31 March 2012

Le grand anglo-français tricolore

So the hunting dogs that you see at the Château de Cheverny are considered now to be a distinct breed. The breed's name is Grand anglo-français tricolore, or Great Anglo-French Tricolo(u)r Hound.

The dogs at Cheverny

This breed was created by crossing French hunting dogs — specifically, a breed called the Poitevin — with English Fox Hounds. The Anglo-French Hounds are more French than English, with the original French breeds predominating, according to the sites I've read. Here's an interesting French site on which you can search for the breed you want information on.

Loveable, I think

These are dogs that weigh from 30 to 35 kilograms — 65 to 85 lbs. — and need a lot of exercise. They're docile and affectionate, apparently, even with children, but they're dogs that need to run and so do better in the country than in urban environments. The Anglo-French Hound is definitely not a lapdog.

30 March 2012

Cheverny exteriors

My friend and former colleague Susan in California sent me a picture of Cheverny that she took in March 2006 when she and her husband, Ray, visited us in Saint-Aignan. Here it is.

Striding up to the château de Cheverny,
that's me on the left and Ray on the right.

It took a lot of pictures that day, and looking at the ones I took outside the château makes me realize how often we have very fine, sunny weather in March here in the Loire Valley (except when we don't!). These pictures were taken on March 20.

Cheverny's façade as the March sun goes down

It's the same kind of weather we've been having this March. It's been sunny and unseasonably warm for about two weeks now. There are rumblings among farmers and on the weather and news reports about drought. If I remember, we haven't had much precipitation since Christmas, except three or four inches of snow.

Another sunset shot at Cheverny

We are slowly getting the garden cleaned up. All our neighbors are doing the same. Day by day the whole hamlet — the whole village — looks neater and neater. Our neighbor across the street was out on his riding mower for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon. Walt is starting to think about mowing our grass for the first time. But unless we get some rain soon, it's not likely to grow very much.

Some Cheverny architectural details

It's all about global warming, despite the brutal cold spell we had in the first half of February. Several plants in our yard seem to have given up the ghost because of the hard freeze, including a fig tree that we planted about five years ago and that had shown signs of rapid growth last spring and summer. I guess there's still some chance it might come back, but I'm not optimistic.

Another of Cheverny's front stoops

Even some of the plants I brought indoors for the winter didn't survive. I put them on our little glassed-in sun porch, which is not heated but hardly even gets colder than about 40ºF/5ºC. In February, the extreme cold outside made it frigid enough on the porch to kill three or four potted plants I was keeping in there.

29 March 2012

The feeding of the dogs at Cheverny

Cheverny is well known for its château and its hunting dogs. Hunting is a major cultural feature of the life here in the Loire Valley, and even more so in the woodsy subregion called La Sologne, where Cheverny and Chambord châteaus are located.

The hunting dogs at Cheverny castle

The dogs at Cheverny are a special breed, or cross-breed, of "English fox hounds and French Poitevins dogs," according to the Cadogan Loire guidebook. They are taken out hunting twice a week from autumn until early spring — winter is hunting season.

La soupe des chiens

One of the attractions at Cheverny is watching the feeding of the hunting dogs in the afternoon. The dogs are kept in a big pen and kennel a ways from the château. At feeding time — it's sometimes called « la soupe des chiens » at Cheverny — the dogs' trainers put down a line of raw chicken carcasses and kibble as they keep the pack under strict control. The dogs only lunge forward to wolf down the food when they are given the sign. It's quite a sight.

"Pray do not excite the dogs."

An example of the dogs' prey?

It took "just" 30 years (1604-1634) to build the château de Cheverny. Most of the other Loire Valley châteaus are a hodgepodge of architectural styles because they were built and rebuilt, expanded and enlarged, so many times over a period of several centuries. Cheverny is outstanding for its pure lines and nice proportions.

28 March 2012

« Un chien-chaud ! »

That's the French translation for "a hotdog" but nobody here would ever say that except facetiously. Actually, in French this kind of sandwich is called a « hot-dog », with a hyphen. Pronounced, it sounds a little like [ut-DUG].

We made U.S.-style hot dogs, with mustard, ketchup, and pickle relish, last week. So the next time we went to the supermarket, I bought some more saucisses de Francfort. Actually, they were saucisses de Strasbourg, which are similar to the German ones. In this season of equal time — I refer to the French presidential election — I thought we needed to make hot dogs French-style.

