31 January 2012

A dusting

The "snowstorm" turned out to be a mere dusting in the Saint-Aignan area. Instead of 2 to 4 inches, we got what looks like less than an inch of the white stuff. As a friend from Buffalo described some of my pictures of Saint-Aignan snow a few years ago, it looks like a sprinkling of talcum powder.

The view out the kitchen window late yesterday afternoon

I haven't been out yet. Walt took Callie for her walk yesterday afternoon. It wasn't all that cold yesterday during the day. The temperature was just above freezing, and our thermometer shows 0.0ºC this morning — that's 32ºF. Its supposed to get a lot colder over the next few days.

Looking out the guest bedroom window
late yesterday

This snow shower was caused by cold air moving in from Russia in the east and a warm front moving down the coast from the North Atlantic and the British Isles. Obviously, the cold air got to Saint-Aignan first and kept the main part of the precipitation east of us. This morning's news reports are coming from Chinon, where it seems the snow was heavier.

The linden tree out back early this morning

P.S. It's after eight in the morning and there's enough light to see outside. The snow is pretty and more must have fallen overnight, making the neighborhood and woods into a winter wonderland.

From the terrace at about 8:20 a.m.

Isn't it true that the season's first snow always looks beautiful?

30 January 2012

Neige !

Snow has started falling in the southern part of Normandy, including around Alençon and Le Mans. According to the weather reports on TéléMatin, the snow is moving south toward La Touraine this morning. Later in the day, it will start snowing in the Auvergne, which is the mountainous region in south central France.

I put Tours and Paris on the morning weather map
so that you can get yourself oriented.

Since we've lived in Saint-Aignan — nearly nine years now — we've had a little bit of snow nearly every winter. In December 2010 (a year ago), we had an unusually snowy period early in the month — snow stayed on the ground for a couple of weeks. Usually, the temperature doesn't stay below freezing for more than three or four days. Until now, it has been exceptionally mild this winter.

The orange area is where snow is supposed to fall today.

Predictions for snowfall amounts in this current "event" are 5 to 10 centimeters — that's 2 to 4 inches. The most we've ever had on the ground since 2003 has been about 15 cm (6 in.). This morning, we'll just stay in and see if it really does start snowing. We don't need to go anywhere.

29 January 2012

A new permis

My last U.S. driver's license expired four years ago. My French driver's license — mon permis de conduire — was issued in 1981. That makes it more than 30 years old. That's the way it's been with French licenses. Once you get one, it's good for life and never has to be renewed.

I got my French permis by exchanging my North Carolina driver's license for it. I had to hand over the N.C. license, but it was worth it. They handed me a French license. I was living in Paris at the time.

When I moved back to the U.S. in 1982, I had to go and take the written test in N.C. to get a new license, and then in Virginia a few months later because that's where I ended up living. Then in 1983, I had to take the written test in the District of Columbia because Walt and I moved into an apartment on Capitol Hill. At least I think I had to take the written test each time. I don't really remember.

Here are two panels of my French permis de conduire.
The picture doesn't look much like me nowadays.

To get my permis de conduire in Paris, I never had to take any test at all. At the time, North Carolina was one of the states from which the French authorities accepted driver's licenses for exchange. That agreement is no longer in effect, though sixteen U.S. states still are on the French exchange list. California is not one of them. Nor is New York. But Arkansas, Kansas, and Delaware are. Go figure*.

Walt had a California license when we moved to Saint-Aignan. To get a French permis, he was required to enroll in a driving school here and pass both the written and the driving test. He had to do it in French, of course. He learned a lot, and it cost him a lot — about 500 euros. If you move to France, your American license is valid for only 12 months, starting on the day you enter the country.

When I got my French permis, nobody in Paris cared that I didn't know what many of the French road signs meant. Actually, driving in France was not that different from driving in the U.S., except that everything seemed to go and happen faster. The cars were smaller. That year, I had bought a tiny 1972 Renault 4 from some French friends for 1,500 francs ($300). I needed a French license before I could get it insured.

Today, my thirty-something permis is just fine in France. It doesn't matter that it has a 31-year-old picture of me on it, and shows my old address in Paris. Nowadays, if the gendarmes stop you, they just punch your driver's license number into a computer and they pull up your driving record.

