26 February 2009


There are a lot of birds here in Carteret County, N.C. But a friend told me today that the mockingbirds seem to have disappeared from the area, and there aren't many cardinals any more. Some suppose that their range has shifted north, because of climate change. The cardinal is North Carolina's state bird.

But there are still plenty of gulls. They are beggars. And scavengers. And fishers too, I guess. They swoop, soar, and screech. We saw a lot of them at the beach today.

25 February 2009

Oysters and scallops

Oysters and scallops used to be plentiful in the waters of Carteret County, North Carolina, where I grew up. During all of the 20th century, many of the roads in the fishing villages Down East were "paved" with their empty shells. They are still so used, but on a more limited scale.

Nowadays, the scallop harvest is very small. That's because, they say, so many of the big sharks have been killed off. The sharks ate the rays that eat the scallops. No sharks, too many rays, no scallops. There are still plenty of oysters, but how long will they last? They aren't farmed the way they are along the French coast.

24 February 2009

The first robin

Maybe this is the first robin of spring. It's the first one I've noticed here in North Carolina.

It's an American robin, which is related to the merle, the European blackbird. European robins are a different bird entirely.

23 February 2009

Still quiet

Having a good time in Carteret County, North Carolina, but not motivated to blog. Transferring many old VHS tapes to DVD, and that's working despite a few glitches.

Tomorrow my sister and I are going to drive down to the eastern end of the county, which is basically a string of old fishing villages along US Hwy 70. The road winds through salt marshes full of birds (and mosquitoes in summer). Maybe I'll be inspired to take some pictures. Our destination will be the little town of Atlantic, N.C., which nearly the end of the road.

Carteret County, N.C., is more water than land — what
shows as land on the map is more salt marsh than terra firma.

I have some older topics about eastern Carteret County here and here and here.

I've been to one restaurant since I've been here, and I wouldn't recommend it at all. Very disappointing. I also bought some carry-out pork barbecue and hushpuppies from a local restaurant, and that was excellent. Perfect with coleslaw and perfect with collard greens.

It's fun just to sit with my mother and sister and other family members and talk over old times. We're comparing memories, and it's amazing how the details can vary from one person to another. Sometimes the memories are complementary, helping us piece together a story, and sometimes they are simply contradictory. But we don't argue — we just laugh about how different our versions of a given story can be.

20 February 2009

Taking a blogging break

I haven't taken any pictures since I got to N.C., and I haven't yet had a meal in a restaurant. My sister has come to dinner every night this week, and we have been eating in. Yesterday I poached a chicken and then browned it in the oven. We had that with our "incarceration collard greens." Boy was it good.

I'm busy transferring old home videos from VHS tapes to DVD using my mother's computer and VCR. It's a nice activity that is not too labor-intensive and gives us a chance just to sit and talk most of the day.

So I'm taking a break from blogging, if you want to see what the central North Carolina coast looks like, you can take a look at my blog from past visits.

19 February 2009

You're not in France any more

Thunderstorms in the evening in February. That doesn't happen in Saint-Aignan, but that's what we had last night on the North Carolina coast.

Six hours of heavy rain at one stretch. That seldom happens in Saint-Aignan either. The fact is, the annual rainfall total here in N.C. is 3x what it is in the Loire Valley.

Collards from a prison farm. You wouldn't get that in Saint-Aignan. My mother does volunteer work at a "food mission" where people in need — des cas sociaux, in French, I think — can get free groceries for themselves and their families. Yesterday, a prisoner who grows collard greens for the prison cafeteria came in, with his guard, to donate fresh produce to the mission in exchange for some canned goods, bread, and sweets. Since the food mission is only open three days a week (Mon., Wed., Fri.), some of the volunteers got to take some fresh greens home. We cleaned and cooked collard greens last night. No, I'm not in Saint-Aignan.

My sister brought her 4-year-old granddaughter over to my mother's in the evening. She wanted to "meet" me because she had been hearing for days that I would soon be visiting. When she came into the room, she eyed me shyly. Then my sister said, "Do you remember him?" — I've met her two or three times in the past but she doesn't remember. I was sitting on the sofa. She walked over to me, hugged me, and said "Grandpa!" Ouch! As I hugged her I whispered in her ear, "No, I'm Uncle Kenny, not your Grandpa. Your grandmother is my sister." She seemed to understand. She's very cute.

