31 October 2009

Living the life...

This blog obviously needs a new theme. For a week, now... well, you know. "Living with death in Saint-Aignan" might have been a more apt title.

We are out of luck, however. Guess what today is. Hallowe'en. And you know what the theme for that American holiday is. It's not celebrated in France. Or hardly. There was a little flurry of activity around Hallowe'en here a few years ago, but it doesn't seem to have caught on. I don't expect any trick-or-treaters tonight.

Spider webs on the fence around the pond
on a foggy October 30 morning.

Click the pictures to see them at full size.

And then tomorrow is All Saints' Day — La Toussaint. It is significantfor three reasons. It's the first holiday of the fall season, with school vacations starting last week and lasting 10 days. It's also the day when the weather changes, and the rains start. It happens that way in most years.

And finally, La Toussaint is the day when people make an effort to go to the cemeteries to set out flowers on the graves of their departed loved ones, and to do a little fall cleaning around the graves. The flowers they bring are almost always chrysanthemums.

Callie and I tramped through abundant
autumn leaves yesterday morning.

La Toussaint falls on November 1 and is a Catholic holiday to commemorate the church's many saints — so many of whom died as martyrs. The next day, November 2, is called La Fête des Morts — the Day of the Dead, or All Souls' Day. In France November 2 is not an official holiday, but
November 1 is. That's why people now go to the cemeteries a day early with their pots of flowers.

The newscaster on TéléMatin just pointed out that La Toussaint is one of the deadliest periods of the year on the highways in France. Drive carefully.

Remember the old joke they told us kids a couple of generations ago? "I went to the cemetery, knocked on a gravestone, and I said: 'What are you doing down there?'", our parents or grandparents would tell us. "You know what the dead person said? 'Nothing.' He said nothing."

Autumn skies over the Touraine vineyards

We kids would ask, fascinated and horrified, "Are you kidding?" Our eyes got wide and chills ran up and down our spine. We all had to go try it. And when we knocked on a tombstone, asked the question, and the person in the grave said nothing, we were disappointed. It dawned on us that we had been tricked. We felt silly, but we still hoped one day to hear a whispery voice say: "Nothing."

Now guess what the weather forecast for tomorrow is. Je vous le donne Emile, as Coluche said: Rain! It should start tonight, and they say it's going to last all week. Temperatures are falling too.

It is the end of the line for the profusion of petunias
under our kitchen window. Au revoir, les fleurs.

I think I'll put the car in the garage and just hunker down. I bought myself a big head of escarole yesterday, so I can make salads with duck gizzards or toasted croutons and garden tomatoes, which are ripening in boxes in the pantry. I also bought some beef chuck, so if it turns cold I can make a pot of Bœuf Bourguignon.

I'm set for a few days. Better do some garden work today though.

29 October 2009

Intégration, et une mort lente

Je suppose que c'est ça, la fameuse intégration dont on parle tant dans le cadre du débat sur l'immigration et les immigrants en France. People coming to live in France need to speak French, respect French laws and customs, and, on some level, blend into, or at least become part of, the local society.

This past week has been an exercise in, and proof of, our integration into local life and French society. When somebody dies, are you part of the ritual, the commemoration, the funeral ceremonies? Or do you keep your distance, and live apart from your neighbors and other local people? Or do you participate, interact?

Fall color in the vineyards near Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher

It's ironic that a friend's passing turns into the first time you really feel a part of the life of the community, and not just your neighborhood. You go to a funeral and you recognize many of the attendees. You see and greet your plumber, the Peugeot dealer, your deceased friends father, the grape-grower/winery owner who has what is very likely the biggest business concern in the village... not to mention the mayor, who is your neighbor, to whom you say tu and not vous, and whom you greet with the famous cheek-kisses called les bises.

An apple a day, off the tree, has become
part of my morning routine

So much of it has to do with language. If you can't communicate with the people around you in their language, you remain an outsider. When you can communicate, you're still an outsider, but at least you have one foot in the other society. You can tell people about yourself, what brought you here, why you like the place, what you do with your days. They can start to get an idea of who you are.

Callie out in the vineyard on a very foggy morning

I've been thinking about why Jean-Luc's passing was so significant for me. We weren't the closest friends, but we did like each other. He had grown up in Paris, in the same neighborhoods I lived in, and at about the same time (30 to 35 years ago). When I first met Jean-Luc on July 14 — Bastille Day — in 2003, I thought to myself: "Okay, here's is the guy who is obviously a Parisian, and he lives here. If he can be happy living in Saint-Aignan, so can Walt and I."

He and our neighbors made us feel welcome here, at home. But he was somebody I could relate to even more than to my neighbors, who are all a generation older than I am. They have children and grandchildren, and they've never lived anywhere but here. Jean-Luc was a little younger than me, a little older than Walt, and he had lived many years in the urban environment that is the center of Paris. I'll miss that contact with the Paris of the 1970s and '80s.

The fact that Jean-Luc's companion, S., is an Englishwoman is also important. She has lived in this part of France for 20 years or more, speaks French well, and has a lot of friends here. But now she has to decide whether to stay in France or return to the U.K. "A lot of expats go home to die," she told me. "It's a well-known phenomenon."

A dog's eye view of a fall walk in the Touraine vineyard

The other thing about Jean-Luc's death is that he died exactly the same way my father did, 20 years ago. He spent a perfectly normal day, though he felt tired and run down. He went to bed at his usual hour, and then he never woke up. That's a good way to go, I'm sure, but not when you are 53, like Jean-Luc, or 64, like my father. I guess I figure that's how I'll die, one day — but I don't know when.

Walt's father also died of a heart attack, and at age 44! There you have some of the reasons that convinced us to abandon the stresses of the working world, the California traffic jams, and big city life. We figured we might as well go ahead and do something we really wanted to do — move to France and live in the country — before it was too late.

This might sound morbid, but I came to France to die. To die, yes, « ...mais de mort lente », as the singer/poet Georges Brassens said in one of his songs. A slow death, enjoying each day that goes by before the last one comes.

An afternoon at a funeral

I just re-read yesterday's post because I don't know where to start this morning. I wrote an e-mail to Walt yesterday to tell him about the funeral on Tuesday, which took place as he was flying over the Atlantic toward Boston. Here's an edited version of what I told him.

I went down to the church at about 2:00 as I had planned. I parked my car up at the Salle des Fêtes, next to Mme Barbier's car (she's our barber and that's really her name). I made my way down into the village center on foot along a gravel path. There was a pretty good crowd gathered in front of the church and library, with everybody just standing around and waiting. The hearse carrying the casket and flowers drove up just as I got there.

The village center from the parking lot up at the Salle des Fêtes

I saw and greeted our plumber as well as the owner of the Garage Danger where I bought my car in 2003, and our neighbor the mayor. And, of course, Jean-Luc's father. He was dressed in a sky blue suit with a pink tie. The man is only about 5 ft 2 in. tall, and has white hair and a white mustache. It was a bright sunny day, and he really stood out against the gray stone buildings — but he still managed to look somber. It's hard to bury a 52-year-old son — your only son.

