31 March 2013

The Easter rabbit

At this time in my life, everything seems to have happened, or started, very long ago. I started learning French 50 years ago this year, when I was fourteen and a freshman in high school. Fifty years! I came to France for the first time more than 40 years ago, and 40 years ago on this date I was living and working in Rouen, in Normandy. Then I lived in Paris for a couple of years, in mid-'70s, plus three more years from '79 to '82.

Thirty years ago Walt and I started living together in Washington DC. We had met a couple of years earlier in Paris. That same year, I started working with my friend CHM. Then Walt and I moved to California more than 25 years ago. And, finally, we moved to France ten years ago. See what I mean. Everything happened... started... so long ago...

 Our Easter rabbit in its marinade of white wine, herbs, and vegetables

That's the way it is with the Easter rabbit. I won't call it a bunny. We started cooking a rabbit for Easter back around 1984, when we were living and working in DC, because seeing the Easter Bunny everywhere on TV and in stores that spring made us think about eating rabbit the way we had enjoyed eating rabbit in Paris. I think we've had rabbit on Easter every year since then.

So today we are cooking a rabbit, as usual. I'm cooking it in almost the most basic, simple way: « en gibelotte », it's called. That means stewed in white wine with lardons, carrots, onions, herbs, and mushrooms. It's a kind of fricassée, like Coq au vin is a fricassée, but the gibelotte is made with white wine instead of red wine — at least in my version. (The Larousse Gastronomque says a gibelotte is a « fricassée de lapin au vin blanc ou rouge » — but to me the red wine version is more often called a « civet ».)

The recipe I'm basing my Lapin en gibelotte on is Monique Maine's, in Cuisine pour toute l'année (1969). She calls it « Lapin au vouvray ». That's appropriate, since we live near Vouvray, which is on the Loire River less than an hour from here by car, and the first time that we came tp stay fpr twp weeks in the Loire Valley was 12 years ago in Vouvray, in a gîte rural we'd rented for a vacation. That turned out to be a pivotal moment, because we ended up living here not long after the good experience we enjoyed here.

I'll translate and post the recipe tomorrow. The first step is to marinate the rabbit for 6 hours or more in white wine (preferably vouvray, but any dry white wine will do) with the aromatic vegetables. Then you take the rabbit pieces out of the marinade liquid, dry them off with a (paper) towel, and sautée them in butter or olive oil before stewing them in the marinade. You can cook chicken the same way.

The rabbit cut up — two front legs, two hind legs, and the "saddle" (or « râble » in French)

I cut the rabbit up yesterday — Walt went to the Saturday market in Saint-Aignan and bought one from our favorite vendor — and put it in to marinate. I'll be doing the cooking part after I come back from my walk with the dog this morning.

30 March 2013

Wines from Domaine de la Renne

Two of the wines that I bought at the Domaine de la Renne in Saint-Romain-sur-Cher a few days ago were not at all the Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Gamay, or Cabernet Franc you might expect. One was a rosé wine made with a grape called Pineau d'Aunis, and the other was a white made from Chardonnay grapes

Pineau d'Aunis is a local specialty here in the Loire Valley. It's also called Chenin Noir, apparently. It's planted here in the Cher River valley around Mareuil, Saint-Romain, and Saint-Aignan, and also up north of Blois around Vendôme in the Loir River Valley. That's Loir, not Loire — they are two different rivers.

Pineau d'Aunis can be made into red wine, but it's a thin, lightly colored red at best. Most of it is made into rosé, and it's a delicious rosé — light, very dry, and slightly peppery or spicy. The rosé wines made in this part of Touraine are often very dry and light, making them much more pleasant to drink with food or as an apéritif in hot weather than sweeter rosés are. A lot of the local rosés are made with Cabernet Franc or Gamay Noir grapes, but the Pineau d'Aunis rosés are the really typical, special, unusual ones.

Some Chardonnay is grown around the Saint-Aignan area, but not an awful lot. The local white wine grape that has an AOC is Sauvignon Blanc. Touraine Sauvignon is what the region is best known for. Chardonnay around here often goes into a blend of grapes used to make local sparkling wines, with Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and even some Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the AOC grapes of Burgundy and Champagne, which have a colder climate than the Loire Valley's.