I haven't seen the ocean yet. Maybe today. The beach here runs east to west, facing south. So even if I squint, I won't be able to see France. Maybe Florida.

18 February 2009

Evening in Paris

I think that was that famous French perfume they used to sell in America, wasn't it? "Evening in Paris" — I used to joke that it cost a quarter a quart. My mother just said she found an Evening in Paris bottle under her house one time, in the crawl space. And right next to it was an old poison bottle with a skull and crossbones on it. I think whoever left them there was trying everything he could think of to kill the vermin that lived under there.

Anyway, that is irrelevant to this post. I'm in North Carolina for a couple of weeks, but I didn't do much of interest yesterday, my first day here. I didn't take any pictures. Now they tell us that a steady rain is supposed to fall all day today, so chances are I won't take pictures today either. Temperature outside is 48ºF/9ºC.

A big hotel/restaurant on the Seine across the river
from Notre Dame cathedral

On Sunday, I spent the evening in Paris on my way to America. From Saint-Aignan, it's hard to take the train in the morning to get to CDG airport to catch an airplane leaving at mid-day. My plane left at 1:00 p.m. and that meant being at Roissy by about 11:00. My only real choice, to reduce the stress of worrying about missing the plane and losing all that money, was to go up to Paris the night before and spend the night in a hotel.

Paris for the evening. Poor me, right?

Hotel on the Rue des Carmes, just off the Rue des Ecoles in Paris

I stayed at the Hôtel des Carmes, which is just off the Rue des Ecoles and just down the hill from the Panthéon. Friends of ours have been staying there for years, and I stayed once before, back in 2007. The price is right for central Paris — 82€ a night for a single room on the courtyard. Very quiet. The room I had had recently been redone and was very comfortable. Phone, flat-panel TV, nice little bathroom with a good shower.

I could even walk from the Gare d'Austerlitz, where my train from Blois pulled in, to the hotel, pulling my suitcase behind me. It took about half an hour. The weather was chilly, clear, and crisp.

I wandered through the nearby streets and
came upon the Caveau des Oubliettes...

After I got settled in, I went for a walk to see about getting some dinner. I walked by a couscous restaurant on the Rue du Sommerard, over nearly nextdoor to the Cluny museum. It looked good, and I had read some good reviews of the place, called Jaafar. People said it was a really good value for the money. The little restaurant only has eight 4-person tables.

When I walked by, I notice that there were two people at each of the 4-person tables. I didn't really want to sit with other people, and I thought couscous might be a little heavy in my stomach the next morning, when I was going to take the train to the airport and then catch my flight.

The Village Ronsard restaurant on Place Maubert

So I walked around a little more. There was a French place on the rue des Ecoles that was a definite possibility. It was a little expensive, but it was open, and a lot of places are closed on Sundays. And then there was a café/brasserie down on the Place Maubert called the Village Ronsard. I had eaten a light supper there once before, and it seemed fine. It was open, and I liked the menu. It's only the equivalent of a city block from the Hôtel des Carmes.

So I went there. There were a few other customers. I ordered a fairly ordinary meal — a salad of tomatoes and mozzarella (even though it is not at all tomato season), and then a pavé de rumsteak - frites — a thick cut of beefsteak with french fries. Well, it was all delicious, in that inexpensive French café kind of way.

The famous Rue de La Huchette in the Latin Quarter

There were some people from England at another table. They were in their late 20s or early 30s, I'd estimate, and two of them ordered beef as well. One asked for the same steak I got, and she wanted it « bien bien bien bien cuit », she said. That's basically what we would call "cremated" here in eastern North Carolina.

Another ordered steak tartare. If you know what that is, you'll be surprised to hear that when the waiter brought is plate, he sent it back and asked if they could cook it for him! I heard him tell his companions that he would have eaten it except that he could see some blood in the meat. What did he expect when he ordered raw beef?

Le Village Ronsard attracted me partly because of the name. Ronsard was the great Renaissance poet who lived in the Touraine, where we live now. I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc wine from Quincy, which is a vineyard about 35 miles east of Saint-Aignan.

