31 May 2010

A crabby spider?

I was out walking around in the vineyard with the dog a couple of afternoons ago, taking pictures. The sun was out and everything looked bright and clean.

A white spider on a daisy

Click on the image for a close-up view.

I stopped to take a picture of some nice daisies growing just on the eastern side of the a vineyard plot, right on the edge of some woods. Then I noticed, as often happens, there was a creature on one of the flowers. It most likely is one of these: Misumena vatia, a species of crab spider.

When I tried to take a closer picture, the spider hid
on the underside of the flower.

I think it must be a spider, but it looks a lot like a crab. As far as I know, we don't have any crabs around here (no wisecracks, please). There are probably écrevisses — crayfish — in the rivers and streams, but I've never seen any.

I tried one last time.

Today Coco and crew are supposed to come to start up the final phase of the upstairs construction project. We are on the edge of our seat, waiting. I know at least one person who is going to be very disappointed if they "pose us a rabbit" — that's what you say in French when somebody stands you up: « On m'a posé un lapin. » I'm not sure why they say it that way.

30 May 2010

As tiny grapes...

...light, delicious Touraine wines are born. We are already enjoying the 2009 vintage, which was a good one. The summer of 2009 was consistently warm and very dry. That makes for healthy grapes and tasty wines. We are hoping for more of the same in 2010.

Since the Renaudière vineyard wraps around our house on three sides, we go for daily walks up, down, and around the rows of vines and keep our eye on the grapes and leaves as they develop starting in March all the way through the harvest in September and October. In about April, many of the Touraine wines from the previous season are released to the public.

Baby grapes on the vines in the Renaudière vineyard
outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, in Touraine

It's been dry for a few months now, after a wet winter. I hope that's good for the vines, which supposedly have very deep roots and can find water down below even when at surface level the ground seems dusty dry. Right now we are having a couple of days of light rain — we've gotten 11 mm, or just less than half an inch, over the past four days and just 33 mm (1.3 in.) for the whole month of May.

Nice of these to pose in front of such a pretty post

That's a low rainfall total for the month. We got nary a drop of rain from May 10 until May 25. The current showers are greening everything up and rinsing the dust and pollen off all the leaves. Everything looks fresh right now. Except for corn and eggplants, all our garden is planted and the seeds and seedlings are drinking up last night's rain as I type this.

The leaves are pretty too, and they are on my
cooking list: Stuffed Grapevine Leaves.

I finished tilling up the last garden plot just yesterday morning. That one was planted in collards and chard, which over-wintered there, and we were still harvesting those until recently. Now it's tilled up and Walt will plant it in sweet corn — two varieties. We're hoping for a good corn crop this summer.

When we're not painting walls, we be watching
the grapes grow this summer.

Good news: Elisabeth, Jacques' wife and business partner, called yesterday afternoon. They have returned from a week's vacation on the Ile d'Ouessant off the coast of Brittany. The closet doors for the upstairs "apartment" are in their possession, and work will start up again tomorrow. With any luck, they'll get the doors hung and the floorboards put down before next weekend. But I'm probably being too optimistic.

The local grape harvest normally takes place in late September.

Then we'll be able to start painting. That's going to take us all summer, I predict. We don't work 8-hour days when we start doing home improvements. There's too much cooking and garden work to do every day. But if we can get the floor and staircase varnished, we'll be able to start moving things upstairs. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

29 May 2010

Mind your head

About 10 days ago, Martine from Belgium (“Wishing she was in France”) was visiting here in the Loire Valley. She was traveling and serving unofficially as tour guide for two francophone friends of hers from the Brussels area. They came to Saint-Aignan for an evening.

The Guerriers' wine cave in Mareuil-sur-Cher
has a very low door frame and a low vaulted ceiling.

Thanks to Ladybird (Martine) for the photo

Walt and I had them over to our house for a glass of wine, and then we went around the corner to Jean-Noël and Chantal Guerrier's wine cellar for a tasting and to buy a few bottles (or jugs) of the local specialties.

Martine took this picture as we were leaving for dinner in a Saint-Aignan restaurant. She gave me permission to post it here. That's me in the middle, with the Guerriers, and on each side are Martine's friends. We had a very nice evening with them and I'm happy to have this photo as a souvenir.

