31 May 2009

Coucou !

A lot of people who come to visit us, and not just Americans, tell me they have never heard the cuckoo bird before — « le coucou » in French. Here's a video from early May in which you can hear the cuckoo cuckooing in the background.

The coucous arrive in the Saint-Aignan area in April and fly back to Africa in July. They say the arrival of the swallows marks the beginning of spring, but for us it's the arrival of the cuckoo birds.

30 May 2009

Pas sage ?

We were out until midnight last night. And when I say "out," I mean outdoors, sitting around a table at our friends' house, way past our usual bedtime. So I'm tired today because I wasn't
« sage » yesterday. Sage, pronounced [sahzh], means wise, well-behaved, reasonable, in French.

In English, "sage" is a plant. We have some in our back yard. We started with one bush in 2003. We rooted two branches off that bush and now we have three. And earlier this spring, we transplanted the two new sage bushes we created to regroup them with the parent plant.

Three sage bushes in flower in the yard

Sage in French is called « sauge », which is pronounced [sohzh]. That [zh] sound is very common in French, whether at the beginning of a word like « je », in the middle in a word like
« juger », or at the end in a word like « page ». In English, it occurs only in the middle of a few words, including "measure", "pleasure", and "treasure".

A bee on the sage flowers

Our sage is in flower right now, and if I remember correctly it will flower all summer. It attracts a lot of bees and butterflies. We are surprised that the two sage bushes we transplanted back in March or April even flowered this year. Sage is a very hardy plant. It's leaves give good flavor to chicken, turkey, rabbit, or pork.

Look at this amazing insect.
I didn't whether to admire it or fear it.

29 May 2009

Lunch at L'Image in Preuilly

The rain stopped and we walked the few hundred meters from Susan and Simon's house, down the narrow streets of Preuilly-sur-Claise, to the restaurant called L'Image. Walt and I had had lunch there with S & S back in December.

Before we left, Jean-Luc went down the hill to the car to get the yellow lab named Mo and bring him along. Dogs are welcome at L'Image, as they are in many French restaurants, as long as they are well behaved. Mo is.

I didn't take any pictures in Preuilly. Well, I took only one, and that was outside of the town proper. I took none at the restaurant, which is a very nice place with very good food. When you walk in, you are in a spacious room that has a huge old bar in it, along with some tables. The dining room is off the the right, through a narrow door, and has pink wallpaper. The décor is old-fashioned, as suits a place in a small village out in the country, but fresh and appealing.

I have "stolen" this picture off Days on the Claise. I hope
and Simon won't mind, given the topic I'm writing.

Susan and Simon have posted pictures of the dining room at L'Image here, on their blog. And here's another topic on Days on the Claise showing the proprietor of the restaurant and the exterior. Our party of five was seated just in front of the window in the photo above.

The lunch was excellent. There's a menu priced at 11.50€ for three courses. Appetizers included an egg dish with cream and pork lardons and a salad of grated carrots with pork rillons, a Touraine specialty. Rillons are chunks of lean pork belly that are slow-cooked in fat and white wine. In France, they say that eating carrots will give you pink thighs (or is that "buns"?), and we joked about that with the people who ordered the salade de carottes râpées. There was a third appetizer but I can't remember what it was.

Main courses included a skewer with three kinds of meat on it — beef, lamb, and pork, I believe. There was also a steak cut from the basse côte of the beef. I had that, and it was a kind of boneless ribeye that I thought was very good. Side dishes included green beans cooked with mushrooms or, of course, pommes frites (fries). There was a third main course dish on the menu, but I don't think anybody ordered it.

For dessert there was a banana mousse with chocolate sauce, which several of us had. There were also the French classics like crème caramel (flan) and floating island. We had a couple of small carafes of Touraine red wine and most of us had an espresso at the end of the meal. The total bill, tip included, came to just less than 15 euros per person.

We did a lot of talking in both French and English over the course of the nearly two hours we spent around the table. S. speaks both French and English — she's lived here for more than 20 years — as do I. Jean-Luc doesn't speak English. Susan and Simon are getting their bearings in French, after having spent only short periods in France over the past three years and having moved here permanently just three weeks ago.

A picture of J-L that I took in 2003, when we were
newly arrived. We met him that first summer.

They described the plans they have for their house, which they will totally renovate over the next months and years. S. and J-L are interested in their project because they have themselves renovated several old stone houses in the Saint-Aignan area over the past few years, including one that they just finished and are renting out as a gîte while they wait for a buyer to come along (the real estate market is slow in France now). Here's a link to the place, which is called La Boulangerie and is in the center of Saint-Aignan.

There was a lot of translating going on as S & S got to know S and J-L. Some of the house renovation and building terms get pretty technical. But we managed to have good conversation and a good lunch all at the same time. It was a lot of fun for me. Jean-Luc is a card and a teaser, as is Christophe, the proprietor of the restaurant, so they were enjoying joking around with each other.

For example, when I ordered my steak and said I wanted the pommes frites with it, Christophe asked, as the waiter always does, « Et la cuisson ? » ("How do you want that cooked?"). Jean-Luc piped in and said "The fries? We'll have those well-done, please." Ha ha ha.

