31 May 2012

May is over and done with

May 2012's last morning is a foggy one. We had some thunder and a significant amount of rain late yesterday afternoon and into the evening. It hadn't rained in at least 10 days, so we needed it.

In the two weeks since we got home, Walt has mowed the grass twice. The first time, the grass was so high that he had to use the grass catcher. That really slows down the process, because he has to stop and empty it so many times during the mowing.

Blue bellflowers — these are called campanules des murailles,
I think — growing along the front of the house

Yesterday he mowed it again, in anticipation of the rain that was predicted. This time, it was short enough that he could use the mower's mulching feature. The job was done in less than three hours' time.

This was the state of the garden plots a few days ago.
Tall grasses and weeds had nearly taken over
by the time we got back from the U.S.

Meanwhile, I got out the tiller and worked in the garden plots again. We still haven't planted anything but a few lettuces that Walt grew from seed back in April. Those are doing well and are nearly ready to start harvesting. But we haven't yet planted any tomatoes, eggplant/aubergines, peppers, or beans.

The garden after my first morning of tilling work, and after
Walt used the weed-eater to trim up the edges of the plots.

Because it rained so much in April and again in May while we were in the States, grass and weeds invaded the garden plots that I had tilled up in March. The job had to be started all over again. Two of the plots are covered, actually, with trimmings, leaves, and other yard waste that we've been planning to burn one day. Those won't have weeds on them, at least.

Here's how it looks this morning. The long narrow tilled strip
is where we plan to put in eggplant/aubergine and
bell pepper seedlings this year.

As I worked yesterday, the worst happened. The rototiller broke down. It's not the engine — that runs fine. It's the throttle handle. A part broke off and the cable that controls the speed of the engine is inoperative.

Walt coming home between rain showers yesterday afternoon
after his walk with the dog. He's on the road, but it's hard to tell.

If we can get the parts we need, it might not be hard to repair. Another option is to take it to a shop and have it repaired and serviced. The problem is the size and weight of the machine. We think we might be able to pick it up and load it in the back of the little Peugeot, but we're not sure. When we bought the tiller in 2004, we did actually put it in the car and bring it home, so I guess we can do it again.

Not sure what these flowers are, but they're blooming
all around the vineyard now.

Maybe a repair shop will come and get the thing, repair and service it, and deliver it back to us. That would be the best solution. We're going out this morning to see if that's a possibility. We'll also buy some tomato, eggplant, and bell pepper seedlings to put in the ground that has been tilled.

30 May 2012

Self portrait + Montrichard last week

Here's a picture of Walt taking a so-called "self portrait" on the plane going from Paris to Boston three weeks ago. The 747 we were on had so few people on it that we took separate rows, with me sitting behind Walt. He must have seen this picture among the ones he took, but he hasn't mentioned it. Am I not a card?

* * * *
Here's a picture of Sue (from the Melbourne area in Australia) and Susan (from Preuilly-sur-Claise in the Sud-Touraine) at lunch in Montrichard last week. We had great weather and a very pleasant afternoon with — besides Sue and Susan — Leon, Simon, Kathy, and John.

* * * *
And then here are three other pictures from Montrichard. First, some old half-timbered houses that were painted in bright colors a few years ago, with the church tower looming over them.

And finally, here's a place called Le Clos Saint-Joseph, on the riverfront just east of the bridge in Montrichard. I haven't been able to find out where it is just a private residence, or whether it is run as a hotel or B&B/chambres d'hôtes.Maybe somebody will tell me.

The sculpted woman was certainly enjoying that day's bright sunshine and warmth. She must be working on her tan. You can see her in the second picture as well, sitting next to what looks like an old chapel that has been converted into living quarters.

29 May 2012

New camera

I got a new camera while we were in the U.S. earlier this month. Walt got one too. The cameras were our presents to each other ourselves. Walt had been threatening to upgrade his camera for years, and he finally did it with a new Canon SLR. I decided to stick with the kind of camera I've been using for 5 years now: a Panasonic Lumix long-zoom, pocket-sized camera.

Two roses in the back yard

My new camera is the Lumix DMC-ZS8. It replaces one I got about four years ago, the ZS1. I'm really happy with the ZS8 so far. It is a significant upgrade compared to the older model, and compared to the Lumix DMC-TZ3 that I used earlier and still have.

My new camera looks a lot like the old one but —
surprise — it has new and improved features.

