30 November 2008

The cheese called Époisses

We took J & C to Blois yesterday to catch their train back to Paris. It was a Monday-thru-Friday visit. Over the course of that "work week," we ate a lot of cheese (and tasted a lot of wines). They like cheese, and enjoying the variety of cheeses here is one of the most pleasurable aspects of being in France.

Here's a list of the cheeses we bought and sampled. In parentheses are the names of the provinces the cheeses come from and the milk used to make them. All are French except the Peccorino — two of them, in fact — which C & J brought from Italy, and the Emmentaler from Switzerland. We still have quite a few pieces of different ones of these in the refrigerator.
  • Époisses (Burgundy — cow's milk)
  • Chaource (Champagne — cow's milk)
  • Neufchâtel (Normandy — cow's milk)
  • Saint-Nectaire (Auvergne — cow's milk)
  • Peccorino (Tuscany — ewe's milk)
  • Chèvre demi-sec (Berry — goat's milk)
  • Chèvre frais (Berry — goat's milk)
  • Pont-l'Evêque (Normandy — cow's milk)
  • Emmentaler (Switzerland — cow's milk)
  • Saint-Agur (Auvergne — ewe's milk)
I listed Époisses first because according to no less an expert that Brillat-Savarin, it is the best cheese in France. He called it « le roi des fromages ». Another old food-lover named Courtépée wrote in 1775 that "the cheeses of Époisses are better than those of Brie." That's high praise.

Époisses is a village in Burgundy located about half-way between Avallon and Semur-en-Auxois and a couple of hours south of Paris. Its cheese is made from the milk of three Alpine breeds of cows — in French, La Brune, La Montbéliarde, and La Simmentale française. The cheese dates back at least to the 16th century.

According to one web site I found, 723 tons of Époisses are made annually by dairies (two of the biggest are Berthaut in Époisses itself and Germain in Chalancey) and another 4 tons are made by local farmers. The dairies use pasteurized milk, but the farmers' Époisses is made from raw milk.

During the 4-to-6-week ripening process, rounds of Époisses cheese are washed 2 or 3 times a week with white wine to which a little of the local brandy called Marc de Bourgogne has been added. As the cheese ages, the proportion of Marc in the liquid is increased.

The flavor of Époisses is strong but clean and not overpowering. The ones I've had have never developed that ammonia taste you sometimes get from the rind of very ripe Bries and Camemberts. The Époisses rind is orange-colored and perfectly edible. The cheese itself is soft and kind of sticky.

A round of Époisses about the size of a Camembert costs between 5 and 7 euros — compared to 2 or 3 euros for a Cambembert. But it's worth it, at least once in a while.

29 November 2008

A vintage Renault

Why is it that I have this fascination with old French cars? I'm talking about 1970s-vintage Renaults, Peugeots, and Citroëns. 2CVs, R4s, and 204s. Simcas. Sigh.

I guess it has to do with the time I spent in Paris and other places in France in the 1970s and early 1980s. During those years, I owned a car for only one year, and it was the last year I spent in Paris before returning to the U.S. to find real work and to try to make a career for myself. A retirement. I guess it has paid off.

This is a Renault 4 like the one I had in Paris nearly
30 years ago. I don't have any pictures from back then.

It was 1981 Paris, and I bought a little 1973 Renault 4 from friends for the princely sum of $300. Walt was in Paris that year, and that's when we met and got to be friends. I drove it around Paris and had many adventures. I even ventured as far out as Fontainebleau in it a time or two, and I made it just fine, there and back. The car had seats that would remind you of an old lawn chair — the kind with vinyl straps stretched across an aluminum frame.

The gear shift lever stuck right out of the dashboard — you couldn't even call it a "four-on-the-floor" the way we called American manual-transmission cars back then. And it shifted in a different pattern from the standard U.S. "H" pattern, more like a "W". I don't think the car had a radio, and the brakes weren't all that good.

A late 1970s Renault 6 exactly like the one
that my mechanic in Saint-Aignan is selling

The clutch went out one day when I was driving around the Place de La République. There was a Renault garage nearby and the mechanics fixed it pretty quickly. I just took the métro home to my apartment off the rue Montorgueil. And I was OK with the $150 they charged me for a new clutch when I went back to get the car.

Anyway, the mechanic who works on my Peugeot 206 over in Noyers-sur-Cher has a small selection of used cars for sale. One of them is a late-'70s vintage Renault 6. The R6 is just an improved, prettified version of the R4 that I used to have. The sign on the car says it has 64K kms (about 40K miles) on it and the price is 1500.00€ "à débattre" — that means you can make an offer and bargain for it.

La Renault 6 de mes rêves...

I'm still thinking about whether it makes sense for me to buy it. "Of course it doesn't make sense," my logical side tells me. But it's not that expensive and the dollar is up against the euro. I comes with a three-month guarantee. The car's in great shape, and it would be fun to tool around Saint-Aignan in a vintage car. Relive my youth. Break down and have to walk home.

28 November 2008

Menu with sky views

On the river road in Montlouis there's a little restaurant called Les Terrasses just up the street from François Chidaine's wine shop/tasting room. I was looking at the menu and the carte when I noticed the reflections of trees and sky.

If you click on the pictures, you might be able to read the menus. Everything is translated into English, and it's always interesting to see such translations in France.

For example, did you know that « crudités diverses » is called "crudness of seasons" in English? Want some? Or how about the "chop of pig with sauce"? And the "pig's trip sausage" — I think that should be "tripe" or "chitterlings." Anyway, I'm sure the food is good. We didn't get to try it.

