28 February 2014


It was again a hard rain beating against the roof tiles and skylight windows up in the loft that woke me up at 5:30 this morning. It looks like we'll end up with 200 mm of precipitation — 8 inches, and all of it rain — for the first two months of 2014. Another storm is crossing the southern part of England this morning. A heavy squall just knocked out our satellite TV signal.

The gardening guy on Télématin announced a few minutes ago that since our 2014 weather is three weeks in advance compared to the calendar, it is now Springtime. Le printemps. That doesn't mean it's particularly warm outside, but it's certainly not cold. South of us, though, in the central mountains, it's snowing.

There are flowers all around the hamlet now. Camelias. Plum and peach blossoms. Cyclamen. Forsythia. Primroses (as in these photos I took in our side yard over the course of the week). And on and on. The primroses are domesticated "escapees" — the woman who sold us this house said that whenever she had a little pot of them from the florist's, she would plant them out in the yard at the end of springtime.

The kitchen work is almost done — at least the contractor's part of it. He'll come back this morning and put a last coat of paint on the ceiling. Then our work begins. We'll spend this afternoon and a good portion of tomorrow cleaning. I guess "spring cleaning" is the right name for it.

The walls over the stove need a good wiping. All the horizontal surfaces in the room (especially the top of the refrigerator) need to be scrubbed. The tile floor needs a thorough mopping. The curtains have to go back up, and the light fixture. Then we can start moving all the stuff back into the room and resume our normal organized life.

27 February 2014

Bertie the Black Cat, basking

On a recent sunny afternoon, Callie the collie and I were out wandering around the hamlet, just to get some exercise. We were over on the summertime neighbor's property across the street from our house. Callie started nosing around in the neighbor man's "junk" pile.

I just followed the dog over there to see what she was doing — which was munching on some fresh green grass. I looked around and was startled to see Bertie the black cat just sitting there watching us through his slitty eyes. Callie never did notice him, even though I said his name and petted him on the head.

Bert was keeping an eye on the dog, and listening carefully I'm sure, ready to run at any sudden movement. But he was also enjoying the afternoon sunshine. The warmth of it must have felt good on his head. I think he felt safe because I was there with the dog.

26 February 2014

Fleurs de la fin de l'hiver

The other day I posted photos of the saxifrage flowers out in the back yard. This time, it's photos of flowers that we are used to seeing in late winter or early spring.

The one above is a strikingly colorful crocus growing on the edge of the woods on our neighbors' property.

And the ones above are perce-neige, or snowdrops, also growing at the neighbors'.

And finally, these primevères or primroses in our own yard.

The first day of the kitchen refurbishing went well. The contractor spent about two hours sanding the ceiling with what he called his girafe, which is a rotary sander on a pole, attached to a big vacuum cleaner. Wow, having the right tools makes all the difference — no dust storm! He then patched the cracks and the rough spots with some kind of enduit or spackle. Today he'll sand the ceiling again.

25 February 2014

The empty kitchen

Call it early spring cleaning. The man who fixed our roof last summer is coming today to repair the stained and cracked ceiling. We had to remove everything from all the flat surfaces in the room. Luckily, we haven't had to empty the cabinets and drawers, or move the appliances.

Bertie was pretty confused when he came
in this morning. I put down his water bowl
because he's used to finding it there.

Besides clearing all the flat surfaces
we had to take all the pots, pans, and
other utensiles off the two pot racks
on the wall near the dishwasher.

Here's what's being repaired —
the stained and cracked ceiling.
The whole ceiling is getting
a scraping and repainting.
We didn't empty our doorless
cabinets but might have to do it
in a few minutes.

We might also have to move
the refrigerator into the
dining room. It's on wheels.

The curtains and curtain rod
had to come down, of course.

Where did we put everything?
Everywhere. A lot of it ended
up in Walt's den, where
he has his computer and
we keep all our books.

And a lot of the stuff is
in the dining area, including
our temporary kitchen.
We'll have to make do with
the coffeemaker, microwave,
and countertop oven for
the rest of the week.

