31 January 2009

Sunrise or bonfire?

I have had a hard time deciding whether to post pictures of yesterday morning's sunrise or the bonfire we made yesterday afternoon.

I have decided to post pictures of the sunrise. I'll post pictures of the bonfire tomorrow.

Yesterday was my day to take the morning walk with the dog. I got up at about 6:30, but the sun doesn't come up until 8:30. By about 8:15, it is light enough to go outside with Callie without having to worry about losing her in the darkness.

It was a clear morning, and cold — minus 2 degrees C, or about 28ºF. That means the ground is frozen and Callie won't get so wet and muddy on the walk. There's a good side to everything.

We walked a way out into the vineyard waiting for the sun to rise. By now, I know where the highest point in the vineyard is, and that's where I headed. I stopped there and waited for the sun to be just right.

Callie just waited. I doubt that she knew what I was doing, why I had stopped, but she is patient. After a few minutes of picture-taking, we resumed our walk.

When we got home, Callie had her breakfast of rice and chicken. I had another cup of tea. And then while the dog had her morning treats — two kinds, every morning — I went down to my computer and processed my pictures.

It was a normal morning, and a nice day. In the afternoon, we had a bonfire. More tomorrow...

30 January 2009

Fish in a Paris market

Things here are quiet and calm. Even the weather — it's chilly but the sun is out during the day and there's no wind. C'est le train-train quotidien : blogging, cooking, walking the dog, reading the papers (via the Internet), watching a movie or a documentary on TV. Life could be worse.

Sardines for sale in a Paris market

I've been looking back at a lot of old pictures. By old, I mean all the photos I've taken since we moved here in 2003.

This is how crevettes — shrimp, prawns,
gambas — are normally sold in France: cooked.

At the end of January 2005, four years ago already, we put the dog in the car and drove up to Paris to see an old friend of Walt's from California. They had been grad students together at Berkeley. He was in Paris on some kind of work junket, and he'd never been to Paris before.

A nice display of poissons.

We tried to show Jim everything in the space of about 36 hours. That's was all the time he had. We went to a big outdoor food market — I think it was the Marché de la Place Monge on the edge of the Latin Quarter. Then we walked down the Rue Mouffetard.

Want some octopus for dinner?

We went up to Montmartre. We walked along the Seine near the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. We had dinner at the Petit Prince de Paris restaurant near the Panthéon. We wandered through the Marais — that's where Jim's hotel was. We had the dog with us, so our options were limited mostly to outdoor activities. Luckily, the weather was good — about like now.

It's the time of year it is. It makes you think back: Now how did we entertain ourselves in Januaries past? Well, this was one way: we drove to Paris and we wandered around the city playing tour guides.

29 January 2009

Just some wintertime photos . . .

. . . from my walk with the dog day before yesterday,
late in the afternoon.

Bruno Ledys was out pruning his vines
and burning the clippings.

At the highest point in the vineyard, you can see
out over the rooftops, across the river.

Callie is not very good a posing for pictures,
so I have to snap something quick.

The wintertime colors are muted and subtle.
The vines are skeletal.

I noticed this rose hip in the back yard.
Some of our accumulated junk is in the background.

28 January 2009

Mosses and lichens

Rain again today — that's the prediction. It hasn't started yet, so I have time to take Callie for a long walk, I hope. It's nearly time to go. We're just waiting for it to get light outside.

Lichens on a brick out in the vineyard

Yesterday afternoon I went out with the dog and I started noticing how much moss is growing everywhere. And lichens too. At least I think that's what the yellow stuff is.

Moss in the back yard

We have a lot of lichens in many of our trees. We looked it up. It's not parasitic like mistletoe. It lives in a symbiotic relationship with the trees, so it's nothing to worry about. That's good, because we didn't want to have to start spraying a lot of lichen-icide everywhere.

An especially healthy colony of mosses

The moss grows on stones, live and dead tree trunks, and directly on the ground out in the vineyard. It grows on the low stone "wall" we have around our house. In summer, you can spray it off with a good strong blast of water from the garden hose. Sometimes I do that when the weather is nice.

Moss on dead tree trunks out in the woods

Tomorrow will be a major strike day in France. They are billing it as « un jeudi noir » on the TV news. Public transit, the post office, and schools will be running with skeleton crews, if at all. It will be a good day for staying home, or taking a walk. I think I'll do both.

Moss on the ground out in the vineyard

A joke from this morning's news: What's the difference between a banker and a pizza? A pizza can still feed a family of four.

27 January 2009

The wallpaper from enfer

We have several home improvement projects planned for the coming year — a new window for the north wall of the living room, possibly new glass block windows over the stairs, and so on. We'll hire those done. But our biggest project is one we want to do ourselves. That's taking down the wallpaper from hell that we have been living with for nearly six years now.

