29 February 2012

Black cat vs. brown border collie

Dogs and cats famously do not become fast friends — even though many people might jump in with stories about how well their felines and canines tolerate each other or even seem to show affection for each other. In the case of border collies like Callie, I think the herding instinct is just too strong.

A few days ago, Callie and I went out for the afternoon walk and had an unplanned encounter with Bertie the black cat. He was out hunting, I think, in the little wooded area that borders our property on the north. Callie didn't greet the cat in a friendly way, but neither did the dog act ferocious or uncontrollably aggressive.

Bertie and Callie during an unscheduled meeting

Bertie didn't run, either. He hunkered down, ears bent back the way a cat's ears do when he's getting ready to defend himself, and he waited. Callie tried to bite his back legs, the way sheep dogs do to herd sheep. She also tried to grab the cat by the scruff of his neck — not to pick him up and shake him, I think, but just to show dominance. She drooled on the poor cat too, as she's done before.

Another outdoor encounter a day or two ago
went about the same way.

If the cat could talk to the dog, everything would be just fine. But that's obviously not going to happen. Talking to Callie is what allowed a little boy, the 5- or 6-year-old son of friends visiting from California last summer, to get Callie to settle down. Until he spoke to her, using the words that dogs learn from people — sit! down! no! good dog! — Callie wouldn't leave the boy alone. She wanted to herd him, and that scared the daylights out of him. As soon as Callie realized he was a person who could talk like a person, the dog starting obeying and playing in a tame way.

I tell myself that the cat's refusal to run and the dog's
lack of ferociousness are signs of progress.

Anybody got any clues about teaching a cat to talk? English or French will work, no problem. He just needs half a dozen of the right words.

28 February 2012

A butterfly in winter

A few mornings ago, I noticed a Peacock butterfly, or Paon du jour, lying on the ground just outside our garage door as I was opening it to take the car out. I don't expect to see butterflies in February in the Loire Valley.

A precursor of spring?

Of course this one had probably frozen to death. Why it had emerged from its cocoon at this time of year I don't know. Maybe it hadn't — do these adult butterflies hibernate? I'm used to seeing Peacock butterflies in summertime, as in these posts from 2007 and 2008.

By the way, our afternoon temperature is supposed to get up to 14ºC today. That's getting dangerously close to 60ºF, and is digne d'une belle journée printanière.

27 February 2012

Espinaca con garbanzos...

...and sausage from Toulouse. Saucisse de Toulouse is made with plain, unsmoked pork (lean and fat, of course). Because the sausage is seasoned only with salt and pepper, it's kind of a blank slate you can use with all sorts of flavoring ingredients and seasonings. Toulouse and Montbéliard, which is smoked, are two of the tastiest French sausages.

Espinaca con garbanzos — spinach and chickpeas — is a Spanish concoction served evidently in tapas bars as a kind of spread on bread. At least that's what I've read and been told. Walt has made it before, a couple of times. This last time, we added the Toulouse sausages, poached and then cut into thick slices. The spinach-chickpea mixture became a main course.

Spinach, chickpeas, Toulouse sausage, spices, and garlic

Besides the spinach (fresh or frozen, pre-cooked) and chickpeas (out of a can or dried, cooked), the dish depends on a thickening sauce made with bread crumbs, garlic, tomato sauce, herbs, olive oil, and a little bit of vinegar. Brown the bread crumbs and chopped or pressed garlic in olive oil, and then add just a little tomato sauce and vinegar so that you have a thick paste.

Herbs and spices to use are cumin, paprika (smoked, hot, or sweet), thyme, rosemary... whatever you like... along with salt and pepper. A squeeze of lemon juice at the end will freshen it up. Serve it hot, warm, or even cold. This is not so much a recipe as an idea that you can customize.

Here's a link to the recipe that Walt says he found and followed, and that we really like.

26 February 2012

Gray days

We've been having a lot of gray days recently, and the trend is supposed to continue. Here are some gray photos.

Denuded vines

Callie with a big stick

House and hamlet in the distance



25 February 2012

Epaule d'agneau confite

I've written before about the whole notion of confit in French cooking. A meat, fruit, or vegetable that is confit is meltingly tender as the result of long, slow cooking. Applied to meat, the first thing that comes to mind is duck. To vegetables, it's onions or garlic. And to fruit, well... confiture, which is a related word and means "preserves" or jam.

This post is about a confit of a specific meat — shoulder (épaule) of lamb (d'agneau). The idea came from Christmastime. Our friends Jean and Nick of the blog A Very Grand Pressigny invited us to dinner at their house. They live in England — Derbyshire, to be precise (and that's pronounced [DAR-bee-shur], which we Americans have to learn) — and have a vacation house ("holiday home") here in Touraine.