24 February 2014

Pommiers du matin

A morning moon over the vineyard and the apple trees by the pond.

The weather report this morning says spring is on its way.
Today's afternoon temperature is supposed to exceed 60ºF (16ºC).

23 February 2014

Garden check

The only "active" garden plot I have going right now has been very happy with our wet winter weather. So have the weeds growing in it, but the collard and kale plants are big and hardy enough now to ignore all the grass growing around them.

The hundreds of slugs and little snails that were munching on the leaves a couple of months ago seem to have gone into hibernation. (Or maybe they all drowned.) I don't think the weather has been cold enough to kill them, but if they are still living they don't have much of an appetite.

That top photo is a kale plant. The one just above shows some collard leaves. We've enjoyed the kale just sauteed with duck fat and garlic, with just a spoonful or two of white wine. Kale leaves are more tender than collard leaves, which need a longer time to cook. Both are really delicious though.

We really need to do something about the shutters on the garden shed. The paint is peeling badly, and the wood itself isn't in good shape. I wish I could buy some new shutters of the same size right off the shelf, but I bet new ones will have to be custom-made. Summertime projects...

22 February 2014

Saxifrage in full bloom

It's hard for me to remember at what time of year the saxifrage plants, which are perennials, out in the back yard usually bloom. I know there are flowers on them in the summer, and I'm pretty sure they are often in bloom into December, at the beginning of winter. I think late February saxifrage flowers are pretty unusual, at least here in the Saint-Aignan area. So is our weather this year.

As you can see, yesterday morning the sun was shining brightly. I took advantage of it to take some photos, even though walking in the yard and around the vineyard is still like trudging through slop. It's more like wading than walking, and Callie and I are both soaking wet when we get back home — me from the knees down, and Callie from the chest down. A light rain is falling again this morning.

I call these plants and flowers "saxifrage" in both French and English, because that's what the woman we bought our house from called them. A quick search on the web and in Wikipedia tells me that the plant's real name is Bergenia crassifolia (or B. cordifolia) and it is known variously as badan, Siberian tea, Mongolian tea, leather bergenia, winter-blooming bergenia, heartleaf bergenia, elephant's ears, or elephant-ears.

This coming week we are getting our kitchen ceiling repaired. It has rained so much, with no evidence of further leaking, that we are confident the timing is right. The contractor will come in to start work Tuesday morning, and he's told us the job will take him four mornings. We have to take everything off all the surfaces in the kitchen, but we don't have to empty the cabinets. That's a relief. We also have to figure out how to set up a temporary kitchen, with the microwave and the counter-top oven, so that we can at least re-heat food for our midday meals.

21 February 2014

Faute de veau...

...on mange de la volaille. That's a take-off on an old French saying about game birds, grives and merles. Grives (thrushes) are tastier than merles (blackbirds). If you don't have the preferred ingredient, you substitute another, and you make do. In this case, I could have had veal, but chicken appealed to me.

I wanted to make a blanquette, or a white stew. The first ingredient is a white meat, of course, and the second is white wine. When you cook veal for a blanquette, you have to simmer the meat for a couple of hours to make it tender and succulent. When you cook chicken for the same dish, it takes only 30 minutes. So if you want something good, inexpensive, and quick, chicken (or some other fowl: turkey, Guinea hen...  even rabbit) is the way to go.

The chicken pieces (skinless breast and thigh meat) poached with mushrooms and ready to go
into the blanquette (white) sauce — sorry I didn't take more photos.

For two pounds of meat, you need about two liters, or about eight cups, of liquid. That would be six cups of water, or a mild-but-rich chicken or vegetable broth, with two cups of dry white wine added. Bring the liquid to a boil and drop in the pieces of meat. If you're starting with water and not broth, add a peeled carrot and an onion to the pot, along with a bay leaf or two. Don't forget the salt and pepper. Turn the heat down and let the chicken just simmer on low.

The other ingredient in a blanquette is mushrooms. Use any kind you want, but regular button mushrooms (champignons de Paris) are very good. Some recipes call for using canned mushrooms. It's up to you. As for cooking them, just drop them in the broth along with the chicken. Nothing in a blanquette needs to be browned.