27 November 2008

Bio-dynamic grape-growing

The first winery we stopped in on Tuesday was François Chidaine's in Montlouis. Actually, it's not the winery but a shop on the town's main street along the river. Called La Cave Insolite — a cave is a wine shop and insolite means "unusual, out of the ordinary" — the shop does tastings of Chidaine's wines and sells bottles of Chidaine's Montlouis and Vouvray wines, as well as other bio-dynamically produced wines from all around France.

François Chidaine's « La Cave Insolite » in Montlouis

We were the only customers in the shop. The young woman who talked with us and poured wines for the tasting was very cordial and very professional. She was obviously knowledgable about the local wines and vineyards. We tasted two sparkling wines and at least half a dozen still wines going from the very dry to the very sweet. All were wines made from the Chenin Blanc grape, which is also called Pineau de la Loire here.

On the main street in Montlouis, 10 minutes west
of Amboise on the Loire

Chidaine inherited the Montlouis wine business from his father and has acquired vineyards in Vouvray, across the river, as well as in other nearby areas. He also has introduced bio-dynamic methods. It's a gradual process and goes beyond what you might think of as organic farming.

After tasting and purchasing a few bottles, then, we drove on over to Vouvray to see if we could find a winery called Domaine Huet, which C & J knew about. We drove around in the vineyards up on the heights above the village of Vouvray and did manage to end up where we wanted to be, almost by chance. Below is a picture of a sign that describes Huet's growing and wine-making methods, with my translation of the part of the text.

Domaine Huet, a well-known Vouvray producer

The bio-dynamic method was introduced gradually and since 1990 has been practiced over the entire vineyard. We tend the vineyards by mechanical means, using absolutely no chemical herbicides, in order to protect the micro-organisms that live in the soil.

Organic fertilizers, in small quantities — 1 ton per hectare (2½ acres) — are produced on the property using a mixture of cow manure and straw that is composted for a year. The only treatments we apply in the vineyard are the so-called "Bordeaux mixture" (copper and slaked lime as a fungicide), powdered sulfur, and preparations made from local plants.

In 1988 we eliminated all insecticides and other synthesized chemical products. We have recreated an ecologically balanced environment in which natural predators have re-established themselves.

The ground is worked according to the rhythms of the planets, following the practices developed, more or less consciously, by grape-growers of past centuries. The grapes are picked by hand, with successive passes through the vineyard so that the individual bunches are picked just as they reach full ripeness.

The grapes are crushed in a pneumatic press. Fermentation takes place in our cellars using only the yeast that is present on our grapes.

These practices, which respect the soil, the plants, and the environment, ensure that the character of our wines and the specific growing conditions here find full expression.

I'm not sure the photo is clear or large enough for you to be able to read the French text, but I hope it is.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

26 November 2008

Montlouis and Vouvray

Yesterday we took a drive over to Montlouis and Vouvray, two of the Loire Valley's most famous and prestigious wine villages, to do some tasting and buying. We went to three wineries, two which were new to us and one where we have been regular customers for eight years now. That last one is Jean-Claude Aubert in the Vallée Coquette at Vouvray, and here's a topic I wrote about it a while back.

The slow-moving Loire River at Montlouis

The two new wineries, François Chidaine in Montlouis and Domaine Huet in Vouvray, practice what they call "biodynamic" methods of cultivating their vines and making their wines. Both make white wines pretty much exclusively, in a range of styles that goes from both dry and sweet sparkling wines to dry, semi-dry, and very sweet still wines.

Vouvray and Montlouis are villages across the Loire River from each other, located abouth half-way between Amboise and Tours. The grape grown in both wine-production areas is the Chenin Blanc. Wines from both villages can be cellared for many years and will improve with age — especially the sweeter still wines.

"Tiny bubbles" — fines bulles — is the new name
being given to sparkling Loire Valley wines

It was a grayish afternoon with some pale blue patches of sky. We ran through one fairly heavy rain shower late in the afternoon. We did tastings at all three wineries, mainly of sparkling wines, which were our focus. So we were bien arrosés (well sloshed?) from all points of view (but we didn't overdo it). I'll write more about the tasting rooms and experiences, as well as more about the biodynamic wine production methods, over the next week or ten days.

This is a moldy old poster I noticed at the Aubert winery.
It says: "It's true that our wine caves are not right next-door to
your dining room, but happily our wines travel very well."

Today is the day before Thanksgiving and we have to go out and get the food we will be preparing and eating tonight and tomorrow. It'll be a leg of lamb instead of a turkey, with garden-grown green beans and other trimmings. Thanksgiving in not a holiday in France.

25 November 2008

As usual

Our friends J & C arrived as planned Sunday evening. There was a train strike but it didn't start until 8:00 p.m., so they got down here from Paris just under the wire. We went to meet them at the TGV station over in Tours. We were surprised how many people were in the station lobby, waiting for trains to arrive or depart. And everybody dressed in black. I guess that's how young French people dress nowadays. It's not very colorful.

In the afternoon we took a drive over to Montrichard and walked through the outdoor market there. Montrichard has an afternoon market on Mondays and a morning market on Fridays. The Friday market has a better selection of fresh food products, while the Monday market is more clothes and household goods.

"As usual." As usual, I didn't actually get around to taking any pictures of the finished guinea hen. You'll have to take my word for it that it browned up very nicely in a hot oven and then finished cooking under foil until it was completely done but not dried out.

Stuffing on a cabbage leaf

When I took it out of the oven, I was in such a hurry to get it all carved up and then pour the port wine sauce over the pieces before it got cold that I never even thought of the camera again.

I did take a few pictures of the stuffed cabbage leaves I made, before I put them on to poach in broth. The stuffing was the same as the stuffing I put into the guinea hen — white bread moistened with milk, mixed with ground chicken, parsley, chervil, and a chopped shallot — but with some raw chicken livers added for texture and flavor. It cooked for 20 to 30 minutes at a low simmer and was very good.