The only problem I have with my French license comes when I arrive in the U.S. for a visit. I haven't yet had to rent a car, but Walt rented one in Boston a couple of years ago. The rental agent at the airport didn't bat an eye when Walt presented the French license. Of course, Walt's permis shows a fairly recent picture of him and his current address.

I usually go to North Carolina when I fly across the Atlantic. My mother and sister still live there, in a small town. When I visit, I drive my mother's car. On my last two or three trips, I haven't ever needed to show my driver's license to anyone.

But in 2007, when I still had a valid California license, I was driving my mother's car in Beaufort N.C. when I ran into a routine driver's license check set up by the highway patrol. There was no problem, of course, with the California license. My mother was in the car with me, so no questions were asked about why I was driving a car I didn't own.

But what if that happens again, or I have an accident, or commit an infraction? If I present the old French license, which is a huge pink triple-fold document with my Paris address and my 1981 photo on it, is a local policeman or highway patrolman going to believe that the permis is a valid license to drive? The French consulate for N.C. is in Atlanta, 500 miles to the west.

Because of all that, I've decided it would be a good idea to turn in my old French license and get a new one, with a current picture and my current address on it. Lucky for me, the exchange is free. I have to turn in a couple of pictures with the application form — that's all. I'll get them in taken in a supermarket photo booth. I have to provide proof of my current address — a recent electric bill will do that. Then I'll feel safer when I drive in the U.S.

* Here's a list of the 16 U.S. states that have reciprocal driver's licence agreements with France:
  • Arkansas
  • Caroline du Sud
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Floride
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvanie
  • Texas
  • Virginie
I got the list of state names off a French government web site so they show the French spellings.

28 January 2012

Still winter

This is one of those mornings when you just want to pull the covers up over your head and stay in bed. I woke up at 6:30 to the sound of hard rain. Actually, rain that sounded more like ice pellets slapping against the windows had awakened me at five. I finally worked up the courage to get up at seven.

Not this morning, but an afternoon a few days ago

I knew I couldn't really stay in bed. The cat needed feeding, and the dog will need walking, even in the rain. With temperatures just above freezing, it won't be a lot of fun — at least for me. Callie won't mind unless it's raining pretty hard when we go out. We are supposed to have temperatures below freezing — finally — by Monday, with a chance of snow that day or the next.

Another photo?

What do you do on a Saturday when it's chilly and damp outside? You don't go to the open-air market unless you really need to. Go to the supermarket? I did that yesterday. I forgot to buy eggs, though, so maybe I'll get the Peugeot out of the garage and go again. Cook something? No need — we're eating left-over coq au vin for lunch. Read? I'm trying to get through part of Michelet's Le Moyen Age, which is a history of the Middle Ages in France that was written in the mid-1800s. It's not exactly a thriller.

Michelet was born in 1798.

Michelet's book is a real pavé — a paving stone — of more than 1000 pages. I've been reading parts of it off and on, and over and over, since I bought it in Paris in 1981. Yes, '81. It seems like I've been reading the part about the lead-up to the 100 Years War for about as long as that war lasted. What I'm looking for this time is information about the Touraine province, where we live. I'd like to find a good book about the history of La Touraine. If you know of one...

La Touraine is mentioned on this page. It says there was
a Scotsman named Douglas who became the
Count of Touraine hundreds of years ago.

Winter. A few months ago I had so much work to do in the yard and vegetable garden that I was looking forward to winter, when I wouldn't have to be busy all the time. Now I look forward to spring, so that I can get back to work outside. Isn't that the story of life?

27 January 2012

A rooster cooked in red wine

It was almost exactly six years ago that I did my first post about cooking a coq au vinJanuary 25, 2006. I had bought a coq — a rooster, or a cockerel, or whatever term you might prefer — at Intermarché because I had never cooked one before. Somehow, I felt I was cooking and eating Foghorn Leghorn, but in France roosters are for sale at the markets and in the supermarkets. Somebody must buy and cook them. Why shouldn't I?

