30 September 2012


Now that I've said (in yesterday's post) that I enhanced my photos of the paintings in the lower church in Saint-Aignan, I feel like I need to show you the "before" and "after" shots. Here is such a pair featuring a photo I posted yesterday.


...et après

As always, click on the images to see them at a larger size. And depending on the resolution of your monitor, you might get an even larger image by clicking again on the larger image. Large, larger, largest. I'm not sure that's clear. Experiment.

Some of you might think I shouldn't have bothered with the enhancements in the first place. The originals were good enough — maybe better. But Photoshop is addicting. I don't want to leave anybody with the idea that the Saint-Aignan wall art is not visible to the naked eye. Oh wait, I used the camera's flash. As I said: when you come, bring a big flashlight!

Here's another image, a section cropped out of the photo above.


...et après

As for the Michelin Guide's terminology, as Judy wondered... I have the Green Guide titled Périgord Quercy (©1986), where I read in the article about La Grotte de Lascaux, on page 105:

« ... le 12 septembre 1940 ... quatre jeunes gens ... aperçurent sur les parois de la galerie où ils s'étaient introduits une extraordinaire fresque de peintures polychromes. »

Now how's that for linguistic abracadabra. In the sentence above, fresque has a completely different meaning. The Robert dictionary of the French language gives this figurative meaning of fresque :

« Vaste composition artistique, littéraire, présentant un tableau d'ensemble d'une époque, d'une société, etc. »

Farther on in the Michelin Guide's article about Lascaux, the French term peintures is used consistently to describe the wall paintings there.

As for the plural form "frescos" in English, it's like pianos, rodeos, cellos, curios, radios, memos, and patios — no E before the S.

Medieval fresques at Saint-Aignan

One thing we did this past week was go into the church at Saint-Aignan to visit the crypt with its ancient wall paintings. The church is romanesque, built in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The Saint-Aignan church is actually two churches, one built on top of the other. The lower church, which was dedicated to Saint Jean (John), was the first one built on the site.

It's amazing that the old pintings in the lower church survived through the centuries. According
to the Michelin Green Guide, the space was used as a stable and wine cellar during
the French Revolution.

The wall paintings in the Saint-Aignan church were drawn and painted between the 12th and
the 15th centuries, according to the Michelin guide.

I have to say that I have slightly enhanced the color saturation and the contrasts in these photos
to make the paintings more vibrant. The lower church is dark despite some electric lighting,
 and I believe I used my camera's flash when I took photos down there. As always,
you can click on the pictures to see them in a larger size. Often, a second click
will give you an even more detailed view.

29 September 2012

Maisons de Montrésor

We started our brief tour of the region on Thursday with our friends from California by driving down to Montrésor, a village just a few minutes south of Saint-Aignan. Montrésor, where there's an impressive château and a Renaissance church, is officially one of the 157 plus beaux villages de France ("most beautiful villages in France").

A house at the foot of the château in Montrésor

A small river, the Indrois, runs past the château, with a walking trail from which you get good views. We started there and walked a big loop all around the village just taking in the sights. The pictures here are some of the houses I especially enjoyed seeing. You can click on the pictures to see them at a larger size.

Montrésor is about halfway between Saint-Aignan and Loches

Les Plus Beaux Villages de France is an association that was set up in the early 1980s to preserve villages and small towns that were being depopulated by growing exodus of young French people from the countryside to the cities. Instead of letting the picturesque villages fall into ruin and abandon, the new organization encouraged restoration and tourism while trying to help local people avoid turning their towns into "theme parks" and tourist traps.

I like the way the color of the lichens on the roof
matches the color of the paint on the door.

According to the Plus Beaux Villages web site, the association doesn't "recruit" villages but instead accepts applications for membership and inclusion on its list of  picturesque and historic places, which must be in rural settings and have fewer that 2,000 inhabitants. The goal is to create a grass roots movement and local involvment and commitment, rather than impose a "top-down" approach.

This one looks like the archetypal Touraine house to me.

From Montrésor, we went on to Montpoupon, Chenonceaux, and Amboise. The weather has been cooperating nicely.

28 September 2012

Into the press

Yesterday we took a little road trip with California friends who are visiting for a few days. It was a southern route and included stops at Montrésor, La Corroirie, Montpoupon, and Chenonceau to see châteaux and other ancient monuments.

A visit to the Touraine area isn't complete without a stop at a winery, and we chose the growers' cooperative called Les Caves de la Gourmandière for ours. It's located in the village of Francueil, just across the road from the Château de Chenonceau.