Jean-Luc's two sisters and his companion, S., were already inside the church, the father told me, setting up the music that was to be played (Johnny Hallyday CDs) and rehearsing their eulogies. Other people I saw were old Mr. Denis, dressed in pale green and plaid, and his wife, but they didn't seem to recognize me. Their son Bruno and his wife Patricia operate the winery that owns most of the vineyard out behind our house.

Later I saw Bruno Denis in the church and he greeted me with a handshake, but I didn't see Patricia. Jean-Luc was Bruno's cousin, I gather. I also saw our neighhbor B. from Blois, but not his wife — she had told me she wouldn't be there. Neither did I see Jean-Luc's former companion, who is our friend G., so she followed through on her plan not to attend. She said it was out of respect for S., but I know there was more to it than that.

Some people were fairly dressed up. I got the impression that some of them are people who live in the village and attend all the funerals, whether they really knew the deceased or not. But then Jean-Luc's father was born here and moved back when he retired after a career in Paris. Everybody must know him, especially the older people. They would have known Jean-Luc, at least slightly, and by reputation.

Fall colors on a neighbor's old barn

As for clothing, anything and everything went. A lot of people were in black or their Sunday best, but just as many were wearing jeans or other work clothes. If your experience of France is Paris, you've probably been struck by all the thin, well-coiffed people wearing black there. Out here in the country, and even in most Paris neighborhoods where tourists don't often go, the reality is quite different.

I didn't keep track of time, but the service didn't seem very long. The two sisters gave a eulogy together, taking turns talking about their brother's life, but it didn't last very long. They used some words and expressions that were typical of their brother, who was a tease and a kidder. I was pleased to recognize him in what they said.

The priest talked and chanted or sang his parts of the service, and some people sang along. I not only had never been to a French funeral before, but I'd also never been to a Catholic funeral. It's was different from the services we Baptists are used to in North Carolina.

S. did a reading of a poem in English and a translation of it that she, CHM, and I collaborated to put together. Actually, she read the French first, and she did it very very well, with good pronunciation and without stumbling over the words. Then she read the English (perfect of course). She was there with a cousin of hers from England, and the cousin's husband. I met them before we even went into the church.

At one point the priest said something about the pain and grief of Jean-Luc's father, sisters, and friends, without specifically mentioning his companion. A woman who worked with Jean-Luc and S. told me after the ceremony that she was upset with the priest for that. It may have been an oversight on his part, but it was one he should not have committed.

As it turned out there were quite a few English and American attendees, mostly people who know S. and through her had met Jean-Luc. I myself know almost none of them, but I could pick out people in the crowd who didn't look French. S. told me about some of them when I went to see her yesterday — an American lawyer who practiced in Paris, and English university administrator who retired here, an American doctor who retired here with his American wife. Most live in villages, and they are scattered around the area.

After the service, we filed out past the casket and each person sprinkled water from the baptismal font onto the casket with a ritual instrument that I don't even know the name of. I didn't do that because I didn't know how or want to — making the sign of the cross is not something I've ever done. Anyway, I just stood for a second in front of the casket, bowed my head, said my good-bye, and walked on out into the sunshine.

We all stood around in front of the church for about as long as we had been inside, waiting while the men from the pompes funèbres loaded the casket and then all the flowers back into the hearse. Finally, we all walked behind the hearse up to the cemetery — but not the old village cemetery that I knew about, a new one instead, on the other side of the road and up the hill. I hadn't even been aware that it existed, because it's hidden by tall hedges.

The priest didn't come to the graveside ceremony. I guess that's standard procedure. An old friend of Jean-Luc's did a reading over the casket before it was lowered into the grave, but I couldn't hear him. Family members threw roses into the grave on top of the casket. The rest of us just filed by and again paid our respects. A lot of people crossed themselves, of course.

There were people at the cemetery that I hadn't seen at the church, including two men who are both named Jacques who worked with Jean-Luc quite a bit. Both had been to our house before. S. said Jean-Luc's son was there too, but I didn't see him, or I didn't recognize him. I've only met him once, a few years ago. At the cemetery, I met Jean-Luc's ex-wife for the first time. She lives in a village on the other side of Saint-Aignan.

As it was winding down, at about 4:45, and people were standing around the cemetery in groups of different sizes, socializing, I decided I needed to come home to take care of Callie. I told one of Jean-Luc's sisters au revoir but she made a little fuss and insisted I come to her father's house for the reception. Bring the dog, she said, and S. of course said yes, bring Callie so she can play with her dog, called Mr. Mo.

It was nice to take a walk in the vineyard that afternoon

I came on home and Callie and I went out for a pretty good walk in the vineyard. It was nice to get some exercise and to be alone for a little while. Then I went to the reception, leaving Callie at home alone again. My main reason for going, in fact, was to spend some time talking with S.'s cousins from England, who of course didn't know anybody else there. They also don't speak French.

A little later I ended up driving back home to get Callie and then spending the evening at S.'s house with her and her cousins. Callie and Mo played a little. We humans found plenty of subjects of conversation, had a light dinner, drank some wine, and just generally spent a pleasant evening together. The cousins have been to the U.S. many times, visiting many regions, and enjoy talking about it. It was a nice way to end the day.

28 October 2009

The fog lifting

It was quite a day but I'm not ready to write about it yet. There were about 150 people at the funeral. I knew maybe 20 of them, and I recognized a lot more whose paths I've crossed over the last six years.

After the service and the burial, we were invited over to Jean-Luc's father's house for a glass of wine and some finger food. It was a nice gathering even though again, I didn't know a lot of the people in attendance. I talked with J-L's sisters, who were getting ready to drive back to Paris. They both have professional responsibilities.

Driving back to Saint-Aignan on an October morning,
just as the fog is starting to lift

I also spent a while talking with a man who was standing alone, kind of off to the side, as I was after a minute or two. He told me he was a childhood friend of Jean-Luc's, in Paris. He still lives in Paris. I asked if he had been to our village before, and he said yes, his grandfather was born here and lived here. It was his father who re-located to Paris as a young man, but when the grandfather here died the family kept his house.

So he spent summers in the Saint-Aignan area just as Jean-Luc did. He had driven down for the day, and I'm glad I started up a conversation with him because he had made all that effort to be here and was just standing there looking a little out of place. He made interesting conversation, so it wasn't a case of his being shy or naturally tactiturn. I think he just didn't know anybody. But he wanted to be there for his old friend's funeral.

It was a beautiful day and a beautiful service. There were many, many wreaths and sprays and pots of flowers. There were quite a few English people there, and at least one American and one German, but mostly the people were the village locals. Les paysans du coin.

