30 April 2014

Le Grand-Pressigny: seven photos

There was some discussion on Days on the Claise last week about the new Musée de la Préhistoire building at Le Grand-Pressigny. Some said it looked like a bunker or blockhouse in one of the photos posted there. All seemed to agree that the interior of the new museum building was very nice, even if the exterior put some off.

Above is a photo I took a year or two ago that shows the museum building from a different angle. I'm standing north of the château complex, looking back toward the town. The château was in ruins long before the new museum building was added.

If I'm not mistaken, the new museum building has been added on to this side of an older building on the property, photographed in 2006. It's the Logis Seigneurial constructed in the 16th century and its proportions look pretty classical to me.

The older-still and taller towers framing the museum building date back to the 12th century. The Michelin green guide says there's a very impressive view from the top of the round tower, called the Tour Vironne. I've never been up there. Has anyone reading this seen that view?

Finally, these last four photos are just detail shots of the Grand-Pressigny château complex. All date back to a visit CHM and I enjoyed there in July 2006.

We go to Le Grand-Pressigny from time to time. Next time, I want to try to go up to the top of the Tour Vironne — pictured above — if it's open to the public at all.

29 April 2014

Long days, holidays, and ponts

When I went to bed last night, it was just a couple of minutes before 10 p.m. As I lay my head on the pillow, I glanced at the north window, which doesn't have a shade or curtain, and I noticed that it wasn't even dark outside yet.

This morning I woke up at 6 and, again, I noticed that it wasn't at all dark outside. The birds were chirping cheerfully. Another day was dawning.

Yesterday in the vineyard, looking toward our hamlet at 6:30 p.m.

That's the nice thing about this time of year when you live so far north. At more than 47º of latitude, Saint-Aignan is farther north than Montreal, Quebec, Duluth, Fargo, or Billings — it's about the same as Seattle and Spokane. Our sunrise today is at 6:40 a.m. (right now), and sunset will be just after 9 p.m. this evening. All that, and we are still six or seven weeks away from the summer solstice. These long hours of sunlight will be with us until well into August.

It's strawberry season in the Loire Valley. The local gariguette berries are good with scones that Walt makes and some crème fraîche.

Speaking of long hours, the mass of May holidays in France begins this week. This Thursday is May 1, which is a big public holiday here. May 8, the following Thursday, is also a big public holiday, celebrating Victory in Europe, or the end of World War II 69 years ago. Another May holiday, one that always falls on a Thursday, is May 29 and is called L'Ascension. It's a Catholic holiday that marks Christ's return to heaven forty days after his crucifixion and resurrection at Easter.

We've had a few rainy days, and I made a blanquette de veau with rutabagas, celery, carrots, onions, and mushrooms to ward off the chill.

That's three major holidays in May, and because they all fall on a Thursday this year, many French people are preparing to do what is called faire le pont — or "make the bridge" — by taking the Friday after each holiday off work too, giving themselves three four-day weekends in the space of a month. There's another holiday on Monday, June 9, called La Pentecôte — so there's another long weekend.

Puffy clouds in a blue sky over the vines

All we need now is some more nice weather, and we'll be set to go. Soon it will be summer, and les grandes vacances will be upon us.

28 April 2014

Old photos of the covered market hall at Richelieu

Last week on the Days on the Claise blog, which I read daily, Susan and Simon did a topic about the old market hall in the town of Richelieu, in southern Touraine. The covered market structure has been renovated over the past couple of years, according to a post I read another local blog, written by Colin and Elizabeth.

All that got me searching back through my own blog to see if I had any photos of the Richelieu market hall, which was built in the 17th century out of chestnut logs. I remembered going there with our friend Cheryl in 2003, and again with our friend CHM in 2006. Actually, as far as the years when we were there, I had to do some searching to pin them down.

