30 April 2009

I'm not a doctor but...

We're off to the market in Selles-sur-Cher, 10 miles upriver from Saint-Aignan, this morning. It's not raining and Thursday is the day over in Selles. It's the biggest market around (except maybe Loches and Amboise, which are farther away).

About that picture of me in jail with a stethoscope in my hand and a whitel lab coat on, let me say it wasn't a complicated story. But it was a fun day. At the time — 1988 or '89 — I was working as managing editor of a trade magazine called UNIX Review, published by a company in San Francisco.

Another magazine the company published was Medical World News. The editor was preparing a story on antitrust issues that were affecting doctors and wanted to do a cover on the theme of doctors landing in jail. He needed somebody to be the doctor for a photo shoot.

Now you have to realize that all these magazines were published on shoestring budgets. If the editors could get anything for free, they jumped at the chance. So for the Medical World News photo shoot, the editor and publisher started looking for free "talent." And I was the "talent" they found. I was probably about the only editor in the building who was old enough to look like I could have had time to make it through medical school. I was coming up on 40 years old. And we were at a point in the editorial cycle that allowed me to take half a day off.

As for the prison, that wasn't a problem. We — editor, photographer, and some other hangers-on — took the cable car down to Fisherman's Wharf and then the ferry over to Alcatraz. For the photo, they put me in a cell and slammed the door shut. There was much joking and laughing, which didn't help me because I was supposed to look forlorn about finding myself in prison.

It was my one and only modeling gig. And all I got paid for it was my normal salary as a magazine editor (which was peanuts). It was also my one and only trip to Alcatraz.

Okay, walk the dog, get a shower, and head for the market.

29 April 2009

Still waiting

Despite all the nice warm weather we had in April, I just got confirmation that we are having a very late season. Or at least the plants are. I realized that when I started looking at pictures I took in late April over the past 6 years.

Two years ago, the peonies and the sage were already in full flower. This year they have yet to bloom. We are still waiting.

In 2004, there were big fields of colza in flower all over the region. This year, the colza has just barely started blooming. Colza is also known as rape, and rapeseed oil is marketed in North America under the name Canola Oil. Here in France, it's huile de colza, and it's reputed to be the healthiest of all the vegetable oils you can use in your everyday cooking. Rape is a big crop around here.

A field of yellow colza in nearby Châteauvieux, 28 April 2004

It was interesting to look back at the old pictures. In late April 2003, we were leaving San Francisco. We had stopped out in the desert in Southern California for a couple of days to visit CHM before driving on to Illinois and then North Carolina. Our dog Collette rolled in something putrid and we had to give her a bath in Lemon Joy in CHM's back yard before we could continue our trip.

In April 2004, we were in Saint-Aignan. A friend who lives in Seattle was visiting and we spent a day at the zoo in Saint-Aignan (one of the best zoos in France, by the way). It was our first spring in Saint-Aignan.

In 2005 I was in North Carolina in late April. I have lots of pictures of beaches and boats. In Saint-Aignan, we had just finished our biggest DIY project of the past 6 years — scraping, sanding, and painting the walls in our big living room. It had taken us about 2 months to get it done.

In 2006, we were in the Dordogne with a friend who was visiting from California. We stayed in a gîte rural near Sarlat. The weather and the scenery were gorgeous. None of us had ever seen that area before.

In 2007, we had had a gorgeous, warm, completely dry month of April and we were just enjoying being outside in the back yard every day. Everything was in flower by the end of the month. We were anticipating the drive down to the breeder's to pick up our new dog and bring her home.

In 2008, by April we had had Callie for nearly a year already. And at the end of the month we had emptied out the kitchen and started scraping and sanding the walls to prepare them for painting. We had a temporary kitchen (microwave only) set up in the dining room.

This year, the weather has turned gray and chilly. The garden is ready, but not planted. It's a good thing we decided to wait. I don't think the tomato seedlings would be enjoying the cold rain that is falling this morning. The temperature is in the low 40s F.