Commuters in Tours waiting for the 7:45 train to Paris.
The picture is blurry, but then it was a blurry morning.

The atmosphere and the people were so different from what I had seen earlier in the morning at the TGV station over in Tours. Those were, as Walt described them, the "people dressed in black" — the urban ones who commute to Paris on the 7:45 a.m. TGV to Montparnasse. You'd think they were the ones who were all going to a funeral, in their black clothes, shoes, and coats. But no, they were just going to work in the city.

Right now, Callie wants her morning walk.

27 October 2009

A day of departures

We are on our way out the door to drive to the TGV station at St-Pierre-des-Corps, in the suburbs of Tours. It takes about an hour to get there, and Walt's train to the airport leaves at 8:03.

Here are a couple of pictures I found this morning while nosing around on my computer. First one of Jean-Luc and S. in their little Peugeot convertible. It was taken in May 2008, and I'm not even sure I took it. It might have been Cheryl, who was visiting from California then.

Jean-Luc and S. in May 2008, with Mo in the back seat

And then here's a photo of the village church, just to give you an idea what it looks like. The funeral service is at 2:30 this afternoon. I'll have plenty of time to drive back from Tours, rest a little, and get some appropriate clothes on before then.

The village church where the funeral service will take place

Yesterday I had a chance to talk to Jean-Luc's father and tell him what a good friend his son had been to us. I don't know why I hadn't done that earlier, but now I'm glad I did.

P.S. at 9:30 a.m. I'm back home and Walt got on the train as scheduled. He should be arriving at the airport in the next 20 minutes. Callie was really glad to see me when I got home. She does not enjoy having her regular schedule disrupted.

P.P.S. at 10:30 a.m. Just talked to Walt. His train got to CDG airport on time. Now he just has to wait about 2½ hours before his flight takes off. I have about 3 hours before the funeral.

26 October 2009

Good weather for a bad day

According to weather reports this morning, the weather is going to be bright and sunny in the Loire Valley all this week. If it turns out that way, it means we won't have to trudge to the cemetery from the village church tomorrow afternoon in the rain, under hoods or umbrellas.

After shopping at the market in Noyers yesterday — I bought a slice of pheasant pâté, a slice of duck pâté, some good bintje potatoes, and three nice cheeses — I went to one of the florist shops in Saint-Aignan to buy flowers for Jean-Luc's funeral.

A view of the vineyard and our house from a few days ago,
with storm clouds coming in from the northwest

Walt and I had discussed it and we weren't even sure that the florist's was the right place to go for funeral flowers. Maybe we should go directly to the pompes funèbres, the funeral home for them. I figured the woman at the florist shop, who is an old friend of the woman we bought our house from, would be able to tell me.

No, I wasn't in the wrong place, the young woman who waited on me said. "What kind of flowers to you want to send?" she asked me. I told her I had no idea, that this was my first experience of French funeral. Okay, she said, and led me outside to look at potted chrysanthemums out on the pavement in front of the shop.

"Are these what people buy?" I wanted to know. "Yes," she said, "here's the selection. Decide how much you want to spend and pick out the ones you like." They started at 7 euros and went up to 17. That certainly wasn't going to break the bank, even with the crummy dollar.

"You can also get cut flowers," the woman said, "but they won't last as long at the cemetery. Most people buy potted plants — le plus souvent des chrysanthèmes." I picked out a big planter box full of them, with a profusion of purple flowers. I paid 17 euros, the highest price.

I had told the woman it was for Jean-Luc's funeral, and she just nodded. Back in the shop, she gave me a card to fill out. "Write your message and your name on this side," she said. "And then on the back, where it says name and telephone number, just put.... well, his companion S.'s name, and then Famille M..., Jean-Luc's last name." J-L and S. were well known in Saint-Aignan, obviously. They restored a house on the main square in 2008.

She said the flowers would be delivered to the funeral home, which in turn would deliver them to the church for the service and then to the cemetery for the burial. She told me at least three times that I should go to the church, not the cemetery, at 2:30 Tuesday afternoon — I already knew that.

Look how they cleaned up the banks of the village pond
out behind
our house. Now they need to pull that
invasive aquatic plant out of
it. I hope the fish
survive because they eat mosquito larvae.

Yesterday evening I mentioned to S. that I wasn't sure if everybody or just family actually went to the cemetery for the burial after the church service. She said yes, I want everybody who wants to be there to be there with us. So that settled that. It will all take place tomorrow.

One thing that has become clear is that food doesn't play the same role at a time like this in France as it does in America. S. said it doesn't happen that way in England either. I wonder where we Americans got the custom of taking a covered dish, a casserole, a pie, or a cake to the bereaved family.

Walt and I were the only ones who took food to S., as far as I could tell. Yesterday we went over there for a couple of hours late in the afternoon rather than having them come here. It made more sense, and I'm glad we did it that way because several other friends stopped in while we were there. Jean-Luc's two sisters came over too, from their father's house across the street.

I made a Pounti cake, the Auvergne specialty. Here's the recipe and a description. Everybody said it was really good, and I thought so too. The recipe is a keeper.

25 October 2009

Nothing much

It's terrible to write a blog post just to say that you have nothing much to say. The last pictures I took go back to Thursday morning. So no help here, really — you've seen them if they were worth posting.

Okay, okay, I know I say I don't have anything much to say and then I write paragraph after paragraph.

We took the day off yesterday and just stayed home. Walt did some cooking. I didn't do much of anything, except go for a nice walk with the dog in the afternoon. It was very gray and misty, but surprisingly warm, all day. No matter — we built a fire in the wood stove anyway, just to chase away the feeling of damp.

I talked to S. on the phone in the afternoon. She was busy with her visitors from the U.K. and was going to dinner with them and a good English friend of hers who lives up in Valaire, near Blois. We've invited S. and her house guests over for an apéritif this evening.

That means I need to go out and do some shopping this morning. I'll go over to the outdoor market in Noyers-sur-Cher, across the river. I'm in a phase now where I enjoy that market more than the one in Saint-Aignan on Saturdays. The Noyers market is smaller, but there are some very good vendors there. The Saint-Aignan market is too crowded.

One good feature in Noyers is the stand where they sell poultry products, including ground chicken and turkey as well as terrinespâtés — of rabbit, duck, turkey, or pheasant. And of course fresh chickens, guinea fowl, and ducks. There's a vegetable stand that sells the variety of potatoes called bintje, which make very good frites and mashed potatoes. I can't find them anywhere else around here. All the other vegetables there are nice too.

And oh, I almost forgot that there is a very nice charcuterie shop in Noyers too, as well as a good bread bakery. It's convenient to pop into those shops before or after buying things at the market stalls, while I'm over there.

