31 January 2010

Saint-Aignan panoramas

This is a panoramic view of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher taken in 2004 from the island across from town (looking south). Click on the picture to see it full-size.

Here's another panorama showing the view from the south (looking north) in 2006. You can see the ruins of the medieval fortress, the Renaissance château, and the towers of the church. Again, click on the picture to see it full-size.

I notice that the Blogger software (or maybe Picasa) resized the pictures to make them smaller. Both came in at 1600 pixels wide, and both the originals were wider than that.

By the way, here's what the scene out the back window of the house was for a few hours yesterday afternoon.

You can see how green it is, and the snow was not sticking. It was very cold this morning, however: -5ºC (+23ºF). The sun is now shining brightly.

30 January 2010

A bacon and egg salad

It's made with either escarole (scarole in French) or curly endive (salade frisée) and vinaigrette. Vinaigrette is a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, a tablespoon of wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and about three tablespoons of oil — good olive oil or something more neutral like canola oil.

Start by tossing the lettuce in the vinaigrette and letting it "cook" or wilt down for 10 or 15 minutes. Tough lettuces like scarole and frisée benefit from that wilting. It tenderizes them.

Scarole in vinaigrette with lardons. That almost needs translating...

Meanwhile, fry some smoked pork lardons, or some thick-sliced streaky bacon cut into small pieces. When they are done, add them to the salad and toss it all around again. If there isn't already too much oil in it, a teaspoon or two of the bacon fat is good mixed into the dressing.

Add poached eggs and voilà — salad with bacon and eggs.

Then poach some eggs. Two per person if you are eating the salad as a main course, or one per person if the salad is a starter leading up to a main course in a bigger lunch or dinner. Other types of salad greens you can use are dandelion greens or Belgian endive. And some toasted croutons rubbed with garlic wouldn't be bad either.

29 January 2010

The church in Saint-Aignan

Like the château, the church sits up above the river and looms over the houses along the river bank. There are two churches, really — an old one below, and a "newer" one built on top of it centuries later.

The lower church has walls decorated with frescoes dating back as far as 1000 years. Some of them are pretty faded and worn these days, but some of them are still very colorful.

I keep reading that you can climb up into one of the church towers and get a panoramic view of Saint-Aignan and the Cher River valley. Finding out more about that, and doing it, is a project for the summer of 2010. Been to the depths, now aspiring to the heights!

There are more pictures of Saint-Aignan's buildings and streets here, in a 2006 blog post.

28 January 2010

Le château de Saint-Aignan

This is the château and part of the town of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, 40 km south of Blois and 60 km east of Tours, in the Loire Valley. I've lived here for nearly 7 years now.

Click on the pictures to see larger views

On the right there are ruins of fortifications dating from about the year 1000. Toward the right is the Renaissance château, from the 1500s. This is the back side of the château, seen from the north as you cross the bridge into town. Below the château are what are called "bourgeois" houses — in other words, the kind of big houses you find in cities and towns.

The grand side of the château faces south, into the sun. The Saint-Aignan château is privately owned and not open to the public.

27 January 2010

Waiting and watching

Callie is either on the lookout for a deer or a hare, or she's like me: looking at the trees and dreaming of the day when the leaves will pop out again.

January in the Renaudière vineyards

It has turned cold again, after a relatively mild interlude. We've been seeing the sun rising and setting, and enjoying some sunlight for a few days now... until yesterday, which was the grayest day in a long while.

January sunset

Temperatures dropped all day, and it's way below freezing this morning. They say the freezing weather is good for the local vegetation. I hope so. And I know, it's not even February yet...

26 January 2010

A recipe for Rillettes de Touraine

A couple of my blogger friends, Susan (Days on the Claise) and Martine (Wishing I were in France), have posted recently about the Touraine spreadable meat specialty called rillettes. I wish we had a better name for rillettes than the only one available, which is "potted meat" — that doesn't sound appetizing.

