30 November 2011

The French franc

The French franc — le franc français — still exists in a couple of ways, even though you don't see the coins and bills any more. If you look at certain currency exchange rate sites on the 'net, you'll see the French franc still listed. I checked this morning, and the U.S. dollar is trading at 4.92 FF today. The currency is designated as obsolete, replaced by the euro. But there it is.

The franc still exists on price tags all around France. So that older people, who had spent many decades buying, selling, earning and counting francs on an everyday basis, wouldn't get confused about prices, merchants have been required to post prices in francs alongside prices in euros for the past 10 years. Euro coins and banknotes became the legal tender in France in January 2002.

An old 20-centime coin, worth about a nickel
back in the 1970s

As for the franc, it became the only legal tender in France in 1795, during the Revolution, and remained so until 1998. At that point it was declared a division of the new euro. The official value of the euro in France is 6.56 francs. It was only on January 1, 2002, that euro coins and banknotes started to be circulated in France and the franc disappeared as legal tender.

During World War II, French coins carried the fascist
slogan "Work, Family, Country", which replaced the
revolutionary « Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité »

My memories don't go back to the 18th century, but I do remember having to learn about francs more than 40 years ago, when I was a student in Aix-en-Provence in the spring of 1970. In those days, I didn't have a lot of francs — or dollars either — so every one counted. The dollar that spring was trading at about 5.50 FF. All through the 70s, until the Carter years in the U.S. late in the decade, the dollar-franc rate stayed approximately the same.

In the late '70s, however, the dollar declined and fell to between 4 and 4.5 francs. Then, a few years later, France elected its first socialist president in many decades — François Mitterrand in 1981 — and he appointed communists to important ministries in his government. International financial and currency markets spooked, and for a while the dollar was worth as much as 10 francs.

Voltaire on a 10 FF coin of the 1990s

The same kind of thing happened when the euro first came into circulation. There was a lot of doubt about its stability and its future. Besides, the U.S. under Bill Clinton had been running budget surpluses and the American economy was "a rising tide lifting all boats" — too bad that didn't last. The dollar was worth more than 1.15 euros for a while there, which meant it was worth between 7.5 and 8.0 FF. It was good to have dollars in those days.

By the time Walt and I moved to Saint-Aignan in June 2003, the U.S. dollar was worth only about 90 to 92 eurocents — that was still more than six francs. The euro started its big move upward, and the dollar moved down because, I guess, budget deficits were so high under the George W. Bush administration in Washington. At its low point five years ago, the dollar was worth only about 62 eurocents, or four francs, as back in the late 1970s.

Several of the franc coins carried this image called La Semeuse
"the sower". The same figure appears on French euro coins now.

The French franc I'm talking about here is what was called « le nouveau franc » back in the 1970s. That's because the French economy had suffered such high inflation in the 1950s that the old franc became fairly worthless. In1960, newly elected president Charles de Gaulle enacted a reform under which the old franc became a centime, and 100 old francs became one new franc.

General De Gaulle on another 1990s-era 10 FF coin

For several decades, people in France continued to think and talk in terms of old francs. One franc in slang was « cent balles » — 100 "bullets", I guess, coins being made of metal as bullets are, as well as being round like a ball. Ten francs was « mille balles » — mille means a thousand. Early in the decade, a beggar on the sidewalk in Paris would ask you for « 100 balles ». By 1980, more often you'd hear beggars asking for « un franc ».

Ten thousand francs — an astonomical sum for many of us back in the 1970s — was « un million d'anciens francs ». Or « un million de centimes ». Or just « un million », also known as « une brique ». For us Americans, « un million » in francs was about two thousand dollars, and if you could earn that much per month, or if you had that much money in the bank, you were quite prosperous. You could buy a new car for a couple of "bricks".

The 5 FF coin was the closest equivalent of the U.S. dollar

French people have a very different relationship with their money compared to Americans. It's hard to imagine the American population dealing with all this messing around with the national currency. Re-value the dollar so that a dollar is suddenly a cent, a $100 bill is suddenly $1.00, and $1000 is just $10? Or abandon the dollar altogether for some other currency? Can you imagine?

29 November 2011

Didn't get the memo

Some times there's an individual who refuses to buckle under. To face reality. To go with the flow. It happens with people, and it happens with plants.

This grapevine didn't get the memo,
or forgot to check the calendar.

There aren't many leaves left in the vineyard at this point. But the fact is, it hasn't turned cold yet. I think the weather gods in general forgot we are now at the end of November.

Late November 2010 — so different from 2011

If the weather does suddenly turn cold or snowy — as it did last year at this time — it will come as quite a shock. The plants below will be shocked, for sure.

