31 August 2010

My summer vacation (1): Morienval

I did actually get to have a summer vacation this year, despite all the varnishing and painting and planting and harvesting. I got my vacation thanks to CHM, who asked me to be his chauffeur for a week. He rented a car and we drove up north of Paris, to the town Péronne and the cities of Amiens and Rouen.

L'Eglise abbatiale de Morienval, an hour north of Paris
Photo source: Wikipedia

We saw a lot of churches. The first one was an old abbey church called Morienval. Its existence was unknown to me, but CHM knew about it. The church in Morienval was built in the 11th and 12th centuries and was originally one element of a larger monastic complex.

The plaque next to this work said it dates from the late 1500s
and was an example of « art populaire ».

The abbey was founded in the 9th century by a group of Benedicine monks. Other buildings existed but were demolished over the centuries. The church we saw is what remains of the complex. It is a structure that shows the beginnings of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic style. I'm not an expert, and there isn't a lot of easy-to-find information on the web.

I liked this frog that I saw at the base of a pillar in the church.

When we got to Morienval (pop. about 1000) we went to a house up the road from the church and rang the bell to get the key to the church. That's what it said to do in the Michelin guide. A woman came out and asked CHM for an ID card, which she held as security during the time that he kept the key. An Italian couple who seemed to speak neither French nor English walked up as we were there, and they came to see the church with us.


The woman asked us to make sure nobody was inside the church when we left and then to lock the place back up. If there were people in the church with us, she said, tell them to come with you when you return the key. Then they can take it, under the same rules, and go back to look around some more.

We spent about an hour looking around. The Italian couple didn't stay that long. Nobody else came along. We had the place to ourselves, mostly. As always, we took a lot of pictures.

This virgin and child is from the mid-1500s,
according to the plaque.

"Notice that the Christ child holds in his hand an apple,"
the plaque said, "the fruit of the tree of Knowledge,
also known as the tree of Good and Evil."

There were several nice examples of polychrome statues, in wood and in stone, all around the interior of the old building. Nowadays, we don't think of such statuary as ever having been painted, but it was. Most of the pieces I took pictures of date back to the 16th and 17th centuries — so they are fairly "modern," in fact.

30 August 2010

A walk, and a party

Yesterday morning it was almost cold. Several people at the big anglophone gathering we were invited to over near Montrichard were remarking on it. One French woman, married to an Englishman, said: « C'est la fin de l'été. » Summer's over. And that, I guess, is true despite the nice warm afternoons we're having right now. It's a September kind of warmth — cool around the edges.

When I went out with Callie at 8:00 for our morning walk, I bundled up. In other words, I put on long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. The mornings when you can go out in shorts and a tee-shirt may well be over for another year. There was a heavy dew, and Callie got soaked by running through some tall grass. That's okay; the dog gets a rinse-off nearly every morning and most afternoons, after our walks, anyway. The sand and other dirts that sticks to her legs, chest, and belly washes off and runs down the shower drain.

You can see the grape-grower's shed on the side of the dirt road.
Equipment and vine-tending tools are stored in there, I assume.
I've walked by it a thousand times over the past seven years.

Only yesterday did I notice this grafitti on the wall of the little
stone building. I assume it was put there in August 1920 —
not earlier — and I don't know who A.L. might be.

The worst thing right now is that Callie gets covered in burrs on almost every walk. It's that tall grass she runs through that is full of all kinds of burrs as the summer ends. We have a special dog brush and a comb to pull the burrs out of her fur, and she seems to like the attention she gets while being groomed. She's a collie, but sometimes I call her a burred dog.

I took a lot of pictures of grapes yesterday. 'Tis the season. On a crisp, cool morning, with a bright sun early in the day, it's hard to resist taking photos of the grapes and vines. Soon the grapes will be picked, and we won't see them like this for another year.

The party we were invited to was an afternoon garden party. There must have been 20 or 30 people there, mostly English. And mostly long-time residents of the area around Montrichard. We had met about half of them previously at one event or another, and some have become friends. Most speak French, and some are anglophones married to French people.

We met one couple, an American doctor and his French wife, who live half the year in Manhattan and half the year in a village about eight miles west of Saint-Aignan. (Talk about a contrast.) There was an Englishman who has lived in a village across the river from Montrichard for 25 years and whose wife died a few years ago. He has stayed in France. And there was an American woman who spends half the year in Key West and the other half in a house here that she and her husband bought some 30 years or so. Her husband passed away a while back. We had met her and enjoyed talking with her once before.

There was another Franco-English couple, in addition to the people I mentioned in the first paragraph. She, English, runs a hot-air-ballooning company based in Montrichard, and he, French, farms wheat on land up near Blois. There were also three Dutch people and a German woman in attendance. The hostess of the party is Irish, and it was her birthday. She and her Dutch husband have owned their house here for 10 years.