I guess the French word is our best option. Pronounce it [ree-YEHT] and in English I would pronounce the final S — it's a plural noun. On dit « des rillettes ». And they are easy to make. The cooking time is long, but the process is simple. Here's a recipe from a book called Cuisinière du Val de Loire — the Loire Valley Cook.
Rillettes de Touraine

1 lb. (500 g) fresh pork fat
4½ lbs. (2 kg) pork tenderloin
2 cups (500 ml) Vouvray or other dry white wine
Salt and pepper to taste

Start by lightly sautéing the pork fat, cut into fine dice, in a thick-bottomed pot. Then add the pork tenderloin cut into small pieces. Season with salt and pepper, add the white wine, and let it all simmer, covered, on very low heat for three hours. Stir it frequently with a spoon so that the fat and lean meats melt together completely.
Pack the rillettes into one large or several smaller ramekins. When they've cooled, pour on a little melted fat (lard, for example) to cover, and store them in the refrigerator. Or, instead of liquid fat, press a piece of parchment paper, cut to size, onto the surface of the rillettes.

The recipe in French, from the book
Cuisinière du Val de Loire, published in 2007.

For more flavor, add a whole, unpeeled clove of garlic (or more) and a little fresh or dried thyme (or other herb) to the pot while the pork tenderloin cooks with the fat. Remove the garlic and any thyme stems before packing the rillettes into ramekins.

The layer of liquid pork fat (lard) your pour over the top of the rillettes will harden as it cools and will act as a seal to protect the meat from oxidizing. Cover the ramekins with plastic wrap or put them in zip-top plastic bags, in the refrigerator. For long-term storage, keep pots of rillettes in the freezer.

Don't be afraid of the pork fat. It's not much — maybe 20% of the total weight — and that's about the same amount of fat there is in a hamburger patty or a piece of cheese. One way to control the fat content of the finished product is to remove the shredded meat from the pot with a slotted spoon at the end of the cooking, leaving much of the fat behind. Then add back in enough fat to get the consistency you want.

Rillettes are not a main course but an appetizer or hors-d'oeuvre to enjoy with a glass of wine before dinner. You don't normally eat an enormous quantity of them. Spread the potted meat on toast or French bread and serve with sour gherkins (in French, cornichons) or olives. In other words, serve and eat rillettes just as your would a pâté.

Rillettes are a more "noble" product than pâtés, in a way. They are made with the best cuts of lean meat. Pâtés are often made from lesser cuts of meat, with generous portions of liver and other organ meats, a good amount of fat, some eggs, and herbs and spices.

You can serve a mound of rillettes with a big salad of tomatoes, green beans, diced steam potatoes, and lettuce leaves. Add some olives. That makes a nice lunch, with some bread and wine. Salades including rillettes and rillons at lunchtime are a local specialty. Look for a Salade Tourangelle on restaurant or café menus.

Here is an earlier blog post about commercially available rillettes in France, which are a standard item in all French charcuteries, markets, and supermarkets. And a post about making rabbit rillettes is here. We used to buy duck rillettes at Whole Foods when we lived in San Francisco — maybe that chain has a wider selection these days. Rillettes can also be made with pork, rabbit, duck, goose, or even chicken. Use pork, duck, or goose fat with any of the other meats for the cooking.

Tuna and salmon rillettes, made with mayonnaise instead of pork fat, are also good. You might recognize them as tuna salad or salmon salad. It's the same principle — shredded meat mixed with fat so that the result can be spread on bread.

25 January 2010

About to collapse?

No, not me. A cathedral. The cathedral in Beauvais, north of Paris (site of the cathrdral called Notre-Dame de Paris) and east of Rouen (site of the cathedral painted so famously by the Impressionist Monet). Beauvais is in the region called La Picardie — Picardy.

Did you know that 80 Gothic cathedrals were built in France during the Middle Ages? I had no idea there were that many. I don't know if they are all still standing. I read that there are 87 cathedrals in France, not all of them in the Gothic style. In Blois, for example, the cathedral was built later, in the Renaissance style. There were Romanesque cathedrals before the Gothic style was invented.