Stuffed cabbage leaves tied up and ready for poaching

The port wine sauce was not syrupy or even sweet. That I was glad of. It was tasty but more meaty or chickeny than fruity. It was not overpowering but flavorful. I recommend the recipe.

For our first day with J & C, we asked the bread lady to deliver some croissants, a couple of pains aux raisins, and a multi-grain bread (pain aux céréales) in addition to our regular baguette. That's what we had for breakfast. Picture included.

Monday's breakfast, delivered by the baker's wife

France, eh? What a luxury it is to have fresh bread and other baked goods delivered to the front door five days a week — at only a nominal charge. At the bakery, a baguette costs 78 cents. We pay 81 cents for the same baguette, delivered.

24 November 2008

La Pintade farcie

Here's the recipe for stuffed guinea hen with port wine. It's pretty simple, really.

Une pintade or guinea hen

The pintade I bought at the supermarket weighed 1.3 kg or about 2½ lbs.
Stuffed Guinea Hen

a 2½ lb. guinea hen
4 slices of bread
6 Tbs. milk
1 egg
¼ lb. sausage meat
1 Tbs. chopped parsley
4 Tbs. port wine
3 sprigs of thyme
2 Tbs. cooking oil
1 oz. butter
salt and pepper

Trim the crusts off the bread and put it to soak in the milk. Mash it with a fork and add the egg, the sausage meat, 2 Tbs. of port wine, the parsley, and a little salt. Mix this all with a fork (or your fingers) to get a smooth paste.

Put this stuffing into the guinea hen. Sew up the bird. Put the bird in a dish and pour the rest of the port over it, along with the oil and the sprigs of thyme. Cover it and let it rest for 24 hours, turning the hen over twice in the marinade.

Melt the butter in a pan. Take the bird out (saving the marinade) and brown it on all sides on fairly high heat. Then put it in a pre-heated 220ºC/400ºF oven and let it cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Baste it with the marinade, cover it, and let it cook for another 20 minutes in the oven.

To serve the guinea hen, cut it up as you would a chicken and arrange the pieces on a warm platter. Take the stuffing out and cut it into slices.
The hen enjoyed a vegetarian diet.

My variations on this mainly have to do with the meat I used for the stuffing. Instead of ground pork sausage meat, I bought what they call chair de volaille or ground poultry. I don't know if it is ground chicken or turkey. It doesn't matter. I also added a chopped shallot to the stuffing because I thought that flavor would be good.

Guinea hen is a little gamier than chicken but not so much so
as pheasant. They are all in the same family.

If you don't know, guinea fowl are relatives of the chicken and the pheasant. They come from Africa but are raised in Europe and America for food now. I remember my great-aunt had guinea hens on her farm in South Carolina back in the 1960s when we first went to visit her.

Here's the recipe in French.
Pintade farcie

1 pintade de 1 kg
4 tranches de pain de mie
6 cuillerées à soupe de lait
1 œuf
100 g de chair à saucisse
1 cuillerée à soupe de persil haché
4 cuillerées à soupe de porto
3 branches de thym frais
2 cuillerées à soupe d'huile
30 g de beurre

Parer les tranches de pain de mie et les faire tremper dans le lait. Écraser avec une fourchette et ajouter l'œuf, la chair à saucisse, 2 cuillerées à soupe de porto, le persil, un peu de sel. Mélanger avec une fourchette jusqu'à l'obtention d'une pâte homogène.

Mettre cette farce dans le ventre de la pintade. Coudre les deux ouvertures, à la base du cou et à l'extrémité opposée. Disposer la pintade dans un plat, la mouiller avec le reste du porto, ajouter l'huile et le thym ; couvrir et laisser reposer 24 heures, en retournant deux fois la volaille.

Faire chauffer le beurre dans une cocotte ; y-mettre la pintade bien égouttée de la marinade (qu'il faut conserver) et la faire dorer de tous les côtés à feu assez vif. Mettre au four préchauffé à 220°C et laisser cuire à découvert pendant 30 minutes, mouiller avec le liquide de la marinade, couvrir et laisser cuire encore 20 minutes au four.

Pour servir, découper la pintade comme un poulet et disposer les morceaux sur un plat de service chaud avec la farce coupée en tranches.
I'll let you know tomorrow how it all came out. It will be tonight's dinner.

23 November 2008

Busy Sunday

It's not below freezing this morning. That's what had been predicted. Instead, it's about 2.5ºC, which is around 35ºF. I think the temperature might still be dropping.

I just turned on the Chaîne Météo on the télé, and they are saying we should expect wind and a mixture of rain and snow during the day. I need to go to the market in Noyers-sur-Cher to get some food for this evening. Our friends are arriving today, and they might be hungry when they get here, after traveling by plane and train all day.

Going to the market as early as possible sounds like the best plan, since the rain and snow will be starting soon. At the outdoor market you are, of course, standing outdoors in the weather if you have to wait in line. Some stalls have an awning you can stand under, but not all, and if the lines are long, you are, as it were, hosed.

For tomorrow's dinner, I'm going to cook a guinea hen — une pintade — stuffed with sausage meat and herbs and marinated in port wine. I need to get sausage meat, and I think I'll get ground poultry instead of ground pork. I think the vollailler — the poultry seller — over in Noyers, who specializes in pâtés and sausages made from turkey, chicken, and duck, will have what I need.

Alongside the guinea hen, I'm going to have stuffed cabbage leaves. I saved the leaves from the cabbage I cooked last weekend and I have them in the freezer. I'll double or even triple the recipe for stuffing that I'm using for the guinea hen and stuff the cabbage leaves with that. I think I'll add some chicken liver to that part of the stuffing.