All these people seem to speak both English and French, and many of them have lived here for many years. The Dutch people speak Dutch of course, but also English and French. The German woman speaks German, French, and English. In such situations, people often ask me if I live here year-round. Many of them find the countryside gray and cold in the winter, and would rather be in a city somewhere — in England or in America. Not me — unless, of course, it could be Paris...

It turns out that there's a whole community of English-speaking expatriates in our area. We were unaware of their existence until about two years ago. Before that, we might have avoided contact with such a group, thinking we didn't want to be part of an English-speaking ghetto. But these expats don't live isolated from the French-speaking society around them. They're part of it, as I think Walt and I are. We have a lot in common, and we enjoyed the party — the food, the wine, the conversation, and the sunshine.

29 August 2010

Re-arranging the rocks...

...and filling in holes. It's just a little thing I've noticed about the gravel road that starts at the back of our property and runs for a mile through the vineyard before again connecting with a paved road.

We spend a lot of time out there. More time than anybody else, I'm sure, year-round. The gravel road and the vineyard rows on each side of it are a great place to walk with the dog. No leash required, because there's no traffic.

The road through the vineyard just a hundred or so meters
from our back gate.

We know most of the people who work out there. Some are the vignerons who own property and tend their own parcels of grapevines — Bruno Ledys, for example, and Jean-Noël and Chantal Guerrier. Others are employed by local wine producers — a man and a woman we always speak to and who work for Bruno and Patricia Denis, owners of the Domaine de la Renaudie. And then there's 80-year-old Jacques Denis, Bruno's father, who has tended these vines his whole life.

So when you have a gravel road, and there is significant rainfall, and puddles form, and cars and tractors run through the puddle, splashing water and mud to the sides, what do you get? You get potholes, that's what. "Potholes" in French are called « nids de poule » — hen's nests.

Periodically, I see little patches of rocks like this one
along the road.

If nobody does anything, the nids de poule get deeper and deeper. Each time it rains, more water collects, and cars and tractors splashing through the potholes send more and more water and mud off to the side. Not that there is much traffic through the vineyard. Three or four vehicles through there would qualify as extremely busy day. Still...

The rocks have been carefully arranged, for a purpose.

Over the years, I've noticed that on the portion of the road nearest our house, somebody carefully fills in the potholes with rocks as soon as they start to form. I guess it's an example of preventive maintenance. It seems to be effective. The holes don't have time to get deeper and wider.

The gravel road farther out, looking back
toward our house and hamlet.

I just wonder who does it. I've never seen anybody out there picking up rocks and throwing them into a pothole. But it's obvious when somebody has been doing it. You can see that from the pictures. Since the vines along this section of road belong to the Denis family, I can only assume it's their people who are doing the repairs. Could it be old Jacques?

Here's some more repair handiwork, near our house.

To me, this small-scale repair and maintenance work is emblematic of our local countryside. It's hand-crafted. The rows of vines are orderly and trimmed just right, summer and winter. The potholes are carefully filled in by hand. The borders of the rows of vines are regularly mowed. Hedges are trimmed and squared off. Everything is artisanally tended, and has been for generations. There's something reassuring about it all.

28 August 2010

Climate change alters Loire wines

The evening news on TF1 carried an interesting report on climate change and Loire Valley wines a couple of evenings ago. The grape harvest is beginning earlier and earlier all around France, the report said, with the Loire Valley being no exception. Grapes are ripening faster because of increased sunshine.

The Saumur-Champigny wine district is about
75 miles west of Saint-Aignan.

One grape-grower over in the Saumur-Champigny wine district, west of Tours, said that when he started his career back in the mid-1970s, his (and his father's) challenge was to produce wines with an alcohol content of 10%. That was not easy then. Nowadays, however, he says he regularly produces Saumur-Champigny reds with 12% or 13% alcohol.

Ripe Cabernet Franc grapes in the Loire Valley

Rather than harvest his grapes earlier, he says he has kept the schedule he always followed, meaning that the grapes are much riper when they are picked than they used to be. They contain more natural sugar, which means the wines are more puissants, more alcoholic. The fruity, light wines of 30 years ago are no more.

Saumur-Champigny and the nearby appellations of Chinon and Bourgueil produce red wines using the Cabernet Franc grape exclusively. Warmer, sunnier weather also makes white wine grapes mature more quickly (or reach a greater stage of ripeness), and the local white wines are more alcoholic than they used to be as well.

Veuillez installer Flash Player pour lire la vidéo
Here's a link to the TF1 report on climate change and Loire wines

Overall, the TF1 report said, the grape harvest occurs two weeks earlier than it used to. And the wines are different. For the time being, the warmer, sunnier climate trend is a boon to wine producers. Studies done by France's INRA (the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) show that hours of sunshine recorded in the Saumur area have increased by 25% since 1980.

Sunnier weather means more potent wines.