Roast the lamb shoulder on a bed of carrots,
onions, garlic, and herbs

For the dinner, Jean and Nick brought a Derbyshire lamb shoulder with them, and they slow-roasted it in a low oven for, I think, 4 or 5 hours. It was delicious, and we've been thinking about it ever since. This week, one of the French supermarket chains had a special on French lamb shoulders, and we thought of it again. Slow-roasting is how you get confit, when it comes to a cut of meat.

The lamb shoulder after four hours of roasting yesterday
before I turned it over to show the nicer side

So I'm in the middle of cooking a lamb shoulder roast this morning. I say "in the middle" because I started it yesterday afternoon, when it cooked for at least four hours. I put the dish, covered, down in the cellar overnight, and this morning I put it back in the oven at 200ºF to cook again until noon. It'll be ready — meltingly tender — by then. As they say in French, we'll be able to « couper la viande à la cuillère » — "to cut the meat with a spoon."

A close-up of the épaule d'agneau confite

You can see recipes for slow-roasted lamb shoulder — épaule d'agneau confite au four — on several blogs and web sites, of course. Here are four that I looked at and recommend: Dinner Diary, The Guardian, Jamie Oliver, and CuisineAZ.

And here's the recipe and method I came up with. You could roast cuts of pork, turkey, beef, or veal the same way.

Slow-roasted shoulder of lamb

1 lamb shoulder (4 to 5 lbs.)
1 cup white wine
24 garlic cloves
3 onions
2 carrots
4 thyme sprigs
2 rosemary branches
1 tsp. ground coriander seeds
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
olive oil
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 230ºC/450ºF.

Peel and coarsely chop the onions and carrots. Spread them in the bottom of a high-sided roasting pan along with the thyme, rosemary, and half the garlic cloves.

Rub the lamb shoulder with salt and pepper, ground coriander, and cayenne pepper, and then brush it with olive oil. Put the roast in the pan on the bed of the vegetables and herbs.

Set the pan in a hot oven. Let the lamb brown on one side, and then turn it over and let the other side brown. Turn the heat down to 150ºC/250ºF and pour in the white wine. Let the lamb cook uncovered for two to three hours. Add water to keep the bottom of the pan moist.

Then put the rest of the garlic cloves into the pan and cover it. Let it cook for another three or four hours, covered, at 120ºC/200ºF. When the lamb is done, you will be so tender that you'll be able to "cut it with a spoon."

Remove the bones and shred the meat to serve it. Strain the cooking juices, degrease them at least partially, and serve them with the meat and whatever vegetables you decide to have with it.

24 February 2012


A few days ago, I mentioned that the right-wing Front National presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was asking the French Constitutional Council to do something about the problems she's having getting enough endorsements — 500 — to qualify for the ballot in May.

What she proposed was making the endorsements anonymous rather than publishing the names of the elected officials (there are some 47,000 of them, mostly mayors of towns and villages) who agree to "sponsor" her candidacy. As things stand, the names of the officials who sign an endorsement are published in the government's Journal Officiel a month before the election takes place.

The Constitutional Council decided to let the rule stand. Constituents of the "sponsoring" officials will be continue to be allowed to know who their representatives have endorsed for the presidency. Marine Le Pen still says she does not have enough endorsements to get her name on the ballot, and she has only a couple of weeks left to get them.

The weather has turned positively spring-like, with low temperature near 50ºF in the morning and high temperatures expected to approach 60 over the weekend. The price for that right now is low gray clouds and constant mist and drizzle. I'll take it— it's better than ice and snow.

Yesterday we drove down to Loches to do some shopping. That's something we wouldn't have tried to do two weeks ago, when the roads were ice-covered. By the way, to those who liked to shop there, I can report that the Halles et Champs produce/meat market near the Centre Leclerc has shut its doors and gone out of business.

My updated driver's license is in the works — I hope. I filled out the paperwork, scanned and printed copies of the required backup documents, and had "mug shot" pictures taken in one of those little Photomaton booths at the supermarket.

When I turned in the file at the village hall, the woman behind the counter asked me why I wanted an updated French driver's license. I explained about my periodic trips to the U.S. and how driver's licenses over there have more recent pictures on them than the 31-year-old photo on my French license, which was issued in 1981. That old license as has my old Paris address on it, from way back then.

You'd do better to keep the old French license and apply for an international license to go with it, the woman at the mairie told me. Problem is, the international license has to be renewed every three years. That's a hassle. It means more frequent mug shots — I assume the "informational" international license has a photo on it.