Time to take Callie out for her walk. Then off to the market. Then more general house-cleaning and preparations for our friends' arrival. Tonight we'll drive over to Tour to pick them up.

Speaking of driving, I got that mud shield re-attached under the motor of the Peugeot on Wednesday. The mechanic called it a plaque de propreté, a "cleanliness plaque." Walt and I had been discussing what it might be called in French. A déflecteur d'humidité, or plaque de protection, or bouclier anti-boue? Who knew? That's one of the problems living here, even if you speak French. Technical terms are still impossible. Make you feel like an idiot.

Oh, and the mechanic charged me 9.00€ for the job. Not bad.

At the same time, I noticed a nice little Renault 6 for sale, sitting on the mechanic's lot. He wants 1500€ for it. It must be 25 years old. More about that as I think about whether it would be good for us to have a second car. A collector's car, une voiture de collection, in this case.

22 November 2008

A presidential visit

The President was in Saint-Aignan yesterday. Apparently. There wasn't much publicity preceding his visit. I just read about it in the local newspaper. Actually, the article was written before he came to town. I can't find one in this morning's online edition.

The official purpose of Nicolas Sarkozy's visit was to announce that the French government is going to lend a local company called Daher 85M euros — that's more than $100 million. The banks aren't making loans available right now, in France as in the U.S., so the government is stepping in to act as a lender. Daher is a family-owned aeronautics components manufacturing company (équipementier aéronautique in French) with a plant over in Montrichard. The company just signed a deal of some kind with EADS, the European company that owns Airbus.

But official trips are nearly always accompanied by a little politicking. This is the second time Sarkozy has visited the Loir-et-Cher since he became President of the Republic a couple of years ago. UMP "militants" — card-carrying members of the President's party — planned to turn out to meet and greet the president in Saint-Aignan, according to one article I read.

The political event was a lunch for the local faithful over at the new hotel complex operated in connection with the ZooParc de Beauval, just a couple of miles from here. I don't know what the menu was (but wish I did). We haven't yet tried the new restaurant over there.

In his remarks at Daher, Sarkozy explained that the French government has decided to make loans to private companies because of the current financial crisis and credit squeeze. He seemed a little embarrassed, because he was elected as strong advocate of free-market policies and an opponent of government intervention in the private sector. Now he has set up a "strategic investment fund" to make loans (or "investments") available to selected companies, saying he wants to take advantage of the current economic crisis to encourage change in France.

Looking chastened (to me), Sarkozy even made mention of the fact that some analysts might accuse him of adopting "socialist" policies by propping up private companies. He said the government is targeting "successful" companies and its "investments" would be a short-term fix. Sarkozy said he hoped the government would actually make a profit on the loans handed out — pour vous, he said, referring to taxpayers, I assume.

Free-market, hands-off policies as regards the private sector are called libéralisme in French. The meaning of the term is just the opposite of what "liberalism" means in American English. Under the French definition, the political authorities leave private companies libres — free to do what they judge best, without government interference. Or help, in theory.

I guess all that is out the window at this point.

Here's a quote from an article in the French paper La Croix:
Selon M. Sarkozy, qui a insisté sur sa volonté d'accomplir le programme sur lequel il avait été élu en 2007, il s'agit de "mettre l'argent public dans le travail".

"La meilleure politique sociale, c'est celle qui permet de continuer à investir dans l'industrie. On met de l'argent au service du développement plutôt que dans dans des politiques dites sociales qui ne font que retarder le drame" des conséquences sociale de la crise, a-t-il dit.

In English, that is:
According to Mr. Sarkozy, who insisted that he fully intends to deliver on the [free-market] policies he advocated during the 2007 election campaign, it's a matter of "putting public money into the work economy."

"The best social programs are ones that allow continuing investment in industry. We use tax monies to encourage private-sector development rather than pay for classic welfare programs that only postpone the negative effects" on employment and public well-being in times of economic crisis, he said.

21 November 2008

Labor and weather uncooperative

Our friends C & J from California made it to Italy from Paris last week, despite the Air France pilots' strike. Their flight out of Roissy-CDG had an Air France flight number, but it was operated by CityJet, which is evidently a British company. When I talked to them on Sunday, they said it was 70ºF in Florence.

Walking Callie in the vineyard on a rainy November afternoon

It was more like 50ºF here in Saint-Aignan. It's been like that all week, with low gray clouds every day but one. We did have a sunny day on Wednesday, thank goodness. But yesterday it was dreary again and when I went out with Callie for our afternoon walk, it was raining again. I think it is raining lightly as I type this and it's supposed to rain pretty much all day. November, eh?

A November vineyard scene

C & J are arriving from Florence on Sunday and coming straight to Saint-Aignan. This time, there is no airline pilots' strike. That's the good news. There's plenty of bad news to mitigate that.

First, there is talk of a train strike. It was supposed to start today, but according to a report I read on the online Le Figaro newspaper site, the labor action has been delayed, or postponed. Now the strike is scheduled to start on Sunday. What time of day is not yet clear.

Somebody has been cutting and stacking wood out in the vineyard

C & J are scheduled to arrive at Roissy-CDG from Florence at 3:00 p.m. and have been planning to take the first train they can get from Roissy to the Tours TGV station at St-Pierre-des-Corps. The TGV is the high-speed train and you can take it from CDG airport without having to go through the middle of Paris or otherwise change trains before you get to Tours.

Here's how I see our house in Saint-Aignan these days:
in monochrome

That's when it's running, of course. We are hoping C & J will get a train on Sunday afternoon, but they have reserved a rental car just in case. If they get the train, we will go pick them up at St-Pierre-des-Corps, which is about an hour's drive from Saint-Aignan.