Place Maubert is also the area where I stayed the very first time I was in Paris, back in late 1969 and early 1970. I used to go to a fleabag hotel called Le Pierwige, not 30 steps from Le Village Ronsard café. I have a sentimental attachment to the neighborhood. I turned 21 in 1970.

Notre Dame on a cold Sunday evening

After dinner, I took a walk over to Notre Dame, only 10 minutes away, to soak up the ambience. There was a definite chill in the air. I had a heavy coat but no hat or gloves, so I didn't stay out too long. Just long enough to snap a few pictures around the neighborhood, which I include here.

It turned out I should have ordered my steak "cremated" as well, like the British woman. It was very rare, and I'm sure it was the reason that I felt pretty queasy all during the 24 hours it took me to get from Paris to coastal North Carolina. I'm still in recovery mode — jet-lagged and digestively fragile.

17 February 2009

Three takeoffs, three landings

Here I am in North Carolina. It only took me 36 hours to get here! That was three planes, two 45-minute drives, two 45-minute walks, and a 1-hour and a 2-hour train ride. Not to mention interminable waiting around in airports. If I had felt better, it wouldn't have been so tiring. I think it was something I ate that put me out of sorts.

I'll be blogging again soon, I think. But right now I'm too jet-lagged.


Our friend John H. in California, who grew up in New Orleans, left a comment here a few days ago and gave us the address of a web site called Nola Cuisine (link). I took a look around the site and got this recipe for Chicken and Shrimp Jambalaya (link). Walt had been talking about making jambalaya for a few weeks, actually.

Everything has been sautéed and now it's ready for the oven.

Well, it's really good. It's kind a Louisiana version of the Spanish dish called paëlla (French spelling?) — rice, smoked sausage, chicken shrimp, and aromatics including onions, celery, and green bell pepper. Not to mention spices and herbs.

Here's what it looks like when it comes out of the oven.

We basically followed the recipe. I substituted French Montbéliard smoked sausage for the Louisiana andouille sausage, because that's what we can get. And I substituted thick-sliced poitrine fumée for the tasso ham. We had chicken, of course, and shrimp. I used round (short-grain) rice and canned tomatoes (it's not the season for fresh tomatoes).

And here it is after the final cooking, with shrimp on top
and ready to be taken to the table.

It doesn't get much better than this. Don't skimp on the cayenne pepper, and serve Tabasco or Chipotle Tabasco sauce at the table.

16 February 2009

Not duck again...!?!

You know, I posted those three topics about duck (here, here, and here) and I negelected to get around to the choicest morsel available — the fattened liver, or « foie gras » (pronounced [fwah 'grah]). This is the delicacy that ducks are raised for.

"Ordinary" foie gras

Intermarché had two grades of foie gras on special last week. The first is just standard grade, called tout venant — the ordinary stuff. At just over $11.00 a pound, it's affordable, I guess.

"Extraordinary" foie gras

The higher grade, called extra — which in French means something like "choice" and is probably short for "extraordinary" — goes for $15.30 U.S. a pound. For the amount you are going to consume — very little — you might as well go for the extra stuff.

Duck carcasses come in two grades too.

The two final cuts of duck you can buy, at the opposite end of the price scale, are the carcasses. One is the whole duck minus the breast filets, and it's called a paletot, which means "the back" or "the coat." You get the leg & thigh sections plus the wings, along with the back.

If you just want the back — and it would be good for making duck broth or stock — ask for the « demoiselle de canard ». It's for the stockpot, or it can be grilled on the barbecue for those who like to pick bits of meat off the bones. I have friends who think nothing is better than that.

15 February 2009

Opening the shutters

Opening the shutters in the morning often reveals something surprising. Yesterday at about 8:00 a.m. I opened the ones on the bedroom window and saw that it was snowing. That was a surprise because it hadn't been predicted.

Opening the shutters and looking over
the back yard on Friday morning

On the morning news, it was reported that snow was falling in Paris and that the snowy weather was spreading southward toward the Massif Central, the Auvergne, which is south and east of Saint-Aignan. I guess were were right on the edge of it, and it snowed for a couple of hours.

Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher on a cold February morning

I needed to go to Intermarché to get some groceries. On the way, I stopped and took a picture of the Saint-Aignan "skyline" — the church, the château, and the quays along the Cher River. The snow was already changing over to cold rain. The parking lot at Intermarché was a veritable skating rink when I arrived, but a lot of the ice had melted by the time I finished shopping.

14 February 2009

Nearly trampled

Thursday afternoon when I took Callie out for her afternoon walk, she turned right as we went out the back gate. That means she wants to go out around the north edge of the vineyard rather than walk on the gravel road. And that's fine with me.

Over on the north edge, however, is a big fenced-in enclosure where a donkey lives and grazes. Actually, we don't see the donkey that much these days. It seems to stay up close to its owner's house, on the other side of a stand of aspen trees that's inside the enclosure. We hear it braying nearly every day, though.

Here comes the donkey, trying to scare me away, I think.

So the dog and I were walking along the barbed-wire fence and the dog was behind me. Suddenly I heard something or saw movement out of the corner of my eye. It was the old gray donkey, and it was obvioulsy charging toward something.

That "something" was Callie. She had slipped through the barbed wire and was on donkey territory. I yelled at Callie, in English: "Callie, get out of there!" It's not the first time she's gone under the fence and not the first time I've yelled at her to come back out. But it might have been her first encounter with the donkey.

Once Callie and I moved away, the donkey calmed down.

The donkey was right behind her, stamping and stomping. But a terrified Callie quickly managed to scoot under the fence again, to safety. She wasn't ever in real danger. I don't know if you know it, but donkeys are famous for not tolerating dogs, especially dogs they don't know, and they will stomp them to death if they can.

Four or five years ago, our other dog, Collette, saw the donkey one day — we had recently arrived at La Renaudière — and thought it would be fun to go chase it. Collette was 12 or 13 years old at the time. She wiggled under the barbed wire and headed for the donkey. The donkey saw her and turned and charged. Collette panicked and then couldn't find a way to get back under the fence to escape.

Fortunately, it wasn't sunset for Callie that day.

I finally had to lean over the barbed wire and pull Collette out bodily. At the time, I thought the whole incident was funny. Then I mentioned it in an e-mail or on a forum to an American woman who lives up near Paris and who has (or did have) a donkey herself. She clued me in.

Don't put your dog at risk, she said. A donkey will try its best to trample a dog. Mules will do the same. It's very dangerous. I just did some reading on a horses and donkeys Internet forum and got confirmation of that. One woman said her donkey has already killed one little dog by stomping on it, and it has tried to trample others.

13 February 2009

This duck is cooked

Yesterday I forgot to mention that those duck breast filets from the French Sud-Ouest carry an IGP label. It's on the ad. IGP is a European label that means Indication Géographique Protégée. It is awarded to products associated with particular geographic areas, and is related to the French Label Rouge and Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (A.O.C.) labeling standards.

Rendered duck fat for cooking and seasoning other foods

So just when you thought that was more duck that you could imagine, you turn the page in the supermarket advertising flyer and come upon a range of cooked duck products that are also being featured this week. The first is rendered duck fat, which is great for cooking potatoes or duck or chicken, and is good for seasoning beans, greens, and other cooked vegetables.

Rillettes de canard — potted duck to spread on bread or toast

One way to use duck fat, probably combined with pork fat, is to make rillettes, or potted meat. Rillettes can be made from pork, duck, goose, rabbit, or chicken. To make them, you cook lean meat in fat and liquid until the meat starts to fall apart. You shred it with forks or your fingers and let it cool in as much fat as you want to leave in it. It's not pâté, exactly, but you eat it the way you eat pâté, on bread, toast, or crackers.

Duck pelures, or peelings, which you can render to make duck fat

If you need duck fat and want to make your own, you can buy what they call duck "peelings" — pieces of duck skin with a layer of fat of fat attached. You can cook them down in a saucepan with a little water to melt the fat. And you can make cracklings out of the skin.


Speaking of cracklings, here are some. They are duck skin cooked in fat or in the over until crispy. The dictionary lists grattons as a regional word and says the grattons are a little like rillons, which are chunks of slow-cooked pork.

