31 May 2011

Changes of scenery

There's water on the edge of the terrace this morning, which means it must have rained a little overnight. It may be sprinkling rain right now, but it's too gray and dim outside for me to be sure. I'll go out with the dog in a few minutes and get a better idea.

The stormy weather and rain stayed mostly to the east and
south of us. This is looking east yesterday afternoon.

Yesterday we had a shower in the morning and another in evening, each giving us just the slightest trace of rain. And it was hot in the afternoon: about 27ºC, or 81ºF. Now that might not seem hot where you live, but believe me, in Saint-Aignan that's sizzling. Remember, not air-conditioning. The sun is especially hot here, it seems to me, when skies are not cloudy.

A tractor path out in the vineyard, looking south

I went out around six o'clock yesterday afternoon to inspect the garden and walk the dog, and I found some of the plants in my little plot of collard and mustard greens lying flat and wilted on the dry ground. I hadn't realized how hot the sun was and how dry the soil had gotten. When I got back from the walk, I pulled the hose back there and watered everything thoroughly. I figured it that didn't make it rain, nothing would. There were dark clouds and rumbles of thunder to our southeast.

The ground is dry, but the reason why this grass under
the vines is so brown is — I think — herbicides.

I'm getting ready to take a car trip to Paris and points north and east. I leave Saturday morning for the drive to Paris and lunch with friends there. The city will be overwhelming — sound, fury, frenzy — especially in a car. The neighborhood I'm going into is the site of a big street fair all day Saturday and Sunday, and there's also a big food market on Saturday mornings. Parking will not be fun, but I'll just drive around until I find a space somewhere.

Our neighbors' houses under threatening skies

I'm looking forward to the trip and it will give me something different to blog about. You, like me, have probably had it with my moaning and groaning about the weather, the drought, the painting and planting projects, and all the rest. I need a change of scenery but I'm sorry Walt can't go with me. He's stuck here with the dog to walk, the cat to feed and play with, and the garden to water and weed (and he's fine with that). Lucky him. Lucky me.

30 May 2011

A spider's nest

MétéoFrance is teasing us with a forecast of showers and even thunderstorms later today and overnight. If we get any moisture at all, it will be welcome. It looks like the showers and storms won't really get activated until they move into the eastern half of the country, leaving us still high and still dry.

Time to go water some things out in the garden, sparingly. Below, a sight I've been seeing fairly frequently out in the vineyard on my walks: what appears to be a spider's nest.

Un nid d'araignée ?

Sometimes the hole in the center of the web is more difficult to see, but sometimes it's even clearer, looking darker and deeper, than the one in my picture. What I haven't yet seen is the spider. The web gives you the impression that it would be a fierce-looking creature.

29 May 2011

Cherries... not sure

The cherry tree out on the edge of the vineyard is amazing this spring. It's really loaded down with bright red fruit, and nobody is picking any of it. Not the people who came and picked a lot of cherries last year. Not me. Not even the birds.

These are so-called "sour" cherries — cerises acides — that are best used in their cooked form. Pies, clafoutis, tarts, preserves, jam, sauces either sweet for dessert or sweet-and-sour to accompany duck or pork or turkey... those are perfect uses for them.

For some reason, I'm not into it this year. I really don't need to make more confiture. I still have many jars of plum jam down in the pantry, and it's my favorite. We're not eating duck right now. And I'm finding green vegetables — haricots verts, okra, collard and mustard greens, lettuces, spinach, grapevine leaves — more appetizing than sweet-and-sour sauces to go with meat.

A friend did bring us a bag of sweet cherries that she picked in her yard, and Walt made a clafoutis and a couple of batches of cherry ice cream. All that was really good. The same friend gave us a jar of her home-made cherry sauce, which we really enjoyed over home-made vanilla ice cream. Another friend called to say her cherry trees were also really loaded down, and told us to come a pick some. We haven't taken her up on the offer.

Maybe those really succulent, juicy, dark sweet cherries killed my taste for sour cherries this year. What I do want to try, though, is growing a sour cherry tree from the pits of cherries harvested on the nearby tree. And maybe if we had one growing right in our yard, I'd be more motivated.

I may still find myself out there picking sour cherries today or tomorrow morning. We'll see.