On this map I found on a French government web site, the
caption at the top says: "In red are the countries for which
an international driver's license is recommended."
Notice that the U.S. and Canada are not in red.

According to what I've read, the international license is just a translation of your official license and must be accompanied by the latter. If it's just a translation, then it will have the same address on it as my French license. My whole purpose in asking for a new French license was to get one with a more current photo and my current address on it — the same address that appears on my French carte de résident, my French and American bank accounts, and my credit cards.

The woman at the village hall was not particularly helpful. She said she would send my application off to the prefecture in Blois and see what the decision was. "Your old license is not in bad condition, and it obviously hasn't been lost or stolen," she said as I handed it over to her. "Normally, it's only replaced when it is damaged, lost, or stolen." Never mind that it said right on the form that you are allowed to request a new license if your name or address has changed.

It's been two weeks today and I'm still waiting.

23 February 2012

Roads and woods around Amboise

With its old château, shops along pedestrian streets, huge Sunday market, and river views, Amboise (pop. 12,500) is one of the most picturesque towns in the Loire Valley region east of Tours. By the same token, it's one of the busiest small towns around. Tour buses bring in big crowds, especially in summer.

The river road along the Loire from Amboise
leading to Tours is lined with tall trees, carefully pruned.

I like getting to Amboise as much as I like being there. These are some pictures of the roads around the town in wintertime.

Entering Amboise forest after a night of freezing fog

The road in from the south, coming from Saint-Aignan and passing through Montrichard, takes you through the old royal forest of Amboise.

Trees have been cut for firewood in this section.

The little forests around the Loire Valley and all over France are carefully maintained and closely managed. Trees are regularly and neatly thinned out and cut for firewood.

In winter, expect to see hunters in Amboise forest.

The forests are also managed to provide habitat for birds and wildlife. Hunting is — and for centuries has been — an important part of the culture of the Loire Valley.

22 February 2012

Five years already

Callie the Collie turns five today. She was born as the runt of a litter of ten border collies at a place called La Vallée des Géants, about three hours southeast of Saint-Aignan. We brought her home in May 2007, when she was 10 weeks old.

Callie at 10 weeks old

It was a traumatic time for a little puppy. She has never quite recovered from the car ride to Saint-Aignan that day, when she was so carsick because we drove on little curvy roads. To this day, she hates riding in the car.

Chewing on the boot scraper to get a feel for the place
on her first day home

The poor dog also had to have two operations before the end of that first summer. One was an unscheduled emergency, to remove an intestinal blockage. The other was planned, when we had her spayed. She survived and has settled in pretty happily, I think. Callie hates cars but she loves people.

21 February 2012

Ça caille...

...ce matin. Le froid est revenu. Selon le gadget que j'ai sur mon écran et qui me donne la température à Saint-Aignan, nous avons eu –8 ºC tout à l'heure. Je veux bien le croire.

Repeated freezings and thawings are slowly breaking down
the apples we dumped on one of the garden plots last fall.

I just came back from my walk with Callie. She saw or heard an animal — probably a little deer, un chevreuil — down in a wooded ravine that a stream runs through (when it's not dry, and it often is). She got her sing-songy, yelpy bark going, and she ran around like wild for 10 minutes.

The pond is frozen over again.
Minus 8ºC is about +18ºF.

I finally called her out of the woods, and she came to me. I never saw or heard whatever got her so excited. My camera battery had given out, and I was ready to come back home. It was just too cold out there to stay much longer, but it was beautiful — the sun shining brightly low on the horizon, and everything covered with hoarfrost.

20 February 2012

A pie of duck confit and Sarladaise potatoes

Confit de canard is duck that is slow-cooked in duck fat. Legs, thighs, and wings are the pieces used for confit; the breast is cooked separately, either grilled or pan roasted, and often served rare. The legs, thighs, and wings need long, slow cooking, until the meat is fairly falling off the bones.

There are several ways to serve and eat confit de canard. The leg & thigh sections can be taken out of the duck fat and roasted on a rack in a hot oven. The fat drips away and the duck becomes brown and crispy. Slow-cooked duck legs done that way are often served with fried or sauteed potatoes.

Duck-meat hash in a pie with sauteed potato slices

Another way to serve the duck pieces is as part of a cassoulet of white beans, with sausages, cooked fresh pork, and other meats. You can put the duck pieces into the bean dish whole, or you can remove the duck skin and take the meat off the bones before putting just the chunks of meat into the cassoulet. (Make cracklings with the duck skin.)

