31 December 2008

Lunch and a walk in Preuilly

It was a very easy drive down to Preuilly-sur-Claise yesterday. There was practically no traffic on the roads — there were a few cars in Châtillon-sur-Indre, where we stopped to get some cash out of the ATM at a Crédit Agricole office — and it didn't rain at all. Temperatures were slightly above freezing and skies were gray in the morning.

We drove in and found Susan & Simon's place without any trouble. We'd been there once before, last June, and I remembered how to get there. They were waiting for us in their warm main room, heated with electric radiators while they figure out what the best kind of heating system to have put in in their historic old house.

We had a gift exchange. We took S&S a bottle of Jean-Noël Guerrier's red Côt wine and a bottle of white Sauvignon wine from the Domaine de la Méchinière, both of them wineries in Mareuil-sur-Cher not much more than a kilometer from our house. We also took them a jar of apple jelly I made from our back-yard apples last summer, and a jar of plum preserves that I made from our own plums in 2007.

S&S gave us a fruitcake that Susan made, and we ate some of it when we got home last night. It's dark, sweet, slightly spicy, and full of nice fruits confits — delicious. Not at all like that same old dry American fruitcake that's been making the holiday rounds for umpteen years.

I see home-made bagels in our future.

S&S also brought us a special American present from London: I big tub of Philadelphia cream cheese. It never occurred to me that Kraft Philadelphia cream cheese was available in England. We can't get it here. Walt makes a mean bagel, as you might know, and now the pressure is on. Doesn't a bagel with cream cheese and a slice of smoked trout or salmon, with a big cup of black coffee (and maybe a glass of champagne!) sound like a fine way to start the new year?

Simon also made us a DVD of a British TV satire show about the American presidential election. We'll be able to watch that as we munch on bagels and cream cheese. Simon also poured a nice glass of sparkling wine from Saumur as a pre-lunch apéritif.

For lunch we walked just around the corner from their house to the Hôtel-Restaurant de l'Image. I posted a link to one of S&S's posts about it yesterday. I had my camera in my pocket and fully intended to take some pictures of the interior of the restaurant and the food we were eating. But we were so involved in conversation that I completely forgot. We were finishing dessert when I remembered. It was obviously too late.

What did we have? Well, Simon, Walt, and I all had an œuf cocotte avec jambon et crème as our starter course. That was an egg broken over a piece of ham in a ramekin with some cream around it. I can imagine the cream was poured on boiling hot so that the egg white cooked, and then the whole thing was quickly heated up in a hot oven. The yolk was still runny and we were given a big soup spoon with which to eat the contents of the ramekin. It was delicious.

Susan had a salade piémontaise, which is a kind of potato salad with mayonnaise and also other chunks of vegetables in it — tomatoes and sour gherkins (cornichons) especially — along with some chopped hard-boiled egg and some ham. It looked very good.

As our main course, Simon, Walt, and I all had a tajine d'agneau, a Moroccan-style braise of lamb with spices. It was served either with potatoes au gratin (that's what Walt had) or mixed vegetables (Simon and I had the veg'). The meat was tender and tasty, subtly spiced.

Susan had a duo of salmon and a white fish (brochet, pike, maybe) cut into chunks and cooked in a sauce in a gratin dish. It was very good too, she said.

For wine, we just ordered two little carafes of the house wine, a red and a white. Both were more than pleasant. In a little restaurant at lunchtime, that's the thing to do. Order wine by the pitcher. It's less expensive, it meant we could sample some red and some white wine, and it is always good. A nice little restaurant is not going to serve you a wine that isn't good or doesn't go with the food they are serving.

For dessert, Walt and I each had a "floating island" — île flottante — which is a couple of dollops of sweetened, beaten egg whites floating on dish of English custard (crème anglaise) with some shaved almonds on top. Simon had a cake called a gâteau médiéval, which was made with apples and walnuts. It also sat in a puddle of custard. And Susan had a concoction of prunes and chestnut cream (crème de marrons) served with whipped cream (crème chantilly). Which reminds me that I ought to buy a tin of crème de marrons when we go to the market this morning.

While we ate, Callie slept in a corner, halfway under our table and out of the way of the wait staff. We pretty much forgot she was there until, toward the end of the meal, she started making the little grunting and squealing sounds she makes when she is having a particularly enjoyable dream, probably about chasing a rabbit or a deer out in the vineyard. By then, we were the only people left in the restaurant.

So the Restaurant de l'Image gets high marks in my book. I enjoyed the meal and and the atmosphere. I obviously enjoyed the conversation, to the point of forgetting to take photos. The owner knows Susan and Simon, of course, and he came and spent 10 or 15 minutes talking with us as we finished our after-dinner coffees. He's interested in their house renovations and plans. We talked about heating systems of different kinds, and what makes the most sense for the future.

The sun had come out. We went out for a nace walk around the town with Callie, up by the château and the church and through some narrow residential streets....

30 December 2008

Driving to Preuilly-sur-Claise

It's raining this morning and the temperature is +2ºC, or about 35ºF. Yesterday morning it was -3ºC, and the morning before -4ºC. At least it's not freezing here today. They are having freezing rain in a big part of France right now, from Normandy across Paris into the Franche-Comté and Burgundy, down to Lyon. They call it des pluies verglaçantes on the weather reports.

Today's icy weather in France — click the image to enlarge it.

We are lucky to be just on the southern edge of the real rain and freezing temperatures. Lucky because in an hour or so we'll be leaving to drive down to Preuilly-sur-Claise to see Susan and Simon of the Days on the Claise blog. We're taking Callie, so if the weather takes a turn for the worse we won't have to worry about driving home this evening. In France, you can nearly always take you dog to a hotel with you. And Callie will go to a restaurant with us for lunch.

We've met Susan and Simon before. Last June they came to Saint-Aignan with Susan's parents from Australia and we had brunch. They were on their way north to Paris and on to England. Then we and CHM went down to Preuilly to see Simon when he came back from seeing Susan and her parents off.

Holiday plants and flowers on an inside window ledge

Today we are planning to go have lunch in a restaurant in Preuilly called L'Image. Susan has blogged about it, and I am happy to be able to try it. Any place that serves traditional French food is my kind of place. I'll take my camera and do a report on what we eat and how we enjoy the place.

Saint-Aignan to Preuilly along the
southeast edge of La Touraine

Preuilly is about an hour's drive south of Saint-Aignan. It's in the area called Sud-Touraine, and it's about as far from Loches as Saint-Aignan is, on the opposite side. We are on the far eastern border of the Touraine ourselves. To get to Preuilly, we drive through Nouans-les-Fontaines, Châtillon-sur-Indre, and Azay-le-Ferron.

