31 March 2009

Vigna sinensis — field peas

One of the things I like about Southern U.S. food is the variety of beans available there. Field peas are one example. They're not peas but beans, by the way. In fact, the term "field peas" has at least three meanings.

Packed in South Carolina and purchased in North Carolina

For me and a lot of Southerners, field peas are a specific variety of the cowpea. Others varieties are the black-eyed pea and the crowder pea. Black-eyed peas are fairly well known across the U.S. nowadays (though they are not cooked and eaten in all regions equally), but crowder peas and field peas are mostly unknown outside the South, I'm sure. The "field peas" I know by that name are like red or dark brown black-eyed peas, with a similar but distinctly identifiable taste.

Field peas

I can buy dried black-eyed peas here in France, but not crowder or field peas. The black-eyes I get in Blois or in Paris are often ones that have been imported from Portugal. The French name for them is cornilles, but I bet a majority of French people are not familiar with that term. Here's the French Wikipedia entry. It calls them Vigna unguiculata subsp. unguiculata.

"Field pea" is also a generic term that is used more or less synonymously with the name cowpea to describe the many varieties of such beans that are grown in fields, as opposed to being grown in gardens, and are often dried for long-term storage. Field peas and crowder peas are also sold canned, frozen, and even fresh in the South.

The directions said to wash and rinse them well,
just as you would fresh vegetables.

Finally, field peas are also a variety of the green garden pea, Pisum sativa. This is a different plant entirely — what we used to call "English peas" in N.C. and are called petits pois in French. These field peas are the ones grown to be dried and become what we call split peas for making purees and soups. That's a topic for another day.

Cook field peas at a low simmer for 2 hours.
Taste them for doneness.

The name Vigna sinensis — black-eyed peas are the best known variety — indicates that these legumes originated in China. Many sources, however, say they originally came from Africa. They were brought to the U.S. South during the slave trade in the 1700s and became a staple food in the Southern states.

Never mind, by the way, that the book titled the Dictionary of American Food and Drink (1983) says cowpeas became "a staple of the Negro diet" in the South. While that's true, it ignores the fact that Southern foods like these and collard greens and grits were dietary staples for all Southerners of all races.

As the name "cowpea" implies, all these legumes called field peas were and probably are still used as fodder for livestock. They are also very good fodder for humans. The term "black-eyed pea" goes back to at least 1738. Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello.

French poitrine fumée — smoked pork belly

The 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking says that black-eyed peas and their cousins the cowpeas are members of the mung bean family. Those are the beans eaten mostly as sprouts in Chinese cooking. The Joy of Cooking also says that black-eyed peas and cowpeas "have a fuller vegetable flavor than most beans." I agree with that. And you don't need to soak them before cooking because they have thin skins.

When I was in North Carolina last month, I of course spent time exploring in the supermarkets, looking for foods that I don't find here in France. I came across a bag of dried field peas. I'm more used to buying them in cans. I bought the dried ones, and then I thought about how easy it would be to bring them back to France with me. So I did and I cooked them yesterday.

Another shot of that poitrine fumée

I just read this in an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (July 2008):
“Field peas have an affinity for smoked pig; it enhances their natural meatiness while at the same time providing a contrast to their more nuanced flavors. In my view, a pot of freshly shelled peas, slowly simmered with a piece of cured pork, is as iconically Southern as fried chicken or collard greens.”
I imagine that the author is talking about the same kind of field peas that I know from N.C. I hadn't read his recommendation about "smoked pig" before I cooked my field peas, but I knew that was the perfect combination.

Smoked pork products are so good in France. I know it's not good to eat them too often or in great quantity, but it would be hard to go without them. Smoked pork belly, called lard fumé or poitrine fuméepoitrine means breast — might be called slab bacon in the U.S., but it is hard to find slab bacon back there. Here, it's everywhere. You can cut it into thin slices and cook it like bacon, or into matchstick shapes to be used as lardons, or you can just use the slab like what we call "salt pork" in the U.S. South.

Field peas with smoked pig meat

And smoked sausages are amazing too. The best ones are the Montbéliard and Morteau sausages from eastern France. I've mentioned them many times in this blog. They go well with all sorts of beans — white beans, red kidney beans, black-eyed peas, and, of course, field peas.

30 March 2009

La Tartiflette — another “comfort food”

You might think it's not the season for such hearty dishes as potatoes au gratin, but let me tell you that the temperature in Saint-Aignan never got much above 45ºF yesterday afternoon.
Clouds rolled in before noon and hid the sun. As a result, our high was 9ºC, and that temperature lasted only an hour or so.