A French-style hot-dog, served with a gratin
of sliced potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes

One of my earliest memories of a hotdog in France dates back to 1970, when I was a student in Aix-en-Provence for a semester. There was a street vendor there who sold sausage sandwiches. His version was a hot saucisse de Strasbourg (a wiener) inserted into the middle of a hollowed-out piece of French baguette of the right length. The only condiment? Not mustard. Not ketchup. Not pickle or chile. No, just butter, melted. It was amazingly good.

Knacks are saucisses de Strasbourg — "knackwurst"
or even "knockwurst" in English.

Anyway, that's not what I recognize as a real French hot-dog. The authentic one, to me, is a saucisse on a split length of baguette dressed with Dijon mustard and melted Gruyère cheese. You put the wiener in the bread, slather it with hot mustard, and sprinkle on a good amount of grated "Swiss" cheese (Gruyère, Comté, or Emmenthal).

Baguette, saucisses, mustard, and grated cheese

Then you run the sandwich under the broiler until the cheese is completely melted and starting to brown on top. Be careful not to burn the baguette. Eat it with your hands or, better, with a knife and fork, after it's cooled slightly.

Hotdogs hot out of the oven

Some recipes I've seen call for wrapping the wiener in a slice of poitrine fumée — streaky U.S.-style bacon — but that seems to me to be a little over the top. I was tempted, though.

27 March 2012

Le Château de Cheverny

Cheverny is one of the big four châteaus on the east side of Tours in the Loire Valley — along with Chenonceau, Chambord, and Chaumont. I guess I should add Amboise and Blois too.

The Château de Cheverny was built in the 1700s, about a century later than most of the other main châteaus of the region. It stands out by its fine classical architecture, and it's known for its sumptuous furnishings and its pack of hunting dogs.

It's not a very big château, in fact, but its proportions are harmonious. And it stands in the middle of a 250-acre park that is beautifully manicured.

Cheverny is probably the most interesting château around here for its interiors and decoration. It's been owned and occupied — still today — by successive generations of the same family for its entire existence.

Cheverny is just half an hour north of Saint-Aignan by car, and about the same distance south of Blois. It's even closer to 16th-century Chambord, and the contemporaneous Château de Villesavin is close by as well.

The photos here are some that I took in April 2004 when I visited Cheverny for the first time, before I started blogging. I've been back to Cheverny several times since then. You have to pay to get in, but it's worth the price.

26 March 2012

Le Cellier du Beaujardin, Bléré

Yesterday morning we went to the annual open house held by a wine cooperative called Le Cellier du Beaujardin. It's located in the town of Bléré, near the Château de Chenonceau and 20 miles west of Saint-Aignan and 15 miles east of Tours.

I was surprised as how many people were in attendance, especially on a Sunday morning. The fine weather probably had something to do with the big turnout. There were tastings of the 2010 wines that are currently available for purchase, and of the 2011 wines that will be released over the next few months. Bléré and the vineyards the Cellier are part of the new Touraine-Chenonceau appellation, as is the Saint-Aignan area.

The Cellier du Beaujardin price list for
the wine it sells in bottles.

In addition to the tastings, there was a buffet of food like rillettes, pâtés, cheeses, and bread spread out on a table where open bottles of wine were available on a pour-your-own basis. As it was just before lunchtime, we enjoyed a little apéritif before we made our purchases.

This was our "free bonus gift" after we bought the equivalent
of 32 bottles of wine for 50 euros.

We and many other customers had brought along our little plastic wine jugs to be filled with the local Chenin Blanc and Côt (Malbec) wines. Others were buying bottles or boxes of wine. At the end of the process, there was a cadeau — a gift — for those who bought wine: it's a little plastic bag of rosé wine with a spout. It would be a great way to take wine to a picnic, and it might just be the future of wine packaging around here, replacing the traditional bottle.

The price list for wines sold in bulk (en vrac) — you bring
your own containers and they fill them for you.

After we got home, I looked in detail at the Cellier du Beaujardin web site. There are pages in French and pages in English. I came across this sentence, which mystified me:
“The wine growers from Bléré have striven for the production of their wines of Touraine blanc, rosé and rouge and they have been in a turmoil.”

« Les vignerons de Bléré oeuvrent à la production de leurs vins de Touraine blanc, rosé, rouge et effervescent. »
What the French actually says is that "the grape-growers of Bléré busy themselves producing Touraine white, rosé, red, and sparkling wines." Effervescence in French can mean "turmoil" (in the social sense) or "sparkling" (as applied to wine or other beverages). The translator — it's probably a computer translation — goofed.