Coq au vin — red wine — ready to serve

This 2011 rooster weighed in at three kilos, or nearly 7 lbs. I cut it up into cooking pieces — drumsticks, thighs, wings, and two breast halves — so that I could cook just half the bird at a time. Half the rooster would make a big meal for four people, or two or three meals for the two of us, served with vegetables, mushrooms, and potatoes, pasta, rice, or wheat berries. I cooked the first half of the bird about three weeks ago, in white wine (here's a link to the coq au vin blanc post).

Serving pieces of the coq after 12 hours
spent marinating in red wine

I just checked Google, seaching on the terms "cook rooster" and I got more that seven million hits. A Google search for "coq au vin" in French turns up more than two million web pages. Obviously, other people have cooked roosters. Here's an example from The Man Who Ate Everything, complete with a highly detailed recipe, quotes in Latin, and advanced research on whether or not Julius Caesar ate a rooster cooked in red wine when his army invaded Gaul two thousand years ago.

Sauté the rooster or chicken pieces with
some chunks of smoked pork bacon or ham.

In my own post for coq au vin blanc, you'll find the information you need for cooking chicken or rooster in white wine. To make the red wine version, all you have to do — surprise! — is substitute red wine for white. Otherwise, the recipe is the same. See also the link to the 2006 post that I included above.

For coq au vin, any dry red wine will do — a burgundy, made with Pinot Noir grapes; a Loire Valley wine, made with either Gamay, Cabernet Franc, or Côt (a.k.a. Malbec grapes); a bordeaux, made with Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc; a Côtes du Rhône... well, you get the idea. An Australian, Californian, South African, Chilean, or Argentinian red wine will be good too.

Stew the poultry in the marinade, including
the carrots, onions, celery, and herbs.

For this most recent coq au vin, I picked up a bottle of cahors wine at the supermarket. Wines from Cahors, a town in southwestern France, used to be known as vins noirs — black wines — and they are also made with Malbec grapes. The "black" wine makes a rich, dark sauce for the coq au vin. I paid 1.49 € for the bottle. That is not a typo. And I used the whole bottle to marinate and cook the 1.2 kilos (2½ lbs.) of rooster that I was cooking.

Sauté some mushrooms and add them to the stew
toward the end of the cooking time.

Besides wine, you really need onions, maybe garlic, and especially some good smoked pork to flavor the coq au vin. I used bacon fat as the cooking medium when I browned the pieces of poultry, and then I added about half a dozen good-sized chunks of lard fumé — smoked bacon (slab bacon if you can get it, or thick-sliced bacon) or smoked ham — to the pan. It cooked with the rooster pieces in the wine sauce too. Carrots, celery, bay leaves, and thyme make the sauce more flavorful.

Serve champignons de Paris or some more exotic
mushroom with the stewed rooster.

The main point of this post is to show the pictures I took, and to say that making coq au vin is really pretty easy. You can start with chicken pieces — whatever pieces you prefer. You just have to adjust the cooking time so that the chicken or rooster pieces are cooked the way you like them — tenderness is the goal. Season the dish with salt and pepper to taste. Thicken the sauce if you want to, or don't.

Mushrooms are a standard addition. Sauté them first and then add them to the sauce toward the end of the cooking. Or just put them raw into the sauce and let them cook in it, releasing their flavor into the red wine. If you want to splurge on the calories, serve the coq au vin with French-fried potatoes. Or mashed potatoes. And many would say that the coq au vin is actually better served as leftovers, a day or two later, than it is when it has just finished cooking for the first time.

26 January 2012

Language options on French satellite TV

Living here in the French countryside, we have a satellite dish for television reception. We subscribe to the only available French service, which is called CanalSat. There used to be a competing service, but the two merged a few years ago.

Most of the programs we watch every day are in French. I like to put on TéléMatin in the morning for news, weather, and features. During the day, we often have Cuisine TV on the screen, watching for new and interesting cooking ideas and recipes. All its shows are in French too. Listening to such shows is great for your comprehension of everyday spoken French.

Cuisine TV has a cast of French cooks and chefs who host its programs, but it also broadcasts cooking shows hosted by English-speaking personalities including Jamie Oliver, Giada DeLaurentiis, Nigella Lawson, Bill Granger, Ainsley Harriot, Rick Stein, James Martin, and others. (If you're American, you might not recognize many of those names, because they are British or Australian cooks.) All those shows are dubbed into French.

