27 February 2010

Current events

Some news, in two categories. Past news and future news.

Future news: the weather service is predicting 120 kph/70 mph winds here tonight and tomorrow morning. So I'll spend another night lying awake listening to water drip into the attic — the trap door is in the ceiling right outside the bedroom — and worrying about our big trees blowing over.

March is coming in like a lion. This morning we have to secure some things outdoors that we let blow all around the yard a couple of nights ago.

Farther future news: Still thinking about the attic conversion and the new staircase. The picture below shows where the new staircase will go. The old stairs wrap around to the left. The new ones will continue in the same spiral, starting on the landing where the pine cabinet is.

The ceiling in this picture will be cut away
to make an opening for the new staircase.

The pine cabinet will have to be moved to another location, probably downstairs. And at last we'll be able to take the old wallpaper down. This information is for those of you who have visited and are familiar with the layout of the house.

Past news: the new fuel pump was finally installed in our boiler yesterday afternoon. That was three weeks to the day when we realized we had a serious problem. Yesterday I realized that another week was nearly past, so I called the Savelys office around noontime.

Béatrice answered the phone. I told her it was Mr. Broadhurst and that I wondered if there was any progress on our repair. « Vous ne nous oubliez pas, j'espère », I said. « Ça va faire un mois que notre chaudière est en panne. » Let me see, Béa answered. We received some spare parts this morning... ah yes, here it is. We have it — got it just today.

Hah! If I hadn't called, it would probably have been some time next week before we ever heard from them. So when can you send out a technician to install it? I wanted to know. What about this afternoon? Béa said. Fine, I told her. I'll be here. I almost felt like I had called her bluff.

The Savelys technician who came to do the job is a man we know. He's done work here and at our American friends' house 10 miles south of us on several occasions. In fact, he asked about those friends. He didn't get here until after 5:00 p.m., and the work was done in less than 45 minutes. Case closed, I hope. The boiler seems to be working fine this morning.

Finally, choucroute: Yes, nine pounds (four kilos) of sauerkraut seems like a lot. I've put it in the freezer in one-kilo packages for future use. Here's an idea from a past post about eating sauerkraut with smoked chicken — it's really good and a nice change from smoked pork.

And here's a blog post about how you go about making salty raw choucroute edible, by blanching it to de-salt it and then cooking it in white wine. Of course, in the U.S. you probably will have to buy the sauerkraut already cooked, packed in jars, cans, or bags. If it's too salty or vinegary, though, you can improve it by cooking as you would raw sauerkraut, but for a shorter time.

One kilogram of raw choucroute from Alsace

At Intermarché the other day, when I ordered my four kilos of raw sauerkraut, the gentleman behind me in line, who was about my age, said to me: « C'est beaucoup pour deux ! » — "That's a lot for two people!" He was joking. I looked at him and said yes, I realized that, but there would be three of us. Ba da boom.

As I was walking away, I heard him order a kilo of choucroute himself. The woman behind the counter said: "Raw sauerkraut?" Oh no, I heard the man say. I made that mistake once, and it was awful. Give me the sauerkraut that's been cooked in white wine.

I guess he doesn't have the cookbook I use.

26 February 2010

Hurricanes and herrings

We've been having 90 kph wind gusts all during the night. That's not quite hurricane force, but it's getting close. I've been hearing water drip on the trap door to the attic. That's because the strong winds blow water up under the roof tiles, and it drips down onto the attic floor.

And it's all the more reason why we need to get the attic finished. Not only will we get more living space, but we'll get a moisture barrier that will keep out those wind-driven raindrops. These French roofs are simply heavy tiles hanging off slats that run between the rafters. They let the wind blow right through, unless the roof has been insulated.

Here's another picture of a Vélux-brand rooftop window
installed in a house in our hamlet.

It's just getting light and I can see that some things I didn't think about securing near the house have blown out into the yard — a vinyl outdoor table, the lids to one of the cold frames we start plants in. I hope nothing is broken, though I see that some medium-size tree limbs are on the ground. No trees have blown over, happily.

I just went outside to see the damage. The table is broken. Too bad, but it had seen better days anyway. It's still windy, but not like it was a few hours ago.

Yesterday, during the rainstorm that preceded this one, I went over to Intermarché to buy some choucroute, or sauerkraut — salted, fermented cabbage. They have it on special this week — 55 cents a kilo for "raw" sauerkraut, or 30¢ a pound. It freezes really well, so I got four kilos, or almost 9 pounds of it!