28 April 2009

Loving where you live

Sylvie just came by to deliver today's baguette ordinaire, and I realized I had been sitting here thinking about California all morning. I lived there for 18 years and never quite got used to it. I didn't actively dislike it every day — au contraire — but California never lived up to my expectations.

What did I expect when I went there? The idea of moving from Washington DC to San Francisco didn't even appeal to me at first. But San Francisco was on the edge of wine country, so it had that in common with a lot of France. I thought I might end up working in the wine business. But I ended up in the software industry instead.

San Francisco in 1999 — one of several old photos
that I'm posting

People said the California cuisine was good. There had been significant immigration to the West Coast from France (and Italy). In my mind, I came to believe that San Francisco would be much more like Paris, where I had been happy for eight years in the 1970s and early 1980s, than Washington DC had turned out to be.

No, this boulanger didn't deliver, but he did have an old 2CV.

I moved to Washington DC in 1982 when I decided I needed to leave Paris and go have a "real"career in America. You know, retirement funds and all that. After many years of thinking that I would enjoy living in "the international city" that was the U.S. capital, I realized after two or three years there that I didn't want to stay.

San Francisco had a French veneer...

...over a very American structure.

I had a great Washington job thanks to CHM. We were a good team as translators, with complementary skills. I worked in a French environment. I had opportunities to travel all over the U.S. and to Africa and Switzerland, to observe important people in action, and to see the inner workings of the U.S. government. I had never dreamed I would have such a life. But, of course, those were the Reagan years. The Washington environment — the prevailing mindset — wasn't exactly the same as mine back then.

Le Soleil, not French but Vietnamese, in S.F.

In 1985 Walt and I went to San Francisco for the first time. He wanted to move out there. When I got there, I saw everything French — restaurants especially. Cafés. French on signs. The streets downtown were narrow compared to streets in Washington, Chicago, or New York. The City, as they say out there, was definitely compact and urban, like Paris. Bustling. Confident. Self-important, even.

Seen from our front windows in San Francisco.
I figured the plane was probably going to France.
Why wasn't I on it?

I went to Fisherman's Wharf. There I smelled the ocean. Salt air. Low tide. Mud. Fish. For a minute, I felt like I was back on the coast of North Carolina. A hint of France — good food and wine, varied fresh produce, fine restaurants — with the smell of coastal North Carolina in the air. What was not to like? Somehow I felt I had been transported back in time by 10 or even 25 years. There was a definite familiarity about it all.

The streets of San Francisco (not downtown)

We moved out in 1986. I would have forged a special bond with other recent immigrants to California, except there were all immigrants. It was hard to find a native Californian. There was nobody to blame the nature of the place on but ourselves. Besides, we all spoke the same language, just with slightly different accents. There was really nobody to complain to or commiserate with because, after all, we had all chosen to pull up stakes and move our lives to California (swimming pools, movie stars...).

This street was near our house. Quite steep.

If you did find a native Californian, he or she just looked at you like you were crazy if you weren't ecstatic about living in paradise. The natives knew it was paradise because all these refugees from Back East — not to mention Mexico, Central America, and many Asian countries — kept streaming in. And most of the immigrants thought it was paradise too. Despite the lousy weather (at least in S.F.) and the earthquakes. If you didn't agree, there was something obviously wrong with you.

Well, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, as Joni Mitchell sang. And miles and miles of... freeways. Not to mention suburbs. I'm just not a suburban kind of person. I didn't want to live just anywhere in the Bay Area — I wanted to live in The City if I was going to stay in California.

That's me, and no, I wasn't a doctor and I wasn't really in jail.
I was at Alcatrez doing a modeling gig. It's a long story.

Besides the commuting and the traffic jams, which I couldn't seem to escape because my work ended up being in Silicon Valley, what I didn't like about San Francisco was, fundamentally, that it wasn't Paris, and what I didn't like about California was that it wasn't France. It wasn't California's fault. I have come to understand that it was my attitude that was bad. I enjoyed so many days, so many people, so many jobs, and and so many leisure-time activities out there... but I was never able to just let go and feel comfortable. I think I was afraid I might never escape if I did.

This was my California most of the time:
parking lots and office buildings.

