31 August 2008

Rillons — la méthode

Here's the recipe I started with. In fact, this time I followed the recipe pretty closely. I had more meat (7½ lbs.) and I used lard for one batch of rillons and duck fat for another.
Rillons de Touraine
  • 2 kg de poitrine de porc frais
    4½ lbs. fresh pork breast
  • 1 kg de panne2¼ lbs. pork fat
  • sel, poivre du moulinsalt, pepper
  • un peu de thym en poudrea little ground thyme
Découper la poitrine en rectangles de 10 x 6 cm. Cut the pork into rectangles 4" x 2½".

Saler, poivrer et saupoudrer légèrement de thym en poudre. Salt, pepper, and sprinkle some ground thyme over the meat.

Disposer dans une terrine et laisser macérer quelques heures. Put in all in a dish and let it macerate for several hours.

Détailler la panne en petits dés. La faire fondre dans une grande casserole. Ajouter la viande (elle doit être entièrement recouverte par la graisse fondue) et laisser mijoter à feu doux au moins 3 heures. Cut the pork fat into small dice. Melt it in a big pot. Add the meat (it should be completely covered by the melted fat) and let it simmer on low heat for at least three hours.

Sortir les rillons avec une écumoire, les placer dans des bocaux et les recouvrir avec la graisse passée à travers un tamis. Take the rillons out with a slotted spoon, place them in jars and cover them with the fat, filtered through a fine sieve.

Pour consommer : réchauffer les rillons dans leur graisse. To serve: reheat the pork chunks in their fat.
What the recipe doesn't specify is that you need to take the rillons out of their fat once they are heated up for serving and drain them on paper towels or on a rack. You can even put them on a rack in a slow oven for a few minutes to let more fat drip off and let the pork brown slightly.

The first step is to cut the pork into strips. I decided to make smaller chunks than the ones the recipe specified.

The pork breast came with its rind still on. The rind in French is called la couenne, [lah kwahn]. Don't throw it away. I rolled up each strip of rind and put the strips in the freezer. They will be a great addition to any beans, greens, or other green vegetables we cook this winter — including all these green beans from the garden that we are blanching and freezing right now.

Pork rinds rolled up and packaged for the freezer

Along with flavor, the pork rind gives a gelatinous character to the cooking liquid that enriches cookied beans or vegetables. You don't necessarily eat the rind itself after it is cooked. In our house, Callie will probably get it mixed into her home-made food.

The chunks of pork simmer slowly in fat, with bay leaves for extra
You can't imagine how tender and plump each rillon is.

I removed the pork morsels from the fat with a slotted spoon.
Then I transferred them to canning jars...

...and poured the fat over them through a very fine strainer.

After a few hours in the refrigerator, the jar looked like the one you see above. Exactly like that, actually.

The fat is not wasted. It will keep for a very long time in the refrigerator in sealed jars. It is still perfectly usable after the rillons are taken out, for frying potatoes or meats, or for flavoring cooked vegetables. The rillons themselves will be good added to a pot of beans or greens too, with a little of their fat.

It is certainly not good to go overboard eating this kind of food, but in reasonable quantities it is healthy. And it sure is good. French country-style cooking reminds me very much of good Southern U.S. cooking.

I looked up the derivation of the word rillons and it seems to come from an old Frankish word that means a small piece of pork. Voilà.

Here's a quote from the 19th-century French novelist Balzac about rillettes and rillons:
Les célèbres rillettes et rillons de Tours formaient l'élément principal du repas que nous faisions au milieu de la journée (...) Cette préparation, si prisée par quelques gourmands, paraît rarement à Tours sur les tables aristocratiques (...)
BALZAC, Le Lys dans la vallée, Pl., t. VIII, p. 774.
It says: "The famous rillettes and rillons of the city of Tours were the main component of our mid-day meals... This kind of cooking, so prized by certain food-lovers, appears only rarely on the dinner tables of the upper classes in Tours..."

29 August 2008

Did you say rillons?

Rillons are a Loire Valley specialty that I'm sure very few people reading this would ever attempt to make. It's not a complicated thing to do, but it is kind of messy and can easily take day, if not two, to accomplish. You need a lot of fat or lard. For me, the idea of making my own rillons resulted from a happy coincidence this week.

First, what are rillons? As I said, they are a Touraine specialty. Traditionally, the diet here in Touraine is based on pork, poultry, and river fish, along with garden produce, goat cheese, and wine. This is not cattle country, and ducks and geese are not that common. Rillons are a pork specialty. You can buy them in supermarkets and charcutier shops all around the region.

Fresh pork breast — 7½ lbs. of it — for making rillons

Before people had electricity and freezers, finding ways to preserve meats was essential, and making rillons is one of those. You take chunks of fresh pork and marinate them in salt and herbs for hours. Then you cook the pork chunks for several hours at fairly low temperature in rendered fat. You can use lard, which is rendered pork fat, or you can use rendered duck or goose fat. When they are done, you pack the chunks of pork into crocks or jars, pour filtered, melted fat over all to cover, and seal the jars. The rillons will keep for months in a cook dark place — a cellar, for example.

It's the same principle as in making confit de canard — duck legs and thighs that are salted, slow-cooked, and preserved in duck fat. Rillons are confit de porc — slow-cooked pork — especially pork breast, or poitrine de porc.

Cutting up the pork and trimming away some of the fat

By the way, rillons is pronounced something like [ree-'yõ], with [õ] representing the French nasal O vowel. Maybe you know about rillettes? That's pronounced [ree-'yet] and it's another local delicacy. Well, rillettes are small rillons. It's too bad that the only name we have for such a thing is the unappetizing "potted pork."