29 December 2008

Roast bird with cornbread dressing

I'm posting pictures of leftover food again. Maybe that's getting pretty desperate for material, but the food was good and the pictures are ones I took using the tripod.

A capon poached for an hour and then browned in a hot oven
for 20 to 30 minutes. This was the leftovers the next day...

One of the things we make as dressing for Christmas birds — turkey, guinea fowl, capons — is cornbread stuffing. I don't usually stuff it into the bird though. I just cook the dressing, moistened with chicken or turkey broth, pan drippings, and some melted butter if needed, in a baking dish.

The way it looked at the table

This year the cornbread dressing was based on celery, since we had just bought a big head of céleri-branches. I think céleri-rave, celery root, would be good too. Or fennel. All give a distinctive flavor that goes well with the crumbled or cubed cornbread and the poultry.

Cornbread dressing baked in the oven

I like to make the cornbread with coarsely ground cornmeal because it gives the bread and the resulting dressing a gritty texture. You don't end up with mushy dressing.

The other addition this time was some sausage meat. I used mild pork sausages, similar to saucisses de Toulouse, which are made with nothing but pork and salt. In other words, ground pork, or even ground chicken or turkey, would be good, or what we call Italian sausages.

Of course, giblets — the cooked and chopped heart, liver, and gizzard of the bird — would be really good in the dressing too, whether with or in place of the ground pork. But in France, chickens and other birds don't come with giblets, which are considered delicacies and are sold separately.

The sausages I used had herbs, probably mostly parsley, mixed in with the sausage meat. If you are using sausages, remove the casings and break the meat up into chunks. Cook it before you mix it with the cornbread cubes. Add some grain or white bread cubes or crusts if you need more bread.

Here you can see the texture of the cornbread dressing
with celery, sausage meat, and dried figs.

Dried fruit is also good in this kind of dressing. We had dried figs, which I had rehydrated in strong hot tea. I cut some of them into chunks and mixed them in with celery, onions, cornbread cubes, and sausage meat. Raisins, prunes, dried apricots, dried cranberries, or dried cherries would be very good in it. Or chopped pecans or walnuts.

Moisten the mixture with enough broth and pan drippings from the bird, or melted butter, to make it more or less hold together. Don't wet it so much that it all melts into a sludge. Add spices, like a little curry powder, poultry seasoning, parsley, oregano, thyme, or red pepper flakes, to taste.

We had celery in the dressing and then
braised celery as a vegetable the next day.

This year, I didn't use eggs in the dressing, and I think the result is fine. After the mixture cooked in a medium oven for 45 minutes or so, covered at first but then uncovered so a nice crust would form on the top and the liquid would evaporate more, it was easy to cut into slices for serving.

And it was good with the capon and some gravy made with pan drippings, flour, and broth. If you first poach the poultry in water or broth, you have plenty of good broth to use in the dressing, the gravy, and then soup the next day using the leftover fowl, celery, and other vegetables or grains. And you can skim the fat off the top of the broth and put some of it on the bird to make it brown nicely in the oven, as well as use it with flour to make the roux for gravy. Nothing gets thrown out.

Aren't the leftovers often even better than the first meal?

Yesterday, we were invited to lunch by our friends up in Blois who own the house across the street from us here at Saint-Aignan. The menu, as I said in a comment yesterday, was nearly the same as our Christmas dinner menu, minus the cornbread stuffing. Mme M. served an appetizer of foie gras (very generous portions, I have to say) with fruit preserves as a kind of chutney, and then a roast guinea-fowl capon. With the capon she had chestnuts and shallots as a dressing, along with a big dish of green beans.

So that really is holiday food in France. It's a lot like our classic Thanksgiving turkey in the U.S., with variations as to the kind of bird you choose. Next year, we are planning to cook a goose.

28 December 2008

A Boxing Day gift

I got a Boxing Day gift this year. That may be a first. If you come from any English-speaking country besides the U.S., you probably know what Boxing Day is. It's the day after Christmas — or, technically, the first weekday after Christmas Day. It has nothing to do with prizefights. There was an article in the New York Times about it a day or two ago.

Whole duck liver lightly cooked and packed in a canning jar

What was the gift? It wasn't something Walt went out and bought, but something he went looking for in the house. It's a tripod. It was packed away in a cabinet with some other old photography gear. We knew we had it, or at least he knew. And it is going to be very useful to me because now I won't have to take (and complain about having taken) so many blurry photos in the kitchen. It is especially useful in this season of short days and dim sunlight.

So of course I took many many pictures on Friday. In this post, I'm including a series of pictures of one of the special foods of the end-of-year holiday season in France: foie gras.

A slice of foie gras ready to be spread on toasted bread

In our case, we had foie gras de canard, or a fattened duck's liver, this year. We bought it in a little jar, as you see in the pictures. It is a piece of whole duck liver, not just some chunks in a kind of pâté of duck liver, which you can also buy. This little jar cost €7.50, so it is not inexpensive. But it didn't break the bank, either.

I know foie gras is controversial in a lot of places — California and the rest of the U.S., parts of Europe, and Israel (where its production is banned, I think) — but it's not controversial in France. It's a special food for the holidays. Down in the Dordogne, where a lot of foie gras is produced, it's a year-round food, I think.

Nice country-style bread from the bakery in the vineyard

Fattening ducks and geese and eating the "fat liver" is a practice going back at least to Roman times. The birds are force-fed, and that process imitates the birds' natural instinct to gorge themselves on food in the fall before they begin their annual migration toward the south for the winter. That's what they tell us, anyway.

From reports I've seen about foie gras production in France, it doesn't seem any more cruel or violent that does keeping chickens in tiny cages where they can't even stand up or turn around. Much less, in fact, because the ducks and geese live outdoors in good, natural conditions.

The foie gras in the little jar is a « semi-conserve », according to the label. In other words, it is not completely cooked — at least not to the point where it could be vacuum-packed and stored at room temperature the way you can store a can of pâté, which is fully cooked before canning. The foie gras needs to be kept in the refrigerator, even before you open the jar. And it of course needs to be eaten up pretty quickly. It doesn't need further cooking.

Le foie gras et ses toasts

How do you eat it? You more of less spread it on bread the way you would spread pâté on bread. The consistency is very buttery, and the flavor is both rich and mild. As an accompaniment, you eat something sweet like fresh figs (though this is not their season), or prunes you've soaked in wine or alcohol to re-hydrate them slightly, or fruit preserves.

We had some dried figs in the refrigerator. We soaked them in strong tea for a few hours, and then we sliced them up and cooked them in some wine, adding sugar. I also added some apple jelly and some plum preserves I had canned last season. That gave the preserves a good sheen.