The wine cooperative in Saint-Romain makes and sells good Chardonnay wine, either in bottles or in bulk (you take your containers in and they fill them from the cuves — the big tanks, either stainless steel, fiberglass, or concrete, in which the wine is kept before bottling). And it turns out that Domaine de la Renne, also in Saint-Romain, grows enough Chardonnay for use in making its sparkling wines as well as some to put in bottles as still white wine too.

Notice that the rosé is Appelation Contrôlée, but the Chardonnay white is simply
a vin de pays, a local wine that doesn't have the more prestigious AOC label.

Domaine de la Renne doesn't sell wine in bulk — no filling of the customer's containers at the winery — but some years they produce enough Chardonnay grapes to be able to package some of the still wine in bag-in-box containers. Wine is less expensive packaged that way because you don't have to pay for bottles, labels, and corks. You also don't have to deal with recycling the bottles (we don't have curbside pickup, so we have to haul all that stuff to the recycling center ourselves). The plastic bag inside the wine box collapses upon itself as wine is drawn out, meaning that the remaining wine doesn't come into contact with air, which would spoil it fairly quickly. Wine in the bag-in-box can last for several weeks or even months.

29 March 2013

A cheeky, porky curry

Curry de joues de porc avec oignons et carottes. That's what I call it. "Curried pork cheeks with onions and carrots." I made the curry sauce using coconut milk, but cream or half and half would work too. And instead of Indian curry powder, I used préparation pour colombo traditionnel (as per the label). That's a Caribbean version of curry powder.

Pork curried with carrots and onions in coconut milk with Caribbean colombo powder

I went to Martinique and Guadeloupe many years ago. Once there, I was surprised to see how many Indians, as in people from India, lived on the islands. And from Sri Lanka, I assume. French Wikipedia says that between 10 and 15 per cent of the people there are of indo-caribéen descent — part of the great Indian diaspora.

Colombo powder from the Antilles and coconut milk/cream from Thailand

Curried dishes, called colombos, were widely available, especially, it seemed to me, on Guadeloupe. Colombo is the main city of Sri Lanka, the island country that used to be called Ceylon, and that's where the name came from — it must be. So this is curry with a French connection. The spices used in the blend are paprika, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, star anis, cloves, mustard seeds, and saffron.

We're still buying meats from the drive-up butcher, who comes to our house on Tuesdays, and we're always looking for something different and unusual to try. A few weeks ago, we bought a kilogram of beef cheeks and made a bœuf bourguignon with them: red wine, smoked pork lardons, onions, carrots, and mushrooms. The beef cheeks were tender and tasty.

Joues de porc — pork cheeks — as they came from the butcher (above) and then all cut up for cooking

Then Walt noticed that the butcher also sold pork cheeks, so we decided to try those. Here's a whole web site devoted to recipes for cooking joues de porc. I got a kilogram of them — there must have been a dozen or so pieces — from him on Tuesday, and we made the curry. I cut all the cheeks into more or less one-inch cubes and browned them in batches in vegetable oil.

Don't forget the garlic.

Then I cut up half a dozen small onions and three big garlic cloves and cooked them in the pot I had browned the meat in. I added four big tablespoonfuls of the colombo powder, plus a pinch or two of the really hot crushed red pepper we're using right now (I crushed some Mexican dried chilli peppers using a mortar and pestle) an stirred it well to slightly toast the spices. Then I put the carrots and meat into the pot and poured in a medium-size can of coconut milk.

The meat browned and ready to go into the curry sauce

Thin the sauce to the consistency you want, add salt and black pepper to taste, and then just let the pot simmer for an hour or even 90 minutes. Oh, I also tossed in a handful of raisins, which plumped up in the cooking liquid and, with the carrots, added a note of sweetness to the finished product. We ate it with jasmine rice. Oh, and I almost forgot the knob of fresh ginger, the bay leaves, the chopped basil, and the kaffir lime leaves I added for flavor, too. All are optional. Lime juice would be good in the curry sauce if you don't have kaffir lime leaves...

I think I want to make this with turkey "oysters" soon.

The pork cheeks were as tender and succulent as the beef cheeks had been in the beef burgundy. The kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of pork cheeks cost me about 16 euros. They were worth the price, I thought. Next time I want to do this kind of curry, I think I might buy a kilo of sot-l'y-laisse de dinde. The sot-l'y-laisse (meaning "the fool leaves it there") is that tender little nugget of meat just under the thigh on the back section of a turkey or chicken. Sometimes we call it the "oyster."

