31 October 2011

A black cat for Halloween

For my Halloween post, here's a black cat. It's Bertie, of course. About 10 days ago, we had our annual "cumbersome objects" garbage pickup. That's objets encombrants. Every fall, a truck comes around on the scheduled day to take away anything you want to get rid of but that's too big to fit easily into your car for a trip to the déchetterie — the recycling center.

Bertie the Black Cat

This year we finally got rid of an old armchair that we bought when we first arrived here in Saint-Aignan eight years ago. The upholstery was coming apart and was stained. We also got rid of an enormous old CRT television set that we hadn't used in a year or two, since we got a flat panel TV to replace it. And we got rid of the old lawn mower that gave out last spring, and an antique wheelbarrow for which we never were able to find a new wheel and tire.

Bertie perched in an old armchair on the side of the road,
just watching the world go by

Usually, if you put things out a day before the scheduled pickup, scavengers will arrive in big cars and little trucks to take away anything that looks useful or strikes their fancy. I really hoped somebody would come get the TV set, which worked fine, and even the chair, which could have been repaired by somebody with the necessary skills (not me). The lawnmower too, for that matter.

Walt was in the right place at the right time when Bertie saw
a bird fly by right under his nose and jumped up
to try to catch it. The bird escaped

Problem was, it was raining the day before the pickup, and it didn't make sense to put things out in the rain. They would really get ruined then. The only thing we put out ahead of time was the old wheelbarrow, and sure enough, it was gone in an hour's time, scooped up by somebody who thought it might be useful or found it esthetically pleasing (it was painted in nice colors).

A little later, I leaned out the kitchen window
with the camera and called Bertie's name.

The next morning, we got the TV set — it must have weighed 100 pounds — loaded onto a hand truck and rolled it out of the garage to put it on the street outside our front gate. I also got the armchair down two flights of stairs and set it out there. Walt went and got the obsolete lawn mower out of the garden shed and added it to the pile.

When Bert got tired of the chair, he thought he'd try
sitting on the TV set for a few minutes.

The "junk" sat there all day, and the garbage truck never came. Nobody else came by to collect the stuff either. We had even set the remote control and the manual out on top of the TV set, hoping somebody we get it and be able to use it. No takers. The stuff stayed out there for 24 hours. Then the truck showed up and hauled it all off. The workers dragged the big old TV across the pavement by its power cord, ending any hopes of mine that it might give further service to somebody. I offered it to several people, but nobody wanted it.

Bertie on TV

But at least one creature got some final use out of all of it. Bertie found the chair that first morning and perched in it for a while during the day. When he got tired of that, he sat up on the TV for a while. Walt noticed him out there and took a couple of pictures, including the one of the cat lunging to try to catch a bird that happened to fly by. He missed. After a while, Bertie the Black Cat moved on, going out to do his usual exploring and hunting around the neighborhood... probably bothering the neighbors.

30 October 2011

'Round and 'round

Life here in Saint-Aignan is cycles and seasons. The seasons are long enough that you are almost surprised when they change and a new one settles over you. Being an amateur gardener and an amateur cook reinforces the seasonal changes. You have to notice the seasons and the weather when you have things growing in the garden — or not — and something fresh and seasonal cooking in your kitchen, in a pot or in the oven — nearly always.

So it's wintery-feeling now, and dark. It's not too cold — yet — and tant mieux for that. But it's time for winter eating. The garden is mostly cleaned up and will lie fallow for months — growing anything much will have to wait until at least next March. Most importantly, it's time to cook winter foods. Vegetables: endives, cabbage, cauliflower, and so on, with a rich chicken broth or a thick cheese sauce. It's time for winter cheeses, the kind you melt and eat hot: Gruyère, Comté, Cantal, Beaufort, and Cheddar.

Cook the endives, wrap them, and make the gratin up to this
point. Put it in the fridge until you're ready to bake it.

So here it comes around again. A few days ago, it was time for Gratin d'endives au jambon. And today it'll be cabbage with sausages, carrots, and boiled potatoes, in chicken broth with wine. But first the endives, or Belgian endive as they are called in the U.S. I understand they are very expensive over there. Here in France (and Belgium too, I'm sure), fresh crispy endives are inexpensive. They can qualify as an everyday food of the season — cooked, or raw in salads.