Figues confites — made with dried figs

The figues confites — stewed figs — were excellent with the foie gras. I should say "are" excellent because we still have a serving in the refrigerator, which we will eat tomorrow. We got three ample servings for two out of the little jar.

One of the wines we had with foie gras was a
2002 Vouvray moelleux

And what do you drink with it? A sweet wine. If you are wealthy or want to splurge, you have a fine Sauternes from the Bordeaux area. On a tighter budget, you have a Monbazillac wine from Bergerac in the Dordogne. We had a bottle of Monbazillac that I got for €3.99 at SuperU.

The other wine option is a bottle of Vouvray moelleux from the Loire Valley. We also had one of those in the pantry. I had bought it at the Aubert winery back in November. As you can see, it was a 2002 vintage.

A Vouvray cork on the screw

Moelleux means "mellow" or "soft" is the name for the Vouvray wines with the greatest amount of residual sugar in them — the sweetest ones, in other words. I think the bottle cost between 5 and 6 euros. It wasn't as sweet and rich as the Monbazillac, but a little more acidic. That went well with the foie gras, I thought.

So you can see I am going to enjoy my "new" tripod. No camera shake — what a concept! No blur. Walt has been using a tripod for good close-up pictures for a while, but I had resisted. In the end, resistance is futile, as they say. Hope you will appreciate the sharpness of the pictures.

P.S. Oops, I didn't look at Walt's blog yesterday. We are definitely living
in the same household — overlapping, even.

27 December 2008

Health Insurance in France

Here's the story of our health insurance coverage since we arrived in France in 2003.

To get a visa from the French consular services in America, applicants are required to show that they have medical insurance for the first year they plan to spend in France. We found insurance with an American company that satisfied the requirement. For me, at age 54, it cost $125 to $150 a month. For Walt, who is younger, it was a little less. My annual premium went up by about 10% each year.

It was never clear to me that the private insurance policy from an American company would ever really cover me in an emergency in France. I guess I just didn't trust it. I felt like I was pouring money down a bottomless well. Now $1500 or even $2000 a year isn't that expensive for coverage, but it would be nice to feel convinced that you would really be covered if you needed it.

The American policy didn't cover prescription medications, doctor visits, or dental bills. It was major-medical coverage only, exclusively for emergency hospitalization. To be covered, you had to give the company at least 48 hours advance notice that you were going to be hospitalized. And you had to go to one of just a few company-certified hospitals in France, one of which was the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, just outside Paris. I think the hospital in Tours was a certified facility too. But not Blois.

I'm not sure what was supposed to happen if you had an accident or other unforeseen emergency that required hospital care.

Anyway, we paid for private insurance for three years. During those years, we were being assessed a special tax on unearned income (interest on bank accounts, etc.) as part of our annual French income taxes. The documentation about the tax said that it was a special assessment of 10% on interest and dividends, and that the money thus raised went to helping reduce the deficit run by the French national health insurance system.

In the fall of 2005, I called the French tax service's toll-free line to talk to a customer service representative. I explained my situation and said I didn't think I should be paying the special tax, called the Contribution Sociale, because I wasn't covered by French national health insurance. The answer was: Sorry, every taxpayer in France has to pay 10% of his unearned income, whether he has national health coverage or not.

That didn't seem fair to me, but we had no choice but to go ahead and pay again. That inspired Walt to start reading the French national health service's web site. It didn't take him long to discover that every French resident — legal aliens like us included — is entitled to basic coverage under a plan called the CMU — Couverture Médicale Universelle.

We read the requirements and put in applications in late 2005. The documents the health service, which is called the CPAM (pronounced [say-pahm], it's the Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie), needed from us were not that different from the ones we send in annually for the renewal of our residency permits. Walt did have to get a new birth certificate from the county in New York State where he was born, because the one he had didn't list his parents' names and vital statistics on it. Mine did.

Within a couple of months we got our health insurance cards and we were covered at 70%.

That 70% coverage included all doctor visits, dental care, and prescription medications. It also included hospitalization, of course, which we haven't needed (knock on wood). When I had a colonoscopy back in September, it covered 70% of two 28€ fees for consultations with specialists, and then it covered 100% of the cost of the actual colonoscopy, under a French program to encourage people over 50 years of age to take advantage of regular screening for colon cancer.

Coverage at 70% might not seem like much, but remember that it costs just 22 euros to see a doctor in France, or 28 euros for certain specialists. Prescription medications cost considerably less than in the U.S., and dental care is similarly inexpensive. When I broke a filling, for example, I paid the dentist something like 45 euros to have it repaired. I assumed that was my portion of the bill and that the health service was picking up the rest of the bill. But no, I got 70% of the 45 euros back!

The private American insurance covered nothing. It promised coverage in certain situations. And did I mention that I kept a $5,000 deductible on my policy to keep the price down?

Coverage under the French system is not actually free, though it is universal.We have looked into the rules. The French health insurance system requires you to pay 8% of your income above the first 8,000 euros (that's more than $10,000) per year. So say you have annual income of 16,000 euros. You would end up paying 8% of the "extra" 8,000 euros for health insurance. That would come to 640 euros a year, if my arithmetic is right.

If your income is a lot higher, it would probably be less expensive to contract with a private insurance company for medical coverage. Consult with a French company, however, not an American one, because the coverage in France will be better, I'm sure. If you pay the national service 800 euros on every 10,000 euros of income, that can add up pretty quickly.

What happened to us recently is that the national health service noticed that Walt and I live at the same address. Over the past 9 months, we got letter after letter asking for more and more documents before we finally understood what was going on. We made an appointment with a representative at the CPAM office in Blois, where we learned that we are required to be covered under just one French social security number, not two.

Everybody has been very nice about it all. The only problem is that they assumed we ought to know how the system works. But we didn't know. So now Walt is giving up his French social security number and they are going to put him on mine. In these situations, it is good to be able to speak French, that's for sure.

After thinking about it, I can understand why people in the same household are required to have joint coverage. Imagine two people who live together and who have 8,000 euros each in annual income. They would pay nothing into the system. But under joint coverage, their combined income would show up as 16,000 euros. They would pay 640 euros into the system for coverage. That seems reasonable. Minimizing the number of people who pay nothing in is a way of keeping the system afloat.

In the process of re-enrolling as a family, we've been advised by two health service representatives that we should apply for what they call complementary coverage in addition to the basic insurance. Then we would be covered at 100%, not just 70%. To get the complementary coverage, we have to wait for tax documents (1099s, etc.) from the U.S. for 2008. The application process is not complicated and we'll send everything to the CPAM as soon as we can in 2009, after we receive the IRS documents we need.