Le Cellier du Beaujardin has an annual production of about 270,000 bottles of wine. The co-op counts 20 grape-growers working 500 acres of vines. The prices it advertises are typical of what you can expect to find at the local wine co-ops and at individual cellars owned and operated by small wine producers.

25 March 2012

Beautiful spring weather

Our shopping excursion to Vierzon was partly successful, but partly disappointing. At the Grand Frais store, I found fresh okra (which to me is a treat), a nice navet blanc or daikon, and a bag of fresh bean sprouts (lunch today). Grand Frais is a big produce market with a good range of exotic grocery products (Mexican, Asian, etc.), and a small dairy section as well as a meat counter. It's the French equivalent of Trader Joe's, in a way.

What I don't like about Grand Frais is that they sell almost exclusively produce that is imported — big carbon footprint — and out of season — eggplant, tomatoes, etc. in March. But then the prices can be very low. I got two nice eggplants imported from Spain, where they were surely grown in greenhouses, for just 69 cents. To me, Grand Frais is a good place to buy, once in a while, a few exotic vegetables that you can't find elsewhere.

This is a different kind of jade plant from the one I showed yesterday.
CHM brought me a cutting from the SoCal desert a few years ago.
It winters indoors, as does the aloe plant.

The big Carrefour store that was my original reason for wanting to go to Vierzon turns out to have been bought out by the U chain and converted into a HyperU in January. We have a SuperU here in Saint-Aignan, and it's our best local supermarket. I was pleased and surprised to see that it is a better store than the HyperU in Vierzon, so I won't likely go there again to shop. That'll save me some hours of driving this year.

These old barrels and carts are in an open hangar
on one of our dog-walking routes.

Vierzon itself, as everybody says when you mention it here, appears to be a little gritty, run-down, and rough-looking. At least the parts we drove through were like that. We didn't go into the "downtown" or get close to the rivers and canals. What we saw certainly didn't look dangerous or anything approaching that, but it didn't give me any desire to spend time walking around in those neighborhoods. The weather was beautiful, though, and people were sitting outdoors at sidewalk cafés in a couple of places.

This picture is from April 2005. Since then, the roof of
this old barn in our hamlet has been repaired.

Today we are going to ride over to Bléré, a smaller town on the Cher River in the opposite direction from Vierzon. One of the wine co-ops over there — near Chenonceaux — is having its annual open house (portes ouvertes). Walt and I have never bought wine at that particular co-op, but we've tasted it because our American friends who live over on the other side of Saint-Aignan have served it to us. It's defintely good.

Sunrise from the living room a couple of days ago

I especially like the Chenin Blanc wines from the Bléré co-op. Chenin is the grape grown in the famous Vouvray and Montlouis vineyards, which are just north of Bléré. Over here near Saint-Aignan, the main white wine grape is Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are very different. I'm hoping to buy 10 or even 20 liters of Chenin this morning. They'll fill my little plastic jugs (called cubitainers or just cubis) and I'll put the wine in bottles and cork them this week to enjoy for a month or two.

More primrose volunteers

Today's will be a pleasant excursion. We're going with the friends I mentioned. The weather is warm and sunny, and it's predicted to stay that way for another week at least. We haven't had to turn on the heat at all for a few days now. I've noticed too that some of the plants that I thought had died because of the extreme cold weather we had in February are actually starting to put out leaf buds. The warm, sunny weather is having the desired positive effect on all the local life forms.

24 March 2012

Things I miss about the U.S.

Yesterday Walt and I talked about the things we miss from all the years we were "America-based," and we talked about the subject with two other ex-pat friends we happened to see yesterday for the first time in a month or so.

We decided the bigger difference between America and France for us is the difference between living in the country vs. living in the city. We miss the convenience of having almost everything available and close at hand. I mean shopping. But we don't miss the noise and traffic and high cost of living.

The primroses of springtime in our yard —
they come up spontaneously every year

Walt said he misses being able to find good quality clothes and shoes for reasonable prices. It's true that clothes out here in the French countryside are hard to buy and usually expensive. I buy most of my clothes in North Carolina when I go back there for my annual visit. Since we don't work now, our clothing needs are much reduced compared to the days when we worked in California.

Sometimes I miss the ocean and the salt air. It's because I grew up on the coast. I remember the first time I went to San Francisco, the thing that attracted me the most — even more than the mild weather, beautiful hills, and old-fashioned feel of the place — was the smell of the sea I got there. It reminded me of home in North Carolina.