 Bunches of white wine grapes being conveyed into the press at La Gourmandière

There was a lot of activity at La Gourmandière yesterday afternoon. A truck full of boxes of wine was being unloaded into the sales room by forklift. The wine box (called a "bag-in-box" or a fontaine à vin) is a small cardboard carton with a spigoted plastic bag inside, holding five or ten liters of wine. Nearby, a load of hand-harvested grapes was being put into the press to make juice that will be fermented into white wine.

 A wider view of the unloading of grapes into the press

Another reason for all the activity at La Gourmandière was that the 2012 bernache has just gone on sale. La bernache is the local name for the grape juice that is in the first stages of fermentation at harvest-time, and it's an autumn treat for grape-growers and the general public alike. This was Sauvignon Blanc juice, and it was pleasingly sweet, tart, and only mildly alcoholic (3% to 4% alcohol, the man told me — the finished wine will 12% alcohol).

Bernache is sold in recyled mineral water bottles. In other words, they fill plastic bottles from the fermentation vat and punch a hole in bottle lid so that the gases produced by the ongoing fermentation process won't make the bottle explode. We bought some (two euros for 1.25 liters) and enjoyed a glass or two before dinner back at home. Here's an article about bernache that Bertrand posted on wineterroirs.com.

27 September 2012

The woodpile

The chimney is swept — the roofer did that job last week. A lot of wood is sawed. There's at least 100 gallons of heating oil in the fuel tank to run the boiler and radiators. We're ready for winter.

Walt saws the logs, which as delivered are one meter long. Each log (nearly 200 of them) needs to be cut into three pieces. That's a lot of sawing. I just watch. Or listen. As I cook lunch, usually. A chacun sa tâche.

We also ended up with a lot of petit bois — "little wood" — this year, for starting fires or just making a small fire to take the chill off when it's not freezing cold outside. You can see it all in the picture above.

26 September 2012

Les vendangeurs

Not much grape-harvesting could be done yesterday, because it rained much of the day. Monday afternoon, however, the two guys in the pictures below, employees of the Domaine de la Renaudie, were out gathering white-wine grapes all afternoon.

One guy drives the harvester up and down the rows of vines...

I know and frequently talk to both of these guys at other times of the year, when they are out in the vineyard on foot, working at pruning the vines. They usually work with a third person, who's a young woman. I don't know any of them by name, but they certainly know Callie the collie.

...and the other waits nearby with the tractor and trailer
to haul the harvested grapes back to the winery

I was walking with Callie, who doesn't like cars, trucks, tractors, or harvesters, so I couldn't get very close to the action Monday afternoon. The dog was aware of the machines, but we gave them wide berth.

The full view is this photo, taken from the other side of the vineyard.

We've had about 20 mm — nearly an inch — of rain over the past three days. That's exactly twice as much rain as we got in all of August, or in the first three weeks of September. The red grapes, and some white grapes (Chenin Blanc, maybe) are still on the vine. I wonder if they aren't letting those grapes plump up as the vines suck up rainwater before they finally harvest them.

25 September 2012

Wind damage

What we had overnight between Sunday and Monday, besides the bat scare, was a real storm. Winds were very strong from the southwest — probably 60 mph / 100 kph — during the night. They were gusty all night and all through the day yesterday.

The wisteria just a few days ago...

I went out late in the afternoon with the dog and looked around to see if there was any damage. Some of the tomato plants and stakes are leaning, but that's no big deal. The squash plants were kind of blown over too, but that's no big deal either. I didn't see any big tree branches on the ground.

...and how I found it yesterday afternooon

It was only when I was coming back down the garden path after the walk that I was faced with some damage I didn't expect. The wisteria that we planted five or six years ago, and that has grown quite a big, had been completely blown down — despite the wires Walt put up to support it on the back wall of the house. We hope we'll be able to put it back up and that it will survive.

This is what the wisteria looked like in April 2011.

Not today, though. There's a steady, hard rain falling this morning. And we have company coming tomorrow.

23 September 2012

Tomatoes, and a bat scare

Yesterday I talked to our neighbor Daniel, who lives two houses down the road. We talked about what but the weather... how hot it was yesterday afternoon (about 26ºC, or 80ºF), and how dry it's been for two months. Everything is parched and dusty. The ground is cracking because it's so dry.

All these cherry tomatoes — well, not the green ones...

I told Daniel, who is a retired baker, that we'd brought in all our ripe and even nearly ripe tomatoes and red bell peppers on Friday. Are your tomatoes malades? he asked. No, I told him, we'd been lucky with this year's tomato crop. Mine have mildiou, Daniel said, meaning mildew, an affliction of tomato plants and grape vines brought on by warm damp weather. It makes the leaves and the tomatoes turn black. He must have been watering too much. We stopped watering the tomato plants more than a month ago. There are still a lot of green tomatoes on the vines.