For us, the important thing is to have coverage in case of a medical emergency — an accident or a major illness. Coverage at 70% would be much better than no coverage at all, and 100% coverage would be fantastic. Coverage on prescription meds, doctor visits, and dental care is just icing on the cake.

26 December 2008

Breads for the holidays

Because our bread deliveries have been partially suspended by the holidays, on Wednesday we went up to the bread bakery in the vineyard — la boulangerie du Chêne du Renard ("the fox's oak bakery") in Mareuil-sur-Cher — and that's always a special treat.

Un petit pain aux châtaignes (small chestnut-flour loaf),
une tourte de meule (round loaf of dark bread — meule = millstone),
une baguette de tradition (an old-fashioned French loaf),
et un pain de maïs (cornbread that I made using semoule
de maïs
, a coarsely ground cornmeal I bought here)

The cornbread went to make stuffing for the Christmas bird, with sausage, figs, onions, celery, and herbs and spices. The big round bread was for toasting and eating with duck foie gras. Most of the baguette got eaten with the cheese fondue. And the little chestnut loaf was just because we wanted to try it. It is dense and slightly sweet — half way between bread and cake, I'd say.

Bread deliveries start up again tomorrow (Saturday). Next week, we'll get bread on Monday and Tuesday, but not on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. That will give us a good excuse to go back to the Chêne du Renard for some more special breads, including a loaf of rye bread to have with our oysters on New Year's Eve.

The food, including breads and cheeses, is one of the main reasons I love living in France.

Oh, here's a translation of my old fondue recipe, the one I posted a couple of days ago:
  • 200 grams (6 to 7 oz.) of cheese per person
  • 1 liter (4 cups) of white wine for 2 kilos (4.5 lbs.) of cheese
  • use a 50-50 mix of 2 kinds of cheese, Comté and Emmental
  • (plus garlic, cornstarch, kirsch, black pepper, and nutmeg)
Prepare the sauce pan or fondue pot by rubbing it with 2 cloves of garlic. Set the pot containing white wine on a very hot flame or burner on the stove. Gradually add grated cheese while stirring the mixture in a figure-eight pattern.

When the cheese has all melted, add half a teaspoon of cornstarch mixed into a little kirsch (or other clear brandy). Grate in some nutmeg and grind in some black pepper. Then set the fondue pot on its stand, over a flame, at the table.
The proportion of wine to cheese is pretty complicated. Basically, you need a cup of dry white wine for every pound of cheese. And besides Comté and Emmental, other cheeses, as I've mentioned, are really good in fondue as well.

Walt just posted pictures of our 2008 cheese fondue here.

25 December 2008

Happy Christmas

This is a special Christmas post to all those who have sent greetings to La Renaudière for the holiday season, whether by mail or in comments on the blogs. I won't start naming names because I'd be bound to leave somebody out. Peace on Earth. Merry Christmas.

Let me say a special word to Mimi in Boston, though. Thank you for the card and the messages. I'm afraid I'm a lousy correspondent. You are in our thoughts, mine and Walt's, during this season. I hope you are able to spend the holidays with friends and family.

Here's Walt yesterday in front of one of the
two butcher shops in Saint-Aignan.

It is French tradition to send greetings for the New Year rather than for Christmas, which is still a family holiday here and is fairly private. People spend Christmas with family and New Year's Eve with friends and neighbors. In January, people sometimes send cards, but more often they make a special effort to see or telephone people to offer them the expression of their Meilleurs Vœux — Best Wishes — for the year to come, and especially Bonne Santé — Good Health.

Some of the people we make a point of saying our Meilleurs Vœux to include Madame Smith and her colleagues at the pharmacy; our neighbors the mayor and her husband; Sylvie the boulangère who delivers our daily bread; our summer neighbors who up live in Blois; the woman we bought our house from, who now lives in Tours; Madame Barbier who cuts our hair; Bruno and Patricia who operate the Domaine de la Renaudie winery; and several other people we've become friends with in the village. And all of you who read our blogs, of course.

We had a beautiful Christmas Eve afternoon here in Saint-Aignan. After a foggy, chilly morning, the sun broke through early in the afternoon. It didn't warm up much outside, but with the sun my afternoon walk with the dog was very pleasant.

Christmas Eve at La Renaudière.
It looks peaceful, and it was is.

In the morning, we went into town to get some fruit and bread to have with our cheese fondue. We'd been told that there might be vendors from Alsace at the special Christmas Eve market in Saint-Aignan, but we didn't see any. Only about half the regular Saturday vendors were there, but those included the big seafood stand, the mushroom lady, and at least two each of poultry vendors, selling both raw and cooked birds, and produce stands.

After looking around the market and buying some apples, we drove up to the bread bakery in the vineyard to get bread that is cooked in a wood-fired oven. We got what they call a Tourte de Meule, which is a round loaf of brown bread that will be good, toasted, with foie gras; a Pain de Tradition, white bread that we had with the fondue; and a little Pain aux Châtaignes, a dense and slightly sweet bread that is made with chestnut flour.

In the afternoon, we were busy in the kitchen. I made stuffing for today's capon using a pan of cornbread I'd made a few days ago, some multi-grain bread, a lot of onions and celery, some dried figs, and some sausage, along with herbs and spices, butter and chicken broth. Walt made crêpes — he's going to use them to make Crêpes Suzette this afternoon.

The sun was setting behind some trees
when I was out walking Callie.

Then we had our fondue. It was a great success. And guess what. When I was getting the cheese out of the fridge, I found a 100 g piece of Saint-Nectaire that we had forgotten in there for a few days. I trimmed it up, took off the crust, and put it in the fondue with the Cantal, Comté, and Gruyère. The melted cheeses were smooth and creamy. They didn't separate as they have sometimes in the past, and they didn't get stringy. It was delicious.

24 December 2008

Christmas cheeses

For us, Christmas cheeses are the ones we use to make a fondue savoyarde — what we call Swiss or cheese fondue in English. Walt and I have been making a Christmas Eve fondue for at least 10 years now. And every year we've bought the same three cheeses: Gruyère, Comté, and Emmental.

Gruyère and Comté cheeses for a fondue

Except this year. We are going to replace the Emmental this year with some Cantal, which is a cheese not from Alpine regions but from the Massif Central of France, the Auvergne, a province down south of Saint-Aignan. Actually, the Cantal is the French département where the cheese is made as well as the name of the cheese.

The word "Switzerland" on the cheese means it is
authentically Swiss and not a Gruyère knock-off.

Gruyère is a cheese that we Americans call by the generic term "Swiss cheese" — a category that also includes cheeses like Comté, Emmental, and Beaufort. Gruyère and Emmental are actually made in Switzerland, but they can also made in the French Alps. Comté and Beaufort are really French cheeses.