P.S. — Two hours later. We were out working in the garden when two people came to pick cherries. Their car is not registered in our département. I went out to talk to them and ask them if they own the land that the cherry tree is on, and which adjoins our property. They said their aunt owns the land, and said: « Elle est en Bretagne, la dame. » — "The lady who owns it is in Brittany."

I don't know if that means she lives in Brittany, or is just on vacation there. Anyway, I told them I'd really like to have that land cleaned off and tended to, because it has become a huge blackberry bramble. And the blackberry vines are starting to pull down our fence. They're already growing over into our yard all along that border. Keeping them cut back is a constant battle.

They said they'd talk to their aunt about it. I understand you can require your neighbors to keep their property in good condition. You have to get agreement from the mayor. I also asked the cherry-pickers if they thought their aunt would want to sell that piece of land. They said they'd mention it to her. Maybe that's a first step. We've thought about the possibility of buying it for years.

28 May 2011

Ways to save water

Here's a checklist I just found on a French government site recommending ways for families to reduce their water consumption. It's part of an public awareness and education campaign and explains some common-sense steps that are easy to take. If you live in California, you've heard all this before, but in English.
Chacun de nous, en modifiant ses habitudes, peut réduire sa consommation d’eau de 30 % :

Vous pouvez réduire le débit de vos robinets en les équipant d’un mitigeur, d’un aérateur, d’un économiseur ou d’une pomme de douche avec aérateur (économies d’eau de 30 à 40 %). Vous pouvez également économiser 15 % de l’eau d’une douche en installant un mitigeur thermostatique qui permet de trouver instantanément la bonne température.

En réparant les robinets et la chasse d’eau, car un robinet qui goutte, c’est 100 litres d’eau perdus chaque jour, et une chasse d’eau, c’est 1 000 litres d’eau. Les fuites peuvent représenter 20 % de la consommation d’un foyer.

Salle d’eau
Savez-vous que l’utilisation de la chasse d’eau représente 20 % de la consommation d’eau des ménages ? Pour réduire le volume d’eau utilisé, installez une chasse d’eau à double débit (3 à 6 litres d’eau au lieu de 10 litres) ou placez une brique dans le réservoir.

Privilégiez la douche au bain (50 litres au lieu de 150 litres) et interrompez le flux d’eau durant le savonnage. Vous diviserez ainsi par trois votre consommation.

Si vous coupez l’eau quand vous vous brossez les dents et quand vous vous lavez les mains, cela réduira votre consommation d’eau de moitié !

Très gourmands en eau, les lave-linge et les lave-vaisselle sont néanmoins la solution la plus économe quand ils tournent à pleine charge. Le mieux est d’investir dans des machines de classe AAA : plus efficaces, elles consomment moins d’eau : de 15 à 40 litres pour un lave-vaisselle et de 60 à 130 litres pour un lave-linge.

Arrosez votre jardin le soir, quand l’évaporation est moins forte ; vous ferez une économie d’eau de 50 % en moyenne pour la même efficacité. On conserve plus longtemps l’humidité en installant un paillage au pied des plantes.

Optez pour des techniques économes en eau : goutte-à-goutte, tuyaux suintants… Utilisez l’eau qui a servi à laver votre salade. Depuis 2007, bénéficiez d’un crédit d’impôt pour installer un équipement de récupération et de traitement des eaux de pluie.
Dry ground out around the faux well

What does it say? That people can easily reduce the amount of water their household uses by 30%. Take showers, not baths, and you'll use a lot less water. And don't let the water run while you are soaping up in the shower. Don't leave the water running while you're brushing your teeth either.

Use an energy- and water-efficient dish-washing machine instead of washing your dishes by hand. The machine uses much less water. Always do full loads in the dishwasher and clothes-washer — running them half-empty is wasteful.

Put flow restrictors and aerators on all your taps and faucets. Watch out for dripping faucets too. A lot more water than you think goes down the drain because of dripping faucets.

Don't flush the toilet more than absolutely necessary. Most new French toilets have two flush buttons, one for a full flush and one for a "half flush" that uses a lot less water. If your toilet doesn't have that kind of control, then put a brick (or my suggestion, a full plastic water bottle) in the toilet tank to cut down on the amount of water that goes into the bowl and down the drain.