Above is a photo of the market structure that I took in 2003. It has been greatly refurbished recently, as Susan wrote. Richelieu itself is interesting as an example of a "new" town that was built from scratch starting in 1631. The Cardinal Richelieu was a powerful political figure of the time and served as the French king's prime minister.

We went back to Richelieu in 2006 and I took the photo above. It was a quick visit. I have a vague memory of little boys on bicycles racing around between the wooden posts that hold up the market hall ceiling. The famous cardinal built himself a magnificent château outside his "new town"  of Richelieu but it was demolished in the 18th and 19th centuries as a symbol of Ancien Régime opulence. Nothing much remains of that, but the market hall is impressive. I need to drive back over there one of these days to see how it has been fixed up.

27 April 2014

Lilacs and irises

It must be because we had such a mild winter, and so much rain. The lilac bush that we planted a few years ago has flowers on it, even though this was supposed to be an off-year. It flowered last year, so we didn't expect to see any lilacs in 2014.

The irises are more predictable. They were planted in different spots around the yard when we got here eleven years ago, and they produce a lot of big bluish flowers every spring. Maybe there are more iris blossoms than in past years. Again, the profusion has to be weather-related

The forecast is for light rain all day long today. Yesterday morning, when the bread lady came by, I went out to buy a baguette. I looked up toward the sky. « C'est gris » was all la porteuse de pain had to say about the situation.

26 April 2014

Periodic puppy pix ploy

Yes, this the right blog. And this is Callie the border collie, who has lived with us for nearly seven years now. We brought her home at the beginning of May in 2007.

Callie's domaine is the Renaudière vineyard. She explores it twice a day, sniffing all around for traces of deer and other wild animals. And once in a while she gets to chase a deer. A chase from time to time keeps her alert and hopeful.

25 April 2014

Plums this year?

Maybe the rain we've had overnight — it's still falling — will plump them up. I planted the tree three or four years ago, and this year is the first time I've seen so many plums growing on it.

The plum tree grows at the back corner of our yard, just on the edge of the vineyard.

I planted the tree — two trees, really, that are growing together — as an experiment. And I planted them as much for their white springtime flowers and dark red foliage as for any fruit I might get. I grew them from pits that came from our neighbors' plum tree, but the plums are completely different from the ones on their tree.

One skinny plum...

Right now, for example, the plums on their tree are still green. The ones on my tree are dark red, as you can see. As I said, maybe some rain and then some sun will plump them up and ripen them this spring. Over the years, the crop has always been scant.

...among many

They are wild plums, I guess. That means the trees are hardy, and the plums are small. Another neighbor of ours has a huge tree of the same kind in his yard. I haven't yet walked over to see if it is also full of little red plums this year.

24 April 2014

Grape flowers already

Just a couple of vineyard photos today. There's nothing very exciting going on around here.

Out in the vineyard, the vines are starting to produce flowers. I'm not sure if this is early, but it seems early to me. The weather has been very mild for months now — since early December — and it's been warm for about a month already.

I took these photos yesterday morning. The weather was obviously nice, and the light was pretty. Today it's foggy outside. I think we're going into a rainy period. I've been back in Saint-Aignan for a week now, and I'm just starting to feel like doing some work in the yard and the garden. In about three weeks, it will be time to start planting tomatoes, eggplants, and other summer crops.

23 April 2014

Le pappus du pissenlit

« Un pappus, ou une aigrette, est une petite touffe ou un faisceau de poils ou de soies qui équipent certains akènes afin de permettre une dispersion optimale par le vent. » [Source : http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pappus_%28botanique%29]

At http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pappus_%28flower_structure%29, I see: “The pappus is the modified calyx, the part of an individual disk, ray or ligule floret surrounding the base of the corolla, in flower heads of the plant family Asteraceae. The pappus may be composed of bristles (sometimes feathery), awns, scales, or may be absent. In some species, the pappus is too small to see without magnification. In some species, such as Dandelion or Eupatorium, feathery bristles of the pappus function as a "parachute" which enables the seed to be carried by the wind. The name derives from the Ancient Greek word pappos, Latin pappus, meaning “old man”, so used for a plant (assumed to be an Erigeron species) having bristles and also for the woolly, hairy seed of certain plants.”