All these Alpine cheeses are called "cooked" cheeses. After the milk curds form, they are subjected to heat up to 57ºC — that's about 135ºF. So there is no such thing as a raw-milk Gruyère or Comté, as far as I can tell. But even so, the milk curds are not really cooked. Pasteurization, by comparison, involves heating milk up to the even higher temperature of 161ºF for several seconds — and you can't even call that "cooking."

Gruyère cheese comes from the Gruyères Valley in Switzerland. Emmental comes from the Valley of the Emme River, near Bern, also in Switzerland. Gruyère cheese does not have holes — called yeux, or "eyes," in French — but Emmental does.

Comté cheese from the Jura mountains of
France, near the Swiss border

A Comté cheese might have "eyes," but they are very small ones compared to the walnut-size holes in Emmental cheese. Comté is also called Guyère de Comté, according to my cheese book, but I've never seen that term in the markets or supermarkets here. Comté cheese comes from the old province known as the Franche-Comté — the "Free County" — in the mountains called the Jura along the Swiss border.

Beaufort cheese is made in the higher mountains south of the Jura, and south of Geneva, in the province called the Savoie. Beaufort cheese doesn't have "eyes" either. Next year I might use Beaufort instead of Gruyère in the fondue.

Three cheeses for the 2008 fondue at La Renaudière

The differences in all these Alpine cheeses have to do with the different breeds of cows that produce the milk; the temperatures the milk curds are heated up to; the weight of the different wheels of cheese (which affects the ripening process); and the amount of time the cheeses are ripened before they are put on the market. Each cheese has its own particular flavor and texture. They don't all melt the same way when you put them into a fondue.

This year we have decided to use some Cantal cheese in our fondue instead of Emmental. Cantal reminds me of a good white English Cheddar, and according to the Larousse des Fromages book (Robert Courtine, 1973, 1987) it falls into the same category as Cheddar. Cantal and Cheddar are made by pressing the milk curds, grinding them, and pressing them again. These are not "cooked" cheeses. They can be made from raw milk.

Cantal cheese — this one is made from unpasteurized milk.

According to Monsieur Courtine, Cantal is probably the oldest variety of French cheese — it goes back 2,000 years or more. It is made in a cylindrical shape, not a wheel, and each cheese weighs from 50 to over 100 lbs. Cantal used to be known as Fourme de Salers, and there is still a cheese called Salers that is not really different from Cantal, except that Cantal is made in dairies and Salers is made only on farms (evidently). Salers is made seasonally, Cantal year-round. Salers is the name of both a village and a breed of cow.

This is my fondue recipe. It was dictated to me
in about 1975 by a friend who grew up in the town
of Besançon in the Franche-Comté region of France.

There's a translation in this topic.

The thing that is nice about Cantal is not just its flavor but its texture. It melts much more smoothly than Gruyère or Comté. If you grate one of the Alpine cheeses into hot soup, for example, it forms a stringy mass and sinks to the bottom. With Cantal, you get a smooth melt that doesn't sink but spreads through the liquid. With some Cantal added, we are hoping for a smoother, less stringy fondue this year.

A day or two ago, I heard a chef on French Cuisine TV say that you can make a very nice fondue out of Saint-Nectaire cheese, which also comes from the Auvergne region. It's a cheese we both enjoy. There's a Saint-Nectaire fondue in our future, I can just feel it.

23 December 2008

Finishing the chowder

No, not eating it all, but cooking it. I started with a recipe for corn chowder that Loulou posted on her blog a couple of week ago. I recommend it. But I wanted to add some clams to it.

Amandes de mer — "dog cockles" in English.

At the supermarket I'd been looking at little clams called amandes de mer — "sea almonds." They are inexpensive at 2.00€ a kilogram. Other clams like palourdes or praires cost five to six times as much. For chowder, I thought the amandes would be fine.

I looked up amande de mer on the French Wikipedia site, where I read that it is a coquillage comestible — an edible shellfish — that lives in the northwest Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

Put clams for chowder in the microwave for 2 minutes on high.
They pop right open and you can pull off the top shell.

I got the scientific name, Glycymeris glycymeris, from the French site and searched for that on the English Wikipedia site. Imagine my surprise when I read there:
The dog cockle or European bittersweet, Glycymeris glycymeris, is a species of marine clam, a coastal bivalve mollusc of European waters. It is not closely related to the common cockle. This bivalve is considered not suitable to eat by humans, because the flesh is tough after cooking, hence the common name "dog cockle", which implies that it is not valued by humans, and might only be suitable as food for dogs and similar animals.
The amande is "considered not suitable to eat by humans"! Ha! Tell that to Walt, who had a plate full of them as his appetizer in a restaurant in Dieppe, up on the English Channel, a couple of years ago. He said he remembered them as being delicious.

Clams are always tough anyway, compared to scallops or oysters. For chowder, you chop the clams finely with a knife. You can even run them through a meat grinder. You could also use cockles — des coques — I'm sure, and they are easy to find here. They're not expensive, and they are tough like clams. We had them when we went to the Ile d'Oléron last spring.

I bought only a dozen amandes because I just wanted to try them in the corn chowder. That set me back a euro. So a kilo of these clams would give you about two dozen. Here's a link to a post I did about a fish monger's shop in Paris, with photos of coques, praires, palourdes, and other shellfish, fin fish, and crustaceans.

Serve the chowder with cream if you want. You can also add cream
directly to the pot, but if you serve it at the table it can be optional
and you can see how much you are putting in.

To make the soup, first you cook the bacon or lardons in a big pot to render their fat. Meanwhile, chop the clams and a couple of onions. Cook the clams and onions for 20 to 30 minutes on low in the bacon fat. Add some grated carrots if you want. Season with pepper, celery, thyme, and bay leaves.

Pour 5 or 6 cups of chicken broth or water over the cooked clams, onions, and carrots. Put in half a dozen potatoes, cubed, and a couple of cups of corn. If you want to thicken the soup, grate a raw potato directly into the pot. Or make a slurry of cornmeal and cold water and slowly pour that into the hot soup while stirring it. Then let the soup cook for 30 to 45 minutes on low. Add the bacon in at the end and serve with cream if you want it.

Winter skies at Saint-Aignan

After a good bowl of chowder, I was fortified for my afternoon walk with the dog. Actually, it's not very cold right now, and it's been fairly dry for a week or so.

22 December 2008

Corn and clam chowder

I got busy making corn chowder with clams this morning and didn't have time to do a post. Here it is lunchtime already and the chowder looks great. Here are some of the ingredients.

Bacon, or what is called lard in French.
This is smoked pork belly from Chez Doudouille.