Early spring days in the vineyard

When I miss the ocean now, it's N.C. that I miss, not California. Luckily, France has a very long coastline and we've been able to enjoy trips to the Normandy coast and the Atlantic island of Oléron (which really made me feel at home so much it resembled the low, sandy N.C. coast).

I miss being able to get a good, juicy American hamburger. Even making them at home isn't completely satisfactory, because the meat — grass-fed rather than grain-fed beef — is just different. In general, I prefer the grass-fed beef. I also miss Eastern North Carolina barbecued, pulled pork, but I can make that here with satisfactory results.

I miss Asian food as we knew it in California, but that's one of those city vs. country things. If we were in Paris, we'd have Asian food the way we did in San Francisco. (By the way, our lunch today will be Szechuan Eggplant with Ground Turkey, home-made.)

It's nice to get the plants back outside in spring.
My jade plant had a good winter indoors.

I never felt happy living in California the way I feel happy about living in France — even though we spent nearly 20 years in California. Maybe if I had been able to spend more time in San Francisco the way I spent time in Paris — as a pedestrian rather than a commuter stuck in traffic — I would have liked it better. I miss California friends, but many of them have come to visit us in France over the past 9 years.

Sunrise with clouds a couple of days ago

When I felt homesick in California, it was mostly for France (my "cultural" home), and partly for North Carolina (my "biological" home). The other two places where I've lived — Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and Washington DC — are completely tied up with France, because at the first I was a student and teacher in the university French department, and in the second I was a translator and writer working in French (with CHM).

Another plant that spent the winter in the house and
is happy to be out in the fresh air again

I can't say that I've felt homesick at all since we moved to Saint-Aignan. However, I really enjoy my trips back to the U.S., especially to my home town in N.C., and I'm happy that I might have two American trips in 2012. More about those as the times approach.

23 March 2012

Nostalgia, medically speaking

Yesterday the International Herald Tribune/New York Times published an article about the malady known medically as “nostalgia” — homesickness — written by Sandra J. Matt. She's a university professor in Utah who has published a book titled Homesickness: An American History. According to Matt, people who leave their home countries to work and live as immigrants elsewhere suffer unusually high rates of depression and anxiety. She writes:
“...many people who leave home in search of better prospects end up feeling displaced and depressed. Few speak openly of the substantial pain of leaving home.[...] explicit discussions of homesickness are rare, for the emotion is typically regarded as an embarrassing impediment to individual progress and prosperity. This silence makes mobility appear deceptively easy.”
Vierzon, ville d'eau

People have been migrating, emigrating, and immigrating for centuries, of course, but modern transportation and communications make it easier for people to act on the desire to change countries than it used to be. Jobs are more plentiful and better paid in some countries compared to others. In the case of many of us who have chosen to live in France, a range of factors — better weather, better food, less traffic, more peace and quiet, and a lower cost of living, among others — have motivated both retired and working people to uproot themselves. We didn't move out of necessity, but because we just thought we'd try it.

The view from our “front porch” yesterday afternoon

Sandra Matt writes that for some emigrants, improved international communications via telephone and the Internet might actually heighten feelings of displacement and homesickness. In the past, it was much harder to stay in touch with family and friends in the country you'd left behind. Now, we can stay in such regular and close contact that it might be harder to make the break and distance ourselves from the life we used to live. We're constant reminded of what we're missing.

If you're an American living in France, a sort of homesickness
might motivate you to cook and eat a sandwich like this one.

In past waves of migration — I'm thinking of the millions of Europeans who crossed the Atlantic in the 19th and 20th centuries to settle in North America — the emigrants didn't have much of a choice. They couldn't easily return to their native countries and families, for economic or political reasons. Now, Matt says, 20 to 40 percent of all immigrants to the United States ultimately return to their home countries.

The church in Vierzon

Language is an issue that Sandra Matt doesn't address in her New York Times article. How much of the homesickness and anxiety that emigrants suffer from comes from living in an environment where their native language is a foreign language? As an American, moving from the U.S. East Coast — North Carolina — to live and work in California, for example, was in many ways as big a move as coming to live in France. The main difference was that in California, I could speak English (though maybe with a different accent).

Many of you who read this blog have left English-speaking countries to come live in France. Many of you have also had the experience of leaving one English-speaking country to live in another country where English was the spoken language. How different is that experience?

You can read Sandra Matt's article here, but you might have to create an account and sign in to get to it.