Instead of "dubbed" I should say "over-dubbed." In other words, you can hear the English-speaking host's voice in the background, but there's a slightly louder French soundtrack superimposed over the English. It's annoying at first if you speak English, because your ear tries to focus on the original soundtrack rather than on the over-dubbed French. Sometimes you feel like you can't hear either language clearly. A lot of the science and travel documentaries we watch are over-dubbed the same way.

Dubbing is surely an expensive process. Some of Jamie Oliver's old shows were dubbed rather than over-dubbed, and the dubbing was done with considerable skill and talent. You can watch them and almost believe that Jamie really is speaking French with a perfect accent. But all the later shows are over-dubbed. I guess that's a better option for most viewers than on-screen subtitles would be.

Speaking of subtitles, we also get six or seven movie channels as part of our satellite TV package (called un bouquet in French). A lot of the films shown are American and were made in English. We have our decoder boxes set up to show movies with the original English soundtrack when there is one — in other words, if the film is broadcast in VM (version multilingue). If the movie is French, we hear the original French soundtrack.

If we want to watch an American movie with a French-language soundtrack, we can choose that option on the decoder box's menus. It's an option we never use. A lot of the American movies are shown, however, with the original English soundtrack with on-screen subtitles in French. I've gotten used to the subtitles. Often now I don't even notice them, but sometimes I enjoy reading them to see how the English dialog is translated into French. It depends on how many times I've seen a particular movie.

What we never get, however, is subtitles in English. So the two language options for most films are (1)English dialog with French subtitles, or (2) French dialog with no subtitles. Actually, there are two sub-options that are sometimes available. Newer films are sometimes shown in English with the possiblity of turning off the French subtitles. And for some movies and other shows, you can turn on French subtitles for the hearing impaired (les malentendants) along with the original French soundtrack.

The main point is that you never get English subtitles. The system is designed for French-speakers, not English-speakers or other foreigners. Last night, for example, we watched James Cameron's Avatar on one of the movie channels. It's a recent film, so we had the option of turning off the French subtitles and just watching the movie in the original English.

At some points in Avatar, however, the characters speak a language that is neither English nor French. For those segments of incomprehensible dialog, French subtitles, not English, appear on the screen. Those subtitles seem to be hard-coded into the movie. As I said, we never get English subtitles.

Neither do we get any American channels. Some of the French channels show American TV series, with the same language options as for the films on the movie channels. We've seen episodes of Glee, Battlestar Galactica, The Good Wife, and a few other series. There are many more U.S. series on different French channels that I've never watched or even heard of.

Our satellite decoder boxes are both equipped with hard disks onto which we can record shows for watching later. We do that a lot. All the language options I've described above are also available on the shows and films we record.

A number of the British people we know have decoder boxes that they've imported from England and dishes aimed at satellites carrying BBC and other British programming. They watch the same TV programs they would watch back in the British Isles. There's no such option for American television programming, at least not via satellite.

25 January 2012

Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc

I bought a new tripod a couple of weeks ago. The old one had broken. In fact, I bought two new tripods within the space of a couple of weeks. The first new one was too hard to use and not tall enough, so I bought a second new one.

Ever since, I've been experimenting with it to see how stable and adaptable the little tripod is. It's a table-top model, not a floor-standing model. I use it exclusively in the kitchen to take pictures like the ones in this post.

A typical Loire Valley wine bottle

My test subjects yesterday were a couple of wine bottles and their labels. Yes, I actually bought some wine in bottles. Usually, we buy wine in bulk, having our little 10-liter jugs refilled at the winery the way you would pump gasoline into a jerrycan for use in your lawnmower. Or we buy wine in what they call a BIB (pronounced [beeb]), which means "bag in box." In more proper French, a BIB is called a fontaine à vin.

Anyway, I bought some actual bottles of wine because we were having friends over and that provided me with a good reason to try some different vintages. I bought, for example, a bottle of Chardonnay from the Loire Valley, and a bottle of Chenin Blanc from the Saumur appellation, which is also in the Loire Valley. Both these wines come from the area to the west and downriver of Tours.