And when we went out to the bar to settle the bill, Jean-Luc told Christophe: « Eh bien, comme c'était pas trop mauvais, peut-être qu'on reviendra. » — "The food wasn't too bad, so maybe we'll come back one day." Christophe answered, quick as a flash, « Et la prochaine fois peut-être que nous ferons un plus grand effort. » — "And the next time maybe we'll try harder." Ha ha ha again.

Oh, taped to the mirror behind the bar there was a sheet of paper titled « La Pensée du jour » — The Thought of the Day. It was quote from, of all people, Karl Marx. I don't think you'd ever see that in a small-town restaurant in the U.S. The quote went something like this (it was in French, of course): "A person who wants to organize and accomplish things faces three major obstacles: first, there are the people who want to do exactly the same thing; second, there are the people who want to to exactly the opposite; and third, there is the enormous mass of people who don't want to do anything at all."

After lunch, we walked back up the street to have a good look at Susan and Simon's new old house.

28 May 2009

Riding to Preuilly in a Jaguar

It feels strange to be the front-seat passenger in a car that has right-hand drive. A British car, in other words. Day before yesterday, our friends S. (English) and J-L (French) came to pick me (American) up and drive us down to Preuilly to see Simon and Susan (Australian). S. has a Jaguar. Susan and Simon have a blog called Days on the Claise.

As the passenger in what would be the driver's seat in a French or American car, I kept trying to step on the clutch or brake pedal as we drove down the curvy road that leads south out of Saint-Aignan. Despite my efforts, my feet touched only floormat. We were driving toward Châtillon-sur-Indre and on to Azay-le-Ferron. From Azay to Preuilly, it's just about 10 clicks, as they say — that's 10 kilometers, or 10 minutes.

The most direct route from Saint-Aignan
to Preuilly takes just over an hour.

We stopped at SuperU to fill up the Jag's fuel tank. Jean-Luc pumped the gas. In France, when you fuel up at one of the supermarket gas stations, you usually have to drive from the pump up to a booth to pay for your purchase. In this case, the driver was on the wrong side of the car. J-L had to walk up to the booth to pay the bill. S. was telling me what a pain it is to be alone in the Jag when you pass through an autoroute toll station. You have to get out of the car to go pay the toll, because you're on the wrong side to reach out the window.

As we drove along and passed other cars, it sometimes seemed as if we were too close to, if not straddling the line down the middle of the road. I tried not to squirm too much, because S. seemed to be a good driver. I'd never been a passenger in her car before. We didn't sideswipe any Renaults or Peugeots along the way, but it was close, I thought. She's a good driver, and I wasn't really worried. It was just that I was on the wrong side of the car to not be driving.

On the way out of town, Jean-Luc said we absolutely must stop at his cousin's house on the way back later in the day. We were driving by her house as he spoke, and he pointed it out. He said he hadn't seen this particular cousin in about 20 years. S. and I laughed, because everybody who lives within 10 miles of Saint-Aignan seems to be one of Jean-Luc's cousins. « Ah, tu connais cette personne-là ? », he'll say. « Eh bien, c'est mon cousin. » It's funny, almost like my home town in North Carolina, where I have dozens of cousins.

The road south straightens out 5 or 6 miles south of Saint-Aignan, and the drive to Azay-le-Ferron is a straight shot from there. Châtillon is about the only curve along the way. We could just cruise along and talk amongst ourselves as we traveled. In French, because J-L doesn't speak English. S. and J-L had never been to Preuilly before, so I was navigating. It was not very strenuous work.

A set of decorated window shutters in Preuilly-sur-Claise.

And then we arrived in Azay. "Turn right just up ahead, and we'll be there in a couple of minutes," I told S. When we arrived at the intersection, there were big black-on-yellow signs across the road: « Route barrée », the said — road closed. The directional sign posted above, pointing to Preuilly-sur-Claise, had been taped over. "Merde," we said. "And we were so close." It was nearly noon and we needed to get there.

What to do? There was a scramble to find a map. Just continue on, I suggested, and hope for a helpful road sign. Pretty soon, we came to another crossroads. A sign pointed us toward the village called Obterre. We stopped on the side of the road and looked at the maps we had found in the car. Obterre was not on any of them. Nor was the road leading to it. The maps weren't detailed enough.

We took the road to Obterre anyway. It went in about the right direction — northwest. We drove along through pretty countryside and came to a place called Le Grand Village. It was definitely not grand, but it was picturesque, with old farm houses and stone walls. Then, a mile or two farther on, we came to an intersection. Left, right, or straight ahead? Straight ahead, according to a sign, was Obterre, which was not on our map. There was no indication where the road to the left led.

But on the right, the route was barrée. That must be the road leading to Azay, which had also been barrée at the other end. So to the left, in all likelihood, would be Preuilly. There was no sign. We turned left and drove through a nice forest. And sure enough, we soon we arrived at Preuilly-sur-Claise. I wonder what S. and J-L were thinking about my navigational skills. They probably prayed I knew where I was going.