Using a slotted spoon, take the chicken pieces and the mushrooms out of the cooking liquid. Reserve the liquid in a bowl or big measuring cup. In the pot you're using, melt some butter. Half a stick (or maybe a third — say six tablespoons) would be good. Into the melted butter, pour an equal quantity of flour. Stir the mixture on medium heat for three or four minutes so that the flour gets cooked.

Now pour about a liter of liquid into the pot a little at a time and stir vigorously to make a thickened white sauce. Gradually add more liquid until you have a velvety smooth mixture, neither too thick nor too thin. It's a judgment call. Taste the sauce for seasoning. A pinch or quick grate of nutmeg will add good flavor. Then pour in some cream (half a cup, or to taste) to whiten and to enrich the sauce.

Put the chicken and mushrooms back in the pot and let it all simmer slowly for 20 to 30 minutes on low temperature.At the last minute, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon to brighten it all up. Meanwhile, use the rest of the broth, extended with the required quantity of water, to cook a cup or two of rice to serve with the blanquette. And plan to make a nice green salad with a tart vinaigrette dressing to serve as a follow-up to the main course.

20 February 2014

Checking things off

Don't get me wrong: I love living in France. And I'd probably have a long list of things to do, tasks to check off my list, and complicated situations to deal with at my age if I still lived in the U.S. Maybe it would be even worse. For the past two or three years, however, I have constantly been busy working out a long series of administrative and tax issues with the French bureaucracy.

Yesterday I had an appointment in Blois to see about the small French retirement pension that I only recently learned I was eligible for. I don't work in France or anywhere else now. In fact I haven't worked at all since 2002. The main part of my career was spent in U.S. jobs.

But back in the 1970s and early 1980s, I spent about eight years in Paris and other French cities working as a teacher or teaching assistant. My first job in France was teaching English in a lycée (a high school) in Rouen, in Normandy, 1972-73. Afterwards, I taught American language, culture, and history courses at the Sorbonne and at the civil service college in Paris from 1974 to 1976.

Later, I had a job as a lecteur (lecturer) in the English department at the Université de Metz in the Lorraine region of eastern France. I also did a second stint at the civil service college in Paris in the early 1980s. In all, I worked at these jobs for 6½ years, or 26 trimestres, according to the records of the French Sécurité Sociale system.

A lot of it was part-time work, and none of it paid me very much money. In some years I also had part-time jobs working in Paris with American students who had come to improve their French language skills — work that paid me a U.S. salary. It was actually a pretty great life, living mostly in Paris and working with a lot of interesting people... mais passons.

To my surprise, after we came to live in Saint-Aignan in 2003 and signed up for medical insurance with the French Sécurité Sociale, I got a letter telling me that I was entitled to collect a small retirement pension starting on my 60th birthday. They had put 2 and 2 together, realizing that I already had a number in their system from all those years ago and that now they had my mailing address. Very efficient, I thought. And if I waited until age 65, I would get a much higher monthly payment from them. I decided to wait.

Yesterday, three weeks before my 65th birthday, I went up to Blois to meet with a counselor at the French retirement benefits office for our département. I had made the appointment by phone 10 days earlier, and the counselor sent me a sheaf of papers to read and forms to fill out. The main thing they wanted to know what what I was doing in all the years back in the 1970s when they had no record of my having earned any money. And then they wanted to know what I was doing from 1982 until 2012!

I'm not sure why they wanted to know all that, but to me it seemed like applying for the French pension was going to turn into a very complicated exercise. Maybe it wasn't worth it. I didn't really understand the intent of the forms and informational documents, and I couldn't believe they actually wanted me to write out a list of all the employers and jobs I've had since 1964! (I finally figured out that 1964 was the year when, at age 15, I got my American Social Security card and number, a requirement for my first summer job, working as a car hop at an A&W drive-in restaurant.)

So I filled in a few blanks on the application form — name, address, marital status, etc. — that were no-brainers. The rest I left blank, thinking the counselor I met with would explain to me what I needed to do and I'd go on from there.