I've been cooking them into a gratin with ham once or twice a year for 25 years now, and I never get tired of them. Making them for the first time each autumn is almost a ritual. Cook the endives in a pan with butter, white wine, garlic, and either vinegar or lemon juice. Wrap the cooked endives in slices of ham. Make some sauce béchamel with cheese — that's called sauce mornay — and cook the ham-wrapped endives in it, with some grated cheese on top. Eat and enjoy. Feel warm.

The autumn 2011 version of Gratin d'endives au jambon.

I've posted recipes and pictures at least a couple of times before. Here are the links:

An effective treatment for the winter blahs

This blog has officially entered into its seventh year of existence. I don't know when I started posting every day, but that happened sometime along the way. I'm really aware of repeating myself right now. Maybe it's my age. There isn't much new under the sun. The seasons, they go 'round and 'round.

29 October 2011

Autumn colors

The sun came out yesterday afternoon, almost unexpectedly. We're staying in for the next few days while Walt tries to recover from his pinched nerve and his cold — yes, he's caught an autumn cold. He has another session with the kinésithérapeute on Monday. My only sorties will be walks with the dog in the woods and in the vineyard.

Maple trees out front from an upstairs window yesterday

It's not cold at all right now — in fact, temperatures are 5ºC/ 10ºF above normal, according to the weather reports on TV. But it's rainy, or at least threatening rain most of the time. The heaviest rain is still down south on the Mediterranean coast.

A tree out on the edge of the vineyard looks
like it's on fire.

Saint-Aignan is having its annual Fête de la Saint-Simon this weekend. Attending doesn't appear to be in the cards for us. It's a big sidewalk sale/flea market. People will be out drinking the season's new wine, called la bernache — it's wine that hasn't finished fermenting yet and hasn't been filtered. The taste is sweet and tart, but people always tell you not to drink much, because bernache has a definite laxative effect.

Here in France we'll be turning our clocks back an hour tonight. So the sun will rise not at 8:30 but at 7:30 for the next few months. Or maybe at 8:00, as the days get shorter and shorter until December 21. And night will fall in what a few months ago felt like the middle of the afternoon...

28 October 2011

Driving over to Vouvray

Everything was going along just fine until the car conked out near Amboise. Even that didn't put a damper on the trip. The weather was beautiful, considering it was getting to be late October. The countryside was beautiful too, green and manicured, against a backdrop of blue skies with interesting cloud formations.

What does this cloud look like to you?

I told Cheryl that we wouldn't worry about the car, since we didn't really have a schedule for the afternoon. I would just call the insurance company's roadside assistance number and get us a rental car if the Peugeot really gave up the ghost. Of course I'd have to find a phone booth, but it wasn't raining or cold.

That's my little Peugeot sitting out there by itself
in the middle of the main square in Vouvray.

The car stalled out one more time as we got to Vouvray, if I remember. But it started up again, and the check engine light actually went dark. That seemed like a good sign. Going to Vouvray is always fun, and nothing could change that. In June 2001, Walt and I had rented a gîte over there for a two-week vacation. Cheryl came and spent the first week with us, and CHM came and spent the second week. We had a lot of fun and saw a lot of sights.

Vouvray is known for its white wines — dry, sweet, or bubbly.

Thinking back on it, we had car trouble that year too. We had rented a Renault Mégane at CDG airport and driven on down to the Loire Valley. The weather was sunny and actually hot. That was good except for one thing — the air-conditioning in the Mégane was on the blink. It was blowing hot air, which wasn't helpful or comfortable.

The church in Vouvray...

It was Saturday and I started calling local rental agencies — I think it was Avis we rented from that year — on Sunday morning. I called two in Tours and one in Blois to ask if I could bring the car in and exchange it for another. No, I was told, we don't have any cars to replace it with. And that seemed to be that.

...and a closeup of the tower

I called them all again on Monday morning, if I remember correctly, only to be told the same thing. There were no cars available for the exchange. Then it dawned on me that I was asking the wrong question, and nobody was volunteering any information or help beyond giving me a short, straightforward response to my enquiry.

