31 December 2011

La Touraine du Sud

It's nice to be in better health for the job of ushering out the old and welcoming in the new. 2012 just rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it? And I've always said that 12 is my lucky number, so I have high expectations. I hope you do too, and that those expectations are met.

“Downtown” in Le Grand-Pressigny one evening
during the holiday season

Here are some more pictures of our 24 hours in Le Grand-Pressigny. I can't say enough how beautiful the surrounding area, La Touraine du Sud, is at this time of year. It's all green rolling hills, spotted with little villages and towns that seem lost in time. In comparison, the wine country area we live in along the Cher River feels almost bustling and modern.

More holiday lights and the church in Le Grand-Pressigny

If you want to see more photos taken in Le Grand-Pressigny, at different seasons, there are at least seven more posts on this blog to look at: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. They date back to visits to the town that I made with friends including CHM in spring 2006 and summer 2007. Also, have a look at Jean's blog, A Very Grand Pressigny, for more information and photos.

Le Grand-Pressigny

Le Grand-Pressigny is just about 20 miles south of the bigger town of Loches (pop. 8,000), which is a good place to base yourself for an excursion around the region. It takes about 40 minutes to drive those 20 miles on little roads that pass through numerous villages like Ferrière-Larçon, Betz-le-Château, La Celle-Guenand, Le Petit-Pressigny, Charnizay, Saint-Senoch, Esves-le Moutier, or Neuilly-le-Brignon. The bigger towns include Descartes, Preuilly-sur-Claise, and Ligueil.

Christmas cheer in rural France

Administratively, La Touraine du Sud is made up of 21 towns and villages, only one of which, Descartes (pop. 3,800) has more than 1,500 inhabitants. The area of the little region is about 640 sq. km (250 sq. mi.) and the total population is just shy of 16,000 — and it has been declining since the late 1960s. Don't expect to see a lot of crowds or much traffic. Do expect picturesque villages, little family-run restaurants, weekly open-air markets, and friendly people.

Nick and Jean served these pears poached in red wine as dessert,
along with a molten chocolate cake.

Here's how the Cadogan Guide to the Loire Valley describes "the southern tip of Touraine":
Not many tourists come down this way, but the area has profound charm thanks to the numerous deep little wooded valleys that carve their way through it... there are also plenty of attractive rural villages to potter round in these parts, with their Romanesque churches, little local museums, and their own châteaux, as well as the odd dolmen, proof of a much earlier thriving human presence.

30 December 2011

24 hours in Le Grand-Pressigny

About an hour south and a little west of Saint-Aignan by car there's a pretty area known as the Touraine du Sud. The southern part of the Touraine — the historic old province centered on the city of Tours — includes several quaint old towns and villages, including one named Le Grand-Pressigny. Blogger friends of ours, Jean and Nick, have a vacation home there.

Looking down on Le Grand-Pressigny from up at the château

Just over a thousand people — les Pressignoises et les Pressignois — live in Le Grand-Pressigny, which has existed under different names since prehistoric times. The town is built in valley at the confluence of two small rivers. The streets and houses climb up the side of a hill, with the ruins of an impressive medieval château at the top.

Callie enjoying a run in front of the château ruins

Like many French little French towns and villages, Le Grand-Pressigny's population now is only half what it was 150 years ago, when people started leaving the countryside to live and work in the big cities of France. The result is a place that feels like a town but has the population of a village. It also feels timeless, as if it hasn't changed in a thousand years.

Typical old cottages in Le Grand-Pressigny

According to French Wikipedia, there are 660 housing units in Le Grand-Pressigny, 94% of which are single-family dwellings. Five hundred houses are occupied year-round, and 75 are vacation homes. Nearly 90 more stand vacant. I can attest that the town and the surrounding villages are home (whether permanently or seasonally) to quite a few British people.

A bridge over the Claise River at Le Grand-Pressigny

The château grounds at Le Grand-Pressigny are also the site of a museum dedicated to the surrounding area's ancient past as a place where flintstone tools were fabricated and then exported all across Europe. The industry dates back to 2500 B.C. and employed the local residents for a good 500 years in the Neolithic era (the "New Stone Age").