Water your garden in the evening; you'll use half as much water to the same effect. Lay down mulch or straw under your plants to hold in more moisture around their roots. Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses for watering. Don't throw out the water when you wash vegetables and salad greens in the kitchen — water your plants with it. And collect rainwater. The French government gives people who install new water-collection equipment a tax credit.

A gardening expert on Télématin right now says an easy way to prevent water loss by evaporation in the garden is to put cardboard down on the round around the plants. Some people think that looks trashy (« Ce n'est pas très esthétique ! », said William, the Télématin host) but the expert says it's very effective. It would keep weeds down too, I'm sure.

27 May 2011

The drought deepens

Still no rain. I went out with Callie yesterday afternoon and I was stuck by how dry and crunchy the grass is all around. Under trees, where it's shaded, are some patches of green. But in unshaded spots everything, including weeds, is all burned and brown.

Our département, the Loir-et-Cher, is now under mild water restrictions. Départements all around us have put on tight water-usage policies. Walt and I wonder if the fact that three major rivers — the Cher, the Loire, and the Loir — flow through the Loir-et-Cher has anything to do with that difference.

Here's the back of our house and part of the yard,
to show how brown the grass is now.

However that might be, it's clear that the situation is getting worse. More than half the départements in France have now been declared drought-stricken. This morning, skies are gray but we don't expect any precipitation. Yesterday a front went through, but all we got was gusty winds, puffy clouds, and a significant drop in temperature.

The roses don't seem to mind dry weather.

I'm watching Tanya Young give the weather report on Télématin right now. She says our skies will clear this afternoon. Temperatures are normal for the season: a low of 12ºC and a high today of about 19ºC. That's cooler than it has been recently — low 55ºF, high 66ºF — but no wetter.

Another shot of the linden tree in bloom

As usual — we have been in this situation before — we are supposed to be observing water-usage restrictions, but I'm not sure exactly what they are. Walt says he heard something about watering your garden only at night. I assume that means the vegetable garden, not the lawn. We will water our new plantings, but the grass will turn browner and browner unless it rains soon. We won't waste water on it.

Kalanchoe plants also thrive in arid situations.
These are in a pot outside.

We collect rainwater and have used it for watering plants over the past month or so. But there's been so little rain that the collected water is now all used up, and it's not being replenished. I won't wash the car, but when there's no rain and mud, it doesn't really need to be washed anyway. Even Callie doesn't need a rinsing-off after our walks these days, because everything is so dry that she doesn't get dirty.

I guess water restrictions apply especially to large-scale consumers, and that means farmers and factories. Farmers can't irrigate their crops. In the immediate area around us, the only crop is grapes, and in France irrigating grapevines is prohibited anyway. The wine varies in quality and quantity from year depending on weather conditions — moisture and sunshine. Irrigating the vineyards would alter the natural process.

A close-up of Monet's 1878 painting La Rue Montorgueil,
just because I like it and used to live there

Grapevines have very deep roots, and the vineyard is green. I'm sure the growers would be happy to have a little more moisture right now, but not too much. Down in the river valley, however, between Mareuil and Pouillé in particular, there are big fields planted in feed corn. Corn needs a lot of water, but it's not getting it this year. Many crops all around the country are suffering and already being declared a loss.

26 May 2011

Under the linden

Yesterday afternoon Callie and I spent a couple of hours sitting under the linden tree — le tilleul —out back. It's in full bloom right now, and it's covered in bees and butterflies. When you walk or sit under it, the distinctive buzz of swarming insects fills your ears.

Tilleul is pronounced [tee-YUHL]. In British English, a linden tree is usually called a lime tree. That's confusing to this American, because limes are something entirely different — citrus trees. In North America, the linden is also called a basswood. Linden, lime, basswood, and tilleuls — genus Tilia —grow throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere, from eastern North America across Europe and into Asia.

Bees in the linden flowers...

At this time of year, when the linden is in flower, it dominates the "yardscape." Not only is is buzzing with insects, but the fragrance of the flowers is unmistakable and pleasant. They have medicinal uses. They're steeped in boiling water to make what is called an infusion — an herbal "tea," we say, even though real tea leaves are not necessarily part of the mixture — that can be used to treat anxiety, hysteria, migraines, indigestion, nausea, irregular heartbeat, insomnia, rumatism, gout, and a host of afflictions. It's a diuretic, and it tastes good too, at least to some people.