It had started raining again. It had been raining when we left Saint-Aignan an hour earlier, but the rain had let up along the way. In rainy Preuilly, we turned right into the rue de l'Horloge, Clock Street. A couple of big vans were parked along the left side of the narrow lane. The Jaguar was just able to squeeze by, with S. doing an expert job behind the steering wheel. She's lived in France for 20 years or more, and she doesn't mind driving on "the wrong side" here, in her English car. The few people walking on the narrow sidewalk were gawking at us. « Des Anglais », they were thinking.

I bet Susan and Simon were surprised to see us arrive in a Jag. We drove by their house and then found a spot a little farther down the road that was wide enough to permit S. to parallel-park without blocking traffic. (What traffic, actually? But a few cars, including an old white van spewing oil smoke out its tailpipe, did go by while we were there).

This is the château at Preully in a December 2008 photo.

As we parked and got out of the car, I saw Susan walking down the road to meet us. She was walking in the middle of the street, as we do here because traffic really isn't an issue. The cars that do come by are going very slow, so you have time to get out of the way. As I said, it was raining. Susan was wearing a jacket with a hood, as I was. S. and J-L were bareheaded and getting wet. I was pretty sure it was Susan, despite the "disguise."

Oh, I forgot to mention the dog. He's a big yellow Labrador that they call "Mo" and we left him in the Jag. Why Mo and not Moe? Well, Mo is short for Mohamet, but that's a name S. and Jean-Luc keep pretty much a secret, so as not to offend anybody who might hear them say it. They didn't name him Mohamet — that's what he was called when they adopted him.

Anyway, our first order of business was lunch. We were going to eat at a restaurant called L'Image. The rain stopped as we began our walk up the street to get there.

To be continued...

27 May 2009

Green beans cooked with tomatoes

One of the best ways to cook green beans is with tomatoes, onions, and, optionally, carrots — IMHO. Okay, yes, just slightly steaming beans and serving them plain with butter or olive oil is also pretty good, especially if you have fresh haricots verts.

But when you want something a little different, cut up a big onion and about a pound of fresh tomatoes. Cook the onions in olive oil or butter. When they just start to soften, add the tomatoes to the pot. After two or three minutes of cooking on medium, add about 1½ lbs. of green beans. If you want to add a couple of peeled and sliced carrots, add them at the beginning with the onions. I put carrots in many things.

Green beans from the freezer starting to cook
with fresh onions, carrots, and tomatoes.

You can use fresh or frozen green beans. Fresh are always better, but it's not yet the season here in the Loire Valley. We had beans from last year's garden that had been blanched and packaged for the freezer. This is a good way to prepare frozen beans when you don't have fresh ones.

Here's the result. Of course the beans lose that bright
green color, but the tomato pieces hold together.

Add a couple of cloves of garlic, plenty of pepper, some salt, a couple of bay leaves, and a sprig of thyme to the pot with the beans and tomatoes. Also add ½ cup of water. In my French cookbooks, it says to let the beans & tomatoes cook for an hour on medium heat. You might like it cooked for considerably less time than that.

Monique Maine calls these « Haricots verts à l'italienne ». I don't know if they are really Italian, but I've been cooking them in France since the 1970s.

I'm heading over to Intermarché this morning to buy a couple of rabbits. I'm talking about rabbits that have been cleaned and skinned, and are ready to be cooked. They are on special at 5.39€/kg, or about $3.50/lb. with a U.S. dollar that's worth 71 eurocents right now.

25 May 2009

Garden thieves

Yesterday morning the mayor of our village came and rang our bell. She's a neighbor. I was in the kitchen, which has a window right over the front gate. I went downstairs to talk to her.

"Did you see any unusual activity this weekend?" she asked. No, I said. Mme G. and her husband had been out of town for a couple of days, and last Friday she asked us to keep an eye on her house and yard while they were away. So we made a point of walking over there and around the property morning and evening, with Callie, on Saturday and Sunday. Everything was quiet and looked normal, as far as we could see.

I ate a cherry off this tree yesterday. It was nearly ripe.

"Somebody came and stole my tomato stakes and all our zucchini plants out of the garden," she said. Can you believe that? The yard isn't fenced in, and it's back off the road. It's not exactly secluded, but it would be easy for somebody to do things over there without being seen by any of the neighbors. I'm about 95% sure that the tomato poles and zuke plants were still there Sunday morning when I walked through.

The plums are getting big on trees all around.

The tomato stakes (those spiral-shaped ones like the ones we and so many people have here) are not expensive, and of course zucchini plants aren't either. The incident is more an annoyance than anything else. I want to ask M. and Mme G. if this is the first time their garden has been pilfered. If it's not the first time, it could be that somebody besides us is watching their place and knows when their garden will be easy pickings.

Peaches too.

Meanwhile, I'm going down to Preuilly-sur-Claise today to see and have lunch with Simon and Susan of Days on the Claise. It takes about an hour to drive down there, and I'm going with a couple of friends from Saint-Aignan. Walt is staying home because he is on Roland Garros duty this week. He wouldn't want to miss a good backhand or a double-fault...

What do you suppose these two are up to?

The weather yesterday was hot and humid, and kind of partly cloudy. Last night we had a thunderstorm, but the main part of it seemed to stay south and east of us. Hail was a danger but we didn't get any. We got more rain, though, which makes May 2009 one of the wettest months we've had in the past 6 years. It looks like it might rain some more this morning.