So if the TGV is not running they will rent a car. And guess what the weather forecast is... Snow. There's a decent chance that it will be windy and snowing in Paris by Sunday afternoon. It could even snow a little bit here in Saint-Aignan — we are 150 mi./250 km south and a little west of Paris.

But here's how the camera sees it: in living color.

We will be watching the news and weather reports carefully all weekend, hoping the worst doesn't come to pass. I'm optimistic that the TGV trains will be running Sunday afternoon and that we will be able to drive over to Tours in the evening to meet C & J at the station there.

20 November 2008

Learning to vocalize

There are 16 vowels in the French language as it is spoken in France. There are 14 if you eliminate two vowels that some specialists think might be on the way out.

That might surprise you, because we all know there are just five vowels in our alphabet. A, E, I, O, and U. And sometimes Y.

But those are written vowels. When I say there are 16 vowels, I'm talking about vowel sounds in the language.

You need to be able to pronounce them and tell them all apart in order to become fluent in speaking and understanding French. If you are learning French, I think it helps to be aware of the fact that there are 16 (or at least 14) distinct vowels to learn.

These are the accents commonly used in French.
One appears in only one word in the language,
but it's a very common word. Do you know it?

Beware: spoiler in the comments

To explain the vowel sounds, it's probably easiest to start with the French nasal vowels. There are four of those, and they are a type of vowel that we don't exactly have in English. The nasal A is the vowel in dans or dent, which are pronounced identically. The nasal I is the sound in fin, pain, or faim, which all rhyme with each other. The nasal O is the sound in bon. The nasal U is the sound in un.

The nasal U is one of the two vowel sounds that might be disappearing from the language. Nasal U is merging with nasal I, so that the word défunt, for example, sounds exactly like the expression des fins. Un sounds like the exclamation hein. So you could argue that now there are just three nasal vowels in French: nasal A, nasal I, and nasal O.

There is no nasal E, as such. When a written E vowel is nasalized, it has either of two other sounds. In words like dent or en, it is pronounced as as nasal A. The words en and an are pronounced identically. In words like moyen or bien, the nasalized E is pronounced as a nasal I. Bien rhymes with vin.

The vowels that are not nasalized are called oral vowels. There are 12 of them. Or maybe just 11 nowadays.

In traditional French, there are two A vowels. The first and most common is the A in the article la, or the words chat, foie, or bois. The second is the A in words where A is followed by an S, for example: gras, or pas. Or words where the A has a circumflex accent on it: pâté or gâteau. A lot of younger speakers no longer pronounce the A circumflex (â) differently from the plain unaccented A. So you don't have to worry about it much. The A with a grave accent (à) in or voilà is not pronounced differently from A with no accent on it at all.

At first, E seems a little more complicated in French, but it kind of takes care of itself. There's the "closed E" which is often represented by E with an acute accent (é), as in été. The "open E" is often an E with a grave accent (è) but not always. Another spelling is AI, as in lait or fait. The E in words or syllables that end with a consonant sound is an open E: père, belle, faire, or peine. An E with a circumflex accent (ê) is generally pronounced the same way — fête or rêve, for example.

The third pronunciation of E in French is called the "mute E". It never has an accent on it. It's the E in the first two syllables of the word revenir. It's pronounced like "uh" in English. The mute E is often dropped completely. When it is the last letter of a word like belle or faire, for example, it isn't pronounced, at least not in northern France. Even in words like graineterie, the E's on either side of the T can be dropped, so the word is pronounced [grèn-tri]. (With two French R's, of course.) The mute E is the E of je, me, te, se, le, and de.

So there you have one or even two A vowel pronunciations, and three E vowel pronunciations. We are up to five oral vowels if you count them all.

The simplest vowel is I. It only has one pronunciation as an oral vowel, and that's what we would represent as "ee" in English (though more tense). Unlike English, French in France has no distinction between a long I and a short I, as in English pairs like heat and hit. In French, an English expression like "hit parade" is pronounced as if it were ['eat pah-rahd]. That's it (or eet) for the oral I vowel. It has just one pronunciation. Of course there is also the a nasal I vowel as in fin or the I's combined with other written vowels as in faire or Loire that change their pronunciation — but that's another story.

There are two pronunciations for O in French. It's a lot like E in that way, except there is no mute O. There's the closed O in words like mot or beau. You have to pucker your lips. And there is the open O in words like bonne or pomme, sans pucker. The combination AU is usually pronounced with a closed O, so that paume (pucker) is different from pomme (no pucker).

The U vowel also has two pronunciations. One is obvious to English speakers. It's the round sound of bout or tout or sous that we would write as "oo" in English (only more tense and with that pucker). The other is the nearly unpronounceable U sound that we don't have in English. It's the sound of bu or tu or su. I won't go into the mechanics of how you make it. The main point here is that -ou- is pronounced one way, and -u- is pronounced a different way. It's important, because, for example, your cou is your neck but your cul (the L is silent) is your derriere. Good luck pronouncing or even understanding dessous and dessus.

So add two O's and two U's to the single I, plus the two A's and three E's, and we are up to 10 oral vowels.

The last two oral vowels in French are also sounds that we don't really have in English. They are spelled EU. Or sometimes ŒU, as in œuf or cœur. Like E and O, they have closed and open forms. The closed form is the vowel of jeu, peu, feu, or œufs — again, it's pronounced with the lips puckered. The open form is usually in words that end in a consonant sound like jeune, peur, fleuve, or œuf. It's pronounced with the mouth open wider, with no pucker.