Actually, I decided to use lard salé, salt pork, from the supermarket
in this recipe. I'll save the smoked bacon for another recipe.

Pork belly (a.k.a. side meat) is a standard ingredient in French cooking. It's too bad it's so hard to get in most of the U.S. You can buy it in slabs, sliced, or dice.

Celery leaves and tops—when you buy a big head of celery,
you can trim off the tops of the stalks and cook the leaves.
Freeze the leaves and broth to put in soups and stews later.

Other chowder ingredients: carrots, onions, corn, and potatoes.
The only way I can buy corn here is cans. No ears, no frozen corn...

More tomorrow about the corn and clam chowder.

21 December 2008

Busy before the holidays

This has been our busiest week in a long time. We both had doctor's appointments for our regular six-month checkups. We also had to go into Saint-Aignan to talk with the representative of the French health insurance administration to straighten out our status. That turned into a trip to Blois on Wednesday, and a trip to Montrichard on Friday.

The appointment in Blois went well, and going up there was a good excuse to try a new restaurant. We had lunch at the Brasserie Hippolyte, a little place that is all decked out in old French advertising posters and red-checkered tablecloths. And the food was good — pâté to start and then roast lamb with noodles, carrots, and diced fresh tomato. The wine was from Chinon and came in a half-liter pitcher — delicious.

At the health insurance office, we spent an hour explaining our situation to a friendly young woman who straightened out our papers and re-did our whole file. We had signed up separately two years, but the health service requires us to sign up together, because we live at the same address. Who knew? So we had to re-enroll and provide a lot of papers about our income over the past two years. A bonus: the agent told us she would try to get our coverage increased from 70% to 100% as part of the new account created for us. That would be good.

Christmas decorations in front of the Saint-Aignan town hall

Meanwhile, it was time to start doing our holiday food shopping. I bought a capon for Christmas day, and we'll stuff it with cornbread-sausage dressing — "dressing" is a Southern word for "stuffing" and it sounds a little more appetizing, doesn't it? Yesterday we bought a little jar of duck foie gras, a slice of pâté aux figues, and some Cantal, Comté, and Gruyère cheese for a fondue.

Today is Walt's birthday — Bon Anniversaire ! —and we'll have his traditional birthday dinner later today — steak au poivre. The first time we ever had steak in a cream & black pepper sauce together on his birthday was 1982, and I don't think we've missed a birthday since. Here's the story.

Yesterday we bought a slice of what is called rumsteack at the butcher counter in the Coccinelle supermarket in Saint-Aignan. I'm not sure what that would be in American terms, even though the word comes from the English "rump steak." That doesn't mean much, but we know it is good.

I saw these betteraves longues — long beets — yesterday
in the produce section of the Coccinelle market in Saint-
They are sold cooked and displayed unwrapped.
You might call them baseball-bat beets.

It was fun to go to the outdoor market in Saint-Aignan yesterday. We went to see Mme Doudouille of course — that's where we got the fig pâté, along with some fromage de tête — head cheese — and some smoked pork bacon. Mme Doudouille had time to chat for a minute. She's a new grandmother — her first grandchild is now three months old. She said her family from far and wide is getting together for the holidays, with relatives coming from as far away as Bergerac in the Dordogne.

We stood in a long line to buy cheeses from the regular Saturday morning cheese ladies because the selection and quality of the cheeses they sell are so good.

Callie in the vineyard in December, a study in browns

Recently I've been thinking about a cheese called Saint-André that I used to enjoy back in the 1970s, when I lived in Paris. I asked about it yesterday. The young woman who was waiting on me said she'd never heard of it. But the other woman piped up and said, ah, Saint-André is the same thing as Brillat-Savarin cheese. So I learned something. And I bought a piece of Brillat-Savarin. It's a very white, very creamy cheese that's almost like butter, but with a slightly sour tone.

The weather has turned mild, after a few weeks of cold nights and gray days. This morning the temperature is nearly 50ºF (8.6ºC). The same thing happened last year. A cold first half of December gave way to a mild second half. Usually, January here is a lot warmer than December, so we are looking forward to better weather.

The autumn leaves are turning black on the ground.

And the days will start lenghthening after today. Right now it's 8:10 a.m. and it is still very dark outside. I need to take Callie out for her walk, and I need to get back before 9:00, because that's when the hunters arrive. But it's still too dark. I'd better go anyway.

20 December 2008

Red beets (beetroot) etc.

On Betty C.'s blog called Cuisine Quotidienne (Everyday French Cuisine), she posted a topic on beets (Am. Eng.) or beetroot (Br. Eng.) — betteraves in French. Betteraves are a controversial vegetable; some people detest them. Others, including me, love them. They taste like dirt — or should I say "the earth"? — like some good wines, and that's one of the things I like about them.

On Betty's blog, I left a comment about the way beets are sold at our local Intermarché supermarket. Over there, there is always a crate of them, of some sort. They are cooked. I sneaked a photo at Intermarché this morning to show how they were displayed. Today, instead of a meat fork, there was a set of tongs provided for customers to pick them out of the crate and drop them into a plastic bag.

Cooked beets at Intermarché in Noyers-sur-Cher.
Grab one with the tongs and drop it into a plastic bag.

Betteraves are normally sold cooked in France, though there is a farmer who sells raw beets at the market on Saturdays in Saint-Aignan. In California, I had to buy them raw at the supermarket and cook them myself. They take a long time to cook — 45 minutes or an hour or more — whether in boiling water or wrapped in foil in the oven, so the fact is I prefer to buy them already cooked.

I like cooked beets cut into cubes and made into a salad seasoned with a vinaigrette dressing and some minced shallots. Vinaigrette is a mixture of a little Dijon mustard and vinegar whisked together with about three times as much oil. Add a minced shallot, maybe some chopped parsley, some salt and pepper, and there — Bob's your uncle. Toss the cubed beets in it.

Betty gives a lot of other ideas for beet salads on her blog, and there are still others in the comments. They all sound good.

Sunset at La Renaudière, 19 December 2008

Here's a gratuitous snapshot of last night's sunset. We actually had a sunny day in Saint-Aignan. And warm — over 50ºF — that's over 10ºC.

19 December 2008

Christmas cactus

This year it really is a Christmas cactus. It started blooming a month ago and hasn't quit yet — far from it. There are still a lot of unopened flower buds on the plant.

You have to believe that the dark, gloomy, chilly weather has something to do with triggering this plant's flowering phase. The long nights also have a lot to do with it.

The Pyrénées bottle contains water for the plants.

And would you believe this is a plant that was here in the house when we bought it in 2003? It was left by the previous owners, who had left the house closed up for two years before we bought it. This is one hardy plant.