Rillettes are eaten cold, on bread, like pâté but are distinctly different. They are served in restaurants and homes all over France — even in Paris! They are made of lean pork that is cooked in fat and then shredded, so that with some of the fat mixed in the result is a delicious cold meat spread.

Rillons packed in fat in a canning jar

Rillons are not a spread but chunks. They can be eaten cold with mustard or sour gherkins (cornichons), or warm from the oven with mustard or other sauces. The rillon chunks can be cooked with beans or greens or other vegetables to make a main course. After all, they are just tender, succulent pieces of meat. Rillons are rustic — peasant food. Not fancy, but tender and tasty.

So what was the coincidence that had me making rillons this week? First, the Intermarché grocery store over on the other side of the river had a big sale on fresh pork this week. One of the items on sale was whole fresh pork breast for €2.45 a kilogram. That's less than $2.00 a pound in American terms. Irresistible.

Loire Valley rillons ready to eat

Then I got a package in the mail. It was a padded envelope containing three books sent to me by BettyAnn, who often comments on this blog. I first met her in May, when she came for a short stay in the Loire Valley with a friend. She is a very kind person, obviously. One of the books she sent is a cookbook called Cuisinière du Val de Loire — the Loire Valley Cook.

I opened the book and immediately found several pork recipes I want to make this fall. One is pork loin roast cooked with apples. Another is pork shoulder roast cooked in milk. And the other recipe that caught my eye was Rillons de Touraine. Bingo!

To read more abut how to make Rillons de Touraine, click here.

Webs and bunches

I'm posting late today. Didn't think I was going to be able to post at all. Had a medical appointment yesterday in Blois, and today in Saint-Aignan. Routine stuff, but it throws my daily routine all out of whack.

From the front side...

Day before yesterday I saw a nice spider web out in the vineyard.

...and from the back

And the grapes are really beaufiful right now.

Touraine wine grapes

This morning there were two little deer on the road through the woods, down the hill from our hamlet, when I went out at about 8:30. They are not scarce around here, but you don't get many glimpses of them. It's always exciting, somehow, to see them. They are always too quick for the camera (or the photographer).

Today I have to take the car in for it's first oil change and checkup in two years. It's a diesel and it needs an oil change every 20,000 km (12,000 mi.). I have to wait for the service to be done because I don't have other transportation. I guess I'll go shopping.

One of the things that needs to be done to the car is called
« la permutation des pneumatiques ». Doesn't that sound technical?

I'm also in the process of making rillons. That's a pork specialty here in the Touraine. More tomorrow...

27 August 2008

Zucchini, onion, and sausage tart

Yes, it's zucchini season again. The tomatoes have been long to ripen (they're off to a good start now and the weather is hot) and the eggplant aren't really overwhelming us, but the green and yellow summer squash are like Old Faithful. They are gigantic before you can get out there to pick them. The green beans are amazing this year too. Walt picked what must be close to a bushel of them yesterday.

Onions, sausage slices, zucchini, and cheese in a pie

But zucchinis. You can blanch and freeze just so many. You can also grate them raw and freeze them that way for making soup or quiches later. So what about a zucchini and sausage tart? I saw a recipe for one somewhere, and we adapted it to our own methods, preferences, and ingredients. Here it is.

I found these "already cooked, ready to brown" locally made, very
lean sausages from the Sologne at the supermarket a few days earlier.

It's pretty simple if you have a pie crust. You can make one or you can buy one. Then you have to "blind bake" it — bake just the crust itself in a pan, with foil or parchment paper laid over the crust and with some dried beans or rice or pie weights on top to hold the pastry down and keep bubbles from forming.

Slow-cooked onions on the bottom of the pie shell

Meanwhile, you chop up a couple of big onions — you need two or even three cups, chopped, I'd say — and cook them on low heat in olive oil or butter or whatever fat you prefer. Salt and pepper them. They need to be at least translucent or even slightly golden. You can always add a glug of white wine to the pan if you want. I did, and then I stuck in a bay leaf, put on the cover, and let them cook for 30 to 45 minutes on very low heat.

Zucchinis sliced thin on the mandoline
and blanched for a minute or two.

And while the onions are cooking and the crust is baking, slice up some sausage, pre-cooked, and some zucchini. Walt cut our zucchini using a mandolin, so the slices were very thin and very uniform.

Pre-cooked sausages all sliced up for the pie

The zucchini slices need to be blanched. That is, put them in boiling water for just a minute or two, with some salt, to soften them. Then scoop them out and put them into some very cold water to stop the cooking. Drain them.

Arrange the sausage slices on top of the stewed onions...

When the onions are cooked down, drain them, reserving the cooking liquid and oil, and then spread the onions on the bottom of the blind-baked pie crust. Layer the sausage slices in the crust over the onions, with the zucchini slices on top.

...and then arrange the blanched zuke slices over the sausage.

Another way to do it would be to lay in zucchini slices and sausage slices in a nice alternating pattern over the top of the onions. Whichever way you do it, drizzle or brush some of the onion drippings over the top.

Sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese over the top
before putting the tart in the oven.

Don't put on too much liquid, though. You don't want the crust to get soggy underneath. Then sprinkle grated Parmesan or some other cheese over the top of it all. Bake the pie for 20 minutes or so in a pretty hot oven — not hot enough to burn the crust, but hot enough to brown the top. It's all cooked already, so you are just heating it through and melting the cheese.

This was a collaborative effort but my role was limited to cooking the onions, grating the cheese, taking pictures, and writing it up. Walt is the pastry chef otherwise. He makes the crust and artfully arranges the ingredients in to appetizing patterns.