...went into the sauce pot to make another gallon of sauce for the winter.

But here's the bad news. I think frost got my bell peppers. Last Wednesday and Thursday mornings, we had significant morning frost. I didn't think much about it. When I went to pick the bell peppers Friday morning, though, half of them were shriveled and mushy. I harvested them and after radical trimming, I made puree out of them instead of making roasted peppers. At least I didn't lose the whole crop. I made a good pint of puree that will make a delicious pasta sauce or soup.

So it was pretty hot yesterday afternoon for late September in Saint-Aignan. And then the storms blew in. Around 8 p.m., the wind started blowing hard and we saw lightning in the distance. The strong wind, by the way, blew clouds of yellow pollen — literally, like a dust storm — out of the two big evergreen trees on the northwest corner of our house. It was the first time we've had gusty winds in weeks, I think. Then the rain started.

We ran around the house closing windows and turning off computers. It rained a flood, but for only about 20 minutes. By 8:30, we were re-opening all the windows to let some fresh air move through the house again. An hour later, something flew into the house through an upstairs window. Callie went wild trying to catch it.

The vegetable garden a few days ago — not so pretty...

...but full of good produce ready to be harvested

At first, I thought it was a small bird, but birds seldom fly in at night. Then I thought it might be a very big moth. It was a strong flyer, and Callie was still barking and lunging wildly, trying to catch it as it bumped against the so-called cathedral ceiling in the loft. Every time it bumped the ceiling, it left a black mark on the white paint. Damn! I started thinking it might be a little bat like the one I found hiding behind a shutter on the garden shed one morning last week. That bat was no more than two inches long from head to tail.

I threw open one of the Velux roof windows, and suddenly the bird/moth/bat was gone. Callie stopped shreiking and lunging. Calm returned. Where did the UFA (A for animal) go? It must have flown out the window as soon as you opened it, Walt said. Or was it still in the house, hiding? Walt went downstairs but didn't see any sign of the flying creature flying around down there, or any black marks on the living room ceiling.

At eleven we turned off the TV and went to bed, still wondering whether the flying thing was still in the house. The wind came up again, with some lightning off to the north, and a few heavy rain showers. I lay awake for a while, but finally dozed off. At about one o'clock, I was awakened by a light coming on. It was Walt. He said the thought he heard the bird or bat or moth banging around inside a lamp shade, but he couldn't find it once the light was on. He turned it back off.

It's hard to believe these apple trees have no apples on them this year.
The neighbor Daniel said his apple trees are bare too.

Half an hour later, Walt was out of bed again. As he turned on the light, I told him what he was hearing was probably just big raindrops splatting against the roof tiles. No, he said, I'm sure I can hear the flying thing banging against the metal shade on the light fixture over the stairs. And then we both saw it again, flying around wildly and bumping into things. It still wasn't clear whether it was a tiny bat or a huge moth, but we didn't like the idea of it flying around in the room while we tried to sleep.

Walt grabbed the only thing he could find to swing at the flying creature, a tee-shirt. (We need a butterfly net, I guess, since we don't have window screens.) He swung the shirt and hit the flying thing, knocking it to the floor. It's a gigantic moth, he said. He caught it and managed to carry it over to the only open window, throwing it out and hoping it didn't just fly back in.

Since it was a moth and not a bat, we were finally able to get some peaceful sleep, even though the window by the bed stayed open. The wind blew some more — it's still gusty out there — and it rained, but I slept for at least four hours pretty soundly.

Now you see'em...

I'm keeping an eye on the grape harvest, but I haven't gotten outside to take many pictures. Partly, that's because Callie the collie is very nervous around cars, tractors, and grape harvesters. However, on my walk yesterday afternoon, I saw that several big parcels have now been vendangées — just white grapes for now, I think, meaning Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Some animal — a bird? — has been sampling these grapes...

...but whatever it is had better hurry, because I'm seeing more and more
stems like this one up and down the rows of vines.

Weather forecasts show rainy conditions starting later today and continuing through the rest of the week. The vignerons will be working furiously to get the rest of the grapes in, I'm sure. It's already a late harvest, after less-than-ideal growing conditions for most of the summer. It would be bad to lose grapes to mold and mildew at this point.

A winery worker waiting and watching with his "tractor-trailer"
for the harvester to bring him a load of grapes

Too bad about the rain, because we have visitors from California arriving mid-week. In the garden, all our ripe tomatoes are harvested, and the red bell peppers too. So we are ready for the rain — rain that will make the collards and chard happy.