28 March 2013

Spring springing

The ornamental cherry tree in our side yard, just off the terrace, has finally burst into flower. It's fairly late this year. Don't expect cherries or you'll be disappointed. Just enjoy the pink flowers. Let's hope they don't freeze — though it is warmer this morning at +3ºC than it was yesterday morning.

Some things you can count on in springtime, and firebugs are among them. They're called gendarmes in French, and they seem to be Eurasian, not American. As soon as there's a hint, a faint glow, a hope of sunshine at the end of winter, firebugs gather in droves on south-facing tree trunks, plants, gravel, and walls to bask in it, no matter the chilly temperatures.

Firebugs are inoffensifs, as we say in French. They do no harm and just look pretty — kind of like ladybugs, but they don't fly. They feed on linden tree seeds, which explains why there are so many of them in our back yard. Their mating behavior includes crowding together like the ones above.

And finally, a salad for lunch. Duck gizzards (gésiers de canard), thinly sliced. A poached egg. Some lettuce, and some early tomatoes (hothouse tomatoes for sure...). Pommes de terre sarlaidaises — potatoes lightly sauteed in duck fat. All with a hint of garlic vinaigrette.

27 March 2013

Deprived of sunlight

The news on France2 TV reported yesterday that March 2013 has been the grayest month of March in at least 10 years. A lot of people here are suffering from SAD — Seasonal Affective Disorder — a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in winter and early spring.

That's especially true since this March came on the heels of a winter over which we had the fewest hours of sunlight in at least 30 years. That was the other news headline. It just goes from bad to worse.

Tilling up a long strip for lettuces etc.
But not really. Yesterday, finally, we had a sunny day with no rain. It hasn't rained enough recently to keep the ground wet, so walks with the dog are a little less muddy and mucky. Sun, a dry but cold breeze, and sparse rains are doing their job of drying things out.

I actually got the rototiller out  and started it up yesterday morning. I figured I might as well take advantage of a few rays of sunshine to see if the ground is dry enough to till. It is, if only barely. I tilled up a long row where Walt wants to plant lettuces, radishes, and other early spring crops. That'll keep him busy while I'm in the U.S.

The rototiller finally gets some exercise.

And then I tilled up the rich little patch of well-composted soil out in the back corner. We plant something different there every year. This year, we might put some dill in there. I'd like to try making dill pickles a the end of the summer.

The rest of the garden will have to wait for my return from North Carolina in mid-April. One plot still has collard green and Swiss chard growing in it (and lots of weeds). One has the big burn pile on it — we'll either burn it or move it in April. The two other plots are covered with dead leaves, so they aren't overgrown with weeds. I'll till the leaves into the soil there in April.

Dill and other herbs might go here this year, by the plum tree.
So there's some garden news. The other news is that it's still cold — the temperature is right at freezing this morning. It's been cold for so long, the noon news on television reported, that people all over France have had to buy more fuel oil to run their furnaces and boilers so they can make it through spring, which can be cold.

That's what we've had to do. We bought our winter supply of fuel in early December. Last week, I had to buy more — a thousand liters. That set me back more than a thousand euros (US$1350). It was an unplanned expenditure for us and for a lot of people, according to the news reports. In our case, however, that much fuel oil should take us well into January or even February 2014, so it's not so bad.

Gardening is what everybody around Saint-Aignan does in spring, summer,
and autumn. We're getting a fairly late start this year.

And we ran completely out of firewood, by the way. It's kind of late in the season to start looking for more now. That's why we really needed to have the fuel tank refilled.

26 March 2013

Monmousseau's tiny bubbles

Besides the Domaine de la Renne, last week we also spent an hour or so taking the tour and tasting a wine at the big Monmousseau winery complex in Montrichard. It has been in business since the 1880s, the guide told me. Here's a link to the company's web site.

Monmousseau itself doesn't own any vineyards. It contracts with four or five growers to buy grapes or juice. Then it ferments the wines at its Montrichard facility, which includes 15 km (9 miles) of tunnels dug into the limestone cliffs along the Cher river. We walked through part of them.