I arrived 15 minutes early for my appointment and sat in a waiting area for a few minutes. Then a young woman came out and asked me to come into her office. We talked for a few minutes. When she saw that I already have a retirement pension paid by the U.S. Social Security Administration, she said she wasn't sure how to deal with my case.

She made a call to the international relations office of the French Sécurité Sociale. It's up the road (and river) in Orléans, evidently. She asked if she could hand off my file to somebody there, and the answer was yes. I sat there thinking I hoped I wouldn't have to make a series of trips to Orléans for meetings there. It's at least a 90-minute drive from Saint-Aignan, each way.

I handed over some papers from the U.S. showing my history of annual contributions to the American Social Security retirement plan. I waited for the request to have all those documents translated, but translation was never mentioned. The counselor photocopied some of my documents, sorted out all the pages, and handed back to me the ones that were mine to keep.

I asked her what the next step would be. Would I need to go meet with or at least telephone somebody in Orléans? What other documentation did I need to provide? Nothing, she said. We will contact the American Social Security Administration and get more detailed records of your employment and contributions history.

And then she announced the good news. You will receive your first check from us in May, she told me, after we've received the information we need from the American system. Don't worry, the retirement pension money from us will just appear in your French bank account every month thereafter.

Wow, I thought to myself. I would never have predicted that it would go so fast and be so easy.

19 February 2014

Ce que j'ai à dire

As I wrote in a comment on yesterday's post, the Brandt repairman told is it would cost more to repair our nearly six-year-old stove than it would cost to buy a new one. I have one word to say: Merde ! Problem is, all I can do is moan. And buy a new stove.

It wasn't just the plaque électrique that had stopped working. The oven fan was making a squeaking noise. Over the last couple of years, the computer chip that controls the oven temperature and different cooking modes has been crashing more and more frequently, requiring a time-consuming reset each time. Both of those last two problems were just going to get worse over time, the Brandt man said.

Oh well, it was a great opportunity to get some deep cleaning done.

I've heard consumer advocates on French radio say that today's kitchen appliances are designed to last about 10 years — as Chrissoup said in her comment yesterday. That means we have a refrigerator, a washing machine, and a dishwasher that will soon need replacing. The freezer downstairs is 8 going on 9 years old. In the case of the stove, it has lasted only 6 years. I know we gave it heavy-duty use, but really... je répète : merde ! Vous trouvez ça normal, vous ?

18 February 2014

A broken stove and a butterflied chicken

We are waiting for a repairman this morning. Our cooking stove is on the blink. Talk about an emergency!

Actually, our stove is what is called « une cuisinière mixte » in French — it is equipped with three gas burners and one electric burner. That's handy when we have a power outage, because we can still cook and boil water on the gas burners. The electric burner, however, is very good for simmering and slow cooking. I probably use it more than any other burner in my everyday cooking.

It's the electric burner that's giving us a problem. All of a sudden, last week, when I turned it on, the whole house went dark. Computers crashed and we groaned, knowing that we'd have to spend time resetting a bunch of digital clocks in different rooms. At first I thought it was a coincidence that the electricity went off just as I turned the knob on the stove and that we had had a generalized power outage at that moment. Alas, it wasn't that. Turning the switch on the stove had caused our main circuit breaker down in the utility room to trip.

Instead of roasting yesterday's chicken on the spit in the oven, I butterflied it and roasted it
on a rack in an oven pan over a little boiling chicken broth.

The stove, a Brandt model that we bought in 2008, also has an electric oven. The oven, happily, kept working normally. We thought we'd probably end up buying a new stove, while continuing to use this one as long as we needed to without the plaque electrique. Then I started looking at the cuisinières available from Darty, Boulanger, Amazon.fr, and other major vendors. I couldn't find one that had combination of features that the Brandt stove has, at a reasonable price. The Brandt, for example, has a rotisserie (un tourne-broche) that we really like to use for roasting poultry, and it has a pyrolyse oven-cleaning cycle that's very effective, along with the mix of heating elements.