Bottles of Chardonnay and a Chenin Blanc wine

Chardonnay is not a grape variety that is usually associated with Loire Valley wines, but it's grown all up and down the river valley. The wine produced from Chardonnay here doesn't carry the AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) label, but is sold as a vin de pays. While in the Loire it isn't an AOC varietal, Chardonnay is the white varietal grown in Burgundy, including at Chablis and Mâcon, where it produces AOC wines.

A closer view of the labels

The vin de pays ("wine of a specified region") denomination was created in 1968 to recognize local wines not covered by the AOC system. They are a step up in quality — at least theoretically — from wines that are made with a blend of juices from grapes grown in different, unspecified regions. In 2009 the name vin de pays was offically changed to IGP — meaning indication géographique protégée. The AOC label is more prestigious.

Chardonnay gives vin de pays in the Loire Valley.

You'll notice that the Chardonnay I bought came in a bottle with a screw-off cap — no need for a cork screw to open it. That surprised me. The bottle had a little round label affixed to announce that the wine had won a bronze medal at some regional competition last year.

The Chenin Blanc grape, on the other hand, is a quintessentially Loire varietal and the wines carry the AOC designation. It's the grape grown in Vouvray and Montlouis, east of Tours, and in Chinon and Saumur to the west. Chenin Blanc, also known as Pineau de la Loire, can produce dry, medium-dry, or even sweet ("mellow" or moelleux) wines, and also sparkling wines.

The Saumur wine won a gold medal — a Liger d'Or — last year.
Liger is the Latin root of the name of the Loire River.

This Saumur appellation wine was labeled with a round sticker saying it had won a gold medal at the Concours des Vins du Val de Loire in 2011. I bought it at the supermarket for about four euros, which gives you an idea how inexpensive wine is here in the Loire Valley. The Chardonnay, also from the supermarket, cost me something like 2.25 €. Both were good but the Chenin Blanc was drier and more subtly flavored.

24 January 2012

Spring cleaning

Yesterday I noticed that primroses have already started to bloom out in the yard. Wild cyclamens started blooming a month ago. And one big flowering bush in our neighbors' yard is already covered with red flowers. There's still no mention of freezing weather in the long-range forecasts.

As long as the weather feels like early spring rather than mid-winter, we though we might as well start our spring cleaning chores. Now that we have the upstairs loft finished and we spend a lot of time up there, we have a lot more vacuuming and dusting to do — or that we ought to do — than when our living space was smaller.

Here's the kitchen on a normal day.

That means other rooms risk getting short shrift. The kitchen, for example, which we occupy for many hours each day. The tile floor gets its share of spills, drips, and splashes. It gets a little wipe with an old sponge as needed, but periodically it also needs a thorough cleaning — it's what's called faire le grand ménage in French. We also pull out the fridge and sometimes the stove and dishwasher to clean under and behind them.

Out go the butcher's table and bar stools, and
in come the vacuum cleaner and the mop.

The kitchen probably looks quaint. It's not large. The only major change we've made since we moved in is a new coat of paint. The cabinets and sink were already here. That was important, because many of the houses we looked at back in 2002 had no kitchen fixtures in them at all — the room called la cuisine was a completely empty space with only a water pipe sticking up out of the floor in one corner.

Other houses had kitchen fixtures that really needed to be ripped out and replaced. With this kitchen, we just added appliances and the butcher's table and started cooking when we arrived in June 2003.

23 January 2012

Dim light photos

If I steady my camera on a support post out in the vineyard, I can actually get a fairly clear image even at dawn — that means about 8:30 a.m. And on a Sunday, that's before the hunters show up. Here's an example.

The vineyard on January 22 — the vines
have been pruned, leaving just one cane

That doesn't mean that there are a lot of interesting things to take pictures of. But at least the photos aren't too blurred. Reminds me of the restaurant that has mediocre food but big portions. Sometimes the top of the support post isn't level, so I end up with pictures like this one:

The grain silo and water tower in the distance are on
the other side of the Cher River from our house.

Here comes another gray morning. Isn't that a line from an old song?

22 January 2012


This is the time of year, and we are having the kind of of weather, that makes people think about a different life in a different place and with a different climate. Une vie meilleure — a life that would be better. Ailleurs — somewhere else. A lot of the problem might be post-holidays letdown.