Callie and Nick in the fields with the château ruins
and the prehistory museum in the background

We were lucky with the weather. It didn't rain. It was foggy on Wednesday, but we were able to take a long walk through the countryside just around the edge of Le Grand-Pressigny with Nick, our dog Callie, and his and Jean's dog, Lulu. Thursday dawned chilly but clear, so we took a second long walk. Before the first walk we had a great dinner of slow-cooked English lamb, vegetables, and English Christmas cake, and after the second walk we enjoyed a breakfast of back bacon, black pudding, and oatcakes (pancakes).

I'll post a few more photos tomorrow. It was a very fine holiday excursion for us, and a good time with friends.

29 December 2011

New and unusual reading material

For the first time in many years, I have subscribed to a magazine. I mean a magazine that will be delivered once a month par la poste. I must have subscribed to a few glossy magazines in California in the years before we moved to France, but I can't remember what the last subscription might have been.

Okay, so now you know it's a print-and-paper magazine, not an e-mag, but I bet you'll never guess which one. Cuisine et Vins de France ? Non. Guess again. A newsmagazine like L'Express, Le Point, ou Le Nouvel Obs ? Non plus. Paris Match ? Mais non !

The January 2012 issue came yesterday.
And no, I don't intend to take up hunting.

I'll tell you. It's called Le Chasseur Français — “The French Hunter”. It's a magazine I've been leafing through for the past six or seven years chez Madame Barbier in the village while I wait to get my quarterly haircut. Madame Barbier — her real name — runs the hair salon down there. She has a stack of old magazines for customers to read while they wait, but most of them are examples of what is called « la presse people » in France — gossip rags. Le Chasseur Français has been in publication since 1885, making it one of France's oldest existing magazines. It's monthly circulation is about 400,000 issues.

Un héron attrape un poisson.

Le Chasseur Français doesn't run articles about les peoples — celebrities — but about les animaux. Game birds, boars, deer, hares, water fowl, and even insects get coverage. The articles give information about unwanted animal invaders, real and potential, including American bull frogs and gray squirrels, that might change the balance of nature in France, and about animals that are not considered as game to be hunted (herons, dogs, and so on). There's a video about the magazine here, on the TF1 television web site.

Un lièvre en train de déguster
de délicieuses feuilles de ronce

But Le Chasseur Français also has features on fishing and fish, gardening and plants, cooking and wine, and houses and furnishings. Over the years, I've read a lot of interesting articles in it at Madame Barbier's. And now, SuperU has offered a cut-rate subscription for it's faithful customers (the ones who have a carte de fidélité, including me) and I've decided to subscribe for a year. If the magazine had a full web site, I probably wouldn't have paid for an abonnement. By the way, Le Chasseur Français is well known for its extensive petites annonces matrimoniales.

Thrushes are on the wing.

Expect to see some blog posts based on the articles I read. I'm looking forward to reading articles about grives — thrushes — and sangliers — wild boars — in the January 2012 issue that I received yesterday. Along with one about barrages — dams — on French rivers, and another about the gigantic wild mushrooms people are finding this winter, thanks to the mild, wet weather that we're having.

All the pictures in this post are thanks to Le Chasseur Français magazine.

28 December 2011

Late December days

It's hard to believe that we still have flowers blooming in the yard and out in the vineyard in late December — roses, for example, and a few wildflowers. We haven't yet had a freeze this year. By this time in 2010, we had had a major snow snowstorm, after which snow stayed on the ground for a couple of weeks and temperatures stayed frigid.

A rose blooming in the garden on December 27, 2011

Last year, with snow and rain, December was the wettest month we'd had since we put a rain gauge (un pluviomètre) out in our back yard in 2004. We recorded 130 millimeters of precipitation over the course of that month — that's slightly more than five inches. But wait — this December, we've already had more rain than that: nearly 150 mm, or six inches. A normal month produces two inches of rain.

I was out at sunrise for the morning walk yesterday, in the fog.
Sunrise was at 8:40 a.m. — no heroic effort was involved.

Overall, 2011 has been very dry. And according to the news, it has been the warmest year in the history of meteorological record-keeping in France, which began about 140 years ago. 2011 was warmer overall than2003, the year of the great canicule, or heat wave, which welcomed us to Saint-Aignan nearly nine years ago. The heat has been less extreme than back then, but lasted much longer.

The vineyard crews have been pulling out a lot of old, rotting
support posts and replacing them with new ones.

December isn't over yet, and now we're going into another rainy period, after a period of cold, gray, but dry weather that's lasted for several days. Tomorrow a rain front off the Atlantic will sweep cross the country. Another big area of rain will cover most of the country on Friday 12/30 and Saturday 12/31.