24 May 2009

Monday: weather, shopping, photos

Have I mentioned what a good Memorial Day Weekend we are having? Of course, it's not Memorial Day in France. Today is Monday, and everybody is returning to work today after the four-day weekend kicked off by last Thursday's Ascension holiday. At least those who could take Friday off. And there are supposed to be strikes tonight, affecting the railways.

In France, the media and the whole prevailing culture would have you believe that everybody takes all these long weekends and holidays for granted as a part of their right not to work (too hard). And Americans seems to believe it. The fact is, a huge proportion of the people in France were working hard this weekend, as every weekend. They work in the outdoor markets, supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, and all kinds of tourist-oriented businesses. Nearly all the supermarkets were open all four days of the long weekend, for example, even if it was only for the morning on Thursday (the holiday) and on Sunday (as every Sunday).

I went over to Intermarché, one of the supermarkets across the river in Noyers-sur-Cher, Saturday morning. As usual, I choose which supermarket to go to on the basis of the weekly specials they advertise. Most of the time, it's fresh meat or poultry that's advertised at special prices, but sometimes it's fruit, vegetables, or cheeses. In this case, Intermarché had two beef specials that attracted me: rumsteak for 7.95€/kg, and basse côte for 5.50€/kg. Both are good cuts of beef and the prices were attractive. There is room in the freezer.

But as usual at Intermarché, when I got into the store there were two problems. First, the place was really crowded. It was a zoo. And the line at the butcher counter was really long. One of the butchers there — the one on duty Saturday morning — seems to have long-standing relationships with all his customers. He asks each person he waits on all kinds of questions about their work, health, mutual friends, and families, and tells each one his life story. After a while he gets around to what they might want to buy. Everybody else just waits. Some wait patiently, and some shuffle their feet and huff and puff in frustration. I'm among the latter — when I actually decide to wait in the line.

The second problem is that about 50% of the time, even when I do wait in that long line, I finally get up to the counter to find out that the item I wanted to buy is sold out. There's always a vague promise that they'll get some more in tomorrow or the day after tomorrow — but no promises on Saturday, because that's the last day of the weekly specials. Saturday, I bypassed the line just to go look at the cuts of meat and their prices in the butcher counter, and I saw rumsteak at 18.95€/kg — nearly three times the advertised price. So I went on my way, getting some olives, coffee, and other things we needed, but no meat. I did get a nice 1 kg bag of ripe red tomatoes for 1.19€.

At SuperU, it's a lot easier to shop for meat. When the store announces a special price, it has a good supply of the product 95% of the time. And rather than make customers stand in long lines, the SuperU butchers package up a good number of the steaks or roasts or sausages and set them out in refrigerated cabinets. So you can find what you want and serve yourself. As a result, I've nearly given up on Intermarché, which used to be my favorite supermarket. Now I head for SuperU instead.

Such is life in retirement in France. I feel like a hunter-gatherer most of the time. I hunt for good products at good prices. Like a hunter, I can never be sure I'm going to bag what I'm looking for. By the way, the U.S. dollar is back down to 71 cents against the euro. A few weeks ago it was up to 80 eurocents. Now it's again on the decline, and nobody knows for how long. So every penny counts, as do all those supermarket specials.

When I'm not hunting and gathering, I'm gardening or cooking. Cooking is no problem. I have the time and the inclination. Gardening, however, is subject to forces beyond human control. For now, it's warm and sunny. Thunderstorms will roll in later today, and predictions are for 25 mm (1") of rain before tomorrow morning. If that rain comes, this May will turn out to be the wettest month we've had a long long time.

As you can see from the pictures in this post, I've enjoyed nice walks in the vineyard over the weekend. There are flowers, of course, and there are a lot of bugs all around.

Valençay — the cheese

Valençay is a town about 25 km/15 mi. east of Saint-Aignan. It's famous for its château and for the goat cheeses and wines made in the surroundings. The cheese is called Valençay, and it's one of the four well-known goat cheeses made in our area, along with Selles-sur-Cher, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, and Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine.

Valençay goat cheese is especially different from the other four local goat cheeses because of its shape. It's made not in the shape of a log or a disk, but is what they call a pyramide tronquée — a truncated pyramid. In other words, a pyramid that has had its top lopped off. It's been an A.O.C. cheese since 1998.

Goat cheeses from Valençay in the Berry region

There's a legend that goes along with the shape of Valençay's cheese. A couple of hundred years ago, Napoleon bought the château de Valençay for Talleyrand, his foreign minister — or at least financed the purchase. It was one of the largest private holdings in France at the time, at about 50 sq. mi.

One fresh goat cheese and one semi-dry. The cheeses are coated
with a mixture of salt and wood ash that adds flavor during aging.

Talleyrand was an elegant, well-bred man descended from the highest levels of the aristocracy. He was also an unscrupulous political operator, they say, and Napoleon famously said of him that he was « de la merde dans un bas de soie » — "shit in a silk stocking."

Marina and Laurent Parapel are "farmers/cheesemakers."

