31 May 2008

Last night's sunset, with clouds

Have I told you lately how beautiful the skies are here in Touraine? They match the landscape.

Views over the vineyard from the back gate
9:00 p.m., 30 May 2008

And did I mention that even though the Atlantic coast and the Ile d'Oléron have a beauty all their own, that I'm glad to live in Saint-Aignan.

Last Saturday, as we drove back from Oléron, we stopped in Poitiers for lunch. Nothing really special, just a steak-frites in a chain restaurant called Courtepaille.

Then we got off the autoroute for good at Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, not too far south of Tours. We drove due east through the villages of Bossée and Manthelan, arriving at Loches. A lot of that drive is through a dense green forest.

After Loches, on the way to Saint-Aignan, the countryside turns into rolling fields of farmland with patches of tended woods. Last Saturday, it was emerald green, freshly rained-on, and lush. The sky was full of big puffy clouds with some patches of blue.

Loches isn't far from Saint-Aignan. Someone told me it takes about 20 minutes to drive it, but you have to really put your foot down to make that kind of time. Better to slow down and enjoy the sights — little villages of stone houses with flower boxes of geraniums, the picturesque château de Montrésor, tall church steeples, and birds feeding in the fields. And feel good about being back in Touraine.

30 May 2008

Lunch at the beach on Oléron

During the week we spent on the Ile d'Oléron on the French Atlantic coast, we ate in a restaurant exactly one time. Most of the other days, we cooked oysters and clams that we bought at the outdoor market at La Cotinière. The first day we were there, we were able to buy fresh fish (ling cod was what we got) but then the fishermen went on strike. One day we made steaks and green beans; another day we went to a charcuterie and got some pâté de campagne and a cold baked salmon fillet rolled and stuffed with mixed vegetables in a mayonnaise sauce.

The outdoor terrace at L'Albatros is right on the water

The restaurant we picked for lunch on Tuesday May 20 was called L'Albatros in the resort town of Saint-Trojan-les-Bains. We sat outdoors in the nice weather and lunched on seafood of course. The restaurant had been recommended to us by some friends who live here in Saint-Aignan.

The day's specials at L'Albatros

The daily specials listed on the blackboard pictured above included, as a starter, a tartare of oysters « spéciales Gillardeau » — spéciales are oysters that are fattened in salt ponds for several weeks before going to market, and Gillardeau is the name of the producer. I'm not sure what the "tartare" would have been, because none of us ordered it. I, however, did have half a dozen « spéciales Gillardeau » oysters on the half shell as my starter course. They were incredibly fat, filling their shells almost to overflowing, and they were tasty. They were served with bread, butter, and lemon. I didn't take a picture.

Fresh sole grilled with herbs

The first of the two main courses listed that day was fresh sole grilled with herbs. That's what Walt had. He said it was very good. As you can see, the fish dishes were served with what the British call "jacket potatoes" — big baked potatoes with cream and butter and herbs, called pommes de terre en robe des champs in French. "Potatoes in field dresses" — doesn't that sound nice. The little black pot on the plate contained a purée of topinambours — Jerusalem artichokes, which are the knobby roots of type of sunflower called a girasol.

Croaker fillet with truffle butter and spring vegetables

The second main course was Filet de maigre grillé au beurre de truffes — a fish fillet grilled with truffle butter. When we got back to the rental house after lunch, I looked up maigre in my dictionary on CD to see what kind of fish it was. The translation was "meagre" — obviously a British name, and it didn't mean anything to us. It was only after we got back to Saint-Aignan and had Internet access again that we could look it up. It turns out to be a kind of croaker. Cheryl said it was very good, and the accompaniment of pasta with truffle butter sauce was excellent.

Céteaux breaded and fried,
served with a sprinkling of ground cumin

I decided to order a local Ile d'Oléron speciality called a friture de céteaux au cumin after I asked the woman taking our order to describe it. Céteaux turned out to be small flatfishes that live in the waters around the island. Here's a description and photo I found on this site:

Here the word is spelled with an S rather than a C, but that happens with local terms and names. The description says the fish resembles a sole but never gets bigger than 12 or 13 cm (5 or 6 inches) long. It also says that the fish doesn't do well in shipping, so you never find them except right along the coast where they are caught. So you should try them if you are in the area (it says). They were very good and reminded me of good seafood I might eat in a restaurant in coastal North Carolina.

Another view of the terrace at L'Albatros restaurant

With our lunch we had a bottle of the local Oléron white wine that was very dry and very fruity at the same time. It was served well chilled and was perfect with the fish.

I'm posting this food report especially for a friend in California. She knows who she is.