28 May 2010

White Butter, or « Beurre blanc »

We usually think of butter as being yellow. “White butter” —
« beurre blanc » in French — isn't just butter though. It's a sauce. Butter is the main ingredient, but the recipe includes shallots, wine, and vinegar as well. It's a sauce you serve with poached fish.

Beurre blanc was invented in Nantes, they say, a city located near the mouth of the Loire River, in an area that some consider to be southern Brittany. The white butter sauce is often served with fresh-water fish, especially the European pike called a brochet. But the sauce is good with any poached white fish — ocean or river fish.

Instead of shallots, you could make the beurre blanc with onions, but the taste would be slightly different. You could also use lemon juice instead of vinegar, but the classic version is made with vinegar. The Larousse Gastronomique gives at least five recipes for beurre blanc, some of which contain no wine at all, but only high-quality white wine vinegar.

In Je Sais Cuisiner, the classic home cookery book by Ginette Mathiot, the recipe for beurre blanc calls for white wine — a dry muscadet from the Nantes area — but no vinegar at all.

Most recipes, however, call for dry white wine with vinegar added to it. That's the version I made yesterday. Since there is just a small amount of vinegar to "pep up" the wine, you can use either white wine vinegar or distilled vinegar (vinaigre d'alcool). In fact, I've only recently been able to find white wine vinegar in our local supermarkets, and what I've found is imported from Portugal.

Cod, potatoes, and asparagus with a beurre blanc sauce.
I didn't strain out the cooked shallot,
which had a nice pink color.

Here's the recipe. It's easy to make, as long as you don't turn the heat up too high under the butter, which should emulsify into a foamy, white sauce as you whisk it into the reduction of shallots, wine, and vinegar.
Beurre blanc

3 Tbsp. finely chopped shallot
¼ cup dry white wine
2 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. vinegar (white wine or distilled)
salt and pepper
1 stick (120 grams) butter

Put the chopped shallot in a saucepan and pour in the white wine, water, and vinegar. Set the pan on medium heat and let it simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Don't let all the liquid evaporate, but keep it simmering until the shallot is completely cooked. Add a little water as necessary. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cut the cold butter into half-inch cubes. Small pieces of butter will melt more evenly into the liquid.

When you have a good reduction with about three tablespoons of liquid left in the sauce pan, turn the heat down and gradually add the butter, whisking it in so that it emulsifies (blends smoothly) with the liquid and shallots to make a foamy white sauce. Let it simmer for a minute or two, but don't let it boil hard or the butter sauce will separate.

If you prefer, you can pour the beurre blanc through a strainer to remove the chopped shallot before you
serve it.
Beurre blanc sauce is really good on fish, but it's also good on steamed potatoes or green vegetables. For more flavor, poach the fish in what is called a court-bouillon — water with a little vinegar or wine, a bay leaf, some onion or garlic, and herbs, simmered until nicely flavored before the fish is added.

We had the beurre blanc sauce with codfish fillets rolled up, fastened with a wooden skewer, and poached in a court-bouillon to which we added some lemongrass. And we ate it with steamed potatoes and asparagus spears, plus some good bread to mop up the sauce with. And a glass of chilled Touraine Sauvignon Blanc wine.

27 May 2010

Inside vs. outside

I do understand why so many old French houses have wallpaper on their walls. I just don't understand why the owners chose the wall paper they did. « On ne discute pas des goûts et des couleurs, » they say — there's no accounting for taste, so no use arguing over tastes and colors.

The reason for covering walls with wallpaper rather than paint is clear though. The wallpaper hides the cracks in old plaster walls. As these old stone or even concrete-and-brick houses in France settle and move — it's called « travailler » (to "work") in French, settling is, as in « La maison a travaillé » — cracks are inevitable. Only the worst ones will be visible if they show through wallpaper. All of them will be visible, eventually, if you simply paint the walls.

Stripping off old wallpaper, preparing to paint

Newer construction uses plasterboard (called dry wall, wallboard, sheetrock, or placoplâtre in different languages, countries, and contexts) instead of plaster on brick or stone. That has several advantages. Cracks don't show up as frequently. The plasterboard wall leaves a space between exterior and interior walls where ugly things like wires and pipes can be run, out of sight. And you can put insulation in there too.

What a shame to have to get rid of this wallpaper.
We've come to admire it over the past seven years.