As recently as October, the waterholes all around the vineyard
were completely dry. Now they're nearly full.

Rain at this time of year usually brings warmer temperatures, and this episode won't be an exception. We're expecting afternoon highs around 10ºC/50ºF, rather than in the 30s F (single digits C). Morning lows will stay well above freezing. That's nice for us — we'll use up less firewood and less fuel oil. Home heating oil and diesel fuel are selling at near record high prices in France right now.

Two more views of the state of the Renaudière vineyard
in late December 2011

One factor in those high fuel prices is the slight decline in the euro against the U.S. dollar. Oil is priced in dollars, so as the dollar appreciates and the euro depreciates, it takes more euros to buy a liter or gallon or barrel of petroleum product. The U.S. dollar is trading at about 76 eurocents right now, compared to 67 or 68 cents just a few months ago. As a result, for example, my U.S. retirement pension is now worth 12% more in euros than it was last spring. That's significant, believe me.

27 December 2011

The verdict

The restorative powers of Guinea Fowl Soup are real. I can affirm that. Last night I slept "on both my ears" — j'ai dormi sur mes deux oreilles, as they say in French — for the first time in a week. No clogged sinuses, no coughing.

Soup seen through fogged-up glasses

In the broth made from simmering the carcass in water and white wine, cook some celery, carrots, onions, and rice, and at the end add some of the Guinea fowl meat, shredded. Even if you're not suffering from a cold, you'll feel better after you consume this soup. And it's a good idea to breathe in the steam rising from a piping hot bowl of the soup as you eat it.

26 December 2011

Days of tea and honey (and lemon)

French honey, exotic lemon, English tea, and a mug from North Carolina have been my best friends for a few days now. It takes a while to get better, and the tea, lemon, and honey are therapeutic as well as comforting.

Mes meilleurs amis du moment

We cooked the Christmas Guinea Hen with cornbread stuffing, gratin dauphinois potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. It was good, but you know how it is when you have a cold and you can't really taste much? We probably should have cooked everything with a lot of hot red pepper sauce. Today will be another day of just taking it easy and trying to get back some strength.

Question for the day: Do you think Guinea Hen Soup has the same restorative powers as Good Old Chicken Soup? I'll let you know.

23 December 2011

Have a happy Christmas...

...or whatever other end-of-year holiday you might celebrate. With this awful cold, and all we have to do tomorrow and Sunday, I'm going to sign off for the weekend. I'll be back Monday morning.

Next week we'll be spending a couple of days with English friends who live about an hour south of Saint-Aignan. Walt and I would both like to be feeling a lot better by then. I feel a little better this morning, but I felt the same way yesterday morning and then got worse and worse as the day went on.

Christmas decorations in Saint-Aignan

Oh, didn't I mention that I have now passed the crud on to Walter? He today is where I was on Tuesday — just the beginning stages. Sigh. Now it's time to take the dog out for her morning walk. Somebody's got to do it. And tomorrow I absolutely have to get to the morning market in Saint-Aignan to pick up that guinea fowl capon we plan to cook on Sunday.

22 December 2011

Steak au poivre for a birthday

Somehow I've managed to catch a very bad cold. That's un gros rhume in French. Je tousse (I'm coughing), j'ai le nez qui coule (my nose is running), et j'ai mal à la gorge (I have a sore throat). I have no energy and I'm sleeping 15 hours a day. Except for the miserable cold symptoms, maybe that's a good way to get through the winter.

It was a huge steak (565 grams) and we have leftovers for today.

Yesterday was Walt's birthday and we made our “traditional” birthday dinner of steak au poivre (pan-seared steak served rare in a black pepper & cream sauce) with pommes de terre frites and salade verte. It's a dinner Walt had in a restaurant in Antibes, near Nice on the Côte d'Azur (the "French Riviera"), when he turned twenty-something in 1981.

The sauce is also good with the French fried potatoes.

We spent his birthday together in 1982 and I cooked steak au poivre for him — he didn't really think I knew how to make it, but it was a dish I had learned to cook during my time in Paris in the 1970s and early '80s. Unless my arithmetic is off, this is the 30th year in a row that we've enjoyed the birthday steak au poivre together — and the ninth time in France.

Don't forget the French bread (delivered by the village baker)...