There's also a very good cheese vendor at the Noyers farmers market. The man who sells cheese in Noyers works for the same company that sells cheese in Saint-Aignan, where the stand is staffed by two women. I like them and I like the man in Noyers too, and the cheese is always fresh and appetizing. But in Noyers there is seldom a line, whereas in Saint-Aignan you sometimes have to wait 10 or 15 minutes on line before you get served. The cheese seller has the time to advise you and choose your cheeses carefully.

He also likes to chat. Last week he told me all about his dog. The poor dog died recently at the age of 17. A new dog is on the way in. We had quite a long and friendly discussion.

So small markets can be just as attractive and enjoyable as big markets. Size isn't everything.

24 October 2009

Starting up the blog again

How do you launch into a topic about tourism or cooking or the weather after all this? Yesterday we went over to S.'s house at noon to take her the quiche Walt made in the morning. She was alone, but in fact she wasn't even there when we arrived.

We went across the street to speak to Jean-Luc's father. He was preparing his lunch — I saw a salade de tomates on the kitchen counter, and Jacques is an avid gardner at 84 years old. He supplied S. and J-L with fresh produce in the summertime, so they didn't even need anything from our garden. They did some gardening themselves, and had a lot of fruit trees, but remember, they worked for a living and didn't have a lot of spare time.

As we were deciding whether to leave or wait, to leave the quiche or take it back home and bring it back later in the day, we saw S. driving up the road. She pulled into the driveway, got out of the car, and said she had realized, no matter what else was happening, the dog, Mo, still needed to eat. And she was out of kibble. So a trip to the supermarket was unavoidable. S. also had two nice-looking baguettes in her hand. We helped carry the groceries in.

Jean-Luc's sisters came in while we were there, and we all had a glass of wine together, a toast to Jean-Luc's memory. S. had asked me to take a look at a poem she wants to read at the funeral Tuesday afternoon, and her rough draft of a French translation of it. I had taken it home and worked on it in the morning while W. made the quiche. I told J-L's sisters about it, what it said roughly, and they said it sounded perfect — just right for their brother's service.

I hadn't actually brought the translation of the poem back to S. because first I sent a copy off by e-mail to CHM for his suggestions. He is a professional translator (retired), and his native language is French while mine isn't. I know CHM would find just the right words and the right tone for the poem and the circumstances, and he did.

Yesterday, an Irish friend and her Dutch husband drove down from London, where they live, to spend the weekend with S. They arrived in the afternoon. I went over there at about 6:00 yesterday evening, while Walt went out for the evening walk with Callie. I had the translation, revue et corrigée par CHM, and wanted to hand it back to S. so that she could have as much time as possible to familiarize herself with it before Tuesday.

And so that she can show it to J-L's sisters. The sisters asked me to talk with S. about whether she will actually be able to get through a reading of the poem at the church on Tuesday, or whether she will lose her composure under the strain of the emotion. S. is determined that she will be able to get through it. She really wants to do it. I wonder if she hadn't started translating the poem in the first place so that she could share it with J-L.

The sisters also asked me to ask S. (who speaks French, but they wanted me to explain all this in English) to consider also reading the poem in English as well as French at the church. English and the local Anglophones have played a big role in J-L's life over the past several years, since he met us, some of our friends, and, especially, S., of course, and her English friends. He didn't speak English himself. There will surely be quite a few English-speaking attendees at the funeral service, however.

According to S., J-L always said that the only thing he really wanted when the time came for his funeral was a profusion of fresh flowers. And he didn't want to be cremated. Walt and I have to go to see the florist in Saint-Aignan today and order some flowers as our contribution to honoring that wish.

It was nice yesterday afternoon meeting the Irish friend, who is a journalist and press-relations specialist, and her Dutch husband, who is a tax lawyer. They actually own a house over near Montrichard, but said unfortunately they don't get to spend nearly enough time there since they are both still active professionally. The Dutch husband told me that he has spent quite a bit of time in North Carolina. His son is a military pilot and received his training there, so the father went to visit, loved the place and has returned many times over the years. The Irish friend is going to Las Vegas later this month for a press event of some kind.

S. is holding up. She said she had never been happier in her life than since she met J-L about 5 years ago. She plans to stay in Saint-Aignan, but she wants to go to spend Christmas with her sister, who lives in British Columbia, not far from Vancouver.

It's a small world, isn't it? People fly off in all directions, all the time. Walt and I are not exceptions, though we travel less now than we used to.

I haven't been taking any pictures. I would actually love to take pictures at the funeral, but I don't think it would be appropriate. As I said, I've never attended a funeral in France before. I will write about it, as you might guess.

By the way, the music that will be playing as people come into the village church on Tuesday afternoon, and as they file out to walk over to the cemetery for the burial, will be some of J-L's favorite Johnny Hallyday songs. He loved Johnny (say [djuh-NEE] in French). The priest is fine with that. During the service, which will not be a full mass but more informal, there will be musical interludes featuring works of the composer Mendelssohn — S.'s selection. She's a pianist herself.

23 October 2009

Qu'il repose en paix

May he rest in peace. Our friend Jean-Luc died yesterday. He was 52, and it was a real shock to hear the news. Jean-Luc was one of the first people we met when we moved to Saint-Aignan in 2003, and maybe the one we knew the best.

He was born in Paris and grew up in the Marais. He lived there back when I did, in the 70s and early 80s. He told me about his parents' apartment on the rue des Francs-Bourgeois. I lived on the rue Montorgueil and had friends in the Marais. J-L might have crossed paths many times, but we never met — until Walt and I moved to Saint-Aignan. And he was seven years younger than me, three years older than Walt.

Jean-Luc's father is a native of our village. That's how he ended up here. As a boy, J-L spent summer vacations around Saint-Aignan. He knew just about everybody of his generation and older, and he was a good source of local history and local color. Very often, I'd mention somebody I had met in my everyday dealings and he J-L would say: "Oh, we are cousins, you know." We'd laugh about that, because back in North Carolina where I come from I too have hundreds of cousins.

It was at our neighbors' Bastille Day party in 2003 that we met Jean-Luc for the first time. He was there with Gisèle, who lives on the other side of the village and whom I've written about on this blog. We spent part of that July 14 afternoon talking with them, getting to know them. Late in the evening, we all went separately down to the village to see the annual fireworks display.

Walt and I ran into Gisèle and Jean-Luc down there that night. We stopped to talk, and Jean-Luc quite naturally talked to us using the familiar tu pronoun rather than the formal vous. Gisèle, who is a generation older, admonished him. "You can't just go around saying tu to people without first finding out whether they are comfortable with it! It's not polite." I quickly assured her that it didn't bother me at all, and that I actually preferred it.

The way Jean-Luc talked, and the things he talked about, reminded me so much of my time in Paris when I was a younger. He could have been part of the group of friends I had back then. And with those Parisian friends, we certainly would never have thought of saying vous to each other.

Jean-Luc could have been my cousin.