Parmentier, a kind of shepherd's pie

Once you've slow-cooked a duck in its own fat, you have made confit de canard. One way to use the duck confit is to strip the meat of the bones after it has cooled and shred it. Then you can used it the way you would use ground beef or lamb to make a kind of shepherd's pie. Or you can just buy it, parmentier de canard, already made for you. Antoine Parmentier was the agronomist who introduced potatoes into the French diet a few hundred years ago — hence the name of the dish.

A stuffed duck's neck

Finally, what about a stuffed duck's neck? You remove the neck itself, including the bones of course, from the bird's neck skin and then you stuff the skin with ground duck or pork and aromatics. You tie off the ends, making a kind of sausage, and poach it in duck or chicken broth. Bon appétit !

12 February 2009

Everything but the quack

Yesterday I included pictures of duck leg & thigh sections (cooked and uncooked), breast filets, and the whole bird to show how ducks are prepared and sold at our Intermarché supermarket. You might have thought that was already a pretty good selection of products.

Medium-priced duck breast filets of unspecified French origin

But wait. The magrets ("lean pieces") I pictured yesterday are just one of the three grades of duck breast filets advertised during the sale. Those are the least expensive ones. They are of vague European Union origin, while the other two grades are French. Since you normally eat duck breast cooked pretty rare, you might want to buy the most expensive ones (assuming that the highest price means the highest quality).

Duck breast filets from the French southwest region

The highest-priced duck breast filets are marked as not just of French origin but as coming from the Sud-Ouest, the southwest of France. That's where a lot of ducks are raised and where duck makes up a big part of the people's diet. The Sud-Ouest includes the Dordogne, the Lot, Basque Country, the area around Toulouse, and the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, down along the Spanish border.

Another morsel that is very tender and delicious is the duck "tenderloin" or « aiguillette » (it's needle-shaped, and "needle" in French is aiguille) . This cut is nearly as expensive as the finest breast pieces, and it comes from French producers too. The way I've had them cooked is in a cream sauce, served with pasta, rice, or potatoes.

Duck wings are a lot less expensive than the
breast pieces — about $0.86/lb.

If you want to make confit de canard, which is duck pieces cooked long and slow in duck fat, you can buy leg & thigh sections — les cuisses — of course, but you can also buy wing sections, or manchons. The wing sections would also be good cooked to make a broth or soup.

Fresh duck gizzards go for about $3.25/lb.

And finally, the real delicacies: gizzards and hearts. These need to be cooked as confit, too, very slowly and for a long time in duck fat, because that tenderizes them. Both are very tough muscles and need long cooking. So why not in duck fat?

The hearts cost a little less than the gizzards.

Properly cooked, though, both are delicious. I've blogged about serving the gizzards (gésiers) as part of a summer salad or winter salad, or served hot with chicken and vegetables. You can buy them already cooked, either shrink-wrapped or in tins, or you can buy fresh ones and cook them yourself.

One recipe I've seen says to thinly slice the duck hearts and then sauté or grill them quickly, maybe on skewers. It says to cook them quickly and serve them medium rare, so that they don't have time to toughen up. I've never tried that. Maybe this is my opportunity.

11 February 2009

Duck from the supermarket

One of the things I like about our local Intermarché store is its « marché frais » — fresh products — advertising and specials. The store sends out a special flyer every few weeks focused on meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruits, breads, and wines that are on sale at reduced prices.

The actual products on sale vary from season to season. Besides ducks, this week they have leeks, Belgian endives, and shallots on special. Those would probably be considered local, seasonal products (if you consider Belgium, northern France, and Brittany local). They also have specials on avocados from Israel and bananas from the Americas. Those are not exactly local.

This week, Intermarché is having a sale on fresh ducks. It seems to be mostly what they call « canards gras » — I think those are the ducks that are fattened for foie gras production.

Whole ducks, ready for the oven

If you want a whole duck, minus the liver, heart, and gizzard, it will cost you €2.85 a kilogram. That would be about $1.70 U.S. per pound at the current exchange rate of $1.30 to €1.00. Such a deal.

Duck leg & thigh sections cost about the same
and are great for making confit de canard.

Remember that a "fat" or "fattened" duck, a canard gras, has a layer of fat over the breast, thighs, and legs. You can trim off most of it before cooking the duck and then render the fat (melt it). Or you can just cook the duck very slowly to render the fat.