It didn't help that I didn't really like my work. It wasn't work I had ever imagined doing. It was exciting to work for well-known software companies, to learn how to use computers — which I couldn't live without now — but the work never thrilled me. I enjoyed the people I worked with and admired the good work they did. The work in Washington had been much more interesting.

For many reasons, it took me 18 years to figure out how to make the big move. And in the end, leaving was Walt's idea, in fact, or at least the timing was. It's just not that easy to just pick up and quit a place. You have furniture, maybe property — all the material possessions that you accumulate over 20 years. A car. A dog. And you have a professional network — not to mention good friends.

Walt in his Jeep with Collette in 1999

I never really told anybody besides Walt that I didn't like California very much. Or at least I don't think I did. Somebody like Cheryl, Ginny, or Susie might contradict me. Walt loved San Francisco, I know. But he's a much more positive person than I am, in many ways. Now he says he loves the life in Saint-Aignan too. He's been back to California, but I haven't, since leaving there exactly six years ago.

So here we are in France. What a relief! Six years and counting. I don't foresee another big move in my future.

27 April 2009

Some things don't change

One thing you can say about MétéoFrance: when it starts predicting rain, you can count on it being consistent. Again today, they say, rain, rain, rain over the whole western half of France (and showers over the eastern half). We expect rain this afternoon.

Even though it never did rain yesterday. In fact, late in the afternoon the sun came out and I sat outdoors for more than an hour, throwing the ball to Callie. Walt taught her to bring the ball back the other day by giving her a treat each time she did it. It took less than an hour for her to get the idea. So now it's more fun for all of us.

These are cherries. I remain optimistic
about their prospects, despite the weather.

It's hard to keep your spirits up when the weather turns on you. It takes just a few days to get used to bright sunshine and warm temperatures. The funny thing about French weather, at least in the northern half of the country, is that from April to October, as soon as the sun comes out, it feels warm and pleasant. As soon as a cloud covers the sun, you feel a chill.


Actually, the same thing was true in San Francisco, and even down in Silicon Valley when we lived there. As soon as the sun goes away — at dusk, for example — there's a chill in the air. Even on the hottest afternoons in Silicon Valley, you'd have to move indoors by the time the sun set because it was too cold to enjoy sitting outdoors, and there was nearly always a chilly breeze. San Francisco was worse, because summertime fog is a daily occurrence. It was nearly always cold in San Francisco, in other words, and the heat stayed on year-round.


Happy here, though, that I am. Happier than I would be in other places I've lived, I think. We have a beautiful place to live, with privacy, wide open spaces, and room enough for a nice garden. It's quiet. People don't meddle in your private life. The scenery is beautiful, the food is great, and the neighbors are friendly and accommodating. We don't have so many close friends — it's harder and harder to find close friends when you get to be 50 or 60 years old. Other people have their own lives, and so do we. Most of our neighbors are older than we are and have their own extended families to occupy their time and energy.


I read several expatriate blogs. Most of them are written by Americans who are living in France. Some of them take on a fairly negative tone when it comes to what it's like to be a foreigner here. People miss American food, friends, weather, and culture terribly. They can't say something good about the American things they love without turning it into a string of negative comments about the near-equivalent in France. They can't stop comparing... or complaining.

Some call French people "the Frenchies." They fall into stereotyping, as if all French people were the same. They judge the entire population on the basis of the few people they interact with or observe. That's a recipe for failure when it comes to feeling like you are a part of the culture and society around you, and finding happiness here. When you say "the Frenchies," you are implicitly setting yourself apart and you are expressing a negative, dismissive judgment of all these people who, in your mind, aren't "like us." And there's just a short distance between "not like us" and "not as good as we are."

Local lilacs

I think I understood long ago that France is an entire world in itself, and, as they say, « il faut de tout pour faire un monde » — it takes all kinds to make a world. You have to keep reminding yourself of that reality. Gross generalizations about "Frenchie" behavior, appearance, attitudes, manners, habits, or intelligence are just that — generalizations. Abstractions. You have to take each person you meet as an individual, whatever the person's nationality or background.