Three sun pictures

A foggy sunrise on 25 August 2008

Chimneys at La Renaudière caught in the sun

The far corner at sunset on 25 August 2008

Taking a little break. Have to go to Blois twice over the coming week. Yesterday we knocked ourselves out cleaning out some old boards, pieces of heavy glass, and rusty old metal that we had piled behind the garden shed five years ago. Hauled a load of it to the dump in the car. The rest we will burn. Looks like we'll have a nice bonfire in November or December. It only took us five years to get to it...

26 August 2008

The evening session

After our short afternoon break, during which Walt went out and walked the dog, we returned to the party at about 7:00 p.m. Actually, Walt said he and Callie had run into at least a couple of the party-goers out in the vineyard. They were out for their own afternoon stretch. Callie played with and barked at them, I gather.

Looking at that Domaine de la Girardière web site I posted a link to yesterday, I realize now that one of the people at the party was the winery's owner. And he was one of the people Walt ran into on his walk with Callie. The man's name is Patrick Léger, apparently, and he was out in "our" vineyard with a man named Roland that we do know because he does gardening work for two of our neighbors. He was at the party, as he had been at a party last Christmas that A. and J.-M. invited us to, and his picture is also on the Domaine de la Girardière web site (he's the one in the foreground wearing a green cap). Roland's wife is especially friendly — she was at the party too and I talked to her for a while. I wish I could remember her name...

Back at the party, a group of people was playing boules, also called pétanque or, in good English, Bocce ball. One of A.'s grandchildren, Antoine, about 3 years old, kept running onto the pitch in the middle of the game. He wanted to play, and it was amazing that he didn't get conked by one of the heavy metal balls the players were throwing around. His father L., who is A. and J.-M.'s son-in-law, was there trying to rein him in but let him enjoy the experience at the same time.

Those not playing boules were standing around watching, or standing in small groups chatting. But then we discovered there was another activity under way. A.'s daughter was selling clothes in the living room! She had a big rack of women's clothing and a lot of the women who were in attendance were shopping. Josette said she bought a couple of articles, which would be sent to her by post in the appropriate sizes.

Soon we all started migrating back toward the tables out in the yard. Josette, Walt, and I sat down with one of the books she had given A. as a present. It was a little book about a trip two French guys took across the American Southwest in a rental car. I read parts of it, and it was pretty funny. The French guys said they had to cut the top out of a Coke can to use as an astray in their rented Pontiac, because it was a non-smoking model and didn't come with one.

The French travelers also felt greatly inconvenienced by American speed limits that allowed driving no faster than 75 m.p.h. But they were afraid to speed, because they didn't speak much English and would never have been able to talk their way out of a fine (or worse) if they were stopped by a patrolman.

They said going to a U.S. supermarket was an anthropological experience and were impressed by the fluourescent greens, blues, and purples of the icing on birthday cakes they saw. They said you'd obviously never want to grow up if you had such treats as a child! And they saw the most enormous sandwiches they had ever dreamed of! As for their own diet in America, it was composed almost exclusively of fried chicken and cantaloup, they wrote.

In a way, that book set the tone for the evening, at least at our table. The woman from the Tête Noire restaurant in Montrichard joined us, as did son-in-law L. and his parents, who live in Chartres and have traveled in the U.S. at least once. There was also a woman who is a math teacher in a local school.

The woman from Montrichard described some of her encounters with Americans and Brits in her restaurant — how she couldn't get over their complete inability to say a word or two of French, their very limited preferences when it came to the food they were willing to eat, and their lack of curiosity about France in general. She wondered why some of them ever even bothered to come here. She wasn't really negative about it, just perplexed. She speaks a little English and has spent time in England and Scotland, she said.

The math teacher said she dreamed of taking a trip to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the other big national parks in the U.S. West. She described a recent trip she took to Egypt with her daughter, her sister-in-law, and a niece. She said her husband didn't want to go, and besides, he had to work. She said she and her little group had the time of their lives. Now they want to go do a similar trip in the U.S. She said she had once traveled in Québec and Ontario, including a visit to Niagara Falls, and had loved it.

L. and his parents had their own ideas about the U.S. and differences in our social and work customs compared to the French customs. We talked about it for a while. L.'s father said when he went to California he was most impressed with all the police activity he saw in California and even at the Grand Canyon. Enormous police cars with sirens wailing sped up and down all the streets of San Francisco day and night, in his version of things. And the police were near-giants carrying pistols, shotguns, and clubs. By their fearsome presence, they made sure nobody was tempted to violate any laws. And those sirens... well, they were shrill and constant, not at all like the polite pam-pom of French police sirens.

At the Grand Canyon, he said, the group he and his wife were traveling in was at a heliport on the canyon rim, waiting to take a sight-seeing flight, when a convoy of police cars came roaring in, tires screeching, lights and sirens blaring. The cops singled out an individual whose behavior they didn't like and soon had him handcuffed and shunted into a police vehicle.

Some of the French tourists wandered over to see what all the commotion was about, as they would do in Paris or some other French city, L.'s father said. The tourists were confronted angrily by the police and made to understand in no uncertain terms that this was none of their business, that nosy people were not welcome, and that they had better get back before they ended up behind bars themselves!

Other than all that, he had a good time in America.

All these conversations, shared experiences, and anecdotes lasted the entire evening. Some wanted to know more about what Walt and I are doing here. Do we work? If not, what do we do all day? How about the dollar? Will Barack Obama win the presidency? And so on.