The walls in our house, built less than 50 years ago, have no insulation in them except the air spaces in the hollow brick blocks that the walls are made of. Inside the house, the brick walls are just coated with a thin, smooth coat of plaster, and then either painted or papers. Wires and pipes were originally put inside the brick blocks, back when the house was built. Outside, the brick blocks are covered with a sort of stucco.

The house seen from the neighbors' yard

But you never have enough electrical outlets these days and, as often as not, putting in new wiring requires running wires inside plastic tracks glued or screwed to the walls. They are visible, though not necessarily ugly. If you've been to France, you've seen places where the wiring and the plumbing run along the walls and are "apparent" — visible, not hidden. That's just the way it is.

Roses in the rain

Anyway, our new attic space is done with plasterboard, so all the wires and pipes are hidden away, and there's 8 in./20 cm of glass wool insulation between the interior walls and the roof tiles. In the older living space downstairs, we've had to have wires run in plastic tracks along the interior walls in three or four places since we've moved in and started "improving" the place.

This is our little village's communal well.
Nobody uses it any more, so the neighbors
have decorated it with potted plants and flowers.

And now here I am uncovering unsightly cracks as I strip off the wallpaper in our old stairwell and on the walls of the adjacent landing and hallway. So far I haven't uncovered any huge fissures, but there are some that will have to be repaired before we can paint. To repair them you gouge out the old crack completely and apply new plaster to smooth out the surface. When it dries, you sand it. Walt is good at doing that kind of work.

And raindrops on the pond out back

Meanwhile, the weather is rainy and gray outside, with some clear moments when the sun comes shining through. It's not heavy rain, just nice spring showers. Everything is very green, and it's warm out — good weather for working inside and then going out for a walk with the dog.

26 May 2010

Plan of attack

It seems that Jacques and Elisabeth will be in Brittany for the rest of the week. Coco says he can't go get the cupboard doors and pay for them himself, so we have to wait. Next week...

I've known Jacques for at least five years, and Coco for about a year. He's done work here before. He does high-quality work. Everything will work out just fine. It just will take longer than we hoped — probably unrealistically — a few weeks ago. Who was it who said a couple of months ago: "It will take longer and cost more than you think it will."?

There's something nice about finally getting
these plants set outdoors again.

Anyway, our goal is to get the work done and get the new room upstairs all set up before winter. That's been the goal all along. Pas de panique !

The plum trees that blew down are producing fruit
now. In a few weeks, it will be ready to pick.

I don't know what to do about having company this summer. As things stand now, we have only one bedroom. But there are solutions, I'm sure. We'll just have to be creative. Finding a place for guests to sleep is one thing, but finding time to spend with them might be another, depending on how the sanding, varnishing, and painting jobs develop.

I'll continue the work of taking down this old wallpaper.

It's important to keep perspective. There is wallpaper to be taken down, and I'm going to start on that this morning. We'll be that far ahead of the game. We can also start cleaning and sanding the beams up in the attic, as well as doing some light sanding of the seams in the plasterboard. There's no shortage of stuff to do.

It's so nice to be able to take advantage
of the yard this time of year.

And then there's the garden, the cat, the dog, and the cooking. And the tennis tournament on TV. Whew! Who has time to spare?

And there's always a dog to go on long walks with...

It's been raining outside for the first time in a while. Walt has gotten a lot of the garden planted over the past few days. Tomato and eggplant seedlings, among others, are ready to set out now. Time to get going.

Yesterday, we roasted a chicken with carrots, onions,
Moroccan spices, and golden raisins.

And the cooking has to be done, now matter what. That's the entertainment part, and the reward. It's one of the things I love about living in France — the quality and variety of the food.

25 May 2010

Cue the crew!

I've waited a little while before posting this morning because I was hoping to be able to report that Coco and crew had showed up and picked up the attic work where they left off on May 12. No such luck, so far. It's 9:00 a.m. and usually we see them by 8:30 if we're going to see them at all.

Thursday May 13 was a holiday, and a lot of people also take that Friday off, making it into the long Ascension Day weekend. For those four days, we didn't expect to see anyone at work. Then on May 17 and 18, the electrician-plumbing contractor's crew came in and got all the rest of that part of the work done.

Flowers and bees around the vineyard

Last Thursday and Friday, rien. Que dalle. Nada. Zilch. On Friday, I called Jacques, the quasi-general contractor. Really, the idea of having a general contractor here in France is unheard of. Nobody seems to be really in control of the work schedule. When the plumber needs to be called in to do his job, it's up to us to call him. He works independently of the guys doing the walls, stairs, and floors.