The city of Tours had a Romanesque cathedral as early as the year 350. It was burned at some point, reconstructed, and rededicated in the year 590. Finally, construction of the existing cathedral, St-Gatien, in Tours was started in the Middle Ages, in Gothic style. But the construction went on for so many decades that by the end architectural styles had changed and the existing building is Gothic with significant Renaissance features.

The Gothic cathedral at Beauvais

A lot of Americans and others (on Internet travel forums, for example) describe all sorts of churches in France as "cathedrals." But the term "cathedral" has a very specific meaning. A cathedral church is one presided over by a bishop, who is the head officer of a Catholic diocese. The church in Saint-Aignan, for example, is not a cathedral, even though it is big and impressive.

There are some churches that are no longer technically cathedrals, because they are no longer presided over by a bishop. But they might still be called « La Cathédrale de... » because they were originally built as cathedrals.

All the cathedrals in France were "nationalized" in the early 1900s. They are the property of the French State and are overseen by the Ministry of Culture. There are few exceptions, mostly cathedrals that were built after World War I — in Le Havre (Normandy), for example, or Evry, south of Paris. Those are owned by the cities they are in or by the diocese that had them built. But the Gothic ones are government property.

Photos I took at Beauvais in 2001, when CHM and I visited

Construction of the cathedral in Beauvais, in these pictures, was begun between the years 1225 and 1250. It was never finished, but the part that was built includes the highest ceiling vaults of all the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. They measure 48 meters, or almost 160 feet tall, compared to the 35-meter (115-foot) vaulting at Notre-Dame de Paris.

After the first phase of construction at Beauvais ended in 1272, part of the building collapsed, in 1284, because of high winds. Reconstruction and new construction continued into the 1300s, but was cut short by the 100 Years War between the French and the English. Money ran out. Work started up again in the 1500s. A steeple 153 meters (500 feet) tall was erected — the tallest in all Christendom — but four years later it came crashing down.

Repairs at Beauvais are never finished.

"We will build a steeple so tall that, when it's finished, people who see it will think that we were crazy," the bishop of the time was quoted as saying. Truer words were never spoken, I guess. Construction was then halted for good, in 1573, except for repairs and shoring-up operations, which are ongoing today.

The cathedral in Beauvais was built on solid ground, but the building is structurally fragile because it is incomplete. Crucial parts of it are just missing. But what is there is beautiful, and impressive. There are stained-glass windows from the 13th, 14th, and 16th centuries, for example, tapestries from the 15th and 17th centuries, and the oldest working Medieval carillon tower anywhere.

24 January 2010

Spinach and eggs

Ten days ago, Susan and Simon (here's a link to their blog) came to visit. They had recently spent three weeks in Australia, and they came bearing gifts. One of the gifts was a set of four of these brightly colored objects:

What do you think they are? Turned upside down, they almost look like masks of some kind. Or helmets. They are made of silicone, thus non-stick, and they are heat resistant to 675ºF/350ºC.

Okay, you've guessed by now. They are egg poachers, officially called Poach Pods. You put an egg into each one and you float them on simmering water. Before you know it — well, not that fast, and keep an eye on them — the egg white is set, and if you don't leave them too long in the hot water, the yolk is warm but still runny. Pop the poachers into the dishwasher for easy clean-up.

Egg poaching in their pods

We tried them yesterday. One of the food combinations I like best is spinach and eggs. A spinach omelet, for example. Or a big bowl of spinach topped with boiled or poached eggs. Spinach is good with hard-boiled eggs, but it's even better with eggs that still have runny yolks — soft-boiled, or poached.

Cream makes it all better, of course. Or a béchamel sauce with some cream in it. Cook the spinach, either fresh or frozen, without adding any extra water to it. If it seems watery after cooking, drain and press it in a colander or wire strainer to remove the excess. Then add the cream or béchamel sauce, and maybe some grated cheese or some sauteed onions. Don't forget to put in a pinch of nutmeg. Cook it a little longer.

Creamed spinach with poached eggs

Then serve the spinach with poached or boiled eggs on top. With bread. It's comfort food.

There are a thousand variations. One is to form the cooked spinach into little rings or "crowns" on a baking sheet. Break an egg into each ring and put the pan in the oven for 5 or 6 minutes. Then you don't even need the poach pods.