One day Gisèle had a serious medical crisis in my car, as I was driving her up to Blois for an MRI at the hospital. It was all scheduled and she was feeling okay when we left Saint-Aignan. But by the time we got to Blois she was unable to speak or move. Instead of taking her to the lab for her MRI, I drove her directly to the emergency room. Orderlies had to come and lift her out of my car. A nurse lectured me about transporting such an incapacitated person in my car rather than calling an ambulance.

I waited for hours, and then the doctor came to see me to tell me that he didn't expect Gisèle to live through the night. She was paralyzed, he said, and couldn't talk. She couldn't swallow and was having trouble breathing. It was up to me to call Jean-Luc, the only person I knew to call, and tell him that his friend was probably going to die.

A few minutes after that call, when I was allowed to go to her room, I looked at Gisèle and told her I didn't know what I could do for her. Her eyes were alert, but she couldn't speak. I turned and left the room to see if J-L had arrived, and I heard Gisèle cry out: « J'ai froid ! Très froid ! Aidez-moi ! » — "I'm cold! Very cold! Help me!" She thought she was dying, and fear revived her. Then J-L arrived. He looked at me like I was crazy. She's not paralyzed! She can talk! She doesn't appear to be at death's door. It was all very confusing.

Later, Jean-Luc met an Englishwoman, S., that we, independently, had gotten to know slightly. Now we're good friends. He and S. ended up living together these past few years. Jean-Luc didn't speak English but he got used to hearing a lot of us talking in English together. I tried to translate for him in such situations, or get the conversation going in French again when he was with us all.

Over the years, Jean-Luc helped Walt and me with various home-improvement projects, including getting our front deck tiled (twice) and putting up a fence all around our yard to keep the dog from wandering and to keep the rabbits and deer out of the vegetable garden. He always did a good job and charged a fair price. He and a friend advised us on fireplace issues, and we ended up getting a wood stove installed because they said we'd never get the fireplace to work properly without completely rebuilding it. They were right.

With Jean-Luc, we talked politics too. He was left-leaning, what we'd call a liberal in America. Our neighbors are more centrists, even right-wing, but in the French sense of the term — not socially conservative, but economically. Anyway, one summer they had a party attended by many of the establishment figures involved in politics up in Blois. Jean-Luc and Gisèle were invited, along with our neighbor who is now the mayor of the village and her husband.

Our mayor is also left-leaning, we've been told, though we've never really talked politics with her.At the party that day, Jean-Luc told me, he kind of sidled up to the future mayor and made a remark about how he and she had a similar politcal outlook. "Not at all," she told him, and ended the conversation.

He was taken aback, he said. Only later did he realize that the future mayor had assumed he was a right-winger, like all the other people at the party. He hadn't been clear about his political views, and it was all a misunderstanding. He never got a chance to clear it up, either, as far as I know.

It was his heart that failed Jean-Luc, and it was sudden and unexpected — his death and the news came out of the blue. He had recently had an accident, injuring himself but not too seriously, and then for completely other reasons he had to have surgery in August. He was laid up for a couple of weeks, and bored out of his skull at the time, S. told us. Of course it was right when I went to Paris and the Auvergne, so I couldn't go visit him, to entertain him. Walt went one day, while I was in Paris.

The doctors must have given J-L a thorough physical exam before and after the surgery. No matter — they didn't foresee this. The heart is like that. Sometimes it just stops. In Jean-Luc's case, he apparently had a perfectly normal Wednesday, and went to bed at his regular time. He just never woke up. S. said she realized at about 4:00 a.m. that he was dead.

Last week, when they stopped by unannounced for an apéritif, he said I should come over for a meal or two, and a glass of wine, while Walt was in America and I would otherwise be alone with the dog. I planned to do that.

Jean-Luc's father, who lives across the street from the house that J-L and S. shared, survives, as do his mother, son, ex-wife, and two sisters. And Gisèle of course.

Walt and I went over to the house last night to see S., to make sure she wasn't alone. Other friends were already there, mostly people we had met through Jean-Luc. And then Jean-Luc's sisters arrived from Paris. His father, 84, came in for a few minutes. Walt and I stayed for a while after everybody else left, saying goodnight fairly late, when it was clearly time for S. to get some rest.

We're going to make a quiche and take it over there this morning. An English friend of S.'s is arriving to spend the weekend with her, to help with arrangements and morale.

The funeral is next Tuesday. Walt leaves for the U.S. early Tuesday morning — I'm driving him over to Tours to catch the TGV to the airport. Then in the afternoon I'll go down to the church in the village for the service. I don't think I've ever been to a funeral in France before. Luckily, I haven't been to very many in the U.S. either. A close uncle's 50 years ago, my grandfather's 40 years ago, my good friend Jim's 30 years ago, my father's 20 years ago, my friend John's in California nearly 12 years ago. And now Jean-Luc's.

I've posted pictures and stories about Jean-Luc on this blog before, but I can't get the search feature to locate them. Walt published pictures and movies last June, when we had a big couscous party. Jean-Luc was featured prominently in them, in his pink shirt. And his waving good-by at the end of that video is quite moving, seen today.

22 October 2009


I woke up late this morning and was suprised I had slept that long. I felt groggy and a little blue when I got up and started doing the regular morning jobs — making tea, turning on the news and weather reports, taking clothes out of the washing machine and hanging them up to dry.

At some point I looked out the window and realized how pretty the morning was. There was a light haze or brume over the vineyard, but the sun was coming up and it was going to be a bright day.

Looking out the bedroom window

It is, too. Now it's time for me to get showered and dressed so that I can take a trip to the supermarket. That will cheer me up. Lettuce, milk, eggs, leeks, onions, vinegar... and whatever looks good.

Saint-Aignan skies five years ago today, B.B. (Before Blogging)

I don't have a lot to say today. What am I doing this October? Learning how to start fires and clean out the wood-burning stove. Walt will soon be leaving to spend a couple of weeks in America, and Callie and I will need to know how to keep warm. (Of course I can always turn on the central heat...)

I started this blog four years ago, in October 2005. Gosh.

21 October 2009

Rainy day and all...

It's raining today. We're going to have pizza for lunch — Walt-made pizza, of course, with a tomato sauce that we'll make using some of our late-harvest garden tomatoes, along with ham and cheese.

It was supposed to rain starting yesterday afternoon, but all we got was a few drops about 5:00 p.m. I went out and walked the dog, and I didn't get wet. This morning it is raining quietly, with fairly big drops. For once, it's not just mist. It's supposed to last into the afternoon.

Expect heavy steady rain this morning in the yellow areas,
according to the French national weather service

The weather report actually shows our area, the Loir-et-Cher (centered on Blois), along with the neighboring départements of Indre-et-Loire (Tours), Indre (Châteauroux), and Cher (Bourges), under "yellow vigilance" — that means a severe weather alert, for heavy rain.