29 May 2008

Storms, floods, accidents, and strikes

As Walt said in his comment to yesterday's post, he turned out to be none the worse for wear after taking a blow to the face from a wooden pole. Yesterday morning, we managed to completely remove that heavy old wooden ladder from the attic trap door. It was rickety and downright dangerous, held together by baling wire, brittle old screws, and rusty nuts and bolts.

La Cotinière on the Ile d'Oléron. Warning: the pictures
in this post don't have much to do with the text.

We are lucky it didn't fall down on our heads before it did. A complicated set of wires, springs, and pulleys allowed you to pull it down out of the attic and then push it back up again so you could close the trap door from below. The wires kept getting tangled, and one of them finally snapped or came loose the other day, which is why it came crashing down instead of folding neatly up into the attic. Now we are rid of it completely.

All the boats were in port on May 23 at La Cotinière.

We had a month's worth of rain on Tuesday. That's 50 mm (2 in.) in the space of a few hours. Yesterday I was over in Noyers-sur-Cher at the Bricomarché hardware store and I overheard several people discussing their flooded basements and gardens. One man was saying that muddy water came up through the drain pipes into his bathtub, so high had the water risen outside and in the cellar. We are lucky to live on high ground at La Renaudière.

A restaurant sign in La Cotinière

The water level in the Cher is very high. A news report yesterday on France2 television said their were a lot of flooded houses about an hour south of Saint-Aignan in the town of Le Blanc, on the Creuse River. They showed some people who were more or less trapped on the second floor of their houses because the water was three feet deep in the ground floor rooms.

Nice name: Roudoudou

Yesterday, after a lazy afternoon and then a long walk with Callie, I had dinner with BettyAnn and her friend Danielle down in Saint-Aignan at a restaurant called Le Crêpiot. I enjoyed it, and I think the two the them did too. We stayed at the table for three hours and ended up closing the place down. The owners shook our hands as we left and wished us a good stay in Saint-Aignan. They were probably wondering if we were ever going to decamp.

Take a sea cruise on the Aiglon at La Cotinière...

Walt is in Paris and will be going to Roland Garros with Cheryl today to see some tennis matches. At least they hope to see some matches. Weather reports say the Paris area may get as much as an inch of rain over the course of the day. That's bad luck for Walt and Cheryl. The last time we went to the French Open tennis tournament, in 2006, the same thing happened, though the matches weren't completely cancelled and we saw a couple.

Another restaurant in La Cotinière. An écailler is somebody
who shucks and sells oysters and clams for a living.

By the way, reports are that many French fishing ports are still closed because of commercial fishermen's protests over the high price of diesel fuel. Protests have spilled over into Spain and some of the Northern European countries. The only thing the government can do to lower fuel prices is reduce taxes, and with the huge budget deficits France faces I'm not convinced that's a good plan. We all have to face up to the end of the Age of Cheap Petroleum, don't you think?

Another view of the harbor at La Cotinière

The pictures in this post are ones that I took in the fishing port of La Cotinière on the Ile d'Oléron a week ago. Notice how many boats were in port on a Friday morning — all of them, actually, since no fishermen were going out to sea that day.

28 May 2008

Arriving in a déluge

Yesterday evening we had a visit from BettyAnn, who comments frequently on this blog, and a friend of hers who lives in the Paris region. They drove down to Saint-Aignan to see some châteaux in the area and we invited them over for a pre-dinner apéritif.

It rained all day here, but BettyAnn’s friend Danielle told me they didn’t see much rain at all until they drove south toward Saint-Aignan after seeing the château at Chambord in the afteroon. By the time they arrived, we were having a major thunderstorm, with sharp lightning and loud claps of thunder.

A nice local apéritif wine

And rain was coming down in “ropes,” as they say in French. About 6:30, I drove down to the hotel where the two women are staying to meet them and let them follow me back to the house in their car. I got soaked just getting from the car to the hotel lobby and back to the car again.

In the hotel lobby, I met and talked to an English couple who were on a bike tour of the area. It was their first time in Saint-Aignan. As long bolts of lightning split the sky out over the wide part of the Cher River and rain beat against the window, I assured them that storms such as the one we were having only happened once a year or so, or even less. They were not convinced — I could see it in their eyes.

BettyAnn and Danielle followed me back to La Renaudière in their little green Renault. It’s only two miles. As we came up the road to the hamlet, however, we drove through what was almost a waterfall of rain pouring off the trees. The roadway itself was a torrent. I hope it didn’t wash out, since the storm continued for another couple of hours. I’ll have to go inspect it this morning.

