31 July 2011

Quatre-vingts poires

That's about how many pears I picked off our one little pear tree yesterday morning — eighty. Now I have to ripen them. Everything I read says that pears don't ripen properly if left on the tree. They will ripen better after they are picked.

You pick pears when they are mature but not yet ripe. One way to tell if they are mature is to take the pear in your hand as it hangs on the tree and turn it to a horizontal position. If the stem snaps off, the pear is mature and ready to be picked and ripened.

About 80 pears — the French word poire is pronounced [pwahr]
and it's a feminin noun (une poire, la poire)

The pears I picked were like that. Also, a good dozen of them, and maybe more, were half eaten by birds. I assume that means the pears have started to get sweet, otherwise the birds wouldn't be attracted to them. I have seen quite a few merles — European blackbirds — in and under the pear tree over the past week.

The woman we bought the house from says that these
poires Williams, but you can't prove it by me.
Wikipedia says
poire Williams are the most
widely cultivated variety worldwide —
they're called Bartlets in America.

The low-hanging pears were easy to pick, of course, but a lot of the best-looking ones were high in the tree. In fact, more of those toward the top of the tree were half eaten, so I assume they are the sweetest ones. The half-eaten ones had to be discarded. The pear tree isn't very tall — maybe 15 or 20 feet. Wikipedia says pear trees can grow as tall as 35 or even 45 feet and live for 200 years.

This picture might be worth the thousand words below.

To get the pears at the top of the tree, I used a device that we found in the garden shed when we moved here eight years ago. It's a plastic "hand" mounted on the end of a long bamboo pole. A string runs through rings at the end of the "fingers" of the "hand" and down the pole through a couple of eyelets screwed into the wood. When you pull the string, the fingers close. If you've put the hand around a high-hanging pear, all you have to do is pull the string and then pull down on the pole. Voilà! You've picked a pear, without having to climb up on a ladder.

Mature pears packed for ripening

I have pears of every size. I started to try to sort them by weighing them, but that quickly seemed like a silly idea. I can say that the smaller pears weigh a little less than 100 grams each, and the larger ones weigh as much as 200 grams — close to half a pound. I hope the smaller ones are sufficiently mature to ripen. I went ahead and picked them because I was afraid the birds would get them if I didn't.

Now I have to figure out how to preserve such a big crop. My idea for the moment is to poach them in a sugar syrup after they've ripened a little, pack them in sterilized jars in the syrup, and then put them in the pressure cooker for the right amount of time to seal the jars. If it works, we'll have pears all winter for making tarts or pies or other desserts. Poire Belle Hélène, for example, which is a poached pear with hot fudge sauce and, for good measure, a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Another possibility is to put the pears up in alcohol — vodka or what is sold here in France as alcool à fruits. We have decisions to make.

30 July 2011

Of leaks and valleys

Yesterday, I went to see the roofer who swept our chimney last year and cleaned out a valley between two parts of the roof where dead leaves and other debris had formed a dam. Water had backed up, seeped in, and left a stain on our kitchen ceiling. We've been having trouble with that particular section of roof since 2007, when a hard rainstorm caused a spectacular leak.

Earlier, I had tried to call the roofer about sweeping the chimney this summer and seeing to another minor leak that remains after installation of our skylight windows upstairs last spring. An annual chimney-sweeping is required for insurance purposes. But when I finally talked to the roofer the other day, it turned into a surreal conversation, and that's never a good feeling when you're speaking a language that's not your mother tongue.

The roofer is Monsieur Coûtant, which you could translate at Mr. Costly. Well, to be fair, the word coûtant is used most commonly in the expression à prix coûtant, which means "at cost" — in other words, with no markup. Anyway, the man's name is just a coincidence. Last year, he did work for us (I thought) and he certainly didn't overcharge us. When I called his office a couple of weeks ago I got his answering machine and I left a message.

A few hours later, he called me back. That was a good sign. "I got your message but I couldn't understand your name, and I don't know who you are," he told me. I spelled my name for him — it is quite the foreign-sounding name here in France, B-R-O-A-D-H-U-R-S-T is. It contains far too many consonants and very few vowels compared to French names (and you pronounce all of them).

I told him he might remember coming and cleaning out the valley — "a depression or hollow resembling or suggesting a valley, as the point at which the two slopes of a roof meet," says the dictionary — that was dammed up, and sweeping the chimney. Of course I couldn't remember the technical term for such a valley in French, and that lack of terminology didn't speed the conversation along. Chimney-sweeping is called « ramonage ».

The man who did the roof work last year was very talkative, friendly, easy to understand, and seemed curious about us two Americans living here. He said he lived just down the road, in the same village as us. The man on the telephone, however, said he had no memory of me or the work I said he had done.

Okay, had I dreamed it all? Had I called the wrong roofer? No, I thought. Coûtant is a name you don't forget. Besides, there are only two roofing contractors in Saint-Aignan, and I know them both. And there are so few Americans around here that I was sure he must remember us.

« Vous habitez à Mareuil, n'est-ce pas ? » That's what I asked, and when I did it all came together. No, he said, that's my son-in-law. Oh, I thought, for a year we assumed the man who came here last year was Monsieur Coûtant, but it wasn't him at all. He told me the son-in-law's name, but now I've forgotten it again.