I went to the pharmacy in the morning. It seemed half the population of the département was out and about. Well, Saturday is market day in Saint-Aignan, so it was to be expected. I had decided not to go shopping in the outdoor market because I'm still suffering the after-effects from the bad cold I had in late December.

Parking was scarce, and I ended up leaving the car down by the bridge and trudging up the street to the pharmacy. The weather had been windy and misty earlier, but the mist at least had stopped, and it wasn't at all cold. When I got to the pharmacy, I was greeted by a woman who works there and who I've come to know a little over the past eight years. She was friendly with the woman who sold us our house in 2003 — that's the connection.

I told her I had been suffering sinus congestion for a month. That was causing me to cough quite a bit. "What you need is a dose of that old California sunshine," she said. She was surprised when I told her the weather in California — at least the part of it where I used to live — is about the same right now as it is here in Saint-Aignan. Hollywood and California dreaming worldwide has done a successful propaganda job, that's for sure. People think it's always sunny and warm out there.

Just a day or two before, we had taken Bertie the Cat to the vet's and had about the same conversation with the young man who takes care of Bertie and Callie. It started when the question of whether to give Bertie a rabies shot came up. The vet said it was optional — there's no rabies in France nowadays. Unless you are going to travel with the animal, you don't need to worry about la rage, as it's called.

We said we had no travel plans that would involve either animal for the time being. The vet asked: "You are happy here in the Loir-et-Cher, aren't you?" Yes, we are, and we don't foresee going elsewhere. "All of us dream of going to live in California," he said. People here think we are crazy to have left the sun and surf and palm trees of cette Californie paradisiaque.

Paradise where you yourself are not, I guess. I just checked the weather, and the part of California where we lived for nearly 20 years is in the middle of a five-day rainy period with temperatures in the 50s Fahrenheit. Just like Saint-Aignan.

21 January 2012

“Christmas” cactus

When we moved into this house in 2003, I found a big Schlumbergera growing in an old clay pot down in the garage. I wonder if it had been watered during the two+ years that the house had stood empty before we bought it.

I moved it upstairs when we settled in that summer, and I started watering and feeding it regularly. I still have it, and it's going strong. It didn't flower much this year, probably because December was so gray and rainy, and it didn't get much sunlight.

But over the years, I've broken off branches and started several new Christmas cactus plants. One of those sits on a window sill under one of the Velux roof windows we had put in year before last. It gets full western sun, such as it is during our gloomy winter. And it flowered quite a bit in December. It's nearly finished now.

I never realized until reading about them this morning that the Schlumbergera plants are leafless. It's the branches that are green and perform photosynthesis. In they wild, they grow in a small part of Brazil and are epiphytic (they grow on tree limbs) or epilithic (on rocks). They are very easy to keep, requiring little water and not that much direct sun.

I did posts about the original plant in 2008 and in 2006.

20 January 2012

More zoo pix, etc.

The weather isn't very conducive to photography right now. The gray wetness has returned, bring mild temperatures (low this morning just 8ºC / 46ºF) but very dim light. In January, there are two choices: gray and gloomy, or bright and frigid. You pays your money and you takes your choice, comme dirait l'autre.

This kind of weather does move me to cook, but my latest project was choucroute garnie — again. That's Alsatian-style sauerkraut served with boiled potatoes, smoke-cured meats, and sausages.

It's really too bad that the sauer- in -kraut sounds so much like the English word "sour" — it discourages English speakers from enjoying the sweet, mild, fermented cabbage that choucroute really is.

Anyway, I've posted about choucroute garnie so many times that I didn't think it useful to do so again. The sauer in the word must be related to the French saumure, which means "brine" and not vinegar. Sau- derives from sel or sal-, meaning salt.

It's the same prefix you see in the words saucisse (sausage) and saucisson (salami). Such meats, like sauerkraut, are cured in salt, not vinegar. Salt, unlike vinegar, washes away in the choucroute soaking and cooking process, leaving the fermented cabbage tender, savory, and sweet.

Looking at the dictionary, I just realized that the word sauce (same in French and English, with a different pronunciation of course) derives from the same root — salt. Think "salsa." Salt is the spice of life, I guess.