Further warming of the climate might turn into too much of a good thing, the experts say. Right now, Cab Franc and other grapes are benefiting. But grapes need the first cool nights of autumn to develop good flavors, so if they ripen too early that becomes a problem. INRA researchers are studying new grape varieties and hybrids that will not ripen so fast in today's sunnier, warmer Loire Valley (or in other wine districts).

27 August 2010

Yesterday's back yard pictures

I've always said that one of the main reasons I started this blog was to publish the pictures I love to take with my digital cameras. Over the past seven years, I've been through at least four cameras, in fact — two Canons and two Panasonics. And now I've reached a point where I've used 90% of the space Blogger allocates to each blog for photo storage.

I looked at Blogger help and learned that I can pay an annual fee — otherwise, Blogger is a free service — of $5.00 U.S. to get 20 GB of photo storage. When you consider that $5.00 is a little less than 4 €, it would be silly not to sign up. It's either that or stop the blog. Some days I think I am ready to stop blogging, but then what would I do when I get up early in the morning. Every day, I mean.

Looking through the desert jade plant (thanks, CHM)
toward the neighbors' house

My other motivation for blogging has been to describe what life is like for a couple of Americans in France — not in Paris, mind you, and not in what they call La France Profonde, way out in remote country, but just middle-of-the-road small-town France. And not a life of leisure, but a working retirement. At first, that seemed easy. There was a wealth of material. Now that I've been here for more than seven years, it seems harder and harder to keep putting our life and daily activities on the blog as some kind of an example.

A sedum flower

It's not that it has gotten old; it's just that it has become routine. I've sort of forgotten, on a gut level, what life is like in the U.S., so it's hard to pick themes and events that make life so different here. Or maybe it's just not that different. Years ago I wrote something about life in France and life in America are the same puzzle, but all the pieces are different. Now I wonder. Are they? I don't plan to move back to the U.S. to find out. Sometimes I think I hardly recognize the U.S. any more.

A rose

In a lot of ways, this has been the summer of our discontent. Having major work done on the house has been a major disruption. Everything is shifted around, and disorderly. Things are piled up in the garage and utility room. There's furniture down there that will eventually get moved back upstairs and find its rightful place again. I hope. There is a jumble of painting supplies. I guess we'll organize all that or toss it out, when the time comes.

An artichoke

Instead of getting the garage cleaned out, it's now piled up worse than it was when we first moved into the house in 2003. That summer, we hauled carloads of junk to the déchetterie, the recycling center across the river in Noyers. This summer, instead of cleaning out, we seem to have been accumulating. I think the disorderliness is getting me down.

Here come the tomatoes

If the garden has produced anything, it's basically through its own resources. We don't deserve much credit. Luckily, the weather has cooperated, and we haven't had to do a lot of work weeding and watering. There's been enough rain, but not too much. It's been warm enough, but not too hot And thank goodness for the potatoes and zucchini — they've kept us motivated by producing early and abundantly. They've given us the patience to wait for the tomates and aubergines to start coming in.

The painting and furniture-moving will soon be done. Then we'll start clearing out again. Clearing out the junk in the garage so we can get the car back in there. Clearing out the junk in the utility room so that we can walk in there without having to step over paint cans and a mess of disorganized supplies of all kinds. Cleaning up the garden before winter. Cutting down the plum trees that blew over in last February's storm but produced one last crop of fruit for us. It's easy to feel overwhelmed though.

26 August 2010

Status report, and a moan

I did what I did every morning. I got up at about 6:45, put the kettle on to make a pot of tea, turned on the TV to see the 7:00 news and weather, and then turned on my two computers, a desktop and a laptop.

The laptop didn't respond. The screen stayed dark, and the machine kept turning itself off and trying to restart. I can't tell if the screen is dead, or the hard disk. No luck starting it from a CD, so far.

The end of the road — the gravel road thru the vineyard, that is

Sigh. I don't have time to deal with it. This Compaq laptop really is a piece of junk. Anyway, I have to paint. Pinceau - rouleau - dodo, you know. Yesterday I worked for about three hours, looking up and applying several coats of paint using a roller on a long pole. The pole allows me to reach up to the peak of the cathedral ceiling, 11 feet up there. I painted three big sections of the room.

August weather, not hot but cool and partly cloudy

Problem is, I don't want to end up with a cervical disk injury the way Walt did, so I have to go slow and limit my work to just a few hours. After that, my neck, back, and arms have a chance to rest. At this rate, it's going to take a while to finish the job. I just keep telling myself that it would surely cost thousands of dollars (or euros) to have somebody come in and do the painting for us.

It looks like this vine has given up the ghost, but
not before producing many bunches of white grapes.

Walt goes back to the doctor this morning, to see what the prognosis is. He's been painting the baseboards, the lower walls, and now the closet doors — work that doesn't require holding his head back to look straight up at the roller on the long pole.

I said I wouldn't post any more pictures, but
here's one anyway. We are getting there.