Monsieur Coûtant said he was going on vacation in August and the office would be closed, but he'd put us on the schedule for September. I really didn't trust that he would remember to do so, and the rain we had a couple of weeks ago caused an even larger stain on the kitchen ceiling. Something needs to be done about it, and the chimney definitely needs sweeping.

So yesterday, I decided to put in an appearance at the Coûtant roofing company office in old Saint-Aignan. I figured it couldn't hurt to show my face there, and to show Monsieur Coûtant or whoever I found in the office — if anybody — the chimney sweeping certificate issued by his company last September. When I found the office, there was a young woman sitting behind the desk.

I explained who I was and gave her my address and phone number as well as a description of the work I needed done. She said she didn't know exactly where my house was located, and that surprised her because she lives in the same village. That's when I realized she must be Coûtant's daughter, and her husband (his son-in-law) must have been the one who came to our house before. She confirmed that to be the case.

She also told me that the term for "valley" that I was looking for was probably « noue », saying she wasn't absolutely sure about it but... And yes, that was the term. Her saying jogged my memory. She promised that her husband would come to sweep the chimney, clean out la noue, and see to the Velux window seepage as early as possible in September.

The French dictionary gives two definitions for noue as it applies to roofing: « Angle rentrant formé par l'intersection de deux combles » and « Tuile creuse ou bande de plomb, de zinc, incurvée, servant à l'écoulement des eaux de pluie ». Both seem to me to confirm that we've got the terminology down pat now — they have to do with places where two sloping roof sections meet, and with flashing of some kind.

Learning all this technical jargon is one of the joys of being a homeowner in France.

29 July 2011

Paris memories: Le Pierwige

Yesterday Ellen and her husband Paul came to spend the afternoon. She's American and he's French. They live in a close-in Paris suburb — they are virtually in Paris since they have quick and easy subway connections into the city.

We sat out on the terrace and had a cup of coffee as we got acquainted. Then Ellen, Paul, and I took Callie for a walk out to the end of the gravel road through the vineyard and back, about two miles. We inspected the garden and I noticed several big round green summer squash that need to be harvested. There's no sign yet of tomatoes turning red.

The Pierwige hotel occupied these two buildings. Now
HSBC bank occupies the ground floor, and
the upper floors are apartments.

Back when he was a student, I have learned, Paul lived in a residential hotel in the Latin Quarter for several years. I'm talking about ancient history — the late '60s and early '70s. As it turned out, Ellen came to France from the U.S. to be a student in Paris for six months in 1970. She and other students in her group ended up staying in the same hotel. They met and were married a couple of years later. They've lived in Paris ever since.

By coincidence, I stayed in that same hotel — it was called Le Pierwige — in the spring of 1970. A palace it was not. A room couldn't have cost more than three or four dollars a night. It was on the Boulevard St-Germain, just off Place Maubert. I had just turned 21.

Looking up the Rue des Carmes toward the Pantheon,
one of the neighborhood landmarks

I didn't meet Ellen and Paul back then. They might have been on spring vacation from school when I was there; I was on my spring break from a study abroad program in Aix-en-Provence and had decided to spend my two weeks in Paris, alone. Most of the other students in the program took off for England, Scandinavia, Greece, Italy, or Spain.

I just wanted to go to Paris. The weather was lousy. It was late March. It was cold, gray, windy, and rainy. It snowed at least one day. That particular day, I had taken the train out to Versailles to walk around the park and see the palace. Big wet flakes fell fast and furious for most of the day. Coming from North Carolina, seeing snow fall was exciting and memorable.

One of the local cafés is named after a famous Loire Valley poet
of the Renaissance (500 years ago), Pierre Ronsard.

On rainy days when I didn't feel like walking around Paris with wet shoes and clothes, I spent hours in the hotel lobby talking with the woman who ran the place and listening to her conversations with others. I called her Madame Suzanne. I remember her as being heavily made up and having a lot of fake blond hair. She seemed old to me, but she was maybe in her 40s or early 50s. It's hard to remember. She was very talkative, though, and I understood French well enough to follow along with her stories, opinions, and observations of life in Paris and the doings of other people staying in the hotel.

I took a lot of my meals in little restaurants around the Latin Quarter during those two weeks. One in particular that I remember was called Le Restaurant St-Michel, located on the boulevard of the same name. Dinner there cost 5 French francs, which was a little less than a U.S. dollar. For that sum, you got four courses — an appetizer, a main dish, a cheese plate, and dessert — along with two glasses of wine. Even I could afford that.

A Paris bar-brasserie (the R is dark) is what we would call a café.

I can't remember how I first found the Pierwige hotel in Paris. I probably just walked the streets looking for a place to stay when I arrived in the city from Aix by train. I stumbled upon the place, and the price was right. I know that I met other English-speaking young people who were staying there over the two weeks of my residence, but the only one I can remember by name was a girl named Denise who came from Christchurch in New Zealand. She and I spent some days touring around Paris together.

I wish I had met Ellen and Paul back then. It's possible that we crossed paths without noticing each other. But if I had met them then, I wouldn't have had the pleasure of meeting them 41 years later and reminiscing about our days at Le Pierwige and in that Paris neighborhood. Nearly everything about Paris has of course changed. You can't stop progress.

This is the hotel we stay in nowadays, just around
the corner from the site of the old Pierwige.