At the church in Vouvray

So that afternoon I made another call to the closest Avis agency, over in Tours-Nord. I have an Avis car that I rented at the airport on Saturday morning, and the climatisation is en dérangement, I told the person on the phone. If I bring it in tomorrow morning, would you have a car with working AC that I could exchange it for? « Oui, bien sûr, Monsieur. Venez nous voir vers onze heures et nous ferons l'échange. » It was magic! The agency obviously needed some lead time. They didn't like to be pushed, I guess. Most importantly, in France you have to ask the right question.

Compare these recent skies to the ones in the Vouvray photos above.

Cheryl and I went to pick up the new car the next day (Walt was watching the French Open tennis tournament on TV). It turned out to be a gigantic silver Renault Espace van — it seemed to be twice the size of the Mégane. We ended up calling it the Magic Bus and really enjoyed driving it all around the countryside. I even ended up driving it around the streets of Paris the next weekend, and was able to park it. The AC worked great and it was a lot of fun.

Looking down into the schoolyard at Vouvray

Those were the good old days, I guess, back when we were still "young" and prosperous. And when we could take carefree vacations. Good memories.

27 October 2011

Pumpkin and potato soup

Pumpkins are back in fashion in France. People used to cook and eat them 75 years ago, but by the 1970s you almost never saw them on the markets in France. The wave of popularity of the American Halloween holiday in France has reinforced the trend to grow and try them again.

That said, I remember a pumpkin soup that I had in a little restaurant somewhere out in the French countryside back in the 1970s, when I lived in Paris. I have no idea where the restaurant was located — not even the region. All I remember is sliced pumpkin, potatoes, and onions cooked in a rich broth with milk added. It was warm and well-seasoned. I think I had never before heard of pumpkin soup at that point in my life.

Walt and I have grown pumpkins of different kinds, as well as butternut-type squashes, for years now — ever since a woman in the village gave us some seeds. She said they were seeds of a courge or squash called une sucrine, which had sweet orange flesh. It was basically a butternut, as it turned out, but a local French variety.

This is a potimarron or red kuri squash, with
a coffee mug for scale.

This year, Walt grew small winter squashes that are called potimarrons in France. Poti- because they look like little potirons, or pumpkins, and -marron or chestnut because they have a that flavor. A potimarron is about the size of a volleyball. Wikipedia says it's called a red kuri squash in English.

I made soup out of one yesterday. I peeled and seeded the squash and cut the flesh into half-inch dice. That gave me about three cups, and any pumpkin or winter squash will do. I peeled three "soup potatoes" (russets would be good, because you want potatoes that will melt into the soup) and cut them into similar dice. Two cups of potato is about right. Then I put all that in a pot with some melted butter, a chopped shallot, and salt and pepper, and I let it all sort of cook down together for about 10 minutes on low heat, with frequent stirring.

At that point, pour in enough water (or light vegetable or chicken broth) to cover all the ingredients, drop in a couple of bay leaves, and let the soup cook until much of the pumpkin and potato has disintegrated into the soup liquid — at least 30 minutes. Before you serve it, you can puree the soup with a stick blender if you want to, but I kind of like leaving some soft chunks of both pumpkin and potato to eat along with the broth.

What is that in the soup?

As a garnish, garlic croutons made with either butter or olive oil would be good. How do you make croutons? Put a couple of tablespoons of oil or melted butter into a salad bowl. Cut bread into half-inch cubes, with or without the crust, and then toss the cubes in the oil or butter the way you would toss a salad. When all the bread cubes have some oil or butter on them, spread them out on a baking sheet and put them into a hot oven for three or four minutes, until they're golden brown and crunchy. Add them to the soup at the table.

The garnish I made for the pumpkin soup yesterday was spicy shrimp. The shrimp went really well with the pumpkin flavor. I put the peeled, deveined shrimp — a dozen or more for the two of us — in a bowl and seasoned them with some chopped garlic, chopped ginger, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, sweet paprika, and black pepper. Then I poured in a little oil and tossed the shrimp in it to let them marinate for 15 minutes. Finally, cook the shrimp in a hot skillet, adding a quarter cup of dry white wine right at the end to deglaze the pan.

Sauteed spicy shrimp is the answer.

