31 December 2014

Tonnerre bis, and a new life phase

As I said yesterday, here are some more "aerial" photos of the town of Tonnerre in Burgundy. We were there with the dog in October 2014. We drove up to the top of the hill from which the Église Saint-Pierre looks out over the town, and then we drove down to the base of the hill and found the Fosse Dionne. I foresee another trip to Burgundy in the not too distant future.

Today we bid the year 2014 adieu. For me it was the year of my 65th birthday. I began collecting two small retirement pensions (not nearly enough to live on) from two different French retirement funds that I paid into back in the 1970s and early 1980s when I worked as a teacher in a succession of schools in Rouen, Paris, and Metz.

Being a French pensioner means I'm now fully accredited by the French national health insurance system. I no longer have to fill out forms to re-apply for coverage every year, and Walt is covered too. Until now, we had to pay into the system every year, contributing an amount based on our income. As far as I know, my contributions to the French health car system now are deducted from my French pensions.

Both of us also have U.S. retirement pensions too. It feels like life is entering a new phase. I may well apply for French citizenship in 2015, and I don't think I'll have any trouble getting it. It's all about settling in. I'll still enjoy my annual trip to the U.S. to see family and friends, but I don't think I'll ever be tempted to move back there. When I came to live here in 2003, it was with the idea of finishing out my days in France.

Why French citizenship? Well, the forces of the extreme right are on the move in France. Marine Le Pen's Front National is polling well, and her party is radically anti-immigration. Who knows what might happen? It might be better for me to have a French carte nationale d'identité and passeport over the next decade or two. The only real requirements are having lived here for a few years and being able to speak French — I meet those.

I sometimes wonder what might happen to all the British people who have moved to France the way Americans might move from New Jersey to North Carolina to live, with no bureaucratic formalities to worry about, if the United Kingdom votes to pull out of the European Union. A referendum on the question is in the works for 2017 across the Channel. It probably won't happen, but it's interesting to think about. What status would all these newly non-European British expatriates have here under a far-right French government?

30 December 2014

Tonnerre en vrac

Since I can't really organize them in any logical way, or decide which ones to leave out, here are some photos of the town of Tonnerre (pop. 5,000 or so) and its rooftops « en vrac » — "in bulk" — in no particular order, in other words. As you can see, on that first full day we spent in Burgundy the weather was just beautiful.

These are photos that I took from up at the Église Saint-Pierre. There, we took a walk around the church grounds with the dog. Since we saw only two other people — a jogger, and a well-dressed woman who was just leaving as we arrived, we were able to take Callie off the leash and let her sniff around unencumbered.

As I've mentioned, traveling with a dog is not ideal. We didn't want to leave poor Callie in the parked car for long periods of time, but it is hard to walk the narrow streets and sidewalks with a dog on a leash. If you do it, you pretty much have to give up on taking photos. The photos here will give you an idea of what a jumble of houses and narrow walkways Tonnerre is.

We had thought be might have lunch in a restaurant in Tonnerre, but again, with the dog, that was going to be too much trouble. First, we'd have to find a restaurant that didn't mind admitting a dog. And the atmosphere would have to be right — not too crowded, not too boisterous, and without the presence of other dogs or cats. We gave up.

We ended up driving out to a supermarket on the edge of town to pick up some food for lunch — I think we got pizzas — as well as some food for dinner that would be good with the (white) Chablis wines we had bought earlier in the day (we bought shrimp and I made mayonnaise to have with them). We went back to the gîte and had lunch before heading out for an afternoon excursion.

I warn you now: tomorrow I'll be posting more of these views of Tonnerre from on high. Today and tomorrow, we will be going into high gear to prepare our New Year's Eve and New Year's Day meals. In fact, I started yesterday by making confit de canard... More about all that at the appropriate time.

29 December 2014

La Fosse « divine » at Tonnerre

The actual name of this interesting natural feature in the town of Tonnerre in Burgundy is La Fosse Dionne, but the word Dionne is a deformation of the French word « divine », apparently. Or of "Divona", a Celtic god(dess) of the waters. People thought there was something mysterious and magical about the place.