Fines bulles de Touraine sparkling wines

To make bubbly wines, which is Monmousseau's specialty, the company uses the Champagne method, which can't be called that because wineries outside the Champagne region aren't legally allowed to use that term. Around here, it's called the méthode traditionnelle, which is the same process. The wines are called fines bulles de Touraine — tiny bubbles of Touraine.

Sediment in a bottle undergoing fermentation, and a view of the ceiling inside the caves

Part of the fermentation of sparkling wines takes place after the wine has been put into bottles and capped. The minimum time the in-bottle fermentation takes is nine months, but Monmousseau lets the wines ferment in the bottle for two to four years. They have literally millions of bottles undergoing fermentation in their caves in Montrichard.

Bottles in racks, bottles in crates... bottles everywhere

When the fermentation is complete, there's a considerable amount of sediment in each bottle. The bottles are put on racks (nowadays its all done by machine) and gradually turned from the horizontal to a vertical position over a period of days. The sediment slides down into the neck of the bottles.

Also, bottling equipment

It's removed by freezing the neck of the bottle and popping off the metal cap so that the sediment pops out. Then the bottles of bubbly wine are topped off with wine or sugar syrup to give them the desired level of sweetness. They're finally corked with the familiar wire "cage" over the top to hold the cork in. I blogged about a previous visit to the Monmousseau  caves nearly three years ago.

25 March 2013

Two horsepower?

I don't know who owns this Citroën 2CV, but it certainly is a fine-looking car. It was parked down by the church in our village last week, and I've seen it out and about a few times recently.

The 2CV was manufactured from 1948 until 1990, so all the ones you see on the roads
are at least 20 years old. Just over five million of them were built.

It's called a 2CV (Deux Chevaux) or "two horsepower" car because of the size of its engine. The CV number in this case isn't real horsepower, but instead is "fiscal horsepower," a formula based on engine size, power, and emissions levels that is used to calculate car registration fees. My little Peugeot, for example has a 5CV engine for tax purposes, but its diesel engine produces 90 hp in real terms.

24 March 2013

No potato famine here

I don't know why my Anglo-Irish ancestors — named Willis, Daniels, Gaskins, Miller, etc. — crossed the Atlantic, but most of them were already in North America (or even North Carolina) by the time the great potato famine raged in the Old Country. They didn't have to live through that, and we aren't having any potato famine around here either.

Gratin dauphinois — scalloped potatoes with milk, cream, cheese, garlic, and nutmeg

Not since I bought that 10-kg bag of Caesar potatoes, especially. The Caesar potato was developed 20 years ago in the Netherlands, apparently (though the British might take credit too). Over the past week, we've had mashed potatoes and leek and potato soup, as well as a batch of pommes frites that Walt made while our friend Luke was visiting. The frites were some of the best we've ever made at home, I thought, and were served along some of my "pulled" turkey barbecue, N.C.-style.

Yesterday I made what is called in France « un gratin dauphinois » — scalloped potatoes cooked in milk and cream with garlic, nutmeg, and (optionally) cheese. The Caesar potatoes are not advertised as a good choice for a gratin (a casserole in Am. Eng.) but I can assure you they are delicious cooked that way. Because the potatoes, thinly sliced, don't get stirred during the cooking, they keep their shape and don't turn into puree. The milk and cream get absorbed and evaporate, leaving you with cheesy layers of good potato.

Dutch Caesar potatoes with French Comté cheese

I've blogged about gratin dauphinois before, so I won't repeat the recipe (click here). Some purists would say it shouldn't have any cheese in it. Cheese makes it into a gratin savoyard, they say, the Savoie being the region in the French Alps where a lot of cheeses are made. In the Dauphiné, next door, they don't make what we like to call "Swiss" cheeses. But never mind. Nearly all of the old French recipes, including Monique Maine's and Ginette Mathiot's, add cheese to the gratin dauphinois. Even the Larousse Gastronomique recipe calls for Gruyère cheese.

As the scalloped potato casserole was baking in the oven, releasing all those cheese and garlic smells into the kitchen, I happened to glance out the window. In a plum tree that's now covered in little white blossoms, I saw what looked like an apple on a branch. An apple? But then it moved, and I realized it was a bird. It turned out to be what is called « un bouvreuil pivoine » in French. Years ago, I lived on a street in Rouen (Normandy) called rampe Bouvreuil, and now I know what that street was named after.