...and a butterfly

Sitting under a tilleul in flower is also therapeutic. The shade, the buzz, the fragrance — all of it encourages you to relax, or even doze, in a reclining chair. It doesn't hurt that you can enjoy all that only when the weather is warm and there's no wind. Yesterday, I sat under our lawn tent — le barnum, it's called in French, after P.T. — threw the tennis ball a liitle for Callie to chase, listened to the radio, and sipped a glass of white wine.

Grape vines under linden flowers

Earlier, I had cut some nice tender leaves from our few grapevines — not leaves from the vineyard, which are sprayed with various chemicals, but leaves from our yard, where we don't use insecticides or herbicides. We made a batch of stuffed grapevine leaves — dolmas, or feuilles de vigne farcies — for lunch today.

The linden and the laundry

I've posted about dolmas before, including a recipe for the rice and herb stuffing. This time, I chopped up some golden raisins — sultanas — because didn't have any little currants — raisins de corinthe — and I chopped up some shelled pistachio nuts to use in place of the pine nuts — pignons de pin — because pine nuts are so expensive. We tasted a couple of the stuffed leaves yesterday afternoon, and they are good.

Callie basking in the sun — notice how parched the grass is

We're making Greek-style chicken wings to have with the dolmas at lunch. I'm not sure people in Greece have a particular affinity for chicken wings, but I'm marinating these using the ingredients for a Greek chicken recipe I found: olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, rosemary, thyme, and oregano. We're lucky to have the herbs growing in the garden and yard.

The tilleul and the « barnum » seen from an upstairs window

Blog friends are coming for lunch. We've tidied up, run the vacuum cleaner, and prepared the lunch for the visit. The people visiting are some we have never before met in person. Those who've been reading this blog for a while, and the comments, would know who I'm talking about if I said the name. More about that later.

25 May 2011

Mme Pépin's simple cheese soufflé

As I've said, I'm re-reading Jacques Pépin's 2003 autobiography. He's America's best-known French-born chef. His autobiography includes some of his family's old recipes.

One recipe is for a cheese soufflé that his mother made when he was growing up. It's pretty simple, and "although it is slightly less airy than a standard soufflé," Pépin writes, "it is delicious... No one had told [Maman] that the eggs should be separated, with the yolks added to the base sauce and the whites whipped to a firm consistency" before being folded in. So Mme Pépin invented her own version of the fancy soufflé. It's quick and good.

This is an easy cheese soufflé that doesn't require
beating any egg whites. Sprinkle some of the grated
Swiss (or Cheddar) cheese on top before baking.

"Ignorance is bliss," he says, and in this case I agree. This soufflé does rise "to a golden height" even though it is just beaten whole eggs and grated cheese mixed into a béchamel sauce and then baked in a hot oven. I made the béchamel sauce according to Jacques Pépin's instruction and it worked perfectly. Usually I had the milk gradually to the butter-flour base, to avoid lumps, but now I see that that isn't necessary.

Here's is the recipe for a soufflé that will serve three or even four hungry people, depending on side dishes.

Jeannette Pépin’s Cheese Soufflé

6 Tbsp. butter + butter for the pan
6 Tbsp. flour
2 cups milk
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
6 eggs
2½ cups grated Gruyère (Swiss cheese)
2 tsp. minced fresh chives

Preheat oven to 400ºF. Butter a 6-cup gratin dish and set it aside.

Melt six tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, and then add the flour and mix well with a whisk. Cook for a few seconds and then add the cold milk all at once. Turn the heat up to hight and keep stirring until the sauce thickens and comes to a strong boil (about 2 minutes). Remove from heat and stir in salt and pepper. Allow about 10 minutes for the béchamel to cool.

Break the eggs into a bowl and beat well with a fork. Add the beaten eggs, grated cheese, and chives into the cooled sauce, mixing well. Pour all into the buttered gratin disk and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until puffy and well browned on top. Serve immediately.
As you can see from the pictures, this really is a soufflé, despite its simplicity. As with all soufflés, it deflates fairly quickly when it comes out of the oven. The soufflé does not wait for you, I've heard Jacques Pépin say on TV — you must wait for the soufflé.