In fact, much of my life since 1970 has revolved around that and other parts of the Latin Quarter. I worked there as a teacher for several years in the 1970s. Even now, when I go to Paris, 1 often stay in a hotel that is just around the corner from the one I first stayed in back in 1970. That one doesn't exist any more, but we who knew it still do.

28 July 2011

Bertie coming down the road

We've had Bertie the black cat for more than a year now. He seems to have established himself as a presence in the neighborhood. Not everybody is happy about that presence, but tant pis, I guess. At least Bertie doesn't come home all scratched up and dazed any more.

Bertie slinks down the road meowing when we call him.

Just a couple of days ago, the neighbor across the street was driving by and saw me out on the edge of the road, by our front gate. She stopped her car and backed up to talk to me. "Bertie is taking enormous liberties at our house," she announced. "He comes in through open windows, wanders the hallways and explores open rooms, and then he goes and eats our cats' kibble in the kitchen."

I was glad to be able to report on one of her cat's activities. She has a cat that is pure white — as white as Bertie is black. Our other neighbor, just a few days earlier, had come by to talk. The subject of cats came up. "Is yours the chat noir or the chat blanc?" she wanted to know. The chat noir, I said.

We don't see the black cat much anymore, but that white cat is in our house all the time. We have to be careful not to lock him in when we go out during the day, or when we go to stay overnight in Blois, M. said. The cat-owning neighbor was taken aback at this news. "What will I do if the white cat does get locked in over there?" she said. Don't worry, I told her — I have the keys to the house.

27 July 2011

A new visitor and a late morning

I'm having a late-blogpost morning. We had another overnight visitor yesterday. Mike is an Australian, a blogger (here's a link), and a great traveler who lives on a farm in southwest France about 90 minutes from Toulouse. He lived in the U.S. (Seattle) for at least five years around the turn of the century (10 years ago, in other words).

Mike's been in France for a year now and is currently headed north to Sweden and England for a month-long vacation. He travels with an Alaskan malamute dog named Munson that weighs close to 100 lbs. (45 kg). They left here about an hour ago to continue their trip.

The 17th/18th century wing of the château at Valençay

Mike and Munson arrived yesterday afternoon about 4:30 after six or seven hours on the road. When they got here, we all took a walk with the dogs out into the vineyard, through a warm drippy rain that wasn't enough to get us, the dogs, or the ground wet at all. For dinner, I cooked a guinea hen — une pintade — on the rotisserie in our oven, and boiled some potatoes along with green beans that a friend on the other side of the village grew in her garden and "gifted" us with.

There was a modern art exhibit at Valençay on Sunday.

The weather was mild enough to allow us to sit out on the front terrace for the whole evening to have our food and wine. The dogs "left us tranquil," as we say in French. The conversation flowed as freely as the vin rouge. Mike said he didn't think he'd ever eaten guinea hen before. Down where he lives, up against the Pyrenees mountains, the diet is mainly based on duck and goose.

This is the labyrinth at Valençay, out in the park. We spent
an hour lost in it with our friends' kids on Sunday afternoon.

Once again, we realize and appreciate the value of blogging. It brings us into contact with many interesting people who wind up coming to visit one day. Tomorrow we have other visitors coming by for an afternoon coffee: Ellen — an American who has lived in France for many years — and her French husband. She blogs too, and we met because once on this blog I mentioned a hotel in the Latin Quarter where I used to stay 40 years ago. It turned out that she had lived in that hotel as a student in Paris back then. We have that in common, among other things.

An old farm building that you see from the observation
platform in the middle of the labyrinth in Valençay

I didn't take any pictures of Mike and Munson, but Walt did. He'll post them in a few days. When I get busy cooking, talking, and walking with friends, I seldom have the time or presence of mind to get the camera out. That's why I'm decorating this post with photos I took at Valençay Sunday afternoon.

I liked this tapestry in Valençay castle.

We've had a lot of overnight guests since mid-June. Now we need to get back out in the garden and do some serious weeding. Last week's rain was needed and beneficial, but it comes with a cost: out-of-control weeds. We also need to get the freezer cleaned out and defrosted before the garden starts to produce tons of tomatoes, eggplants, beans, and greens. Such is life in Saint-Aignan.

26 July 2011

At Valençay

The Château de Valençay isn't really in the Loire Valley. It's in the old French province called Le Berry, which is more or less centered on the city of Bourges, southeast of the Touraine. But Valençay's castle is built in the style of the Loire Valley châteaux, so it's often included in the great monuments of the region. And it's only about 25 km/15 miles southwest of Saint-Aignan.

Conor and Julia enjoyed posing for this picture.

Part of the existing château at Valençay was built during the Renaissance (mid-1500s) but the west wing was added a century later and again modified in the 1700s. Valençay played an important role in French history starting in about 1800, when Napoleon's powerful and ruthless foreign affairs minister, Talleyrand, acquired the property.

Inside the château, the clothed and the naked

We spent Sunday afternoon at Valençay. The property includes both a formal French garden and a big field of wildflowers, as well as a vast park where farmyard animals are kept in fenced-off areas. You can view them up close and even pet the goats (the chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, and peacocks are a little more stand-offish. There's also a labyrinth for children to play in (picture to come).

Valençay features quite a few rooms furnished in the old style.