Filets de harengs saurs

I also looked at the smoked and salted fish products and found something I hadn't found elsewhere. That's a package of what are called harengs saurs — salted, smoked herring. A 200 g/7 oz. package cost 1.67 €. When the cashier rang them up, however, I saw the price 8.35 flash on the screen. I stopped her, she called her manager, and there was a conference about the correct price that held up a long line of customers for a few minutes. The correct price turned out to be 1.67.

The vacuum-packed package of herring fillets I bought earlier, which I haven't even opened yet, is labeled as hareng fumé doux, or mild smoked herring. I think it's called doux because it is less salty than the regular hareng saur. But I'm not sure. None of the clerks at SuperU could tell me with confidence.

A close-up of the label — the adjective « saur » describes
the reddish color that smoking gives to the herring.

Now I'll know. Yesterday morning I put the filets de harengs saurs to soak in milk in the refrigerator overnight, as I understand you are supposed to do, to take some of the saltiness out of them. Then I can open the package of mild smoked herring and compare the two.

These smoked herring fillets are fished in the northeast Atlantic
and processed and packaged at Boulogne-sur-Mer in France.

It matters, because most of the recipes I have specify either hareng saur or hareng fumé doux, and they don't seem to be interchangeable. Afterward, I have some recipes using smoked herring that I want to try. More about that later.

25 February 2010

Building up

We've been building up to this for a long time, and now we are going to build up into it. Les combles, as they are called in French. L'aménagement des combles — finishing off the unfinished space in the attic.

Walt and two contractors talking over the plans yesterday.
The photo gives an idea of the volume we are talking about.

Plans for the attic expansion are all that's on our minds right now. So here are a few more pictures. They are ones I took yesterday when a contractor/builder came over to have a look at the place and do some measuring.

The view out of the attic window

Our plan is to have the roof well insulated and have wallboard/sheetrock put in all the way to the peak. It will be what we call a cathedral ceiling, I guess. I think the floor will be oak. And for the time being, the attic will be one big room that will serve as bedroom and TV room. I'll move my desk and computer up there.

Good-bye, TV antenna

The roof beams — those big trusses — will be exposed, but not the rafters, which will be hidden behind wallboard. The TV antenna will just have go. We don't use it anyway, since we have a satellite dish.

An off-the-shelf oak staircase
costs a couple of thousand euros

The biggest headache is having a staircase put in. With the contractor, Jacques, yesterday, we looked a pre-fabricated staircases in a catalog. That would be a lot less expensive than having one custom built, and if we find the right one it won't look much different. We are talking about oak for the staircase too.

Beams, windows, chimneys...

The other thing we have to have done is install a couple of windows in the roof. We're going to have Vélux windows put it. They are not the most attractive option, but they are functional and less expensive than having dormers built.

Nothing we're doing will change the appearance of the house
as you see it here. Photo from a few weeks ago when we had snow.

The Vélux will be on the back side of the house. There are no neighbors back there. Nothing we are doing will change the front façade.

The neighbors' house, with Vélux windows in the roof

A lot of the other houses in our hamlet have Vélux windows.

24 February 2010

Economic and legal realities

When we bought our house just outside the town of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher in 2003, one of the things about us that attracted us to it was its huge attic. And also its big, flat yard (or garden), where we could have a vegetable garden. It was private without being isolated, and it was at the end of a road where there is very little traffic.

Why was the attic a point in the house's favor? It was because the house wasn't really as big as the house we had in mind when we started looking. It has only two bedrooms, and we wanted three or four (for guests, our computers, etc.). Plus, the bedrooms are small. Well, not that small, because a king-size bed (2 m by 2m) fits comfortably in one of them. But small compared to what we were used to.

The attic was pure potential. It was big enough to be converted into a suite comprising a family room and a large master bedroom. We could transform a house that already had a lot of attractive features — a spacious living room, a big front terrace, and huge bathroom — into one that met all the criteria we had in our minds when we started looking for a house in France.

So what stopped us from doing the attic conversion until now? Money, of course. But it's more complicated than that.

Here's the attic looking toward the window in the north side
of the house. Walt is studying the possibilities.

First, we decided to live in the house for at least a year before undertaking any major expansion. We didn't know what other kinds of renovations might need to be done first, and what systems might need upgrading. We figured we'd better repair what needed repairing before we started expanding.

As it turned out, we absolutely had to have new windows put in all around, and we needed both plumbing (new faucets, shower stall, and toilet) and electrical work (more outlets, preferably grounded ones) done. We did a lot of painting, and we had a wood-burning stove put in to make the fireplace usable. We also bought a rototiller so we could have the big vegetable garden we had imagined when we first saw the place. We got connected to the new sewer lines.

None of that broke the bank. The roof and heating plant have proved to be sound. There have been no significant water or dampness problems. The layout of the house is satisfactory in general. The kitchen felt just big enough, and it was practical as furnished for the time being.