Not a great photo, but at least I documented the appearance of our first bullfinch
Click or tap the picture to see it at a larger size.

At first, I thought it must be a European robin, which is a much smaller than the bird we call a robin in the U.S. The bird I was seeing was more the size of an American robin. I snapped a couple of pictures while Walt got out the bird books. In English, it's what we call a Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). We don't think we've ever seen one around here before. They're not uncommon in France, it seems, but they are certainly noticeable when you do see one.

23 March 2013

A local winery: Domaine de la Renne

When Luke arrived on Wednesday, our first stop was to buy some bread (no delivery on Wednesdays) and our second stop was at a winery I had been wanting to visit for a while. I figured I was being a good host, giving Luke the quintessential Loire Valley experience of buying wine from the producer. After lunch, we would drive around and see some châteaus.

The winery I had picked out is called the Domaine de la Renne. It's on the outskirts of a wine village, Saint-Romain-sur-Cher, just five minutes north of Saint-Aignan. La Renne is a little river that flows through the village. I'd tried the Domaine de la Renne wines at friends' houses and in restaurants. I'd even bought a few bottles over the past year or two at SuperU and Intermarché, where they stock a few local wines, but I'd never gone to see what the winery was like.

First some bread... this is an old poster I saw in a winery...

I was not disappointed. It was picturesque in an agricultural, working-winery sort of way. The tasting and sales room was a big space with a high ceiling and an old wooden bar plus a few tables where customers could enjoy tastings. The man who was on duty was in his 30s or early 40s, I'd guess, and not just talkative but very informative about the winery and the wines. He didn't speak English.

 ...and then some wine

Just in case the Domaine de la Renne sold wine in bulk, I had put one of my little plastic barrels in the trunk of the car. No bulk wine was available, however — not every winery sells it that way. I decided I'd get a 10-liter bag-in-box of Gamay wine, which is the local everyday drinking wine. A bag-in-box is a cardboard box with a plastic bag inside and a spigot that pokes through a perforated hole in the box, making it easy for you to get the wine into bottles or pitchers. Ten liters is the equivalent of 13 bottles plus a couple of glasses extra.

Almost everybody around here buys wine in these bag-in-box packages.
In everyday parlance, it's called either a BIB (say "beeb") or a fontaine à vin.

While we waited for the man to go get my BIB, I examined the few bottles of Domaine de la Renne wine that were on display on the bar. Several of them had gold or silver stickers on them showing that the wines had won gold or silver medals in tasting events around the region and even beyond. There was a bottle of Chardonnay wine, which I like, and there were a couple of different rosés. I decided to buy three bottles, just to sample the award-winning wines.

Here are the multilingual instructions for opening and getting wine out of a BIB.

One of the rosés was made from the local grape called Pineau d'Aunis, which gives a dry, slightly peppery, pleasantly pale wine. Walt and I both like it. I asked about the other rosé, and the Domaine de la Renne guy said it was made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. I was surprised, because you don't see much Cabernet Sauvignon wine around here. It's a Bordeaux grape.

Up here, the man said, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape is only good for making rosé wines. It doesn't ripen quickly or completely in the Loire Valley climate, which is colder than the Bordeaux climate, so any red wine made from the grape here is pretty thin and pale. It makes good rosé though, he assured me. We haven't tried it yet.

The BIB I bought had this wine label glued on it.
The 10-liter box of wine cost 23 euros.

When I asked about the Chardonnay in a bottle, I looked at the winery's price list and saw that they also sell Chardonnay wine in BIBS. I asked about that. There's none available right now, the man told me, because the 2012 harvest was so small. They had put all the Chardonnay in bottles for sale at a slightly higher price. None of the wines I was looking at cost more than four euros a bottle, by the way.

This is a Touraine rosé made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

How bad was the 2012 grape harvest around Saint-Romain and Saint-Aignan? Well, the Domaine de la Renne lost 70% of their grapes last year. First, the month of March was too warm and the grapes put out new growth too early. Then on April 17 — the man was very precise about the date — there was an early morning freeze that damaged a lot of the plants.

The rest of April and all of May and June 2012 were chilly and very damp. It rained and rained. The vines set flowers, but the flowers stayed on the vines too long, their development into grapes retarded by the lousy weather. In June and July, mildew set in. Finally, in August the weather turned hot and exceptionally dry. The sun burned some of the grapes that had survived the poor conditions of spring and early summer. It was a catastrophic year for the local grape-growers.

