30 June 2014

And now July begins...

One day at a time. We're going into a very busy period. The garden is growing. Home improvement projects are on hold until August. Friends are coming to stay for a few days, arriving Thursday. It's time to make sure the house is ready, and the car too. There are menus to plan and reservations to make (we plan to go to Bourges for a nice restaurant meal on Friday). I also have a string of medical appointments coming up all through July, mostly in Blois but also in Saint-Aignan and down the river in Saint-Georges-sur-Cher. Sigh.

After much searching, I finally found some 2005 photos of the dolmen near Chinon that's called Le Carroir Bon Air. The dog in the photo is Collette, who came with us from California to France in 2003 and died in 2006 at age 14.

These photos are far from earth-shaking, but after spending hours searching for them, I had to post them. It's an impressive monument. The pictures are from June 2005, and the closest village to the dolmen is called Ligré.

Meanwhile, the weather seems to be settling down again. We had quite a bit of rain late last week, and Saturday our planned outdoor feast had to be moved indoors because of frequent showers. Yesterday it was almost cold in the house until late afternoon, when the sun finally managed to warm things up slightly. It's about 50ºF this morning and will be only about 70 this afternoon. At least we didn't get the severe hail storms that damaged the grape crops over near Beaune, in Burgundy, over the weekend — for the third year in a row.

29 June 2014

Dimanche “off”

Just got home. Went to lunch with friends near Valençay and ended up spending the night over there. Whew! It was fun. Sausage and eggs for breakfast and then the drive home.

What day is it?

27 June 2014

Plums, raspberries, grapes, etc.

We had a hard rain yesterday afternoon, for an hour or two. We probably needed it. Other than that episode, the day was warm and sunny. The rain ended just in time for my late afternoon walk.

The plums on the little tree I planted a few years back are ripening nicely.

These are some of the raspberries we picked at the farm in the Sologne a couple of days ago.

There are not really any grapes yet, but the vines are reaching skyward, waiting to be trimmed off.

Finally, here's some evidence that we could use a little more rain. We're supposed to have a rainy day tomorrow.

26 June 2014

From dolmens to dolmas

The vines are growing really fast right now. The stems and tendrils seem to be reaching for the sky. And the leaves are getting pretty big but have not yet been hardened by overly hot, sunny weather. All that I've said applies both to the vines in the vineyard and the few table grape vines that we have in our own back yard.

Dolmas as a side dish, served hot with Greek-style spaghetti made with feta cheese, garlic, fresh tomato, dried orgeano, and capers.

So it was time to make dolmas — stuffed grape vine leaves. They are an annual treat. One advantage of using the leaves from the vines in our back yard is that we know they haven't been sprayed with pesticides or chemicals of any kind.

These on the left have been blanched in boiling water and are ready to be filled and rolled.

I've posted about making dolmas several times over the years. In 2010, for example. Or 2013. In past years, I've made a stuffing for the leaves with rice, onion, spices, and raisins.

This year I wanted to make a meat and rice stuffing, and I did, using ground beef, brown rice, and onions. I ended up making way too much stuffing so I put half of it in the freezer.

We'll use the extra beef and rice to stuff tomatoes or zucchini or eggplants later this summer, assuming that the 2014 vegetable garden is a success. It has a lot of herbs from the garden in it — chervil (cerfeuil) and mint (menthe).

I won't go into the process of rolling the dolmas up in this post. It's pretty easy and goes fast. The main thing is to blanch the grape vine leaves in boiling water to make them limp and foldable.

I had picked 35 grape vine leaves, and I blanched them a dozen or so at a time for two or three minutes in a large quantity of boiling water. Then I put them into a cold water bath to stop the cooking.

The other main ingredient in the stuffing is the juice of a lemon. After you brown the beef with a large diced-up onion in olive oil and cook a cup of rice (so you have about three cups after cooking), you mix all that together with the herbs and add the lemon juice and some more olive oil. Greek cooking uses a lot of lemon and lemon juice.