The problem for us was that the dollar crashed. When we paid the down payment on the house, the U.S. dollar was at parity with the European euro — a thousand euros cost us a thousand dollars. Four months later, when we paid the balance on the house, the euro was worth about $1.10 U.S. That didn't seem radical. By the time we got here in the summer of 2003, the euro was up to $1.20. At that point our thousand euros cost us twelve hundred dollars.

And then the dollar kept falling. We didn't know how far down it could go. In fact, the dollar's low point a couple of years ago, the euro was worth $1.60. In other words, if we wanted to "buy" 1,000 euros, it cost us not 1,000 dollars but 1,600. That hurts. Widely fluctuating currency rates made it impossible for us to plan and budget with confidence.

For us, living on dollars, everything became more and more expensive. We were still trying to figure out how much it was going to cost us to live here. How much, in dollars, would we be spending on electricity, heating oil, fuel for the car, water, house repairs and improvements, taxes, health insurance, and all the rest?

Looking south. Clearance under those horizontal beams
is about 6'6" — adequate.

What about our legal status as foreigners in France? Or, more importantly, in the European Union. British people can move to France the way Californians can move to Illinois or North Carolina, without asking permission. But as non-Europeans, we had to apply for visas and residency permits.

From 2003 until 2009, applying for residency permits was an annual affair. Every June, we would get a letter from the Préfecture in Blois "inviting" us to gather together all sorts of documents that we needed to justify another year of residency in France. Those included proof of our address (easy: an electric or phone bill), copies of our birth certificates with translations (I did my own translations, making that a lot easier than it might have been), and, at the beginning, proof that we had health insurance.

Most importantly, every year we had to show the French authorities that we had enough money to live here for 12 more months without needing to look for gainful employment. As the dollar kept going down in value, we of course had less and less money when converted to euros. At what point would "enough" money no longer be considered enough by the French bureaucracy?

More recently, as we all know, U.S. interest rates went through the floor and the stock market went down in flames. So much for good investment income.

The house is built out of hollow bricks and
concrete blocks. This is the northside attic window.

As a result, we figured we'd better hold on to as many dollars as we could. We got very conservative with money, and that ruled out major home improvement projects. Wouldn't it have been a catastrophe if we were denied that next residency card and were forced to decamp to the U.S., after having moved here lock, stock, and barrel?

What changed? In 2009, we were granted 10-year residency cards — the carte de résident rather than the annual carte de séjour temporaire we had been under since 2003. All of a sudden, nobody is breathing down our necks any more about our resources and finances. With the carte de résident, in fact, came the right to work and get paid (not that we are planning to).

Here's the house seen from the north,
with that attic window up top.

Recently, the dollar has been moving up slightly — or the euro has been moving down. Last fall the euro was worth about $1.50. This morning — I just checked — it's down to just under $1.36. That's a nice trend, for us. With several euro-zone countries (Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, among others) having financial difficulties that require bailouts, and with the U.S. starting to raise interest rates, a strengthening dollar seems to be the trend. Who knows if it will last?

The other factor for us is that both of us now are within easy reach of starting to collect retirement pensions. We won't be "rolling on gold" as they say in French, but we will finally have some money coming in — even if the income is in deflated U.S. dollars, and the expenditures are in inflated euros. Having just an "outgo," with little or no income, has gotten old. These are some of the realities you have to deal with as an American expatriate in Europe.

Voilà. It's time to take the plunge. Oops, bad choice of words. To spread our wings and fly. Up into the attic. Grow and prosper. We can always hope.

23 February 2010

Birthdays, springtime, plans

The wild cyclamens are finally starting to bloom in the back yard. I think they are late this year, because of the weather. And I haven't seen any primroses at all yet.

Wild cyclamens in bloom in the garden

But the weather has definitely warmed up. The low temperature — the low, not the high — this morning was close to 50ºF — it was about 9ºC.

We don't know how the cyclamens came to grow in our yard.

Yesterday was Callie's birthday. She was born, along with 8 or 9 other puppies, on February 22, 2007, in a place in the Auvergne region called La Vallée des Géants. We didn't have a party, but her friend Mr. Mo, an 8-year-old Lab, came to see her in the afternoon. In the morning, when I sang Happy Birthday to her she got all squirmy and jumped up and licked me on the cheek.

The birds and the freezing weather have turned
our apple pile into a pile of apple sauce.

Finally, we made a big decision yesterday. I don't know if Walt has blogged about it — he might be afraid to jinx it. We decided to expand our living space by having our attic finished off to make a gigantic room that can be our bedroom, a TV room, and my office for my computer.

One of our neighbors has cut down some trees
and is building benches for his yard.