In our case, we do have somebody who is kind of unofficially managing the project. She's done great, but she isn't actually the general contractor. She's just helping out, because she has worked on many renovation projects here in the Saint-Aignan area over the years, and she knows many of the local artisans/contractors. She's English but has lived here for 25 years. She's really helped us out.

Here's how the vineyard looks in late May.
The weather has been very dry.

Walt called her Friday afternoon, after my morning call to Jacques went unanswered. She came over Friday afternoon for a glass of wine and a visit.

"I called Jacques and his wife Elisabeth this morning, hoping to get some idea of when the work will start up again," I told her. I didn't go so far as asking when it might be finished, but that's what I really want to know.

"Oh, they left this morning for a long weekend in Brittany," our English friend S. said. "They won't be back until Monday or Tuesday." Yesterday was le lundi de Pentecôte, also a holiday.

Ferns in the woods along the edges of the vineyard

As we talked, I learned that the doors for the 5 or 6 storage closets up in our new attic space hadn't come in yet. They are expected this week. S. said — May 25 or so. I can only assume that Coco wants to get those doors put in before he nails down the new floorboards. That would make sense, I guess.

So that's probably why the work has been delayed. The contractors can blame it on us, actually. We don't get much information out of them, but there was some talk earlier about how we should order and pay for the doors ourselves, and go pick them up over in Tours. We didn't want to do that, mainly because if we pay for them we have to pay the 19.6% TVA rate, whereas a professional can buy them at a 5.5% tax rate. Having Jacques or Elisabeth order them will save us $150.

The red plastic tape is supposed to keep the local deer
from munching on tender new grapevine leaves

Once we finally communicated our preference that Jacques and Elisabeth — she keeps the books, does the ordering, prepares quotes, and sends out bills — order and pay for the doors, they did it. But a good week, maybe two, had gone by in the meantime. So from the professionals' point of view, the delay is probably attributable to us.

Old vines

We have company coming in a month, and we are going to have a lot of sanding, varnishing, and painting to do as soon as Jacques and Coco finish their part of the job. It's going to be tight. The doors and floors (the flooring has come in) need to be done, and there's still one wall to finish, right over the stairs.

Maybe Coco went to pick up those closet doors this morning. I hope so. Or maybe he's gone down to Provence to do some work for Peter Mayle.

24 May 2010

Cue the weather

It's as if the organizers of the Roland Garros tennis tournament — Les Internationaux de France — said "Cue the good weather. The day has come."

The tournament started yesterday. And the good weather arrived, right on cue. It's sunny, a little breezy, and almost hot — even though the temperatures are still mostly in the mild 70s F.

Detail of ironwork at the château in Saint-Aignan —
it's almost saying “Ta da! Look at the blue sky!”

Yesterday the high temperature at our house near Saint-Aignan, in deep shade was 26.3ºC — 79.3ºF. It's the bright sun that makes it feel hot out. There is no humidity to speak of. It's like good California weather.

Arriving at the château in Saint-Aignan
via the monumental staircase

Watching the tennis, cooking on the grill, working in the garden, sitting in the shade just reading and listening to the radio. As they say: Elle est pas belle, la vie ? — life is good.

23 May 2010

Silent Sunday



22 May 2010

Nice afternoon in the sun

That was what we had yesterday. We were out in the sun with the dog for a few hours. She loved it, as you can see from the pictures.

Rolling in the grass...

...and asking to play with the tennis ball.

The peonies and other flowers are finally blooming. Everything is three weeks to a month late this spring, because the cold weather lasted so long. It's finally over.

Peonies in the garden

We did work outdoors yesterday morning. Walt cleaned out the garden shed, while I weeded and watered the potato patch again.

Potatoes from England — King Edwards and Rockets

I wonder how you know when the potatoes are ready to be dug — harvested? Is it when the plants get flowers on them? I guess I'd better read about it.

21 May 2010

Savory chicken-tomato-cheese “cake”

For apéritifs with Ladybird and her friends from Belgium Wednesday evening, I made a savory cake with cheese, chicken, and sun-dried tomatoes. By "savory cake" I mean a cake that has no sugar in it at all. You could call it a loaf or a bread. The recipe is below.