« Fosse » means pit or hole — a deep, wide cavity — whether natural or man-made. In this case, the deep, wide pit in Tonnerre is a huge spring at the base of the hill that is topped by the Église Saint-Pierre nowadays. Two thousand years a Roman fort stood on that spot, and the remnants of a stone staircase from those days, leading from the spring up to the top of the hill, have been found.

According to the sign pictured above, day in and day out, year-round, as much as 200 liters (50 gallons) of water per second surge up through the Fosse Dionne. The water does not come from an underground river, the sign says, but from water trapped in faults and cracks in a limestone plateau 25 miles south of Tonnerre. It changes color and the flow varies from hour to hour and season to season.

I'll just post a few more pictures, since I though the site was pretty and picturesque. The stone lavoir or washhouse built around the natural spring dates back to the mid-1700s.

By the way, the temperature here according to at least one weather site is negative 9ºC this morning. That's about +16ºF. There's no snow in the forecast for Saint-Aignan so far, but the cold snap is supposed to last through the week. I'm making a big pot of turkey-barley soup today with the leftovers from our Christmas dinner.

28 December 2014

L'Église Saint-Pierre in Tonnerre

Tonnerre is the French word for "thunder" but the name of the town called Tonnerre in Burgundy has an entirely different derivation. Two thousand years ago the town was known as Tornodurum — the little fortified town might have been named after a prominent resident called Tournus. I don't think anybody really knows.

Tonnerre is located on the side of a big hill on the Armançon river and the Canal de Bourgogne. It's just a few minutes' drive from Chablis, and with a population of more that five thousand it's a much bigger place. A church called the Église Saint-Pierre dominates the area. Nearby to the north is the town of Chaource, where a delicious cheese with that name is made.

The original church was built in the 14th century but after a big fire it had to be rebuilt in the mid-16th. You can't go into the church unless you've made an appointment with the local Office de Tourisme for a guided tour.

Despite some nice architectural details, the site's most notable feature is the spectacular views of the town that you have from its grounds (see an example above).

27 December 2014

Holiday thoughts — and more Burgundy pix

We've had a dark and stormy night — and a lot of rain, from the sound of it. I'll be able to take stock when the sun comes up in a couple of hours (it's 7:00 a.m. right now), but I wouldn't be surprised to see a few tree limbs down in the yard. The wind is still howling, and lots of things are going bump out there. This morning, the temperature outside is warmer than it has been in a few days (8ºC, almost 50ºF), but the house is colder than usual because of all the wind and rain.

There are no vineyards really close to Môlay, but I admired this ornamental vine in the village.

It's supposed to turn cold tomorrow, with low temperatures plunging into the low to mid-20s in ºF (as low as -05ºC). Right now I'm watching British Sky News on TV, and I see they've had snow up in central and northern England overnight. I wonder if it's coming this way. It's time to change over to France 2 TV to see what Télématin and MétéoFrance are predicting for our New Year's Week. Walt and I would be happy to see some snow. The plants around here need a good freeze — it's been nearly 13 months since we've had any temperatures below freezing. They say 2014 has been the warmest year in France overall since the 1890s.

Here's Callie having a walk through the streets of this austere little Burgundian village.

Meanwhile, I'm going back to milder October and Burgundy in my mind and on this blog. The photos here are a few more that I took around the village we stayed in, Môlay, near Chablis, and then I have some photos of places like Tonnerre, Irancy, Noyers-sur-Serein, Montréal, and... well, keep coming by and you'll see what I end up posting.

A barn of some kind, seen from the back, on the very edge of the village... almost defensive.

Yesterday with some of our leftover turkey, we made club sandwiches (bacon, lettuce, tomato, and sliced turkey breast with mayonnaise), and French fries on the side. It was a treat, because we don't often eat American-style sandwiches any more. Looking ahead, we have put another meal of turkey and dressing, with gravy, and then turkey-barley soup on our planned menus. Then it will be New Years Eve and Day, with their own special foods. Again, more later.

This barn had big openings on the village side, providing views of the local stone and the roof tiles from underneath.

Yesterday I had to go to the supermarket because we actually ran out of gas for our kitchen stove on Christmas Day. Luckily, it happened just as Walt was finishing the Brussels sprouts and I was finishing the gravy. The stove we've had since last May has four gas burners on top and an electric oven underneath. We buy bottles of butane at the supermarket.

I noticed comfortable-looking houses in Môlay, mostly hidden behind old stone outbuildings and big gates.