The first thing we did when we got to the château was sit down on the steps with all the other visitors and watch a 30-minute historical sketch put on by actors in costume and wearing microphones so everybody could hear them well. The problem was, for us, that everything was of course in French and the American children who were with us (not to mention their parents, probably) found it all pretty boring, because they don't understand French. We should have skipped it.

The horse-drawn carriage was used in the historical sketch
in the main courtyard.

Afterward, we enjoyed wandering through the château and seeing all the furnished rooms and the views from the windows, but we skipped the audio guides that are included in the price of admission (11 euros for adults, less for children) because we knew the children wanted to spend less time inside and more outside in the park. We got that part right. Inside, you can take pictures but without flash.

The Renaissance donjon de plaisance (as the
Michelin guide calls it) at Valençay

I'll publish some more pictures from Valençay over the course of the week. It's a good outing for adults or children, especially when the weather is fine.

25 July 2011

Canals and castles

The canal is the Canal de Berry, which crosses over the Sauldre River near Saint-Aignan and Selles-sur-Cher on an old stone bridge. And the castle is the Château de Valençay — one of the major attractions of our area, with a fine garden, an animal park, beautifully furnished rooms, and a labyrinth.

We had a beautiful day yesterday — sunny, warm, breezy — and we made an afternoon outing of it. Here are just a few pictures. Today is "pack up the luggage, load up the car, and head for Paris" day for our friends Geri, Phil, Julia, and Conor.

Conor and his mother Geri watching a little barge
move through the Canal de Berry

...which passes over a bridge across the Sauldre River.

It's raining this morning, very lightly. We lucked out with the weather over the weekend, and spent much of our time outdoors. We also spent long evenings getting re-acquainted, cooking, eating, and drinking the good local wines after we got the kids fed and squared away. It has really been fun.

Here's the group for those of you reading this who know us

Julia's ninth birthday is today. Yesterday we bought her a cake, candles, and some presents, and we had an impromptu surprise birthday party for her when we got back from spending the afternoon at Valençay. She said the cake was very good, and told Phil later that she really enjoyed the party.

24 July 2011

Learning to play together

We started the day slowly, given how late we had stayed up the night before. Our first destination was the outdoor market in Saint-Aignan. We managed to visit the church and the château grounds along the way, as well as to buy food for dinner — sausages, lettuce, peaches, and a melon.

After a lunch of leftover chicken, rice, and cheese, we decided to go for a long walk in the vineyard. Callie had been nervous around our friends' six-year-old son since their arrival, not knowing quite what to make of this miniature human being. She would bark at him, which scared him, and that just excited the dog even more. It was strange, because Callie was not afraid of the boy's nine-year-old sister, who is a head taller than he is. We guessed there was some kind of size threshold operating in the dog's mind. Was this boy really a person?

The afternoon walk in the vineyard was an attempt to ease the tension between the dog and the boy. It didn't really work. Callie charged him at one point, and then started running in circles around him, scaring him out of his wits. The dog's behavior clearly had to do with her herding instincts. People — especially children — don't really enjoy being herded by a barking dog, however.

The six-year-old boy playing with Bertie the black cat —
the cat's not asleep but instead rolling on the ground
with pleasure at being petted.

Walt took Callie out ahead and we walked the mile to the end of the road. Our friends daughter ran back and forth between Walt and the rest of us. She wasn't afraid because Callie wasn't afraid of her. Walt, the girl, and the dog ended up getting back to the house before we did, especially since we ran into Bertie the black cat out by the pond and stopped to play with him for a few minutes.

The nine-year-old girl playing with Callie the collie,
who's in heaven because she's the center of attention.

Callie and the little girl were playing with the tennis ball. I walked around the garden and yard, inspecting everything, and talking to the children's father. Then I looked over my shoulder and saw that the boy was also playing with Callie and the tennis ball. Wow! As soon as he started throwing the ball to Callie, taking turns with his sister and talking to Callie the way he heard us talk to her, using words and expressions the dog is familiar with — "Callie sit!" — the whole situation calmed down.

Picking up apples and throwing them to Callie
as well as putting some in the wheelbarrow

We went and got a pitcher of water and some glasses and we spent about two hours just sitting out back watching the children and the dog play energetically and nicely. I think the kids needed the exercise and the time outdoors after spending a month in an apartment in London and doing all the traveling they've done. At one point, the children's mother told them the ought to start picking up apples that had fallen out of the trees and putting them in the wheelbarrow. It was a good idea, because Callie loves to play with apples the way she loves to play with the tennis ball.

A job well done and a happy outcome

I think both the puppy and the boy learned something about the world yesterday. Now they aren't afraid of each other. Earlier in the day, we had had to banish Callie to the utility room downstairs, separating her from us and our guests. In the evening, after the afternoon of playing outside, that was no longer necessary. We all breathed a sigh of relief. I credit the little boy's parents and sister for not giving in to the boy's fear and for finding a way to make it work.

23 July 2011

A bright dawn

The day dawned bright and sunny this morning. We got an inch of rain yesterday. Walt drove over to Tours and picked up G., P., and their two kids at the train station. They had left London at 3:30 our time for the five-hour trip to the Loire Valley.