The chicken was a farm-raised, Label Rouge, bird from Brittany, and it was delicious. It'll be cold chicken for lunch today.

So I called the Brandt help line. I explained the problem. The woman on the phone said she could send a repairman out in about 10 days to fix it — for a price, of course, but it will cost less than buying a new stove. We are optimistic the man will show up this morning and will have on his truck the new part that he'll surely need to make the electric burner work again. Meanwhile, this will be a good chance to pull the stove out from the wall and clean well under and behind it. Maybe we'll get another five or six years of good service out of it.

17 February 2014

Our wine-maker neighbors featured in the local paper

A couple of weeks ago, the regional Loire Valley newspaper, La Nouvelle République, ran an article about our neighbors Patricia and Bruno Denis, who own and operate the Domaine de la Renaudie winery. They have nearly 75 acres of vines in the area, growing Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, Côt (Malbec), Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc grapes for both still and sparkling wines.

Here's a translation of the article, which you can find here (as long as the link works).
In the days leading up to the Loire Valley Wines trade show in Angers, international wine importers
are criss-crossing the local vineyards. One of them will stop in at the Domaine de la Renaudie.

In the week before the Loire Valley Wines trade show opens its doors in Angers in early February, 10 or 12 American, Japanese, Brazilian, and Danish wine importers will be heading out to meet with local winemakers. The program is designed to help importers get a better feel for the Loire Valley vineyards by putting them in contact with the people who grow the grapes and make the wines. Three dozen events are scheduled. Nineteen wine producers are participating, including Patricia and Bruno Denis of the Domaine de la Renaudie in Mareuil-sur-Cher, who we interviewed.

Why did this particular program appeal to you?

Bruno and I got involved in the wine exporting business early on. I have a degree in oenology and I like learning languages — English, German, and now a few words and expressions in Chinese! We export 45% of our production at Domaine de la Renaudie, mostly to other European countries but also to the United States, Canada, Japan, and China.

What importers are coming to Domaine de la Renaudie
under the ‘meet the wine-makers’ program?

There will be one importer from New York. We expect him Friday evening. He wants to see a family-run operation — "authentic" vignerons (grower-producers). The description of our business that we sent to the organizers of the program seems to have piqued his interest.

With this kind of person-to-person exchange, it must be
easier to make meaningful contacts.

In past years — not that long ago — the only contact we local wine producers had with buyers from other countries was during trade shows. That’s the way it worked in Angers and in Germany, where we attended the Prowein show. It got harder and harder to make appointments for those kinds of meetings. We would have to leave the show floor, which is never a good idea — even for an hour! — for private sessions with buyers who wanted to place their orders.

Having the importers come to see our winery and talk with us is a better way for them to get to know producers like us who make the kinds of wines they are interested in. Most local winery owners are eager to meet them. This kind of program to facilitate contacts and organize get-togethers is a great addition to the Anger wine show’s schedule.

A higher proportion and wider range of Loire Valley wines
than ever are being exported...
There are no set rules. Some wine producers are more active on export markets than others, but they might not be well represented on a local or regional level. We do both. We try to work with importers from many different countries, because political, diplomatic, or economic events in any given country can have a big effect on our business. Three years ago, we had a large business going with Japanese importers, who had ordered 15,000 bottles (1,250 cases). And then the tsunami happened! We had the same problem a few years ago when the British pound suddenly fell against the euro, causing problems with a similar-sized order from the United Kingdom.
 I did a post about the Domaine de la Renaudie in 2008, and another one in 2009, with photos.

15 February 2014

Souvenirs souvenirs

Les années se suivent et ne se ressemblent pas...

février 2012

février 2014

Temperature this morning: 10ºC (50ºF). Showery. No snow. We've had 75 mm / 3 in. of rain since the first of February.

14 February 2014

Le Cher déborde-t-il ? Pas encore...

Yesterday when the bread lady drove up and blew her horn, the rain had pretty much stopped. Oh, we had a few more showers during the day, but the heavy rain of the overnight and early morning hours, which gave us a scare, had let up. Most of the ponds in our yard, including a big one right in front of our ground-level front door, are gone.