Sorry about this post where the text has nothing at all to do with the images. Some days are like that when you blog every day. You might have noticed something about me: I'm not a very disciplined blogger — or person.

19 January 2012

Some zoo faces

The last time I went to the ZooParc de Beauval was at the end of August. Our friends Evelyn and Lewis were here, and we spent an afternoon walking over all the 65 acres. I of course took a lot of photos, but for some reason I never posted any of them. Here are six examples.

Beauval means "Beautiful Valley" — and it is one. The stream that runs through the valley is called the Trainefeuilles — in French the verb trainer means "to pull along, to drag" and the noun feuilles means "leaves" — so it's the "Leaf-Dragger". Beauval is just four miles south of our house, but we didn't even know about it when we moved here nine years ago.

The zoo was created as a parc ornithologique in 1980. In 1989 it expanded its collection by adding a few big cats and primates, and in two decades, it has grown into a major zoo that is visited by half a million people every year. There are restaurants in the park, and there's a new hotel-restaurant complex just outside the zoo entrance. With the recent arrival of two giant pandas from China, Beauval is bound to pull even greater crowds.

Along with the major châteaux — Chenonceau, Cheverny, Chambord, and Chaumont-sur-Loire — the ZooParc de Beauval is a major attraction in the Loire Valley, and it's the major tourist facility in the immediate Saint-Aignan area.

18 January 2012

The crack of dawn

On January mornings when the weather is clear, the sunrise shines directly in my face as I'm doing my blog post or reading other blogs on the laptop computer in the living room. Sunrise today, for example, is at 8:34 a.m., so it's not an early dawning. By the time we really get some rays of sunshine, it's nearly nine o'clock.

This fact makes me realize that dawn has a whole different meaning at this northerly latitude.

Dawn breaks late in Saint-Aignan

Once I open the heavy wooden shutters that protect the French doors from the cold and the living room from prying eyes at night, I'm blinded by direct sunlight. I have to go work elsewhere. But it's nice to have the rays of the sun streaming in.

One of the pleasant things about this house on the edge of the vineyard is that we have a clear view of both the sun rising and the sun setting — when the skies are not cloudy all day.

17 January 2012

Saint-Aignan now home to two pandas

Saint-Aignan's biggest news story these days is the arrival of two giant pandas from China at the ZooParc de Beauval, on the south side of town. The pandas are on loan for 10 years from China, and landed in Paris's CDG airport on Sunday for the three-hour drive down to the Cher Valley. They are the first pandas to take up residence in France since 1973.

I grabbed this photo from the Parisien.fr site
of the Paris newspaper Le Parisien.

Beauval's pandas, Huan Huan (« Joyeuse » in French) and Yuan Zi (« Rondouillard» or "Chubby"), won't be available for viewing by the grand public until February 11, but over the next two or three weeks they will receive a string of important visitors, including Président de la République Nicolas Sarkozy. Here's a link to a ZooParc de Beauval blog in French, and one in English.

Beauval, which is just about three kilometers from our house, is among the world's finest zoos. It covers 65 acres and has the largest collection of animals of any zoo in France. Beauval specializes in the preservation of species that are endangered around the world. In warm sunny weather, it's a great place to spend a day.

Here's a link to a 2007 post I did about the zoo, and here's another. with photos of some of the animals that live there. A friend in California — you might know her as chrissoup — told me that even the San Francisco Chronicle published an article about Saint-Aignan's pandas.

16 January 2012

Bertie on the hearth

Now that it has finally turned cold, Bertie is much more interested in coming into the house. He likes to sit by the fireplace when there's a fire going in the stove.

Bertie the Black Cat by the fireplace

Yesterday morning he sat there waiting to get warm. Problem was, there was no fire. He finally found a warm radiator and sat next to that for a few minutes before asking to go back outside a while later. It's not freezing cold down in the garage where he sleeps, but it's colder down there now than it has been in quite a few months.

15 January 2012

Financiers, or “gold bars”

The little almond cakes called Financiers got that name because they are usually made in a pan that gives each cake the look of a little gold bar. They're golden brown. Financiers seem to be either French or Swiss in origin, depending on the source you believe. The recipe has been around for about 125 years.