La Renaudière

Luckily I had cooked a chicken and some rice because they were all really hungry when they got here. The kids, 9 and 6 years old, ate chicken and bread with butter. The older one, J., even ate some carrots (raw). P. says they are not easy to feed.

Looking out the front window in the converted attic

If we can get it together, we'll go to the market down in Saint-Aignan today, but it closes up at about noon, so I'm not convinced we'll make it. I'm not sure the kids would really enjoy it anyway. I think we might go to Valençay this afternoon, if the weather holds. It's a beautiful château that has a lot going for it: a big fortified medieval/Renaissance building with towers and all, and then a slightly "newer" building that is well furnished inside. There a fine garden and also an animal park where they keep deer, goats, chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks. The kids might like that.

Grapes in the Renaudière vineyard in mid-July

Yesterday on my afternoon walk with Callie, I met a couple of hikers — people about my age. We talked for a few minutes. It turns out they are from Rouen and have rented a little house here for a two-week vacation. They had nothing but nice things to say about all the people they've met in the Saint-Aignan area. Everybody is pleasant, open to conversation, polite, and helpful. They said people where they live are more reserved and even stand-offish. It's good to get somebody else's perspective now and then. And theirs, because I spent a year in Rouen (in Normandy) and still have friends who live up there.

22 July 2011

Rainy days in July

Hard rain with big drops slapping against the roof and the skylights woke me up at five this morning. That was a good excuse to roll over, pull the covers up around my ears, and stay right where I was. I've always enjoyed rainy days, unless there are too many of them in a row. Right now, it looks like November outside.

It's still raining hard at 7:45. And it's dark — I had to turn on all the lights in the kitchen and living room so that I could see to walk around and get a pot of tea brewing. We're starting to wonder if summer will come back at all. It's been raining off and on since July 12. Oh well, we don't have to water the garden any more, and that'll keep the water bill down. But it also helps the weeds grow really long, tough roots.

The rain barrel is overflowing.

Yesterday we had lunch at our neighbors'. They are the couple who live in Blois and have the house across the street as their summer place. They invited another woman we're friends with who lives on the other side of the village. Walt and I brought the average age way down. The three neighbors are 76, 81, and 81 years old.

M. served a nice salad with lettuce, tomatoes, smoked salmon, and surimi. Then she had monkfish, cut into big chunks, served in what's called a sauce américaine or armoricaine. There's some confusion over the name of this particular sauce, which is probably not actually American but Breton (armoricain) in origin. At any rate, it's a light tomato sauce that contains a lot of cream, so it's the color, more or less, of thousand island dressing. It's rich but not spicy, and it's often served with lobster.

Views of the back garden and the road out front
in the rain
this morning

Then there was cheese, of course. She had a platter that included a local goat cheese, a camembert, and a couple of hard cheeses. It was a lot like the cheese platter I put together for dinner with other friends a couple of days ago. I probably learned the combination from having lunches and dinners with the neighbors here.

The conversation was about local happenings and personalities: Who just died, for example. Whose neighbors are making too much noise, playing loud music. What's going on with the neighbors who have several cats. What the cats, including Bertie the black cat who lives with us, are up to. How busy our neighbor-the-mayor is all the time. The weather. The way cars go too fast on the road through the hamlet, and who all those cars belong to. Our dogs and their recent adventures. Our American company.

The corn and the rhubarb in the garden are looking happy.

Tonight the friends from San Francisco who were our very first houseguests here in Saint-Aignan back in 2003 are coming for a return visit. They are spending the summer in London and are taking the train from London to Lille to Tours. When they visited in 2003, their daughter was one year old. They were here during the Great Heat Wave — la grande canicule de 2003 — and we were just barely moved in at that point.

Little romain lettuces like this weather.

Now the daughter is nine years old, and she has a little brother who must be five or six. There won't be any canicule — "dog days" — during this visit, according to forecasts. One of the things the family wants to do is go to the Saint-Aignan zoo. I hope the rain will hold off on either Saturday or Sunday and that they'll have a dry afternoon.

I'm trying to figure out what kind of food to have ready for young children. I have a chicken I can cook. Yesterday I made a big bowl of tuna salad. We have cheeses, but not many that will appeal to children, I'm afraid. I guess I ought to think about some green vegetables. Collard greens? Probably not...

Apples we will have...

The news was just reporting that the grape harvest in Burgundy will probably be three weeks earlier than normal because of all the warm dry weather we had in April, May, and June. Around here, the grapes definitely are not ripe — they are all still green, even the red wine grapes — and they'll need a little more heat and sunshine to get ready for harvesting. Even when August is rainy and chilly, September is usually sunny and sometimes hot. We'll see.

21 July 2011

Saint-Aignan, Amboise, and Blois

When I said that it had turned cold yesterday, I exaggerated slightly. Before going out, I put on a fleece jacket over my corduroy shirt, but then I was too warm during the day. And it didn't rain until late in the afternoon. We had some nice sunshine around mid-day.

We took our friends to Saint-Aignan for a walk up to the château grounds and enjoy the views out over the town's rooftops and the river. The château itself is privately owned and not open to the public, so you can only see it from the outside. Then we drove over to Châteauvieux, a neighboring village, to see the château and church there. I posted about Châteauvieux, with photos, just a few days ago.