The old kitchen stove had three gas burners and one electric burner, which I used more often than the gas burners. A bottle of butane would last six months. We are just getting used to having the butane run out now after about three months, and we got caught short. I wish we we had piped in gas, but no... We have two gas bottles, but they both ended up empty at the same time. I got refills for both of them yesterday, so we are fixed for six months.

A small splash of fall color in a very gray environment at Môlay

I also went into the supermarket and I found a good deal on pork tenderloin, which here is called filet mignon. It's funny that filet mignon in the U.S. is beef, but in France it's pork. I really never buy tenderloin because it is so expensive, but this was half price, so I got four 1 lb. pieces to put in the freezer. I have plans for one of them for New Year's Day. Another might get cooked later in January and served with any leftover cornbread dressing that winds up in the freezer. Life goes on, and so will cooking and eating, in the new year.

26 December 2014

Gobble gobble

"Gobble gobble" is what the turkey says. The verb "gobble" also means "to devour", as in "I gobbled it up" or "I gobbled it down". Yesterday, there was more human-style gobbling going on around here than turkey gobbling.

Here's the spicy glazed turkey ready to serve.

As it happens, I had a brilliant idea about this year's Christmas turkey — something I'll do again. A few days ago, Walt and I made a batch of Cajun-style chicken wings. That involves oven-roasting the wings, which are dusted with flour or corn meal, and then tossing them, after they're cooked and crusty, in a sauce composed of melted butter and Louisiana hot sauce.

Above, the poached turkey with its first coat
of the spicy glaze, before it went into the oven
As I was lying in bed awake early Christmas morning, having poached the turkey the day before, this thought occurred to me: Why not brush a glaze of melted butter and hot red pepper sauce on the skin of the bird before putting it in the oven, to make the turkey more perky? That's what I did, and It turned out great. The hot sauce is not at all overpowering, and it gives just a hint of heat to enliven the bland turkey meat.

Below is a photo of the cornbread dressing we made to have along with the turkey, Brussels sprouts, and baked potimarron (winter squash). I don't know if other people make bread stuffings like the ones we almost always have with roasted turkey in the U.S. at Thanksgiving or Christmas (or both). It's basically a savory bread (and butter) pudding.

Bread stuffing is made by lightly cooking diced onion and celery, lardons or sausage meat, and chopped turkey giblets (liver, gizzard, neck meat), with herbs (sage, hot red pepper flakes) and spices (cloves, cumin, etc.) in a good amount of butter until everything is done and tender. Then you add a large amount of cubed, slightly stale bread (wheat, corn, or whatever other bread you like) to the buttery mixture and toss it well. Add a couple of beaten eggs as a binder. Moisten the mixture with some turkey broth and bake it in a pan alongside the turkey (then it's called "dressing"), or stuff it into the two cavities of the bird (to make "stuffing"). (You can find many recipes for bread stuffings on the 'net.)

25 December 2014

Joyeux Noël !

I hope Santa Claus is really good to all of you. Thanks for reading this blog. I hope also that you enjoy your Christmas dinner. Here's a preview of ours.

We ordered a bûche (called a Yule log, I think — it's the classic French dessert for Christmas) from the village baker this year. It's a bûche au beurre, or butter cream cake, as opposed to a bûche pâtissière, which is made with pastry cream. We ordered it with a coffee-flavored butter cream.

And this year we are cooking a turkey for our Christmas dinner. We ordered a small dinde fermière (farm-raised turkey) from the best poultry vendor in the area (in our opinion). I decided to poach it and this morning we will baste it and brown it in the oven. I'm making cornbread stuffing on the side to serve with it.

What would Christmas be without sprouts? These were about the prettiest choux de Bruxelles I've ever seen. They've been cooked, and today we will cut each sprout in half and sautée the halves in butter in a pan.

I'll probably post more pictures, maybe tomorrow, maybe later... Oops, I forgot to mention the foie gras and the baked winter squash.

24 December 2014

Chablis vineyards

After spending part of the morning in Chablis, more or less on the west side of the village, we drove out toward the east, up the road leading to the town of Tonnerre, to see the most highly regarded Chablis vineyards.