Add caption
I really wonder how they managed to put wallpaper
on the ceiling — not to mention why they did it.

It won't be easy, and that's why we still haven't done anything about it. The whole atrium-type space over the staircase is papered with it — including the ceiling. That extends to the hallway upstairs that leads to the master bedroom, W.C., bathroom, and the landing off which there are doorways into the living room and kitchen.

Here's a close up of the wallpaper from hell.

It's going to be a very big mess. Taking down wallpaper isn't that hard, actually. You buy a special solvent at the hardware store, mix it with some warm water, and sponge or brush it onto the paper. It melts the glue between the paper and the wall, and the paper almost falls off.

On the ceiling! Go figure...

The really messy part is preparing the walls for a new treatment, especially for paint. You have to sand the plaster to make it smooth, and that produces clouds of fine white dust that goes everywhere. In your hair, up your nose — into your food, if you aren't very careful.

We'll have to empty the pine china cabinet and an old buffet full of wine and liqueur glasses, and then move the furniture to other parts of the house. We'll have to move my desk and computer, along with the day bed, armchair, and television I have in the entryway. I'm discouraged already.

Here's what the entryway looked like
when we moved in
The hardest part of the work, however, will be getting the wallpaper off the highest part of the ceiling, over the stairs. It's probably close to twenty feet high. We'll have to build or rent some kind of scaffolding. A ladder won't work, because below that tall ceiling is the staircase. Trying to balance a ladder on it would be too dangerous.

After we removed the wallpaper
I suppose we could hire it done, but that costs money. And then we wouldn't have the satisfaction of having done it ourselves — that sense of accomplishment that makes you feel a little less lazy and worthless.

I started this blog in October 2005, right after we had finished sanding and painting nearly all the rooms in the house — while we lived in them. We did the master bedroom in 2003 because the wallpaper in there was in such bad shape. We did the guest bedroom in 2004 — it had ugly wallpaper too.

And after painting — that's Collette
our dog who died in March 2006
And then we did the living room, a two-month project, in the spring of 2005. We spent many, many days wearing masks and sanding off a textured surface that had been applied to the walls. Some of it was peeling off, but in other sections it was very tenacious. We put four coats of white paint on the 450-square-foot ceiling, in addition to painting the walls.

And then for good measure — we were on a roll — we sanded and painted the walls in the W.C. and the main bathroom. What a year!

And here's where I have my desk and
computer, right by the front door.
Oh, and we did the downstairs entryway too, where I have my computer and spend a lot of time. Here are some before and after pictures. It had the same wallpaper from hell on the walls — that's how I know it won't be hard to get unstuck. That was in August 2005. And then we started blogging in October.

26 January 2009

We were lucky

Southwestern France was really devastated by the storm this weekend. More than a million households were without electricity until yesterday, and more than 500,000 still are today. It will take the rest of the week to get all the current turned back on.

Eight people were killed in storm-related accidents, many because of falling trees. Rooftops and roof tiles were torn off.

Three-fourths of the pine forest, France's largest, in the region called Les Landes has been destroyed. The last storm of this intensity hit at Christmas in 1999. Back then, people say, the ground was dry but trees were just broken off above ground level by hurricane-force winds. This time, the ground was saturated with water and the trees were mostly uprooted.

Trees fell on 1500 km, 1000 miles, of rail lines across the southwestern region, blocking the tracks and pulling down the power lines used to run electrified locomotives. It will take a while to repair all that.

So that's the 7:30 news. I'm translating what I just heard on France 2 TV's Télématin newscast.

Aspen trees, called trembles in French, line the ravine
formed by a stream near our house that runs down to the Cher River.

Here in Saint-Aignan, lucky us, there was rain but no wind. It rained all afternoon again yesterday. We didn't see any hunters' cars during the day — on Sunday afternoons in wintertime, a little red van and a little white van are often parked out by the wine-grower's shed out in the vineyard, which we can see from our back windows. Those are "our" hunters' cars.

At about 4:30, I decided to take Callie out for her walk, despite the steady rain. As I stepped outside, I heard hunters' horns, dogs barking, and gunshots. So instead of walking out into the vineyard, in the direction of all the commotion, Callie and I walked down the paved road, around the neighbors' big yard across the road from our house, and then through a little section of woods to the vineyard plots on the north side.

Trees on the edge of the vineyard — you can see
a big ball of mistletoe in a tree on the far left,
and smaller ones in other trees.

As we got out there, away from the road, the noise of dogs baying and some other animal, I think, barking or crying very stressed, panicked sounds — almost shrieks — seemed to be getting closer and closer. I made Callie stay close to me, hoping we wouldn't see whatever animal was being tracked or the dogs tracking it. Callie would probably take off to join the pack if she saw that. I wondered if the hunted animal was a roe deer, or maybe a fox.