For the difference between closed and open vowels, think about word pairs like mes and même for E. Peau and pomme for O. The same principle applies to jeu and jeune. (Queue rhymes with jeu and peu.)

There, that's 12 oral vowels, or 11 if you discount the "old" A of pas or pâte. Add the three or four nasal vowels, and you've got at least 14, if not 16, distinct French vowel sounds.

Languages like Italian and Spanish have just five spoken vowels. French has many more. I couldn't even tell you how many English has. I never had to learn them, except from my mother. But I do have trouble distinguishing the English words pin and pen when I speak.

19 November 2008

My duck is cooked

Shouldn't that be "goose"? Well, no, I bought duck. But goose would be good too.

The duck pieces as they came out of the brining solution

It's so simple. You take the duck out of the brine (even if you just salt it and don't add any water, it's likely to be brine by the time you take it out). I left the duck to marinate for slightly more than 48 hours. See this topic for details about the marinade/brine.

And as they looked after three hours of cooking in duck fat

When you take the duck leg-thigh sections out of the brine, rinse them in cold water to remove any excess salt. And get rid of the marinade and all the aromatics. Then put the duck pieces into a big wide cookpot and pour enough duck fat over them to cover them completely.

You can add some melted lard or chicken fat if you don't have enough duck fat. Here in France, you can buy tubs of duck fat at the supermarket. Put the pot on to cook on low heat for about 3 hours. It should just barely bubble.

Here are the duck pieces packed for storing. The fat hasn't
congealed yet.
It turns a nice white color as it cools.

To store the duck pieces, remove them from the pot they cooked in and put them into a clean dish with a cover. Then carefully ladle or pour as much fat over them as it takes to cover them completely. Now they can be kept for months in a cold pantry or in the refrigerator.

In fact, many say the duck improves as it ages and "cures" in its own fat.

Duck gizzards sell for about $3.00/lb. They need long slow cooking
to make them tender. Then serve on salad or with cooked vegatables.
The gizzard is a tough muscle but has a mild flavor and nice texture.

How do you eat confit? You put the dish into a warm oven to melt the fat. You take out as many pieces as you want to serve. Heat them up in a pot of beans or greens. Or sauté them a little in a skillet to give them some color. Or put them on a rack in a baking pan and brown them in the oven. A lot of the fat drips away and the final product is pretty lean.

Here's a jar of duck fat that I have left over.
It spent the night in the fridge and had time to harden.

Another idea is to make a kind of shepherd's pie with the duck — un hachis parmentier au canard confit. Pull the meat off the bones, shredding it. Sauté some chopped onion, add in the duck meat, and put it all in a dish with a layer of mashed pototoes over all. Brown it in the oven.

The remaining pieces of duck just get left in the fat and put away for later. When the fat re-congeals, they are out of contact with the air and will keep for a good while with no change in flavor.

You can buy duck hearts either fresh or brined (saumurés)
for a lot less than gizzards. They also need long slow cooking.

Use the fat to flavor vegetables, or sauté potatoes, or to make your next batch of confit. Strain the fat, pour it hot into jars, put on the lids, and let it cool. It will keep indefinitely in a cold place.

The cooking liquid that sinks to be bottom is duck broth and is a good addition to soups or gravies, or as a flavoring for vegetables. It also will keep indefinitely as long as it is protected from contact with the air by a layer of congealed fat.

And finally, a choice morsel, the aiguillette. That's the tenderloin
that lies under the breast of the duck. It's tender and lean, and
can be grilled on skewers or sauteed and simmered in a cream sauce.

By the way, I wrote about making confit in this topic from December 2005, right after I started this blog. Yes, it's official and I admit it, I am repeating myself. Je radote, as we say in French.

18 November 2008

Neuf œufs — nine eggs (?)

I'm going to SuperU to get a few things this morning and I was looking through the flyer the supermarket chain sends out on Mondays to see if there are any specials we might be interested in. There are.

But I also noticed that they have eggs on special. A carton of 9 large eggs costs 1.75€. If you buy two for 3.50€, you get another one free. So you get 27 eggs — vingt-sept œufs — for the price of 18.

Neuf gros œufs !

Nine eggs? Isn't it funny how we get so set in our ways. In the U.S. at least, about the only way to buy eggs is by the dozen. Or the half-dozen. Here in France, in the supermarkets, the standard grade eggs come in a carton of 10. Or you can buy a carton of 6 of more the more expensive eggs. At the outdoor market one day, I asked if I could buy just 4 eggs. « Non, monsieur ! Six ! » was the answer. I don't think they sell 9 or 10 eggs at a time, but 6 or 12.

And then œuf is a funny word, at least for us English speakers. When it's in the singular, it's un œuf and you pronounce the final F — say something like [euh-`neuhf]. It's almost like the English word "enough" in fact, if you don't pronounce the first syllable as [ee].

But in the plural in French, you don't pronounce that final F. "Some eggs" is des œufs — [day-`zeuh]. And two eggs is deux œufs — [deuh-`zeuh]. I guess you've noticed, if you are following along, that you pronounce the final letter of the word that precedes œuf or œuf as part of the second word. It's complicated.

So it goes along like this: trois œufs (3), quatre œufs (4), cinq œufs (5), six œufs (6), sept œufs (7), huit œufs (8), ..., dix œufs (10). The last one, for example, is pronounced [dee-`zeuh].

But what happened to 9? There's an extra complication. When you put the French word for nine — neuf — in front of a word that begins with a vowel, you need to pronounce that final F. But in reality you pronounce it as a V (for linguistic reasons — I will spare you the details). For example, "nine o'clock" in French is neuf heures — [neuh-`veuhr].

Sorry for the lame phonetic transcriptions, but it's hard with the characters available on a computer keyboard.