23 January 2010

Meanwhile, back in Saint-Aignan

Back in Saint-Aignan, even in winter, the sun comes up every morning. Some days you can barely tell it, the cloud layer is so thick. But on other days, it's spectacular. I'm glad when the spectacular sunrises happen on mornings when it's my turn to go out with the dog.

Looking back east toward the house. Can you tell
how far south the sun comes up in January?

At about 8:30 the sun wasn't up above the horizon yet.

Here's a wider view a little further down the road.

As the sun came up, more fog formed. For a minute or two
the golden globe completely disappeared. I walked up to
the highest point in the vineyard and saw this.

The finale — a couple of minutes later the sky was blue and
the sun was too bright for me to photograph it.
The whole event lasted maybe 10 minutes

(Don't forget that you can click on the pictures to see an enlargement.)

21 January 2010

Le Château d'O

“A family name consisting of a single letter might seem odd, but this one is not some humorist's invention — it's real. The O family is a very ancient and honorable Norman line that distinguished itself during the Crusades...”

I'm translating from a card I found about the Château d'O in a set published by Larousse and Laffont called Les Fiches de France. The woman we bought our house from here in Saint-Aignan gave us the set, which covers all the regions of France and describes many major attractions and landmarks.

The Château d'O in Mortrée near Argentan and Alençon

“One of the members of the O family, John the First of O, a former chamberlain to the French king Charles VIII, undertook the construction of the family château between 1475 and 1500, on the site of a fortress that had been demolished during the 100 Years War.”

The Château d'O would be at home here in the Loire Valley.

The Château d'O is located near the village of Mortrée, just south of the Château de Médavy, between the major Lower Normandy towns of Argentan and Alençon, a few hours west of Paris. CHM and I visited the grounds in June 2001, and Walt and I returned with our friend Sue to see it again in June 2006.

When you arrive at the O property, these are first buildings
you see. The round tower must be a dovecote.

The château, which was built over a period of decades and then modified and added to over the centuries, like most of the surviving French châteaux, is made up of buildings and wings in several different styles, from Gothic to Renaissance.

Geese strolling about at the Château d'O

The Fiches de France quotes the writer Jean de la Varende, who described the Château d'O in these terms: “...the color of honey and dried roses, all elaborately ornamented, set in a moat of flowing green water. A very rare and successful example of the flamboyant style applied to a private residence, a delicate beauty, almost too pretty, but exquisite. ”

You can see from the deep blue sky what a beautiful day it was.

The last member of the O family, François, who was successful in king Henri III's employ but proved to be a disastrous financial advisor to king Henri IV, was a dandy who died a pauper, under a mountain of debt, in 1594.

Brickwork at the Château d'O in Lower Normandy


Here's a copy of the
Fiches de France card
describing the Château d'O.

(Click on the image
to see an enlargement.)


When CHM and I were there in 2001, the Château d'O was open, but there were just a few other people wandering around the grounds. We spent a few minutes taking pictures and then moved on towards the towns of Sées and Carrouges.

Le Château de Médavy in Normandy

The first thing Walt said to me this morning, as he was coming down the stairs on his way out to take a walk with the dog, was: "Okay, I'm tired of winter now." So am I. That feeling sent me back — way back — in search of summertime memories and photos.

It was 2001 — June. We had spent a week in Vouvray, about 30 miles from Saint-Aignan, in a gîte rural, a vacation rental, that we really were comfortable in. We were traveling with our friend Cheryl, and the three of us had flown over to the Loire Valley from California for a two-week vacation. The weather was gorgeous. We were lucky, and we were enjoying ourselves.

The Château de Médavy, near Argentan in Normandy

Nine years ago — I can't believe it. I was "only" 52 years old then, a veritable spring chicken. That trip to Vouvray was the second time Walt and I had stayed in the same gîte and toured around the Loire Valley, and it turned out to be a pivotal moment. Just a year and a half later, we ended up buying our house in Saint-Aignan, because we liked the area so much. We sold everything and left California behind.