I went downstairs to buy the baguette I buy every time the bread lady stops by — four times a week — and I asked her whether or not the Cher River, down the hill a kilometer from our house, was flooding. « Dites-moi, est-ce que le Cher est en train de déborder ? » Deborder means "to overflow." By the way, it's raining again this morning, but not so hard.

We've had some ponding, but no local flooding... yet.

« Non, pas encore », she answered. « mais ça ne tardera pas ! » — "Not yet, but it won't be long." I figured she'd know, because she's out driving along the banks of the river all morning, delivering bread made by the village baker. I haven't been down the hill since before the heavy rain fell, and the river was already really full then.

So I spent the morning in the kitchen, keeping an eye on the ceiling where we had such a bad leak last spring. It held. Our roofer obviously did a good job back in June. We'll have him back next month to repair the ceiling itself.

Laksa is a soup, but this one is more vegetables and noodles than broth, with honey-glazed, boneless chicken on top.

What did I do in the kitchen? I made a Thai chicken laksa — that's what Jamie Oliver called it when we watched a show of his on the French Cuisine+ channel a few days ago. Here's a link to the recipe. I followed his directions fairly closely, but of course we don't have fresh asparagus here at this time of year. I substituted kale leaves from the garden.

I also didn't use a bouillon cube, because I had in the freezer both chicken broth and liquid left from cooking Swiss chard. Finally, I didn't have any limes, but I did have some hot pepper vinegar and some rice vinegar that could add the note of acidity the recipe needed. And I didn't have fresh cilantro either, but we just did without that. It was really good, as you can tell from the photo.

13 February 2014

Catastrophique !

This is supposed to be a blog about what it's like to pick up and move to the Loire Valley, and to live here year-round, so bear with me. I know you're all tired of hearing about it. It's pouring rain again this morning, and it's supposed to rain most of the day. It started last night — late afternoon, really — just as I was coming back from my walk in the vineyard with the dog.

Roland, a man of un certain âge who lives in the village and does all kinds of gardening work for several of our neighbors, was back, cutting down a tree and stacking logs to be used one day, I assume, as firewood. He was packing up to leave as I was hurrying home, because big fat raindrops were splatting all around.

 The Loire Valley sky in winter

« Quel temps ! » said Roland. Most conversations around here begin that way these days. « C'est catastrophique ! » His roses are starting to produce blossoms, he said. In mid-February. What in the world is going to happen next? Of course, what is happening here is nothing compared to what's happening elsewhere.

This morning's Télématin news is about events in France — Paris taxi drivers, for example, are on strike and are organizing what they call « opérations escargot » to slow down traffic around the city and upset as many people as they can so that the government will take their plight seriously. But most of the French news today is about England and the bad weather over there.

There were 85 mph winds on the northwest coast at Blackpool, north of Liverpool, last night. Gusts as strong as 110 mph were recorded in the nearby Pennine mountains. Rain is still falling in the southwest and rivers, including the Thames, are overflowing and flooding hundreds if not thousands out of their houses.

The other main story on the morning news here was about the ice and snow afflicting the U.S. Southeast right now. The main video clips shown were scenes in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. I don't know if you've ever seen the damage an icestorm can cause, but it isn't pretty, with wires and tree limbs down all over the place. I hope for the sake of the people back their in the Piedmont area of the Carolinas and other states that the storm will be over soon, and that Virginia and the Washington DC area will get only snow and not ice.

Happier thoughts: our lunch, yesterday,
of bacon-wrapped, pan-roasted fish fillets with
Swiss chard and steamed potatoes in cream

12 February 2014

Photos d'arbres

The vineyards are surrounded by trees and sections of woods. A lot of the wooded areas are along gullies and ravines that serve as drainage ditches and stream beads. The vineyard has needed good drainage this winter, for sure — and last.

After the big wind storm we had a few nights ago, I walked along the edge of the vineyard with Callie to see if there were signs of damage. I saw a few limbs and branches on the ground, but I didn't see any big trees down. The one above was the biggest, and it is more leaning that fallen.