Meanwhile, somebody started a big wood fire in a barbecue grill and soon sausages were cooking over the coals. The first ones that came out were blood sausages, a.k.a. boudins noirs in France or black pudding in England. I like those, but Walt is a little less sure of them himself. But seeing as how the next batch of sausages that went on the grill were the dreaded andouillettes, for which our only equivalent is that Southern U.S. treat called chitterlings, or more colloquially chit'lins, we went for the blood sausage.

French people, at least a majority of them in my experience, just love those chit'lin' sausages. If you don't know what andouillette sausages are, I'll tell you. They are hog bowels stuffed with more hog bowels that have been rolled up and cut into small pieces. And to my palate they taste exactly like what you think hog bowels would taste like. They are often cooked over a wood fire, so that they end up tasting amazingly like... smoked hog bowels.

As we were eating our boudin noir, somebody — I think it must have been the woman who used to run the restaurant in Montrichard — pointed out that if you are at all anemic, blood sausage is just what the doctor ordered. She also said that when she explained to American and even English customers what boudins noirs and andouillettes are made of, they unvariably declined to partake of them.

I enjoyed the boudin noir I ate. I thought it was flavorful and kind of spicy, but not in a hot-pepper way. I think the main spice I tasted was nutmeg. This was obviously a very good version of the sausage, and I need to ask A. and J.-M. where they buy them. When the andouillettes came by, Walt and I both passed — probably confirming a lot of French people's stereotypes about Anglo-Saxon people's dietary habits.

There were also salads, including a veritable ton of green and red lettuce leaves tossed in vinaigrette, and other vegetables. There were also platters of roast beef and terrines of country pâté. And then a big tray loaded down with all kinds of beautiful French cheeses, including more of the local goat cheese, was passed. For dessert there were more fruit tarts and another of those gigantic bowls of fresh raspberries from up the road in Saint-Romain.

The wines were reds made by Jean-Christophe Mandard of Mareuil, who is a viticulteur we know and have often bought wine from. Again, J.-M. chose a Côt, which is a dark, berry-flavored red that goes well with foods like black pudding and chitterling sausage. And with strong, runny cheeses. Côt is the Loire Valley name for the grape we call Malbec.

And that was about it. There were at least 30 people present for dinner. By the time it was over, it had gotten dark and their was a chill in the air. We all had on sweaters, fleece jackets, and other warm clothes. As night fell, we watched bats swoop over our heads and out over the big yard, feasting I assume on mosquitoes and other flying insects. We had a long conversation about bats, actually, and Walt explained that he sees them at dusk almost every evening in the summer. Some people seemed to be unaware of how common they are here, but others told stories about bats flying around inside their houses once in a while. That happened to us just once, about four years ago.

Candles had been lit and placed on all the tables, making for a nice atmosphere. It wasn't chilly enough to be unpleasant.

As the evening ended, a lot of us started stacking chairs and putting away the fold-up tables we had been sitting around for a good part of the day. By pairs we carried the big tables over to a carport and stacked them where they would be out of the weather in case it rained. The chairs were the typical plastic ones and stayed out on the lawn in tall stacks.

I went inside to say my goodbyes and a dozen or more women were busy in the kitchen, putting food away, washing glasses, and putting plates and flatware into the dishwasher. It was quite a scene, actually — busy and convivial. I guess I can say this: a good time was had by all.

25 August 2008

The retirement party, part deux

Could you call it a garden party? Or a big summer picnic? A backyard party? It's all of the above and at the same time none of the above. The term garden party makes me think of women dressed up and wearing hats, British-style. It wasn't that at all. Some people were dressed up and others were in shorts and tee-shirts.

And it didn't feel like a summer picnic because it was a sit-down meal at a table with real dishes and silverware and tablecloths. And it didn't have the feel of a backyard party, because it wasn't in the back yard but the front. And it was a little fancier than that.

Anyway, after standing around talking in small groups for the first 30 minutes or so and forming a kind of receiving line that new arrivals felt they need to pass through, shaking hands all around and even kissing some people on both cheeks, we were handed glasses of champagne. It was champagne, not a local bubbly. J.-M. was in charge of the wine service, but he had plenty of help when it came to passing glasses around.

There were some finger foods on a couple of tables under a big canvas rooftop — you couldn't call it a tent because it didn't have sides, just a roof. The first foods I saw were little canapé-type sandwiches filled with different spreads and salads and cheeses.

The way they do these things is to take a little flat loaf of country bread (pain de campagne) or whole wheat bread (pain complet) that has a soft crust and cut it into very thin slices. The boulangeries have slicing machines that make a neat job of it. The fillings are cut or spread on very thinly but are savory and bright tasting. When you eat a little sandwich, you aren't eating much bread, which could fill you up, and you are getting a tasty morsel. The bread is sturdy enough not to fall apart.

The most impressive thing about the way the canapés are served is that the form of the loaf is maintained. Between every other slice of bread there's some filling. I'm talking about slices no more than an eighth of an inch thick. You kind of peel off your little sandwich without disturbing the loaf. It's attractive and neat. (I wish I had a picture.)

There were also bowls of melon chunks with toothpicks, a big bowl of cherry tomatoes that somebody had grown in his garden and contributed to the party, and at least two dips made of pureed chickpeas. One dip was just chickpeas, herbs, and spices, and the other included pureed red bell pepper so it was pink. There were baskets of saltine-type crackers and hard breadsticks.

Serving dips here seems to be a new thing, and I couldn't help noticing people who were double-dipping with their breadsticks without even thinking about it. Otherwise, there were little spoons in the dips and people were spooning them onto crackers.