What a summer! It's been six months since we started moving furniture around and having construction work done. We still have several weeks, if not months, of work to do. I hope this will be the last major construction/decorating job we ever have to do in this house.

25 August 2010

Things in the garden

The tomatoes have started coming in. They are a month late compared to last year. But they're looking good. We have at least three varieties in the garden, as you can see. The weather has again been rainy for a couple of days — we've had nearly 35 mm, not quite 1½ in., this week. We are hoping for more sunny days now.

Every year there seems to be one kind of plant that just doesn't do well. Last year, it was green beans. This year, it's Swiss chard (bettes). Last year we had so many big chard plants that we didn't know what to do with them all. We still have some in the freezer. This year, we've gotten almost none, and the plants we put in the ground mostly look kind of sad. Except the one in the picture below.

Another crop just coming in is some coriander (a.k.a. cilantro) that Walt planted after we harvested our last radishes back in late June. He planted cilantro in that plot. It's time to make some Mexican food, and more Asian dishes, I think. Callie is inspecting it carefully.

We had an unexpected visitor in the garden last week. It was a garden spider that built its web among the big leaves of the summer squash plants. This is a female. Evidently the male garden spiders are a lot smaller.

This is the first time I've seen garden spiders here in France, but they aren't uncommon, apparently. When I was growing up in North Carolina, we called these "writing spiders" because the pattern in the web looks almost like handwriting. Nobody knows what its function is.

The female writing spider is fearsome looking, but her bite is only slightly painful and not dangerous. She's shy around humans, and not aggressive. Here's a link to Wikipedia articles in English and in French about the garden spider, which is called Argiope bruennichi or, also, the wasp spider. In French it's une argiope frelon — a hornet spider.

24 August 2010

Yakitori chicken wings — Yakitori de poulet

We had Yakitori chicken wings for lunch a couple of days ago. I had seen two recipes over the past few weeks, on in French (www.cuisine.tv) and one in English (New York Times). They were both appetizing. One recipe called for barbecuing either chicken livers, gizzards, or boneless thigh meat. We decided to do wings. That meant we didn't need skewers. We cooked the wings in the oven.

And I cheated. I bought a little bottle of Kikkoman Yakitori sauce when we were at the Paris Store Asian supermarket over in Tours a couple of weeks ago. I was browsing through all the sauces, and there it was. The ingredients listed on the container are pretty much the ones listed in the two recipes: soy sauce, sugar, wine, vinegar, molasses, cornstarch, and spices.

Marinate the chicken wings in that sauce, adding some pureed garlic and ginger, along with some more vinegar and some hot pepper paste or flakes, all to taste. After an hour or two, take them out of the marinade, arrange them on a rack or a silicon baking pad on a baking sheet, and put them in a hot oven. Turn them after 20 minutes, baste them with the rest of the marinade, and put them back in the oven for another 15 or 20 minutes. Turn the temperature down if they are browning too much.

We also got our first eggplant out of the vegetable garden at about that time. So we made a stir fry of onions, eggplant, and zucchini to go with the wings. I cut the vegetables into chunks and salted them for a couple of hours, letting them drain in a colander. Then I rinsed them and sauteed them in a wok with some sunflower oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and Thai fish sauce. At the end of the cooking, I poured on the rest of the yakitori marinade the chicken wings had been basted with.

Meantime, I cut some fresh tofu (again from Paris Store) into cubes and fried them until golden brown in vegetable oil. When they were done, I drained them on paper towels and added them to the wok. They got coated with the cooking oil and marinade.

It was delicious with fresh basil leaves on top. The zucchini was actually better than the eggplant in the stir fry, because it held its shape and had a nice crunchy texture. The eggplant was softer, and the tofu was really good fried like that.

Good lunch.

Here's a recipe I got off the New York Times web site (you might need to log in to access it):
Yakitori Chicken
With Ginger, Garlic and Soy Sauce

1 lb. chicken livers, gizzards or boneless thigh meat
½ cup dark soy sauce or tamari
¼ cup mirin
2 Tbsp. sake or dry sherry
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
½ tsp. grated fresh ginger
Scallions, thinly sliced, for garnish

Cut chicken into one-inch pieces and place in a shallow dish.

In a small saucepan, combine soy sauce or tamari, mirin, sake or sherry, brown sugar, garlic and ginger. Bring to a simmer and cook for 7 minutes, until thickened. Reserve 2 tablespoons sauce for serving. Pour remaining sauce over chicken, cover, and chill for at least one hour (and up to 4 hours).

If using wooden or bamboo skewers, soak them in water for one hour. Preheat grill or broiler. Thread chicken pieces onto skewers, and grill or broil, turning halfway, for about 3 minutes for livers, 10 minutes for gizzards and 6 minutes for thighs. Serve drizzled with reserved sauce and garnished with scallions.
And here's a link to a French recipe for Yakitori de poulet on www.cuisine.tv. I think using chicken wings is a really nice choice for making yakitori.