We got to the house and ran into the downstairs entryway to the sound of a huge crash and a stream of exclamations (not to say swearing) from upstairs. What has happened, I yelled up the steps.

As I climbed up, I could see Walt in the back hall trying to get the attic hatch closed. It’s equipped with a ladder that drops down when you open it, and the thing seemed to have gone off its tracks (once again).

“Do we have another leak?” I asked, almost in a panic. The reason we just repainted our kitchen is that a year ago, in a similar thunderstorm, we had a major leak in the kitchen ceiling. The room needed freshening up anyway, and the water stains and peeling paint from the leak were the gouttes qui ont fait déborder le vase, as it were — the last straw.

“I saw a stream of water running under the eaves outside the way it did last year,” Walt said, “but so far I don’t see any sign of water on the kitchen ceiling.” He had gone into the attic to check it out, but found only a little dampness up there.

As he talked, he struggled to get the attic hatch closed using a long pole provided for that pupose. It has — had — a big round metal ring on it that you used to grab a hook on the hatch to pull it down and push it back up.
As he said “ceiling,” there was a big cracking sound as the metal ring on the end of the pole broke off. The wood split, actually, and the ring went flying.

And so did the broken wooden pole, hitting Walt square on the face on his upper lip right next to his nose.
He wasn’t bleeding but he was stunned. I guess he was lucky he didn’t lose an eye or suffer a broken nose. I told him to lie down for a minute and brought him a tissue. Not seeing blood reassured him and me, and he just rested for a few minutes.

The broken attic hatch

Our guests Cheryl, BettyAnn, and Danielle must have thought the house was falling down around them.
The rain continued and Walt got better as we all had a glass of wine to celebrate our meeting and Walt’s relatively unscathed status. His face didn’t swell up noticeably, and there was no bruise. He said it hurt, but I think the wine made it feel better.

As rain poured down, we had a nice couple of hours around the dining room table, getting to know each other.
The attic door was still gaping open with the ladder hanging down, and we weren’t able to fix it. It nearly blocks access to the bathroom, but you can just squeeze by and duck under it to get into the room because we propped the ladder up on a radiator. We’ll try to fix it — take it completely down — this morning. Luckily the weather is warm so if the attic door stays open for a while it won’t matter much.

Midway into our conversation, I heard the dog making strange noises downstairs. I got up to see what she was doing, and as I started down the stairs a little bird flew right into my face, with Callie in hot pursuit. The bird flew into the kitchen and landed on the counter in front of the microwave oven. By then, I called out “Bird in the house!” — it has happened before — and all five of us plus the dog were in the kitchen.

The poor bird, a rouge-gorge (the little European robin), was all aflutter and headed for the kitchen window, which of course was closed against the rain. At that point Callie jumped up and actually had the bird in her mouth for a second. Walt yelled at her to “Drop it!” and she did. Cheryl yelled “Don’t let the bird out before I can get my camera! I want a picture!” Cheryl is a bird-watcher.

Walt got the poor robin by one of its wings, slid open the window, and tossed the bird out. It flew off just fine, none the worse for the experience, I hope. Both Callie and Cheryl, who was running back into the kitchen camera in hand, were sorely disappointed.

When BettyAnn and Danielle left to go back to their hotel a few minutes later, the heavy rain had formed a big puddle just outside our front door. They had to jump over it to get to their car. I hope the little green Renault didn’t wash away in a torrent of rainwater as they drove down the hill to get back to town.

27 May 2008

Low tide

The beach on the western side of the Ile d'Oléron at low tide

You're used to seeing vineyards on this blog. Now it's beaches. The same beach, actually, and it's on the Ile d'Oléron. When I walked back to the beach at La Menounière with the dog two Sundays ago, I was surprised to see what it looked like at low tide.

Tidal patterns in the sand

So the bottom is sandy only in spots. In others, it's covered with fairly smooth white rock. You couldn't call it "rocks." It seemed more like a very rough floor, covered with limpets, periwinkles (little black sea snails called bigorneaux in French), and bright green seaweed.

Callie running through the seaweed on the beach

Callie loved it. She was in discovery mode. She's not afraid of water, or averse to plunging in if she gets a chance. She also tasted seawater to see if it was good to drink. It wasn't. She went swimming twice during the week, but never when I was there. Both times, it was Walt who had taken her out.

Barnacles and periwinkles

A gray heron — un héron cendré — feeding at the beach

Meanwhile, the commercial fishermen were still on strike. We were staying just a mile or two from the island's main fishing port, called La Cotinière. It has a typical and picturesque little boat harbor, protected by high stone walls from the ocean waves. But no boats were going out fishing, and the little fish shops and stands in the village were closed. There was no fish to sell.