The new camera weighs just 210 grams / 7 ounces and fits easily into a pocket. I use it with a wrist strap to minimize my chances of dropping it on the floor or ground.

Callie the border collie

The ZS8 has many manual features, but I haven't yet experimented with them. There's aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual focus. The automatic settings and autofocus do the job for me.

Looking into a coquelicot (poppy flower)

I also haven't used all the scene modes included in the camera's menus — Portrait, Soft Skin, Self Portrait, Night Scenery, Food, Pet, and on and on — but maybe I'll experiment with them someday.

Grass seeds and grape flower buds

I hardly ever use the flash either. And I never use the digital zoom — at 16x, the optical zoom is sufficient. I like the panorama aspect ratio (16:9) for taking long landscape shots, and I've used the macro zoom with some success

Fading peonies

Yesterday morning on my walk with Callie I took a lot of closeup pictures — one feature of the camera that I use a lot is its "macro" mode for taking close views. Flowers, other plants, the dog's face and whatever else get this treatment. I'm posting a few examples here.

 The pond these days

P.S. Blogger has been acting up again.  A few minutes ago, when I clicked on the pictures in this post, I didn't see the expected enlargement but an image on a gray screen that was the same size as the one in the main blog post. I'm trying to figure out why. Sigh. I think it had to do with the old authoring interface. I changed to the new interface again, messed with the line spacing for a while, and finally got a satisfactory result. I think...

28 May 2012

Driving to Montreal

It was only two weeks ago that we were in Montreal — that's the Montreal in Quebec, Canada, not one of the six or seven Montreals that are villages in France. We drove up the road that they call the Northway, or the Adirondack Northway. It starts and Albany and runs in a fairly straight line north to the Canadian border.

Driving up the Adirondack Northway toward Canada

It was a beautiful day, and our plan was to stop for lunch along the way. It was to be a picnic lunch, because we had packed leftover sandwiches from an Albany restaurant, a box of cookies, and a bottle of Millbrook Pinot Noir wine from the Hudson Valley.

The Northway picnic, with New York wine

Arriving in Montreal on a beautiful Friday afternoon
meant dealing with traffic jams.

I thought we might go to Lake Placid for lunch, but it turned out to be too big a detour off the Northway and didn't make sense. Our goal was to get to Montreal as early as possible. We pulled into a rest stop on the expressway and had lunch there. It was windy but pleasant, and all the food we were carrying was good. The wine was excellent.

In New York State, towns aren't always
what you expect them to be.

We fueled up the rented Ford Focus at Betty Beaver's near
Lewis, NY. Seemed appropriate, given our weekend plans.

We also had to fuel up the car. We pulled off the highway when we saw signs for the town of Lewis and looked for a service station. There was one on the right, and then another on the left before we got to the town. The prices were high, and we thought we might find a lower price farther from the main highway. We were disappointed and ended up stopping at one of the stations we had seen on the way in as we drove back to the Northway.

27 May 2012

Getting behind

I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. The trip to the States and Canada has nearly done me in. It was so much fun, but we were never idle for even a moment. And this past week, since we got back, has been just as busy. Tons of laundry to do. Lunch in Montrichard. Dinner with friends Friday night. Zoom zoom zoom.

The weather suddenly turned warm and humid. This time of year, the sun is so strong that when it peeks through the clouds the temperature rises quickly. And the hours of daylight are very long. Yesterday afternoon thunderstorms threatened, and it did rain some, but we didn't get the hail that weather forecasters warned us about.

Portrait of Bertie the black cat

We haven't even begun to plant our vegetable garden. Walt's got the lawn under control now — a solid month of rain from mid-April to mid-May certainly stimulated growth. There are shoulder-high weeds around the edges of the vegetable garden plots. And now, this morning, it's threatening to rain again, so it won't be easy to work out there.

Threatening skies yesterday afternoon

Callie and Bertie have settled back into their — our — routines. It's almost as if we never left them behind. They were well taken care of in our absence, and that made all the difference.

Stormy weather moving in from the southwest

And what's going on in France? People are out and about, busy and happy, because the weather has improved. The new president is out and about too, and he has a 61% approval rating with the public. His prime minister is the most popular holder of that office in many decades, with 65% positive opinion in the polls.