Médavy was rebuilt in the 1700s,
on the site of a 12th-century fortress.

After that first week in Vouvray in June 2001, I drove Cheryl up to Paris, where she wanted to spend a week on her own, and picked up CHM, who was in France for the summer. He and I drove on up to Rouen to visit friends there for a couple of days. Walt stayed in Vouvray at the gîte, because he was enjoying just being there, relaxing, and watching the French Open tennis tournament on TV.

The outbuildings at Médavy — stables, barns, servant quarters

CHM and I left Rouen on a Monday morning to do the four-hour drive back to Vouvray. I called Walt and told him to expect us for a late lunch. CHM had planned out an itinerary, and there were at least six châteaux and a couple of churches we wanted to see on our way back through Normandy to the Touraine, not to mention a few towns and villages.

At Médavy, the 15th-century « Tour St-Jean » in brick,
with the 18th-century building behind it

Needless to say, we didn't make it to Vouvray by early afternoon. In fact, the "four-hour drive" took us nearly 12 hours. CHM and I were lost on little winding roads and narrow village streets a lot of the time. But it was a beautiful day, and it would have been a shame not to take advantage of the good weather to see the beautiful sights and scenery all along the way. We ended up having a two-hour lunch in a typical old-fashioned French restaurant in some little village near Argentan or Alençon.

At some point, the St. John Tower was converted
into a chapel — note the cross on top.

It became downright comical, because I would call Walt from a phone booth every couple of hours all through the day and say, well, don't expect us before 2:00, and then 4:00, and then 6:00, and finally 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. We still laugh about it today.

The 15th-century « Tour St-Pierre » — you can see
how overgrown and patched up it all was.

One of the places we visited along the way was the Château de Médavy, which is in a village by that name near the big town of Argentan. I had never heard of it. I don't think the château was open to the public that day, but we stopped anyway and walked up to the front gate. A man came out, and CHM asked him if we might walk around the château grounds and take some pictures. "We've come all the way from California to see your château," he said, approximately, "and this is our only chance. Please let us come in."

Okay, come on in, the man said. CHM is very good at gaining entrance to otherwise private properties by explaining politely what the situation is... and using a little ingenuity.

CHM and I were certainly the only visitors
at Médavy that day in June 2001.

According the the little bit of information about Médavy and its château that I've found on the Internet, the current buildings there were built in the early 1700s on the site of the ruins of an ancient fortress. Hugues de Médavy, the earliest known lord of the domain, was the gouverneur d'Alençon as early as the year 1113. Two 15th century towers, one converted into a chapel, remain on the château grounds. There's an old moat with three bridges over it, and the château is surrounded by formal French-style gardens.

Here's a grand view of the 18th-century château de Médavy.

None of it was in very good repair, however, and the gardens and buildings were a little overgrown in some places. But that just contributed to the charm of the site and the moment.

20 January 2010

Brownies, French-style

Adapting and converting French recipes into American measures and methods is not straightforward. The same is true in the opposite direction, American to French. American recipes give amounts for most ingredients by volume — a cup of this and a half cup of that — while French recipes specify non-liquid quantities by weight. I don't normally do all these conversions for my cooking at home.

By the way, with all the recipes available on the Internet these days, one thing Americans, Australians, and British cooks need to realize is that a cup is not always a cup. A pint is not always the pint you think it is.

Weighing ¾ cup (U.S.) of sugar...

Specifically, a British cup is 10 fluid ounces, and a British pint is 20 oz. An American cup is 8 fluid ounces, and an American pint is 16 oz. ("American" here means "North American", including English-speaking Canada.) Cups, pints, quarts, and gallons, then, are 20% larger in the British (a.k.a. Imperial) system, compared to American measures. That can make a huge difference, especially in baking.

...and ¾ cup + 2 Tbsp. of cocoa

In the French system, weights are specified in milligrams, grams, and kilograms. When I say "the French system" I'm not talking about the whole francophone world, however. In Québec, quantities that in France would be given as weights are often specified by volume — but in milliliters or decilitres, not cups and fluid ounces. I saw a French cooking show about Québec a few days ago, and the French host was surprised that amounts of flour were given in milliliters, not grams.