Thanks to Jennifer of the blog Chez Loulou for the idea. In a comment on my blog a few days ago, she mentioned a similar cake using chicken and dried apricots. That sounded good, but I didn't have any apricots so I used dried tomatoes with a good result. Last week, I made a similar cake (or loaf) with bacon and olives in it.

Cheesy chicken and sun-dried tomato loaf

We had had a chicken for lunch the day before, so I used the leftover roasted chicken breast in the cake rather than cook a boneless chicken breast especially for the recipe. I also had three thin slices of French bacon — very lean, smokey "back bacon" — so I cut those up into slivers and added them to the cake batter with the chicken, tomatoes, and cheese.

The loaf is cheesy and savory.

Here's the recipe I came up with:
Savory chicken-tomato-cheese “cake”

1¼ cups (150 g) flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. dried mixed herbs
½ cup
(120 ml) olive oil or other vegetable oil
½ cup (125 ml) plain yogurt or milk
3 eggs
1 shallot
1 cooked chicken breast (200 g)
3 oz.
(100 g) sun-dried tomatoes
3 slices bacon (optional)
3 oz.
(100 g) grated cheese
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350ºF/180ºC.

Butter (or oil) and flour a loaf pan and set it aside.

Dice up the shallot and cook it in a skillet in a little oil just until softened.

Dice or shred the cooked chicken breast — cook a fresh breast or use half the breast of a roasted chicken.

Cut the bacon into slivers. If you prefer, you can blanch or pre-cook the bacon, but it's not necessary— cut into fine slivers, it will cook in the cake batter as the loaf bakes in the oven. You can substitute a slice or two of ham (jambon blanc) or other cured meat for the bacon if you want, or not use it at all.

Soak the sun-dried tomatoes in water to rehydrate them if necessary, and then chop them into small pieces. (If they are packed in oil, just chop them.)

Grate the cheese (Gruyère, Comté, or other Swiss-style cheese, or even cheddar — whatever you like.)
Here's a close-up to show the texture of the cake.
Whisk the flour, baking powder, and dried herbs together in a big bowl. Add the oil, yogurt (or milk), eggs, and grated cheese, and stir to blend well. When you have a smooth batter, fold in the chopped shallot (along with the oil it cooked in, for the flavor) and the chopped chicken, bacon (optional), and sun dried tomatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until done. Test with a wooden skewer to make sure the cake is cooked all the way through. Let it cool completely in the pan before you slice it.
This is a cake that you can cut into cubes or slices and serve at apéritif time. It's good with chilled white or rosé wine — still or sparkling. It's also good at lunch time — serve a thick slice with a good green or mixed salad.

It would also be good with sauteed mushrooms in it, I think.

20 May 2010

Belgian visitors, a winery and a restaurant

Yesterday Ladybird of the blog Wishing I were in France (she is!) came to Saint-Aignan for apéritifs, a visit to one of our favorite wine caves, and dinner at Le Crêpiot, a Saint-Aignan institution. She brought with her two friends of hers, a retired couple about my age who live in the Brussels area. We had a really nice evening.

One thing everybody wanted to do was go see our neighbors the Guerriers to buy some wine. Ladybird and her friend C. from Brussels were here about a year ago and they bought some wine to take back to Belgium. They wanted more, and Ladybird's friends wanted to take some home too.

It's always fun to go taste wine with the Guerriers. Jean-Noël is a character, and Chantal is always smiling and cheerful. We tasted their 2009 Sauvignon Blanc white, Pineau d'Aunis rosé, and Gamay red right out of the cuves — big stainless steel or fiberglass vats — as is the custom. Ladybird tasted the 2007 and 2008 Côt (Malbec) reds because her friend C., who couldn't come on this trip, wanted a few bottles.

After the tasting, we had reservations at the Crêpiot restaurant in "downtown" Saint-Aignan. We were running late — it was 8:00 when we left the winery and our dinner reservation was for 7:30.

The Guerriers told us not to worry. Just tell Véronique, who owns and operates the restaurant with her husband, that you were with us. She's from the village, and was actually born in the house across the street. "We grew up together," he said.

When we finally got to the restaurant, I told Véronique where we were coming from. « Alors vous étiez dans mon village ! », she said. "You were in my village! Did you see my mother's house? Was my sister out working in the garden?" It was an unexpected bonus, finding out that Véronique, who we of course have seen many times but never really been introduced to, has such really local ties. Her mother is our neighbor.