The good dinner cooked by Sue from Australia Friday night

The Cannes film festival is wrapping up today. The Roland Garros French Open international tennis tournament starts today in Paris. Before long, the Tour de France bicycle race will begin. It's summer already, and we hardly noticed it coming.

26 May 2012

An international dinner

We were invited out last night and didn't get home until about 2 a.m. The bread lady woke me up at 8:30 this morning as she tooted her horn out on the road to announce her arrival. I had to quickly throw on some clothes before I stumbled down two flights of stairs to get the day's baguette.

Sue and Walt having an aperitif at the table before dinner.
I'm not sure why Sue is holding two glasses...

Leon and Sue from Melbourne (Australia) have been staying with friends of theirs over across the river from our village, and those friends invited us to dinner. There were eight of us — two Australians, two Americans, an English couple, and a French couple. Sue cooked. It was delicious and a lot of fun.

That's Leon in the middle, with one of our English hosts
and their French neighbor.

Now we're getting a late start on our Saturday. We had plans to do a lot of running around this morning, but I don't know if we'll have the energy. But we will have a very nice memory of the evening we spent, sitting outside until the wee hours, enjoying the fine weather and the fine food. I'm just putting a couple of pictures here to give you an idea.

Look at this nice chocolate dessert, served in a tea cup.
I'm not sure who deserves the credit for cooking it.

I'm sorry I don't have better pictures, and more of them. If I could display my memories on the screen, I would. I should have thought to take a video.

25 May 2012

Montrichard for lunch

Yesterday, summer started. We were lucky. We had a nice lunch in Montrichard, at the invitation of our friends Susan and Simon of Days on the Claise. It turned that we were 8 à table, because we were joined not only by Susan's sister and brother-in-law, but also by Sue and Leon of Melbourne — Our Home on the Bay. Sue and Leon are traveling around France right now, and blogging about it.

The bridge across the Cher River at Montrichard

Walt and I were the only Americans present — the only non-Australians, really. Australians are great travelers. We've met many people from Down Under over the past few years, and I happen to know that some Australians have now bought a house in Saint-Aignan. Others have a house, I believe, in our village, but we haven't met them.

We were lucky to be able to have lunch
outdoors yesterday, here.

Montrichard is the next town down the Cher River from Saint-Aignan, and it's a 15-minute drive from our house. Walt and I seriously considered buying a house there back in 2003, but we decided on Saint-Aignan instead, for a number of reasons. It's a lively little town with a pretty riverfront, a busy Friday morning market, a medieval chateau, and plenty of attractive shops. Montrichard is also close to Amboise and Chenonceaux, two of the areas main attractions.

The restaurant, La Villa, has several "menus" at lunchtime,
priced from 11 to 24 euros per person.

Being virtual "locals", we all chose the restaurant's special of the day, the lowest-priced menu and the one the restaurant focuses its efforts on daily. That was the 11-euro menu — a menu in France is what we call a prix fixe meal in good English. What we call the menu is la carte in French, and you are free to order your meal à la carte instead of taking a menu — but you'll pay more.

The view in Montrichard just down the street
from the restaurant La Villa.

Our menu included an appetizer of cooked lentils and white asparagus with a vinaigrette dressing as the starter course, and then a sauté de veau à la provençale — braised veal with tomato and garlic — as the main course. Dessert was an apple crumble. We washed it all down with rosé wine served in half-liter carafes — rosé is the wine you drink in France when the weather turns warm — and finished off the meal with a little cup of espresso coffee. It was all very pleasant, and we spent nearly three hours at the table, tasting and talking.

24 May 2012

Poulet à la crème

Have you ever roasted a whole chicken in a pot on top of the stove? There are French recipes that call for cooking a chicken that way. It's less messy but just as effective as cooking a whole bird in the oven. I'm not talking about boiling, but about roasting or braising, or a combination of those two methods.

One recipe is for a chicken first browned in butter and/or oil in a thick-bottomed pot and then simmered in milk an inch or two deep, with frequent basting. The milk tenderizes the chicken and makes a rich sauce. Another is a whole chicken first browned in butter and then cooked with a cup or so of cream in the bottom of the pot, again with frequent basting. The cooking time is about 90 minutes.

Poulet à la crème, un poulet cuit à la casserole

That's the recipe I based my Poulet à la crème on yesterday. It comes from Ginette Mathiot's book Je Sais Cuisiner, a French classic first published in the 1930s under the title La Cuisine pour Tous. An older French woman gave me a copy as a birthday present back in the late 1970s. She knew I liked to cook, and I learned a lot about cooking from her and from the book. My copy is (c)1970.