You also cook the dolmas, after rolling them up, with a lot of lemon. The ones above are ready for the oven. Pack the dolmas in an oven-proof dish with a tight-fitting lid. Slice three lemons and arrange the slices on top. Add just enough water to the panto nearly cover the dolmas and put the pan, covered, in the oven at 160ºC (325ºF) for about an hour. Add water as needed to keep the grape leaves moist. Serve the dolmas cold, warm, or hot, as you like.

25 June 2014

Two dolmens in Touraine

A couple of days ago I posted about the dolmen called La Pierre Folle over near Valençay, east of Saint-Aignan. There are two other dolmens near here, one in the southern part of Touraine and the other farther west, near Chinon.

 Le Carroir Bon Air at Ligré, 2005

The first time I went to see the dolmen near Ligré, just southeast of Chinon, had to be in 2004 or 2005. Walt and I had driven over there to buy wine at the Château de Ligré. I don't know if we had read about the dolmen or had just seen a sign along the road. I haven't yet found the pictures from that excursion.

Two more views of Le Carroir Bon Air, from September 2005

But I did return to Ligré in September 2005, that time with my mother, who was visiting from North Carolina. We drove over to Chinon to see the town, and we stopped at Ligré to buy wine and go look at the dolmen, which is called Le Carroir Bon Air. Carroir means the intersection of four roads, I've learned — the word is related to carré, the French word for "square." So four roads must have met at this point (at the top of a hill). I don't know much more about it.

Les Palets de Gargantua in April 2006

The other dolmen in the area is near the village called Charnizay, in the southern part of Touraine near Preuilly-sur-Claise and Le Grand-Pressigny. The first time I went there was in 2006, on April 11. I remember because it was the birthday of a close friend from California who was visiting at the time.

“Gargantua's Skipping Stones” in June 2014

My friend CHM and I returned to see the dolmen at Charnizay a couple of weeks ago. It's called Les Palets de Gargantua, after the legendary giant who was featured in the works of the 16th-century Touraine writer François Rabelais. Palets are little flat disk-shaped rocks of the kind you would skip across the surface of a lake (palet is also the word for "hockey puck"). The idea is that the 50-ton stones near Charnizay were tossed there by Gargantua. That's how big he was supposed to be.

The dolmen near Charnizay in south Touraine, 2014

I'm including a photo of the old informational panel that stood at Les Palets de Gargantua in 2006. It's legible but just barely. In posts about the dolmen that have appeared on Antoinette and Niall's Chez Charnizay blog, and on Tim's Touraine Flint blog, you'll find the newer informational sign that was put up subsequently.

24 June 2014

Linguine with white clam sauce

Linguine was one of the things we enjoyed being able to buy at the Dia store in Saint-Aignan, which closed down — along with the rest of Dia's supermarkets in France — a few weeks ago. I have to check to see if we can still find the pasta called linguine — like spaghetti but slightly wider — in the other local supermarkets where we shop. (Carrefour has bought all of Dia's 800 stores in France, it seems.)

Anyway, spaghetti or some other pasta would work too. Other than that, all you need is onions and garlic, the French clams called palourdes, some olive oil, some white wine, and (almost optionally) some fresh herbs. This is a dish we call "linguine with white clam sauce" in America. In Italian, it's spaghetti alle vongolespaghetti aux palourdes in French.

By the way, thanks to CHM for the beautiful photos you see here, which he took as we made the linguine with white clam sauce.

It was a good idea that Walt had a few weeks back, and CHM and I were immediately enthusiastic. Actually, the original idea wasn't based on palourdes (European bivalves that resemble small North American clams) but on lavagnons (sometimes called lavignons), another bivalve that we had enjoyed cooking and eating when we went to the island of Oléron in 2008.

The seafood vendor at the Saturday market on the old village square in Saint-Aignan comes up here from the Oléron area, which is on the southern Atlantic coast between the cities of La Rochelle and Bordeaux. And Walt had seen lavagnons on sale there a few weeks earlier, but hadn't bought any. He set out to buy some on the Saturday when we ended up with palourdes and linguine with white clam sauce. It's a long story. One day soon, we'll find lavagnons again.