"Stewed" green beans with lardons and onions

To go with the cheese soufflé, I made U.S. Southern-style "stewed" green beans. In California cuisine, green beans are served basically raw — just very slightly steamed — and while that can be good, I have never lost my taste for the Southern (and French, I might add) way of cooking them long and slow, seasoned with salt-cured or smoked pork, onions, and maybe a bay leaf or two.

I used frozen green beans in this case, because
it's not yet haricots verts season in France.

I have to say this was one of the best lunches we've had in a while. You can see in the pictures how much the soufflé puffed up despite not having beaten egg whites folded into it. By the way, I cut all the ingredients down by a third because I just wanted to make a four-egg soufflé, and that worked fine.

24 May 2011

2003 memories and tornadoes

I'm thinking about the poor people of Joplin, the tornado-devastated city in Missouri. I can't say I've ever been there — not really — but I did spend night once on the outskirts of the town. It was in May of 2003.

Walt and I were driving across the United States, from California to North Carolina via Champaign, Illinois, where we were going to visit old friends Harriett and Tom. We might have gotten farther that day, but for a truck accident up ahead of us on the highway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. We had started out early from Tucumcari, New Mexico, that morning. I think our goal for the day might have been Springfield, Missouri. That's a trip of 650 miles — more than 1000 km.

The interstate highway in Oklahoma went from this...

...to this, in the blink of an eye, and we didn't know why.
This is how I remember American traffic.

Anyway, after sitting in stopped traffic for an hour or more on I-44 in Oklahoma, we were exhausted. We didn't even know why traffic had come to a standstill. It was hot and the dog was restless — Collette was 11 years old then, and had never spent so many days in a row in the car. We had put her new kennel in the back of the Jeep. She didn't know it, but she was going to travel to France in that kennel a few weeks later, in the baggage hold of an airliner.

For weeks Collette had been treating the new kennel as if it were a prison cell, refusing to go near it, much less inside. But on the cross-country trip she curled up in it and slept tranquilly, starting on the second day on the road. It was comfortable — a refuge — and she had made peace with it. That was a relief for us, given the long, stressful trip she was going on.

Collette, unlike Callie, loved going for rides in the car, but that day in Oklahoma she didn't enjoy sitting in a car that wasn't moving. She wanted to go outside and sniff around, but we couldn't get out of the car. We didn't know when traffic might start moving again. We all had to pee, actually, but we were stuck in the traffic jam behind the wreck, and we weren't getting status reports.

The State Capitol building in Oklahoma City

Anyway, we finally made it as far as Joplin MO and called it a day. We found a room in a motel that accepted dogs in the rooms. It was a Motel 6. We stayed mostly in Motel 6s as we crossed the country, because of the establishments' dog-friendly policies. Motel 6 is part of the Accor hotel chain. That's a French operation, and you know how dogs are not just tolerated but welcomed at most French restaurants and hotels. At Motel 6 too, and that's exceptional in the U.S.

Walt and Collette at a rest stop in Oklahoma, May 2003

Speaking of restaurants, we were hungry. We needed to find a place for dinner, and the first one we came upon was a Ruby Tuesday, a typical American franchise restaurant. It was near the intersection of 32nd Street and Rangeline Road in Joplin. I wonder if it survived the tornado on Sunday. I know from looking at maps that Sunday's tornado caused great destruction along Rangeline Road.

It was May 2, a Friday night, when we were there in 2003 (I won't explain how I remember that — another long story). Friday night is "date night" in America, of course, and in a little Midwestern city like Joplin that was obviously a big deal. The restaurant was packed with young people on dates. They were all dressed up and obviously having a fun evening. Maybe it was prom weekend or something similar.

Walt and I locked Collette in the car out in the parking lot — no dogs allowed in restaurants in America, of course — and went in to see if we could get a table. We got one, and it seemed to be located squarely in the middle of a sea of tables occupied by couples or groups of spiffed-up, fresh-faced 20-year-olds, or even teenagers. We ordered barbecued ribs, or at least I did. I don't really remember what Walt ordered.

By the time we got to Joplin, it was too dark to take photos.

The thing that drew everybody's attention to us traveling codgers was the wine. We ordered a bottle. Red. We were coming from California, after all, where the wine flows freely... and, paradoxically, expensively. We were used to having that thick, slightly sweet, very alcoholic California red wine with our dinners. "A whole bottle?" the very young waitress asked, astonished.