Apple blossoms

Often I feel like the negative feelings that expatriates develop about the surrounding culture and population have very deep roots in the individual expatriate's psyche. Somebody once told me that people often seek in vain to find geographical causes or solutions to their psychological problems. I wonder if these unhappy expatriates would actually be happier if they returned to America (or England, or wherever). I'm sure they would miss France. But you have to wonder why they stay here. I know, life is complicated and you don't always feel like the option of going back home is the best one. Sometimes it isn' t even a possibility.

A big tree in the woods out back

I guess too that commenting, even negatively, on the stereotypical French person, situation, or way of doing things has a certain entertainment value — or at least the blogger thinks it does. There's a fine line between, on the one hand, astute observation and analysis of the society and individuals around you and, on the other, setting yourself up as a perpetual outsider examining every detail and foible you observe with a critical, even cynical, eye.

26 April 2009

Gray weekend

As so often happens, despite predictions of significant rains, we had hardly a trace of precipitation yesterday. But we had gray, chilly weather, with a high of about 13ºC. That's the mid-50s F.

April, eh? A cruel month. Yesterday we had a fire in the wood burner. This morning I'm going to have to turn the heat back on.

Snow? Hailstones? No, it's apple blossom petals
that the wind has blown off the trees.

Meanwhile, we are watching the plants grow. Cool weather may be slowing them down, but I see that at least some of the plum, peach, and cherry trees have fruit on them. And our radishes are going strong.

Rows of radishes in the garden got a boost
from the past week's warm sunny days.

I'm kind of taking the day off. It's time for me to go out for a walk with Callie. That'll be when the rain starts — while I'm outside. Again, predictions are for significant rain this afternoon, with a chance of thunder and lightening. The temperature is 9ºC — upper 40s F — this morning.


Radishes and chard are the only crops we've planted in the garden so far. Conventional wisdom says it is not a good idea to set cold-sensitive plants out before May 15 here in northern France. That might seem late, but the days are long in May, June, and July, with sunset at 9:00 going on 10:00 p.m. Plants grow really fast.

25 April 2009

Salade Niçoise

“Some combinations become famous just because the mixture was such a happy one that it has lived on and on, pleasing successive generations of palates,” wrote Julia Child in The Way to Cook. “Salade Niçoise is certainly one of these...” Julia says her recipe is based on Escoffier’s — “he was a Niçois, after all” — using cooked potatoes, green beans, and eggs along with lettuce, tomatoes, olives, and tuna.

(November 2018 — There is some controversy about this recipe for the Salade Niçoise nowadays. People who claim to know the traditional recipe for the salad say it should contain no cooked vegetables — and no lettuce or vinegar! — and that either tuna or anchovies can be included, but not both! The recipe with cooked green beans and potatoes is what I've always known as Salade Niçoise, mostly in Paris where I lived for 6 or 7 years in the 1970s and early '80s. I've never spent much time in Nice.)

Salade Niçoise — which supposedly originated in the city of Nice, down on the French Mediterranean coast — is one of our favorite summertime foods. It's so easy to make, and after you've cooked potatoes, green beans, and eggs, you can have all the ingredients on hand in your refrigerator, where they will keep for a few days.

Salade Niçoise for lunch yesterday

I remember a trip we took to Provence in June 1993. It was the first time we rented a house — a gîte rural — and the first time I had been back to Provence since the 1970s. We ate lunch out nearly every day, because we were going to see all the sights in the area. The way I remember it, we always ordered Salade Niçoise, because I wanted to see how different restaurants and cafés served it. Walt, of course, remembers eating pizza nearly every day! I think we had a lot of both.

Boil some potatoes and eggs.
I like to put salt, black peppercorns, and bayleaves in the pot.

Some of the restaurants in Provence made their Salade Niçoise with rice instead of potatoes. Most used canned tuna, and the fancier places served you a freshly seared tuna steak. All included tomatoes, green beans, eggs, and olives. But that's Provence, not Nice.