Here's a link to an earlier post about Le Crêpiot, taken one day when we had lunch there.

The food at Le Crêpiot is excellent. For dinner, I had a cuisse de canard confite (a slow-roasted duck leg) with French-fried potatoes and a green salad. Walt had a steak tartare, which was prepared by Véronique at our table — freshly ground raw beef with a raw egg, chopped garlic, capers, a good quantity of chopped parsley, chopped onion, mustard, ketchup, and a few drops of Worcestershire Sauce. Salt and pepper of course. Walt said it was excellent. It came with French fries too.

Ladybird had a crêpe filled with ham and an egg on top. The other Belgian woman had a beautiful salad with shrimp (I think, or écrevisses — crayfish) and her husband had a very nice-looking steak. To wash it all down, we ordered the restaurants "wine of the month" — Le Crêpiot always has one — which was made in the village of Seigy, just on the east side of Saint-Aignan. It was a red wine made from Gamay, Cabernet Franc, and Côt grapes.

I didn't take my camera so can't post any pictures of the evening. Maybe Ladybird will post some on her blog next week — she and the other couple took pictures at the winery. The pictures in this post are ones I took during an earlier visit chez les Guerrier and show a little of what their little hamlet looks like. I've posted a lot of topics about the Guerriers and their small wine-making operation — click on "Local winemakers" in the What I blog about... list on the sidebar to find them.

Jean-Noël Guerrier out on his tractor in the vineyard last week

For the apéritif we had at our house before going to the winery, we opened and enjoyed a bottle of rosé sparkling wine that Walt bought at the co-op up in Saint-Romain-sur-Cher, which is another one of our favorite wineries. And I made a savory cake with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes. I'll post that recipe tomorrow.

It was 11:00 p.m. when we left the Crêpiot, and Ladybird and her friends had an hour's drive ahead of them to get back to their B&B. I hope they are having a late morning today.

19 May 2010

Customer service, you say?

You know how it goes: you make a special drive to a neighboring town, to shop in a particular store. When you get there, it's closed. The sign says it's open all day Monday (journée continue — no noontime closing), and all day Wednesday through Saturday (but with a lunch break). Problem is, you are there on a Tuesday.

France. French businesses. They have the most inscrutably unpredictable hours. In Saint-Aignan, it's the recycling center. It used to be open only two mornings a week, but I could never remember which mornings. Then they changed the hours so that it was open every morning except Thursday. Why Thursday? Qui sait ? Now it's changed again, and it's open, I think, three mornings a week. Which mornings? Who could remember?

Why would a grocery store be closed on Tuesdays? Why not, I guess. Anyway, no tofu for me. The shop is called Planète Verte, and it's in Montrichard. And yes, tofu is exotic. You can't buy it in the markets or supermarkets in the Saint-Aignan area at all.

So I went to the bank, as planned. Because the real estate office through which we found our house here in the Saint-Aignan area was (and still is) located in Montrichard, we ended up opening a bank account over there. Since we hardly ever need to go to into the bank, now that everything is done electronically and with ATM cards, it didn't seem to matter that our bank was not in our town but 10 miles away.

The one thing you can't do electronically is get a new checkbook. For that, you have to go to the bank in person. I'm not sure what triggers the generation of a new checkbook, by the way. It's not a function of the number of blank checks you have in your old checkbook, because we have plenty left. We write a check only now and then, since everything is drafted or paid for with a debit card.

Anyway, there was a notice on our April bank statement that the bank was holding a new checkbook for us. So yesterday I finally went to get it. One time in the past we waited so long to go pick up the new checks that the bank had already disposed of them — sent them back to the main office in Chartres, maybe. We had to wait and then go over again later. So now we know to go get the new checks when we see the notice that they are ready for pickup.

There are two customer service windows at the Crédit Agricole agency in Montrichard, but yesterday only one was staffed. There are no tellers — the place doesn't look much like a bank inside at all. I got in line. There were at least eight people ahead of me, waiting patiently and chatting among themselves. Most of them were older than I am. There is a big retirement community in Montrichard.

I waited ten minutes at least. The man at the service desk, at that point, was still working with the customer who was at the desk when I arrived. At that rate, I figured I'd be there for two hours or more. So I quit huffing and puffing and shifting my weight from one leg to the other and just left. I figured I'd go check out the new Netto hard-discount grocery store on the outskirts of Montrichard, which recently opened for business and keeps sending us advertising flyers in the mail.