What good are wine and bread without some cheese?

The forecast for 2013 is looking better. This chilly, damp March weather is perfect for the vines, the man told us. They won't sprout new growth too early this year. With any luck, April and May will be warmer and not too damp. We'll see...

22 March 2013

The village church

I don't have much time for the blog this morning. Luke has a 9:30 train to catch, and I have a 9:30 appointment with Madame Barbier down in the village. I have to get him to the station on time and then race back for the haircut. The bridge closure in Saint-Aignan is complicating our lives...

One of the places we saw yesterday was the village we call home. We went to buy bread for dinner. Luke really wanted a pain au chocolat too, this being France, so he got one from our baker. I snapped a couple of photos of the church. Luke has been here several times over the past ten years, so this time we have spent our time re-visiting places he remembers.

We are going to have our first day worthy of springtime today, they say. High temperature: 17ºC, which is about 62ºF. Break out the bermuda shorts!

21 March 2013

A visitor from Berlin

A friend who lives in Berlin is visiting. He's a Californian who has come to see us in Saint-Aignan several times in the past, but in the distant past already: his last visit was in 2007. He's been working and living in Berlin for a year now. His name is Luke, and he arrived here via Lake Como in Italy and Dijon in Burgundy.

Luke found out that there was a direct train from Dijon to Saint-Aignan. That was news to me. The trip took just over four hours yesterday morning. I knew you could get a direct train from Saint-Aignan to Tours, of course — it being our nearest city — and even to Lyon, meaning no train changes even if it's basically a "slow boat" that makes many stops along the way.

In Saint-Aignan, the bridge across the Cher river is closed. I forgot about the closure yesterday morning when I left the house to pick Luke up at the train station over in Noyers. I drove down to Saint-Aignan, saw the barricade, and realized I had to drive a long detour down to the next bridge to get to the other side of the river. I was at least 15 minutes late picking Luke up, but he was there waiting, wondering what had happened to his ride.

Yesterday we took a little driving tour around the area east of Saint-Aignan — Romorantin, Valençay, Villentrois, Châteauvieux, etc. — and we were lucky with the weather. The blue sky was full of puffy white clouds, and we had only a very few rainshowers along the way. Luke said the winter has been very gray in Berlin, so he was glad to see blue sky and pretty cloud formations for a change. I forgot to take my camera with me.

Rare morning sunshine a few days ago. We can't wait
to get the furniture back out on the front porch for the season.

I think today we might go west over toward Montrichard and even Amboise to have a look around. Getting out of the house two days in a row will do me good, and we'll see if Walt wants to come along for the ride. I'll try to remember to take my camera. Right now the sun is out — that's a promising sign, even though the weather report on TV right now says to expect giboulées (brief showers).

20 March 2013

Leek and potato soup

This a very simple recipe for soup, and the result is delicious. It's good food for a first day of spring that still feels more like winter.

I think I tend to forget about some of the old home-cooking classics, until I happen to buy a food item and start searching for good ways to use it. In this case it was a 5 kg bag of big baking potatoes. Then I found a bag of baby leek tops in the freezer, where they'd been lurking since last year's garden was harvested.

Varieties of baking potatoes in France, and other uses they are good for

The recipe, from Monique Maine's Cuisine pour toute l'année, calls for four "pretty" potatoes. Those will weigh in at between 2 and 2½ lbs. (a kilogram). Use Idahos, for example. Here in France, I bought a bag of potatoes of the variety called Caesar, which are good for baking, mashing, or frying -- and for making soup.

The other amounts in the recipe are pretty clear: two leeks, two garlic cloves, a sprig of thyme, and about 2 quarts (or liters) of water (or broth). Add butter or cream to taste at the end, as well as salt and pepper. Remember, you can always add more of these flavor ingredients, but once you've added them you can't take them back out.

Soupe de poireaux - pommes de terre
4 belles pommes de terre
2 poireaux
2 gousses d'ail
1 branche de thym
30 g de beurre, ou 2 cuill. à soupe de crème fraîche
sel et poivre
Épluchez et lavez les pommes de terre et les poireaux. Coupez-les en petits morceaux. Mettez-les dans une grande casserole avec le thym, l'ail, et une poignée de gros sel. Ajoutez 2 litres d'eau et faites cuire à feu vif pendant 20 à 25 mn.