Brown a chicken in butter and/or oil in a pot on top of the stove,
and then put on a lid and let it cook slowly until it's done.

It's interesting to think that most people didn't have ovens in their kitchens until relatively recent times — since the 1920s and '30s, at the earliest — and cooking methods that required just a pot on the top of the stove were popular. Here's the recipe, which actually is a combination of two recipes in Mathiot's book. One is a recipe for roasting a chicken in a pot, and the other tells how to add the cream sauce, mushrooms, and shallots to make Poulet à la crème.

Ginette Mathiot's two recipes — Poulet à la crème is a variant
based on Poulet à la casserole.

Here's my version of the recipe, in English:

Chicken roasted in a pot with cream sauce,
mushrooms, and shallots
Melt two tablespoons of butter in a thick-bottomed pot, along with a tablespoon of vegetable oil. In the butter, brown a whole chicken, trussed, starting the chicken on its back and turning it so that both sides and the breast are lightly golden brown.

Cover the pot and let the chicken "roast" over low heat for 30 minutes per pound (about 90 minutes in all). Optionally, pour in half a cup of water or white wine and add some bay leaves or other herbs for flavor.

After an hour of cooking, add two chopped shallots and six or eight large mushrooms, sliced, to the pot. When the shallots and mushrooms have cooked slightly in the chicken juices, pour in 1½ cups of cream. (Optionally, thicken the cream with a white roux made with flour and butter.)

When the chicken is cooked, take it out of the pot, cut it into serving pieces, and spoon the sauce over all. Or serve the chicken whole and carve it at the tables. Serve the extra sauce separately.

This Poulet à la crème is more of a method than it is a precise recipe. It's easy to imagine many variants. Garlic, onions, tarragon, sage, thyme, rosemary, or other aromatics and herbs could enhance the flavor of the chicken and the sauce in nice ways. Some lemon juice would brighten it up. You could even substitute a light tomato sauce for the cream, making a kind of Chicken Cacciatore.

23 May 2012

Lagging in gray and green

I've always found jet lag to be worse coming to France compared to the little bit of jet lag I get when I fly from France back to the U.S. That's the conventional wisdom, too. It has to do with traveling in the opposite direction of the sun — from west (North America) to east (Europe).

It also has to do with spending the night on an airplane and not getting a good night's sleep. When I fly to the U.S., the very long day that I spend on the plane turns into night, and bedtime, when I arrive. Our flight over to Boston from Paris, for example, took off at 4 p.m., and we arrived at 6:00 p.m. We spent the evening having dinner and catching up with our friend Bob, who put us up for the first two nights, and then we slept from midnight until 8 a.m. We were nearly back on schedule by then.

I'm not sure why this piece of farm equipment is just parked
out in the vineyard. Maybe it broke down.

Coming back on Saturday and Sunday, we had a 7 p.m. flight. We slept just an hour or two on the plane, and we were on the ground in Paris at 8 a.m. We had a full, sleepless day ahead of us, especially because we had 6 hours to kill at the airport before catching a train back to Saint-Aignan. Taking a nap was not really a possibility.

Sage in in bloom in the back yard.

This morning I was awake at 4 a.m., but I went back to sleep around 6 and had a hard time dragging my groggy body out of bed at 7:30. Yesterday afternoon I snoozed from about 3 until 6, despite my best efforts to remain awake and active. All the gray skies we're experiencing don't help. The rain has stopped, but the sun hasn't yet broken through. Sunshine is the best antidote when you're jet-lagged.

This picture would be a lot greener if herbicide hadn't been
sprayed up and down the rows of vines.

One thing about all the rainy weather that has descended on the Saint-Aignan area since early April — everything is certainly green. We needed the rain, because drought conditions were threatening. Now we need warmth, and MétéoFrance is promising us temperatures in the 70s F over the next three days. The grass will grow even taller. There are shoulder-high weeds out in the vegetable garden plots.

Even the vines on the old stone hut in the vineyard seem
to be late. Lack of sunshine is probably to blame.

We won't be able to plant tomates, aubergines, and haricots verts until the ground dries out enough to be tilled, so the garden won't be an early one this year. Yesterday we were remarking to each other on the state of the vineyard out back. The vines seem to be a month behind where they were a year ago, when we had a dry, sunny, warm spring.

