodpeckers, crows, and little songbirds, but still...

Sunrise at La Renaudière, 16 February 2007

Why shutters? There has always been a lot of warfare in France. The Romans marched in. Later, the so-called "barbarians" pillaged and plundered.

Before modern France was created in the Renaissance and Classical centuries, 500 years ago, local lords and their armies fought with each other over territory. The English kings and their armies had come and gone by then, too, but not without a 100-year struggle for power over what is now French territory.

Then there were the wars of religion between catholics and protestants at the end of the Renaissance. Later, the French Revolution roiled the country. And much later still, the Germans invaded France in 1870, 1915, and 1940. You can start to understand why people got into the habit of locking down their houses and shuttering their windows at night.

All shuttered up

Another theory I've read about closed shutters has to to with taxes. People in the cities closed their shutters at night to prevent prying eyes, especially those of the tax assessors and collectors, from seeing into their homes at night. They didn't want anybody to see how well they were living and what treasures they had in their house.

Maybe shutters were less trouble than heavy drapes. Or because there were shutters for purposes of defense, there was no need for heavy drapes. Having both seems like overkill. I know we don't bother with drapes. We just close the shutters at night.

That February 16 sunrise merited a close-up.

It's fun to get up in the morning and open the shutters. There's a kind of suspense involved. Is it raining? Gray and foggy? Or sunny? Is there a nice sunrise? Has anything bloomed overnight? Are there interesting birds in the yard?

Closing the shutters at night is a different story. A few weeks ago, we were invited over for a late afternoon party by our neighbors. Also present were some other neighbors. As we departed at 7:30 or so to walk home, our hosts started closing up all the shutters on their house. « Ah, la corvée des volets ! » another neighbor remarked — the shutter chore.

15 February 2007

Cantal cheese

A few days ago I mentioned cantal cheese in a posting, and Dennis asked me in a comment if we can get the three different cantal cheese styles here in the Loire Valley. One is doux (mild), one is vieux (aged), and the other is in-between (entre deux).

Un morceau de cantal doux

The only cantal I had been buying until yesterday was the in-between style. But yesterday afternoon at the Leclerc hypermarket (une grande surface) in Amboise I noticed that they were selling cantal doux. I bought some and it's good, even though I think I like the entre-deux cantal better.

All the cantal cheeses I am finding around Saint-Aignan are AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée), meaning they are made in the official production areas centered on the Cantal département using milk and methods conforming to strict specifications. They are the real thing, not knock-off versions or counterfeits.

The Cantal département is about four hours
south of Saint-Aignan by car.

According to the Larousse: Les Fromages book written by Robert J. Courtine (Paris: Larousse, 1973, 1987), the cheese now called cantal used to be called Fourme de Salers. Salers is a township in the Cantal département, which in turn is in the mountainous central French region called L'Auvergne, and the Salers area is known for raising and breeding a race of cattle that produces both good milk and fine beef.

Cantal is probably the oldest French cheese, according to Monsieur Courtine, having been produced for more than 2000 years. It is mentioned in the works of the Roman writer Pliny the Elder. According to Wikipedia's French site, about 18,000 tons of cantal cheese are produced annually, if the statistics for 2003 are indicative. That's almost 40 million pounds.

Cantal is an uncooked, semi-soft cheese with a dry crust. It is good for your digestion, according to French doctors specializing in such matters. "Cantal is what it is," a local poet is quoted as saying. "It's a peasant cheese. Trying to dress it up is a big mistake, because it is just the simplest of products."

A British friend who lives here in Saint-Aignan told me recently that she likes cantal because it melts smoothly in soups and doesn't get stringy the way gruyère or comté does. I haven't tried that, but I know the Auvergne specialty called aligot, which is mashed or pureed potatoes with cheese melted in them, is made with cantal.

Here's a picture of some French guys wearing berets and making aligot in a gigantic pot:

Making aligot on a grand scale

I found the picture on this site, where there is also a recipe (in French). It calls for potatoes, cheese, cream, and garlic.

14 February 2007

Duck with Orange Sauce

Canard à l'orange

A bag of blood oranges and a canette, or female duckling

Ever since New Year's Eve — or mid-December, really, when we were invited by a friend who said she was going to be making duck with orange sauce for our NYE dinner — this classic French dish has been on my mind.