Duck confit meat pulled off the leg and thigh bones for hash

Nowadays, a third popular method of using confit de canard is to make and kind of parmentier — a meat and potato pie — with it. Again, you take the skin off the duck pieces and pull the meat off the bones. Chop the meat coarsely. Saute some diced onions and mushrooms (or truffles) in duck fat with herbs, and then add in the chopped duck meat to make a hash. Put the hash in a baking dish, cover it with a layer of mashed potatoes, and cook it in the oven.

Duck-meat hash with chopped onions and mushrooms

That was what I started to do last week with the three leg & thigh pieces of confit de canard I had left from December. (After cooking, the confit will keep for months in congealed duck fat in the refrigerator or a cold cellar.) I liked the idea of a meat and potato pie, but I wasn't sure I wanted to combine potatoes containing butter and milk (or cream) with the duck and duck fat. Duck isn't usually cooked in butter — at least not in the French southwest, where duck is a mainstay of the diet.

Spread the hash over the bottom of a baking dish

Instead, I decided to make sauteed potatoes, cooking them too in duck fat. Actually, the recipe for potatoes cooked in duck fat is a standard one down in the Dordogne and the town of Sarlat. They're called pommes de terre sarladaises. Slices of potato are first browned in the duck fat. Then they're left to cook with some garlic or even truffles on low heat in a covered pan. The potatoes are served soft and tender rather than crispy and crunchy.

Arrange the potatoes on an oven pan and brush them
with melted duck fat

So why not a combination of hachis parmentier (a kind of shepherd's pie) and confit de canard, made with pommes sarladaises? Rather than saute the sliced potatoes in a pan on the stove, I decided to cook them in the oven by arranging them on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking pad (parchment paper would work too) and brushing them with melted duck fat.

Arrange a layer of golden brown potato slices over the hash

I made a hash of the duck meat while the potatoes cooked and browned in the oven. When the potatoes were done, I spread the hash in the bottom of a baking dish and arranged the potatoes over the top. You of course could eat it just like that, with crispy potatoes.

Parmentier de confit de canard haché
et pommes sarladaises

Or you can put the whole pan in a slow oven, cover it, and let it cook for another 20 to 30 minutes. The potatoes will soften up and continue cooking, taking on a texture that is closer to the texture of mashed potatoes than sauteed potatoes. And then you can cut wedges out of the pie and serve them the way you'd serve, well, a pie.

It's all about the texture you want. And you could use any chopped meat — beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, rabbit... — for the hash and do the same thing. Instead of duck fat, brush the potatoes with olive or vegetable oil, melted butter, or pork fat — whatever goes with the meat you're using.

By the way, pommes sarladaises are also really good served with a grilled duck breast filet cooked rare.

19 February 2012


The recent vague de froid — the cold wave — might have been good for a lot of the trees and plants in our garden, but the artichoke plants didn't enjoy it much. December and January had been so mild that they put up a lot of new growth and were looking beautiful.

A flattened artichoke plant

Then came the hard freeze, which lasted two weeks. After the snow melted on Monday and Tuesday, I found our three artichoke plants completely flattened, splayed out on the ground. The big outer leaves are still green, but the heart of the plant seems to be dead. I wonder why those leaves stayed so green.

A fire bug's last resting place

I also noticed a fully formed artichoke flower on one plant. Lying on its back inside the artichoke is a fire bug — un gendarme — that looks to be as dead as the plant. That firebug might not come back to life, but thousands of others will be gathering along the path over the next couple of months. We'll see if the artichokes come back.

18 February 2012

File conversions

During the recent spell of frigid weather, I started working on my recipe collection. Over the past eight or nine years, I've collected quite a few recipes, mostly from the Internet. Some are in French. Some are in English. When I find an interesting recipe, I copy the text, paste it into a word processing file, and re-format it, adding my own notes or modifications after I've made whatever the recipe describes.

I'm not scrapping ClarisWorks, but just saving files
in a more widely used format from now on.

The word processor I use is a very old one, by software standards. It's the word-processing application in ClarisWorks for Windows version 5, which was released in 1997. Un logiciel d'époque, on pourrait dire — a real antique. I worked at Claris for six years in the 1990s, before Apple laid 400 of us off in 1998 and closed down the company. Claris had been Apple's end-user software subsidiary for 11 years.

When it comes to ClarisWorks, I need to move on, but I've never found another word processor that I like better. One day, with changes in the Windows operating system, the old software will just stop working. When that happened, I'd be stuck with a lot of useless files, and my recipe collection would be lost. Already, I'm seeing a lot of bugs in ClarisWorks under Windows 7.

A typical recipe, now an HTML file I can open and print
using Firefox, Chrome, or another web browser

During the cold snap, while I was looking for a way to keep busy, I decided the time had come to work on all the recipes I have archived in ClarisWorks format and save them as HTML files, which we can open all open on our computers these days. And now I've done it. I had to process the files manually by opening each one in ClarisWorks and re-saving it as HTML — a laborious process.