The animals got pretty close to us — they must have been very near our house, but on the other side — before they suddenly started moving away. Callie and I looped on around toward the back gate. The barking, panicking animal was definitely moving farther out into the vineyard, toward the tree-lined ravine at the bottom of which there is a little stream that runs down to the Cher River. Its high-pitched squeals were definitely not the barking of a hunting dog.

Looking back toward our hamlet from out in the vineyard.
I took all the pictures here last Wednesday, 1/21.

It was with great relief that I shooed Callie into our yard and closed the gate behind us. And with a slightly sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I hate Sunday afternoons during hunting season, which, I'm glad to report, ends next weekend.

25 January 2009

Sunshine and daylight

You've probably heard about the big windstorm that swept across southwestern France and northern Spain yesterday. Down there, a lot of trees were uprooted or broken off, power lines are down, and roofs have blown off. Up here in the Loire Valley, 400 to 500 km north of Bordeaux and Toulouse, we were spared. It rained most of the day yesterday, but there was little wind.

Jets fly over daily and on clear days we see them,
but we never hear them

We've had 35 mm of rain over the past week. That's nearly an inch and a half, and the ground is soft and squishy. We had a few hours of strong winds a couple of days ago, and now the yard is covered with branches and twigs that blew out of the apple, linden, and birch trees. One day we'll be able to get back outside and clean all that up. For now, it's too muddy.

On a sunny winter afternoon, flowerpots
remind you of the coming of spring

But we are having some nice days and the weather isn't cold any more. It's all relative, I know. Our lows are in the mid-30s with highs in the upper 40s or low 50s. Between 2º and 12º on the Celsius scale, autrement dit. That's normal for winter here in Saint-Aignan.

I thought my succulents would have frozen,
but they've survived.
I'll soon start re-potting them.

It appears that the bitter cold we had in the first half of January didn't kill as many of our outdoor plants as I was afraid it would. Even plants in pots seem to have survived. I had moved the pots up close to the house on the south and west sides, and I guess that worked.

Now there are days when it positively seems like spring. This morning, for example, skies are clear and the sun is shining. But unless they have changed the forecast since yesterday, rain is supposed to start falling by afternoon.

This is not a green tree. It is a nearly dead apple tree
out back that is being taken down by mistletoe.

The pictures in this post are ones that I took last Wednesday, January 21. You can see it was a nice day. Now, one month after Christmas, the sun comes up a little earlier (but still around 8:30 a.m.) and, best of all, it goes down later, around 6:00 p.m. So all in all, the atmosphere is significantly less gloomy than it was just a short time ago.

24 January 2009

Shrimp and mushroom pie

In French, what we call a pie is called une tourte. It's different from une tarte in that it has a top crust as well as a bottom crust. One famous example is called Tourte Lorraine, from the Lorraine region in eastern France. It's a meat pie filled with veal, pork, herbs, and cream.

Tourte aux crevettes et aux champignons

For the past couple of weeks, Walt has been making puff pastry — pâte feuilletée. He keeps saying how easy it is to make, and I keep saying, "Make more." This week he made a big batch, and a couple of days ago we had another Galette des Rois (a puff-pastry pie filled with almond cream).

Then Walt said, "Well, what about making a tourte, a savory galette." That wasn't a bad idea. Shrimp and mushrooms? Cream sauce?

Once you have the pastry, it's pretty easy. Wash and slice about half a pound, 250 grams, of button mushrooms. Sauté them slowly in butter with a diced shallot or onion. When they are done, take them out of the pan, add some more butter if necessary, and slowly sauté about two dozen little shrimp (prawns or crevettes). First, of course, you have to peel and de-vein the shrimp.

Don't throw the shrimp shells away. Put them in a sauce pan with just enough water to cover them. Add a quarter-cup of white wine, some salt and pepper. Then simmer the shells to make a stock. Let it reduce by about half. Strain that stock and it can be the basis for the cream sauce you'll use to make the savory pie.

With the the mushrooms and the shrimp lightly cooked and held in reserve, make the cream sauce. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a pan. Add a tablespoon of flour, stir it in well, and cook it on medium heat for a minute or two. Then add the shrimp-shell stock,beating it in as it thickens. Then add enough milk and cream — the more cream the richer the sauce will be, of course — and keep stirring to make a thick sauce. Keep it thick.

Sautéed mushrooms and shrimp, waiting

Lightly season everything as you go with salt and pepper. You can add some parsley, oregano, or chervil to the sauce — or whatever herbs or spices you want.

Layers of mushrooms and shrimp on the bottom crust

Then you just have to put the pie together. Cut circles out of the pastry. On the bottom crust, spread a thin layer of the cream sauce. Arrange the mushrooms on top of that. Add a little more sauce if you want, and then make a layer of shrimp over all. If you want, you can cut the shrimp in half lengthwise before putting them on top of the mushrooms, to make them thinner and approximate the same shape as the mushrooms.