22 April 2014

Getting the right eyes on

It rained all day yesterday. Not a hard rain, but a steady one. Today, I don't know what to expect. This morning, I've been sitting here enjoying looking at photos that I took in North Carolina last week. It's pure escapism. I'm glad to be back in France but I miss home just a little.

I don't know about you, but when I travel back to a familiar place, it takes a while for my eyes to adjust. At first, nothing I see corresponds to the vision of the place that I have stored in my mind. The roads are wider, for example, and flatter, and less scenic. There are too many traffic lights and electrical wires. The houses look more fragile, and less well maintained than I remember. Everything looks almost shabby at first.

That's how I felt when I arrived in Morehead City on April 1. It's the town where I was born and where I spent the first 20 years of my life. Most of my family still lives there. I go visit every year. I love the place, but I can't imagine ever living there again.

When I return to a place, it always takes me a few days to start noticing the beauty instead of the flaws. It's got to be more than just a trick of the light.

The eye-adjustment thing used to happen to me during the years when I lived in San Francisco and would come spend one, two, or three weeks on vacation in France. That was when I realized what was going on. Riding home in the taxi from SFO airport, I'd look around and be surprised by what I saw. Wide highways with too many cars on them. Ticky-tacky wood-frame houses perched on hillsides, about to slide down, and painted in funny colors, looking very temporary. Way too many utility poles and wires everywhere. It didn't look pretty — though everybody knows how beautiful San Francisco is.

I think the same thing used to happen when I'd return to Paris after months or years in the States. The city would look dirty, and the buildings run-down. Everybody was dressed in dark colors and had greasy hair. I'd have to wait several days for my eyes to adjust. "I don't have my Paris eyes on yet," I'd think, when I found myself wondering what I had ever found attractive and charming about the place. The lesson is: don't rush to judge a place. Give it time.

I don't feel the same way about the neighborhood where we live now. I guess it's because it's not in a big town or city, and because it's mostly green — especially at this time of year. I realize here that I've already had my Saint-Aignan eyes on for a good week. Looking back at my photos, I can enjoy seeing what my North Carolina eyes were focused on not so many days ago.

21 April 2014

Springtime rabbit

Rabbit is a very good food. It's white meat and very lean. Yes, it's a little like chicken, but a little different too. One of the classic French ways to prepare rabbit is with (Dijon) mustard. That's what we did yesterday.

In France, rabbits are available year round, fresh, in the supermarkets and at the outdoor markets. They are farm-raised, not wild. The flavor is mild — not gamey. Rabbit can be roasted, grilled, or stewed. In the past, we've made Thai-style rabbit curries and Moroccan-style rabbit tajines, and rabbit couscous — not to mention shredded rabbit rillettes with duck fat.

Rabbit cooked on the barbecue grill

After marinating the cut up rabbit for nearly three hours, we grilled it. The marinade was a couple of heaping tablespoons of Dijon mustard, a quarter cup each of white vinegar and olive oil, a chopped shallot and a chopped garlic clove, some dried thyme, pinches of powdered cloves and allspice, and some salt and black pepper. It was a kind of vinaigrette, in fact.

The rabbit in its marinade before we grilled it

During the grilling, Walt basted the rabbit pieces with the leftover marinade a couple of times. When the pieces were slightly browned, he closed the lid of the grill and let the meat cook as if it were in the oven. The rabbit was cooked through and not dried out.

With the grilled rabbit, we had a roasted spaghetti squash from last fall's garden, and a dish of collard greens from this spring's harvest.