22 September 2012

A tiny radio...

...but with big sound. It has surprisingly good audio, even from the little speakers built into the unit. I'm really happy with the wifi internet radio I decided to buy, the Archos 35 Home Connect (about 90 euros on Amazon France). I say "two thumbs up."

When I say it's tiny, I mean it. And it's very light-weight and is battery-powered, which means it's imminently portable. I can carry it around the house with me, from kitchen to living room to upstairs TV room. I haven't tried it outside yet (it rained yesterday afternoon) so I don't know if the wireless signal will carry far enough.

The radio with a DVD just for scale

Speaking of the wireless signal, the Archos radio found and connected to our D-Link modem/router sans problème. I had to enter our password, and bingo: there it was, connected. The network connection seems stable, but there were two or three times yesterday when the radio signal got dropped somewhere along the way and the unit went silent. It came back  in a minute or less. I don't blame the Archos.

Listening to old French songs in the kitchen

At first, I found it difficult to navigate through the device's screens and type characters using the little on-screen keyboard — my fingers are too fat. But then I realized I could use a stylus — the eraser end of a pencil, for example. So easy, and a much less frustrating experience than finger-pointing and -swiping. It's too bad the radio didn't come with a stylus.

The main screen: radio, recorded music, clock (with alarms), and photo frame apps

This is an Android unit, using that Google operating system. It can do much more than play radio stations, but that's probably what it does best (using the TuneIn app). So far, I've also figured out how to get my Google mail and read blogs and other web pages on the little Archos screen.

The Archos 35 next to my laptop, again for scale

And the radio is great. It took me hardly any time to find the stations I wanted to have as "favorites" so that I can get to them quickly and painlessly. Some, like France Inter and Chante France, didn't show up on the TuneIn lists of available radio stations (or I couldn't find them). But there's a search feature, and that made it easy. You just type in the name of the radio station and it pops right up — WUNC, for example, the North Carolina public radio station. Then you save it as a favorite. I'm not yet sure how many favorite stations TuneIn can store, but I've already got 16 on my list.

Two stations on my "favorites" list, both local

The radio gets power through a USB connection. I other words, you can plug it into a USB port on a powered-up computer or TV set and not worry about an AC adapter. But there's also an AC adapter that plugs into a wall outlet and has a USB port on it for the cable.

Did you know that Sinatra's "My Way" was originally a French song?

There's also a headphone jack (or line out) so it's easy to hook the Archos radio into your stereo amplifier or a set of amplified speakers. For the kitchen, where I will use the radio most of the time, the built-in speakers are just fine. But yesterday afternoon I had it patched into the upstairs amplifier and speakers and really enjoyed the quality of the sound (listening to Nostalgie Chansons Françaises). Fun.

21 September 2012


The grape harvesters — les vendangeurs — arrived before seven this morning. As I said in a comment yesterday, they've already taken in all the Chardonnay grapes down the hill on the north side. The vendanges are definitely under way. And rain is predicted for this afternoon, which probably explains the early start today.

The grape harvester and tractor came by at 7:00 a.m., headlights shining,
passing under our kitchen window along the road.

When I say vendangeurs, don't picture teams of grape pickers in this case. I'm talking about grape harvesting equipment — a big engin that shakes and sucks the grapes off the vines as it runs up and down the rows, and a tractor pulling a big, deep trailer to receive the grapes and haul them back to the winery. There are probably just two or three men from the winery crew out there getting the job done.

If the winery crew looked up, they saw our loft window
and the roof we had worked on yesterday.

Meanwhile, we have to get serious about preparing for the end of the season too. A couple of days ago, the weather widget on my computer screen said the low temperature in Saint-Aignan was –1ºC, or 30ºF. Today it says +1ºC. I don't think it's really that cold; the weather people must keep their thermometer in an icebox.  Ours says +6ºC (still, that's only the low 40s F).

Two views of the Renaudière vineyard, just a few hundred yards from the house

So the mornings are chilly. There was frost just outside the back gate when I went out with the dog an hour ago. I'll be busy today — as busy as the vendangeurs and hopefully as productive. I'm painting still, and my new radio came at 7:45 this morning. It's charging up now, and it has already connected itself to our wireless router. While coats of paint are drying, I'll be fiddling with internet radio.

20 September 2012


Thanks to all who left comments about the wifi radio yesterday. I ordered one from Amazon France. I'll report on it in a few days, once it arrives and I have tinkered with it. The delivery is supposed to take place tomorrow.