One tartiflette made with Coulommiers (Brie)...

It felt pretty chilly when I went out with the dog at 5:00 for the afternoon walk. And this morning's low temperature was 1.2ºC. There was a lot of frost out in the vineyard at 8:00 a.m.

So to get to the point: Maybe you've heard of the potato gratin called « la tartiflette ». If you live in France, I'm sure you have. It's a specialty of the Savoie region up in the Alps. It has been all the rage for at least the past 5 or 6 years, and you find it on many restaurant menus all around France.

...and another with Saint-Nectaire cheese

A couple of web sites I've looked at, including French Wikipedia and Chef Simon (recipe), say that tartiflette was invented in the 1980s as a way to help sell more of the cheese used to make it, Reblochon, a product of the Haute-Savoie area. In other words, it was a marketing tool for the local cheese producers.

Two variations on tartiflette

People who live in Savoie had never heard of tartiflette until it started appearing on restaurant menus in the big Alpine ski resorts. Like fondue savoyarde — cheese fondue — it's the kind of food that is particularly satisfying after you've spent a day outdoors in cold weather.

None of that makes tartiflette any less delicious. And it's a very simple thing to make.

Cook 1 kg (2 lbs.) of waxy potatoes at a low simmer for 20 minutes. Don't overcook them. When theyre done, take them out of the water and let them cool.

Peel and slice 2 medium onions and 4 cloves of garlic.

Cook the onions and garlic in butter with ¼ or even ½ lb. of smoked pork lardons (bacon cut into matchstick shapes) until the bacon starts to brown.

Add a cup of dry white wine to the pan and let the onions, garlic, and bacon mixture simmer for 5 minutes. You can add a pinch of dried time and a couple of bay leaves if you want.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into thick rounds.

Arrange half the potatoes in a layer in a baking dish. Pour the onion, garlic, and bacon mixture over all, with the liquid. Then spread a thick layer of crème fraîche over all.

Grate a little nutmeg over the cream (don't overdo it), sprinkle on some salt, and grind on some black pepper.

Arrange the rest of the potatoes in a second layer. Salt and pepper them. Add another layer of cream if you want.

Lay slices of cheese over the top. The idea is to use Reblochon cheese, which you cut in half through the middle so that you have two big, thin disks. (Here I'm using Coulommiers, a kind of Brie, instead of Reblochon.)

A lot of recipes say it is important to put the cheese cut-side down on top of the potatoes, and a lot of other recipes say it is important to put the cheese crust-side down.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. Another option is to cut the crust completely off the cheese, as I did with the Saint-Nectaire cheese in the picture above.

Put the baking dish (or dishes) in a 350ºF (180ºC) oven for about 30 minutes or until the cheese is lightly browned. As you see, I made two tartiflettes because I had two different cheeses I wanted to use.

Two tartiflettes
I didn't use Reblochon cheese — I didn't have any. But I had a big piece of Brie (Coulommiers, really) and a chunk of Saint-Nectaire. Not having the exact ingredients never stops me from making a recipe.

Sorry for all the pictures, but I thought they were all so appetizing!

What I've given here isn't a recipe, really, but a method. Adapt it to your ingredients and preferences. Substitute liquid heavy cream for the crème fraîche. Add other herbs or spices. Leave out the nutmeg. Leave out the bacon. Use the cheese you like or have on hand. Find the combination you like and make it yours, or vary the recipe each time you make it.

29 March 2009

There's that solved then...

Well, at least partially. Yesterday we finally got a letter from the CPAM saying that our health insurance has been renewed. We'd been waiting since December, when we had several meetings with CPAM representatives in their offices in Blois, Montrichard, and Saint-Aignan. The insurance has to be renewed annually.

The CPAM is the Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie, an arm of the French Sécurité Sociale system. The main office for our département is in Blois, our administrative "capital" for government services. There are branch offices open just one or two days a week in smaller towns like ours.

If you enlarge the picture by clicking on it, you can see Walt
and Callie leaving for their afternoon walk in the vineyard.

Here's what happened. We signed up with the French national health service in early 2006. Before that, we didn't know we qualified for coverage, and we had taken out expensive policies with private U.S. insurance companies that didn't cover much — only "major medical" and I think means hospitalization. No doctor's or dentist's fees, or prescription medications, were reimbursed, and there were restrictions having to do with pre-existing medical conditions. There were also very high deductibles.