Our attic is at least 80 square meters. That's nearly 900 sq. ft. It may be even bigger than that; we haven't measured it very precisely. Turning it into finished space will involve putting in two or three skylights — there are already two windows up there — and, most importantly, a new staircase for access from the main living level.

Does this look any more spring-like?
Click on the picture to enlarge it.

You can expect to see more about this on our blogs over the next few months. Unless the price is just too high and "sticker shock" sets in, work could begin pretty soon. Be warned if you plan to visit this year: the house may be a construction zone.

22 February 2010

Pulled pork, mustard greens, and cornbread

Some days I just feel like Southern food. I'm referring to the U.S. south. The other day we didn't really feel like cooking, and we had some leftover pulled pork barbecue in the fridge. Here's a link to the topic about making pulled pork.

We also had both collard greens and mustard greens in the freezer. These are greens that we grew in the garden last year, cooked, and packed into empty crème fraiche containers for the freezer. I thawed out a container of mustard greens and added some duck fat and black pepper to season them. I cooked them for an hour or more, because the last time we ate some I didn't think they were cooked enough.

Pulled pork and mustard greens

Then there was the question of bread. Now that we only get bread delivered four times a week instead of five — the Monday delivery has been canceled — we have to plan more carefully. On Saturday we get bread but no more until Tuesday, unless we fire up the Peugeot and go to the boulangerie.

One "survival" strategy is to buy extra bread on Saturday when the bread lady comes by and put some in the freezer for Sunday and Monday. We often do that. Another strategy is to make bread ourselves on Sunday and Monday. That bread can be pizza, for example. Walt makes his own crust.

Lunch served with pan-fried cornbread

Or it can be cornbread. We have pounds and pounds of cornmeal in our freezer, because whenever I see it at a good price I buy some. I usually get it at Paris Store, the Asian supermarket in Blois.

Saturday morning, when we were preparing the meal of pulled pork and mustard greens, I thought about making Southern-style hushpuppies. That requires deep-frying little quenelles or logs of corn batter, and means using up a lot of vegetable oil.

Here in France I get this Italian cornmeal for making polenta.

Then I remembered pan-fried cornbread. My mother used to make it all the time when I was growing up. You make a batter with cornmeal and leavening (baking soda or powder) and you fry it like pancakes in hot oil or butter. Or even bacon or duck fat. You need only a thin layer of oil — almost none at all if you use a non-stick pan.

So I went to the Internet for ideas. Here's the recipe I came up with. It's based on one I found, but modified. I wanted a recipe that used only cornmeal ("corn flour" if you're not American) and no wheat flour. The corn meal needs to be finely ground.

Pan-fried cornbread
1 cup cornmeal
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
several grinds of black pepper
½ tsp. sugar
1 egg
½ cup plain yogurt
½ cup milk

Mix ingredients and fry in a skillet as you would pancakes. You can make them large or small as you like. Turn them only once — when brown on one side then flip to the other side.
Without the pepper, these would make delicious pancakes for breakfast, with butter and syrup or jam. With the pepper, they make a great side dish for a meal of meat and green vegetables. They taste as good as they look, believe me.

The Italian cornmeal is very finely ground.

I use a mixture of yogurt and milk to make cornbread here in France. If you can get buttermilk, use that instead. Sour or "soured" milk — add a tablespoon of white vinegar to a cup of milk — work well too.

As for the frying, a non-stick pan needs only to be lightly wiped with oil or melted butter. And if you make the batter with non-fat yogurt and non-fat milk as I do, there's hardly any fat at all — just the egg yolk.

21 February 2010

Saturday morning in Saint-Aignan

I got up yesterday morning with a plan. I needed to go to Saint-Aignan to pick up some prescription medications from the pharmacy. Then I thought I'd stop at SuperU to fill up the car's fuel tank and pick up some eggs, garlic, cheese, and lettuce in the supermarket. Finally, I'd drive on over to Seigy, on the other side of Saint-Aignan from us, to buy some wine from a producer there whose wine we really like.

As I was typing yesterday's blog post about Montrésor, Walt got up and looked out the window. "It's raining," he said. It was his morning to walk the dog. "I think there's some snow mixed in with the rain." By the time I got up off my chair and went upstairs to get another cup of tea and look out the window — the sun had not yet come up but dawn was a-dawning — it wasn't raining at all. It was snowing big, heavy, wet flakes. And it was sticking on the trees, hedges, grass, and even the road.

Merde, I thought, and I have to go out. I checked the thermometer and saw that the temperature was barely above freezing. Well, I guess I could just postpone everything for 24 hours and go out Sunday morning instead. Then I remembered that I was completely out of one of my medicines, and I really needed to go to the pharmacy. It's not open on Sunday mornings.