The champagne was flowing and then women, mainly A. and her daughter and sister, started bringing out trays of little quiches and pizzas that had been warmed in the oven. I imagine that these were bought from a charcutier-traiteur and not home-made. There were a couple of trays of little rolls of pain au lait stuffed with snails in garlic-parsley butter. Those were very delicious, I thought.

There were also little cups of tasting spreads and salads — I think in a restaurant you'd call them an amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule. A. makes them. One was, for example, a spoonful of guacomole in the bottom of a glass with a spoonful of cream or cottage cheese (fromage blanc) on top. Another was a little glass of cooked wheatberries with a shrimp on top. And so on, all better one than the next and very savory.

A. opened some presents at that point. I wish I had taken my camera for that, too, actually. Since she is now our mayor, somebody gave here a framed portrait of president Nicolas Sarkozy of the kind that is posted in every mairie in France (and there are about 35,000 of them). It was an 8" x 10" photo, not enormous. It came with a little tricolore flag on a stick which at one point A. put into her hair as a kind of hat. Very funny. Here's a link to Sarkozy's official portrait, if you want a chuckle.

Josette gave A. and J.-M. a couple of books in French about the American West, because our mayor and her husband are going on a bus-tour in October that will take them from LA to Las Vegas to Zion and Bryce Canyons, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and on to San Francisco. It will be a whirlwind tour.

Soon more food was brought out. There were two huge bowls of rice-type salads, one made with quinoa and the other wheatberries or bulgur wheat, with tomatoes and other vegetables and herbs in them. There were a couple of beautiful vegetable terrines made with zucchini, carrots, and peas — A. made those, evidently. I imagine she and her sister and daughter made the salads and dips too. There was also a fish terrine that A. said had mackerel in it, but I think it also had a center made of either lobster or monkfish. It had that texture and taste. Maybe it was surimi — I don't know.

We all got plates and served ourselves, and then took our places at the table. J.-M. brought bottles of local wines to each table, one red and one white. Both wines came from the Girardière winery in Saint-Aignan, which is near the Beauval zoo. The red was a Côt (Malbec) and the white was a Sauvignon Blanc, the local AOC white grape. I know J.-M. particularly likes Côt wines because they are meatier (charnus) and more corsés than Gamay wines (which Walt and I like better, actually). Here's a link to the Domaine de la Girardière web site, in English.

Walt and I thought this was lunch: quinoa and bulgur salads, fish terrine, vegetable pâté, and so on. We loaded up our plates and enjoyed it. Then we were surprised to see more food come out. There were platters of plump poached (I think) chicken drumsticks on a bed of lettuce with tomatoes, and there were platters of thinly sliced roast beef. There must have been other vegetables and meats, but I can't remember what they might have been.

And then there was a big cheese platter, featuring many of Françoise and Frédéric Bouland's goat cheeses from the Ferme-Auberge de la Lionnière down the road from us. And there was of course dessert: a home-made tiramisu; pear, apple, and other fruit tarts; and chocolate cake. There was an enormous bowl of fresh raspberries that are grown on a farm over in Saint-Romain, on the other side of the river from Saint-Aignan.

By the time lunch was well under way, the sun had come out and was getting hot. At different moments, groups of people would get up and move their tables to a shadier spot in the yard, under a tree. Everyone would reassemble and continue eating and talking. Then another table would be moved the same way. We finally had to move ours too, because the sun was really beating down.

It was all very merry and before we knew it it was 5:30. We were talking with Josette and the couple who used to own and operate the Tête Noire hotel and restaurant in Saint-Aignan. Walt needed to go give the dog her afternoon walk. We thought the party was over. People were slowly leaving. Walt kissed Josette good-bye and went to look for A. to tell her thanks. He couldn't find her or J.-M., he said.

A few minutes later, I decided to go home too. After saying my au revoir to my tablemates, I went and managed to find A. I told her thanks and said what a good time we had had. "Oh, but you are staying for dinner with us all, aren't you?" she said. Oh my gosh, I thought, more food! We were worn out. I knew Walt was not going to want to come back and eat dinner.

I went on home and spent about an hour reading e-mail and news and blogs. Walt came back from the walk with Callie. We looked at each other and realized we really had no excuse not to go back over to the party for dinner. So we did, at about 7:00.

24 August 2008

A twelve-hour party

The party lasted 12 hours. I don't know if people in the U.S. have such marathon parties. In my experience, they — we — didn't. But here in Saint-Aignan our neighbors throw one or even two every summer.

And they are not stand-around, eat-some-chips affairs. Yesterday's, chez A. and J.-M., consisted of two full, sit-down meals. And there were approximately 50 people there, I estimate: 6 or 7 tables and between 6 and 8 people per table. There were 7 at our table for lunch.

The weather yesterday at 8:00 a.m. in a
picture taken from the far corner of our yard

The only people were knew were the hosts, of course, and Josette, who used to own our house. Josette knew a few people, but not many. So at the beginning it was a little awkward. The weather turned out to be pretty nice, fortunately, because the party took place, from noon until nearly midnight, entirely outdoors. The weather was nice — certainly not hot, but pleasant if you were wearing long pants and long sleeves, as we were, and then chilly enough in the evening that you needed a sweater or fleece jacket.

For the first half-hour or so, we all stood around in little groups, with people who knew each other congregating together. And as people arrived, each one made the rounds and shook hands with all those already in attendance, or did the bise, the French cheek-kissing routine, with people they knew well.