When Walt read on a Sécurité Sociale web site one day that we were eligible for national health insurance because we were legal French residents, we got the necessary papers together, filled out applications, and sent everything off to the CPAM. A few weeks later, we got a notice that we had been granted basic coverage at 70%, and not only for hospitalization but for all those things the U.S. policies didn't cover.

A late March sunset seen through the linden tree

For a couple of years, things went along smoothly. We soon each received a Carte Vitale, which is the national insurance card you present at the doctor's, dentist's, and pharmacy to prove you are covered. Doctors and dentists require you to pay the full fee and then get reimbursed, but at the pharmacy you pay only your portion of the cost of prescription drugs.

Then in late 2007, we started getting letters and phone calls from the CPAM asking us to provide, over and over again, the same documents having to do with our income and resources. We sent in copies of tax forms and bank statements time and time again. At first I was the one they targeted, and then they started asking Walt for the same kinds of documents.

A plum tree in flower in the neighbors' yard

The upshot of it all was that the CPAM inspectors eventually realized that Walt and I live a the same address. They said that in cases like ours, people are required to enroll in the insurance system on a single social security number, not two separate numbers.

In other words, we had enrolled as individuals, thinking that was the right thing to do — officially, our only relationship is a business partnership, since we are joint owners of, and equal partners in, the real estate corporation that owns our house. But the CPAM wanted us enrolled as a household.

Why? Because when you enroll under the plan we qualify for, as people who do not have employers in France, you pay a percentage of your worldwide income as an insurance premium. But the first $10K of your income is exempt, whether you are an individual or a household. Now we will pay a premium based on our combined worldwide income, I believe, minus the $10K (€8K) exemption.

March skies

In December, we learned that one of us had to surrender his Carte Vitale temporarily, while our accounts were being consolidated. We decided that it made sense for both of us to enroll under my SS number, because I also have a small French retirement pension on my Sécurité Sociale account. I wouldn't want that to get lost in some administrative shuffle if I enrolled under Walt's number.

So they took Walt's card away. They never gave us a clear answer as to whether they had other reasons for asking so many questions about our income and financial resources. We waited.

In the interim, they gave Walt a certificate that he could present at the doctor's and the pharmacy to show that he had coverage. That worked fine through January and February, but about a month ago he got a new certificate in the mail. It said it superseded any earlier certificates he had received, and that the latter should be destroyed.

Jonquils and woodpiles in the neighbors' yard

When I went to the pharmacy a couple of weeks ago, Madame Smith, our pharmacist, looked at the new certificate (an « attestation ») and said it wouldn't do at all because it didn't show a date when coverage started. In that box, instead of a date, it said « à justifier ». "To be justified," but how?

Mme Smith went ahead and processed our order, putting the paperwork for Walt's in a special "pending" file she keeps. She asked me to come back as soon as I got any new documents from the CPAM. A few days later I ran into her on the street in Saint-Aignan, and she told me she had called the CPAM about Walt's case. "It isn't easy to get the information you need from them," she told me. I said I knew that.

Our back yard with the forsythia in bloom

A few days later I did get a letter from the CPAM. It said I had been enrolled for basic coverage and that I should go the the pharmacy to have my Carte Vitale updated — the pharmacist runs it through a special card reader and the update is done. I showed the letter to Mme Smith yesterday morning, and she was mystified.

The letter didn't say why my card needed updating, Mme Smith said. But after she ran it through the machine, she opened my social security file on the Internet and saw that under my number both Walt and I are now covered. She said it seemed strange that the CPAM didn't specify that change in the letter.

Anyway, Mme Smith was able to process Walt's pending reimbursement claim using my card. And when I got home the mail came, bringing a new insurance certificate from the CPAM. It shows both our names under my Sécurité Sociale number. Now when Walt goes to the dentist's next week he can have his claim processed normally.

He just needs to wait for his new card to come in the mail — every adult who's covered by the national system has his or her own card.

Trees in early spring

And then we will see what the CPAM decides after they've examined the documents we've sent showing our income and resources. They looked through our passports and took photocopies to make sure we really are living more than six months of the year in France. That's a requirement for coverage.

So far we haven't paid anything for health insurance coverage since 2006. That may change, I think. The French government is tightening up the system. If the charge is too high, we might have to look into private insurance again.

28 March 2009


It didn't rain yesterday but it threatened to rain for most of the day. And, to be honest, the sun came out several times, for as long as 30 minutes at a time. During one such "sun shower," I hurried out and did some gardening. I turned the earth, pulled out weeds and grasses, and planted some Black-Eyed Susan seeds.

When your main daily activities are blogging and cooking, getting some outdoor time is important. Well, really, I walk the dog every day, rain or shine. I guess what is important is feeling like some progress is being made in the garden. Otherwise it looks too abandoned and neglected.