For a lot of people, a Salade Niçoise wouldn't be complete without a few anchovy fillets on the plate. For me, the indispensable ingredient is freshly made vinaigrette. That's what brings the salad together.

Some of the ingredients for Salade Niçoise,
including olives and vinaigrette

Here is Monique Maine's recipe (Cuisine pour toute l'année, 1969). She might not be a Niçoise like Escoffier, but I always like her recipes, at least as a starting point:
Salade niçoise

3 tomatoes
3 potatoes cooked in their skins
a bowl of cooked green beans
1 bell pepper
4 lettuce leaves
3 oz. of black olives
3 stalks of celery
1 onion
1 small can of tuna in oil
6 oz. of salt-cured anchovies
2 hard-boiled eggs
vinaigrette, salt, and pepper

Soak the anchovies in cold water for an hour to de-salt them. Dry them with a paper towel and remove the bones.

Cut the tomatoes into quarters. Dice the green beans, celery, and bell pepper. Slice the eggs, potatoes, and onion into rounds. Cut the lettuce into strips.

Combine all the ingredients, including the olives and tuna, in a salad bowl, adding salt and pepper as you go. Lay the anchovy fillets over the top. Season with 5 Tbsp. of vinaigrette made with olive oil.
What we usually do is get all the ingredients ready and bring them to the table in their own bowls. (I don't do onion or celery.) Then you can make your own salad on your plate, using as much of each ingredient as you want, and finally spoon vinaigrette over all.

Roasted red peppers, thanks to the 2008 vegetable garden
(and the freezer

It's not summer yet and this is a classic hot-weather dish. But we had eggs, olives, potatoes, and tuna in the house. We also had some roasted red peppers in the freezer. Walt bought tomatoes at the market in Montrichard. It was a great meal for the last day of our 2009 April mini-summer, and not the last Salade Niçoise we will eat this year.

The temperature this morning makes it feel like early March out there again. And skies are gray.

24 April 2009

Summery days about to end

Off to the market in Montrichard this morning, so not much time for blogging. Why Montrichard on Friday rather than Saint-Aignan's market on Saturday? Because our string of warm, summer-like weather is about to end, according to MétéoFrance. It will be more fun to go to the Montrichard market today in the sunshine than to trudge through the closer market tomorrow in chilly rain.

Out walking with Callie yesterday afternoon, I noticed another tree
that will bear keeping an eye on. It has big pinkish white flowers
and big roundish green leaves. What kind of fruit will it produce?

Callie is going to be very disappointed when she finds out she won't be able to spend warm afternoons out in the back yard this weekend. I hope the good weather comes back next week, but we are supposed to have a crummy Saturday and an even worse Sunday (steady rain). One rain front after another will be coming in off the Atlantic and sweeping across all of France. We foresee having to build a fire in the wood stove.

I tilled and then made rows for greens and
maybe lima beans in one garden plot.

We're feeling really proud of ourselves for all that we've accomplished in the yard and the garden. I did some more tilling yesterday morning, and Walt mowed the whole yard (it's half an acre) over the course of the day. I potted some more plants. Now we have to worry about the weather turning chilly. I hope we don't have to bring potted plants and trays of seedlings back indoors.

A summery lunch: salmon, potatoes, and green asparagus

For lunch we had asparagus (what else?), potatoes, and salmon. These are the "escaped" asparagus that I found growing right outside our back gate, where a big compost pile used to sit. We marinated the fish in white wine and olive oil with shallots and chervil, and then cooked it in the oven. It was very good.

23 April 2009

More geek talk + pictures and memories

Thanks to all who commented on my wireless adapter problem. The computer is a Compaq F500 laptop that I bought in late 2007 for a really good price (at Circuit City — R.I.P.). It came with Windows Vista, but I ditched that dog (can you "ditch a dog"?) a while back. Now I'm running XP Home Edition — or should I say Edition Familiale? — in French. It's a long story.

Susie, that thread on the HP support forum was especially interesting. The posts go back to 2007. Before reading it, I had stumbled onto a kind of solution to the problem, and one of the posts describes what I did. I rebooted into Safe Mode. When I again rebooted, using Selective Startup using the "Modified BOOT.INI" rather than the "Original BOOT.INI" option, the idiot light on the built-in wireless adapter changed from orange (not working) to blue (working!).