Fall flowers — it is autumn now, and there was frost this morning

This morning we have a roofer here trying to figure out the problem we've had with our "roof windows" (Velux) for the past two years. Both of them leak, or at least the plasterboard around them gets damp when we have significant rain and wind. The roofer is going to re-lay all the tile around the windows and we see if that corrects the problem. If it ever rains again, that is...

Seen from a Velux roof window. Click on the picture to vendangify.

No news on the grape harvest (les vendanges). On Tuesday I saw cars parked out in the vineyard and men walking up and down some of the rows of vines. They didn't seem to be hunters. I'm not sure if they were harvesting or just culling. They had left by the time I walked out there with the dog.

19 September 2012

Wireless Internet radio?

Does anybody reading this blog have experience with a wireless Internet radio? I mean a radio set — un poste de radio — that connects to a wireless router and lets you receive radio broadcasts over the 'net from all around the world.

We have very poor FM radio reception here in Saint-Aignan. I can get France Inter (French public radio) fairly well, and I can sort of get RTL in French (if I get the radio antenna positioned just so). Radio Nostalgie and Chérie FM are hard to get over the air (even in the car), and Chante-France from Paris is not available at all. What I want is a radio that I can listen to in the kitchen and that will receive broadcasts over the 'net from all over France and — why not? — all over the world.

I know such radios exist, at least in Europe, but I don't know which one to try. I don't want to spend a fortune — 100 euros or less, for example. But I want a radio that is fairly easy to use and that has decent sound quality. Two examples of such radios that I can get from amazon.fr are shown in the pictures here. Customer reviews of both are really mixed.

We get radio stations over our satellite TV system, and that's great. But there are a lot of stations out there (in France, I mean) that aren't included in the satellite package — France Bleue Touraine, for example. And besides, there's no easy way to get the satellite signal into the kitchen, as far as I know.

Help, s'il vous plaît. Maybe what I need is a little netbook computer with speakers, but that might take up too much space in our small kitchen.

18 September 2012

Time to roast peppers

Thanks to the dry weather, we're getting a little crop of red bell peppers this year. We have six plants, and we'll get 10 or 12 pretty peppers. They're good roasted, peeled, and de-seeded, and they freeze just fine. What we don't eat now we'll eat over the winter.

Four nice peppers on this plant
To roast peppers, you put them in the oven at 200ºC (400ºF) for about half an hour, until they collapse and the skin starts to darken and blister. Take them out and immediately put them in a bowl covered tightly with plastic wrap, a plastic bag, or even a paper bag. The residual heat will finish loosening the skin so they'll be easy to peel.

Only one pepper here, but a beauty

When the roasted peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them, pull them apart, and remove all the seeds and membranes from the inside. Pack the roasted pepper pieces in olive oil with a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice if you plan to use them soon. Otherwise, freeze them.

We also grew these long red peppers (they're sweet, not hot) this year.

Here's a link to a more detailed post about roasted ripe red peppers from 2009. The long sweet peppers just above are really good, by the way, but they won't stand up to roasting because the flesh is too thin.

How dry we are
Here are two pictures to show you how dry the back yard is after two months of minimal moisture. The dry conditions are good for the vineyard and the garden — grapes, tomatoes, and peppers are ripening without spoiling the way they might in damp conditions — but not very pretty to look at. The grass is really parched.

17 September 2012

Pas beau

Pas beau, ce raisin, some might say. Mais si ! But yes, these bunches of grapes have their own beauty. The 2012 grape growing season all over France, except maybe the extreme southern part of the country, started with four months of constant rain. And in the spring, nights were pretty cold.

So the 2012 grape harvest will be smaller than average. At the same time, the country has now had nearly two months of warm, somtimes hot, and unsually dry weather. The grapes that survived the cold, wet spring might yet produce very good juice and good wines.

I took all these pictures out in the Renaudière vineyard yesterday afternoon. If you've looked at my other posts about the local grapes over the past week or two, you'll see the difference. A lot of the grapes you see here have turned into raisins secs, which we just call raisins in English. Blame the hot August sun, I guess. Some of the raisins, though, are beautiful, and maybe they'll add flavor and sweetness to the wines when mixed with the plumper grapes.

Bunches that haven't been dried in the sun are often pretty thin, as you can see. There are a lot of tiny grapes — ones that didn't develop fully in the spring, I think. There's more stem than grape on a lot of the bunches.

As I've said in earlier posts, the grapes on the vines closest to our house and hamlet seem to be better developed and less damaged by poor growing conditions. This is especially true of the grapes on the north side of our house. The vines are planted on a fairly steep downslope, so they probably benefited from better drainage during the rainy months. And since they are on the north side, they haven't been burned by the hot late-summer sun. Maybe that explains the situation.