According to the legend, on a visit to Talleyrand at Valençay not long after an unsuccessful military campaign in Egypt, Napoleon flew into a rage when he saw the town's pyramid-shaped cheese. He pulled out his sword and chopped off the top of the cheese, creating the "truncated" pyramid. Of course, it's just an entertaining story.

The Parapels sell their cheeses at three markets each week.

Last Tuesday, we drove over to Valençay to buy some supplies at the town's weekly outdoor market. A chicken, some asparagus, half a dozen sausages, and of course a couple of Valençay cheeses. We bought the cheeses at a stand set up inside the market hall on the town square from Mr et Mme Parapel, who come to the market from the village of Liniez, near the town of Vatan.

Apricot-fig bread is good with the local goat cheeses.

To go with the cheeses, one fresh and the other semi-dry, I drove up to the bakery in the vineyard a couple of miles from our house and bought a loaf of bread that has dried apricots and dried figs cooked into it. It was really good with the goat cheese and a glass of the local white wine.

If you've tried goat cheeses from elsewhere but aren't convinced you are a fan, you really need to try Valençay or Selles-sur-Cher. They have a mild, flowery taste that will surprise you. Start with a chèvre frais, a goat cheese that has not been aged for very long. It has the cleanest, mildest taste.

23 May 2009

Salmon roll-ups stuffed with céleri rémoulade

Here's an idea for a good apéritif finger-food that's unusual. If you're not in France or Belgium, though, you might have to make your own céleri rémoulade, which is grated celery root with a mayonnaise dressing. In France, you can buy the salad in charcuteries and supermarkets.

The idea is to roll thin slices of smoked salmon around a filling of the celery root salad. I'm thinking you could use egg salad, for example, as a substitute. Or potato salad, if you cut the potatoes very small or mash them slightly. I'm sure there are other possibilities. Maybe cream cheese and olives. Cut each rolled, filled salmon slice into bite-size pieces. Use toothpicks to serve them.

Salade de céleri rémoulade — those are olives on top

If you want to make céleri rémoulade, you need to buy a fresh celery root, peel it, and shred or grate it into long julienne strips. It's good to blanch or salt the strips to tenderize them — but it's a lot of trouble and not absolutely necessary. Then toss the shredded celery with a dressing that is half mayonnaise and half crème fraîche (or sour cream), perked up with a good quantity of Dijon mustard (here's a later post about making céleri rémoulade). Thinking back, I remember that I could sometimes buy shredded celery root in jars in the canned vegetable section of a couple of supermarkets in San Francisco...

This looks kind of messy (it's along story) but gives you the idea.

The idea for the salmon-celery salad roll-ups (rouleaux de saumon fumé au céleri in French) comes again from French CuisineTV. The woman who prepared them is named Julie Andrieu. Here's a translation of the recipe I found on the Internet (after much searching).
Smoked salmon roll-ups
with céleri rémoulade

Serves four

8 slices of smoked salmon
10 oz. céleri remoulade (celery root salad)
1 bunch of basil (or other fresh herbs)
1 small Granny Smith apple (optional)
lemon juice

If you want to add an an apple to the celery root salad, peel it and cut it into julienne strips. Mix the apple into the salad. Squeeze on some lemon juice so the apple won't discolor.

Wash the herbs and cut the leaves into smaller pieces if necessary (basil leaves can be pretty big).
Salmon rollups with celery root salad
Spread the salmon slices out on the work surface and spoon a line of celery root salad onto them in a line. Place some of the herbs on or under the celery. Roll the salmon slice up into a log shape. Stick toothpicks into the salmon slice to hold the roll together and then slice between the toothpicks with a very sharp knife to make bite-size morsels.

Chill the roll-ups and squeeze on a few drops of lemon juice at serving time.
Serve the salmon rollups with olives and a dry white wine
(preferably a Touraine Sauvignon) or a dry rosé.

We had these salmon roll-ups as a pre-dinner nosh with our friends Leesa and Alex on Thursday. They were a big hit. Walt has some pictures in his post today. By the way, foie de morue is cod liver, and it's delicious spread on toast and "seasoned" with a few drops of lemon juice.

21 May 2009

Recognizing a pattern

It has happened again. Yesterday, visitors were are driving down from Paris to spend the afternoon. At about 9:00 in the morning, after Callie's walk, it started raining. Then it started thundering. There were sharp bolts of lightning right overhead, and deafening claps of thunder shook the house.

The bottom fell out at that point. It was a real frog-strangler of a rain. In the middle of it, of course, I needed to go out to buy bread for our afternoon meal. Yesterday was a holiday, so we had no bread delivery. It's always a treat to go up to the bakery in the vineyard, the one with the wood-fired ovens, to get some special breads — even in the middle of a storm.

It was literally as dark as dusk at 10:30 in the morning. A gloom settled over the hamlet, and we needed to turn on the lights in the house to keep from stumbling over the furniture. I drove to the bakery through a deluge of rain. Big drops slapped the windshield. Miraculously, when I arrived at the boulangerie, the rain slacked off. I was able to run from the car into the shop without getting drenched.