Serve the spicy shrimp at the table the was you would serve croutons. The spiciness of the shrimp and a little of their cooking liquid complement the slightly sweet, slightly bland pumpkin soup really well.

By the way, we got the car back, and Walt was able to drive without much trouble but with considerable pain. He said the seat in the VW Polo that he had to sit in for 10 minutes as we drove to the garage where the repaired Peugeot was waiting was the worst. He was in agony at that point. The Peugeot seat was more comfortable. Things are finally getting back to normal around here — except of course for Walt's pinched nerve. He sees the kiné again this morning.

26 October 2011

Car troubles in Amboise and Vouvray

I haven't written much about life in Saint-Aignan recently. The things that have been going on haven't been interesting to write about. It's been easier to think back to the few days we spent on the road to and from Champagne, and in the village of Bouzy.

Today I'm going to get my car back. Sigh. It started acting up back in June or July, but the incidents were minor and it was hard to tell what was going on. Then last week, I drove over to Vouvray. The car stalled as I was pulling away from a stop sign just outside Amboise and the check engine light — le témoin « autodiagnostique » — lit up. The same thing had happened in July.

As in July, I coasted to the side of the road and waited a minute. I turned the key and the car started back up again. Rather than return home, I decided to continue west down the Loire toward Vouvray. Maybe it wouldn't happen again. Well, it did.

Four times. Twice I was at places where I couldn't easily get the car entirely off the pavement, so I turned on the emergency warning lights and waited a minute. Several cars had to figure out how to get around me. Then the car would start up again. I made it home.

I was lucky, because once the car was parked in the driveway here it wouldn't start again. It was Friday afternoon when I tried. Fortunately, back in the spring when I renewed my car insurance for another year, the woman at MMA asked if I wanted to pay a little extra for coverage in case of an accident or breakdown within 25 kilometers of my place of residence. I said yes.

So I called MMA Assistance and told them about the car problem. Within an hour, a tow truck arrived at the house. The man tried to start the car, but it wouldn't catch. The battery was fine. Then he told me to get in the car and try to start it. He went to the woodpile and picked up a log of firewood. As I turned the key and the battery turned the motor over, he banged on the gas tank with the log.

Suddenly the old Peugeot sputtered to life. I never thought I would enjoy hearing the noise a diesel engine makes, but at that moment it sounded to my ear like Bertie's purring. « Alors c'est la pompe de gavage », the towtruck driver told me — it's the fuel pump (which is inside the fuel tank). Gavage is "force-feeding." He said it could stop working unpredictably at any minute, and I knew he was right. He'd tow the car in for repair.

I called MMA Assistance back and gave them an update. I told them I'd need a rental car for a few days. They said they'd make the arrangements. A few minutes later, somebody called me back and said I could pick up a rental car Saturday morning from an Avis agency in Contres, which is ten miles north of Saint-Aignan. I didn't even know there was an Avis agency there. « Avez-vous besoin de taxi pour y aller ? », the woman asked. Yes. She said she'd make the arrangements.

A few minutes later, the woman called and said a taxi would arrive at my house at 10:30 the next morning to take me to Contres. The driver actually arrived at 10:15. We needed the rental car because our friend C. was leaving to return to Paris and California that afternoon, and Walt had a doctor's appointment on Monday morning. When I got to Contres, I signed a contract and was handed the keys to a new VW Polo (which is the same size as my little Peugeot).

I didn't pay anything. The taxi and the rental are paid for my the insurance company. Today is Wednesday, and I got a call from MMA late yesterday saying my car has been repaired. Would I need a taxi to take me from the Avis agency in Contres to the garage in Noyers-sur-Cher? No, I said, that won't be necessary this time.

So Walt and I are going this morning to get the Peugeot back — he says he can drive despite his neck injury — and then drive the two cars up to Contres to turn the rental car in. Then I can drive the two of us back from Contres in the Peugeot. (I wish human bodies were as easy to repair as car engines are.)

It's hard having just one car when you live out in the country. When you need to take the car in for repair or service, you're stranded. When you have to be without the car for a few days, it's nice to have coverage of the kind my insurance company provides. I recommend it.