23 August 2010

Variation on an old theme

So here's a description of our life in Saint-Aignan right now, based on an old description of the workaday life in Paris.

Our routine these days is « Pinceau—Rouleau—Dodo ». That's "BrushRollerSleep." In Paris, the rhythm is, or at least used to be, « Métro—Boulot—Dodo ». Métro is the subway, Boulot is work, your job, and Dodo is sleep. That's life. Ha ha ha. Here, the painting is coming along again.

Last Wednesday we took the day off from pinceaux and rouleaux to go to Châteauroux to buy more supplies. We had sworn to ourselves that we wouldn't get ourselves into the position of having to travel long distances to buy primer or paint, but it happened anyway. Châteauroux (pop. 40,000) is a town located a 60- 90-minute drive, each way, southeast of Saint-Aignan. There's a big BricoDépôt building supply store there.

You see, the primer we bought in Saint-Aignan didn't really do the job, even though it is a well-known brand. The primer we ended up buying at BricoDépôt in Tours, also about a 90-minute drive from Saint-Aignan, seemed to give us much better coverage, and it cost just over half as much. We ran out of it, and we needed more.

Traveling long distances to find a wider variety of specialized products is one of the realities of life in a little town like Saint-Aignan. We have a couple of smaller hardware stores — BricoMarché and Mr. Bricolage — but their prices are relatively high and they don't offer the range of products you find in the real « grandes surfaces » — the "big-box" stores.

We decided to go to Châteauroux instead of Tours this time — it's the same distance — just to « varier les plaisirs », as they say — variety being the spice of life. Blois is slightly closer, but there is no BricoDépôt store there. Anyway, as I suspected, the drive to Châteauroux turned out to be easier, because you don't have to drive through as many villages and little towns to get there. It's a route through open country and farmland. It's pleasant and almost relaxing compared to dealing with the traffic congestion and complicated road network of the Tours metro area.

It would have been a pleasant drive that day, except that Walt was in such pain with his neck and arm. That was another reason for taking that day off. Problem was, I woke up feeling dizzy and unsteady on my feel that morning — don't know why, but I think it was a sinus thing — so W. needed to drive. He didn't enjoy it. I was able to drive back, however, taking the pressure off his arm and neck.

So there you have it. We now have two more big tubs of the good primer. We'll need it to finish off the loft space, where the total wall surface to be painted comes to about 1500 sq. ft. (135 sq. meters), most of it overhead. The room has what is called in both English and French a "cathedral ceiling" — un plafond cathédrale. It's 3.36 meters (11 feet) from the floor up to the peak of the ceiling.

When we finish up there, we will still have to paint the downstairs hallway and stair landing, as well as the walls in the lower stair well and the ground-level entryway room. We haven't measured and calculated the surface area there is to paint in those parts of the house, but we will certainly need the two other tubs of primer.

Who knows when we will ever finish? Especially now that we've learned we need to pace ourselves in order not to end up with neck and back pain. Ah, the joys of getting old! The key is to treat it as a challenge, not a chore — the painting, I mean. We'll feel really good about it and about ourselves when the job is done.

That Wednesday excursion to Châteauroux was followed by two more days of no painting. Walt went to the doctor's on Thursday. I spent Friday wondering where and how to get started again. I did other things instead — processing food from the garden, cooking lunch, and all that.

Then on Saturday we picked up the brushes and rollers again. I decided to paint a couple of walls just to see whether it was going to be necessary to put on just one or — perish the thought — two coats of paint, over the two coats of primer we've already put on. One coat looks like it will do it.

Walt has to go for an x-ray this morning over in Selles-sur-Cher, 10 miles east of us. I have a brush duct-taped to a long pole that I'm using to paint uppper corners, and a roller on a long, extendable pole I can use to paint the flat surfaces up high. That way I don't have to risk falling off the ladder or the scaffolding.

We got a lot done yesterday, and I'll be back at work here in a few minutes. I've promised myself I won't post any more pictures of the loft until it's finished and we've moved furniture up there. It won't be interesting until then. After all, we are just painting the walls white, to maximize the feel of light and space up there.

22 August 2010

Lightning storms and rowdy lunches

At first I thought it was car headlights from out in the vineyard. There was no sound. The lights flashed twice. A few seconds later, they flashed twice again. And then a third time. Must be a car on the dirt road, and its headlights are lighting up the room every time it hits one of the deep ruts cut across the road to let rainwater drain off. However, it's rare to see a car out there at night.

No, it was lightning. It was far off to the southwest. At first I thought the storm would pass by south of us. Instead, it came right over. It was 5:10 a.m. I got up and started closing the windows upstairs, and then I came downstairs to see if everything was closed up down here. Callie was nervous.