Walt came back from his walk with Callie a little later. "Those snowflakes are so big that when one of them fell on my face, it covered my whole right eye! And it's sticking on the ground." Great, I thought. I decided then and there to put off the visit to the winery until next week and just go to the pharmacy and the supermarket this morning.

The bread lady came by and Walt went out to get the daily baguette. "It's funny," he said. "According to the bread lady, there's no snow down the hill in the river valley. It's only snowing up here." That wouldn't be the first time we've seen that happen.

I finished my blog post and my tea and got a shower, all before 9:00. I headed out. The snow had actually stopped, and the road was slushy, not slick. I just had to be careful going down the hill, which involves negotiating a blind curve on a very steep, narrow strip of pavement. There was actually snow and slush all the way down to the highway, but it stopped there. Down in the valley, there was just a mist of light rain, and the ground in the low-lying fields along the river were bare.

Saint-Aignan is less than two miles down the road. There wasn't much traffic, and the big parking lot by the bridge was basically empty. That was surprising on a Saturday morning, because it's market day. People had probably delayed going out because of the show squall we had just had.

At the turnoff that leads up into the center of town, there was a barrier with a sign on it warning drivers that because of the market, it was better to go around rather than through town. « Marché centre ville », the sign said. « Itinéraire conseillé » — "recommended route" — with an arrow pointing the way down the road along the riverfront, which leads to a boulevard that encircles the east side of Saint-Aignan.

Even though the pharmacy is in the town center, I took the recommended route. I looked for a parking space along the riverfront, thinking I would walk up into town from there, but there weren't any free spaces. So I drove on up to SuperU, which is on the heights toward the south, away from the river. Again the streets were slushy, and traffic was increasing.

At SuperU, I noticed that at each of the four gas pumps at the edge of the parking lot three or four cars were waiting to refuel. That's unusual so early in the morning, but not really surprising this weekend. There is at least the threat of a strike by French oil refinery workers starting Monday, and some big refineries might be completely shut down. Experts say there won't be a fuel shortage, but the people obviously aren't so sure.

As a rusult, a lot of people, including me, are filling their tanks, just to be safe. Walt has to go to Blois on Tuesday for an appointment with an anesthetist for his colonoscopy. And then we have to go to Blois a week later for the actual procedure. With a full tank of diesel fuel now, we're set for about a month of driving.

The parking lot at SuperU was pretty slushy but pretty much empty of cars. Usually, on Saturday morning, it's completely filled up. I decided to go do my grocery shopping first, before there were too many people waiting at the checkout stands inside, and then come back out and sit in the line to buy fuel for the car. That all worked out, because I ended up not having to spend too much time in either line.

In the store, the woman who runs the fish and seafood counter was out looking around at the products in some of the refrigerated self-service cases she oversees. She didn't have any customers, so I took the opportunity to ask her some questions about the shrink-wrapped packages of smoked herring, which come in two styles: Doux and Au Naturel. I'd like to know the difference.

I still haven't opened the package of herring I bought a few days ago. And I haven't been able so far to find out anything about the different styles of herring by doing research on the Internet. I struck out again. The fish-counter lady, dressed in her blue smock and cute little blue paper cap, didn't know the difference either.

She and I read the nutritional information on the packages, and she said she thought the Au Natural herring had more salt it it. That was about the only difference. The package I have is the Hareng Fumé Doux, and I think I'll make something out of it this morning — a salad with onions, carrots, thyme, bay leaves, and olive oil. The recipe says it will keep in the refrigerator for a week, and the flavor will improve.

Since I wasn't going to the winery, I picked up a few bottles of Côtes du Rhône red wines (including a Côtes du Ventoux and a Valréas) for between 2 and 3 euros apiece, and a 5-liter bag-in-box (= 6+ bottles) of Cabernet Sauvignon for 8 euros. Those were great prices, and all those wines are made from grape varietals that aren't grown in the Loire Valley. They will be a nice change.

Refueling and shopping accomplished, I headed back into town to the pharmacy. There were still no parking spaces along the riverfront, and by now the big parking lot by the bridge was completely full. Or so I thought, until I got the last empty space, the farthest one from town. I walked back up to the pharmacy, a distance of about three blocks. The slush was mostly melted by now, and it wasn't raining or snowing.

The first person I saw as I entered the pharmacy was Madame Smith, who was talking to a customer. She's the pharmacist whose husband is Scottish, and she is also a vice-mayor of Saint-Aignan. She's always friendly and helpful, as are her five or six colleagues who work in the place. Madame Smith always makes a point of coming to shake hands with me and asking me about my health and well-being, whether she is the one who waits on me or not.