Saint-Aignan, on the banks of the Cher River

Lunch was a galette bretonne in the crêperie in Saint-Aignan called Le Bigouden. A galette is a buckwheat crêpe (crêpe de sarrasin) filled with savory, not sweet, ingredients. My galette, for example, was wrapped around a slice of ham, some melted cheese and cooked mushrooms, and an egg that still had a soft runny yolk. It was topped with a spoonful of chunky stewed tomatoes.

We also had dessert crêpes — some topped with hot fudge sauce and vanilla ice cream, others with the same chocolate sauce along with whipped cream and chopped ripe banana. Cups of espresso coffee finished off the meal. The Bigouden is a good restaurant. It's too bad there weren't many other customers there. Earlier we had driven past the zoo in Saint-Aignan and noticed literally hundreds of cars in the parking lots out there. I guess that was where it was happening yesterday, not in Saint-Aignan's old town.

Our next stop was Amboise, a 30-minute drive distant. What a difference! We drove through the old town looking for parking space, but every space along the narrow old streets was taken. There was quite a bit of traffic, especially on the wide boulevard that runs parallel to the Loire River past the old town and the château. We finally found a parking space in the big lot along the river, near where the Sunday morning outdoor market is held.

Amboise, on the south bank of the Loire River

We walked back to the château, which our friends wanted to go into. It was no surprise, after seing the number of cars in town, to find a big crowd going into the château. We paid 10 euros ($14 U.S.) each for tickets. The sky had clouded over and there were short showers of drizzle and a stiff breeze as we wandered around the big terrace that surrounds the château and took in the views out over the town and the Loire River.

We saw the little chapel on the château grounds that is the site of Leonardo da Vinci's tomb. The Italian genius spent the last three years of his life in Amboise — he died there in 1519 — at the invitation of the French king François 1er. A big tour group with a French-language guide got there just before we did, so we had to wait for them to leave before we could really see the interior of the chapel and Leonardo's tomb.

We went inside the château and it was just as crowded with tour groups and hundreds of tourists just shuffling along looking at paintings and old furniture, many either reading the brochure they give you when you buy your ticket or listing to the audio guide with headphones that you can rent at the entrance. The château has been heavily restored over the past two centuries and is furnished in the 19th-century style.

It got quite hot inside the château because of the crowds of tourists. It didn't help that there were a lot of stairs to climb, and I was dressed in corduroy and fleece because of the gray weather outdoors. We had noticed, earlier in the day, that the interior of the church in Saint-Aignan, where we went to admire the 800-year-old frescoes painted on the walls of the crypt, was actually very warm. Normally you expect it to be chilly inside the big old stone churches and châteaux in this part of France, but the weeks of hot weather we had earlier in the summer have warmed up the stone. The contrast with the cool outside temperature yesterday was striking and unusual.

As we left the Amboise châteaux, real rain moved in. Three of us hadn't brought along umbrellas or rain jackets, and we got fairly soaked walking the 10 minutes back to the car. It was getting to be time to drive our friends to Blois, where they were going to catch a train back to Paris. The rain kept up, sometimes falling lightly, sometimes a lot harder, for the rest of the day.

Blois, on the north bank of the Loire
As always, you can click the picture to see an enlargement

Walt and I dropped our friends at the train station at 5:15 and then went to do some shopping in a specialty food shop in Blois before driving back to Saint-Aignan. As we left Blois and headed south, it was raining very hard between Cour-Cheverny and Soings-en-Sologne. We took narrow country lanes over to Chémery and then through Noyers-sur-Cher before we crossed the river on the Saint-Aignan bridge and got home at 7:00.

Callie was very happy to see us after spending about eight hours alone at home. It was still raining hard outside, and when I tried to take her for a short walk, she didn't want to go. I gave up. Walt and I fixed ourselves salads from leftovers (we had made a big salade niçoise for dinner the night before) and had a glass a wine. The rain stopped so I took Callie out at about 8:00 p.m. It was still broad daylight and the rain had let up.

Instead of going for a walk in the vineyard — I was afraid the rain might start falling again at any minute — I just let Callie wander around the yard for a while while I did some weeding under the tomato plants in the garden. The dog ate grass for a while, I noticed — it's growing tall and green after the recent rains — and then just sat down and watched me work, waiting.

We came back in the house, I dried Callie off with a towel, and we settled in to relax for an hour in front of a TV documentary with segments about châteaux and vineyards down in the Dordogne, and then about islands off the Normandy coast, before turning in. The rain started falling again and raindrops made a pleasing noise slapping against the roof tiles and the skylight windows upstairs. When we went to bed at about 9:30, it was still light outside, but we were tired after a long day of sight-seeing.

20 July 2011

Now it's turned cold

The high temperature today is supposed to be 18ºC, which is about 64ºF. What a change from last week! I feel like I'm back in San Francisco. It's been raining, too, and quite a bit.

Another reason I feel like I'm in San Francisco is that we have friends visiting from there, and we're sitting around talking about life back there vs. life here in France. J. & C. are doing a house exchange with some people who live just outside Paris. They've been watching French television a little.

J. wanted to know if there is any Arabic language programming in France, aimed at the large immigrant populations from North Africa and the Middle East. No, there isn't — at least not that we are aware of. That's not part of the French mindset, or government policy. If you live in France, you are expected to "integrate" into French society. You are supposed to speak French. You are supposed to eat French. You are supposed to participate in the mainstream culture.