Flowering cherry — pinks today

Blogging is not very satisfying right now. I don't feel I have much of interest to write about, but I always have photos. Cooking is always satisfying, but you can't launch into big recipes and productions every single day. Otherwise, you'd never get any blogging or gardening done at all.

Gardening is the hardest activity to schedule, because it's so completely dependent on the weather. That seems obvious, but unless you depend on gardening for a big part of your entertainment, you might not realize what that weather-dependence means.

Peach blossoms

It means you can't just decide "to go to work" and get things done whenever the mood strikes or the need becomes obvious. And besides, the plants themselves don't like the weather for a good part of the year. So you have two constraints on your time and activities. You don't want to go out in it, and neither do the plants.

Maybe it's the Loire Valley climate. At any season, the grass is green, the hedge is leafy, and the ground is soft enough to dig in. Spells of freezing weather are sporadic and unpredictable from November through April, however, so you have to be patient and cautious when it comes to putting plants outside. Resisting the urge to plant early is the key to garden success in Saint-Aignan. Or one of the keys.


That was a big change for us, coming from San Francisco, where it basically never freezes. We could garden year 'round. And go to work, of course — we had full-time jobs. Nevertheless, this is the life we decided to live. Gardening, shopping, cooking, fixing up a house, working in the yard, gardening, taking care of a dog, and walking two or three miles a day. Not working for somebody else, not driving on freeways in traffic jams.

And we decided to do it in what is really northern France, even though they call it the Centre. There are few cypress and olive trees here to spoil my springtime with noxious pollen. When there's a strong southerly flow, I remember why we didn't settle in the mythical South of France.

View from neighbors' yard

I guess I've got a slight case of the seven year itch. It was nearly seven years ago that I decided to quit my job, quit the commuting that was killing me, to scale back and slow down my crazy life. The newness has worn off, to some extent.

I was telling a friend the other day that when Walt and I decided to sell everything, leave California, and move on, we both thought we might not live that much longer. Our fathers died young. The stress level was intense. And allergies were making my life a misery from February through June every year. It wasn't that we really thought we might die young, but the feeling was: "What if we do? Maybe it's time to live a different life, out of the rat race."

Now that we are here, and things have settled into a routine, I myself feel almost immortal. I'm getting 8 or even 9 hours of sleep every night, instead of the 5 or 6 I would get in California. Instead of getting up at 4:00 a.m. and hitting the road by 6:00 to beat the traffic, I sleep until 7:00 or even 8:00 and then commute downstairs to sit in front of my computer for an hour or so. There are seldom any bad traffic jams or accidents on the stairs. I arrive relaxed.

Fact is, what is perturbing me right now is that I just came back from a trip to the U.S. I'm suffering the after-effects of culture shock. Don't get me wrong, I had a nice trip and much enjoyed spending time there. It was busy time compared to my level of activity here in Saint-Aignan. Now, back here, I'm coping with the feeling that living in France just seems normal, not exciting and different the way it used to.

Cherry blossoms

Right now it's a waiting game. I look at weather reports and I see how much warmer it is at this time of year in coastal North Carolina or San Francisco. But then I remember how hot it is in N.C. in the summertime and I know I would find that hard to get used to. And I remember how foggy and chilly and damp the so-called summers were in San Francisco.

No, I'll stay here in France, merci beaucoup. Besides, the history, food, wine, landscapes, language, peace and quiet, slow pace — all that is written into my retention bonus package.


With good weather, which is bound to arrive soon, we'll be able to throw open the doors and windows, watch the plants and garden grow, and enjoy many more hours of sunlight each day than we've had since last summer.

The year has a rhythm, and I'm still getting used to that. Learning to live with seasons again — coming here after nearly 20 years in San Francisco, where there aren't four distinct seasons and the rhythm is completely different, I'm still feeling a little disoriented. I guess one day I'll get over that.

27 March 2009

Shoulder season

You might be able to tell that I don't have a lot to blog about these days. We're in that awkward shoulder season when it's no longer winter — even though at certain hours it feels like winter — and not yet spring — though somebody forgot to tell the flowers.

Don't tell the hyacinths that it's still winter — they know better.

The chimney is swept. Christian Lucas came and cleaned it yesterday with his heavy duty vacuum cleaner and chimney broom. He said there was no problem except that the stove was really dirty. Walt built a fire last night and it burned hot and smoke-free, the way it supposed to burn.

This time of year, we get rays from the sunrise in our dining room.