The pharmacy was out of the potassium pills I have to take, and the woman who was filling my order said that that particular potassium supplement had run out everywhere. Sometimes when our pharmacy is out of a particular medication, the employee will walk a block up the street to another pharmacy to see if any is available there. This time, there was no point, and the pharmacy employee, a nice woman with peroxided blond hair, suggested a substitute. I took it, and all was well.

Before I walked back to the car, I decided to go take a look at the main square in the old town, which is where the Saturday food market is normally held. Right now, it's all dug up, with big holes in the ground alternating with piles of dirt, where they are putting in new water and sewer mains, and I assume new underground electrical wires. The market is temporarily being held up in the new town, alongside the clothing market which has always been set up there on Saturdays.

The reconstruction work in the old square is supposed to take four or five months. The town cut down the dozen or so trees that grew there, and ripped up all the asphalt. The new place will have new trees, and cobblestones instead of asphalt. I'm sure it will be very nice, but some people are grousing because the number of parking spaces on the place will be cut in half.

Around the square there are two restaurants, a couple of insurance company offices, and a bank or two, along with a little second-hand shop. There are three or four residences as well, three of them either owned or occupied by English people. Two of those houses are rented out, furnished, to tourists, and now the square will be more quaint and picturesque than it was before. The Saturday food market will come back when the work is finished.

Given the wet snowy weather, I didn't stop at the outdoor market this Saturday morning. I drove by it, and there were at least a few people out and about. The stands and market trucks were brightly lit and attractive-looking. Down by the river, when I got back to the car, the rain and snow had stopped, and we actually ended up having a bright sunny afternoon, with temperatures up to nearly 50ºF. Nice. It was my afternoon to walk the dog.

Just a slice of life in Saint-Aignan...

20 February 2010

February 20, 2005

Five years ago already. We hadn't even been in Saint-Aignan for two years at that point. Now it's been seven.

A new friend, Laurie, came to visit the weekend of February 20 that year. We had never met in person, but had mutual friends and had gotten to know each other on an Internet forum about traveling and living in France.

A view of Montrésor from the grounds of the château

One of the places we visited that weekend was the village of Montrésor, 15 minutes south of Saint-Aignan by car. Montrésor is one of the « plus beaux villages de France », a title awarded by a preservationist association. It has a château and a Renaissance church.

There's just one café in Montrésor, just below the château

The weather was cold. We went into the château at Montrésor and decided to do the tour of the château. There was a piano in a big ballroom that had been brought down from Paris generations ago. Chopin, they said, had composed music on that same piano. The owner of the château asked Laurie if she wanted to play it, and she did. She's a musician and teacher, and it was beautiful.

Looking across the street at our neighbors' house
that morning five years ago

Sunday morning when we all got up, we saw that it had snowed overnight. Laurie's plan was to drive up to Normandy that day. Back then she lived in Alabama, but a light snow didn't give her pause — she's originally from Minnesota and went to graduate school in Illinois, as I did.

Our back yard a little later that same morning

Since then Laurie has moved to North Carolina, and we were able to have a get-together at her house there in February 2009, with our good friends Evelyn and Lewis who still live in Alabama and made a very long drive to get there. It didn't snow, but it rained a flood, as we say in N.C.

Live from Saint-Aignan, 20 February 2010, a Saturday morning
The view from our front porch just a minute ago.

Good times and good memories. This morning a "wintry mix" of snow and rain is supposed to fall on Saint-Aignan. Right now, it's a heavy snow shower — big wet flakes. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

19 February 2010

The black radish

Can you get "black radishes" in the U.S.? We like to buy them here, where they are called « radis noirs ». I should put that in the singular, though, because normally you buy just one. A radis noir is the size of a short fat carrot or a saucisson/salami. Or like an elongated redbeet.

You peel the big radish and it's no longer black. It's white inside, like a radish. And it has pretty much the taste and texture of the little radishes called radis roses or radis ronds — sharp, a little peppery, and crunchy. Here's a blog topic showing the black radish that also gives a salad recipe.

Salade de radis noir et mimolette

Walt makes a salad using thinly sliced radis noir and mimolette cheese. Mimolette looks a little like colby or American cheese. It's orange colored. It comes from Holland, originally, I believe, but it is also made in France. I've used it to make pimento cheese, for example.

Mimolette comes either frais (fresh) or sec (dry). Either one is good with this salad. I could see making it with dry jack cheese, but you wouldn't get the contrast in color. I think a good, sharp colored cheddar would be good with the radish.

As for the radish, you could use little round radishes sliced thinly. Or you might be able to use an Asian radish like daikon. The daikon is white but has the same shape as a black radish. It's milder, according to what I read. With either radish, it helps to have a mandolin so that you can make very thin slices. Or use a vegetable peeler.