Bivalves like clams, palourdes, the similar French molluscs called praires, cockles (coques), and lavagnons can be full of sand. They feed by siphoning water and sand into their shells, digesting the plant and animal plancton that get sucked in with the mixture, and then expelling the water and sand out another tube. If you catch them when they have a lot of sand in their digestive tract, they can be gritty.

What do you do to cleanse them? Well, the best method is to put the clams in a large quantity of cold, heavily salted water and just let them sit for an hour or two. They will start feeding, and soon they will have expelled any sand they had ingested. You can put a spoonful of cornmeal in the water, and they will feed on that, accelerating the cleansing process (theoretically). You'll notice the water going cloudy and gray as the clams feed. Then just rinse them under running water and they are ready to be consumed.

To cook them, "sweat" some chopped onions and garlic in butter or oil in a big pan. Then put the clams or palourdes, whole in the shell, into the pan, and pour on a cup of white wine. Cover the pan tightly, turn up the heat, and wait five minutes while the clams shells pop open and the clam flesh cooks. If you cook them too long, the flesh gets rubbery, so be careful.

Before cooking the clams, cook a package of linguine, spaghetti, or other pasta according to the standard directions. When the clams are done, pour the contents of the pan over the hot pasta in a big bowl and wait a minute for the pasta to more or less absorb the cooking liquid (clam juice, white wine, and oniony/garlicky olive oil). Grind some black pepper over all, or even add a pinch of dried hot red pepper flakes. Don't forget the fresh herbs — we used cerfeuil (chervil) from the garden. Stir. Eat. Enjoy.

Thanks again to CHM for all these photos...

Why is it called "white clam sauce"? Do you use white clams? No, it's white clam sauce to distinguish it from a slightly different version which you make by adding a little tomato sauce or paste to the pan of clams with the white wine. That makes pasta with red clam sauce. It's good too.

23 June 2014

La Pierre Folle, a dolmen

La Pierre Folle is a dolmen. What's that? A dolmen is a stone structure dating from the megalithic era — five to six thousand years ago. There are many hundreds of dolmens in France.

The one called Le Dolmen de la Pierre Folle ("the crazy rock") is located not very far east of the town of Valençay, with its famous château, and just outside the village of Bagneux near the border between the Indre and the Cher départements. That puts it about 40 km or 25 miles east of Saint-Aignan.

The table stone at La Pierre Folle is nearly five meters (15 ft.) long and three meters (10 ft.) wide. It sits on top of seven upright stones. Nobody really knows who built it, or why. It's often assumed that dolmens were grave sites — prehistoric tombs.

A man named Ludovic Martinet did archeological work at La Pierre Folle in 1875. On the site, he found several fragments of pottery but no human bones at all. What he found mostly was fragments of flintstone that had to have been transported to the site from elsewhere, because the only local stone is sandstone.

To find the Pierre Folle dolman you drive for a mile or two through the woods...

...until you see this sign on the side of the road.

La Pierre Folle is not really easy to find. There are several other prehistoric stones in the area — menhirs — according to what I've read. They are even more difficult to locate and I didn't find them when I drove over to the area with CHM a few weeks ago.

22 June 2014

The vineyard at the start of summer

Overnight, I dreamed about San Francisco in such vivid detail and at such seeming length that when I woke up at 5:30 a.m. I had to open my eyes and look around me to make sure what house I was sleeping in. It was the house near Saint-Aignan, and I went to a back window and took a long look at the vineyard.

Summer has begun, both meteorologically and astronomically. It shows in the vines. Here are a few pictures from the last day or two.

Some vines still have tiny flowers on them, but they are rapidly fading.

Other vines already show fully formed grapes.