22 March 2012

Vierzon — le pays des cinq rivières

That's what the Vierzon area is called: the town of the five rivers. The main rivière is the Cher, which is a 300-mile-long river that runs through the center of France. At Vierzon, 35 miles/60 km east of Saint-Aignan, four other smaller water courses — the Arnon, the Yèvre, the Barangeon, and the Canal de Berry — come together. It is, in French, a ville d'eau.

Vierzon, in the old Berry province and on the edge of the Sologne

Vierzon also has a passé industriel, as the Guide Michelin points out — it doesn't award the town a star. It's a little gritty, and definitely not touristy. Foundries were in operation around the town by the late 1700s, and a porcelain industry like the one in Limoges got going in the early 1800s. By 1900, there were 10 or more porcelain factories plus other manufacturing and ironworks facilities.

Old half-timbered house along the streets and canals in Vierzon

The town of Vierzon (pronounced [vyehr-ZÕ] with the nasal O) itself was formed only in 1937, when four small municipalities were merged into one. It was working class and the railroads were important to local commerce. A big population of factory and railway workers turned the town into a communist stronghold in the 20th century. The population of Vierzon now is about 30,000. It's 60 miles south of Orléans and 25 miles northeast of Bourges.

Walt and Collette strolling along the canal in central Vierzon

I went back into my photo archives to figure out when it was that Walt and I drove over to Vierzon and took a walk along the river and canal in the center of town. It turns out that it was eight years ago — time flies — and it was on a February 2, which is la Chandeleur ("Crêpe Day" in France).

You can see from the pictures that the weather was beautiful. I'm sure that's why we decided to go for a drive and a walk, and to shake off cabin fever and discover a new place. Our dog in those days was named Collette, and she loved to jump in the car and go for a ride. Nowadays, we do less of this kind of touring around because Callie hates to ride in the car.

The Canal de Berry in Vierzon

As you can see, some of these pictures have been "enhanced" in Photoshop. I'm not a expert, but it's fun to take a photo that is slightly blurry, for example, and turn it into a kind of digital painting. Photoshop, the last refuge of shutterbug scoundrels, maybe.

Thanks to Google Maps

Tomorrow, we plan to drive over to Vierzon to go shopping. I had hoped to go to a Carrefour "hypermarket," because we don't have one closer by. But researching the trip yesterday, I found out that the Carrefour has been turned into what they call a HyperU — a larger version of our local SuperU supermarket. Tant pis. We'll go over there anyway. The weather is supposed to be beautiful and warm tomorrow.

21 March 2012

The awkward season

Yes, it's that time of year. Awkwardness rules. Winter is over, and spring has sprung. We're eager to get out and work the dirt. It would be nice if we could plant our garden, but it's still two months too early. The hyacinths, the jonquils, the saxifrage, and primroses are blooming. That's some consolation.

White hyacinths in the back yard

The weather teases you with a few nice sunny days, and you get a lot of outdoor projects started. Then it turns rainy and windy, and nearly cold. So you take shelter indoors again, and just wait, impatiently and gloomily. Okay, calendar, make up your mind. What season is it, exactly?

Firebugs basking in late winter sunshine

On the first or second day of nice weather, you put all the furniture and plants back out on the terrace. You even get to sit out there, basking like firebugs in the sun for a few hours a day. Then you hear the weather forecast and learn that temperatures will be below freezing tomorrow morning. Do you bring the plants back in? You resent having to ponder the question.

Frosty March mornings

So how do you entertain yourself? The presidential election was getting interesting, at least on some level. And then some guy on a motorbike starts shooting people in Toulouse and Montauban. That's just depressing, and you feel like you'd be better off closing the shutters and staying inside in the dark.

We just put all this out, but some days we wonder
if we didn't get ahead of ourselves.

Or you plan a shopping trip. You look for a change of scenery — not the same old market and supermarket. Let's drive over the Vierzon. It's a place we don't know well. We used to go there to catch the train to Paris, but we found a better route years ago. Maybe we'll be dazzled by Vierzon this time.

Frost in the vineyard

Vierzon is an old railroad town, actually. It's about 35 miles up the Cher River from Saint-Aignan. The drive is pleasant but slow. There's an old walled town — that makes it sound grander than it really is — along the way. The road parallels the disaffected but picturesque Canal de Berry for a good part of the way.

Wild plum trees

And there's a Carrefour store in Vierzon, not to mention a Grand Frais supermarket. Maybe the shopping will be good. And maybe I'll get interested in Vierzon's history. Merovingians, Vikings, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Joan of Arc, the plague, the Nazis, and French communists all played their roles in it.