I've never even repotted it. I just give it a little water every few weeks.

The house in the picture hanging above the plant is ours. It was taken 20 or 25 years ago when the house was covered in vines. The previous owner gave it to us when she moved from Saint-Aignan to Tours a few years ago.

Collette and the Christmas cactus

The dog in the picture is Collette, who came with us from California to France at the age of 11. She died in 2006. She was the best dog, we always said. Now she shares that distinction with Callie.

18 December 2008

La saga du magnétoscope (part 3)

Read part 1 or part 2.

The woman blanched when she saw me walk back into the Expert store with the VCR under my arm. But she was nice. I went armed with three video cassettes, and I told the woman that I needed her to hook the VCR up to a TV set so I could show her the problem. She was perfectly willing to act on that request. In a couple of minutes she saw what I was talking about.

Why did I take three video cassettes with me? Why not just one? Well, I took one that I had recorded here in Saint-Aignan a few years ago using our TV set, which is a PAL device. I took another that I had purchased in the United States and was recorded in NTSC format. And I took a third that I had purchased in France, which was recorded in SECAM format. I wanted her to see all three. All three produced the band of white static at the bottom of the TV screen.

The woman kept saying that it must be my tapes. But in all three formats? Including tapes purchased in France, not just in the U.S.? She said she would make sure the technician adjusted the height of the video head (la tête) so that it would read my (add the implied word "peculiar" here) tapes correctly. And she said if the adjustment could be made that afternoon she would telephone me and let me know. Otherwise, it would be Tuesday.

The telephone didn't ring. Not on Saturday. Not on Monday. Not on Tuesday. I got busy and kind of forgot about it. A good week went by. One day when I was going to get some groceries at SuperU, I remembered and stopped at the Expert store. It had been 10 days or even 2 weeks since my last visit.

The woman and an older male colleague (my age, I mean, not the boy young man from before) kind of scrambled when they saw me. The man went into the back room to look for my VCR and tapes. It took him a while. However, he came back out with everything I had left there — at least my cassettes haven't disappeared, I thought. He was puzzling over the work order attached to the machine.

"Nothing has been done to your magnétoscope," he said. "I'd prefer not to give it to you to take home now. I need to check with the technician to find out what the status is."

I kept wondering two things: why has nothing been done? And how much are they going to charge me on top of the 60 euros I've already paid? I smiled politely and asked the man if my phone number was on the work order. It was. "Just call me when it's ready," I said, and left.

Two more weeks went by. The next time I went to the store, it was the same story. First a scramble to locate the machine and cassettes. Then the news that nothing had yet been done. With an apology this time.

Finally, a week later (it was December already), the phone call came. The machine was ready for pick-up. I was not optimistic, of course. I kept telling myself that in France, you have to learn patience all over again. Everything seems to take much longer than it should. And I was proud of myself for being patient. But I was not optimistic.

I returned to the store the next day to get the VCR. The woman in charge was all smiles. She went and got the machine and cassettes and brought them out. There was a piece of paper attached, and she quickly touched it and said, "This is the work order from before..." In other words, there was to be no extra charge for the second session in the shop. Thank goodness.

I had a whole speech worked out in my mind in case she asked me for more money. I had been thinking about it for days. Would I feign innocent surprise? "Oh, you want me to pay more? Are you sure?" Or righteous indignation? "You can't be serious! I've waited nearly two months and now you want me to fork over more euros!" Or would I bargain with her? "If you can't repair the machine, I think you should give me my 60 euros back. You can't do that? Well then you should give me a store credit for a future purchase." I was thinking I would just buy a new VCR from Expert. But not without a 60 euro discount.

So I was relieved not to have to pay more or make my speech, and the woman was all smiles. She touched my arm several times and apologized for the botched repair and for taking so long to make it right. What could I do but smile back? She said for me to take the machine home and then to let her know if there was still a problem.

Well, there is not the same problem, but there is now an even bigger problem. The VCR seems to work more or less as it should. But I still can't copy my old U.S. video cassettes onto DVD.

The Dazzle DVD Recorder is a USB 2 device.
Plug in your video camera, VCR, TV, or other video source...

Why not? Because the transfer device I bought, the Pinnacle Dazzle DVD Recorder, won't read the NTSC signal produced by the Toshiba VCR, which is apparently the same as on nearly all VCRs sold in France. They didn't tell me that when I bought it, or in the user's guide. After much reading around on the Internet, I think I have figured out why.

Most of the VCRs sold in Europe that can read NTSC, i.e. American, tapes don't really send out an NTSC signal to the TV set or video capture device. They send out a PAL signal with an NTSC color signal layered over it. That's called PAL 60, and is a kind of workaround for NTSC compatibility. The normal PAL signal is called PAL 50.

...and you can record video onto your hard disk
or even directly onto a DVD in real time.

The Pinnacle video capture device can interpret true NTSC, along with PAL 50 and SECAM. But it can't really read PAL 60, the hybrid signal designed to fool a PAL TV set into reading NTSC tapes and DVDs. I've exchanged several e-mails with Pinnacle's technical support people and they assure me there is no patch or driver that I can download to make the device work properly with a European VCR playing an American video tape.

It's not really true that I can't transfer the NTSC tapes to DVD with the equipment I have. But they can only be transferred in black and white. No color. I guess that's better than nothing. But I want them in color, like the tapes.

I need an American VCR to get the true NTSC output, with color, from cassettes I recorded or purchased in the U.S. It's just as well that I didn't buy a new VCR, because I would still have had the same problem.

But at least I can make DVDs from tapes I recorded or bought in France, and I can make DVDs directly from the TV here, including programs I have on the hard disk in my satellite decoder. I've done a lot of that kind of recording and it works fine.

Do you ever wonder why you get involved in such projects? I've spent weeks, or a couple of months on this now, not to mention good money, and I've hit a wall.


17 December 2008

La saga du magnétoscope (part 2)

Read part 1 here.

Should I buy a new VCR or try to get the old Toshiba repaired? In the end, I decided to take the old machine back to Darty, because when they repaired it several years ago they said it was a simple adjustment (un réglage). Now why a VCR would need periodic réglages beyond what you can do using the remote control and adjustment features, I don't know. I guess the machine is just a piece of... on va dire... junk.

One day back in September or early October, we drove up to Blois. We took the Toshiba VCR and stopped chez Darty. At the customer service desk, the man I talked to said I would do better to just forget it. "We charge 45 euros an hour for labor," he said. "And the repair will take at least four weeks. You might as well just buy a new VCR. It won't cost any more than the repair, and we'll be glad to sell you one. Go have a look around."

That's galling to me. I paid good money for the Toshiba (200 euros in 2003), hardly used it at all, and it went seriously out of adjustment two times, requiring intervention by a technician.