We recognized our village's former mayor, but we don't really know him and didn't end up talking to him at all. And there was a man there who sits at the front desk at the village hall and receives the public — we mostly see him every September when we go there to pick up our new residency permits, our cartes de séjour. We didn't talk to him either.

At the very beginning of the party, a 60-something couple from Montrichard sort of latched on to Josette and me and Walt. At first I thought the woman was a little angst-ridden, slightly too formal, and even more of a chatterbox that I or Josette. But she turned out to be very funny, interesting, and genuinely interested in talking with us. I think that like us, she and her husband didn't really know anybody at the party besides the hosts.

And it turned out that this couple had made a whole career of operating a very nice hotel/restaurant over in Montrichard called La Tête Noire. Unfortunately, Walt and I have never had a meal there. Of course, these people retired between five and ten years ago, before we arrived in Saint-Aignan, so we wouldn't have met them even if we had been customers of La Tête Noire.

The Hôtel de la Tête Noire is a member of the Logis de France association, which in our experience has always guaranteed a comfortable room and a good meal. Here's the hotel's web site, displaying the restaurant page. The people on the main page must be the new owners, or at least operators. They are not the couple we met yesterday.

The man we met was the chef, I gathered, when they ran the place, but he didn't talk very much. I noticed that he partook heartily of all the food served at the party, as everybody else did, but he was a thin, active-looking gentleman. His wife, who was so easy to engage in conversation, was a thin as a rail and very well-coifed for the occasion.

I'll write more about the food tomorrow. For now, let me say it was buffet-style, and it was a full lunch at about 2:00, after champagne and finger-food, and then a full dinner at about 8:00. There were salads, terrines, meats, cheese, and desserts for lunch, and for dinner, for a smaller crowd (maybe 30 people), sausages including boudin noir and andouillette cooked on a grill over a wood fire.

I didn't take my camera so I don't have any pictures. I'm not comfortable taking pictures of people I'm going to write about, so I avoid temptation by leaving the camera at home. I want to be a participant, and seen as one, at these events, and not a reporter or some kind of ethnologist...

23 August 2008

Be careful what you ask for

I asked for rain a day or two ago. And then yesterday it rained a flood*. It came down hard several times during the day.

Rain on August 22, 2008

Can you see it in this picture? We haven't had many opportunities to use the outdoor furniture in August. The good news is that the grass is greening up again. And the far corner and the vegetable garden won't have to be watered for a few days.

Yesterday was Callie's half-birthday — a year and a half old already.

* I think "to rain a flood" might be a coastal North Carolina expression.
It just means we had a lot of rain yesterday.
It has nothing to do with actual flooding.

21 August 2008

A hoppin' hamlet

It was about 1:00 p.m. yesterday and we were at the table having lunch when the phone rang. I went to answer it, for once. I usually just assume calls at that hour are from marketing people trying to sell me something, and I don't pick up.

Photos taken this week just to dress up this post

A voice on the other end of the line said: « Bonjour Ken. C'est la ville de Tours qui t'appelle.

— Toute la ville ?

— Et sa banlieue »
, the voice answered.

Then I recognized Josette's voice. She's the woman we bought our house from in 2003, and now she lives in an apartment in Tours, near where her daughter lives. She turned 81 in June and she doesn't drive much any more. Since she doesn't drive and we never go anywhere, we don't see each other much.

Josette explained that she was coming to A.'s party on Saturday. A. had told her we were planning to be there too. Josette wanted to know if she could come to our place Saturday at noon and walk with us over to A. and J.-M.'s for the party. She didn't want to arrive all alone. A. and her husband live just a few steps up the road from us.

Sunset at La Renaudière
21 August 2008

I remembered the party but I didn't know that it started at noon. It turned out that Walt did. I guess it will be lunch. Neither one of us knew why A. and J.-M. were throwing a party on August 23. It was just a summer get-together, I thought. But no, Josette told me it is A.'s retirement party. She retired from her career in the private sector on June 30.

Of course, A. won't be bored in her retirement. She was elected mayor of our village back in the spring. She's told us that it's pretty busy.

Because A. is the mayor, I expect to see the gratin of society in our village — and beyond — out on the lawn tomorrow afternoon. If the weather cooperates, of course. Right now it's raining and gray, but I think it's supposed to clear by tomorrow.

We'll be happy to see Josette, A. and J.-M., and all the others. The only ones missing will be our summer neighbors M. and B., the ones who live in Blois but have a little résidence secondaire across the street from us. It seems they are giving a party tomorrow for M.'s sister and her husband, who will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, their noces d'or. I bet there will be a crowd there as well, since the happy couple live just across the river in Noyers-sur-Cher.

There's no public transit up here, and I don't know where everybody is going to park. It should be interesting. The hamlet will really be hopping.

20 August 2008

Green tomato recipes, mostly

It was 13ºC this morning when I took the dog out. That's the mid-50s F.

Sedum flowers that bloom late in the summer in our garden

I was tempted to put on my fleece jacket, but the sun was coming up and I realized that I would be too warm in fleece by the time I got home. A heavy cotton shirt was enough over my tee-shirt.

This is ivy trying to grow up an apple tree. I cut the stems at
ground level to kill it before it could take over the whole tree.

The sun did come up, and the sky is fairly clear right now. But a front is moving in and we are supposed to be under thick clouds with the possibility of some drizzle this afternoon. That's not going to ripen any tomatoes.

It's not even going to water the garden for us. It's too bad that on these cloudy days we don't get just a little more rain. Everything is very dry now.

Grapes are ripening, even if tomatoes are not.