Then there were 8 or 10 bolts of lightning pretty close to the house. Some of them were big streaks going up almost vertically from the ground to a point high in the sky. I was standing at the window, watching, when one bolt shot up, and it left its image on my retina for a second or so. The thunder was the kind you not only see but feel. The wind picked up and a hard rain fell. It didn't last long. By 5:35, it was pretty much over. The « barnum » didn't blow away.

So much for sleeping late on a Sunday morning. It was hot yesterday afternoon, and the storms were predicted by MétéoFrance. They say some more will probably pass through during the day today, with temperatures near 30ºC. That's the mid-80s F.

Yesterday we were invited to lunch by our neighbors — the ones who have their summer/country house across the street and who spend July and August here every year. Two of their daughters (in their mid-40s, I'd say), one son-in-law, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and two couples we hadn't met before were the other guests.

One of the M. and B.'s granddaughters is enormously pregnant and just got married in July. She having her third baby. Another must be about 20 and just got her baccalauréat. She's kind of plump and very sassy, in a good way. There were a couple of great-grandkids running around too.

Walt decided not to wear his collier cervical, the neck brace, to lunch. When he took it off to take his shower before we went over there, he noticed that he has a rash on his neck. It's been hot, and our sweaty necks are not used to being bound up in such weather.

At lunch — a big salad of fresh local tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and slices of mozzarella to start, along with some concombres à la crème, followed by a very impressive cooked brochet (a river fish called a perch-pike) served cold, plus cheeses and desserts — the discussion was lively and hard to follow. We were inside — it was too hot outside, with the sun was beating down — and there were about 15 of us around a big rectangular table.

The discussion turned to the current controversies surrounding the Roms (gypsies who are from Romania and Bulgaria, mostly) and the gens du voyage (nomadic people who have lived in France for centuries and who have French nationality). It's a very confusing subject because there are so many groups concerned — gitans, Romanichels (called Roms), Manouches, and other travelers and tinkers.

It was obvious that the French people were upset about the Roms, who are being expelled from France by the Sarkozy government. "They'll take a payment and a plane ticket from the French government, fly back to Romania, and then they'll be back in France before long, maybe using a different name, and the whole process will start over again," one person said. "And who pays? WE DO!" Meaning "ordinary" French citizens and taxpayers.

The Roms (foreigners but European) have the right to enter France without a visa and to look for work. They aren't allowed to stay, it seems, if after three months they haven't found a job. At that point, they are illegal. A lot of them live in camps, shanty towns, on the northern fringes of the Paris area. Some are beggars. Others collect trash and recyle or try to resell it. I'm sure many are legitimately employed. They are seen as parasites and troublemakers.

The gens du voyage or "traveling people" are upset that the government doesn't provide them with adequate campgrounds where they can park their trailers and RVs and hook up to electricity and water. The law says that local authorities must provide such facilities. The travelers pay a nominal amount for the services. They've always lived that way, in their trailers.

The "travelers" have been demonstrating for better facilities down in Bordeaux over the past few days. They don't like the campground the authorities want them to use there. The other day, they parked all their vehicles and trailers on a major highway bridge outside Bordeaux, causing traffic chaos. Les gens du voyage don't want to be put in the same category as the foreign Roms. Most people don't understand the differences.

As I said, it's complicated. I sure don't understand it all.

At lunch, the discussion was loud and vigorous, with people talking over each other to express their outrage and emotion. Those kinds of discussions are hard for Walt and me to follow, much less participate in. It doesn't help that we sometimes feel the people with the most sharply expressed opinions don't really know what they are talking about. You hear people saying: "I'm not racist, but..." And then you hear the racist, or ethnically insensitive, remark. Those are the kinds of free-for-alls that I prefer to avoid.

Meanwhile, Walt took his anti-inflammatory medication in the middle of the meal, as per doctor's orders. After a few minutes, I realized he was fading. He looked pale and a little confused. Our neighbor M. also noticed and asked him to come sit on a sofa with her and rest for a minute or two. I was tired and confused by all the loud arguing.

A few minutes later, I excused us and we walked across the street to our house. I'm sure some of the people thought our exit was abrupt, and they probably think it was strange that we didn't join in all the arguments and rants. One man in particular kept looking at me, almost challenging me to say what I thought about the gypsies and the travelers. I wasn't going to be sucked in.

I'm sure M. made apologies for us, in a good way. She seems to be kind of a peacekeeper. She has seven children, after all. Sometimes she gets hot under the collar — about cat poop, for example — but not too often. When we got home, Walt stretched out on the couch and slept for about two hours. That was the drugs talking.

21 August 2010

Changes for the better

The summer weather has come back. Yesterday was hot and mostly sunny — when I say hot, I mean perfectly comfortable, with little humidity. Vivement que ça dure ! Let's hope this kind of weather lasts for another month or even two.

Apparently, wearing this neck brace
gives you a very prominent chin.