25 October 2011

Maisons de Vertus

I have a friend who really likes photos of houses, so here are some. They are in the town called Vertus at the south end of the Côte des Blancs in Champagne. Vertus is one of those towns, like Tonnerre in Burgundy, that I would like to visit again. It seems like a bigger town, but its official population is only about 2800, making it smaller than Saint-Aignan.

Two pictures of the same house, from different sides

I posted a closeup of this house's windows the other day.
I'd love to see what it looks like inside.

These two houses are next door to each other and I wonder
if both are owned by the Georges Pougeoise champagne business.

We had hard rain last night here in Saint-Aignan, but not nearly as much as they got out on the far tip of Brittany, where there was serious flooding. The Mediterranean coast is getting heavy rains today, and weather warnings have been posted down there. We're lucky to have mild weather right now.

24 October 2011

Jackdaws and church bells

One thing that took some getting used to when we were in Bouzy, a village in Champagne, was "living" next to a church. Churches make a lot of noise. The bells ring every 15 minutes, from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m.

The church bells in Bouzy were loud. The ringing always started with three tones repeated at least once, maybe twice. Ding, daing, dong... ding, daing, dong — "three blind mice... three blind mice." That's what it sounded like to me. Then, on the hour, the bells rang out the time. At seven, that was seven loud rings. At 10, that was 10 loud rings. (Okay, we get the idea.)

The church steeple and the jackdaws we could see and hear in Bouzy

But it wasn't just the loud bell-ringing. It was also the jackdaws. They're called choucas in French. They squawk and chatter. They live around steeples and towers and another name for them is corneilles des clochers — belltower crows. The jackdaw is a Eurasian crow, and one of the smallest birds in the crow family. Maybe one of the loudest too.

Jackdaws are gregarious, meaning that there can be big flocks of them. That's what it was like in Bouzy. They swirled and swooped all around the church steeple, not really blocking out the sun but certainly weighing down the branches of the big conifers between our rental house and the church. At the slightest noise, the flock would take flight, chattering and squawking, swooping and whooping.


French Wikipedia says of jackdaws: « Le soir, les choucas peuvent se rassembler par centaines pour passer la nuit dans les arbres-dortoirs. » — "At night, jackdaws can gather by the hundreds to spend the night their arboreal dormitories." That's what we observed. English Wikipedia says: "Jackdaws are voluble birds. The call, frequently given in flight, is a metallic and somewhat squeaky, "chyak-chyak" or "kak-kak". Perched birds often chatter together, and before settling for the night large roosting flocks make a cackling noise. Jackdaws also have a hoarse, drawn-out alarm-call."

23 October 2011

Some sidewalk scenes

From Champagne (the town of Vertus on the south end of the Côte des Blancs) and from Bourgogne (that's Burdundy, at Chablis). Maybe this will convey the feel of walking on the sidewalks in small French towns. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

A café-tabac in Vertus

Also in Vertus, this picturesque house...

...and this one, which seems almost haunted

And in Chablis, showing a bakery, a wine shop,
and a French deli or charcuterie

The weather here is cold, especially early in the day, and clear. Summer is a fading memory. Predictions are for a slightly warmer but much damper week, with rain by Tuesday. I'm looking forward to that.

22 October 2011

Lunch in Chablis

On our way back from Champagne, there were two stops I wanted to make — or maybe three. One was the village of Chaource, to buy some cheese. We did that, leaving the autoroute at Troyes and driving south on little roads. The second stop was Chablis, and we made it there in time for lunch. A bonus was the picturesque, bustling town called Tonnerre — it's about halfway between Chaource and Chablis, and we drove right through the middle of it. I'd like to go back there one day.

I had been to Chablis twice before. This past June, CHM and I drove through the town on our tour of northeastern France, and I wrote about it here. My previous visit to Chablis had been with Walt in June 1993 — we were driving from Paris to Provence, and the first day we stopped and had a picnic lunch on a bench beside the river (or maybe it's a canal) with a view of the vineyards climbing the hills on the other side. It is a very nice memory.