With some sun, the vines and tendrils will grow pretty fast.

After the grass dries out enough to be mowed, we'll go to one of the local outdoor markets or to a plant nursery and buy the tomato and eggplant seedlings we decide to plant. Walt will grow green beans from seed. I think I'll try again to grow some okra from seeds — I brought some back from the U.S. Planting okra proves how optimistic I am, because okra need hot, sunny weather in order to thrive.

22 May 2012

Était-ce un rêve ?

Was it all just a dream? It seems like that now, after two days in the gray and damp again. Yesterday it rained hard all day long. Walt got soaked walking with Callie in the morning, and I got soaked walking with her in the afternoon. Callie got soaked twice.

It was so wet that I was wading for half the walk. I made the mistake of walking off the gravel road into the grass — and running water — around the edges of the vineyard. My hiking boots started taking on water pretty fast, and my pants were dripping wet from the knees down. At least my raincoat kept the rest of me, including my head, dry.

Albany's downtown and the state government's Empire Plaza

Just 36 hours ago, we left Massachusetts under bright sunshine. We walked all around Provincetown, out at the end of Cape Cod, where the weather was warm and almost arid. We had driven the length of the state west to east wearing sunglasses to cut the glare. We were stuck in bridge traffic on the way, because the fine weather brought people flocking to the coast.

The day before our departure from Albany, also under sunny skies, we had lunch outside at McGeary's Pub downtown. It was like summertime, and the sun on our shoulders and head was rejuvenating. The turkey Ruben sandwiches, which were called Rachels on the menu, were tasty and filling. The waiters and waitresses were funny and efficient.

Albany is Washington DC's stand-in.

On just the second day we were in Albany, President Obama came to town. Even though we didn't see him, it was an extraordinary occasion. Two days later, the day of our ceremony, a movie about Mohamed Ali, starring Christopher Plummer and Danny Glover, was being filmed downtown. (It seems that New York's capital city often stands in for Washington DC as a movie-making location in these days of heightened "national security.") Then we went to Montreal, and finally Hyannis and Provincetown. My head spins.

Albany's old neighborhoods

In Albany we had some rain, but it was warm rain, and we didn't have to bother with raincoats or even umbrellas because we were in the car. We parked in vast parking lots and the stores and restaurants were just a quick dash on foot, splashing in puddles on pavement, from the car. For two weeks my feet hardly ever touched unpaved ground. My shoes never felt wet.

Albany roads

Walt and I remarked on how the concept of the expressway actually works in a place the size of Albany, which is only a medium-sized city. The place is ringed by big highways with no stoplights or intersections where you actually have to stop the car. You just go with the flow. Even though the roads take you on circuitous paths, you get there faster than you would on more direct routes because traffic just rolls along unimpeded.

Albany's cathedral and its big parking lot

I think that because Walt did all the driving in and around Albany — he knows the streets and highways of his home town, after all — it seems all the more unreal to me. I just glided passively, stresslessly around on freeways and city streets, admiring the exotic scenery.

150 feet? Actually, I don't see any.

Maybe this is jet lag talking, but it all seems like a dream now. Here we are back in the French countryside, with its narrow paved lanes and rutted gravel tracks instead of multi-lane expressways. Other realities here make being there seem like a dream too. Yesterday I cooked food in the kitchen for the first time in more than two weeks. This morning I turned on the heat, because the house was chilly and felt damp.

Albany's port seen from the top of a tall building

In two weeks in the U.S., I went to the supermarket only once, and that was a pleasure trip to a big store called Price Chopper in Albany for a quick look around. I found prices very high, but the selection of products was a little dizzying. Today or tomorrow I'll run over to SuperU to re-stock our refrigerator and kitchen cabinets. It will be a different experience, but not necessarily in a negative way.

Albany faces

Life here in Saint-Aignan is definintly less of a whirl. Instead of zipping around in a big car, covering miles and miles every day before you sleep, here we trudge along the gravel roads with the dog, unaccompanied by crowds. Montreal, with throngs of hip but scruffy-looking young people on all the streets, really seems like a dream. There, my legs got sore from walking miles and miles on concrete and asphalt.

More wall art under a bridge that spans the Hudson River

Here, there's no shopping to do besides getting milk, lettuce, and eggs at the little grocery store that's two miles from the house. All this peace and quiet will take some getting used to again.