The magret de canard — the breast, which is « maigre »,
or lean — costs a lot more, about $4.90/lb. Notice the E.U
origins of these filets. They are not produced in France.

If you drain the fat away before you eat the duck, then you can use the rendered duck fat for frying potatoes, seasoning cooked vegetables, or making slow-cooked, preserved confit de canard. It will keep indefinitely in a sealed jar in the refrigerator. Here's an older topic about making confit out of a duck.

Fattened ducks' legs sold already slow-cooked
and preserved in duck fat

It's interesting that you can buy duck legs that have already been slow-cooked in fat for less than half the price you'd pay for fresh duck legs. I assume that's because the cooked product has vague European Union origins, while the fresh pieces are « Origine France ». Whether that makes them better or not, I'm not sure, but I'm sure it makes people think the ducks are raised and butchered under stricter sanitary conditions.

Besides, everybody knows it's better if you cook it yourself.

To be continued...

10 February 2009

Power is back on

Our electricity just came on about 15 minutes ago (just before 6:00 p.m.). It went off just after midnight, so that's an 18-hour outage. The winds last night were pretty strong, but we didn't have any damage. A couple of big branches broke out of an ailing apple tree in the back yard. It's one that we meant to get cut down in the fall. Now we mean to cut it down in the spring.

We didn't lose any roof tiles. A few limbs blew out of other trees around the yard, but nothing to write home about. In fact, we haven't heard of any major local damage from the storm, though winds around here were reported to be as high as 125 kph, or 78 mph. Our bedroom window sounded like it was buckling under the force of the wind, or the pressure differences between inside and outside. It was enough to make us worry...

Thank goodness for the wood-burning stove and the butane cook stove. Today we had a lunch of leftovers, but hot leftovers. And we were able to heat water for tea this morning. Walt made a fire in the wood stove first thing so the house has been warm all day.

The neighbor across the street, Chantal, called twice today to see if we had current or not. She wanted to make sure the problem at her house wasn't hers alone. She sounded pretty exasperated when she called the second time, at about 4:30 p.m. I assured her that we had checked our circuits and confirmed that there just wasn't any current coming to the house.

I also told her I assumed that since our mayor lives right next door, she would be doing everything possible to get our electricity turned back on as soon as possible. Chantal harrumphed and said she didn't understand why it would take so long. I'm beginning to understand why the neighbors find her and her mother difficult to deal with.

It turned out that just three hamlets — La Renaudière, La Chotinière, and La Besnardière — were without current. That's probably not more than 30 houses. Another neighbor, Daniel, told me that François down at the end of our road had electricity all day. The story is that a wire down at La Chotinière was taken down by a falling tree or branch. It took them all day to get to repairing it, but it's done now.

We are happy because there's a film on TV tonight that we wanted to watch. It's a historical docu-fiction about king Louis XIII's finance minister, the cardinal Mazarin, and his relationship with the queen, Anne of Austria, after the kings death in 1642. Louis XIII and Anne were Louis XIV's parents, and he was the Sun King. Exciting, eh?

Stormy weather

It's early Monday afternoon and we are watching the journal télévisé on France 2 TV. All the news is about a big windstorm we are supposed to have starting about nightfall today.

We may not have electricity tomorrow morning so I thought I'd post this now for delayed publication tomorrow morning.

Météo France has posted this map showing wind speeds tonight.
The number in red shows gusts as opposed to sustained winds.
It's all in kilometers per hour, of course — 100 kph = 60 mph.

Winds at Saint-Aignan are supposed to be as high as 70 mph — hurricane force is 74 mph — for several hours starting around midnight. We have two huge cedar trees just next to our house, and in these situations we always cross our fingers that they will not blow over. We'll probably be up all night.

Our neighbor has two very tall pine trees right next to his house, and we hope those won't fall on his place. And we hope our roof tiles won't start flying all around the hamlet. Temperatures are supposed to be in the high 40s or low 50s F.

With any luck, the storm will be less intense than predicted, or it will go north of us. We'll see. More tomorrow.

P.S. 6:30 p.m. No significant wind yet, though it has been raining off and on all afternoon.