The vineyard at 5:45 a.m. on June 22, 2014

A Domaine de la Renaudie tractor out in the vines on June 21

Our house and a neighbor's on the edge of the Renaudière vineyard

21 June 2014

Bright yellow flowers

I see these tiny, intensely yellow flowers growing wild all around the vineyard at this time of year. It appears they are the wild form of the plant I know in French as (among other names) millepertuis — meaning "a thousand holes" — after the appearance of their leaves.

Millepertuis is also called l'herbe de la Saint-Jean, or in English Saint John's Wort. La Saint-Jean
Saint John's day — falls on June 24. It seems to like calcareous soils, which means it thrives in our area.

The French Wikepedia artile lists all these names for millepertuis : chasse-diable, herbe aux fées, herbe aux mille vertus,
herbe de Saint Eloi, Barbe de Saint-Jeanherbe à mille trous, herbe percée, herbe à la brûlure,
herbe aux piqûres, herbe du charpentier, trascalan, truchereau, trucheron, trucheron jaune...

We have a whole bank of millepertuis growing along the road and our fence, as well as at the side of the house.
It's obviously a cultivated variety, with bigger flowers. Here's a photo from last summer, in this blog post.

20 June 2014

Spiraea japonica

Yesterday morning I took my camera out for the walk with Callie. It was a gray morning but the light was pretty good for photography. We took a long walk, and I took (suspense...) 130 photos.

I didn't get far before I took the photos you are seeing in this post. This flowering shrub, which seems to be called Spiraea japonica, is in our back yard. Here's what the Wikipedia article about the Spiraea family says:

The many small flowers of Spiraea shrubs are clustered together in inflorescences, usually in dense panicles, umbrella-like corymbs, or grape-like clusters. The radial symmetry of each flower is five-fold, with the flowers usually bisexual, rarely unisexual. The flowers have five sepals and five white, pink, or reddish petals that are usually longer than the sepals. Each flower has many (15 to 60) stamens. The fruit is an aggregate of follicles.
Got all that? My spelling checker signals several of the terms in that paragraph as suspect.

We inherited most of the plants in our small back yard. It seemed like many of them were planted in the wrong places, where they don't get enough sun or are hidden by other, less beautiful plants. But many of them flower at different times of year, putting on displays that you kind of have to seek out and take time to admire.

The Spiraea japonica's time is now. All the nice shades of color, from scarlet to pale pink, are really nice to contemplate. The plant itself requires very little care. I can say that, because Walt does most of the pruning and trimming around the yard.

I walked for a couple of miles yesterday, snapping pictures of vines and flowers. You'll probably be seeing some of them over the next week or so.

19 June 2014

Vegetables and rice with chicken wings

After all that restaurant food I've posting about, I thought I'd show some home-made food that is pretty easy to make and very delicious to eat. It's a one-pot meal that requires some finger-licking at the table. We Americans like to eat with our hands and fingers, which can sometimes be confusing to knife-and-fork-happy French people.

Start by sauteeing a pound or more of chicken wings that are cut into two sections (say ten "flats" and ten "drummettes") in a deep pot with a combination of vegetable oil and butter. Add in some dried oregano and/or thyme, or some spices that you like. When the wings are browned and have started cooking through, take them out of the pan and set them aside.

Next, cook a large onion, diced, and some chopped garlic in the same pan. When those are about done, toss in 10 or so fresh mushrooms, sliced. And when those are done, add two cups (half a liter) of uncooked rice into the pan and let it turn translucent and get coated with the oil and butter (of which you can add more as needed). Then add in some vegetables including green garden peas and a diced up red or green pepper — and some diced carrots or turnips or... salsifis... why not? — to taste.

Now pour four cups of water or — better — four cups (one liter) of chicken or vegetable broth into the pot and keep the heat on high. Add salt and pepper as needed. When the pot starts to boil, turn the heat down to low and put the chicken wings back in, letting them "float" on top of the rice. Cover the pot and let it simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.

As I said, the best way to eat the chicken wings is to pick them up with your fingers and suck the meat off the bones. You can use a knife and fork, or even a spoon, to eat the rice. Enjoy this at lunch or dinner with family and good friends.