The dinner yesterday was excellent, featuring a big, thick slice of what is called rumsteak in France. I think that's a transliteration of the term "rump steak" but I'm not sure it's the same cut of beef. Whatever it is, it's very lean and pretty tender. The sauce made with crushed black peppercorns, cognac (or the Normandy apple brandy called calvados this time) and crème fraîche goes really well with it, compensating for the meat's lack of fat.

...or the red wine, a 2010 Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil
from the Loire Valley.

Maybe this cold will go away before Christmas Day, but I'm not counting on it.

21 December 2011

Chimneys and fireplaces

For English-speaking Americans, the terminology that describes fireplaces and chimneys in French can get fairly confusing. I won't talk about other regional Englishes, because I'm not sure all Anglophones use the same vocabulary in this area.

In the U.S., the chimney is the conduit through which smoke and gases are allowed to escape from a fireplace, a stove, a boiler, or a furnace. The chimney is "the passage" through which fumes pass, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. It is also the vertical structure (usually in brick) though which the chimney passes, and it's the visible part of the structure that sticks up through the roof of a building.

When I heard that a chimney at our friends' had blown
down in the recent storm,
this is not what I imagined.
However, there is significant damage to the roof.

In French, « une cheminée » is something more. According to the Grand Robert dictionary, it is "a device or structure (un dispositif) composed of a fireplace (un foyer) and a pipe (un tuyau) designed to evacuate the smoke from a fire." That's the first meaning.

More specifically and in everyday language, the cheminée is "the lower part of the device or structure that extends into a room" and in which a fire is lit. In other words, cheminée is the French word for fireplace.

Of course, cheminée in French also means the passage smoke and fumes pass through to the exterior, as well as the structure through which it passes and which is visible on the roof of a house or other building.

The chimney that fell over is one that takes away fumes
from the oil-fired boiler.

So when you want to say something about a chimney (U.S. meaning) or about a fireplace, you used the same word in French. To distinguish between the two, you can use the French word conduit, meaning "flue," because the everyday meaning of cheminée is the fireplace. Passer une soirée autour de la cheminée means to spend the evening sitting in front of the fire(place).

A feu de cheminée is not at all "a chimney fire." A chimney fire is to be avoided at all costs unless you want your house to burn down.

In American English, we also use the word "smokestack" to describe the towers on factories or locomotives that let smoke escape. Those too are cheminées in French. According to the AHD, British English calls those chimneys too.

And then you have to figure out the differences in meaning between foyer in French and "foyer" in English.

20 December 2011

Walking with dogs in winter

Sunday morning, Walt and Callie were coming back home from the morning walk when they met a neighbor who lives down the hill walking two golden retrievers. They stopped to talk out by the crucial poteau électrique about the big storm and the ensuing power outage.

Sunday morning view of the vineyard

Sundays are hunting days, and we make sure our walk is finished before 9:00 a.m., because that's when the hunters show up. The neighbor woman was just arriving at that hour, and heading out into the rows of vines. I guess she knows what she's doing. One of her dogs was on a leash, I think, but the other was running loose the way Callie does.

You can see the red car that belongs to Roland, one of the faithful hunters, parked out by the vineyard workers' shed.

19 December 2011

Collateral damage

Some American friends of our own a house out in the country about 10 miles south of Saint-Aignan. They don't live here at this point — they just come over and spend a month in the summertime. We went out there and watched the Tour de France cyclists race by last summer.

Our friends weren't so lucky with the recent storm. They got a report from a contractor who checked their property Saturday saying that one of their chimneys was blown off by Joachim's high winds on Friday.

I made a yogurt cake with shredded coconut one day
last week. Guess who was interested.

I'm going to drive out into the country this morning to meet the contractor, who is a stone mason. I'll give him the keys to the house so he can get in to patch up the damage and then do a permanent repair this winter. It's supposed to rain tonight.

I took a walk in the woods late yesterday afternoon with the dog. There are a lot of trees down, especially small spindly ones. I had to step or even climb over a few that were lying across the path — Callie scooted under most of them. I think we'll have to avoid that path for the next few months, because a couple of big trees are leaning precariously and risk falling on anybody walking through.

18 December 2011

La tempête appelée Joachim

The wind started blowing really hard after midnight — in the wee hours of Friday morning, in other words. The house shook and the roof tiles clattered. It rained about 1½ inches — 37 mm — in just a few hours.