Lucky for me, ClarisWorks has a good HTML export filter. Re-saving all my files took me several days — well, not full days, because my back would start hurting after a couple of hours in front of the computer so I'd stop for a while and do something else. Go cook something, for example. Take a walk with the dog.

The collection by category — more than 1,000 recipes

How many recipes did I convert? Between a thousand and twelve hundred. I didn't count them with any precision, but there are a lot of them. Most are filed by category, but I still have a couple of fat folders of miscellaneous recipes I need to move into the appropriate folders. It feels good to get the collection organized and "modernized" — informatiquement parlant. It's a job I had put off for years.

The Internet is an endless source of new recipes and cooking ideas, but it's nice to have your old favorites in files organized by category and in a format you'll be able to work with for the foreseeable future. You hope.

17 February 2012

The vine-pruning team

It's hard to believe the outdoor temperature this morning is +5ºC, or 41ºF. Less than a week ago our low temperatures were 30ºF below that. As Walt mentioned on his blog, the whole two-week cold snap seems like a dream now. If I didn't have the photos I took, I would have a hard time believing it really happened, and that the snow lasted as long as it did.

The vine-pruning team at work in the Renaudière vineyard

Our walks in the vineyard are less hair-raising now, and Callie and I stay out longer. The vine-pruners are back at work. It's nice to see them and talk to them for a few minutes early in the morning. Often they're just arriving when we walk by. If they haven't yet suited up in their bulky coats, hats, and hoods, Callie will approach them and let them pet her. They're disappointed when she acts stand-offish.

The vine pruners have these little rolling carts
so they can sit as they work.

If they have their pruning tools in their hands and they look twice a big as life because of the way they're bundled up, the dog's afraid of them. There are three pruners — two guys and a woman — who work for the same grape-grower, and they must be in their late 20s or early 30s. The team spends 8 hours a day out there, in all kinds of weather, but they didn't work when temperatures were below freezing and there was so much snow and ice.

The result

Even now, with daytime temperatures around 50ºF, it must get pretty cold when you spend the whole day working outdoors. They work even when it's raining, unless the rain is really beating down. They arrive ever morning at 8:00 in their little white Domaine de la Renaudie camionnette.

A gravel road runs through the Renaudière vineyard
near Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher

They seem to take an hour or even two for lunch, though, because we see them drive by in their little white van at noon and return for the afternoon shift between 1:30 and 2:00 — they are French, after all! And they talk and laugh all the time as they work. They seem to be a compatible group. I know they all have dogs, but I don't know much else about them.

16 February 2012

Our hamlet, La Renaudière

The hamlet where we live near Saint-Aignan is made up of 9 houses located between vineyards and woods. It's a hamlet in French — un hameau — because it is a group of houses without a church. If it had a church, it would be a village — un village. Most villages also have a shop or two and maybe other businesses in them, but hamlets usually don't. Ours doesn't.

The hamlet is just two miles (3 km) from the center of Saint-Aignan, and it is also two miles from the center of the village whose territory it is administratively a part of. The paved road ends at the hamlet but continues as a gravel path for tractors, cars, and trucks that drive into or through the vineyard. The gravel road is a mile long and gets almost no traffic. At the other end it joins two paved roads at their intersection — one of those is the Route Touristique that winds through the local (Touraine) vineyards.

The paved road comes in from the right, through some woods,
and ends at the pond. Our house is no. 6.

I like the feeling of being out in the country without being isolated at all. We have several supermarkets within three or four miles' drive, and there are outdoor markets nearby on Saturdays and Sundays. Saint-Aignan is close, and the comparable towns of Montrichard, Contres, and Selles-sur-Cher are just 10 miles from us. They all have supermarkets and weekly open-air markets too, as well as central business districts.

Click here to see house no. 5 on the map in a photo that I took a week or two ago out our kitchen window. It's the same house that you see on the right in the banner photo above. When I took the banner photo, I was standing just a little ways south of the no. 5 on the map.

15 February 2012

Weather, elections, and prices

The big news in France remains the weather, because it has returned more or less to normal. There's still some snow in the east — in Alsace, for example, and the mountains near Switzerland — but that's normal over there. Our thaw has happened here in Saint-Aignan, and we had what felt almost like warm rain showers yesterday afternoon.

They are saying that the recent cold snap was the wintertime equivalent of the grande canicule — the great heat wave — of the summer of 2003. It was the polar opposite of that event — pardon the pun. In a comment, CHM mentioned the winter of 1956, which is famous in France as one of the coldest ever — many thousands of olive trees down south in Provence were killed by the freeze that year, for example.