An almond-flour mini-muffin made with Financier batter

I made a batch of Financiers yesterday, but instead of cooking them in the shape of gold bars, I cooked them in the min-muffin pans that Walt bought at the supermarket in Blois a few days ago. They are little muffins that are almost bite-size — or if you don't have a big mouth, each one might take you two bites to consume! You could also cook the batter in a madeleine pan.

Golden mini-muffins cooked in purple pans

Financiers are a good way to use up the egg whites you save in the freezer after using just egg yolks in French sauces and stuffings or for making your own mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce. You know, you could make them with those egg substitutes called Egg Beaters that you buy in American supermarkets. They are mostly egg whites with yellow food coloring in them — aren't they?

Cooling on a rack, they look a little like mushrooms

To make them really low in cholesterol, substitute vegetable oil or margarine for the butter. I think they'll still be good. And to make them gluten-free, make them with almond powder only instead of half almond powder and half wheat flour. And finally, this recipe calls for beaten egg whites, but others Financier recipes I've seen use the egg whites as is. Since there's baking powder in the ingredient list, beating the egg whites isn't absolutely required, but will make the cakes lighter.

Here's the recipe in my translation. The original recipe is one I got off marmiton.org and it's in French, but it says this is an Alsatian version that is also called Eiwisskuche out there on the French-German border.


6 egg whites
150 g sugar (6 fl. oz.)
100 g almond powder (6 fl. oz.)
110 g flour (8 fl. oz.)
½ tsp. baking powder
a pinch of salt
50 g butter (4 Tbsp.), softened
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tsp. almond extract

Pre-heat the oven to 400ºF / 200ºC.

Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt and half the sugar until they're fairly stiff.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, almond powder, and the rest of the sugar.

Add the softened butter, vegetable oil, and almond extract. Mix well. Finally, fold in the beaten egg whites.

Bake in silicone mini-muffin pans for 15 minutes, until golden brown. Test for doneness with a wooden skewer. Unmold the muffins after they have cooled slightly.
The fluid-ounce quantities in the recipe are approximate but they'll work fine. I've also cooked the Financier batter in a regular cake pan and then cut the cake into squares after it has cooled completely. That works too.

14 January 2012

Credit ratings and exchange rates

The big news in France this morning is that the country's credit rating has been downgraded from AAA to AA+ by the big international banks. That might not sound like a catastrophe, but it means that France will have to pay higher interest rates to borrow the money that the country needs to finance its huge budget deficits.

Looking out the back gate yesterday afternoon

Long-term, the downgraded credit rating will make prices and taxes here go up. Government services will probably be curtailed, to reduce deficits. The government will have to crack down and impose budgetary rigueur — austerity. That's what has already happened in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain. Now France. And also in the U.S., by the way, but the American economy and budget are so enormous compared to the individual European countries' that the U.S. is in a category by itself.

The afternoon of Friday the 13th no. 1 turned out mostly sunny

Pessimists will say that the euro zone is falling apart. But for most people in France, the effect of the credit downgrade on everyday life won't be felt for a while. For us expatriates whose pensions and assets are in, for example, U.S. dollars rather than euros, the effect is immediate. The euro is declining in value, which means that our dollars are worth more. My retirement income has increased in value in euros by more than 15% since I started collecting it last May. A 15% raise is nothing to sneeze at.

The house seen up and across several rows of grape vines

Meanwhile, inflation rates are going up in France. Everything costs more, especially oil. It's a vicious circle, of course, and there's no such thing as a free lunch. But I'd rather have a little more income and control my spending myself rather than living with the low value of the dollar as the factor that restricts my budget. It's partly psychological.

Callie is looking through the barbed wire fence to see if the
donkeys are in their pen. She's justifiably afraid of them.
Donkeys really detest dogs.

Long-term, I'd like the see the dollar-euro exchange rate stabilize at a reasonable level — say a dollar worth 80 to 85 eurocents, which would mean a euro worth about $1.20 U.S. That's what the exchange rate was six years ago — I've gone back and researched it.

Wild cyclamens blooming yesterday in the back yard

At one point in 2008, the euro was worth as much as $1.60, and that was worrisome to say the least. At that rate, I'd lose 20% of my current income in euros. These are the realities and uncertainties of life for an American expatriate retiree in France.