All our plans for a sunny afternoon outside, and chicken barbecued on the grill, were dashed. This is the third time we've had this experience. Two years ago, our friend Claude drove down from Paris to Saint-Aignan in very early June. She was delayed by heavy rainstorms along the autoroute, especially south of Orléans, that day. Meanwhile, here at La Renaudière, the rain was so heavy that the gutters backed up, causing a leak over the kitchen. Water streamed in, opening a crack in the ceiling. We thought the whole ceiling might cave in.

Last year in late May BettyAnn from N.C. and her French friend Danielle drove down to Saint-Aignan from the Paris area. They arrived at the Grand Hôtel in town, and I went down to meet them and let them follow me back to the house. The rain was blinding, and the thunder and lightning were downright scary. All hell had broken loose.

When we got to the house, Walt had been up in the attic to see if the roof was going to leak again. He was trying to push the folding stairway back up into the attic when we walked into the house. Suddenly, a wire or spring snapped and the whole thing came crashing down on him. It's lucky he wasn't seriously injured. Between his curses and the raging storm, BettyAnn and Danielle had quite a greeting at Les Bouleaux.

Well, yesterday it wasn't quite that bad but for a couple of hours late in the morning we wondered whether history might repeat itself. Our new friends Leesa and Alexandre said they were startled by one bolt of sharp lightning near Montrichard as they drove in. They had the impression that it struck the ground very near their car.

In Saint-Aignan, as I drove back home from the bakery, I followed the paved road down through the rue des Bas-Bonneaux, past Jean-Noël and Chantal Guerrier's house and wine cellar. I didn't want to use the rutted gravel road through the vineyard because I was afraid it would be flooded.

Jean-Noël and Chantal were standing outside the door to their cellar, watching the sky. I stopped to say hello. « Beau temps, n'est-ce pas ? », I said in greeting — nice weather, no? They said they had been trying to work in the vineyard earlier in the morning, but the hard rain and especially the lightning had convinced them to return home.

They asked if I was out for a promenade en voiture, a joy ride. I pointed at my bread and told them I had been up to the bakery in the vineyard because we had people coming from the Paris region to spend the afternoon. Ah, Jean-Noël said, stay right there for just a minute. I hadn't gotten out of the car.

I talked to Chantal through the car window and then J-N came back with two bottles of wine. "You and your guests can enjoy these this afternoon, indoors or outdoors," he said. One bottle was a blanc moelleux, a sweet white wine that's good either as a before-dinner drink or with dessert. We had tasted it a few weeks ago, before he bottled it, and thought it was extra, a we say. The other bottle was a dry rosé wine made with the local Pineau d'Aunis grape. It gives a peppery rosé that is crisp and refreshing.

"What do I owe you?" I asked Jean-Noël. "Oh, we'll talk about that later," he said. I'll have to go buy some wine from him soon. The two bottles he gave us went a long way to relax us all as we watched the thunderstorms wind down. The sun never did come out, but we were able to take a long walk in the vineyard in the afternoon. Callie enjoyed that, splashing around in the puddles, and we took a lot of pictures of butterflies, orchids, and roses.

Lisa posted a lot of photos from yesterday's dinner and walk in the vineyard on her blog, 1, 2, and 3.

Holiday today

It's a holiday today in France and other countries — a Catholic holiday called L'Ascension. It's the day on which Christians commemorate the bodily "ascension" of Jesus into heaven, which according to the book of Acts in the Bible happened in the presence of the apostles 40 days after the resurrection.

In France, it's another one of the long holiday weekends in May. It falls on a Thursday, and a lot of people "bridge" the weekend by taking Friday off, so they cn have a four-day holiday. Other May holidays are May 1 and May 8, both of which fell on Fridays this year so resulted in three-day weekends. Toward the end of May or in early June — June 1, this year — is the Pentecost holiday, which is a Sunday. A lot of people take the Monday, le lundi de Pentecôte, off too, so there's another three-day weekend.

Peonies in the garden with the outdoor table
and our back door as a backdrop.

Tuesday night two freight trains collided in a tunnel near the city of Angoulême, between Tours and Bordeaux. As a result, there were no trains running yesterday morning from Paris to Bordeaux (and points south, including TGVs to Toulouse and regular trains going to Basque Country and the Spanish border). According to reports, the Montparnasse train station was crowded with frustrated travelers, who saw train after train canceled. Traffic resumed, at least partially, in the afternoon. Some trains are running this morning, and the SNCF says it will run extra trains starting this afternoon to make up for the backlog.

It was sunny and warm most of the day yesterday.

We are having a couple from the Paris area down for the afternoon. We were hoping to be able to spend the afternoon outdoors and to grill chicken on the barbecue. We're still hoping, but the fine rain that is falling right now is making those hopes dim. More about all this tomorrow. Like so many people in France, I think I'll faire le pont — "make the bridge" — by taking tomorrow off too. Right now, it's time to get to work in the kitchen.

20 May 2009

Market day in Valençay

We had a nice trip to the outdoor market in Valençay yesterday morning. Valençay is a little town with a big château — a château that Napoleon bought for his powerful foreign minister, Talleyrand, in the early 1800s. Part of the château complex dates back to the 1500s, and the gardens there are beautiful.

Valençay is about 10 miles east of Saint-Aignan. Its market day is Tuesday (Saint-Aignan's weekly market is set up on Saturday mornings). Valençay is famous for a goat cheese that goes by the same name, and that was one of the things we went to buy. I'll post a picture later.