After shopping at Netto, which turns out to be a nice, spacious store with good merchandise and good prices, I decided to go back to the bank and try again. I found a parking space not too far away. When I walked into the bank lobby, there were only three people in line. The first one took a while, and then second was up at the desk and out of the lobby in a flash. That was a good sign.

The young woman right ahead of me was carrying a sheaf of papers and kept thumbing through them and mumbling to herself as we stood there waiting. I know what she was doing — she was rehearsing what she was going to say to the bank clerk when she got up to the desk. I do that all the time. She was really stressed out.

It had something to do with a disputed charge of 600 euros on a real estate transaction. The woman asked to see Madame So-and-So. The bank clerk said, no, she's busy, but let me see if I can help you. I'm sure I rolled my eyes at that point, but maybe nobody was watching me. The clerk then spent an inordinately long time looking through all her papers and then staring at his computer screen. they conferred quietly.

Every minute or so, the woman would mumble something to him and make sweeping hand gestures. I really wanted to hear what was going on, but I couldn't get any closer without feeling like an intruder. I just kept huffing and puffing, hoping somebody would notice how unhappy I was with the whole situation. No such luck.

"Oh, I see, the notary who handled your transaction is supposed to reimburse you the 600 euros," he told the customer.

"No," she said, raising her voice a little, "the notary told me that the bank owes me the money. He says it's not his problem." Silence. More thumbing through papers and staring vacantly into the computer screen. More huffing and puffing on my part.

Finally, the clerk picked up the phone and called somebody higher up. No progress. He put down the phone and then told the customer again that the 600 euros was a notary's fee or deposit and that she should go get the reimbursement from him. But the customer wouldn't budge.

The woman behind me, with an infant in a stroller, kept bumping my ankles and heels with its wheels. She was impatient too. Did I mention that I was in the beginning stages of an allergy attack, which continues this morning? My nose was stopped up, and still is, and my eyes were burning and itching. I sneezed many times.

Finally, the clerk told the woman with the papers to go have a seat near the back of the lobby and somebody would be with her in a few minutes. Finally, I was going to get my new checkbook. I stepped up to the desk, explained what I wanted, and showed the man our current checkbook. He looked me up in the computer and found me — but he was clearly distracted and preoccupied.

He suddenly excused himself, jumped up, and walked quickly toward the back of the bank. I saw him stop in one office and the another. Then he disappeared completely. All I could do was stand there and wait. A good bit of time went by. It seemed like half an hour, but you know how that is. It probably was less than 10 minutes. At least the woman with the stroller had quit bumping my heels with the wheels.

Then the clerk came back, all smiles. He looked in a file drawer behind him, checked me out on the computer one more time, and presented me with the checkbook. I signed for it. The unhappy woman with the sheaf of papers and the 600-euro problem was still sitting there, thumbing through her papers and muttering to herself. It had taken me two hours to get the checks — not counting driving time.

I told Walt I would never fall for the "just stop at the Crédit Agricole and pick up the new checkbook" ploy again. Especially not on a Tuesday.

And did I mention that, after their four-day weekend, the builder's crew doing the construction work in the attic never turned up again. Not Monday. Not Tuesday. We are now waiting to see if anybody might turn up this morning. You'd think somebody might call and let us know what's going on.

18 May 2010

Health report, and an international hunt

Weight: unchanged, but still need to lose a little. Blood pressure: 13/8 (that's the way it's measured in France). Pulse: fine. Cholesterol: up slightly; must be the brioche and the bacon. Heart and lungs: sound good through the stethoscope, according to le docteur.

In other words, my vital signs are good. I'll probably live for a while longer.

Flowers and plants I noticed around the vineyard recently....

That's about all I have to say today. The weather is improving. I'm going over to Montrichard to do some shopping this morning. It's only 10 miles from Saint-Aignan, but it seems like a big expedition to me. I've been told that there is a shop in Montrichard that sells organic and exotic products, including tofu. I'm finally going to check it out. I also need to go to our bank to pick up a new checkbook, and the bank is in Montrichard. They won't mail checkbooks out — you have to go pick them up in person.