Last week one of the French supermarket chains, E. Leclerc, advertised ducks (canettes, or young hens) for sale at a good price. I drove down to Loches, which everybody knows isn't at all far from Saint-Aignan (wink, wink), to buy one, since we don't have a Leclerc store in town.

Peeling the blood oranges, which were pretty small
as oranges go

I did some Google searching for recipes and looked in the standard cookbooks before deciding exactly how I was going to cook the duck and make the orange sauce. One recipe that I looked at said the best oranges to use would be oranges sanguines — blood oranges — because their juice has a peppery flavor. (I'm not giving a link to a recipe here because I didn't end up following any single one. I kind of made up my own.)

Peel, slice, and seed 6 or 8 oranges, depending on size,
and then juice a couple more for the sauce

I went to Intermarché and discovered that they were selling one-kilo bags of blood oranges for €2.50. I also needed to buy some cognac and an orange-flavored liqueur for the dish; I bought a bottle of Triple Sec. A lot of recipes called for Cointreau or Grand Marnier, which were much more expensive.

A lot of recipes also called for cooking the duck whole by first browning it on all sides in a big pot and then adding some water and chopped vegetables (carrots, onions) and letting it braise, covered, for 45 minutes. Or for roasting the whole duck in the oven.

Cut up the duck the way you would cut up a chicken.
In this case I took the breasts off the bone.

I decided I'd rather cut the duck up before cooking it. That way it would cook a little faster, it be easier to serve, and I would be able to cook the carcass and trimmings separately to make broth and skim off the duck fat for future cooking and seasoning uses. After I cut the duck up, I trimmed the pieces carefully to reduce the amount of skin and fat left on them. I didn't want too much fat in the orange sauce.

Then I cooked the duck pieces skin-side down in a hot pan to brown them well and to render out the layer of fat that lies under the skin. When I turned them over, I added a big carrot (cut up) and some whole peeled shallots and garlic cloves to the pan along with a bouquet garni and a cup of liquid. Salt and pepper as needed, of course.

Walt had gone out to the garden and gathered some herbs — sage, bay leave, thyme, and parsley — for the braising liquid. We had a leek in the fridge so we rolled and tied up the bouquet garni in a piece of the green leek top.

Herbs from the garden, trimmed duck pieces, oranges, and liqueurs

The recipe called for water. But I had about ¾ cup of very gelatinous, very dark-brown duck stock in the fridge. I had collected it when I cooked previous ducks and had been using it up gradually to flavor soups and sauces. It was like gelatin. What the heck, I thought, I'll use the duck broth instead of water. Then the cover went on the pan and the duck and veggies braised slowly in the liquid for about 45 minutes.

The duck pieces in mid-braising, with
carrots, shallots, garlic, and herbs

While the duck was cooking, Walt and I were busy peeling and cutting up the oranges. Then we sliced them in a bowl so that we could collect any juice they released. It's easy to see and remove the seeds from the slices. We didn't get a lot of juice from the slicing process, so Walt juiced a couple of extra oranges, for good measure.

Duck pieces removed from the braising liquid

After the duck had braised for 45 minutes and seemed done, I added, according to different recipes, about ¼ cup orange liqueur (Triple Sec, in my version) and a couple of tablespoons of cognac to the pan and removed it from the heat. It needed to rest for 10 minutes like that.

I decided to brown the cooked duck pieces in the oven when I took them out of the braising liquid, so after the 10-minute waiting period I removed them to a rack in a roasting pan. That pan went into a hot oven while I turned the heat back on under the braising liquid, added about ½ cup of orange juice to it, and started letting it simmer to reduce just a little. I also added about ¼ cup of vinegar, which I had seen used in several recipes. The sauce needs to be tart and sweet at the same time.

Duck pieces and orange slices

I tasted the sauce and decided to add a little more orange liqueur and cognac. Couldn't hurt, you know... When the sauce was starting to reduce and the duck pieces in the oven were browning nicely, I thickened the sauce by dissolving a heaping teaspoon of potato starch (you could use cornstarch) in ¼ cup of cold water and then slowly stirring that slurry into the bubbling sauce. It thickened just slightly.

While the sauce continued cooking on low, I melted some butter in a skillet and slid in all the orange slices so that they would warm through. Voilà! Everything was done.

Spoon some of the orange sauce
over the duck pieces and orange slices

To serve the duck, I put the pieces in a big shallow bowl and put the warm orange slices all around them. Then I spooned on some of the sauce. The rest of the sauce was served at the table.