There's not much snow left out in the back yard.
It's time to think about the 2012 vegetable garden.

The winter of 1985 was the last time it was as cold in France as it has been this month, according to reports. I wasn't living here in 1985, but the people who owned our house back then have told me that the bay laurel hedge around our yard froze completely and died back to ground level that winter. Temperatures went down below minus 20ºC, compared to the –10 to -12ºC we had a few days ago. Minus 20ºC is a few degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Tire tracks in the mud and the remains of the snow

Other news: rumors are that President Nicolas Sarkozy is going to declare his candidacy for re-election on the TF1 news tonight. One journalist described the build-up to his (expected) announcement as a case of faux suspense. (I won't even put those "French" words in italics.) The timing of Sarkozy's announcement fits a pattern; previous incumbent presidents have waited until late January, February, or even March to declare themselves candidates for re-election in May.

Presidential election campaigns have never dragged on and on for months and years the way they now do in the U.S. That's the trend here now, however. Last year the Socialists held a months-long primary campaign that was thrown for a loop by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair in New York and resulted in the nomination last fall of François Hollande.

Hollande, by the way is the former domestic partner of the 2007 Socialist candidate for president, Ségolène Royal. Royal and Hollande lived together for decades and have four children together. She got 48% of the vote against Sarkozy in the second round of presidential voting in 2007.

The view out the back door yesterday afternoon

The other big news is the price of gas/petrol and diesel fuel at the pump in France. The average price of diesel fuel (called gazole or gasoil) nationwide hit a new record of 1.41 euros per liter. That's the equivalent, at today's exchange rate, of $1.86 US per liter, or $7.05 per US gallon. About two-thirds of the cars in France have diesel engines. Nine years ago, when we arrived in Saint-Aignan, the price of diesel fuel was only about 85 eurocents per liter.

For gasoline (essence in French), the average price is about 1.65 euros per liter, or $8.25 per US gallon. That's premium; regular is slightly lower, of course. People interviewed on the news say that fuel for the car is becoming a luxury item. Prices in Paris are a lot higher than they are out in the country, and prices in the supermarket filling stations are lower than prices at name-brand service stations, especially the ones along the autoroutes, where tolls too increased significantly last month.

Luckily, our lifestyle doesn't involve much driving, and we almost never take the autoroutes, so we don't pay tolls. We fill the tank of the little Peugeot with diesel fuel about once a month. I feel sorry for people who have to commute long distances to work by car. They say fuel is even more expensive in Italy than in France.

14 February 2012

Elections présidentielles : who can run?

The French presidential election is just a couple of months away now. There are a number of candidates, but only four have much chance of getting into the second round of voting and therefore of being elected president. (This is a post about process, not politics.)

Those four candidates represent nearly the whole political spectrum: the left (Socialist candidate François Hollande), the center (François Bayrou), the right (incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy), and the extreme right (Marine Le Pen). To get on the ballot, each candidate has to get the "sponsorship" of at least 500 political officeholders — mayors, members of parliament, etc. — out of the 47,000 elected officials in France.

The two largest parties — those headed by Hollande and
Sarkozy — have plenty of members who hold elective office and will support their presidential candidate. The centrist candidate, Bayrou, seems to have his sponsors lined up too. But the extreme right candidate, Le Pen, is having trouble getting 500 officials to sign on the dotted line.

There is no officially sanctioned mechanism in place to help candidates for the French presidency gather the 500 signatures they need to get on the ballot. The French Constitutional Council has refused to institutionalize the process, leaving candidates to figure out how to proceed. Elected officials — 36,000 of whom are mayors of cities, towns, and villages — are not required to support a candidate, and can support only one.

Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National has been complaining recently that elected officials are reluctant to support her candidacy. She has called for the elected officials' choice of a candidate to sponsor be made an anonymous process, so that officials will be free to support the candidate of their choice without suffering political consequences.

As the system is set up, the list of mayors and other officials who have given their support to one candidate or another is published in the French government's Journal Officiel about a month before the first round of presidential voting is scheduled. There's no secret ballot for elected officials — their constituents will know who they sponsored for president.

Centrist François Bayrou said a couple of days ago that something needed to be done to help Marine Le Pen get the signatures she needs to get her name on the ballot. A presidential election from which she is excluded will violate democratic principles, he said. Bayrou and Le Pen, polls show, would get something like 12% and 17% of the vote, respectively, if the first round of voting were held today.