Sunset over the vineyard a couple of days ago

Down south, the Mediterranean coast is under "orange vigilance" for « phénomènes météorologiques dangereux » — heavy rains, thunderstorms, and high winds with gusts to 60 or 70 mph. I'm glad we don't often have winds like that here in the Loire Valley. Down there, it's all the time.

Yesterday, I spent a few minutes observing this wasp
on a bunch of blue grapes on the vines out back.

Walt has posted about Leesa and Alex from the Paris area coming down to visit us on Sunday. She's American from Southern California and he's French. This was their third visit to Saint-Aignan, and their second to our house. This time, they brought the food and cooked lunch for us. They made a salmon and vegetable tajine — a kind of stir-fry/stew — with preserved lemon and Moroccan spices. It was delicious.

Luckily, there were some leftovers, and we got to keep them. Yesterday we had them for lunch as soup. I added about a liter of shrimp broth and some water, and we chopped and put in some cooked potatoes, sweet potatoes, and Swiss chard that we had in the fridge. It was the best kind of soup — partly improvised, with a flavorful broth and a lot of good vegetables and spices.

Callie won't be sitting out in the yard this morning — it's raining.
And yes, there are still a lot of apples on the ground...

When they were here, Leesa took a lot of pictures in and around our winemaker neighbor's cellar and out in the vineyard. She has posted some of them on her blog, News from France. Click the link and then scroll down. Leesa posted 13 blog topics, all dated Oct. 20, 2009.

20 October 2009

Pork chops with mustard-cream sauce

Okay, two requests for more information about pork chops in a mustardy cream sauce. Well, information about the sauce, anyway. Such a sauce is good with chicken, veal, or steak too. And it's nothing if not simple. This is a classic French recipe and I remember learning how to make it back in the late 1970s.

First, a word about pork chops. I don't know how you cook them. Too often, in American, pork chops are cooked dry. Just throw them in the pan and fry them. When they're browned, they're done. Wrong! What you do is brown the chops — with some onions, for example — and when they are done you add about ½ cup of water or, better, white wine, to the pan. Cover it and continue cooking the chops on low heat on top of the stove, or in a 325ºF oven, for 10 to 15 minutes. Then they're ready.

Pork chops in a creamy mustard sauce

To make the mustardy cream sauce — should that be a creamy mustard sauce? — take the pork chops out of the pan and set them aside in a warm place (a warm oven, say). Into the pan, with the juice left there from braising the chops and onions, add, oh, half a cup of cream. Or more, depending on how many chops you're making. French crême fraîche is best, but whipping or heavy U.S. cream is okay too.

Stir the cream until it is hot and starting to bubble. Salt and pepper it. And then stir in 2 or 3 tablespoons of Dijon mustard. Experiment and taste to get the amount you like. It doesn't have to be a very spicy-hot mustard, because as soon as you heat mustard up the spicy hotness goes out of it. The last time I made this sauce I used grainy old-fashioned French mustard — called moutarde à l'ancienne or moutarde de Meaux (a town east of Paris). The little bits of mustard seed give the sauce a nice look.

Pork chops in mustard-cream sauce,
served with fried green tomatoes

Put the pork chops (or chicken, or steak) back in the pan when the sauce is blended and hot. Turn them over in it. Then serve them. Put the sauce in a bowl or gravy boat and serve it alongside. It'll be good on potatoes or other vegetables, such as fried green tomatoes or green beans or mashed potatoes. And it's good when you sop it up with a piece of French bread too.

Here's a similar recipe for pork chops from a French cookbook, but with tomato sauce:
Put four pork chops in a pan to brown without adding any fat. Add one finely diced onion and let it start to cook down. Add to the pan half a cup of tomato paste thinned with two tablespoons of water. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of dried thyme. Cover the pan and let it cook for 10 minutes on low heat.
So often, the simplest foods are the best.

19 October 2009

Green tomatoes

Here are three ideas for using up your end-of-season green tomatoes. If you grew tomatoes in 2009, you probably have some. I know I do. I pulled out all the tomato plants last week and gathered two or three buckets-full of green fruit, of all different sizes.

Little green tomatoes

The first way to use them is to not use them at all, but to ripen them. I'm doing it, and it's working. I put the ones that looked as if they might ripen into cardboard boxes with a ripe apple in each box. To protect them, make a bed of crumpled-up newspaper for them to rest on. The apples produce a gas that helps the tomatoes ripen faster. You can use a kiwi or a banana in their place, but you know how many apples we have.

Yesterday, after not more than 10 days of ripening this way, a dozen or more of the tomatoes had gone from green to red. I'm hope to extend tomato season by a few weeks this way.

Ripening tomatoes with apples in a newspaper-lined box

The second plan for using green tomatoes is the classic known as Fried Green Tomatoes. I made some on Saturday, using the largest green tomatoes I had, and they were good. Cut the green tomatoes into slices ½" (1.5 cm) thick. Spread them out in a big dish and salt them. Also sprinkle on some black pepper, and some hot red pepper if you like it.

Sliced green tomatoes, salted and peppered...

...and then dredged in cornmeal, drying on a rack

After 30 to 60 minutes, you'll see that the green tomato slices have released some water. Since they are wet, you don't need to use any milk or egg in the breading process (you can if you want to, of course). Just take the tomato slices and dredge them in cornmeal or fine bread crumbs. Shake off the excess meal. Fry them in a skillet in vegetable oil. Delicious. We had them with lean pork loin chops and a mustardy cream sauce.

Green tomatoes fried in about ¼" of vegetable oil

The third way to deal with green tomatoes is to make Green Tomato Ketchup. It's easy and the result is good. Well, it's easy if you have a food mill — un moulin à légumes. See the accompanying picture.

When you have this many green tomatoes, you need a plan.
And this is after making the fried green tomatoes
and a batch of green tomato ketchup.

Here's the recipe I used:
Green Tomato Ketchup

3 lbs. green tomatoes
1 lb. onions
3 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. dry mustard
½ tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. mixed pickling spices*, optional
1 cup vinegar
½ cup honey

Slice green tomatoes, onions, and garlic; place in a large pot with pepper, mustard, bay leaves, and Worcestershire sauce. If using, put the mixed pickling spices* in a small cheesecloth bag or a tea ball and add to the mixture. Pour 1 cup vinegar over all and cook for 4 hours over very low heat, stirring occasionally.

This is a moulin à légumes — a food mill.

Run the mixture through a food mill, using the finest blade, or puree it in a blender and then press it through a fine wire strainer or sieve to remove the tomato seeds and skins. Return to pot and bring to boil; add honey.

Can the ketchup in sterilized jars and store in a cool dark place. The refrigerator is good. Also, refrigerate the jars of green tomato ketchup after opening.

Makes about 3 pints.