Callie ran through the tall grass this morning, as well as up and down the rows of grapevines. She's supposed to be a sheep dog, a collie, but on mornings like this one I tell her that she has turned into a "burred" dog. Her coat is full of burrs and sticks when we get home.

Green grapes looking plump and juicy

I'm not ready to give up on the tomatoes yet, because we might have a warm and dry September. Meanwhile, I've been looking a recipes. Here's the one I have for confiture de tomates vertes. It was given to me by CHM, who got it from a French woman we worked with in Washington DC.
Confiture de tomates vertes

5 pounds of green tomatoes
4 pounds of sugar
rind of 1 lemon
juice of 1 lemon

Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds, then cut the halves into thin slices. Put them in a large glass or china bowl and sprinkle with the sugar. Allow to marinate for 24 hours.

The next day, cook the tomatoes over a low flame in a heavy pot with the lemon juice and lemon rind for 2 hours. Stir from time to time with a wooden spoon.
I don't know why the title is in French while the text is in English. I guess that's what happens when you get a recipe from a bunch of translators.

This is a bee's butt — un cul d'abeille de bourdon.
You never know what you are going to see in the vineyard.

I looked up green tomato chutney recipes and found one posted by Keith Floyd on a BBC site. We used to watch his cooking and wine shows when we got BBC television here in France, but they ended that a couple of years ago. Besides tomatoes, sugar, and lemon, Floyd puts ginger, chili peppers, raisins, apples, and vinegar in his mixture.

And then I looked into the idea of having fried green tomatoes. On her Simply Recipes site, Elise has a recipe that calls for breading slices of green tomatoes using milk, flour, egg, and breadcrumbs (or cornmeal). That's a lot of trouble and makes a fairly thick and heavy layer of fried breading on the tomatoes.

August 20, 2008, about a mile from the house

I think I like the Southern approach to breading and frying better. Just salt the tomato slices so that they will "sweat" a little and then dredge them in seasoned cornmeal only. The crust will be lighter and absorb less oil. Here's a recipe on About.com.

There are a lot of ideas for using green tomatoes on this About.com page. And there are other recipes for green tomato chutney on a British site called Riverford.co.uk as well as one for fried green tomatoes on the Southern Living magazine site.

Green tomatoes and good sunsets

Plenty of green tomatoes

It's a good thing we have a recipe for green tomato jam — confiture de tomates vertes — because the tomatoes aren't really ripening.

One looks like it is trying to ripen.
Maybe it will be yellow instead of red.

There's a second red Roma out there. We ate the first one. And then maybe the other tomatoes we planted are of the yellow variety and won't ever turn red at all. That would be fine. We just don't remember.

Still getting blossoms

I'm not sure I'd even like green tomato jam. I've never tried it. But when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade, no?

From left to right, bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, green
beans, and summer squash. The bare plot in the foreground
is where I planted collard greens, which are sprouting now.

I'm still working in the far corner. Yesterday I put down some stepping stones out there and planted some sedum that I had in a pot. I watered. Gisèle, who gave me thornless blackberry plants, came over and approved where I'd planted them. She said they looked good, even though the leaves are a little wilted. That's natural when you transplant them, she said.

Sunset over the vineyard
19 August 2008

One of the reasons I like having made the far corner of the yard accessible is the view of sunsets from there. Click on the pictures with your mouse to see them at full size.

19 August 2008

Bread and butter issues

The TV news yesterday had a report on the 2008 wheat harvest in France. It turns out the wheat crop is 20% bigger this year than it was in 2007. For the first time in years, the report said, there is enough wheat to meet demand without going into reserves. As a result, wheat prices are down.

Lower prices, that's news. Of course higher wheat and grain prices didn't have any immediate effect on the price of bread. Ours went up by three eurocents again this year. Right now we are paying €0.81 for a baguette delivered to our house. In U.S. dollars, that's about $1.20.

I've read that wheat is a very small component in the price of French bread. Most of the cost is labor and energy. The price of standard-grade flour at the supermarket went up from 35 to 55 cents a kilogram over the past year, however.

Gardening tools

Speaking of energy costs and bread delivery, I'm not sure I ever said anything here about the personnel change in our bread delivery service. A couple of months ago, the boulanger and boulangère let Roselyne go — for economic reasons, she told me. She didn't seem too upset about it.

We still have bread delivery, but the woman driving the LWV — the Little White Van — nowadays is Sylvie, the boulangère, herself. We are happy to have the service, even if it is not the same without Roselyne at the wheel, and in the van window. Roselyne, as I've said, brought us as much in the way of local color and gossip as in baked goods.

This past weekend, Roselyne, for example, would probably have known or found out who those kids camping out in the vineyard were.

Sylvie and her husband took over our village bakery three or four years ago, after we arrived here. Unlike Roselyne, they are not locals and they aren't tuned in to all the local goings-on. Or at least Sylvie doesn't talk about what she hears and knows. Her personality is totally different from Roselyne's.

And speaking of energy and prices, oil is down and the dollar is up. Those are promising trends, especially as concerns the dollar/euro exchange rate. The reason appears to be a slow-down in the European economies as much as any improvement of the situation in the U.S. Whatever it is, we'll take it.

The euro, which a few weeks ago was worth very close to $1.60, was down to $1.47 the last time I looked. That means that each euro we buy will cost 13 cents less, and that's a big discount.

Succulents and herbs out back

On the wheat side, increased supply is lowering prices. I'll be keeping my eye on flour prices. When it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables this summer in France, prices are down too. The other day, for example, I bought not one but two melons (cantaloupes) for €1.15. A few weeks ago, they would have sold at €1.50 to even €2.50 apiece.