In this case, the blue light means "Go"...

The wireless adapter light had been orange for months, until about a week ago, when it turned blue all by itself. That's when I realized that it might not a hardware problem. I had been capturing video and making DVDs for a few hours. After all that work, the computer seemed sluggish. I rebooted. The blue light came on and the new hardware wizard popped up on the screen. The wireless adapter re-installed itself.

The wisteria we planted a couple of years ago is doing well.

This morning, after all the fiddling I did yesterday, when I restarted the computer the built-in wireless adapter was still working. This is my secondary computer we are talking about, not the one I use for writing blog posts or any other serious (?) work. The laptop sits on the coffee table in the living room and it's the one I use to look up recipes or information about people, history, language, and anything else I might hear on TV or the radio and have a desire to know more about.

When I thought that the wireless adapter problem was a hardware issue, I just gave up. I chatted one day back in January or February with an HP support representative. He told me the only thing to do was send them the computer so they could replace the motherboard. HP would send me a postage-paid FedEx box so both shipping and the repair would be free to me. Until I told him I happened to be in France...

Irises have started flowering...

Meanwhile, I had bought a Belkin USB wireless adapter to use in the place of the unrecognized, defective, uncooperative Broadcom adapter built into the laptop. The Belkin adapter worked just fine (we have our two desktop computers on USB wireless adapters now too) but it took up a USB port on the laptop, which has only three USB ports, one of which is for the mouse. That left just one for other devices, including my flash card readers and the USB video capture device.

...and the peonies are not far behind.

All of this just reinforces my realization that this rural life we lead, with few neighbors that we don't see very often and few good friends who live nearby — I'm not complaining, we love it — would not be possible without computers and the Internet for e-mailing, web-surfing, forum trolling... and blogging.

I'm a codger now so I can tell you what it was like 35 or 40 years ago when I lived in France. I always lived in cities — mostly Paris, but also Rouen in Normandy, Metz in the Lorraine region, and Grenoble and Aix-en-Provence for short times. Why, we didn't even have computers back then! Can you imagine?

The wild orchids that I rescued from the mower, and
Walt planted in a protected spot, are flowering like crazy.

Hell, we didn't have telephones. Cell phones didn't exist, and there was a two-year wait to get a land-line phone installed, even in Paris. I always had several good American friends in those cities when I lived there, and I don't know how we managed to stay in touch with each other. Nobody had a phone. We just had to meet up somewhere, or drop by hoping the other person would be at home when we got there.

The isolation back then was kind of exciting. You couldn't call friends and family in the U.S. because you couldn't afford the long-distance charges. And nobody could call you because you didn't have a telephone. So what did you do? You wrote letters. I've got several boxes full of old letters that friends and family wrote to me, and I've got all the letters I ever wrote to my parents back then, because my mother saved them all for me.

Nearby vineyards

It's easy to get nostalgic about all the time we devoted to letter-writing, about aerograms and beautiful postage stamps, about the excitement when you found a letter in your mailbox. But e-mail is better, let me tell you. And now we can devote our time not to a limited-distribution, hand-written letter but to blog posts for all the world to enjoy. We hope.

22 April 2009

Compaq laptop: wireless off and on

I'm giving that nerdy title to this blog post because I'm hoping somebody might find it while doing a Google search and help me figure out what is going on. The built-in wireless adapter in a Compaq notebook computer that I bought in November 2007 suddenly stopped working in Nov. 2008.

The Broadcom wireless adapter just vanished from the computer's hardware list in the Windows Device Manager. There was no way to install new drivers for it because Windows didn't even "know" any more that the adapter was there.

Wisteria in flower at the neighbors' place

Then suddenly one day last week, it came back. There's a light on the front of the laptop that indicates whether or not the wireless adapter is turned on. Orange is off, and blue is on. It was orange for five months. Suddenly it was blue again. And it worked fine.