One of the questions asked about Walt and me when we applied for French resident's cards was whether or not we spoke French. The fact that we do made a big difference. The authorities also asked the mayor of the village we live in whether we were involved in the community. She told them we were, so we got the residency cards.

It's a little maddening to us that British and other European immigrants, for example, don't get asked any such questions. They don't need residency cards. They often live on a different track, remaining fairly separate from the French society around them. Many British immigrants here in France don't speak very much French at all. The situation highlights the contradictions between long-standing French policies and new European realities.

Okay, off to do some sightseeing today...

19 July 2011

Trois fromages typiquement français

If you could find and have only three French cheeses to serve as part of a meal, these three might be the ones you'd want. One comes from Normandy, one from the Loire Valley, and one from the Auvergne region. Two are made with cow's milk, and one with goat's milk. Two are made with "raw" — unpasteurized — milk, and one with pasteurized milk.

These three cheeses would make a perfectly nice
cheese course for a good French lunch or dinner.

For some reason, North Americans are more likely to be familiar with Brie cheese than with Camembert. Maybe it's because the two cheeses resemble each other so much, and Brie is an easier word to pronounce. However, Camembert is the quintessential soft French cheese. It's made in Normandy, while Brie is made in the eastern part of the Paris region. Camembert is a village in central lower Normandy.

This Camembert cheese is made with raw cow's milk that's curdled
and then ladled into a form for the ripening process.
As served, it contains about 20% milk fat.

Actually, Brie has a longer tradition, and it was probably to imitate Brie-style cheese that the first Camembert cheeses were made just over 200 years ago. Camembert is made all over the world now, but the authentic ones come from the area around the village in Normandy. Camembert cheese has a higher rind-to-cheese ratio than Brie, which is made in much larger wheels. You can eat the crust or not, as you please.

The goat cheese here comes from an area about 150 miles south of Camembert, in what is loosely known as the Loire Valley (Selles is actually on the Cher River, not the Loire). The land in rainy Normandy is given over to cattle grazing and apple orchards. The land in the drier, warmer Loire Valley is given over to growing vegetables for the table and grapes to make wine. There's not much room for cows.

This Selles-sur-Cher goat cheese is an A.O.C. product, which
tells you that it is made under strictly regulated conditions
in a specific region of France. The label says that it's
farm-made (fermier) using raw goat's milk.

Instead, people in the Loire and Cher valleys raise goats and make cheese from their milk. The goat cheese from Selles-sur-Cher, about 10 miles east of Saint-Aignan, is one of the three most famous Loire Valley cheeses (along with the pyramidal Valençay variety and the log-shaped Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine). Goat cheeses here are often coated in a thin layer of wood ash and salt, which gives them extra flavor. You eat the crust because it's good. The cheeses are mild and not often "goaty-tasting."

Finally, Cantal cheese is made in the Cantal region of Auvergne, another couple of hundred miles south. I've read that Cantal was already being made in Roman times. The cheese can be made with raw or pasteurized milk, and it is made year-round. One variety of Cantal cheese is called Salers, after one of the main towns of the region, and the cheeses called Salers are made only with raw cow's milk and during the summer when the cows are grazing in the green fields, not being fed on hay in a barn.

Cantal Entre-Deux A.O.C. can be pasteurized or not, and it can be made
made year-round. But it can only be made with milk from cows
that have grazed in a specific part of the Auvergne region.

Cantal is not a soft, runny cheese like Camembert. It's firmer, and it's marketed at several stages of ripeness. The youngest, softest Cantal is called tomme fraîche and is mostly used in cooking, melted. Then there's Cantal Jeune — young, tender, and mild — and there's Cantal Vieux — aged, drier, sharper cheese. In between the two, there's the Cantal called Entre-Deux — between the two, as I said — which has more flavor than Cantal Jeune but is still fairly mild.

None of these cheeses contains any fillers, gums, added sugars, hormones, enzymes, or other "introduced" ingredients. They are made from pure milk that has been curdled and then allowed to ferment naturally. The cultures in the cheese — fungi, actually — are tiny "mushrooms" that normally occur naturally in the air in the regions where the cheeses are produced. All three cheeses list milk, rennet (a natural curdling agent), salt, and cheese cultures as their only ingredients — except for the wood-ash coating on the goat cheese.

18 July 2011

Désastreuse !

Une météo désastreuse ! Catastrophique ! L'automne en juillet. Vacanciers malheureux, les pieds dans l'eau. Parapluies. Imperméables. Pullovers. All that has to do with what's happened to the weather. Temperatures now are unseasonably chilly, and France has finally started to get some rain. It's snowing in the Alps.

It's too bad the chilly, damp weather has to come just when most of the population seems to have gone on summer vacation — les grandes vacances. But this is not unusual. The weather in France is notoriously temperamental. It's a reality of life here. First you get hot air from Spain and the Sahara, then you get cold air from the British Isles and Scandinavia. The weather forecasters on TéléMatin are really playing it up this morning.

The vegetable garden a couple of days ago

We had lunch with British friends last week. They live most of the year in England, and spend a few weeks here in France in a holiday home. They said the weather in England had been damp and chilly for several weeks. Now it's moved down this way. The high pressure system that brings warmth has moved westward out over the Atlantic.