The spaghetti squash was seasoned simply with butter, salt, and pepper. Spaghetti squash is not as sweet as, say, butternut squash flesh, and it went well with the greens, which were cooked in chicken broth and flavored with some hot red pepper flakes.

20 April 2014

Silent Sunday

In a whisper, I'll say that these photos of yesterday's sunset are ones I took out of a loft window.

19 April 2014

Vert vert vert...

They had promised us rain for the weekend, and we may get some this afternoon, but this morning the sky is perfectly clear. It's almost time for the sun to rise. It's cold outside.

Above, sunrise on Thursday. Today, Saturday, it's the same scene. Okay, the Télématin weather report is coming on right now: As usual, Saint-Aignan is right on the line, with rain and showers to the north (Normandy, Paris) and east (Burgundy, Champagne, Picardy, Alsace, and so on) and sun but cool weather to the south and west. We'll find out what our weather is going to do when it does it...

The vines are now covered in little leaves like the ones above. All the vegetation is much greener now than it was two or three weeks ago when I left for my American trip. I've planted some vine canes in pots and most of them have leaves on them now. All you have to do is take a clipping at pruning time and stick the bottom end of it into dirt. It grows. Not this year, but in 2015, I"ll have to pick places around the yard where I can plant my vines.

The back yard is very green. Our mole colony seems to have moved on, mostly. The ground's too dry for moles, since we are at the top of a hill. I hope it stays dry enough to keep the moles on lower ground, out in the woods, where there's more moisture. I may regret their absence, though, if a lot of beetle larvae — mole prey — start eating the roots of our garden plants. We didn't have enough freezing weather this past winter to kill such pests.

18 April 2014

Not the first time

So at least three of you have said you've been caught up in the same kind of bomb scare that I was caught up in Sunday morning at Roissy/CDG airport. It must happen a lot.

It happened to me once before. Years ago. Walt and I were checking in for a flight over in Terminal 2. The woman examining our passports and registering our luggage was just finishing up when an announcement was made over the intercom. I couldn't quite hear what it was all about.

But the Air France clerk suddenly tossed us our boarding passes and yelled: "We have to run! Follow me!" And we literally went running out of the terminal. We fully expected to hear and feel an explosion behind us. We didn't. It was pretty exciting, all the same.

Yesterday was a beautiful day here in Saint-Aignan. I went out and walked around the vineyard with the dog in the morning. The rest of the day, I was sort of in a daze. My body wanted to sleep, but I did my best to stay awake. I dozed off in front of the TV several times in the afternoon. It was probably a mistake to try to watch the latest recorded episodes of The Good Wife at that particular time.

Today is gray and rain threatens. I slept for the second night in a row. I'm optimistic about my jet-lag ending quickly, but I also know that just when you think it's over it hits you again. By Monday, I should be in good shape. I will probably have a groggy Easter weekend.

We will be cooking a rabbit. That's what we do on Easter. It's a 30+-year-old tradition in this household. This time, I think we might grill the rabbit — if it doesn't rain on Sunday — and baste it with a mustard sauce as it cooks. In the past, we've made rabbit French-style (en gibelotte), Thai-style (in a coconut-milk curry), and other ways. Grilling it will be a first.

Meanwhile, here are some pictures of purple flowers of various kinds that I've taken recently around the yard and vineyard.

17 April 2014

Chaos at the airport

Yesterday morning, right after I ate my croissant, drank my café crème, and finished my short blog post in Terminal 1 at Roissy-CDG airport, all hell broke loose. Everything had been going so smoothly. My plane had arrived 30 minutes early, I had breezed through passport control, and my bag had come out fairly quickly and in good condition. I strolled through customs and saw not a single douanier on duty.

I got up from the table in the Brioche Dorée seating area where I had installed myself at a table to do a quick blog post, and I headed for the men's room before traveling over to Terminal 2 via CDGVal (the aiport's automated rail shuttle or people-mover) to catch my TGV train back to the Loire Valley. I still had two hours to kill before the scheduled departure.