Walt is feeling better. He's wearing his neck brace (un collier cervical in French). He doesn't seem too thrilled when I tell him I want to take a picture of him wearing it. But with the brace — it's a flexible (souple) collar, not a rigid one — plus the anti-inflammatory medication he's taking, he's in less pain. And he sleeps a lot more. I can tell from the expression on his face that he's feeling better.

Yesterday, instead of painting, we took care of zucchini business. That is, we chopped up seven— yes, seven — huge courgettes and threw them on the compost pile. We also picked six small zukes and took them over to the neighbors', where we are invited for lunch today.

Along with all that, we processed some patty-pan squashes for the freezer. And I made zucchini soup, using a recipe Elise posted on Simply Recipes. We had a small bowl each for lunch — delicious — and put three containers of it in the freezer for later.

Meanwhile, the grapes out back are looking better and better. I haven't heard yet when the harvest will begin. Most years it's in September, often toward the end. Only once, in 2003, did harvesting — les vendanges — start in August.

These are grapes are of the cépage called Grolleau.
They grow right outside our back gate.

We also harvested our first eggplant yesterday. There are more out there, but they need to get a little bit bigger before we pick them. Our fig tree, which we planted about five years ago, has had a significant growth spurt this year, and that's encouraging. We're still getting only two or three figs a year though. Maybe we'll get more next year.

Jacques Denis, 80, who has tended these vines all his life,
told me back in June that these are Chardonnay grapes.

The plum tree I planted a couple of years ago has also grown a lot this year. Good. It will help replace the two that blew over in our early March windstorm. The neighbors tell us that their plums are very slow to ripen this year. I guess they're like the tomatoes. I've been eating plums off our fallen trees, and they are very good, but insects get most of them. This will be our last harvest before we cut up the fallen trees for firewood.

And Mr Denis said these are Pineau d'Aunis grapes,
which are mostly used to make rosé wines.

I need to go dig up the rest of the potatoes I planted in April. I see that our down-the-road neighbor François, the retired gendarme who has a huge vegetable garden, has dug up all of his potatoes now. He has put them all in a big pile on the edge of the plot where they grew. I assume they are drying in the sun, in preparation for long-term storage.

I keep thinking of a potato curry dish, with green peas, that I've enjoyed in the past. I think I'll make that this week.

20 August 2010

Thinking about the future

Breakfast time: a piece of toasted baguette with butter and some of the plum jam I made a couple of weeks ago. Which reminds me that the porteuse de pain — the bread delivery woman — is going on vacation for two full weeks, starting tomorrow. We'll be left to our own devices.

I went to the supermarket and bought two loaves of good sandwich bread. I'm hoping the tomatoes will start coming in this weekend. I have a big can of tuna, some ham, and a whole smoked chicken. Along with plenty of lettuce, eggs, mustard, and sunflower oil. I'll make mayonnaise and we'll eat a lot of sandwiches over the next two weeks.

Callie and a flower

With Walt now out of commission for a while because of his névralgie cervico-brachiale (and his neck collar), our painting job has ground to a halt for a couple of days. I need to try to get started again today. And then somebody needs to start trimming that 100-yard-long hedge we have to deal with every year in September. Not to mention the need to cut logs for the wood-burning stove.

The hamlet, with 9 houses and a population of 15,
in the Renaudière vineyard

Sometimes I tell myself this life we have built here is not sustainable. We're getting too old, and it's too much work. Well, not so much too much work, but too much hard physical labor that people of our ages find it harder and harder to do. Some days, it feels like it would be very nice to live in a townhouse or an apartment in a village or town, with no garden to worry about. And shops we could walk to.

A picturesque parcel of vines

The cat and the dog might be a problem, though, so I guess we'll wait until one of them leaves us. Ten years or so, probably. After 17 years in Saint-Aignan, where would we go if we decided to move in 2020? To an in-town place down in Saint-Aignan? Another small town like Montrichard or Loches? Or a small city like Blois? A bigger city like Tours? Bourges?

Callie enjoying her walk along the edge of the vineyard

It's something to think about. Meanwhile, breakfast is done, and it's time to go for a walk with the dog. That's the nice thing about living at La Renaudière. We can walk the dog without worrying about cars or a leash, and the cat can wander the hamlet and the vineyard without getting into too much mischief. Enough, but not too much.

19 August 2010

Green bean salad — haricots verts en salade

French cooking isn't necessarily fancy or complicated. Much of the food we eat here in France is very simple — especially the salads. Often French salads are just one ingredient, dressed with vinaigrette. Here are some standard ingredients:
  • grated raw carrots
  • steamed red beets, diced
  • sliced tomatoes
  • chopped raw cabbage
  • sliced raw mushrooms
  • peeled raw cucumbers, seeded and sliced
  • cooked green beans
The closest you get to complicated, with multiple ingredients on one plate, is when you have an assiette de crudités — that's a plate with several of these simple salads served side by side, not all mixed together.