A produce vendor's stall at the Valençay market

We are having company on Thursday and we want to prepare a meal featuring some of our local products. That means local wines, of course — we figure at least one Touraine Sauvignon (the A.O.C. white), one Touraine Côt (the most lusty of the local reds), and maybe a Vouvray or two, since we have some sparkling and a dessert wine from there in our pantry. It also means goat cheese, and why not a few asparagus spears?

Valençay restaurant menu

We also bought a chicken (a 5½-pounder — huge), a few sausages, some smoked salmon, and a céleri remoulade salade. The chicken and sausages will be our main course, along with pasta and pesto. It will be a pesto we made using radish greens instead of basil leaves. More about that later, after the event. More about the salmon and celery root later too.

Valençay is in the Berry region and this
charcuterie features local pork specialties.

I took a few pictures in Valençay this morning, but not many. Part of the market stalls are set up inside a building — une halle, a market hall — and it was crowded in there. It wasn't the easiest environment in which to try to use a camera.

This is the château in the village called Villentrois,
on the road from Saint-Aignan to Valençay.

When I took pictures of stalls outside on the square, two different vendors joked with me about asking for permission first. People in Valençay were in good humor yesterday and there were smiles all around. But it's not yet tourist season so with my camera I stood out like a sore thumb.

By the way, we had nice weather yesterday. It was partly cloudy in the morning, cloudy with a brief shower at noontime, and then bright sunny and warm late in the afternoon. We sat out in the sun and listened to the radio for a couple of hours.

19 May 2009

Veau aux olives

Veal with Olives is something I made for dinner once before, years ago. It was in California, I think. I don't know where I got the idea or recipe. It was a French recipe, if I remember, called Sauté de veau aux olives. It stuck in my memory because it was so different and brightly flavored compared to the standard Blanquette de veau, in a cream sauce, or Sauté de veau aux légumes, cooked with little spring vegetables like peas, green beans, carrots, and turnips.

I assumed the Sauté de veau aux olives was a Provençal dish because it contained not only olives but tomato, onion, garlic, and thyme. I can't find the recipe from back then, but descriptions that I've found on the Internet point to Corsican origins.

A deboned, rolled, and tied veal shoulder from the supermarket

I'm not sure why, but I started thinking about veal cooked with olives a week or two ago. Well, I had a veal roast in the freezer and some olives in the fridge. I guess that was reason enough.

In fact, veal cooked with all the same ingredients, except the olives, is called Veau à la Marengo. It was something Napoleon's chef created (using chicken, not veal) at the time a battle near the city of that name, in Italy. Or that a Paris chef invented after the fact to celebrate Napoleons victory at Marengo, if you believe other sources. Along the way, Chicken Marengo somehow became Veal Marengo.

Brown the veal roast or stew meat (or chicken, etc.) in olive oil

And Napoleon was Corsican, as we all know. Napoleon's Chicken Marengo supper, whether in Italy or in Paris, was supposedly garnished with cooked crawfish and fried eggs, so it was fancier. The version I made I made, more family-style, included salt pork lardons and olives, both green and black.

Veal Marenco greatly resembles the Italian dish called Osso bucco, and that's probably not a coincidence. One of my Provençal cookbooks, La Cuisinière Provençale by J.-B. Reboul, includes a recipe called Sauté de veau à la chasseur, which could be translated into Anglo-Italian as Veal cacciatore. We've all had Chicken cacciatore, called Poulet chasseur in French. It's very similar to the Marengo. So I guess the inclusion of olives is what makes this recipe more Corsican and less Italian or Provençal.

I cooked the Veal with Olives in the oven.

Here's the recipe as I adapted it. The roast I had was a piece of veal shoulder that had been boned out, rolled, and tied. I decided to cook it that way rather than untie it and cut it into pieces. Otherwise, I was inspired by a couple of recipes I found on the Internet, including one on the marmiton.org site.

Veal cooked in a light tomato sauce with olives
untie the roast, discard the string, and cut up the meat for serving.

Veal with olives

2 lbs. veal shoulder
4 oz. salt pork cut into lardons
3 oz. green olives
3 oz. black olives
2 oz. dried boletus mushrooms
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup rich stock (veal, chicken, turkey, or vegetable)
1 cup dry white wine
1 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. fennel seeds
3 Tbsp. olive oil
black pepper to taste

Sauté the veal roast or veal pieces in olive oil until the meat is golden brown. Take the veal out of the pot and set it aside. Sauté the onion, garlic cloves, and salt pork in the same fat until lightly browned.

Put the veal back into the pot, season the mixture well with black pepper, and pour in the tomato sauce, the stock, and the wine. Add in the dried mushrooms, bay leaves, fennel seeds, and thyme. Don't add salt until later, because the salt pork and olives may make the sauce salty enough.

Let the veal simmer in the sauce for 1½ to 2 hours, uncovered and either in a 325ºF oven or on top of the stove, so that the sauce thickens slightly. (The sauce will end up more brown than red). Add the olives and let it cook another 30 minutes. Add more wine or water to thin the sauce as necessary.