09 February 2009

Oysters Rockefeller

On Saturday we made Oysters Rockefeller. It was on the list — the list of foods and dishes that we want to remember to make and enjoy eating one day soon, when we get around to it. Still on the list are clams casino, for example, along with brandade de morue, alouettes sans tête, and British steak and kidney pie.

Fines de claire no. 3 from the Ile d'Oléron

So it was time to make Oysters Rockefeller. We went to the market in Montrichard on Friday and bought two dozen « fines de claire » oysters, no. 3 in size (medium), from a man who brings them up here from the little fishing port called La Cotinière on the Ile d'Oléron. Fines de claire are oysters that have been fattened in salt ponds for at least a month before being taken to market. The man was selling them for €3.90 a dozen.

Stuff the oysters with a spinach mixture.

I looked around on the Internet for recipes and found several (here's one). I also looked in the Joy of Cooking and in one of Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana cookbooks. Prudhomme didn't have a recipe, but Joy did. They say Oysters Rockefeller was first concocted at the famous New Orleans restaurant called Antoine's, but that restaurant keeps its recipe a secret.

Here's the Joy of Cooking recipe.

Most of the recipes call for stuffing raw oysters on the half-shell with a mixture of spinach, shallots or green onions, bread crumbs, butter, parsley, crumbled bacon, and a little melted butter, Tabasco sauce, and Pastis (the anise-flavored alcohol). Some say to add some watercress and ground fennel seeds, and some even say don't use spinach at all, just parsley and other fresh herbs. Some reports say Antoine's version never used spinach.

You buzz the spinach and other ingredients up in a food processor until you have a thick, finely chopped mixture that is almost a paste. You open the oysters and lay them out in their bottom shell on a rack or on a layer of coarse salt on a baking sheet (so they won't fall over). And then you bake them for about 10 minutes in a 450ºF/230ºC oven.

Sprinkle grated cheese over the top and put them in a hot oven.

Oh, another optional ingredient is grated parmesan, which you sprinkle on top of the stuffed oysters before putting them in the oven. We had just bought some Parmigiano Reggiano and some Pecorino Romano at Intermarché up in Contres (it was part of a special sale of Italian products in that supermarket chain last week), so we used a blend of those on our oysters.

Oysters Rockefeller — the Saint-Aignan version

So the pictures show the result. I had never made Oysters Rockefeller before, and I'm not sure I will ever make them again. I won't say it was a waste of good oysters — but on some level, that's what I was thinking as we ate them. Walt said he thought this was a way for people who don't really like oysters to say that they eat them.

The taste is pretty much obliterated by the cheese, pastis, and hot-pepper sauce. I used frozen spinach, but I don't think fresh would have made much difference, considering all the strong flavors in the mixture. I think I overdid the bacon too — what I used was thick sliced poitrine fumée, and it was very salty. I should have blanched it before I grilled and then diced it.

So here I am thinking of ways to improve a recipe I just said I might never try again.

Anyway, give me a raw oyster on the half-shell any day. With just a few drops of lemon juice or shallot vinegar, some black pepper, and some bread and butter. And of course a good glass of Muscadet wine. That's a lot less trouble to make — either way, you have to shuck the oysters, and that's the hardest part — and it's more delicious if you like raw oysters.

08 February 2009

Small shops vs. supermarkets

The thing about shopping for food in small stores is that you have to walk from one store to the other. Are people really willing to do that much walking, outside in the weather, nowadays? Do they have time?

Everybody works, and by that I mean that in most modern couples both people have jobs. Fewer and fewer couples have the luxury of having one member of the household free to spend time shopping daily — not to mention cooking daily. We all know this.

February skies, Friday, 06 February 2009

Maybe we should set up a society in which there are dozens or scores of little drive-thru specialty shops. We could just drive from one to the other, ordering a nice head of lettuce and some carrots in first one, a chicken in the second, a bottle of wine in the third... Oops, what about the energy costs involved in all that? In this end-of-oil era, it's too late for that kind of progress.

It's nice to see some blue sky in winter.

Not only does it take a lot of time to walk from shop to shop, you have to stand in line in each shop and wait to be served. The food really has to be significantly better for customers to be willing to do that. And then you also have to carry all your purchases home with you. You can't buy much. So day after day, it's the same routine. Where's the romance in that?