European video components — TVs, VCRs, DVD players —
use these big connectors
SCART in English or péritel in French.

Meanwhile, the Panasonic DVD player I had bought from an online store at about the same time had also stopped working after only about two years. I gave up on that one, feeling not half lucky, and just bought a new model, a Pioneer. It has given good service for several years now.

By the way, the Philips TV we had bought chez Darty had had to be repaired too. A first attempt to repair it by a Darty technician who came to the house was unsuccessful, and the second time Darty just sent a truck and hauled the big old clunker back to Blois for repair in their shop. When it came back — just a few days later, I must say — the technician told me it was also « un simple réglage. » But it was an adjustment they had to do in the shop. Fortunately, it has continued to function perfectly since then, and that was several years ago.

I don't know about you, but that was the first time I'd had to have a TV set repaired in my life. I've had Sony, JVC, Panasonic, General Electric, and Sears models over the years. We've had several TV sets and VCRs that have given us 10, 15, or even 20 years of good service without ever needing a repair. Are these machines made for the French market that much more complex because they are designed to read not only PAL broadcasts, but SECAM and NTSC signals as well?

I left the Darty store with the defective Toshiba machine under my arm. But back in Saint-Aignan, I decided to try one more time. I looked in the yellow pages (les pages jaunes) and found a man who repairs TVs, VCRs, and other appliances in Saint-Aignan. He has a workshop in an electronics and appliance store called Expert, part of a national chain, over near SuperU. So I took the VCR to that shop.

There, a young man listened to and wrote down my description of the problem I was having with the Toshiba. He said he would hand it off to a technician who would charge 23 euros an hour for his time. Hey, that was half the Darty rate! And the boy man assured me that the technician would be able to determine in very short order whether the machine could be repaired or not. If it couldn't be repaired, he would telephone me to let me know.

That gave me the impression that there wasn't a great risk involved in leaving the VCR in their care. That was around the middle of October.

About 10 days later, I got a call from the "Expert" technician. (You will soon understand why I put that word in, as they say in England, inverted commas.) He wanted to know what exactly was wrong with the VCR. I told him that I had explained all that to the person who had taken it in, and that person had written it all down. But the technician wanted to hear it all again. So I explained once more.

Another week later, I got another phone call. The VCR was ready for pick-up. I went and retrieved it the next day. The bill was 60 euros! I was shocked. But I bit my tongue, even when the woman who seems to be in charge of the store, if not the owner, told me that the technician had done nothing more than a thorough cleaning of the machine. He hadn't been able to find any other problem with it, except that it was dirty — sale. I suspected that that was not really true, since it had hardly ever been used. And I wondered if the guy had even bothered to insert a tape to check whether the machine worked properly or not.

Sixty euros! For a cleaning! I could have bought a new VCR for not much more than that. I brought the Toshiba home, plugged it in, and put in a tape. Guess what! It worked — or didn't work — exactly as it had when I took it in for repair. There was absolutely no change in the picture on my TV screen. Had the technician done anything at all? It was a Saturday morning. I threw the Toshiba back into the car and returned to the Expert store tout de suite.

More about the video capture device tomorrow.

16 December 2008

La saga du magnétoscope (part 1)

The title of my blog leaves me a lot of latitude to write about anything and everything that is going on here in Saint-Aignan. So let me tell you the story of my VCR — mon magnétoscope, in French.

Maybe you don't know that U.S. and European television signals do not at all conform to the same standards. That means that you can't bring an American TV set or video cassette recorder to France and expect it to work, even if you have a transformer to step the electric current down from Europe's 220 volts to America's 110 volts. The U.S. set won't receive French TV signals correctly, and neither will the VCR.

In the U.S. (and Canada and Japan), televisions receive broadcasts in the NTSC standard, while in most of Europe it's PAL — with France and some other countries using a system called SECAM. Luckily, NTSC video cassettes and DVDs are common enough in Europe that most manufacturers build into their TVs, VCRs, and DVD players the ability to at least read NTSC tapes or discs. So if you make your purchases carefully, you'll end up with machines on which you can play media that you recorded or purchased in the U.S. or Canada.

When we left California, we left all our TVs and VCRs and DVD players behind. We sold some of them, and we gave others to friends and relatives. We had collected quite a bit of such equipment over nearly 20 years of life together.

After arrival in France, we went almost immediately to one of the big chain electronics and appliance stores, Darty, and bought everything we needed to set up housekeeping in Saint-Aignan. That included a television set, a video cassette recorder, and a DVD player. Actually, we bought two TV sets, but never mind.

The first VCR I bought was a Philips model. And the first time I put a cassette in it and started it up, it promptly mangled the tape, which was ruined. I was not happy. At the next opportunity, I drove back up to the Darty store, which is 45 minutes away in Blois, and expressed my discontent. The people at the store understood my complaint and immediately offered me a new machine to replace the original one.

I told them I didn't want another Philips model. They offered me a Toshiba VCR for the same price. I took it. And it worked just fine for nearly two years. We didn't use it much, but it was good to have it. Soon after moving here, we signed up for a satellite TV service and acquired a decoder box with a built-in hard disk for recording and delayed playback of shows and films we were interested in watching.

After two years, just before the warranty expired, the Toshiba VCR went on the fritz. I took it back to Darty and they successfully repaired it in just a few days' time. They said it was a simple adjustment. The machine worked for the next 2 or 2½ years. We hardly used it at all. I did record three or four cassettes during that time. Then the same problem came back. When I played a cassette, there was a distracting white band of static across the bottom of the TV screen
that I couldn't get to go away using the machine's tracking adjustment feature.

It didn't matter. As I said, we hardly used the VCR at all anyway.

That was the situation until one day not too long ago, when I realized that we had about 65 video cassettes on a shelf down in the garage that we might as well get rid of. They were gathering dust and slowly deteriorating. Among them are some recordings that CHM made with his video camera (son caméscope) years ago. We had copied them onto VHS cassettes so that we could have a copy.

One was a video record of a day we spent together in the Napa Valley in California. Another was video of a party attended by a lot of nice people that CHM and I worked with in Washington DC many years ago. I didn't want to lose those.

And then there were tapes our friend Sue made with her camera in California. There were Christmases we spent together, and videos of our house in San Francisco. They and others were cassettes that I really wanted to transfer onto DVD so that we'd be able to look at them from time to time. They are part of our history together and with close friends.

So I did some research and bought a gizmo that I can plug into a port on the back of the VCR or TV set and, at the other end, into a USB port on my computer. Voilà! Now I could make my own DVDs. But here I was with a VCR that didn't work right and was no longer under warranty.

Continue to part 2.