In Chablis, two shops, side by side, specializing in
the chitterling sausages called

This time, I wanted to buy some more bottles of Chablis wine and just see the town again. I wanted to walk around in the streets a little, weather allowing. I love going to towns and regions that I've always heard of and finally seeing what they actually look like. Since I've been studying, learning, and teaching French since the age of 14, I've heard of a lot of places but been to many fewer. A lot of the names that call out to me are places where wines, cheeses, or other food products are made or grown. Or where great events in history occurred.

Shops in nice old buildings on the main street, and
a beautiful door in a turret on a back street in Chablis

So it was appropriate that we arrived in Chablis in time for lunch. It was almost exactly two weeks ago, and the sun came out while we were there. I was able to take some pictures. I bought a couple of bottles of Chablis wine in a little grocery store. We looked at the menus posted outside several restaurants in the middle of town, and finally decided on a medium-priced one that seemed to have a wide choice of dishes we could all three enjoy.

Here's the restaurant. It wasn't fancy but the food was good.

The restaurant, Au Vrai Chablis, was not at all fancy. But what it lacked in décor, it made up for in good food and wine. We of course wanted to drink some Chablis wine. The menu Walt and I chose included poached fish as a main course, and that was perfect with the dry, crisp local Chardonnay. My first course was a feuilleté farci aux porc et champignons — a puff pastry shell with a pork and mushroom stuffing — with a tossed salad.

My lunch started with a feuilleté farci...

...followed by poached fish with vegetables and rice.

The restaurant was not crowded — or at least the room we were in was not crowded. In fact, the only other diners in the room with us were a French couple who arrived after we did, ordered, ate, and left before we had finished our meal. In the room next to the one where we sat, there was some kind of celebration going on. There must have been 10 or 15 people in there, and they were drinking champagne. The scene made for good people-watching.

The Chablis wine we had at the restaurant — chablis
is made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes.

We felt very lucky to have found Au Vrai Chablis, because the food was so good and the atmosphere was so informal and convivial. The two women who waited on us were talkative and easy-going. And the price wasn't bad. For three of us, with a nice bottle of Chablis plus coffees and more, the meal came to less than 80 euros — about 25 euros per person for three courses, wine and coffee included.

One last chance to buy some good andouillettes de Chablis...

The other place I wanted to visit that day was the town of Sancerre, which is on the Loire River about halfway between Chablis and Saint-Aignan. It's a hilltop town that's famous, especially, for Sauvignon Blanc wines. I wanted to buy a few bottles but was we left Chablis, driving through Auxerre, it started raining. If we couldn't walk around in Sancerre and see the views from the top of the town, it wasn't worth going there. So we didn't. I will get back there one day. The last time I went to Sancerre was 11 years ago — and it's only about 70 miles from Saint-Aignan.

21 October 2011

Pictures from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ in Champagne

A couple of weeks ago in Champagne, we spent an afternoon poking around in the village called Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. It was a place I discovered by accident back in June, when I was driving through the region from Epernay toward Châlons-en-Champagne with CHM.

The name struck me because here in Touraine we live very close to the village called Mareuil-sur-Cher, just a few miles west of Saint-Aignan. I've done a little reading, and there appear to be 19 villages in France named Mareuil. Four of them are in Champagne. Mareuil derives from an old Gaulois (Celtic) word meaning "a large clearing (in a forest)" — somehow, the term survived a few centuries of Roman rule and a long millenium during which the French language gradually came into existence. The modern French term for "a clearing" is « une clairière ».

Les rues de MareuilThe main street through Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, in Champagne

Mareuil-sur-Aÿ — the umlaut on the Y means you pronounce the word as two syllables, [ah-ee] — is one of the prettiest villages along the Marne River, east of Epernay and on the south side of the Montagne de Reims. Oh, and Mareuil is pronounced more or less as [mah-RUH-yuh], with the middle syllable getting the tonic stress.

The fountain on the main square in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ
Thanks to Cheryl for the photo

In that Mareuil, there's a pretty little square right on the river/canal (the two are one at that point), with a fancy fountain like one I've seen in Paris at the Parc André-Citroën — the water squirts up out of a pattern of holes in a stone plaza, dancing in some rhythm so that some columns of water are higher than other, alternately.

Un type formidable !Commerces de proximité"My grocer is a great guy" is what the sign says. If you look
closely, you'll see that his head, hands, and feet
are not attached to his body.