It worked fine for maybe 4 hours. When I restarted the machine, it turned orange again. I wanted to give up on it. Now this morning I started the computer and the light came on blue again. How can I get it to stay blue?

View of the Renaudière hamlet from the vineyard

The only thing I can figure out is that in November I also started using a Pinnacle Dazzle DVC100 video capture card on that computer. The capture card is a USB device. I am using it to capture movies off old VHS video tapes and the odd show or movie directly from the television. Or maybe the adapter's intermittent behavior is simply a bad connection inside the computer.

* * * *

In 2009 we are going to get tons of apples from this big tree.

* * * *

Regarding horse manure: Thanks to Evelyn, Linda H., and Victoria for the comments yesterday. I wondered who would comment on a topic with that kind of title. Evelyn's father was a dedicated gardner until very late in life, so I wasn't surprised to see E.'s comment. I got the work done yesterday and successfully hosed and scraped all the mud off my boots.

Linda, yes, the SuperU supermarket has a gardening section and sells potting soil, fertilizers, and composted horse manure. Victoria, when you finish that patio, can we bring you over here to build one for us? Actually, the soil here is kind of like concrete, so just setting some bricks or stones in it might be sufficient, without much digging.

Flowers on an ornament orange,
with a black and red bug

All this beautiful weather we are having this week facilitates such tasks. Yesterday I was able to till up not one but 2½ garden plots. I'm sore this morning, but that's to be expected. In the afternoon, when I was out walking Callie, I saw our neighbor (the mayor's husband) out running his roto-tiller in their vegetable garden plot. Our other neighbor, Bernard, was out riding around on his mower. It's in the air right now.

A walnut tree with tassels

I'm glad the bags of horse manure have a mode d'emploi printed on them. I followed the instructions on the package. It said to spread one kilogram of composted manure per square meter of surface area in the garden. It was a 20 kg bag and I have a 16 sq. meter plot, so I splurged and used the whole bag on it.

Well, it was nearly nothing — it was kind like powder sugar on a cake. There was just the slightest scattering of compost over the top of the soil. Left to my own devices, I would have applied three or four bags. That must be some strong stuff. But it has no smell at all. Callie paid it no notice.

Four, four, four garden plots tilled — ha ha ha ha ha!

It's getting harder and harder to resist planting things in the garden, with this warm, sunny weather. I think I might get started today or tomorrow. We'll hold back on the plants that are sensitive to cold — tomatoes, eggplant, peppers — but get going on a few others. We are going to plant sweet corn this year for the first time. Wonder what our neighbors will think of corn on the cob roasted on the barbecue grill?

21 April 2009

Horse manure

Today is horse manure day in the vegetable garden. The plot of land I'm working on, which is 4 m by 4 m in size (that's a square 13 ft. on a side), is one I tilled up two weeks ago. Since then, I gathered up a lot of sticks, twigs, and leaves from a couple of piles we had made last fall and covered for the winter. It was all pretty dry, so I made a big pile in the middle of the garden plot and set it on fire one afternoon last week.

A succulent that spent the winter indoors
is happy to be outside again.

Now I have a plot of soil covered with fine ash. To that, I'm going to add about 40 lbs. of composted horse manure (fumier de cheval) that we bought at the supermarket. And then I'll run the rotary cultivator through it all one more time to mix it all together well. That plot will be ready for planting.

One of our requirements when we left the city (San Francisco) and moved to the country (outside Saint-Aignan) nearly six years ago was enough land to have a respectable vegetable garden on it. When we cameto France to look at houses in 2002, we rejected a couple that were bigger (but not necessarily nicer) than the one we now live in because they were on land that were not level.

These I know to be plums. They are on a tree
in the neighbors' yard. They look like the ones I've found
out on the edge of the vineyard and that I'm keeping an eye on.

After living in San Francisco for 8 years, we knew about hills. Our house there was on 4 levels, from the garage down on street level up to the bedrooms and rear deck. It wasn't 4 stories, just 4 different levels offset by half a story. And the back yard — if you can use the word "yard" for a spact that was 25 ft. wide and 35 ft. deep — was actually on a fifth level. It was up higher than the highest floor of the house.