Yes, I said. She had to go see if they had any bottles of red wine behind the bar, and what kind it might be. I don't remember what label it had on it, but she did eventually bring a bottle to the table. She had a lot of trouble figuring out how to use the corkscrew to open it. She was very nervous. By then, all heads had turned and everybody in the place was watching these two old guys waiting to get their glasses filled and start drinking wine.

There was whispering. The crowd had never seen anybody open a bottle of wine before — much less drink one. At least that was my impression. Some of them were drinking beer, of course. But not vino. I didn't see any in glasses on any other table. There were smiles and amusement all around, mind you, not hostile or scandalized reactions, as we tasted the wine. Everybody was impressed, I think, in a good-natured Midwestern kind of way.

Walt and his Jeep somewhere in Oklahoma in 2003

So that's my memory of Joplin, Missouri. That night, tornadoes were predicted to touch down nearby, and soon. We headed out early the next morning, driving toward St. Louis and beyond, into the wilds of the Illinois prairie. In Champaign that night, or maybe it was the next, there were strong thunderstorms with sharp lightning, but no tornadoes. Thankfully.

Back in southwestern Missouri, near Joplin, the May tornadoes were disastrous. I'm talking about 2003, not 2011. In Pierce City (pop. 1400), just 35 miles east of Joplin, a powerful tornado destroyed or damaged many structures in the town, including most of the buildings in the old downtown, which subsequently had to be torn down. Five people died. There's a Wikipedia article about it.

Those tornadoes chased us all across Illinois and Indiana, into Kentucky, for the next few days. We saw funnel clouds in the sky as we drove south toward Tennessee, and listened to storm warnings and alerts on the radio. It rained so blindingly hard that we had to pull off the road at certain points and wait for it to let up. But we eventually made it to another Motel 6, this one in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, still in a driving rain.

23 May 2011

White wine and duck fat. Oh, and greens.

The garden is going in, little by little. Walt has planted tomatoes, bell peppers (poivrons), summer squash (two varieties), and little French pumpkins called potimarrons. These last are, like other pumpkins, a winter squash — a variety of Cucurbita maxima — and are also known in France as courges chataigne — "chestnut squashes." Each one weighs between one and three kilograms and, as the names suggest, the flesh has the flavor of chestnuts. Potiron means pumpkin in French, and marron means chestnut — poti+marron.

Walt has done all the work of growing seedlings in little pots, nursing them along with frequent squirts of water, uncovering the cold frames as he judges best for sun and warmth, or protection therefrom, and then transplanting the seedlings out into the garden. I just watch, mostly. My part of the job was tilling up the garden plots and getting them ready for the new growing season.

The vegetable garden seen through some artichokes

I've adopted a little plot in the back corner of the yard as my own special project. It's the spot where the previous owners of the house had their compost pile, so the soil there is very rich. It's loose and almost sandy, compared to the hard clay soil of the rest of the yard. The only problem with it is that weeds grow in it very quickly, and in profusion. That means extra work weeding.

Last year I planted potatoes there, but this year I decided to plant "bitter" greens. I sowed seeds for both collard and mustard greens under a cold frame (une mini-serre, or "miniature greenhouse," in French). back in early March. In April I took the cold frame away and one day I transplanted half a dozen mustard plants and a dozen and a half collard plants into the open section of the garden plot, to give them room to spread and grow.

Two photos of my patch of collard and mustard greens

We cooked greens at that point. Mostly we harvested and cooked the mustard greens, leaving a lot of the collards where they had grown, in a big bunch. I figured if the plants I moved didn't survive, then I'd still have some left and I'd be able to try again. They all lived and are doing well, and I still have a thick cluster of crowded collards growing out there. One day soon, I'll harvest and cook those too.

Collard greens, as you probably know, are a southern U.S. specialty. They were always available in California too. Collards, a malformation of the word colewort, meaning "cabbage plant," according to what I've read, originally came from Africa and the Middle East. They feature prominently in Ethiopian cooking, and in Portuguese and Brazilian cooking too. I remember being pleasantly surprised to find collard greens on my plate in an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington DC years ago, when we lived there.

Walt also has a nice little row of frisée lettuces growing.
That's sometimes called curly endive in the U.S.A.
It's about time to thin the the plants and make
salads with the tender young leaves.