Renegade leaves and flowers in the 2011 vineyard

All the news right now has to do with the euro crisis. In France, people are saying the euro may not exist in its current form by the end of the year — next month, in other words. Nobody is saying what will replace it. Will my old French francs suddenly become legal tender again? Walt found a little box of franc coins a day or two ago, and I know where the old bank notes are.

All those coins and notes add up to about one day's groceries, by the way. I also have some Irish pounds, Belgian francs, and Italian lire. I bet most people here have some French francs in a drawer or box somewhere in the house.

It was almost exactly ten years ago — January 2002 — that the euro became the currency of the realm. In France, the law required merchants to continue posting prices in francs as well as in euros for the first ten years, so that people would have an idea of how prices were changing. Will the old prices in francs go away next year, or will they move to the top of the labels and price tags? On verra.

28 November 2011

The cellier, or cold-storage pantry

Our relatively modern house (1960s vintage) doesn't have a cellar or basement, but it has a cellier on the ground floor. A cellier is a pantry or larder — a storeroom for food and wine — and this one has a dirt (sand, actually) floor. It's on the north side of the house, so it stays fairly cool in there except in the hottest part of summer. It's not heated, and it's windowless. A cellier can also be called a garde-manger.

Two photos of our cellier or pantry/larder

What we call a cellar in English is called « une cave » in French. It's an underground storage space, usually under a house or other building. It's an ideal place for storing wine or cider, because the temperature in a cave remains constant year-round. I wish we had one under our house, but we don't.

Larder, garde-manger, cellier, pantry, storeroom...

Meanwhile, the cellier or cold-storage pantry/larder will have to do. We of course keep wine down there, but much more besides. Having a good-size pantry sort of makes up for having a small kitchen with only minimal storage space in it. And it means we run up and down the stairs many times every day. That's called "exercise."

The duck confit I made recently is in the big dish on
the right, on top of the deep-fat fryer (la friteuse)
which is full of peanut oil.

Since we buy wine in bulk and bottle it ourselves, we keep a lot of both empty and full wine bottles in the pantry. They drain and dry on the red bottle rack before being put away. We also keep a lot of jars for putting up jams, jellies, etc. — not to mention bags and other containers of spices, condiments, and dried herbs. Sugar, flour, noodles, glasses... un peu de tout, quoi.

27 November 2011

Cuisses de canard confites

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was preparing some duck legs and thighs as confit de canard. Then I sort of forgot about them. They've been cooked and are "curing" in the cold pantry off our utility room downstairs.

Duck leg & thigh sections sold in shrink-wrap
vacuum packaging at the supermarket in France

I'm not sure that all the Americans who leave comments on forums and in trip reports about enjoying confit de canard in France know how the duck is prepared. What they know is that it's delicious. The duck legs can be served in several ways, but most often in restaurants you get them browned in the oven until golden and served with fried or sautéed potatoes.

These are the legs and thighs of ducks that have been
fattened for
foie gras production.

Personally, I like the slow-cooked duck legs and thighs served other ways. For example, they are very good with turnips cooked with a little of the duck fat. Canard aux navets — duck with turnips — is a classic combination. Of course you have to like turnips. Use young fresh ones that have just a hint of bitterness along with their natural sweetness. Or have the duck with oven-roasted winter root vegetables — turnips plus carrots, rutabagas, parsnips, and potatoes.

This time of year, duck legs are available at very reasonable prices.
Each one weighs a little less than a pound.

Two other good combinations including confit de canard come to mind. Serve the slow-cook duck with beans flavored with duck fat as part of a southwestern French cassoulet, with some good fresh pork sausages (saucisses de Toulouse). Or serve it with sauerkraut along with smoked pork sausages and boiled potatoes. Flavor the sauerkraut, too, with some of the duck fat.

A better idea of what the duck pieces look like unwrapped

I see both of those in our future this winter, since I have several bags of dried beans of different varieties in the pantry, and nearly three kilos of raw sauerkraut in the freezer. I also like the idea of having the confit de canard with some of my home-grown collard and mustard greens. Or what about confit with some Brussels sprouts roasted in duck fat, as seen on The Celiac Husband's blog? Can I say that the possibilities are nearly endless?

I've posted about making confit de canard several times before:

The duck pieces in their salty marinade

I won't repeat all that. What I will say is that the duck pieces are covered in coarse salt with herbs, onions, garlic, and spices and left to marinate for 24 to 48 hours. Then they are rinsed under cold running water, dried off, and cooked at low heat either on the stovetop or in the oven, in enough duck fat to cover them. Discard the salty marinade. The cooked duck legs should be very tender, with the meat fairly falling off the bone.