Callie at the beach on Oléron

Callie made the car trip without throwing up on the back seat, by the way. That was a relief. She does not like riding in the car, but I think she's getting better at it.

Yesterday I found this really interesting and comprehensive site about the Ile d'Oléron. It's in French. Some pages describe and show pictures of all the fish and shellfish that live in the waters around the island. The site also has an extensive dictionary describing the local Oléron patois or dialect.

26 May 2008

A day at the beach

The beach at La Menounière on the Ile d'Oléron
on France's Atlantic coast — 18 May 2008

The first thing we did when we had gotten settled into our gîte in the village called La Menounière on the Ile d'Oléron last week was take a walk to the beach. It was only about a five-minute walk from the house. The weather was fairly warm and kind of breezy.

You can see the mainland across the water.

I thought the ocean was very calm at that spot on the island's southwest facing coast, and I don't know why there weren't bigger waves. There's nothing to protect the coast from the ocean at that point, and this side of Oléron is called La Côte Sauvage, or the Wild Coast. It didn't seem very wild to me.

By the way, Oléron is about 70 square miles in size and is the largest French island after Corsica. (For comparison, Harkers Island in North Carolina is only about 4 sq. mi.) Oléron is about 20 miles long and 10 miles wide at its widest point. (Bogue Banks in N.C. is about 20 miles long but much narrower.) The population of Oléron is 20,000 or so. There's a satellite view here. The island is flat and sandy.

Walt and Callie on the beach at La Menounière

The beach itself is sandy. But after walking on it I realized it was not really sand the way the beaches are where I grew up on the North Carolina coast, or around San Francisco in California where I lived for many years. At Oléron, the "sand" is actually finely crushed seashells — limpet shells, I think. Even below the high tide line, where the beach looks flat and hard, it's actually soft and your feet sink into it slightly When you walk on it.

There was a lot of seaweed on the beach at this time of year.
Wonder if there always is?

The rock jetties that have been built to stabilize the beach are made up of blue-colored boulders, and the dunes are covered with vegetation that is a pale gray-green color. The beach has a reddish cast. All the pictures in this post were taken when the tide was fairly high.

You can see how red the beach sand is where it's wet.

I guess I'm fascinated with beaches because I basically grew up on the beach and in the water in North Carolina, at the southern end of the Outer Banks. The Ile d'Oléron reminded me very much of "home" even though the language and architecture are so different. Another difference: half of Oléron is covered in grape vines and people make wine and cognac there.

25 May 2008

Fishermen on strike!

We left Saint-Aignan about noon last Saturday for a week in a gîte rural — a little vacation rental house — on the Ile d'Oléron. We had never been down there before. Oléron is just south of La Rochelle and Rochefort, and not very far north of Bordeaux, on the French Atlantic coast.

The island is linked to the mainland (le continent) by a high-rise bridge (known on the Ile d'Oléron as le viaduc). It's about a four-hour drive from Saint-Aignan and we left at noon. At 3:30 p.m. we drove through Marennes, the last town on the continent, and were ready to cross the bridge and enjoy being on the island. No such luck.

A plume of black smoke along the highway
leading to the bridge at Oléron

As we drove out of Marennes, traffic came to a halt. We didn't know why, but we saw a huge plume of dark black smoke off in the distance. Was it a fire? An accident of some other kind? Why were cars just inching ahead? Why didn't we see any firetrucks, ambulances, or other emergency vehicles? We turned on the radio, but we couldn't get any news.

This was the traffic back-up caused by a protest
last Saturday at the Ile d'Oléron bridge.

As we sat there in the car for about an hour, wondering what was going on, we would see the plume of smoke thin out and then suddenly thicken up and get blacker and uglier every few minutes. I thought things like tanks of fuel or cans of paint might be exploding in a big fire. Traffic wasn't really moving, and very few cars were passing us heading in the opposite direction, coming off the island.

This was the commercial fishermen's protest banner. It says:
"Fishermen on strike. Fish not expensive. Diesel fuel too expensive."

When we finally had advanced far enough, we found out what the problem was: a protest. We had heard about France's commercial fishermen, les marins-pêcheurs, being on strike. The labor action was just starting late in the week. But on Saturday, a group of fishermen had set up a protest site at the foot of the Oléron bridge. They were stopping cars and letting them through just one at a time, and they had built a big bonfire. They were burning old automobile tires. Every time they threw another tire or two on the fire, the smoke blackened and thickened.

Luckily for us, oysters and clams
were still available at markets on the island.