Some people find collards and the other plants of the Brassica family — turnips and turnip greens, kale, mustard greens, broccoli, and other cabbages — to be too bitter for their palate. In North Carolina, we always thought collard greens were better in late autumn and winter, after the plants had been touched by frost. In spring and summer, some people put the freshly picked leaves in the freezer for a few hours before they cook them, to simulate that phenomenon.

What I'm growing will be spring or summer collards, and I think I'll plant a new crop in August for the fall and winter. In my tradition, collards need to be cooked for a long time. The greens are meaty and can stand up to that kind of treatment. They are usually flavored with bacon "grease" — in much of America, grease is a negative term, but not in this context. You can also cook them with a ham hock (un jambonneau in French) or with sausages, smoked or not.

Mustard greens added to collards give them a mustardy flavor.

Since I've been living here in Saint-Aignan, I've taken to flavoring greens with duck fat. I guess I should call that "duck grease" to be authentic about it. In the U.S. South, sometimes people will add some sugar to the pot when they cook collard greens, to cut the bitterness. I used to put some apple juice in mine in California, for the same reason. Here in France, I put in some white wine. Collards in white wine and duck fat — it doesn't get much better than that. I also like them poached in chicken broth.

You don't find collard or mustard greens here in France. The closest greens, really, are chard and spinach, but they don't have the same texture or flavor. A woman from Kentucky who lives in the Auvergne region of central France recently asked me if I could send her some collard seeds. I did. I hope she and her husband have got greens growing in the garden now. Years ago, I worked with a French woman in Washington whose father, on a visit, thought collards were excellent. He took seeds back to his native Champagne and started growing them there.

Callie and a tall me out on the road through
the vineyard early today

It's time for me to go out on a walk with Callie. I'll go take some pictures of my collard patch and include them in this post when I get back. The patch probably needs to be watered again, since we didn't get any measurable rain over the weekend. Now the weather is back to sunny and hot. The next chance for rain seems to be Thursday.

22 May 2011

Flowers and life

We're not getting any rain but we've got a lot of flowers all around. Here are three that I've seen and photographed on my recent walks with Callie the border collie.

I'm re-reading Jacques Pépin's autobiography and enjoying it again. He started working in restaurant kitchens when he was 10 years old — his parents' restaurants — and at 13 he was officially an apprentice in a kitchen in Bourg-en-Bresse. That was when he quit school.

What a different life — actually learning how to do something. The only thing I learned how to do after more than 20 years of formal education was to understand and speak French. And teach it. My apprentissage shaped my later life the way Pépin's early restaurant experiences shaped his.

21 May 2011

Il pleut

Mais le soleil brille en même temps. It won't last, but we are getting a few drops.

By the time I got this picture uploaded to the blog, the rain had stopped.

Oh how I wish...

...that it would rain, doo doo doo doo. Planting the vegetables in the garden, and planting annuals in the window boxes, I just can't get this song out of my head. The words don't apply exactly, but the refrain sure does express a prevailing sentiment around Saint-Aignan.

Day before yesterday, in the evening, we saw a big dark cloud in the western sky. I took a picture of it. But it just blew on by and we didn't get a drop of moisture out of it. Yesterday we didn't even have a serious cloud.

How long can this dry spell go on? Will there be hell to pay this summer? Or in a month or two will we be saying, mimicking Louis XIV : « Après mai, le déluge ! » ?

20 May 2011

Warm bean and bacon salad

I was nosing around on the Washington Post newspaper site on the 'net the other day when I came across a Jacques Pépin recipe. Pépin is a well-known cook, author, and TV personality in the U.S., but he is not really known in France at all.

Jacques Pépin was born in the French city of Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyons, in 1935. His parents owned and operated a restaurant there. He worked as an apprentice and then a chef in France through the 1950s, mainly in Paris. Then he immigrated to the U.S. in 1959. He worked in the test kitchens of the Howard Johnson's hotel & restaurant chain in the 1969s, as well as in French restaurants in and around New York. He also earned a master's degree in French literature at Columbia University. He started doing cooking shows on TV in the U.S. in the late 1980s.