Lucas charged us 48 euros, the standard fee, and gave us the certificate we need for insurance coverage. It had been just a little less than two years since the last sweeping.

It rained overnight. We got 4 mm in the rain gauge. That's hardly a trace. The weather reports show it raining all around us, but we are getting just clouds. Today is supposed to be different, with significant rain this afternoon.

White hyacinths in the back garden

That postpones the gardening for a little longer. Like I said, not really winter but still not spring.

Oh, the blanquette was — is — really good. We'll eat it again today. Blanquette de veau is veal (I like to use veal shoulder) cooked in water with white wine, onion, carrot, bay leaves, salt, pepper, and allspice berries (in my version). You start the meat in cold water and simmer it in the cooking liquid for 2 hours or more to make it very tender.

Early on a March morning in the vineyard

Then you make a white sauce (use butter and flour to make a roux) with the veal cooking liquid and half a cup or so of cream. Separately cook some mushrooms and pearl onions in a little butter with some of the veal stock. Put the veal, the mushrooms, and the onions into the sauce and let it all heat through. Add a squirt of lemon juice to bright up the flavors.

Yesterday I added an optional ingredient to the blanquette: steamed celery root. Peel the celery root, cut it into 1" cubes, cook it in salted boiling water, and then add its cooking liquid to the veal stock. After you make the white sauce, add the celery root cubes to the stew with the veal, mushrooms, and all. Delicious. I didn't take any pictures this time.

Early spring primroses

You can make blanquette with chicken or turkey. Chicken thighs would be good, or boneless thighs and breast meat. Serve the blanquette with rice, boiled potatoes, or pasta.

Voilà. One more topic about blanquette, to add to this one (recipe) and this one (in a Paris restaurant). Also see this topic about the same restaurant, and this one. If this doesn't make you wish it were summer, nothing will.

26 March 2009

Pink trees and plugged chimneys

Just a few photos of some trees that are in bloom right now. The weather has turned gray and chilly but the colors are still nice. Whites and pinks dominate at this time of year.

From the front terrace

It's always something, isn't it? The chimney above our wood-burning stove seems to be stopped up. We didn't have it swept last fall because the man who usually does that job never responded to my phone calls.


One day in October we heard on the news that chimney sweeps in France were overwhelmed by the high number of calls they were getting. The reporter said that so many people had started burning wood because of the high price of heating oil that it would be better to wait until spring to have your chimney swept.

In a neighbor's yard

So we waited. We crossed our fingers that we wouldn't have a fire, because without an annual certificate from a chimney sweep our insurance wouldn't cover us.

One more time...

Yesterday morning I called Monsieur Lucas and actually got him on the phone. I told him about our problem and asked whether he could come sweep the chimney this week. I fully expected him to say no, he was too busy. But instead, he said he'd be here within 24 hours. We expect him this morning.

We still have the boiler and radiators for heat, and we need heat right now. It is chilly outside. Maybe later today we'll be able to have a wood fire again.

25 March 2009

The state of the vines and the weather

Okay, 3.6ºC this morning: high 30s F. Brrrr. And gray, with rain threatening, and predicted. Time to think of other things. There's still garden work to be done — isn't there always? — but it will have to wait for a week or so, if the MétéoFrance forecasts are to be believed.


We will have our memories of a fine month of March, no matter what. And these pictures, all from yesterday or the day before. Maybe the nice weather will come back when March ends.

Grapevine canes all tied to the wires that support them

So it's time to hunker down again. And cook. Blanquette de veau, that old standard, tomorrow. Did you know that blanquette is the favorite meal of more French people than any other?

Trees along the south side of the vineyard

Yesterday we took a drive over to Loches. The Leclerc hypermarket had cold frames on sale, and we bought two of them. That way we can get some plants started even before the weather warms up. Radishes, for example. Or mustard greens. Those are a couple of our ideas.

A neat and kind of barren landscape for now

The vineyard owners and workers have been racing to get everything trimmed, tied down, and cleaned up before this next stretch of damp weather moves in (any minute now, they say). So the vines and vineyard plots are tidy in a kind of barren way, waiting for the explosion of green that is bound to come in April and May.

Looking over the vines toward the hamlet

President Sarkozy gave a speech about the economic crisis yesterday. I just heard snippets of it, but in one excerpt he seemed to be saying that he wasn't going to pay attention to all the demonstrators who turned out last week. Instead, he will focus on the famous « majorité silencieuse » — Richard Nixon's Silent Majority, for Pete's sake.

Getting the dead wood out

The more things change, the more they stay the same.