...just to dress up this post

I've been doing Internet research on wood-finishing products including something called « lasure » in French — not sure what that is in English — a kind of tint or stain, maybe — and varnishes. I'd prefer a water-based, acrylic product, as opposed to oil-based varnish, and there are companies that make them.

One such company is Sadolin, and English friends Jean and Nick have recommended it. They've used it on new floorboards they put down in their house in Le Grand-Pressigny. Trouble is, Sadolin products don't seem to be available in France. J. and N. have kindly offered to bring us some over from England, but we're still looking for a French equivalent — something we can buy locally, and go buy some more of if we run out.

I think I've finally found it. Sadolin wood-finishing products are made by an old Danish company, and they are sold in Belgium as well as in the U.K. So I wrote an e-mail to the Belgian company's customer service people and asked for suggestions. They told me in an e-mail yesterday that there is an equivalent line of products in France sold under the brand name Linitop.

So now I'm researching the Linitop brand. I haven't yet found any stores around Blois or Tours that sell Linitop products. There's one up in the Paris suburbs. I wrote the Linitop customer service people an e-mail to ask for advice and a list of retailers. We'll see.

This floor- and stair-finishing project has become an international affair.

17 May 2010

Have lunch, then wait and see

« Il fait un drôle de temps, » the neighbor told me yesterday. “The weather is strange right now. One minute it feels warm, and the next minute it feels cold. And the wind won't stop blowing!”

He's right. Walt and I ended up building a fire in the wood stove yesterday afternoon — it was that chilly in the house, with the wind and clouds. I was glad to see the neighbor out walking his dog, though. He's 80 and just had a hip replacement operation at the beginning of April. His recovery has been speedy. He and his wife were here for the weekend for the first time in a while.

Wind through the poplars around the vineyard

Walt and I had grilled asparagus — Walt cooked them on our little electric grill — for lunch yesterday. It wasn't exactly cooking-out weather, but we wanted to grill the bunch of white asparagus we bought at the market in Selles-sur-Cher last Thursday. Grilling white asparagus, rather than the green kind, was an experiment. I thought it was delicious but W. thought green asparagus would have been better — more tender and succulent. We can't even find green asparagus in this part of the Loire Valley (or very rarely).

Grilled white asparagus, hard-boiled eggs,
and thick-sliced bacon for lunch

I cooked hard-boiled eggs and blanched and then fried two thick slices of poitrine fumée in olive oil. Grilled asparagus with œufs durs was an idea I found on the Internet while looking for ways to combine asparagus and eggs. I think it was on an Italian site. And it was a good idea. We dressed the asparagus at the table with a good Italian olive oil.

The garden just waits.

Besides cooking, eating, and watching tennis on TV (Nadal beat Federer in Madrid), we waited. Waited for the moment to come when we can go set out plants — tomatoes, eggplants, cayenne peppers, marigolds — in the garden. It's still a little chilly to put them out now. Waited for rain, but none came. Waited for warm weather. Waited for Monday and the continuation of the attic work.

Mediocre weather for May. Our house is
in the very middle of this shot.

I did go out and weed the potato patch. And we finished removing the last bits of an old tree stump that has been a scar on the lawn since 2003. It only took us 6½ years to finally obliterate what remained of a sickly linden tree that was there when we bought the house and that we had cut down. It felt good to accomplish something that had been nagging at us for so long.

The third plum tree, ready to be planted
in the ground when the time comes

And I dug out and potted up another plum tree, which will eventually replace the ones that blew over on February 28. This one was growing on our property, so I didn't have to feel sneaky about it. It didn't droop at all after I transplanted it. Either it's very hardy, or the cool weather helped it make the transition smoothly. I planted a little aucuba (a.k.a. Gold Dust Plant or Spotted Laurel) cutting that CHM gave me last year. I put it in the back yard, up against the garden shed where it will get plenty of sun and warmth (one day).

My butterfly came back to see me.

Today I'm off to the doctor for my semi-annual checkup. And I have to stop at the Gamm Vert garden center to get some grass seed to put down where the old tree stump was. The work crew should be here in a few minutes to finish some plumbing, electrical, and plasterboard work upstairs. There will be banging and sawing.

Somebody is getting ready to string up some new
barbed wire around the donkey pen out back.

I guess it was good to have quiet for several days, over the long weekend. Making even little bits of progress in the garden is a good thing. When do you think summer will finally burst upon us?