About the only way to prepare many French recipes is to use a kitchen scale. Once you get used to weighing everything, it all starts to make a lot of sense. For American recipes, you need a set of measuring cups — a cup, ¾ cup, ½ cup, ¼ cup, and so on — and spoons — 1 tablespoon, 1 teaspoon, ½ teaspoon, etc. In France, these are not easy to find. When a French recipe calls for a teaspoon — une cuillère à café — of an ingredient, it doesn't mean that you need to get out the measuring spoons. You just use a regular teaspoon.

Brownies are good with chopped walnuts or pecans in them.

About the only way to convert American recipes into French terms is to measure out the ingredients in American measuring cups and then weigh the result. That's what I did to translate this recipe for brownies made with cocoa powder, which I found on www.epicurious.com. I've been making it for a couple of years now.

I measured out, for example, 1¼ cups of granulated sugar (sucre en poudre, in French) and then weighed that quantity on a kitchen scale. I did the same for ½ cup of all-purpose flour (farine ménagère) and ¾ cup + 2 Tbsp. — yes, that's the quantity the recipe calls for — of unsweetened cocoa powder (cacao non sucré). I also rounded off the quantities slightly. There's no point in specifying 96 grams of cocoa, for example. Most kitchen scales are not that sensitive.

Best Cocoa Brownies

Here are the quantities I came up for the recipe:
Best Cocoa Brownies

150 g unsalted butter
280 g sugar
100 g unsweetened cocoa powder
a pinch of salt
½ teaspoon powdered vanilla or sucre vanillé
2 cold, large eggs
75 g all-purpose flour
50 to 75 g walnut or pecan pieces (optional)

(Go to the Epicurious web page for the instructions...)
In going through the recipe this way and comparing it to French recipes for brownies that I found on the web, I noticed two things. This recipe has a lot more sugar in it than most of the French recipes do. That's typical. American baked goods are a lot sweeter, overall, than French pâtisseries.

The American recipe also calls for just 2 eggs, whereas most of the French recipes I found call for 3 or even 4 eggs. I'm not sure why there is that difference. Are American eggs larger? I wouldn't be surprised. Or maybe French cooks like eggier cakes. I used just two (French) eggs and I think the result is fine.

One ingredient in the brownie recipe that might be a problem for a French cook is liquid vanilla extract. I can't find that here in Saint-Aignan. You can, however, find what is called sucre vanillé. That's sugar flavored with vanilla, and it's sold in little packets like the sugar packets you get in American restaurants. You could substitute one of those for the liquid vanilla.

At the supermarket in France, you can also buy vanilla powder — the tiny jar I have is called « vanille poudre sucrée ». That's another good substitute for liquid vanilla. You can also buy little vials of vanilla-flavored caramel syrup, and fresh vanilla beans, of course. Some of the French recipes for brownies say to flavor them with rum instead of vanilla.

Cocoa, both SuperU brand and Van Houten's

Finding powdered cocoa — cacao non sucré — is not a problem, as you can see from the picture. There's a name brand, Van Houten, and there's also a store brand at SuperU. I'm not sure why I started making brownies with cocoa rather than baker's chocolate. I'm not much of a "choco-holic"in fact. In reading about brownies, I learned that there are two kinds of cocoa, natural and Dutch-process. That's another complication...

By the way, the brownies are delicious. Sweet, moelleux (tender), and chocolatey.

Here are some French recipes for brownies from Marmiton and a couple of other sites:

Brownies au chocolat avec 4 oeufs
Brownies au cacao avec 4 oeufs
Brownies avec 2 oeufs
Brownies avec 3 oeufs
Brownies avec 4 oeufs

18 January 2010

How Sunday became Monday

Here are a few more of the pictures I took Sunday afternoon. It was nice to see the sun, even though by late afternoon there were more clouds than blue patches in the sky.

Sunday afternoon, 16 January 2010
Click on the pictures to see a larger view

Monday morning it was my turn to take the dog out for her walk again. I opened the shutters and realized why it was that it seemed like nighttime at 8:15 a.m. Fog!