Since we sleep up under the roofline now that the loft is finished, the racket and the shaking is much more perceptible than it used to be. And the two big cedar trees in our yard are right outside the window, on the northwest corner of the house. I could hear the gusts whooshing through their branches.

Getting the power back on

The way the wind was blowing, the tallest tree would not have fallen on us, but away from the house, if it had succumbed to the wind. However, it bent and swayed and rocked quite a bit. In the early morning, as light started to dawn, I could see its branches waving around just outside the loft windows. I knew it hadn't blown over, at least. The wind was still gusting as high as 70 mph.

The electricity was on at that point, because I noted the time on my digital clock radio. It was about 6:50 a.m., and I thought I might get up and make some tea or coffee. Turn on the heat. Look at the computer and the television for news. But I dozed for a few more minutes.

The poteau électrique out back was the focus of a lot of attention.

My eyes were sort of half open right around 7:00 when there was a sudden flash of light outside, as if a bright lightning bolt had descended from a cloud. But Joachim was a cold storm, and there was no lightning or thunder in it. The bright flash of light also woke Walt up, and it cut the electricity off — the clock radio went dark.

It must have been a transformer burning out, or exploding, one of us said. Damn. We made it through the night without a power cut, and now at 7:00 a.m. we're dead in the water. Walt got up and started lighting candles and making tea. Since we use bottled gas for cooking, we could boil water. Walt had taken the precaution of bringing in enough dry firewood to get the wood stove going for heat.

Our neighbor the mayor — madame le maire — consulted
with the EDF work crew.

In preparation, we had closed all the shutters around the house, so we couldn't yet see outdoors. Besides, it was still dark. The hard wind and strong gusts would continue until nearly noontime. We finally got a look outside around 9:00, and we saw that all three of our tall conifers, as well as the big decrepit apple tree, were still upright. I walked out on the road to a point where I could see the roof and confirmed that no tiles had blown off. I got soaked of course.

And then we waited. I tried to call the people at the mairie, but the phone was constantly busy. We have a couple of old-style telephones that don't require electricity, so we were not completely cut off from the outside world. And we have a couple of battery-powered radios, so we could get some news. A ship ran aground off the southern coast of Brittany; the crew was rescued. Trees and a grain silo fell on railroad tracks and main roads all around western France, so traffic was perturbé. People were evacuated from low-lying areas along the Atlantic coast.

Our back yard is none the worse for wear.

Meanwhile, we had leftover blanquette de veau for lunch. It was hot and comforting.

In the afternoon I succeeded in getting somebody at the mairie on the phone. The current was back on down in the village center, and they were saying ours would come back on by nightfall. Nightfall came and we really were in the dark — no restoration of power. What should we do about the freezers, we wondered. Walt went up to bed at 7:30 p.m.

I sat in the living room and listened to the radio by candle light. Bertie the cat came meowing at the window so I brought him in and held him in my lap for half an hour. Then he wanted to go back out. I kept putting logs on the fire until I too gave it up and went to bed, at about 9:00.

Putting up the new transformer

The wind had died down hard rain fell at several points. I had taken Callie out for an afternoon walk and had a look around the hamlet. Thank goodness no trees were blown over and the rooftops all around were intact. No windows had blown out, and we all had stayed relatively warm and completely dry in our houses.

Saturday morning we still had hot water! We were invited out for the afternoon to have a long lunch with American friends who live down the road. They hadn't lost power at all, and had no damage from the storm. I called the mairie again, and they told me the power should be back by early afternoon. We were glad to be able to take showers before going out.

Then they were gone, and we were back on the grid.

It was a beautiful day, bright and sunny. I went to the market and order a guinea fowl capon for next weekend's Christmas dinner. I got back home before noon and shortly afterward, four or five blue EDF (Electricité de France) trucks drove up the road. The had a sort of crane and a cherry-picker. Minutes later, there were six or seven men working out back.

They took down the old transformer, which didn't appear to have exploded and didn't have any burn marks on it. They put up a new, larger transformer. Then they drove away in all those trucks. Five minutes later, the power came back on. We checked all around to make sure everything was working and then we left to go to our friends' warm house for lunch.

The power outage had lasted only 30 hours this time, compared to 5 days in February 2010. Our only casualty, as far as we can tell, was Walt's computer monitor. It's one we've had for more than 10 years. I think a surge burned out its power block. Too bad, because it was a great monitor.