* Mixed pickling spices can include coriander, cumin, dill, celery, and fennel seeds; hot red pepper flakes; allspice berries or whole cloves; juniper berries; a cinnamon stick — and nearly anything else you think might be good.
Green tomato ketchup with onions, spices, vinegar, and honey

The batch I made came out nice and thick. It's a little bit of work to cut up and trim the tomatoes, but less so if your tomatoes are big ones — I had a ton of little green tomatoes. Personally, I wasn't sure about the honey, but I decided to use it for this batch. I might just use sugar if I make more green tomato ketchup this fall. I still have a ton of tomatoes.

18 October 2009

Aubusson, of tapestry fame

When we drove back from Salers to Saint-Aignan in September, we decided to take the scenic route. Instead of driving on the same roads we had taken to get down there, we came up through Ussel in the Corrèze, and Aubusson and Guéret in the Creuse.

Some of the businesses in "downtown" Aubusson

The départements (counties, more or less) of the Corrèze and the Creuse (which are both rivers — most French departments are named for the rivers that cross them) are two of the poorest in France. You wouldn't really know it, just driving through, though. It's not that they are full of slums or trailer parks or anything like that — you just see very pretty, and very quiet, villages and small towns.

The old faubourg called Terrade at Aubusson,
on the banks of the Creuse river

Both departments, like the ones in the Auvergne just to the east — the Cantal being one of them — have suffered generations of out-migration and are seriously underpopulated. In the Corrèze, for example, nearly 20% of all the housing units are actually second homes — résidences secondaires — that sit unoccupied most of the time.

An old turret on a house in Aubusson

In the Creuse department, there are 22 inhabitants per square kilometer. In the department where we live, the Loir-et-Cher, there are 50. So you probably see only half as many people when you pass through the Creuse. It feels kind of empty. The department right next to ours, the Indre-et-Loire, with Tours as its main city, has a population density of 95 people per sq. km. And in the Ile-de-France, with Paris at its center, the figure is 975 per sq. km.

This Aubusson property might be available for purchase...

Aubusson was the town I really wanted to see. I don't know about you, but sometimes I'll see a town on the map and realize I've heard the name for years, or decades, but I've never seen the place. That really makes me want to go explore. I felt that way about Salers. And about Aubusson. The famous Dame à la Licorne tapestry — the unicorn tapestry in the Cluny museum in Paris — was manufactured there.

Seen in a shop window

About 100 years ago, the population of the town was 7,500, but now it's down to about 4,000. Since the 1400s, Aubusson has been renowned for the beautiful tapestries produced there, and as late as the beginning of the 20th century 1500 to 2000 people were still employed in that industry. It has declined dramatically since then. As a result, the town has lost population. The decline was accentuated when a local Philips electronics factory closed down about 20 years ago.


Still, Aubusson is the third largest town in the Creuse department. People have lived on the site since Roman times, and there is evidence that there was a settlement there during the Iron Age. Since the Middle Ages, local men have been recognized as skilled brick masons, and many men have left the area over the centuries to work on building projects in places like La Rochelle in the 17th century and, especially, Paris in the 19th century.

On the main street in Aubusson

Tourism is probably Aubusson's only prospect now. But the town is far from the main roads that crisscross France. You really have to want to go there. Aubusson is 90 km/55 miles from Limoges, and according to Google maps the drive takes and hour and forty-five minutes! That tells you what kinds of roads you'll be on, because there is essentially no traffic to slow you down, just curves and villages. From Tours or Saint-Aignan, it takes about three hours to get down there, and from Paris four to four and a half.

On main street in Aubusson, looking up

For Walt it me, it was a lunch stop. We had a pizza. One day we'll go back. I'd like to, anyway.

17 October 2009

Sauce Meurette

Oeufs en meurette — a typically Burgundian dish. I got interested in it back in late August when I was in Paris and had dinner in a restaurant with a group of friends. One of them, the oft-mentioned CHM, who was putting me up for the weekend, ordered a light dinner of eggs in a meurette sauce that evening at the Fontaine de Mars restaurant.

I was seated next to CHM and, while the food I had ordered was also very good, I couldn't help but admire the plate of soft-cooked eggs floating on a red wine sauce that he was enjoying. It didn't look complicated to make, and both CHM and I said we would try, separately, to make our own versions of it soon.

Well, I made mine the other day. I looked up recipes on the Internet, and I found at least four of them pretty quickly — French ones. One gave proportions to go with a dozen eggs, another eight eggs, and another six. I wanted to cook only four. As for the ingredients, they were all similar except in minor details. I decided to take the best of each, using my own judgment.

Onions and pork lardons — bacon — are the base for sauce meurette.
I added carrots but mushroom would be good too.

Actually, we had made Oeufs en meurette on the spur of the moment back in mid-September when another friend, Peter Hertzmann, from here from California. I made the sauce with Peter's advice and assistance, and then we poached some eggs. We neglected to drain the poached eggs well, however, the the excess water on and in them made the sauce too liquid. For a first attempt, it tasted good but it wasn't a roaring success.

Here's the recipe I ended up with for the sauce I made a couple of days ago:

Sauce meurette

1 bottle of dry red wine
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. dried thyme
a pinch of hot red pepper flakes
a pinch of ground allspice (or ground cloves)
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, chopped finely
3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 medium onions
1 large carrot
6 oz. thick-sliced smoked bacon
starch or flour for thickening (optional)
2 Tbsp. butter

Pour the wine into a saucepan and set it on medium high heat. Season with salt, black pepper, thyme, red pepper flakes, allspice, bay leaves, and garlic. Add the vinegar. Boil the wine mixture down for 20 to 30 minutes until it is reduced in volume by at least a third.

Meanwhile, cut the carrot into fine dice and slice or chop the onions. Cut the smoked bacon — or ham — into dice (or rectangular lardons). In a skillet, sauté the onion, carrot, and bacon together in a little oil or butter until they are tender and cooked but not really browned, about 10 minutes. Keep the heat low, and cover the pan for part of the cooking time to steam the vegetables and make them tender.

When the seasoned wine has reduced by a third or even by half, stir in the bacon, onion, and carrot mixture and continue cooking it for 10 to 15 minutes.

If you want to thicken the sauce, dissolve a teaspoonful of corn or potato starch in ¼ cup of cold water. Potato starch is better, I think. Slowly pour the dissolved starch into the hot meurette sauce, stirring well so that it doesn’t form lumps.

The other way to thicken it is to make beurre manié — softened butter mixed with flour until it’s a smooth paste, and then whisked into the sauce.

If you don't thicken it or if you use dissolved starch, you can enrich the sauce at this point by stirring in 2 Tbsp. of cold butter until it is melted and incorporated.

Here's the sauce reduced and thickened.

I don't know if that reminds you of anything, and I didn't really think about it until I read about it in Waverly Root's book The Food of France. As he says in his chapter on the Burgundy region:
"The sauce that goes with bœuf bourguignon [Beef Burgundy] is one variety of what Burgundy calls meurettes, a general name for all of the wine sauces that are basic to Burgundian cooking. They're usually well spiced, thickened with flour and butter, and appear in varied forms to go with many different dishes of meat, fish, or eggs."
Mr. Root doesn't mention poultry, but the sauce of red wine, onions, lardons, and mushrooms that is the essence of boeuf bourguignon is also the essential sauce for coq au vin — chicken in red wine sauce.