Une fois la soupe cuite, passez-la au mixer et servez en ajoutant un bon morceau de beurre ou 2 cuill. à coupe de crème fraîche.
If you don't have leeks, you can make the same kind of potato soup using two medium onions or a bunch of green onions instead. In another classic of French home cooking, Je sais cuisiner, Ginette Mathiot calls the onion version of the soupe potage parmentière.

I used chicken broth that I made myself as the base for the soup. A lot of French recipes will call for using a chicken bouillon cube dissolved in water. If you do, cut down on the salt because those cubes are very salty. Or just use water as the cooking liquid. Monique Maine's recipe says to throw in a "handful of coarse salt" — that sounds like a lot to me. Maybe she had small hands.

The best thing to do is to cook the potatoes and leeks in a smaller amount of liquid than you think the soup will need, and then puree them (I used a stick blender). At that point, add more liquid (water or broth) to bring the soup to the consistency you want. Then adjust the seasonings (salt and pepper to taste). Add butter or cream just before serving, or at the table so that the calorie-conscious can opt out.

19 March 2013

Moss, in a starring role

I woke up to the sound of rainfall this morning. Yesterday we had a hard downpour of ice pellets in the afternoon. Luckily, it didn't last long. When I went out with the dog, it was raining. You couldn't say that rain was "falling" — it was just dripping in big drops out of low clouds.

I'm getting to be an expert when it comes to rain. Only my disposition is sunny these days.

Moss likes the rain. I've never seen so much of it as now. It covers the ground in a thick carpet all around the yard and the vineyard. We have the kind you see in the picture above growing in big clumps out front in the shade of the hedge and the maple trees. I think it's pretty. I guess you could say I "lichen" it, if you pronounce the word as we do in the U.S.

I found a page on the web describing Polythichum or "star" mosses, and I guess it's some variety of that. Knowing my local blog friends, I'm sure somebody will tell me more about it. Until yesterday, I hadn't noticed that this kind of moss grows not just on the ground but also on tree trunks. In French, moss is mousse, which is also the name for foam and foam rubber. I hope there's none growing on me.

18 March 2013

The state of the yard and garden

I didn't blog about it yesterday, but on Saturday we were actually able to go out and do some work in the yard and garden. It's good that we did what we did, because yesterday it rained all morning, with a break at noon, and then hard rain fell for most of the afternoon.

By the way, the village-sponsored hike or randonnée pédestre was pretty much rained out. We saw a total of about six hikers walk by. Past events have attracted 10 times that number of participants.

 Tarps over the burn pile will let it dry out some. The garden looks okay, considering...

One thing we did on Saturday was cover our burn pile with tarps, in anticipation of being able to have a fire this week or next. It's supposed to be showery all week, but if the wind turns to the south or at least southwest, we can set fire to the burn pile without worrying about smoke bothering our neighbors. It's asking a lot to hope for just the right wind conditions, without rain, but let's stay optimistic.
This is about as much hedge trimming as I can deal with.

Otherwise, what we did was more of an inspection tour than anything else. Walt picked up a lot of twigs and branches around the yard and put them under the carport-type shelter out front where we keep firewood and kindling. I got out some clippers and hacked off the extra growth on a little section of bay laurel hedge behind our garden shed.

This artichoke plant came up in February and seems not to mind early-morning freezes.

Instead of bringing these potted plants indoors last fall, I just put them under a cold frame outdoors.
When I took the lid off the cold frame, I was surprised how good they all looked.

It's nice to see some signs of spring, as Walt has reported, the wild plum trees in our yard — I planted them a few years ago — and in our absent neighbor's yard, are all in flower. The ornamental cherry tree out by the carport is getting ready to burst into pink blossoms. Sedum plants are growing in a planter box out by the garden shed, and my hens & chicks have survived the winter in a cold frame against the west-facing wall of the house outside the back door.

Callie looking for the moon as she steps out the back door...

These sedum plants grow happily in a planter box out by the garden shed,
despite a cold, damp winter and no cover over them.

When I look at these photos, it makes me happy to live in the country rather than in a city. Even if the ground is still too wet to till — with any luck it will dry out enough for me to prepare a couple of garden plots before I leave for my trip to the U.S. on April 1.