The sun was shining brightly that morning (last Friday) and it felt like spring outside. Winds were still gusting, so I tried not to stay long near trees that were swaying and creaking, and in danger still of falling. The weather looks calmer, the winds stiller, in my photos than was the reality of that morning. The ground is so water-soaked and soft that tree roots might not hold tight.

The tourist road through the Touraine vineyards, a picturesque sign-posted route for visitors to the region, also runs along the edge of a big, deep wooded area near our house. Again, I didn't see any trees lying across the paved road — just some limbs and branches. I kicked and threw them off to side as we walked along. Two cars passed at about 9 a.m. Rush hour...

11 February 2014

La Grange

Yikes! I have an 8:30 doctor's appointment this morning, and I have to walk the dog before I leave for town. Since it doesn't get light until about 7:45, and I have to take a shower at some point, there's not much time for blogging today. Anyway, here are three pictures of a house in what our mayor on Sunday called « le pâté de maisons » — "the block." I call it the hamlet. Who knows what pâté has to do with it all?

This particular house has a name: La Grange. I wonder if it ever really was a barn. The one across the street from it is named Bella Vista — it was a Corsican man who had it built and who lived there. Our house is called Les Bouleaux (The Birches), and the mayor's house is named La Ruine. About that last one, I assume the place was in ruins when the mayor and her husband bought it in 1979 and started fixing it up. It's beautiful now.

So four of the nine houses in our hamlet have names. The others go without. I'm not sure why that is, and I'm not sure when the houses on our little road were assigned numbers. I assume that the names preceded the number assignments.

The upshot is that I'm writing this on Monday afternoon. My will & testament is drafted — hand-written. It only took me one try to get it right. Walt's is done too. Anyway, it will be a race to make it to the doctor's office on time, and it's supposed to be... guess what... raining.

Walt will have no trouble being on time at the office where the Sécurité Sociale rep holds office hours on Tuesdays. It opens at nine, and it's only about three blocks, a short walk or drive, from the doctor's office. Then we'll stop in at the notarial office and hand off our testaments — it's right up the street. After that, we'll head to the supermarket for some shopping before returning home to Les Bouleaux for lunch. This is what passes for a busy day here in Saint-Aignan.

P.S. Tuesday a.m. It looks like the rain will hold off until afternoon. I just heard on Sky News that this has been the wettest winter in England in 250 years.

10 February 2014

Monday, Monday...

“...can't trust that day... sometimes it just turns out that way.” As you might guess, it's another rainy day in Saint-Aignan — another in a long string of them that's not yet over, according to the weather report on Télématin.

Today I'll be writing out my last will and testament so that I can turn it in at the notary's office tomorrow morning. Walt's doing the same.

I have a doctor's appointment tomorrow morning too. It's a regularly scheduled appointment, but I'm going to see a new doctor for the first time. I hope I like him as much as I liked the old doctor, who recently retired for medical reasons. 

While I'm at the doctor's, Walt has to go to the office in Saint-Aignan where a rep. from the Sécurité Sociale holds weekly hours. He needs to to straighten out some matters having to do with his French health insurance. It's on a walk-in, no-appointments basis, so you never know how long it might make.

None of that is much fun. My mood matches the sky's mood. So for lunch we'll have some comfort food: bœuf braisé aux carrottes et aux panais. Braised beef, carrots, parsnips, steamed potatoes, and onions, cooked in vegetable broth and rosé wine. At least we'll have that pleasure to look forward to at lunchtime. Being able to find parsnips easily is a new thing here in France.

09 February 2014

Still wet and windy

Somebody mentioned Sky News to me last week, so I went looking for it among the hundreds of TV channels we get through our satellite dish. I found it on channel 409 — it had been moved from the channel where I used to watch it. Sky News is interesting because its focus is British news, as opposed to the international coverage you get on CNN (the London feed) and BBC World.

Moss loves this wet weather and the bright green of it is at least colorful.