Warm bean and bacon salad

If I have a favorite French chef, it's Jacques Pépin. His recipes, both in his many books and on his TV shows, are completely uncomplicated, unfussy, and straightforward home-style preparations. Because he has spent most of his life in America, he knows how to use American ingredients and products to produce French-style results.

Anyway, I was happy to find Jacques Pépin's recipe for this warm bean and bacon salad. He uses beans out of a can, because they are one vegetable that does not suffer much from the canning process. I actually used dried beans to make my salad, because I had some in the pantry downstairs and wanted to cook them. I used white beans, but other kinds — red beans, pinto beans, black beans, or black-eyed peas — would work just as well.

A mixture of plain-cooked, unsalted
white beans and lima beans

Pépin also calls for slab bacon in his recipe. That's not an easy kind of bacon to find in many parts of the U.S., in my experience. Not in California, anyway. But here in France it's an everyday product called lard maigre (lean bacon) or poitrine de porc (pork "belly" or breast). You cut slab bacon into chunks or matchstick shapes to make what French cooks call lardons. The French poitrine comes in smoked or salt-cured versions, or you can buy it fresh (uncured).

A substitute for French poitrine de porc or slab bacon in America is Italian pancetta, which might be easier to find in many places than slab bacon — especially in cities with a large Italian population. You could also use regular American bacon — thick-sliced would be best.

Sautéed lardons, onions, and garlic

The other indispensable ingredients for the bean and bacon salad are onions, garlic, a simple dressing of oil and vinegar, and some fresh herbs. As I said, this is a typical Jacques Pépin recipe — no muss, no fuss; simple, quick, and good. Especially if you use beans out of a can. Be sure to rinse them well before making them into salad.

Here is Jacques Pépin's recipe for the warm bean and bacon salad. I found it later on a Canadian site, with quantities given in North American and metric measurements.

Warm Bean and Bacon Salad
Start to finish: 20 minutes. Makes 6 servings.
  • 250 g (8 oz.) slab bacon or pancetta, cut into 1-cm (½-inch) pieces
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 250 ml/1 cup)
  • 6 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
  • 2 cans (398 ml/14 oz.) navy or other small white beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 ml (½ tsp) salt
  • 125 ml (½ cup) chopped fresh parsley
  • 45 ml (3 tbsp) red wine vinegar
  • 45 ml (3 tbsp) olive oil
  • 5 ml (1 tsp) ground black pepper
In a medium saucepan over low heat, place bacon. Saute, covered, for about 8 minutes, or until meat has rendered much of its fat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring, for about 5 seconds. Transfer contents of saucepan, fat and all, to a large bowl.

Add beans, salt, parsley, vinegar, oil and pepper. Mix well, then serve warm or at room temperature.

Source: Recipe adapted from "Essential Pepin" by Jacques Pepin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2011).
By the way, Jacques Pépin's autobiography, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen (2003), is a very good read.

19 May 2011

I can see clearly now...

Well, not really. They are glass blocks, after all.

I got up early yesterday morning. By 8:00 a.m., I had made coffee, watched the news and weather, and finished my blog post. So I set about cleaning the glass block windows. It went much faster than I had thought it would. It was all done before 9:00.

All cleaned up and shiny

That left a good part of the morning for me to spend on yard work. Cutting blackberry brambles out of the bay laurel hedge, for example. Pulling ivy off tree trunks. Pruning a big bush and gathering up the clippings. All those are Sisyphean tasks. Then it was time to cook lunch: Chinese stir-fried beef with asparagus, ginger, garlic, and noodles. Afterward, Walt cooked up some spéculoos cookies and sliced some fresh strawberries for dessert.

I guess it's time to put the curtains back up.

It was somehow a typical day. Now I'm feeling a little let down. The painting job is very close to absolute completion. Now what will I do with all the hours in the day? More cooking, I guess. Longer walks with the dog. Waiting for the garden to start producing, and then processing the produce for canning or freezing.

Looking down the stairs

It's summer here in Saint-Aignan and it has come so early that I'm disoriented. I could use a rainy day. I miss weather that changes with regularity. Besides, the collard patch needs the moisture, as will the rest of the garden as soon as it's planted.

And besides, I had a miserable allergy attack yesterday afternoon and evening. Watery eyes, sneezing, needles in the nose. The temperature in the loft was near 80ºF. No wind. Is that what is in store for us all summer long?