Bayrou's idea that the political establishment needs to do something to help Le Pen has gotten little if any support from other politicians or political parties. The current leader in the polls is Socialist François Hollande, at 30%. Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, first elected president in 2007, is polling at 25% for the first round. If those percentages hold, Hollande and Sarkozy will face each other in the second round of voting — the run-off — in early May.

Who would gain from having Marine Le Pen excluded from the initial round of voting? Both the major candidates might have their reasons and motivations for keeping her out of the election.

In the 2002 presidential election, for example, the candidate of the far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine's father), ended up out-polling the Socialist candidate in the first round of voting. That left two candidates from the right of the political spectrum, Le Pen and Jacques Chirac, in the run-off election, which Chirac won with more than 80% of the vote. This year, it's unlikely, however, that Marine Le Pen will get more first-round votes than either Hollande or Sarkozy, knocking one of them out of the race.

As for President Sarkozy, without Le Pen in the race, he might pick up a good portion of her voters. They have nobody else to vote for. Of course, they could just stay home on election day. Sarkozy is not popular at this point. A lot of observers say that Sarkozy and some of his cabinet members have been campaigning hard to appeal to the Le Pen voters, hoping for their support in the second round even if Le Pen's name does get on the first-round ballot.

At this point, President Sarkozy has not even yet announced that he is a candidate. He's rumored to be ready to do so this week.

In the French political system, the President of the Republic can only be elected by a majority of the people who vote. It's not like that in the U.S., where presidents can be elected with less than 50% of the popular vote (Bill Clinton twice, George W. Bush once), and where winning more votes than your opponent is no guarantee of winning the election (ask Al Gore).

In France, if one of the candidates got more than 50% of the vote in the first round of voting in April, the election would be decided and there would be no need for a second round run-off. That's not likely to happen, and one candidate (either Sarkozy or Hollande, in all likelihood) will get more than half the vote in the second round. For now, polls show Hollande with a significant lead. Sarkozy is in real danger of becoming a one-term president.

Here's a link to an article about the latest polls, with photos of some of the candidates.

13 February 2012

Days of milk lemon and honey

You know it's been bad when they're saying the weather is improving and you can expect snow, freezing rain, and then cold wet rain over the next 48 hours. Temperatures will vary from 30 to 40 degrees F over the next few days. Whoopee! Things are looking up.

Still, that means at least two more days of being shut-ins. It's supposed to snow in Paris. It's been snowing in Corsica for days, and Provence and the Marseille area have had more snow than we've had in the Loire Valley, if I can believe the news reports. Now we'll get some more snow, and the roads will be even more treacherous for a while.

Lemon-honey chicken wings with rosemary,
ginger, and hot red pepper

On the food front, I was really glad to find a package of chicken wings at the local SuperU store on Friday. It had been weeks since they'd had any wings in the butcher section with the packs of drumsticks and thighs. Maybe people are just buying them all before I can get to the store. I don't know. I had almost given up hope of ever finding any again.

Wings, golden brown and caramelized

We were busy in the kitchen yesterday morning. I put together a marinade of honey, rosemary, lemon juice, ginger, and crushed red pepper for the wings. Walt grated up the half a celery root we had left over, and I made some mayonnaise so that we could turn the root into céleri rémoulade (mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, and cream are the sauce). Then Walt made a batch of zucchini & goat cheese mini-muffins and I popped the wings into a not oven.

Life is good. Walt just got up, came downstairs, and reported that it is snowing. The skylights upstairs are frosted over.

12 February 2012

Beef & barley stew with mushrooms

Talk about comfort food. Food for cold weather. Fortification against the cold. What about beef stew? With pearl barley (orge perlé in French)? Start with a pound and a half of stew beef (bœuf pour bourguignon). And with winter vegetables — celery root, carrots, turnip, rutabaga, onions — not to mention mushrooms.

Thanks to Elise at Simply Recipes for the idea and a recipe. I really appreciate her frequent e-mails, which are a constant source of good, appetizing recipes and ideas. This time, we happened to have a bag of pearl barley down in the cellar, and we hadn't found or made an opportunity to cook it and eat it. Carrots and mushrooms are staples for us, and all the other vegetables are ones we both enjoy.

Beef and barley stew with winter vegetables and mushrooms

I took Elise's recipe and adapted it by adding the turnip and rutabaga. I also decided to marinate the beef before cooking it to tenderize and flavor the meat a little, since it was stew beef rather than chuck. Onions, garlic, bay leaf, dried oregano, and white wine went into the marinade. I left it overnight in the refrigerator. Then early in the morning, I took the chunks of stew beef out of the liquid, patted them dry, and sauteed them in a big pot with bacon fat that I'd saved in the fridge.

We get such good mushrooms here in the Loire Valley.