16 December 2011

The impending tempest

« Reconstruite au 16 siècle et flanquée d'une haute tour Renaissance à lanternon, la cathédrale [de Blois] fut presque entièrement détruite en 1678 par un ouragan... »

“Rebuilt in the 16th century and flanked by a tall Renaissance bell tower, the [Blois] cathedral was almost entirely destroyed in 1678 by a hurricane...”

The quote above is from the Michelin Green Guide to the Châteaux de la Loire.

Let's hope it didn't happen again last night. I'm writing this on Thursday evening 12/15. Weather forecasts call for a strong windstorm — une tempête or "tempest" — that will hit northwestern France tonight, with gusts up to 85 mph on the coast and 70 mph here in the Saint-Aignan area.

City hall and the cathedral in Blois

The storm is named Joachim. Winter storms like this can be called "hurricanes" in French — ouragans — even though in English the term means a "tropical" storm. According to an article in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, 22 such storms have "devastated" France since the year 1700. And that doesn't include the one that destroyed the cathedral in Blois in 1678.

Another article I read today says there were terrible tempests in France in January 1362 (not a typo) and on the Toussaint holiday (Halloween) in 1570. The author says that the French government possesses very detailed records of such historical events because the national government was so well developed and centralized under the Old Regime — before the 1789 Revolution. Unfortunately, historians haven't yet done much research using the existing data.

Here's a graphic from an article in Le Figaro.

The latest severe storms in France were the Christmas 1999 ouragan, and the late-February 2010 storm named Xynthia. The '99 storm caused great damage to houses and trees, including in the park at Versailles and on the streets of Paris, and the '10 storm caused severe flooding on the Atlantic coast north of La Rochelle and 50 or more deaths by drowning.

Expect more news on Saturday from Saint-Aignan, where the shutters are all closed tight, all outdoor objects are moved indoors or tied down, and the residents are hoping for the best.

15 December 2011

Blanquette de veau

Blanquette de veau is another of those classic dishes — like bœuf bourguignon, choucroute garnie, coq au vin, cassoulet, or gratin d'endives au jambon — that Walt and I make at least once a year, and sometimes more often. All are wintertime specialties, a.k.a. comfort food.

All food, though, is comfort food to me.

Blanquette de veau

Looking back over my blog, I can't find a single post (out of the 2,047 blog topics I've posted since 2005) with photos about blanquette de veau. I once posted the blanquette recipe that I follow, and I posted once about blanquette de dinde. I also wrote about American chicken and dumplings, which is a very similar dish. Poultry blanquettes are good, but the veal version is the classic.

Cut the veal into chucks for stewing with aromatic vegetables.
You can put the spices and herbs in a tea ball to make
them easy to remove from the broth.

Blanquette de veau — white veal stew — is actually really easy to make. Of course, you need a couple of pounds of good, pale pink veal. The best cut of veal for the stew is the shoulder, and I usually buy a rolled, boned shoulder roast of veal when I want to make a blanquette. At the markets they also sell other, fattier cuts of veal — breast (poitrine, tendrons), neck (collier), or shank (jarret) — sometimes still on the bone.

Here's the pot ready to put on the heat.
I added leek tops and shallots.

When you use cuts of meat with a lot of fat or bones, you probably get a very rich broth, but the standard recipe calls for cooking the meat and then trimming it of bone and fat before you put it in a white velouté sauce made with that broth. With veal shoulder, little or no trimming is necessary, and the price is only slightly higher for the leaner-but-tender shoulder roast.

As I said, it's an easy recipe. You just simmer chunks or pieces of veal in enought water to cover them with a pint of white wine added. Flavor the stew with a whole onion or two (or shallots), a couple of carrots cut into chunks, bay leaves, thyme, black pepper, salt, and either a clove or two or a half-dozen allspice berries. A stalk of celery and some leek leaves are good additions. At the beginning of the cooking time, skim off any foam that rises to the surface of the liquid. Let the pot simmer on low heat for two hours.

The meat and vegetables after two hours' cooking
in wine and water

Meanwhile, trim and wash half a pound of mushrooms and half a pound of pearl onions. To peel pearl onions, drop them in boiling water for two minutes and then put them in a cold water bath. When they're cool enough to handle, the skins will slip right off. If you can't get pearl onions, just coarsely chop a big yellow or white onion and use that. It won't look as pretty, but you'll have the flavor.