So "nine eggs" would be neuf œufs, right? And you would say [neuh-`veuh]. The F ends up sounding like a V, and the two vowels are identical.

I had a professor when I was in college — a linguist from Normandy whose native language was French — who was very interested in and amused by such language quirks. He would come to France in the summer and go to outdoor markets to try to get people the say neuf œufs because he thought it was funny.

Almost always, when he asked for nine eggs, the person replying would stick an adjective in between neuf and œufsneuf beaux œufs, or neuf petits œufs, or neuf gros œufs. He said French people hesitated over the pronunciation of "nine eggs" otherwise.

If you are French-speaking, do you agree? Does neuf œufs make you stumble?

And now I know you think I'm crazy...

17 November 2008

Cabbage soup

It's been gray and dreary here for weeks now. At least that's my impression. It's not cold, but it is almost gloomy. We haven't had any measurable rain in a week or so, but the ground is saturated and I come home after my walks with the dog with very wet shoes and socks. And today they are predicting actual rain. That's not an improvement.

This is what I would call chou frisé — Savoy cabbage.
But on Wiki I see a chou frisé that looks more like kale.

The duck legs are brining (see yesterday's post) and I'm going to let them continue to marinate for another 24 hours. Meanwhile, I'm going to make cabbage soup. The Savoy cabbages at the supermarket are beautiful right now and very inexpensive (79 cents each). All the other vegetable are cheap too — carrots for 40 cents a kilo, leeks for 60 cents a kilo. So now is the time to enjoy them.

« Une sorte de soupe aux choux »

Here's a recipe for cabbage soup that I'm going to follow. It comes from this book, which I've had for years now and use just once in a while, mostly for ideas, not the actual recipes. The copyright date in the book is 1988, but I wonder if it is really that recent.

A lot of old-style French recipes are in here.

Here's a translation of the recipe. I'm adding some paragraph breaks to make it easier to read.
A Kind of Cabbage Soup

In a big cookpot containing two quarts of water, on medium heat, cook a 2 lb. piece of pork belly (smoked or salt-cured) that you have soaked for an hour in cold water. When the pot boils, skim the broth and let it boil for 30 minutes.

Add vegetables as you would for boiled beef: 2 leeks tied into a bundle; carrots split lengthwise; other root vegetables; a bouquet of thyme, parsley, and bay leaf; 2 onions; and 3 cloves of garlic. Do not salt the broth until the very end of the cooking because the salt from the cured meat will probably be sufficient. Cover the pot and continue the cooking for at least an hour.

At the end of that time, add to the pot, with the other vegetables, 2 little green cabbages (the best one are the little cabbages that we get in springtime), which you have split and then tied up so that they don’t come apart in the broth.

A half-hour after adding the cabbages, uncover the pot and add 6 medium potatoes and a sausage (or two) that you have poked in several places with a fork so that it won’t split open. Put the lid back on and finish the cooking for about 30 minutes.

Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning, and when it is just right, remove the herb bouquet and also the leeks, which you should untie and cut into serving pieces. Take the cabbages out of the pot using a slotted spoon and place them in a heated dish, arrange the potatoes around them, and put the pork and the sausage on top. Put the dish in a warm oven and pour the bouillon and the rest of the vegetables over thin slices of stale bread in a large bowl. Remove the onions and the garlic if you want. Serve very hot in heated soup bowls.

This soup, which makes a complete meal, is always welcome. When you have meat left over, serve it as an hors-d’oeuvre the next day.

In wintertime, make the soup using loose heads of green Savoy cabbage or kale.
I have a little hamhock, less than a pound, and two kinds of sausages, smoked and Toulouse(which are not smoked). It should all be good.

Cabbage leaves blanched and rolled up for freezing

Yesterday, I took the outer leaves off the cabbage I bought at the supermarket and blanched them for freezing. Soon, I will take them out and make stuffed cabbage leaves with them.

* * *

Our friends made it to Florence just fine. I talked to them last night. They said it was 70ºF down there in Tuscany. That didn't improve my mood.

A while ago, I opened the shutters on the bedroom window and looked out. It looked the same way it has looked for days and day now. I checked the temperature: 9.8ºC, or about 50ºF. I got dressed and put on my jacket for the 8:00 a.m. perambulation with Callie.

I stepped out the back door and realized there was a fine, penetrating rain falling. I hadn't even noticed it when I looked out the window — it was that fine (and it was still half dark out). So I stepped back inside, put on a raincoat, and went out anyway. It was a short stroll, and I came back with my socks and feet soaking wet. I guess I need some waterproof shoes.

16 November 2008

Duck confit — the brining

I bought a package of duck leg-thigh sections (7 of them) at Intermarché a couple of days ago. These are the legs of fattened ducks — canards gras — which are the ducks that are fattened for foie gras production. In France, these ducks are sold at good prices at this time of year. They come without the fat livers and other giblets (hearts and gizzards), because those are delicacies that are sold separately.

Here's the mise en place, showing everything
that goes into the brine for the duck.

The first step in making confit out of duck pieces is to marinate them in salt for 24 hours or longer. The leg-thigh pieces are the best ones to use for confit, which means duck cooked slowly in its own fat and then packed in crocks or jars in congealed duck fat to protect it from the air and air-borne bacteria, mold, and fungi.

This is the way people preserved meat for the winter before the days of electric refrigerators and freezers. Why do it nowadays? Because it gives a nice flavor and texture that you don't get with other methods of preparing duck. It's like ham, which was salt- or smoke-cured for the same reasons of preservation, but became a product with its own particular virtues.