Spoon some of the cream sauce over the filling ingredients
before putting the top crust on the pie.

With both layers of the filling in place, spoon some more sauce over the top. Don't overdo it, because you don't want it to come running out of the pie as it cooks. That's why it needs to be thick.

Put on the top crust. Seal the edges with some beaten egg, and then decorate it if you are so inclined. Paint the top with some more beaten egg, and then bake the pie in a hot oven for 30 to 45 minutes, until it is golden brown. The filling is all already cooked, so you don't have to worry about that. It will heat through as the pastry shell cooks.

Shrimp and mushroom pie
I guess you could call it a potpie...

Let the pie rest for 10 minutes or so when it comes out of the oven. It'll be easier to cut after it rests. Thin the remaining cream sauce a little with milk and serve it on the side.

You could make the same pie with poached chicken breast. Or with mushrooms and vegetables, and no meat at all. Anything that would be good in a cream sauce would be good in this pie.

23 January 2009


It's a wet and windy day in Saint-Aignan. It's the kind of day when you just want to pull the covers up over you head and stay in bed. The temperature is up to 12ºC — that's the mid-50s F.

The view through the bedroom window this morning

Or, if you do haul your carcass out of bed, then you want to cook something good. At least I do. Well, I'm obviously up and moving around, so you can guess what my project is this morning: lunch. Something with shrimp, mushrooms, shallots, cream, and flaky pastry — pâte feuilletée.

This morning's French weather map

I see that much of the U.S. is damp right now too. Wherever you are, eat something warm, tasty, and nourishing, and be patient. Spring is right around the corner.

22 January 2009

Blog convergences

Last Sunday Walt was on his computer "twittering" with his Twitter friends, including Loulou of the Chez Loulou food and photography blog. I was in the kitchen making Red Beans and Rice. It turned out that Loulou was also making Red Beans and Rice that day. As far as I know, it was purely a coincidence.

Haricots roses stand in for red beans

After all, Loulou used to live in New Orleans, so it wouldn't be surprising for her to be cooking Louisiana food. I never lived there, but I've been to Louisiana a few times in my life. Here is Loulou's post about Red Beans and Rice.

Brined pork belly and smoked Montbéliard sausages
from Chez Doudouille at the Saint-Aignan market

My inspiration for making beans, sausages, and rice was an e-mail that I had received a few days earlier from another blogger, Elise in California. I'm on her mailing list, and glad of it. She is the author of the Simply Recipes blog, which is a treasure of food ideas — as is Chez Loulou. Elise posted a Red Beans and Rice recipe on January 14, billing it as "a Southern classic." Maybe Loulou had seen it too.

Pink beans, sausages, and pork belly

Another coincidence was that I had bought a kilogram of dried pink beans — haricots roses — on a shopping expedition in Blois a few days earlier. After getting Elise's mailing I consulted Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen cookbook and The Joy of Cooking. I didn't have any Cajun spice mixes, but that wouldn't stop me, because in the kitchen cabinets we had plenty of the right kinds of spices and herbs — thyme, bay leaves, hot paprika, smoked paprika, and so on. I like to improvise in the kitchen, anyway.

Pink beans and rice

My conclusion from looking at all these recipes was that Red Beans and Rice is just what we would have called "a pot of beans" when I was growing up. So I made a pot of beans with a few Louisiana-type spices thrown in for added flavor. And with some French ingredients.

Poitrine de porc demi-sel is better than
any salt pork I've ever eaten in the U.S.

The day before, I had gone to the outdoor market in Saint-Aignan to get some meat. Red Beans and Rice calls for smoked pork — hamhocks or pork shanks, for example — and smoked Andouille sausage, a Louisiana specialty. I couldn't get that kind of Andouille, but I could get good French smoked sausages in the form of saucisses de Montbéliard. That would provide plenty of smokiness, so I asked for a piece of brined pork, porc demi-sel, to go with them and the beans.

The Chez Doudouille charcuterie stand was the source of all the meats. There I not only get good pork products but good conversation when "Madame Doudouille" isn't too busy to have time to chat. We talked about her daughter's struggles with learning English at school, her upcoming trip to England, and her burning desire to travel to the States.

Leftovers: beans and sausages with some
cooked diced carrots added, and served
with polenta (yellow grits) cooked with cheese

So there it is. Red Beans and Rice inspired by one blog and cooked on the same day another blogger was making the same thing. It's a virtual world with so many more connections than ever in the past. But good cooking requires real products, and the quality of the foods I find here in France are one of the main reasons I live here. But I don't think I'd enjoy life nearly as much without the Internet and blogs, or without the variety of good foods available here.