À table !

What do you eat with duck à l'orange? The recipes I looked at suggested sautéed potatoes. We made French fries, because the fryer had fresh oil in it and we had frozen French fries on hand. That was a lot easier than peeling, cutting up, and sautéing fresh potatoes, and just as good.

The makings for duck with orange sauce

I had never made canard à l'orange before, and I think the only time I had ever eaten duck with orange sauce was about a year ago. Our friends Susan and Ray were here visiting, and we had our final lunch together at a Logis de France restaurant called the Agnès Sorel, which is in the village of Genillé, near Loches. The lunch special that day was canard à l'orange. It was good. Not exactly like mine, but not that different either.

Endives aux lardons

We haven't cooked and eaten many Belgian endives this year, even though winter is the season for them. I bought some at Intermarché last weekend and remembered that I had them in the refrigerator day before yesterday. We needed something for lunch.

To prepare endives for cooking, rinse them off and remove any outer leaves that are wilted or damaged. They say you shouldn't let endives soak in water because it will make them bitter, so just rinse them quickly. They are always clean inside, in my experience.

You can cook the endives whole or you can split them in half lengthwise, as I decided to do this time. Then put some olive oil or butter in a big pan and put the endives in. Put them face down if you cut them. Let them cook in the oil or butter long enough to start taking on some color. They will turn a kind of golden brown.

Turn them and brown them on all around if you want. The golden brown color is caramelization and will give the endives good flavor.

I cooked four fat endives. I could have fit eight in the pan if I hadn't cut them in half. They cook a little faster cut than whole.

Add a couple of whole garlic cloves to the pan if you want. Or, separately, lightly sauté an onion and scatter the pieces over the top of the browning endives endives.

Then pour into the pan about half a cup of white wine and the juice of one lemon. The wine is optional; the lemon juice is not. You could use vinegar in the place of lemon juice. And add salt and pepper to taste.

Belgian endives braised with lemon juice, onion, and lardons

For the endives as pictured, I decided to add some sautéed lardons to the pan for flavor. We were planning to eat this as a main dish, not as a side to go with any other meat.

Let the endives simmer for 45 to 60 minutes. Test them with a skewer to see if they are done. They should be well cooked for best texture and flavor.

Here's another idea for cooking endives as a side dish with fish fillets.

13 February 2007

Le Grand-Pressigny ~ 7 ~

Yesterday our weather was gusty and damp. We saw the sun off and on, but it was so windy you didn't want to be outdoors. The temperature was in the mid-50s F -- about 12ºC.

Don't worry, the pictures don't really go with the text.
I liked this old staircase I saw on the streets of
Le Grand-Pressigny on 11 April 2006.

At about 9:00 in the morning, a sudden squall produced very strong winds and a brief downpour. The trees were bending under the force of the wind gusts, and the downpour included a minute or two during which there were a lot of ice pellets mixed in with the driving rain. Well, this is going to be an exciting day, I thought to myself.

Still life with storm drain

I guess those ice pellets are what we call hail. Tiny hailstones were bouncing off our north-facing living -room window and making ringing and pinging sounds as they hit the metal balcony railing outside. The wind was rattling our metal window shutters.

Okay, I'm cheating with this photo. I took it in
Le Grand-Pressigny in July 2006, during a heat wave.

We used to have that kind of brief ice-pellet showers all the time during those 17 winters we spent in San Francisco. Obviously, the weather seems fairly chilly when ice is falling from the sky. San Francisco's climate is temperate, which is another way of saying it's always chilly. Here, at least, we get nice hot summers.

Farm buildings on the edge of Le Grand-Pressigny

These squalls and sudden downpours have a name in French: ce sont les giboulées de mars. March showers. So our weather is getting a little ahead of itself.

There's probably no automatic opener for this garage door.

That was yesterday, February 12. This morning, I looked at some more pictures taken in Le Grand-Pressigny — the ones I hadn't posted yet. I realized a lot of them were taken on April 11, 2006. And the weather was beautiful and starting to get seriously warm.

The cemetery is this way, down a dead-end street.
Humour noir ? Or just good city planning?

The sun is shining this morning, and the winds have died down. April 11 is less than two months away. The hours of daylight are increasing. Spring is on the horizon. Vivement le printemps !

Et vivement l'été !
Photo taken in Le Grand-Pressigny in July 2006.