On the river/canal are pleasure and tour boats. Along its banks are a big park with tall trees planted in symmetrical rows and the entrance to a campground where people sleep in the little trailers called caravanes. There's a grocery store and a café/bar, pictured here.

Un bar à Mareuil-sur-AÿThe café/bar was closed for the day.

We of course tasted and bought some champagne in Mareuil. First we stopped in at the Billecart-Salmon winery, which we had heard of. We went up a big stone staircase to a glass-fronted office where a well-dressed woman was sitting in front of her computer, with her back to us. We stood for a minute, waiting for her to notice us. When she did, she came out and asked how she could help us. I said we'd like to do a tasting — une dégustation — but she said that wouldn't be possible. Tastings were by appointment only, and we didn't have an appointment. The place felt very snooty.

Then we drove down the street to Guy Charbaut's wine house, where I had stopped last June. We went in and a woman came out of a much less fancy office to greet us. We asked if we could taste and buy some wine, and she said Oui, bien sûr. She took us across a courtyard to a big banquet room that was fairly rustic or down-home in style. She poured us tastes of three or four wines, and we bought more than a dozen bottles.

LogoWe like the Charbaut champagnes a lot.

The woman turned out to be the recently deceased Guy Charbaut's daughter-in-law. She and the younger Monsieur Charbaut, her husband, now run the business. It was nice of her to take as much time as she did to talk to us about the wines and pour the tastes. She told us that she and her husband had been to New York 12 or 13 years ago and had dinner in the Windows on the World restaurant on top of the World Trade Center. So we talked about September 11, 2001, for a few minutes. Madame Charbaut was down-to-earth and charming.

20 October 2011

Changes of season

We've had a houseguest, an old friend, for the past three weeks, and we've been busy. We went and spent a few days in Champagne, which involved renting a car larger than the little Peugeot that would hold three of us, the dog, luggage, sheets, towels, and coolers. Oh, and that would be spacious enough to allow us to bring some champagne home with us.

Yesterday we drove over to Vouvray — a sparkling wine to rival Champagne's is made there — which we consider to be our old stomping grounds in a way, since we all stayed in a gîte over there more than 10 years ago, on vacation. Without that experience, we probably wouldn't be living in Saint-Aignan now. Vouvray is about an hour's drive from here, just outside the city of Tours.

The vineyard workers' vehicles parked
by the side of the gravel road

Meanwhile, the garden and the vineyard won't wait. Not that we have anything to do with vineyard maintenance except to watch the work crews go about their autumnal business and yell Bonjour ! when we see them, which is nearly every day right now. All the grapes have been picked for a while now, and the current task seems to be the removal of the stumps of vines that have died over the course of the growing season.

I'm not sure what this is but it's a pretty tree
on the edge of the vineyard.

In the garden and yard, leaves and trimmings are the biggest concern for us right now. I spent a morning raking up leaves both out front and out back last week, and then carting them to different spots where they are needed or just where they can decompose over the winter, out of sight. That kind of work isn't a lot of fun but there is a sense of accomplishment when it's finished.

A burn pile covered with a tarp and a garden plot covered with
maple leaves for the winter — and of course
a lot of apples on the ground

We got nearly an inch of rainfall yesterday, and that was the first real rain we'd had in October. September was dry too, and on television people have started talking about sécheresse — drought — again. We had a week of gray skies but then the sun came as as the weather front approached. Now it's supposed to be sunny again for a few days, so I'll be able to get some more work done. There are of course a lot of apples to rake up.

Here I am out by the back gate in the afternoon sun

I'm looking forward to winter, in a strange way. The garden will be sufficiently cleaned up, the potted plants will be brought inside for the season, and the focus will turn to indoor tasks and activities. I have plans and projects. Some have to do with food and cooking — I look forward to stews and soups and other stick-to-the-ribs dinners.

Our house and the neighbors' seen
from the Renaudière vineyard

We are used to winter beginning at La Toussaint here in France, and that holiday, like Halloween, falls at the very end of October. Usually rains move in then, and the weather turns cold. This year, the cold may have come a little early. The weather widget on my computer desktop says the temperature in Saint-Aignan is –2ºC — below freezing.