I made a standard French salade a couple of days ago — it was haricots verts en salade — a salad of cooked green beans. Then I started reading about it. I have a set of cookbooks that I draw on for ideas and methods.

Haricots verts en salade, with a vinaigrette dressing
and a finely chopped shallot

First, I looked at La Véritable Cuisine de Famille, by Tante Marie (ca. 1920). She says, in very few words, to put some cooked, drained green beans into a salad bowl and season them the way you would season an "ordinary salad." Obviously you need to know how to season an ordinary salad, French-style, if you want to make these.

What is a salade ordinaire, anyway? In France, it's just some lettuce leaves in a vinaigrette dressing. It's not something you see in French restaurants much any more, but it's often one of the courses, right before the cheese (or even with it), that make up meals prepared and served at home.

So how do you make a vinaigrette? Tante Marie says hers is composed of some chopped parsley, a chopped shallot, a tablespoon of vinegar, a tablespoon of oil, and some salt and pepper. Nowadays, however, French vinaigrette dressings nearly always have some amount of Dijon mustard in them.

In Je Sais Cuisiner, by Ginette Mathiot (first published in 1932, I've read — my copy is ©1970 — and recently translated into English as I Know How to Cook), the recipe for making haricots verts en salade is just as cryptic. It says to cook some green beans, drain them, and season them with vinaigrette.

Look up vinaigrette in Mathiot's book and you'll find the same recipe you find in Tante Marie's, with one exception. Mathiot specifies one tablespoon of vinegar but three tablespoons of oil. Those are the proportions most people use nowadays. Use less oil, and the vinaigrette is too vinegary.

Maybe Les Recettes d'une Grand'mère (et ses conseils), by Renée de Grossouvre (1988) will be more help. She says to cook some green beans, drain them, and let them cool until they are just lukewarm. Then make this dressing:
In a bowl, mix up a good vinaigrette dressing with a small amount of [Dijon] mustard... dissolved in a tablespoon of vinegar, some salt, some pepper, and with three tablespoons of fine olive oil. (« Dans un bol, battez une bonne sauce vinaigrette avec une pointe de moutarde... délayée dans une cuillère à soupe de vinaigre, du sel, du poivre, et ajoutez-y trois cuillères à soupe d'huile d'olive fine. »)
That's the standard vinaigrette today. Whisk the dressing until it is well blended (emulsified) and then pour it over the beans. Toss the the beans in it. Add some chopped fresh herbs (parsley or chervil) and a chopped or thinly sliced French shallot if you want. You can use a very small onion if you don't have a shallot. That's it.

Did I mention that you also need to know how to cook the beans? You do that in a large quantity of water that has been brought to a rolling boil. Don't cover the pot or the beans will lose their bright green color. Let them boil, the French books say, for 15 to 20 minutes. (You might want to cut that time in half.) To be fair, Madame de Grossouvre says the cooking time is a function of the quality of the beans — the fresher they are, the less cooking they need.

It's gardening season. The beans are very good right now. Cook them just enough and season them with the simplest vinaigrette dressing. Enjoy them for the flavor of the beans, not the extra ingredients you might put into a more complicated dressing. Mustard, vinegar, and oil are all you need. Herbs, onion, shallot, or even garlic are optional. No sugar!

By the way, I looked in the Joy of Cooking and I didn't find anything resembling these French recipes for making a green bean salad.

18 August 2010

Let me show you tomatoes

Why do I keep talking about tomatoes that aren't ripening? Why is it important? It's because there are so many of them in the garden. So far, only one more, besides the one we already picked, is pretty much ripe, and another two or three are just barely starting to change color. Everything in the garden is very late this summer.

Maybe you can see how many there are from looking at this shot.

We planted both red and yellow tomatoes. We don't know which ones are which color. It'll be a surprise in just about every case.

Here's a kind of panorama of some of
the tomato plants in the garden.

I'm pretty sure all the plum tomatoes, the Romas, are red this year. Last year we planted yellow plum tomatoes, but not this year.

Above are four individual plants and the tomatoes on them,
all waiting for hot weather and bright sunshine.

Gardening is hard work and when it doesn't pan out, it can be disappointing. I'm trying to remain optimistic about the weather we might have for the rest of August and all through September. It's raining this morning. The tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers are depending on heat. Not to mention the corn.

This one is really trying. Will it be red or yellow?

Today, for a change, I shoveled dirt and moved two piles of rocks. Walt painted. I filled up the wheelbarrow at least half a dozen times with dirt, and three times with rocks. I rolled all that around to the outside of the hedge, along the edge of the road, and added it to the fill dirt the village gave us for our former ditch. Then I pushed a lot of it into the rapidly disappearing ditch.

Here's a very tall sunflower that is growing
out in the vegetable garden.

So here I am, over 60, not exactly digging ditches, but doing the reverse. Filling one in. I don't blame life in France so much as life in the country. I guess I should be positive and happy that I am still able to still do such work.