According to the dictionary, in texts dating back to the late 1500s and early 1600s there are references to a dish called oeufs à la murette, and the spelling meurette would be a regional variant of that term. Murette shares its derivation with the term saumure, which means "brine" in French and comes from the Latin muria, meaning "dissolved sea salt." So on some level, a meurette is a salty sauce that accompanies meat, poultry, fish, or eggs.

Eggs in a meurette sauce

When fish is cooked in or served with a red wine sauce, the dish is called a matelote — a matelot, without the final E, is a sailor. Chicken becomes coq au vin, and beef become boeuf bourguignon (or boeuf à la bourguignonne). The version of the dish with eggs is called oeufs en meurette.

I've found recipes for meurette sauce that don't contain bacon. When included, the bacon can be either the smoked or the unsmoked kind. Some recipes call for shallots and onions, but no garlic. Many don't include the vinegar. Others say to use equal quantities of red wine and water rather than just wine. Putting in diced carrot was my idea, because I like carrots and think they are good for me. Mushroom would be good too, as in the red-wine sauces for beef and chicken.

One old French recipe says to heat up the red wine with onions, herbs, and so forth, and then strain the wine and poach the eggs in it. Set the poached eggs aside while you reduce and thicken the sauce, and then serve it with the poached eggs. The recipes are all over the map. A Google search in English turned up a lot of them.

If using a whole bottle of drinkable red wine to make a sauce to serve with four eggs seems extravagant to you, remember that in France you can buy a decent bottle of red wine for 1.50 or 2.00 euros — especially if you live in wine country, as we do. Wine is a commodity, not a luxury product, here. Everyday Loire wines — Gamay, Côt, Pinot Noir, or Cabernet Franc — are very good for making this sauce.

In Ginette Mathiot's classic French home-cooking book called Je Sais Cuisiner, there's a recipe for eggs in a meurette sauce in her chapter on regional dishes. She says the sauce can be served with hard-boiled, soft-boiled, or poached eggs. The dish that CHM had at the restaurant appeared to have had the eggs broken raw onto the hot sauce and then cooked either on top of the stove or in the oven until the whites were set and cooked.

Those eggs — two of them, anyway

We had tried poached eggs en meurette in September, and that attempt was only a partial success. Poaching eggs is a lot of trouble, and unless you are more talented than I am they don't always come out perfect. Putting the eggs raw on top of the sauce and letting them cook that way seemed like a better plan.

The problem was, when I broke two eggs into a bowl and then tried to slide them onto a bowlful of sauce, the eggs promptly sank! I think I had put too much sauce in the bowl — it was too deep. The yolks were right next to each other like two closely set yellow eyeballs staring at me, and the whites, well, didn't spread out over the surface. I was more careful in sliding the eggs onto the second bowlful of sauce, but the result wasn't much better.

Anyway, the sauce was delicious, and the eggs did finally cook, after 5 or even 10 minutes in a hot oven — especially when we stirred the whites into the bubbling sauce at the table. But the yolks got a little too hard, and the sauce turned brown. I think next time I'll just fry a couple of eggs sunny-side up in some butter and then slide them, cooked, onto the hot sauce. Or I'll make soft-boiled eggs.

16 October 2009

First frost

Frost on October 15, 2009. It seems early this year. A French friend said a few weeks ago, when the weather was still very warm, almost hot, that winter would arrive all of a sudden. He was right. It stayed chilly all day yesterday, and we had a fire in the wood-burner again yesterday afternoon and evening.

Our new bread lady — la nouvelle porteuse de pain — who took over the route a few months ago, had this to say about our cold snap yesterday when she came by: « Ça ne durera pas ! » — "It won't last!" I hope she's right.

Yesterday's sunrise —
I can't tell if it looks as cold as it actually was.

We had a busy morning yesterday. While the weather was still too cold to go outside and work in, I made Sauce Meurette, a red wine sauce that's served with poached eggs, for lunch. It was something I could prepare in advance and then reheat when it came time to eat at noon. Then I made an apple cake, because we have so many apples and we didn't have any kind dessert in the house.

While the cake was baking, I went out and pulled up the last 15 tomato plants. I ended up with another bucketful of green tomatoes, plus a few ripe or almost-ripe one. Tomorrow, for lunch, it'll be fried green tomatoes. I don't think I've ever made those before.

Frost on the leaves of a little oak tree...

Meanwhile, Walt went out and worked on the hedge some more. I know everybody must wonder why the hedge trimming is such a big deal. Well, for one thing, the hedge is at least 100 yards long. That's a lot of hedge. And it's wide, so you have to cut half the top surface from one side, and then the other half from the other side. And it's tall — 10 or even 12 feet in some places, and more than 7 feet high all around the yard.

Such a hedge is great for privacy, and it looks great — when it's trimmed. Letting it just grow is not an option. Sometimes, I admit, it seems like just ripping it out and replacing it with a wall or fence would be the best solution. But it would have to be a very high wall or privacy fence to serve the same purpose.

...and frost on the leaves of blackberry vines

Trimming the hedge, then, means climbing up on a high ladder, working around all the obstacles in the way — trees and bushes, the wood shed, the garden shed, the barbecue grill, and more. And then there's the ditch. For about half the length of the hedge, on the outside of the yard, there's a deep drainage ditch.

That means you have to bridge the ditch with boards (old window shutters in our case), set the ladder up on them, and then cut what you can reach. Then you have to move the ladder, move the heavy window shutters a little farther down the ditch, set the ladder back up on them, and climb back up and start again. It's tiring and time-consuming.

Walt up on the ladder, trimming the last remaining section of hedge

But guess what! It's done for another year! And all the clippings that need to be raked up have been raked up. It looks neat. This is one of our biggest garden challenges. Why don't we hire a professional to do it? Budget reasons, of course, in large part. We don't have a lot of money to throw around.

This is what it's like to have retired early and to be living through a time when the value of the U.S. dollar is so low against the euro. Besides, we don't work for a living otherwise. Doing jobs like this one, along with the cooking, home improvements, and gardening that we do, makes us feel productive and gives us a sense of accomplishment. If you just sit here day after day, you start to feel worthless — your self-esteem goes down. You get bored.

After Walt finished the hedge work and we ate lunch, he made another Tarte Tatin (an upside-down apple pie). We're taking it today as our contribution to lunch with friends, at their house down in Le Grand-Pressigny.

I've been thinking about how much longer we will continue to live this "lifestyle," and what the next phase of our lives will be like. This was our seventh summer in the country outside Saint-Aignan. All that is a subject for another day. Along with the recipes for the apple cake and the Meurette red-wine sauce.