Salt and aromatics added to the duck legs
you can let it marinate just like this if you want

To start the confit process, the duck parts can be rubbed with coarse salt and then put aside to marinate in their own juices. Or they can be brined. That's what I decided to do this time. The flavoring ingredients are the same either way. In my case, I salted the duck and added sliced onions and garlic, dried thyme, bay leaves, black peppercorns, and allspice berries. You can use cloves if you don't have allspice berries. You can also vary the herbs.

I decided to add cold water and a glass of white wine
to make a brine this time

I made a brine out of all that with water and a little white wine. Now I plan to let the duck sit in a cold place — in our house, the downstairs pantry is a good place for that, because it is unheated and stays cold in wintertime. I put the duck pieces and other ingredients in a big stainless steel stock pot for the brining. By the way, turkey legs or thighs can be prepared the same way, and are delicious as confit.

To be continued...

15 November 2008


The news this morning is that the Air France pilots have reached a tentative agreement with management over their retirment age. The issue was that the airline wanted them to retire at 65 instead of 60. The pilots say that after the age of 60 their physical and mental acumen is no longer sufficient acute for them to be flying an airliner.

Lots of reds in the yards and vineyard right now

I can understand that... since I'll be 60 in a few months.

Out along the road, in the neighbors' hedge

I took the car to the mechanic yesterday. He's over in Noyers-sur-Cher, near Intermarché. I carried the under-engine shield into his office and showed it to him. He said he could get it re-attached for me next Wednesday morning. And he said it was fine to drive without it for a while.

Blackberry leaves

Taking pictures these days is difficult. When I take Callie out at 8:00 a.m. there just isn't enough light. And when I take her out at 5:00, there isn't enough light either. So the pictures are blurry. Sorry about that.

Shrink-wrapped duck legs for making confit de canard

It might be turkey season in the U.S., but here in Saint-Aigan it's duck season. This is the time of year when the supermarkets, especially Intermarché, have an oversupply of ducks and duck parts to sell. So they put them on sale. I think there's an oversupply because this is when the ducks are processed to produce foie gras de canard for the end-of-year holidays.

Despite the price printed on the package, I paid 2.99€/kg
for these duck legs — about 7.30€ for the package of six.

When I went over to Intermarché yesterday, I bought 6 duck leg-thigh sections (cuisses de canard) that I will put up for the winter as confit de canard. That's a way of preserving them by cooking them in duck fat and packing them completely covered in the fat in a crock or jar so that they are protected from the air. They will keep fine in the downstairs pantry, which is not heated. More about that over the next couple of days.

14 November 2008

Planes & trains & automobiles

The Air France pilots' union has initiated a labor action that is supposed to last until next Monday at midnight. This morning France 2 TV news is reporting that about 50% of Air France's flights, both long- and short-hauls, are being canceled. The reporter specifically mentioned as an example the cancellation of an AF Paris-to-New York flight this morning.

Imagining our friends there has me thinking of trips to Paris.
This is Notre Dame in an October 2006 picture.

Friends of ours from California arrived in Paris yesterday on an Air France flight. Their plan is to fly to Italy Sunday on an Air France partner airline, CityJet, for a week in Florence and other points in Tuscany. According to the news, "only" about 20% of Air France's partner airline flights will have to be canceled this weekend.

Paris means cafés and restaurants like these on
the Place du Bourg-Tibourg in the Marais.

We'll be following the strike news and flight status reports on the Internet and trying to help our friends stay current. I don't know what they will decide to do if they can't get a flight from Paris to Italy on Sunday. They are supposed to come to Saint-Aignan for a visit starting not this Sunday but on 11/23, upon their return from Italy. They are of course welcome to come here earlier, but they'd better do so before Tuesday.

And good food.

That's because, coincidentally, the French national railways, SNCF, which includes the TGV system, has announced strikes beginning this coming Tuesday. It's not yet clear how extensive the resulting disruptions in the French rail network will be.

Meanwhile, I have to go see my mechanic today about the pieces that are starting to fall off my car! I need to get it ready so that when our friends get here we will have operable wheels.

13 November 2008


Yesterday afternoon on my walk with Callie, in the distance I saw something red on the ground. It was on the other side of a low barbed-wire fence meant to keep a donkey in and dogs and people out. I stepped over it, carefully, for a closer look.

Amanita muscaria

The bright red spot was a mushroom. It was so red that I thought to myself: "That thing must be very toxic." When I got back home, I looked it up in our Champignons book. It's called an Amanite tue-mouches in French. It's called "fly agaric" in English.

According to the book, its white flesh is highly toxic. The English Wikipedia calls it "poisonous and psychoactive" — it is "famed for its hallucinogenic properties". Here's a link to the article. The fly agaric has also been used as an insecticide. Its flesh, sprinkled in milk, attracts and kills flies.

The French Wikipedia article says "druids and sorcerers" used to use the Amanita muscaria mushroom the way peyote is used in Mexico, to provoke religious experiences. It was similarly used in eastern Siberia up to the 19th century. You can chew the mushroom or soak it in milk, hot water, or blueberry juice to release its active ingredients.

I won't be trying that. Food in fluorescent colors doesn't really tempt me — not to mention the insecticide angle. It seems this quintessential "toadstool" grows quite commonly in the Northern Hemisphere, but I don't think I've ever seen it before.

Quite often, our sunsets here at La Renaudière are quasi-hallucinogenic experiences. The other pictures in this post are ones I took yesterday afternoon, right after seeing that mushroom. I said "seeing," not "eating."

* * *

Here's a picture of the thing that fell off my car. It was hanging by a single screw under the engine compartment until yesterday afternoon, when I took a screwdriver to it.

Now I need to take it to the mechanic and ask him to re-attach it if he thinks it serves a real purpose. It's a sizable piece of plastic.