Contrast this view from the window of the TGV to the airport scene described in this post.

As I stepped out of the sort of food court into a wide hallway, a woman in uniform came running toward me and ordered me to get myself back into the food court. C'est dangeureux ici, she barked. There were 10 or 12 security guards huddled together farther up the hallway.

Earlier, I had heard an announcement on the airport intercom saying that a stray suitcase had been found near elevators A and B in Terminal 1. The owner of the abandoned bag was instructed to come and fetch it immediately. Back in the food court, the announcement was made that elevators A and B were now closed to the public because the suitcase had not been claimed. It was suspicious and might contain a bomb.

 Me taking a photo in the Marne-la-Vallée TGV station at EuroDisney east of Paris

At that point, I didn't even know where elevators A and B were located. I headed around the opposite side of the circular airport terminal from the closed off area, still looking for a men's room (too much coffee) and hoping to make my way to the people-mover and get out of Terminal 1 while the getting was good. No such luck. I came to another roped-off area and another security guard who waved me off. Shouting, I asked how I could get to the CDGVal shuttle, and he pointed up toward the ceiling — go upstairs, he meant. I did.

The train station in Morehead City, N.C., never sees such crowds. No trains stop there any more.

Upstairs was where all the people were. Thousands of them, I'd estimate. Slowly, I navigated my way through the mass of passengers pushing luggage carts and dragging their rolling suitcases, still trying to locate the exit leading to the airport shuttle. Everything ground to a halt. I ended up standing in a long line that just kept getting longer, pressing up against a security cordon. I could see the sign for elevator B and CDGVal just a few dozen meters farther on. But there we stood.

A fellow passenger on the TGV, working on his laptop

After about 15 minutes, a young airport employee walked down the line telling people who were headed for Terminal 2 that a bus shuttle service de substitution had been set up because access to the CDGVal trains was sealed off. I still had plenty of time, so I asked if the closure would last long. You'd better go get the bus, the employee said. There was no telling when the CDGVal trains would start running again.

By then, hundreds of people were ahead of me as we spilled out of the terminal onto the sidewalk and street. Car horns were honking all around us. Taxi drivers where shaking their fists at us and at each other. Buses, both the familiar Paris-style green and white shuttles and gigantic cars de touristes, were stacked up, their forward progress blocked by the crowds of people pushing carts and pulling suitcases onto the road. The doors of a shuttle bus at the head of the line opened and in an instant it was packed full of people hoping to make it to their planes in Terminal 2 and not miss their connections.

By six o'clock yesterday afternoon I was out, bleary-eyed, walking in the vineyard again.

I didn't look forward to hauling my heavy suitcase and two carry-on bags up the steps of a bus and pushing my way into a shuttle heaving with frustrated, panicked travelers (like myself). Many hundreds us were still on the sidewalk and roadway. Just then, another airport employee came out of the terminal and started announcing to people in the crowd, almost one by one, that the abandoned suitcase in elevator B had been destroyed by the bomb squad. The CDGVal was running again.

The herd of travelers immediately turned on its heel and streamed back into the terminal. It was slow going, what with luggage carts clipping my heels and wheely bags running over my toes. I knew that the first CDGVal trains to Terminal 2 would be like so many cans of sardines, but it was better to go that way than to wait for a second shuttle bus to show up out on the street. I let myself be swept away by the migrating horde.

And Callie was happy to see me after my two-week absence.

After all that, everything calmed down again. I found my way to the TGV station in Terminal 2 sans problème — I still had an hour to wait. I found a place to sit down and read for a while. Groggy after a sleepless night on the plane, and wondering jet-laggedly what time it really was, pretty soon I was seated in first class on the TGV and traveling toward Tours. The train was 20 minutes late — I don't know why — but when I stepped onto the platform at Saint-Pierre-des-Corps 90 minutes later, Walt was standing there waiting for me.