Arrange the marinated, rinsed duck legs in a pan like this...

The duck legs, however, will still be pretty salty after cooking. It's best to let them cure for several weeks, or even months, in the duck fat they cooked in. They need to be kept in a cool place, but not necessarily in the refrigerator. If you have a cellar, or a cold pantry like ours, well, that's ideal. Make sure the congealed duck fat completely covers the duck leg-and-thigh sections. Some mysterious chemical reaction between the duck fat and the salt will happen, giving the tender duck meat a mild but rich flavor.

...and cover them with melted duck or goose fat
for cooking in a slow oven.

When you're ready to serve and eat the duck, put the pan or crock they're stored in into a warm oven and wait for the fat to melt again. Take out the pieces you plan to serve, and leave the others in the fat, again stored in a cool place.

This might look like mashed potatoes, but it's the congealed
duck fat covering the duck legs and thighs
that are curing in the cold pantry.

Drain the pieces you've taken out of the melted fat on a rack for a few minutes — put the rack in the warm oven again — so that the fat will drip off. Use the fat to season the vegetables or potatoes you're having with the duck. You can turn up the oven and let the duck legs turn golden brown and kind of crispy if you want them that way. Or you can keep them succulent and tender by just letting them warm through.

26 November 2011

Fleurs de novembre

At first glance, the vineyard looks like the photo below, or worse, in late November. The vines in the photo have already been pruned, so they look neat and well-tended. Other parcels are much scruffier-looking.

The Renaudière vineyard near Saint-Aignan
in late November 2011

If you walk out there every day, the way Walt and I do with Callie, you start seeing things differently. There is color, but it comes in tiny dabs. (You can click the pictures to enlarge them.)

Not all the wildflowers have died, and there are still roses in certain places around the hamlet and along the gravel road that runs a mile through rows of vines.

We haven't had any more fugue episodes with Callie — faire une fugue means to run away. We're lucky, as Evelyn pointed out, that the neighbor saw Callie down at the bottom of the hill. She hadn't made it to the main road, where there's more traffic, moving faster.

Who knows if she was headed that way. As I said, she usually lies down immediately if she sees or hears a car coming. Problem is, sometimes she just lies down in the middle of the road. I've seen her do that several times on the gravel road through the vineyard.

The weather continues completely gray, foggy, and misty. We have been socked in for days now. This morning, there are puddles on the road out front, so I guess it rained overnight. I slept like a log for nearly 10 hours — I was oblivious.

We are reading, eating leftovers, surfing the web, and walking the dog on our normal schedule. I guess we'd better get used to the gray and fog, because it will probably last for a month or more — unless it gets worse by turning colder. It could snow at any time now. Or not.

Meantime, I got a call yesterday to tell me that the new sofa will be delivered next Wednesday. And the euro keeps sliding down. One euro = just $1.32 U.S. this morning.

25 November 2011

Callie's big adventure

It's hard to believe that Callie the Collie is going to be five years old in a few months. We still think of her as a young puppy — at least I do. Maybe I see her that way because she's so completely "bonded" to us. She never lets us out of her sight, for example, when we are out for a walk, even though we never put her on a leash.

Until now. A couple of afternoons ago Callie asserted her independence. Or she let her curiosity about another dog get the better of her. She just disappeared at the end of a walk she was taking with Walt. I was doing something in the kitchen when I heard Walt call me from downstairs: "Hey! Is Callie in the house?" I yelled down that I hadn't seen the dog.

Callie in the back yard — she has chased a bird up a tree!

Callie had evidently disappeared after Walt and the dog walked back up the hill through the woods from down below in the river valley, where there are 10 or 15 houses. She came up the hill, turned into the neighbors' yard across the street from ours, and then just vanished. Walt went in one direction on the road, and I went the other way, both of us calling Callie at the top of our lungs. There was no sign of her.

Another neighbor — the one who says she has had so much trouble with Bertie the Black Cat — had just arrived at home and was getting out of her car. She came out on the road to say bonjour. I told her we were looking for Callie, who had vanished. « Je viens de voir votre chien en bas, sur la route, » the neighbor said — she had just seen Callie at the bottom of the hill, on the road. All the way down at the bottom.

Callie still hopes she'll find a walnut or two under the
little nut tree out by the road. She loves walnuts
and knows how to crack them open.

She said that when she drove by, Callie lay down at the side of the road to let the car pass. Yep, that was Callie all right. She always does that when she see or hears a car coming close. The neighbor said she had thought about trying to get Callie to jump into her car so she could drive her home. She doesn't know how much Callie hates the car.