Clouds to the northeast of La Renaudière

We had a neighbor in San Francisco who was of Italian extraction. Hers was an interesting story.

Diana's father had immigrated from Italy after World War I, learned some English, and decided he wanted to stay. He returned to Italy, married his childhood sweetheart, and brought her back to San Francisco to live. They ended up running a neighborhood grocery store in the city's Marina District, and living in an apartment over the store.

The neighborhood we and Diana lived in had been a blue-collar area where a lot of Italian (and other immigrant) families settled and raised families. Diana bought her house, new, in 1965, and still lives there, as far as I know.

She would tell me about "those old Italian peasant women" who lived in the neighborhood early on and who would trudge down a very steep hill for half a mile or so, do their shopping, and then lug bags of groceries back up that steep hill — maybe not daily, but several times a week. She admired them, but didn't want to emulate them.

Who is willing to do that any more? Nobody, now that we all have cars. Diana had a small Cadillac, in fact. She wasn't wealthy by any means. She had been in the neighborhood long enough to raise her sons and then watch the area "gentrify" — to see people like us, not blue collar but professionals, arrive in large numbers. There weren't many children in the neighborhood any more. Families had moved to the suburbs.

Sunset Friday 06 Feburary 2009

In Saint-Aignan (pop. 4,000, with another 6,000 in a radius of about 5 miles), the weekly market serves the needs of a lot of older people who live in town and don't drive. It also draws in people from the surrounding countryside, who drive to town and park. There are markets nearly every day in neighboring towns and villages, within 10 or 15 miles, but you have to drive to them of course. It can be fun to go to the big outdoor markets in Selles-sur-Cher, Loches, or Amboise on warm, sunny days, but it's more for the excursion and the "tourist" experience, and not a weekly or even monthly activity.

There are very few food shops left in the town of Saint-Aignan — the one I miss most is a good cheese shop, but there's a great cheese vendor at the Saturday market — and there is only one small supermarket in the town center. Another went out of business a few years ago, just as the two charcuterie (delicatessen) shops recently have shut down. It makes you wonder how much longer the butchers will be able to stay in business.

The weather turned colder on Saturday,
but the snow didn't stick.

At least two bread bakeries (boulangeries) have also disappeared over the past five years. Two have remained, and one bakery that was a pâtisserie, a pastry shop, was taken over a year or two ago by a boulanger, a bread baker — so that makes three bread bakeries in town. Plus four more within a couple of miles.

There is a new chocolate shop. Luxury products are the last refuge of small merchants who want to stay in business, I guess. For a while between 2004 and 2007, there was a shop specializing in locally grown, organic produce and local wines, but it only stayed in business for a year or two.

Meanwhile, a boulanger started a new business out in the vineyards, baking bread in wood-fired ovens in a new building. His shop is two or three miles from town, and a mile or two even from our village (where there is also a boulangerie — the one that delivers our bread).

Many wondered how the boulangerie in the vineyards would manage to survive. Well, the man wasn't crazy. It turns out that the little road he set up business on is on what passes for a major "commute route" in the area. There's a big home for mentally handicapped children just to the west, and a lot of the employees there come from Saint-Aignan and pass by the bakery every morning and every afternoon. There's ample parking.

The commuters, along with the occasional customers drawn to this baker's high-quality, out-of-the-ordinary baked goods, seem to be spending enough to keep him in business.

Toward sunset on Saturday, after a snowy day

You still see older women on bicycles riding along the main road into town. But not many. Everybody drives. Even on a bicycle, you can't carry a lot of stuff home. So you have to make a lot of trips to the stores. There is no public transportation any more — not since "everybody" can afford a car.

One good thing is that so many people around here, like us, have vegetable gardens in the summertime. With a few specialty shops, a good number of bakeries, and our gardens, we have easy access to all the food shopping points we need. But mostly by car — and that of course includes supermarkets.

By the way, I think the French invented the big-box combination store concept — stores selling sundries, hardware, groceries, meats, fish, cheese, and produce. Here such a store is called a hypermarché, a "hypermarket" (as opposed to a relatively puny supermarché). It was Carrefour that started the trend, I believe, and in America WalMart copied that with its supercenters. I may be wrong about that... We don't have WalMart in France.