These are vineyard plots where grapes that go into making Chablis Grand Cru and Chablis Premier Cru wines — the most expensive Chablis wines — are grown. These need a few years in the bottle to develop their best characteristics.

At the wine cooperative (La Chablisienne) earlier in the morning, the man running the tasting room pointed out to me that since 80% of the wine produced in the area is exported, Chablis wines are maybe better known in other countries than in France itself.

One thing that surprised me a little bit was that so much of the Chablis harvest in done by machines and not by hand, just as in the Loire Valley where we live. Only select vineyard plots are harvested by hand.

Chablis has a cold climate. It's soil and climate are more similar to Champagne's than to southern Burgundy's. Champagne is not very far north, and one of the main grapes grown up there is Chardonnay, as around Chablis. I don't think any sparkling wines are made under the Chablis appellation, however.

The hard chalky soil around Chablis is notoriously hard to work. Late spring freezes regularly damage the vines' new growth and flowers. However, grapes have been grown here, and turned into wine, since the final days of the Roman Empire. Grapes seem to give their best when grown under stressful soil and weather conditions.

23 December 2014

Le déjeuner d'anniversaire en cinq photos

750 grammes de rumsteak
« façon tournedos »
choisi chez le boucher
à Saint-Aignan

Deux pavés de rumsteak
débarrassés de
leur barde de lard

Les steaks recouverts
de poivre noir concassé
en guise de marinade

Un steak nappé de
sa sauce au poivre noir,
avec pommes frites
en accompagnement

L'armagnac qui a servi
à faire la sauce au poivre, et
une belle tarte aux pommes
pour le dessert

22 December 2014

A morning in Chablis

There weren't really any vineyards around the village of Môlay, where we were staying. Luckily, the wine town of Chablis (pop. 2,300) was just a dozen miles north. One of the reasons we wanted to go to this part of Burgundy was Chablis and its wines.

I've said this before but I'll say it again. The name Chablis for white wines was grossly misused in California 40 or 50 years ago. Back then, California red wines were pretty much all called Burgundy wine, and California white wines carried the name Chablis, no matter what grapes they were made with or how poor the quality compared to real Chablis. Fortunately, California has cleaned up its act now.

A vineyard on the west side of Chablis

The vineyards of Chablis are planted in Chardonnay. Chardonnay too has earned a bad reputation with many because so much of the Chardonnay wine made in California was not very good. It was over-oaked and made in a stlye called "buttery" — sweet and kind of oily. Real Chablis — and remember, Chablis is a town, not a grape — is very dry and crisp. It's not aged in oak, as far as I know.

Chablis wines for sale at the Chablisienne cooperative

I'm a big fan of Burgundy white wines. That means I'm a fan of Chardonnay made the way it's made in northern France. My favorite Champagnes are the ones called Blanc de Blancs, which means they are sparkling wines made from a single grape variety: Chardonnay. Other Champagne wines are made from a combination or assemblage of juices from red and white wine grapes (including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay).

Flowers and a black cat at the Domaine Gérard Tremblay winery

Last spring, Walt had attended a wine event in a village (Angé) just down the road from Saint-Aignan, toward Montrichard. It was an open house held annually by a winery over there. He was surprised to find wines from other regions, including Burgundy, offered for tasting and sale at a local event. He knows I like Chardonnay, and he tasted a Chablis from the Domaine Gérard Tremblay that day. He ended up buying six bottles. This year, he wanted to go see the winery in Chablis where that particular wine is made.

Chablis grapes carved in stone

So that's what we did. We went there and tasted wines that first morning, thinking we'd better do it right away lest it get lost in the shuffle of the very busy days we had ahead of us. It turned out to be a beautiful sunny day. We didn't plan to buy and take home a lot of wine, but just a few bottles, including some from Gérard Tremblay's winery. It was fun to go see the winery and do a tasting.

The very modern facility of the Chablis wine cooperative

We also stopped in at the Chablis wine cooperative, a large-scale operation called La Chablisienne. We tasted some wines there too, and bought a couple of bottles to have back at the gite in the evening with our evening meals. Chablis comes in several styles, depending on which plot of land the different grapes are grown on, meaning the kind of soil they are planted in and whether the vines are on a hillside with full exposure to the sun or on flatter land. The styles are Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru. All are good and all are distinctive.

Earlier posts about Chablis are here and here.