The dressing is a dribble of balsamic or sherry vinegar, a drizzle of olive oil, some salt and pepper, and a few fresh chervil, parsley, or tarragon leaves.

* * *

By the way, here is the label from the barbecue sauce I used a couple of days ago to make pulled pork.

I just wanted to show you that the spelling of the name really is Wilber's, not Wilbur's. Wilber is the restaurant owner's last name. The restaurant is on U.S. Highway 70 in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

18 February 2010

Pulled pork barbecue

The Saint-Aignan SuperU has pork shoulder roasts on sale at 2.80 € per kilogram, or about $1.75/lb. this week. Pork shoulder, also known as Boston butt, is what we use in eastern North Carolina to make pulled pork barbecue. It's flavored with a spicy vinegar sauce.

You can easily make your own sauce, and I do, but this time I mostly used sauce I bought at a restaurant called Wilber's in Goldsboro, N.C. and brought to France. The ingredients are: vinegar, water, black pepper, red peppers, salt, and spices. Note: no ketchup or tomato of any kind, and no sugar. Here's a recipe based on some that I saw on the Internet and my own preferences:
Eastern N.C. Barbecue sauce

2 cups cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp. finely minced garlic or onion
1½ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients at least three hours before you plan to use the sauce, to let all the flavors blend.
Cut the pork shoulder into big chunks, marinate them in the
sauce, and cook them in a hot oven until golden brown.

Because it's wintertime and rainy, I can't really cook the meat on a grill to give it the smoky flavor it needs. So I spray it with a product called "liquid hickory smoke." It's just smoke-flavored water, with nothing else in it. A good quantity of smoked paprika might do the job just as well. Let the chunks of pork marinate in that and a good quantity of the vinegar sauce.

A gratuitous sunset photo I took day before yesterday...

Put the pork on a rack in a baking pan and pour some water in the bottom of the pan to keep the juices and marinade from burning. Cook it in a hot oven (225ºC/440ºF) for 30 minutes or more, turning the pork at least once to make sure all the pieces are golden brown. Baste it with the marinade and then, when the marinade runs out, the pan drippings.

...and another

When the meat is golden brown, cover the pan with a lid or foil and turn the oven down to low (150ºC/300ºF) and let the pork cook for two or even three hours, until it starts to fall apart. Take the pork out of the pan and pull it into shreds with two forks or a pair of tongs, seasoning it with the pan drippings and more vinegar sauce, to taste.

Pull the pork into shreds for serving

Eastern N.C. barbecue does not taste especially vinegary. It's not sour. The vinegar helps tenderize and break down the meat fibers, I think. The flavor is a combination of the peppers, garlic, and good slow-roasted pork. This barbecued pork freezes well, so you can make a lot of it.

It's good with coleslaw and French-fried or sauteed potatoes. Or with collards or other green vegetables. It's also good, warm, in a sandwich.

17 February 2010

First hints of springtime

Change is in the air. It's above freezing outside and it's starting to rain — a nice change from frigid weather and snow. Heavy rains are falling down in Provence, and areas north of us, including Paris, are predicted to get some freezing rain today as the rain falls on frozen ground.

The boiler is not yet repaired, by the way. I went yesterday and signed the estimate, agreeing to have Savelys order the fuel pump that they say we need. As I sat there looking at the paperwork, the woman behind the desk, Béatrice, talked to another customer on the phone. I went ahead a wrote out a check for the cost of the pump. It came to 166 €, which was about what we were hoping for.

Yesterday's sunset at La Renaudière

When Béa got off the phone, she apologized and saw the check. "We don't want you to pay now," she said. "We expect payment when the work is complete." Huh? So why all the rigamarole about having to sign the work order and agree on the price before they could order the pump. I had already given them a verbal go-ahead last week, but that didn't suffice.

It looks a lot warmer in this picture of our hamlet,
La Renaudière, than it really was yesterday afternoon.

It seems to me that they would want their money before they ordered and installed the part. Go figure. Now they are going to be "out of pocket." The main thing, however, is that we still don't know when the repair will be scheduled. Béa said she would call us when the time comes.

A frozen, reed-filled pond, with a neighbor's house in
the background. Most old houses have these ponds,
into which all the household's waste water went
before sewers were put in.

The house is a lot warmer this morning than it was yesterday morning and on preceding mornings, because the temperature outside is above freezing. Maybe that was our last spell of frigid weather for the winter. March, however, is notoriously unpredictable.