The scene as I stepped out the back door at 8:20 a.m.

Looking out the road across the foggy vineyard a few minutes later...

...and looking back toward the house from a few hundred meters out.

It's not as foggy today but it's gray and the weather reports say rain is coming in from the southwest, blowing up from Spain and Basque country.

Air coming from that direction is laden with pollen that makes my eyes burn and my nose drip. Sorry to be so graphic, but misery loves company.

I'm going to the kitchen to make a batch of brownies and convert my American recipe into metric measurements. Then I'll eat the brownies to comfort myself.

A fine Sunday

When we have a day of fine weather, I should acknowledge it. The sun came out first thing yesterday morning and by mid-afternoon the temperature outside had reached 10ºC (50ºF). It felt right balmy.

For the first time in weeks, I was able to go out for a walk with the dog without needing to put on a hat and gloves. That meant I could take some pictures, and there was enough light for that activity too. You'll see a few of the photos just below, in this post.

Sunday afternoon in the vineyard
17 January 2010

In the evening, a long-running Sunday program called Vivement Dimanche, hosted by Michel Drucker on France 2 television, featured the British actor Hugh Grant as a guest. And guess what — Hugh Grant speaks French. He seemed to have no trouble understanding what the half-dozen French people on the show were talking about, and he answered questions in French without too much hesitation.

It always surprises me when people like that turn out to speak French well. Jody Foster does. And Sigourney Weaver. Kirk Douglas used to appear on French TV in French too. Jane Fonda, of course — she had a life in France and was married to the director Roger Vadim. Candace Bergen too — she was married to Louis Malle. I'm sure there are other French-speaking anglophone actors, but not many.

It's very wet out in the vineyard, with big puddles all over the place.

And now for something completely different: I just bought an airline ticket for a trip to the U.S. this spring. I dread the actual trip — the traveling part — which is very long but seems even longer with all the delays and slow-downs caused by security checks. And it's nerve-wracking these days even to think about getting on a transatlantic flight.

A walnut tree among the grapevines

My trip is especially long. Door-to-door it will take about 25 hours. I'll leave Saint-Aignan at 5:00 a.m. one morning to take the train to Paris and the RER out to CDG airport. Three planes later — two connections in two big airports — I'll arrive at my destination in North Carolina at midnight, if all goes well. Midnight on the U.S. East Coast is 6:00 a.m. the next morning in France. That's 25 hours in all.

But I'm looking forward to being there when I finally get there. It will be relaxing and fun — a complete dépaysement, or change of pace. I don't know if you realize it, but it's a different world over there. :^) My last trip was already a year ago. I'll come back re-energized and ready to start work in the vegetable garden. I'll be happy to be back in France.

The sun, setting behind the clouds, was spectacular.

More about endives: I made a salad yesterday with one Belgian endive, one apple, some toasted walnuts, and some cheese, in a vinaigrette dressing. The apple complemented the endive nicely, and the walnuts gave good taste and texture. The cheese filled it out. I had a blue cheese, a Fourme d'Ambert from the Auvergne, in my salad, and in his Walt put a non-blue cow's milk cheese, a Bethmale from the Pyrenees region.

Belgian endive, apple, walnuts, and blue cheese

As for chicory, of which escarole, curly endive, Belgian endive, and radicchio are examples, there are many names for all the different plants in different countries. Belgian endive and radicchio are the plants whose roots are dried and ground to make the chicory that is used as an additive in, or substitute for, coffee in Louisiana, France, and elsewhere. But Belgian endive itself is called "chicory" in the United Kingdom.

In the U.S., I remember when the salads we call curly endive and escarole used to be called "chicory" but I'm not sure if that name is used nowadays. These two chicories are a different species from Belgian endive and radicchio. In France, salads of scarole or frisée are often featured on restaurant and café menus and are always available in the markets and supermarkets. As salads, like Belgian endive they are good in vinaigrette with beets, garlic, walnuts, poached or hard-boiled eggs, or smoked bacon lardons.