We did have a garden there, but we quickly learned we couldn't grow vegetables because of the cool, gray weather we had in summertime in San Francisco. Besides, since it was in a city neighborhood in the middle of a block, the only access to the yard was through the house. It wasn't easy to haul a lot of dirt or manure or dead leaves through the house up several flights of stairs.

Weeds are plants too.

Here in Saint-Aignan, we live in a house with a big flat yard. What we didn't realize when we chose it, however, was that the soil is very poor. That's why the land is planted in grapes all around us. Grape vines thrive in poor soil — clay with lots of rocks (flintstone) in it. Chalky soil. Sand. Gravel. Vegetable gardens would rather have rich, loamy soil that is well drained. We are trying to create those conditions for our tomatoes and eggplants.

That's why we are constantly working to improve the soil by mixing in composted leaves, ashes, and now, for the first time, horse manure. Composted horse manure, by the way, not the fresh stuff. Somebody warned me to keep the dog away from it anyway, because dogs love to roll in things that smell bad.

These orchids have come up as weeds in our yard.

This gardening thing is a lot of work. But it's important. In San Francisco, I used to say, my feet almost never touched real earth. I would go down the stairs to the garage, get in my car, drive 50 miles to work, park, walk on asphalt and concrete into my building, and spend the day indoors. In the evening, I'd repeat the trip in reverse order.

Here, I'm always scraping mud off my shoes — at least in springtime. We now live not to the rhythms imposed by an employer and the freeways, but to the rhythms of nature and dirt.

Grapes grow well in poor soil.

If the weather will just cooperate this summer, we will have a great 2009 garden. But there are no guarantees, despite the best intentions and a lot of hard work.

20 April 2009

Asparagus and ham pie

Yesterday Walt made our "traditional" springtime asparagus and ham pie. It's a recipe he came up with two or three years ago, and we have it every April (and May and June). It's cooked asparagus spears wrapped in slices of ham (jambon de Paris or jambon blanc, they call it) and then baked in a pie shell with a layer of egg and cheese custard.

White asparagus peeled and ready to cook in simmering water

The original idea came from a recipe we saw on a CuisineTV show called Fiches Cuisine, hosted by Carinne Teyssandier. Here's a link to that recipe. Teyssandier used Parma ham (a.k.a proscuitto or jambon de Parme) but we tried that once and it was too salty for our taste. So we substituted the Paris-style ham (probably what we call Danish ham in the U.S. would be the same). Use what you like.

Bundles of cooked asparagus spears wrapped in ham

And use green or white asparagus spears. The custard is 2 eggs, half a cup of cream, half a cup of milk, and 2 oz. of grated parmesan cheese blended together and seasoned with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. A green salad dressed with vinaigrette is all you need to make this into a nice lunch for four people. And maybe an appetizer like radishes with butter and salt, some cheese after the pie, and a dessert! Need I mention bread and wine?

The wrapped asparagus bundles in custard (not yet cooked)
poured into a pre-baked pie shell

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you've seen this tart a couple of times now, including here. And here is a link to Walt's recipe with pictures from back in 2007. If you like asparagus, try this. If you don't eat ham, wrap the spears in thin slices of chicken or turkey breast — maybe smoked chicken or turkey. That would be just as good (we've done it). Or you could use no meat at all — just tie up the bundles of cooked asparagus spears with string and cook them the same way. Sprinkle some extra grated cheese on top before baking.

And the Asparagus and Ham Tart as it comes out of the oven

Carinne Teyssandier has a new show on CuisineTV now called Aujourd'hui je cuisine and it just came on the TV here in my "office." She and her co-host, Eric Léautey, are making white asparagus in a radish vinaigrette, green asparagus pan-roasted in the oven and served with shavings of parmesan cheese, and a cream soup made with the trimmings of the asparagus used in the other two recipes. There are a lot of idea for good asparagus meals.

Green asparagus spears ready for the picking

Meanwhile, I cut some green asparagus spears from the patch I've found growing just outside our back gate. I think they might just get roasted in the oven one day soon.