It's again a question of supply and demand, but it's demand that has fallen off, according to reports. Prices of fresh produce went high enough that people stopped buying it. Now prices are down and farmers are saying that their proceeds won't even cover production costs.

18 August 2008

The woodburner

Meet our wood-burning stove. I searched my blog, and then I searched Walt's blog, and I was surprised to see that neither one of us had ever posted a picture of it. It's a woodstove that we had installed in April 2006. We had it put in our big fireplace because the fireplace itself didn't draw as it should and was basically unusable.

This wood-burning stove takes logs 16" long.
It puts out a lot more heat than a fireplace fire.

Every time we had a fire in the fireplace, a lot of smoke came out into the room. One fireplace specialist we called in said the only real solution was to tear the whole thing out and rebuild a fieplace from scratch. We asked whether he thought a wood-burning stove would be effective. Yes, he said, that's another solution. So we had one put in.

It turned out that the French government gave us back 40% of the purchase price of the stove because it is a renewable-energy heating device. That was nice.

Did I say that a stère is one cubic meter of wood? That's the definition of that term. The logs are one meter long, so a single row of them one meter high and one meter long is what it takes. A meter is 39 inches, so we're taking about a pile of wood about 3 ft. wide, 3 ft. deep, and 3 ft. high. We're getting about 15 of those.

Oh, and in winter — and sometimes in summer, when thunderstorms threaten — we put the car in the garage. In summertime, we are more lax about leaving it outside. When you don't have an electric garage-door opening, it's almost more trouble than it's worth to open the doors up every time you want to use the car or park it.

17 August 2008

The "W" word

No, I don't mean Walt, and I don't mean Shrub — the W in Washington DC. I mean Winter. Here it is mid-August, and we have to start thinking about it. And doing something about it. Cold weather will be upon us before we know it.

The carport cum woodshed, now cleaned up and organized

Yesterday we got out front, where the home-built carport that we use as a woodshed is located, and started cutting all the kindling that we have collected since spring into pieces that will fit in our woodstove. That's done. We had earlier pruned back some of our hazelnut bushes and apple, plum, and cherry trees. Now we have cut all the limbs and branches into 18-inch lengths for burning.

Here's a link to a topic Walt posted about firewood nearly three years ago.

And we are waiting for our firewood to be delivered. We ordered 14.5 stères — a stère is a cubic meter when you are talking about wood — through the good services of our wine-making neighbors the Denis. The senior Monsieur Denis (Jacques is his first name) is the one who actually came to our house and made the deal with us. His son and daughter-in-law, Bruno and Patricia, are the owners of the vineyards out behind our house and the owner-operators of the Domaine de la Renaudie winery down the road.

Fourteen-and-a-half stères of firewood is the equivalent of four cords in U.S. terms, if that means anything to you. Each log is about 3 feet long. If you stacked them 6 feet high in a single row, the row would be nearly 25 feet wide. We think four cords of firewood will last us at least three winters.

According to the piece of paper Monsieur Denis left with us, the wood is coming from the town of Mondoubleau, which is in the very northernmost part of our département, about 100 km or 60 mi. north of here. The closest big town to Mondoubleau is Le Mans, of race-car fame.

Jacques Denis's hand-written "invoice"

The piece of paper that Monsieur Denis left with us specifies that the wood belongs to Monsieur and Madame Biet of Mondoubleau. They are asking 30 euros, or about 45 U.S. dollars, per stère. That comes to 435 euros, or about $650.00 for the four cords of wood — $160.00 or so per cord. Remember, the dollar is very very very low against the euro these days — though that may be starting to change now. Two weeks ago the euro was worth about $1.58, and now it is down to $1.46.

The man who is going to deliver the wood to us is Monsieur Daluzeau, who lives in Mareuil-sur-Cher. He is going to charge us 116 euros — that comes to or approximately $43.00 per cord — to deliver the wood to us and stack it. The last time we bought wood the guys who delivered it just came and dumped it on the ground. We had to stack it ourselves. It needs to be stacked and covered with tarps so that it won't get too wet over the winter.

Of course, after it is stacked, a certain amount of it needs to be cut so that we can burn it this coming winter. Our wood stove can only take pieces that are 40 centimeters, 16 in., long. So each log needs to be cut into three pieces. And that work needs to be done before the rains begin in ... November. Let's be optimistic and say we are going to have a dry month of October. After the wood is cut, it has to be restacked under the carport.

Meanwhile, our hedge — all 100 meters of it — needs it's annual pruning. So September and October are shaping up to be major work months. Not to mention the garden, which will need to be cleaned up and tilled. I guess we will be able to relax in November, enjoy watching the rain fall, and put together a nice Thanksgiving dinner.

16 August 2008

Flowers, but no ripe tomatoes

Yesterday morning, after an overnight thunderstorm, the weather was chilly and there was a layer of fog lying over the Cher River. Our hamlet is up above the river itself by a couple of hundred feet, on the south bank.

Some flowers are pretty happy with this summer's weather. These are volunteer black-eyed susans and nasturtiums by the faux well outside our back door. Chrissoup gave us the black-eyed susan seeds a few years ago.

This is the faux well. It's kind of kitchy, I think, but the stone looks nice enough. I'm sure it was never a real well. It's just a lawn ornament. We've planted mint, parsley, and bellflowers in it.

As I've said, the tomatoes are not ripening. These are some Romas we planted fairly early.

I can't remember what these tomatoes were called when we bought the plants at the outdoor market in Amboise back at the end of May. Whatever they are, they are still green too.

Some of the other tomato plants don't even have fruit yet, though nearly all of them now have blossoms.