The vineyard and our hamlet in the sunshine — a memory...

Summer will come back, in all likelihood. We had warm dry weather for nearly all of April, May, and June. In the meantime, there will be much tearing of hair and moaning about the wasted summer. You get used to it after a while.

We should have made this hot lunch for today's visitors.
But we had it yesterday instead.

One thing I like about this weather, besides the much-needed rain, is also something I liked about summer weather in San Francisco. It's not too warm to enjoy good hearty food. Soups, stews, and hot cheesy casseroles. We have friends coming to visit today, and we've got everything ready for salade niçoise. Oops.

Chicken wings marinated and cooked in ginger, soy sauce, and
five-spice powder, with brown rice and mustard greens

There will be no sitting out on the terrace for us today. I'm wondering if we might have to fire up the boiler.

17 July 2011

Internet access

Local government here in the Loire Valley is not only concerned with tractors, of course. Here's another recent article from the local newspaper:

Officials work to implement ultra high-speed
networking across the Loir-et-Cher

No matter what part of the Loir-et-Cher département they live in, residents can now benefit from high-speed internet service. But the future is all about "ultra high-speed" internet, which will allow for instantaneous transmission of large files and documents, including high-definition images, over both the cell (mobile) and land-line phone networks.

Nationally, government plans call for providing ultra high-speed internet access to 70% of the French population by 2020 and 100% by 2025. The French National Assembly has passed a bill requiring local and regional authorities to begin developing plans for improvements in the digital infrastructure.

In the Loir-et-Cher, the department’s general council has taken up the cause, working to involve all interested parties (service providers; government entities; mayoral associations; trade and professional associations)... The first ultra high-speed internet plan for the Loir-et-Cher is scheduled to be finalized later this month. “We want to be able to apply for grants and funding this fall, for the 2012 budget,” says the departmental council’s vice-chairman for computing and telecommunications.

The plan will include an inventory of the department’s existing ultra high-speed networks and current service providers’ plans and operations. “We will also define our priorities, for example: schools and medical facilities, commercial and business parks. Then we’ll be able to develop a plan for future development of ultra high-speed networks,” said the official.

Walt and I got broadband internet at our house outside Saint-Aignan in October 2003, and we were very happy about that. When we arrived in June of that year and got moved in, we figured we'd have to deal with dial-up networking for the foreseeable future. But the day we went to get our phone service set up, we were informed that DSL (ADSL in French) would be available in our area in a few months, so we signed up immediately.

Our connection is now rated at just 2 mbps, because we are right at the edge of the service area. A lot of people all around France get internet, phone, and even TV over their DSL line (instead of cable or satellite). Our line doesn't have sufficient capacity and speed for TV, but it's great for internet. The speed has gone from 500 bps to 2000 bps over the past 7 years, and the price has gone down from 30 euros a month to the current 21 euros.

I don't know if I really believe that there are no addresses in the département that can't get DSL service. I happen to know people who live about 10 miles south of us, in the neighboring Indre-et-Loire department (centered on the city of Tours), who can't get DSL. Maybe the Loir-et-Cher, however, despite — or because of — its rural character, has done what it takes to ensure more universal coverage.

16 July 2011

Rural realities and beauty

Here's an article from the local newspaper that highlights some of the realities of rural life near Saint-Aignan. Châteauvieux is a village/township that is built around a château and a church on a hill. The town has about 600 residents in all and is known for its wine. The château is used as a retirement and nursing home these days.

"Downtown" Châteauvieux

Rural Solidarity Grants: Thanks for small favors
In Châteauvieux, tourism enriches the local economy. For Mayor Yves Ménager, the Rural Solidarity Grants program makes it possible.

Yves Ménager, the president of the Association of Rural Mayors, gets right to the point. “The Rural Solidarity Grants program is a blessing for us!”, says the mayor of Châteauvieux, which is one of the 214 municipalities [in the Loir-et-Cher] with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants that are eligible for the grants. He knows what he's talking about. “A township that covers as much territory as ours does has a lot of roads to maintain,” he says.

A closer view of the château and church,
which dominate the landsacpe

Here are the numbers: Châteauvieux has 30 miles (48 km) of public roads, which means 30 miles of ditches to keep clear and 60 miles of embankments to mow. “You have to have a good tractor,” the mayor says. Until recently, that wasn’t the case in Châteauvieux, where the town tractor was so ancient that nobody remembered how old it actually was.

The village's old lavoir — the "wash house" where people
used to do their laundry in the river

The launch of the Rural Solidarity Grants program by the general council of the Loir-et-Cher department in 2010 was a “new deal” for small towns and villages. “We applied for a grant to buy a new tractor. The cost was high for a village like ours, and the grant really helped us out at a time when money is harder and harder to get from the national government in Paris,” Mayor Ménager said.

A springtime view of the town from up near the château

The 13 square miles of land that make up the municipality of Châteauvieux, including about four square miles of woods, are classified as an architectural, urban, and rural preservation zone. “Not one square inch of the town is exempt from the rules,” according to the mayor. The money that tourists bring in is important and makes it crucial for officials to secure the funds needed for maintenance and beautification...


A department or département is the French equivalent of a county. There are 100 departments in all, and ours, the Loir-et-Cher, has a population of about 325,000. It's divided into 291 municipalities, each with its own mayor of course.