What a mess everything is over there on the other side of the Channel. The southwestern part of the country is under water, a little like Brittany is, here is France. The two regions are separated only by about 150 miles of seawater. Winds have produced damaging surf, and storm clouds have dumped heavy rains, causing extensive flooding on both sides.

So we can't complain. Yesterday we had the classic early spring rain squalls called « giboulées » all day long. It was blustery and cold, and at least a couple of times during the day the rain turned into sleet — ice pellets, in other words, that melted as they hit the skylight windows and the ground.

In winter, the bare tree limbs allow us glimpses of the houses over on the next ridge south of us.

These icy rain squalls are the kind of weather often associated with the month of March in the northern half of France. They've come early. We've been having them since Christmas, or even before. The only really cold weather we've had this winter was back in early December. If we're lucky, conditions in March might be April-like (I am a foolish optimist...).

The cyclamens are blooming in our back yard, as you can see from the photos here. They come up spontaneously every year in late January or early Febuary. The flowers as small, but they're bright pink and sometimes there are hundreds of them in bloom at the same time.

08 February 2014

Quenelles de poisson

If you've been following the Dieudonné controversy in France, you might think the word « quenelle » means only the rude, politically charged gesture he and other French celebrities have been making to defy the authorities. Actually, I'm not sure why that truncated Nazi salute is called a quenelle [kuh-NEHL].

In culinary terms, une quenelle is a dumpling. The term derives from the German or Alsatian word knödel, which I assume gave us the English word "noodle." A quenelle is a big noodle made with flour, butter, and eggs. The most famous kind of quenelle — the one everybody thinks of first — a the fish dumpling made with the European river fish called a brochet, or pike.

Quenelles de poisson gratinées à la sauce béchamel

I made fish quenelles the other day, but I didn't use pike. I used a saltwater fish called colin in French. That's pollock, and this was Alaskan pollock. You can make the dumplings with any fish you want. The base of the quenelles can be a flour paste, or it can be mashed potato, with egg to bind it together and some butter and cream to enrich it.

The chilled panade; the pureed fish and eggs; the panade torn into pieces and added in; the final quenelle dough.

If you use flour as the base, the first thing you do is make a panade. You melt butter in a sauce pan with hot water and then add a good quantity of flour. You stir that mixture vigorously until the flour forms a thick dough that pulls away from the sides and bottom of the pan. Panade, by the way, is also the basis for making what are called petits choux in French (because they resemble little round cabbages), or cream puffs in English. The panade ingredients are:

— 150 ml water (5 fl. oz.) + 2 Tbsp. butter + 75 g flour (4 fl. oz.) —

Poaching the dumplings in simmering water

While the panade is cooling in the refrigerator (it needs to be well chilled when you use it to make the dumpling dough), in the bowl of a food processor puree about 10 oz. (300 grams) of raw, boneless fish filets with a couple of eggs and an ounce of butter. When you have a smooth puree, add the cold panade to the food processor. (Cut the fish and the panade into small pieces before you process it all.) You'll end up with a sticky dough. (We ended up with 10 large dumplings, using these quantities.)

Fish dumplings arranged in a gratin dish

Add a little cream for richness, and add a little more flour if the dough is too sticky. Add a good amount of salt and pepper, and a pinch or grating of nutmeg. You can also add fresh or dried herbs — parsley, oregano, or dill, for example — or spices like ground cayenne pepper or curry powder. I used dried dill weed, and I added a teaspoonful of turmeric (curcuma) to the dough for color. Let the dough cool completely in the refrigerator for a few hours before you make dumplings out of it.

To make the dumplings, use two big tablespoons or even serving spoons. Take a spoonful of the dough in one spoon and then scrape it out into the bowl of the second spoon. Repeat that operation several times until you have formed an oval-shaped dumpling. Drop the dumplings into a pot of simmering salted water or broth and let them poach at a low simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or longer.

Serve the quenelles with béchamel, cheese, or tomato sauce, and with a green vegetable or a salad. We had steamed broccoli with ours. I poured some béchamel (a white sauce made with butter, flour, and milk or cream) over the dumplings and then browned them in the oven.