I told the neighbor Walt had seen a black dog running loose down the hill a few minutes earlier, so I supposed Callie must have gone back down there to check him out. Or maybe he had followed Callie and Walt up the hill and then turned to run back downhill with Callie behind him. It was a mystery.

Then I asked the neighbor how things were going in the local feline community. Was Bertie behaving? « Ça va, » she said, « mais c'est toujours la bagarre. » Things have settled down, but the cats still don't get along and they fight at times.

The neighbor said that, as it happened, one of her cats had disappeared two days earlier. She was going to walk down the road calling him. I saw Walt down that way, at the top of the hill, and I yelled to him, telling him what the neighbor had said about Callie being down the hill along the road. He started trudging down that way.

Usually, Callie comes running like this
when one of us calls her.

The neighbor asked about the group of young zoo workers who were renting the first house on the right as you come up the hill into the hamlet. Have they moved out? Yes, I told her, they're gone. But they had several cats, didn't they? Yes, one day Walt saw one of the tenants putting cats in cages into the back of his car, getting ready to drive away.

The neighbor asked if we knew the landlord's name, and whether we had seen him. I told her I had been seeing the man nearly every afternoon at the house, cleaning the place up and getting the house ready for new tenants, I supposed. But his name... « Je me demande si Shana — the cat's name, I figured, and I'm guessing at the spelling — n'est pas enfermé à l'intérieur de cette maison. » Maybe her cat was shut up in the house. I told her our neighbor the mayor knew the landlord, but she said the mayor is in Paris right now for an annual conference of mayors from all around the country.

Here's Callie's perspective on the vineyard in late November.

I asked her if the missing cat was the pure white one. No, it's the one that's beige, she said. We arrived at the gate in front of the rental house, which the neighbor tried to open. It was locked. Night was falling, but through the gloom I saw Walt trudging back up the hill, with Callie out in front of him. He was yelling for her to stay close, to not run away again. When I saw her, I called her to me and she came running. She didn't turn off into the woods or otherwise try to run away again. It was almost dark at that point.

When Walt got up the hill, we talked about Shana's disappearance. Walt asked if Shana (Chat-Na?) was the pure white cat, and the neighbor said simply "Oui." That was confusing. And that's when Bertie emerged from the woods. Walt scooped him up to carry him home too. Callie noticed, and she came over to try to jump up and nip at Bertie's tail and feet. The neighbor laughed.

It was getting dark and gloomy out there.

So we never found the cat, and I don't know if the neighbor has seen him since. Cats wander off like that for days at a time, and most often they eventually return home. Bertie has done that. He can take care of himself.

Dogs are so different. Callie had disappeared for five minutes and we were in a panic. She has no "street smarts" — at least in our view, she's helpless without us. She doesn't know how to hunt. I guess she would have come back home of her own volition after a few minutes, but who knows?

24 November 2011

November stopped by yesterday

Now it's November. The month arrived more than three weeks late this year. It rolled in under cover of a thick fog and a leaden gray sky.

Pots and planter boxes emptied of their summer
occupants, washed, and left to dry

The day before, we were outside in sunshine cleaning up the last of the potted plants growing just outside the back door. Walt picked up the last of the apples and then ran the lawnmower over the thick grass that had grown high under the big apple tree and around the garden plots. The race to get cleaned up for winter came right down to the wire.

The hedge and house at 8:30 yesterday morning

This is hibernation time in the northern French countryside. I'm sleeping from about 9:30 p.m. many evenings until nearly 7:00 a.m. many mornings now. It's the (absence of) light that does a number on my body, I think. Food and photography keep me going through the so-called daylight hours. At night, the color goes out of everything.

Apples, apples, apples

Right now, only three of the houses in the hamlet — out of nine — have people in them. The Blésois have moved back to Blois, the « Parisiens » have decamped to the région parisienne, and the young people who rented the house three doors down, worked at the zoo, and kept the chickens whose clucking and crowing gave the hamlet an authentic rural ambiance — well, they all moved on to parts unknown, leaving one more dark house on the road, and fewer entertaining barnyard sounds.

One more empty house in the hamlet

It's not cold outside yet, but that won't be long in coming, probably. The temperature this morning is about 50F instead of the 30F we might expect. It's Thanksgiving Day, but that's not a holiday in France, so we're in this weird space where we instinctively feel that life should be put on hold, but we're about the only ones who know it.