In went the onions to brown a little, and then the marinade and some broth from the freezer. I let the meat cook for three hours on low heat before adding the barley, which takes another 45 to 60 minutes to cook. Meanwhile, I cooked the vegetables separately in a light broth, starting with the carrots, and continuing with the rutabaga, turnip, and celery root, all cut into ¾-inch chunks. And I sauteed the mushrooms in butter.

Winter vegetables cooked separately in broth,
ready to go into the meat stew

When the stew, including the barley, was pretty much ready, I added the cooked vegetables and mushrooms to the pot, along with the broth the vegetables had cooked in. All the flavor went into the stew, in other words. It was done. The beef was starting to fall apart, after four hours of cooking. The broth was rich, and everything else was cooked. It was a great lunch, and the leftovers will be just as good, if not better, in a day or two.

11 February 2012

Driving or walking, slipping and sliding

I went for a drive yesterday. I didn't take my camera — too distracting. I didn't know what state of iciness to expect on the roads. The temperature was well below freezing when I left home at 9:30 a.m. The road down out of our little hamlet was clear, and the bigger road to the village center two miles away was mostly clear too, with only a few icy patches.

After I turned south to drive to the next village south, Orbigny, the situation was different. It's only seven or eight miles from Mareuil to Orbigny, but it took me a while to get there. In places where the road surface is exposed to sunlight, there was evidence of some melting, but you have to beware of black ice. In other places, especially where the road runs through woods and the roadway is shaded — a good part of the distance — as well as all the way through the little settlement called Les Bucherons, the snow hadn't been plowed and hadn't melted at all. The road was covered in slick snow that had been packed down by car tires.

Bertie sleeping this morning next to his favorite radiator,
soaking up some warmth

I was headed to Orbigny to pick up a friend and take her with me to the supermarket for my regular shopping. Her car gave up the ghost a couple of weeks ago, just as the weather turned so frigid. Her house is cold too — when I got there, the temperature in the downstairs living/dining room was 11ºC, which nobody could call comfortable. It's 11º in our living room this morning, but I've got the heat on now and the temperature will slowly rise to 18 or even 20 over the next few hours. Not everybody is so lucky.

The road that runs directly from Orbigny to Saint-Aignan was not as icy as the little road I had driven a few minutes earlier to get to our friend's house. It's a wider road, with room for two vehicles to pass each other without one or both of them having to pull off onto the (snowy) shoulder. It passes through a mile or two of forest, and there the road surface was pure ice. I didn't slide around very much, but my anti-lock breaks got a good workout. I could feel the brake pedal pulsing every time I pressed on it.

In February 2003, the main street in Saint-Aignan was done up
in cobblestones, after years of being paved with asphalt.

After the shopping trip at SuperU, a big hangar of a sheet metal building where the heating system is completely inadequate to cope with the current weather, we went into old Saint-Aignan, where we both had a couple of errands to do. By the way, the streets and squares in the old town have been completely redone in cobblestones over the past 10 years.

Pretty and quaint, but treacherous in icy weather

Those cobblestones were shiny with ice yesterday, all around the town. The tops of the stones are smooth and slightly rounded. The pavement slopes along the edges of the streets, where pedestrians are supposed to walk. At one point, and older lady stood at the intersection in front of the post office warning people, including me, not to try to walk on the sidewalk. It was too treacherous. "Walk out on the road, where the cars drive," she said. "They've salted and gritted the road, but not the pedestrian walkways. Regardez comme ça brille."

Saint-Aignan's main street being repaved in February 2003

My friend and I got a coffee in one of the local cafés, Le Lapin Blanc, and ran into a German woman who has lived in the Saint-Aignan area for many years. She said her house is cold too, but she has a big fire burning in the fireplace. The supermarket had been pretty crowded, but the streets of Saint-Aignan and the cafés were occupied by just a few hardy souls yesterday morning. I didn't see anybody slip and fall, but we were all being exceedingly careful.

The streets were a real obstacle course nine years ago.

Then it was time to drive back to Orbigny and, for me, back to Mareuil. The whole round trip measured nearly 40 miles. It made me realize that I'm happy not to have to do that kind of driving more than once in a while in this weather. I won't be going out again this weekend, barring the unforeseen. Driving was nerve-wracking. Dangerous. Frigid. And beautiful, by the way. It was kind of fun.

The temperature this morning is minus 8ºC. Yesterday afternoon it got almost up to freezing outdoors, but not quite. The thaw will come Monday or Tuesday. But on Monday, the forecast is for rain! The rain will freeze on the frozen ground and roads. For a day or two, they are saying, we will probably be living in a vast ice-skating rink.