Serve with pasta.
Veal with Olives, served with macaroni

After what I said about cacciatore, it seems obvious that this recipe would be excellent made with chicken, turkey, or even rabbit. With veal, it is excellent. Much of course depends on the quality of the tomato sauce and the stock that you use to make it with.

18 May 2009

Things are looking up... sort of

I went out for a walk with the dog yesterday afternoon. The sun was shining but big dark clouds were moving in from the west, and I was walking toward them. It had been chilly enough in the morning to make us resort to turning the heat on for an hour or so.

Sure enough, when I got out toward the end of the gravel road that runs through the vineyard, it started raining. I was about a mile from the house.

The arc-en-ciel from maybe a kilometer out —
I almost regret complaining about this weather.

Luckily, it didn't rain too hard or too long. I was wearing a rain parka with a hood on it, and when I turned back toward the house the wind was at my back. My face stayed dry. As I cut across the vineyard after walking a ways on the paved road, I saw the rainbow — l'arc-en-ciel.

In the close-up you can see our house and the neighbors'.

At the end of the rainbow were our house and our hamlet. That was a pretty sight. I'm taking it as a sign that the weather will get better this coming week — that and the MétéoFrance forecasts for warm, even hot, sunny weather by Wednesday or Thursday. Sunny weather will be our pot of gold.

The grapes at La Renaudière are looking healthy,
for the time being.

P.S. On my walk this morning, I ran into one of the grape-growers who has vines out back. He was spraying what I assume was "Bordeaux mixture" up and down some rows. The Bordeaux mixture includes copper and lime, and spraying plants with it prevents mildew from growing. It's a fungicide, in other words.

« Ça va ? », I asked Bruno. « Oui, ça va », he said, adding that it would be nice if we'd had a little less rain He was wearing rubber knee-boots and splashing around in water and mud as he worked. When I mentioned that forecasts call for hot sunny weather over the coming days, he just shook his head.

I'm not sure if these are flowers
or actually grapes already on the vines.

If it turns hot, with all this moisture in the ground and humid conditions, that's bad for the grapes, according to Bruno. We need some cool, dry, breezy weather at this point. I think we'll go out and spray our tomato plants with some Bordeaux mixture today. Actually, Walt just went out to do it now.

17 May 2009

Hanging on for dear life

I was able to photograph a butterfly yesterday morning. I took at least a dozen pictures of it, hoping one would be in focus. Maybe you are already aware that taking decent photos of animals — even domesticated animals, like Callie — requires a lot of patience and no small amount of luck.

Here's a movie showing you what I had to deal with. It wasn't raining (surprise, surprise), but it was blowing a gale. As Walt said when he saw the movie, the butterfly seems to be holding on for dear life. It must have known that the gusts could tear its pretty little wings off.

Callie, please don't eat the daisy, or the butterfly!

The easiest subjects in the animal kingdom to photograph are, without much doubt, snails and slugs. I guess clams and barnacles would fit into that category too, except they are in the ocean or bay and you might have to get your feet wet. Of course, here in Saint-Aignan I'm getting used to having wet feet anyway. Never mind. The point is that mollusks are slow-moving, in general.

Some insects — the kind that don't fly — are also not too hard to capture on ... well, I was going to say film, but those days seem to be over. To capture on a flash memory card, I guess I mean. Bugs that fly away just at the crucial moment are the most frustrating. Birds behave the same way, but they won't even let you get close to them before they take to the air.

Butterfly in the vineyard, 16 May 2009

Anyway, these little digital cameras are amazing. Above is the best photo I managed to get. The other 10 or 11 weren't bad either, with some being fuzzier than others. I took them all from the same angle, so there's not need to post more than one.

Now I'll wait for somebody who knows to tell me what kind of butterfly it is.

16 May 2009

Enough with the rain already

Okay, I'm back at that point where I've had enough rain now. We have had more rain since May 7 than we had over the whole period from February 15 up to that date. On the other hand, at least we haven't had to turn the heat on since about May 1. If the rain doesn't let up soon, weeds and snails are going to take over the vegetable garden.

Rock rose

There are some nice flowers right now, but not as many of them as you would expect. The roses sauvages — I'll call them rock roses, because they look like that flower we had in California — are in bloom all around. The garden roses haven't yet come into full flower yet, but they are covered in buds.


As Walt has written, our irises didn't do much this year, although we had one or two magnificent blossoms. I've noticed that the neighbors' irises haven't bloomed profusely either. I don't think this is a year for irises.


It has been a nice year for the columbine, les ancolies, however. They come up all by themselves every spring in a little patch of garden that we keep telling ourselves we really ought to dig up and replant. Then every year, this happens and we just leave it alone.

Bellflowers by the front door

It's the same with these little purple bellflowers, or campanules. They bloom really nicely when the weather is warm. Obviously, this year, they couldn't wait for the sun. Or the sun we had earlier stimulated them sufficiently. There are millions of flowers on them right now, right by our front door.

A profusion of plums

Unless the weather prevents it, we are going to have a great year for stone fruit, from all appearances. The plum and cherry trees are absolutely covered in immature fruit. The hot weather they are promising us for the coming week will make the difference.

And maybe we'll get to put shorts on again. It's too chilly now. My tan is quickly fading....