The end of the road

Today in Saint-Aignan, the mail gets delivered, and the bread, as usual. The stores are all open (unless of course there's some unpredictable fermeture exceptionnelle just to keep things interesting). It's just another Thursday, like all the others.

View from a rear window

The news points out that Christmas Eve is exactly one month away. That's something to look forward to, and then the days will start getting longer again. Meanwhile, enjoy your turkey, or turducken, and pumpkin pie.

23 November 2011

La courge « patidou »

What's more beautiful than a beautiful vegetable? And what vegetable is more beautiful than a winter squash?

In French, what in America we call a "winter squash" is called
« une courge ». The one in these pictures is called « une patidou ». It's a variety of Cucurbita pepo, as are the zucchini (courgette), pattypan (pâtisson), spaghetti squash (courge spaghetti), acorn squash (courge poivrée or courgeron), and many others.

La courge patidou

It was an acorn squash that I was looking for when I went shopping at SuperU last week. I didn't find one — Walt wanted to get one so we could eat it but also so we could save the seeds and grow some courgerons in next year's garden — but I noticed the patidou in a bin along with many little pumpkins (potimarrons and citrouilles), courges spaghetti, and courges butternut.

The patidou looked to be the closest thing to an acorn squash that I was going to find. It was prettier than an acorn squash. When I went through the checkout line, the cashier had no idea what it was and it wasn't labeled. I was able to explain and she finally found it on her computer. At first she thought I was saying pâtisson.

The patidou turned out to be delicious roasted and mashed with some butter and spices including nutmeg and Caribbean colombo powder, which is a kind of curry powder. The flesh has a distinct flavor of chestnuts and isn't as sweet as some other squashes (at least this one wasn't).

Here's a French-language site with a lot of recipes for cooking patidou squashes. Okay, fine, you say. But what I want to know is what the patidou is called in North America or the British Isles.

A patidou squash cut in half, seeds scooped out,
ready to be roasted in the oven

On one blog I saw the patidou called "sweet dumpling" squash, but I don't know that term. And in fact, some of the sites I find that mention the patidou show pictures of squashes that don't really look like this one. It's a mystery.

22 November 2011

The Thanksgiving splurge: gigot d'agneau

Yesterday we went to the Intermarché store over in Noyers-sur-Cher to see if we could buy our Thanksgiving lamb. We've been having lamb at Thanksgiving for 10 or 12 years now, at least. The Thanksgiving holiday is a good excuse for a splurge — a nice gigot d'agneau.

The butcher we normally buy the Thanksgiving lamb from down in Saint-Aignan is taking his annual holiday right now. Thanksgiving is not a French holiday, so he's getting his time off while he can, before the end-of-year holiday season is upon us. There's another butcher shop in town, but since it was Monday and we had to go out, we thought we'd check for a gigot (leg of lamb) at one butcher shop that is open on Mondays: the meat counter at Intermarché. It's a good one.

A rolled and tied boneless leg of lamb roast

Gigot is the quintessentially classic French dish prepared by home cooks. It's often served as Sunday dinner. It's usually served with the little pale green beans called flageolets, or with potatoes. We're going to have a gratin dauphinois with ours this year. Maybe we'll have beans with the leftovers, because there will be leftovers.

Side view of the rolled leg. It has a layer of fat, probably pork
fat, on top that will baste and enrich the meat as it roasts.

The butcher at Intermarché had legs of lamb in his display case. The price was about 16.50 euros per kilogram. That's a real splurge. But he also had a boned, rolled leg of lamb for just one euro more per kilo — 17.50€ = $23.60 U.S., and if you do the math, that comes to about $10.75 a pound at current exchange rates.

The underside of the boneless leg of lamb

I don't know if that's a high price for lamb in the U.S. — I see rack of lamb at $14.75 in San Francisco on Safeway.com — but the French gigots we normally buy cost between 30 and 40 euros, and this boneless one weighed just under 2 kg/ 4¼ lbs. and cost 34€. If you do the conversion, that's a lot of dollars. We could have bought just half of the rolled roast, but we bought the whole thing. I might cut it into two roasts and put one in the freezer for later.

Lamb would be good with this dish of peas, mushrooms,
onions, and escarole that was yesterday's lunch.

I'm obviously looking forward to cooking and eating the Thanksgiving lamb and the gratin dauphinois potatoes. We'll have turkey or something similar — maybe a capon or even a guinea fowl capon — at Christmas. We are very lucky to have such good food products available, and to be able to afford them once in a while. Retirement, you know...

* * *
Some people call this food porn...

P.S. I decided to cut the lamb roast into two pieces, and the meat looks so delicious that I had to take another photo. Now we'll have a second roast we can cook in December or January.