We finally arrived at our rental house about 5:00 p.m., an hour later than we thought. For the whole week we were on the island, the fishing harbors were closed. There was no fish available for sale in the supermarkets or at outdoor markets. For the entire week, we didn't try to leave the island because the demonstration and big traffic back-up continued (but that was okay with us).

French fishermen were protesting the high price of the diesel fuel they need to run their boats. The boats stayed in port all week. The only seafood available was the stuff that is not fished out of the open sea, since boats couldn't go out. No fin fish, no shrimp. We had to make do with oysters and clams. Poor us.

24 May 2008

Back in Saint-Aignan today

We drove home from the Ile d'Oléron today. At first we had a hard time finding a service station that had any fuel to sell, but by the time we got inland about 40 miles, we found one. The fishermen were on strike the whole week we were on the island and as part of their strike they blocked the wholesale fuel yards.

More this coming week... We had a great week eating seafood, walking on beaches, and seeing the sights on the island.

16 May 2008

Attention ! Chien lunatique

Afternoon moon

No, I'm not saying Callie is a lunatic. And anyway, lunatique in French means "moody," not crazy. The word derives from the French word for "moon" — la lune — and from Latin of course.

Callie in her lunar craze

Callie isn't crazy or even moody, really, but she goes into a crazed state when she sees the moon in the sky. Especially in the daytime, and we see it often early in the morning or late in the afternoon. On mornings when the moon is up in the sky, getting ready to set, she chases it and barks at it the whole time we are out walking.

I see the moon and the moon sees me...

One day earlier this week we were out on the front terrace and there was the moon in a blue sky. Callie went wild, as usual. These are some pictures I took of her that day.

What's that in the sky? Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
No, it's the moon.

And here's a picture of her in a more tranquil state.

Sitting on the bed, looking at the camera

14 May 2008

A death in the hamlet

Here at La Renaudière, one of our neighbors died a few days ago. We woke up at 4:30 in the morning because there were unusual lights shining outdoors. It turned out the be the headlights of a fire department ambulance. Then, through our half-closed shutters, we saw its flashing blue lights as it left, driving by our house to the end of the road out back and turning around to go down the hill toward Saint-Aignan.

New flowers in the vineyard

Other neighbors walking by our house a day or two later told us over the fence that the woman who lives next door to them, three houses down the road from us, had passed away that particular morning. We didn't realize that somebody had actually died. They said the woman, whom we knew only by sight, was 85 years old.

A spider trying the get out of range of the lens

The old couple kept to themselves. Once or twice a year, when the weather turned nice, we would see them out for a stroll on the road. I posted a picture of them once, I believe. The other neighbors referred to them as les Parisiens. The must have retired to Saint-Aignan from Paris some years ago. Their daughter lives in the next village west of ours, I've heard.

Two unidentified flowers

The neighbors we talked to yesterday afternoon said that the man whose wife died is now 96 years old. I asked them to repeat it twice — quatre-vingt-SEIZE ans, vous êtes sûrs ? — because I thought they surely meant 86, which would be quatre-vingt-SIX ans. But no, he is 96, they insisted. Il la suivra assez vite, they said. He won't live much longer, without his wife.

White flower with insect

Another one of our neighbors was 94 when she moved into a maison de retraite last year. She's still living, but her son and daughter-in-law, who now spend several weekends a year in her house, say that she's not really aware of her surroundings any more.

Geneviève, the woman who lives across the street from us with her daughter, is 85. I saw her yesterday, and she seemed fine. She was out with her daughter Chantal doing some gardening. I asked her how she was feeling, and she made a hand gesture that means "so-so." But she was out gardening, after all.

Life and death in Saint-Aignan...

13 May 2008

Only the shell is missing

The kitchen. Not eggshell white. Egg-white white and egg-yolk yellow.

We still need to put up curtains, hang some things on the walls, paint the old radiator and behind it, put up the new overhead light fixture, and on and on. But the hard work is done now. It'll be nice to cook lunch today for the first time in a while.

11 May 2008

Like the inside of an egg

White and eggyolk yellow. Blanc et jaune d'œuf.

A work in progress
11 May 2008

Old vines

Out walking the dog yesterday evening, I noticed how old and gnarly the vines looked in one section at the top of the vineyard.

May 2008 at Les Bas-Bonneaux near Saint-Aignan
Click the pictures to enlarge them

The village or town is having some kind of hiking or cycling event in our area today, because yesterday a couple of guys came and painted a big white arrow on the road to indicate the route. I'm going to walk Callie extra early (7:00 instead of 8:00) so that we won't get tangled up in a crowd.