Sun setting behind the trees that border the vineyard

While I was out yesterday, I went to SuperU and bought some hareng fumé — smoked herring. More about that later. I was also happy to find a special on guinea hens, pintades — buy one and get one free. That brought the price per kilogram down into the range you pay for battery-raised chickens, but these are Label Rouge pintades. Into the freezer they went, for later.

16 February 2010

Vacances d'hiver...

...aux sports d'hiver. Winter vacation and winter sports. I forgot. "Everybody" in France is on vacation. The schools all over the country close for two weeks in February, and people, at least those who have the means to do so, head for the hills. The mountains, that is, as in Alpes or Pyrénées.

I should have realized that was what was going on. On Sunday more than a week ago, we were invited to lunch by friends in Blois. These are people who have several daughters and a son living in the Loire Valley region, and a slew of grandchildren.

Half of the conversation at lunch was about daughter Véro being at one Alpine ski resort with her husband and children, and daughters Corinne and Marie-Do being at another Alpine ski resort, where they had rented a suite of apartments for parents and children.

Close-up of a crêpe

There is much talk of avalanches and possible new requirements that children wear helmets when they are on the slopes. A 10-year-old was killed yesterday or the day before because he crashed into a post and wasn't wearing a protective helmet.

Our region's winters vacation is now more than half over. Winter vacation for the schools and families in the Paris area just started over the past weekend. A third region's vacations will start this coming Saturday. And everybody gets two weeks, but it's all staggered so that the autoroutes don't become parking lots and the ski resorts don't overflow with people.

Some with cherry preserves on them...

As an American, I forget how this works in France. Not having children in school, and not working 9 to 5 at a job, I tend to ignore all the news about heavy traffic heading to the ski areas and the special weather reports on the snow and fog conditions at Alpes d'Huez or Val d'Isère.

But French people don't. They go, whole families, on vacation together, and enjoy skiing or hiking or just eating cheese fondue or tartiflette in the mountain resort towns.

...and some with plum jam

That includes people who install and repair boilers and furnaces and heat pumps. I called Savelys, the company we have a maintenance agreement with for our boiler, and talked to Béatrice. She apologized, saying she had been out of the office for a week. She put me on hold and went to ask her boss out where our case waits in the queue.

She came back to the phone and apologized for her chef too. He had responsibility for two Savelys offices last week, she said, and il croule sous les papiers — he is buried under a mountain of paperwork. I imagine half the company's employees took off for their annual vacances d'hiver — winter vacation. Even people who can't afford to go skiing take time off, because their children are out of school.

The lesson in all this is how important it is to remember what the culture is like. Don't let your boiler break down at inconvenient times, like when the schools are on vacation. This whole situation resulted from poor scheduling on the boiler's part, or poor planning on mine.

Roll them up with jam inside, put them in a baking dish,
and heat them up in the oven, dribbled with melted butter.

By the way, don't worry about us shivering in the cold. The boiler continues to work in short spurts, which is enough to get the radiators warm and heat up the house. And the wood fire burns intensely, even as the wood pile outside diminishes rapidly. We are staying warm enough. the temperature this morning is slightly below 20ºF.

Béatrice at Savelys called just after lunch yesterday and said our cost estimate paperwork is complete. All it needs is my signature. I'll drive over there this morning and sign on the dotted line.

15 February 2010

Wintertime walks and waits

The last of the snow we got last week has been melting. That said, the temperature right now is -6.6ºC, or +20ºF. Sigh. The boiler has still not been repaired. In fact, I haven't yet received an estimate for the price of the repair, much less a target date. We have been getting mail — a piece or two every day — so I know that postal delivery is not the problem.

Here I called Callie to make her turn and look at me for the photo

Winter or summer, rain or shine, snow or sleet, the walks with the dog go on. It's my turn this morning. I've been going at about 8:15 or even 8:30 recently. It's good and light by then. Yesterday I went out at 5:00 p.m. too.

My most frequent view of Callie during our walks
Click on the picture to see an enlargement

One advantage of this cold weather is that the ground is frozen. Otherwise, some of the paths we like to follow are too muddy to be practical. Right now, we are free to go nearly anywhere we like, treading on rock-hard ground. One path Callie really likes, maybe because she hadn't been on it for quite a while, is a steep one that runs down our hill toward the village.

Callie finds a lot of interesting things to sniff
out there — mostly deer pee, I bet.

It's a path through woods, so for the dog it has the added attraction that you never know when you might meet up with a deer. No luck yesterday though, but we did meet up with some other people hiking around out there. We're not the only crazy ones.

Heading back into the woods,
looking down into the river valley

Here's the big question that faces us when we go out the back gate: woods or vineyard? I guess we'll choose vineyard this morning because we did woods yesterday afternoon. But I usually let Callie choose and just follow her around until I'm ready to head back to the house.