Here's what a veal roast looks like. Cut it in half with a
big knifeto remove the strips of fat and the string
before cutting up the meat.

After two hours, take the pieces of meat and the vegetables out of the broth and put them aside to cool. Trim the meat as much as you feel necessary. Discard the aromatic vegetables (or keep the carrots and celery if you want to add them to the final stew). You can do all this the day before and keep everything in the refrigerator overnight.

With the broth, make a velouté sauce — melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a pot and cook 6 tablespoons of flour in it for two or three minutes. Stir well, and then add a pint of the veal broth and stir the liquid constantly over high heat until the sauce thickens. Add a cup of liquid cream for richness and color, and add some more broth if necessary to get the consistency you want.

Stewed veal, vegetables, mushrooms, and pearl onions in a
velouté sauce make a blanquette de veau.

Then add the mushrooms and pearl onions to the sauce and let them cook at the simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Try an onion to make sure it's done. When you're ready, add the veal and any vegetables you decided to keep and let it all heat through. It's ready to serve. One addition that really perks up blanquette de veau is a squeeze of fresh lemon juice at the last minute, or even at the table.

Blanquette is usually served with rice, but it's also good with pasta or boiled potatoes. You really need a green salad with a sharp vinaigrette afterwards to cleanse your palate.

14 December 2011

December storms and menus

We are still having 40 to 50 mph winds this morning. Hard rain beating against the roof and the skylight windows woke me up at about 4:00 a.m. I just watched the weather report on TéléMatin. This wind is supposed to continue through the day, with bands of rain sweeping through.

Yesterday we decided to go ahead and go out shopping despite the weather. In fact, by 10:00 the wind and rain seemed to have died down. Fat, wind-driven drops of rain started falling again just as we pulled out of the driveway, and by the time we got over to the Intermarché across the river the wind had picked up again and "ropes of rain" were coming down, as they say in French. We had to run from the car to the entrance of the supermarket.

Here's the house all closed up against the wind and rain.
It's nice having shutters to protect the windows.

Callie got just a short walk in the morning. She doesn't really like going out in the rain, especially when the wind is strong. We went a couple of hundred yards out into the vineyard, and then she turned and looked at me inquisitively. "Do you want to go back home?" I asked her. She ran and jumped up on me, and then took off flying down the dirt road toward the house.

Dead leaves were blowing around all through the vineyard.
I like how they gather in the puddles and pot holes
along the gravel road.

At Intermarché, the parking lot and the aisles were full of people wearing rain gear. I was glad I'd decided to wear my hooded raincoat for the excursion. The reason for the trip was that there were a few things we really needed, and then there were some things on special that we didn't want to miss out on.

One thing we bought was a coq — a big rooster — that weighs just over 6 lbs. Coqs were on sale for 3.75 euros a kilo — that's 1.70 euros/lb. What I bought says « coq à braiser » on the label — it needs braising rather than just roasting. My reason for buying it is that we haven't had coq au vin for quite a while, and it's nice once in a while to make the dish using a real coq and not just a regular chicken. The texture of the meat is entirely different. Into the freezer it will go and we won't cook it until January.

Walt put up some Christmas lights a couple of days ago.

Another thing we got was a one-kilo piece of boneless veal shoulder. Walt said he really wanted to have blanquette de veau, which is one of the classics of French cooking. I like to make blanquette with veal shoulder, which is less fatty than the pieces of breast and neck that often go into the dish. Rolled and tied boneless veal shoulder roasts were on sale at 9.90 euros per kilo, or 4.50 euros/lb. I'm going to cook that this morning. We've eaten fish every day since last Saturday, so we are ready for a change of diet.

Here's the weather forecaster delivering the bad news
for the afternoon. « Grésil » is sleet or ice pellets.

The hard rain stopped falling while we were in the supermarket, but by the time we got through the checkout line we saw and heard that it had started up again. The supermarkets and other outlying stores here have uninsulated sheet-metal rooftops with skylights, and big heavy raindrops make a real racket falling on them. We laughed and told the cashier we gotten wet on the way into the store and would be getting wet again on the way out. Such was your destiny today, she said with a smile.

So far the house is weathering the storms just fine.

The weather report says we'll get more than an inch of rain with winds over 60 mph tomorrow night and Friday morning. Something to look forward to...