31 March 2015

Gusty winds, and a salad

One week ago today my plane coming from Atlanta was getting ready to land in Paris. I'm glad it was a week ago and not today, because today we are having a major windstorm. This morning, strong gusts are howling under the eaves of the house and through the big conifers in our yard. How long is this supposed to last? March is going out like a lion after all.

Yesterday's lunch was a salad — a very French salad containing chicken gizzards, sautéed potatoes, and lettuce — and topped with a poached egg. For us, it serves two as a main course. It could easily serve four as a starter course in a more elaborate meal.

In France, we can buy chicken livers or gizzards — or duck gizzards — in vacuum-sealed packages at the supermarket. They are slow-cooked and tender. That kind of slow cooking, to make what is called gésiers confits, is especially needed for the gizzards, which are otherwise a tough muscle and not an organ like the liver. They are cooked in duck fat, which gives good flavor.

A package of gizzards like this one costs between 2 and 3 euros.

The first step in making this salad is to peel and dice up three or four potatoes. Toss them in vegetable oil (add some of the duck fat from the package of gizzards, again for flavor) in an oven-proof dish and set the dish in a very hot oven until the potatoes are cooked through and nicely browned. It will take 20 minutes or or longer, and you should stir the potatoes after they start to brown on top.

To make the salad, first make a vinaigrette dressing in the bottom of a big bowl with one teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a tablespoon of wine or cider vinegar, some salt and pepper, and three tablespoons of olive or other vegetable oil. Tear six or eight washed lettuce leaves into big pieces and toss them in the dressing.

Quickly sauté the gizzards in a skillet in some of the duck fat they're packed in. They're cooked when you buy them, so you just want to give them some color. As they brown, in a separate pot or pan, poach or soft-fry one egg per person being served.

Spread the dressed salad leaves out in a wide flat bowl. Top them with the gizzards and the sautéed potatoes. Top each plate of salad with a poached or fried egg. If there is a little bit of vinaigrette left in the salad bown, you can serve that with the salad too. All you need otherwise is wine and bread.

You could make the same kind of salad with chunks of sautéed chicken breast or another meat, fish, or vegetable.

30 March 2015

Sloppy Sunday

At least it wasn't very cold...

29 March 2015

The lost hour

We sprang forward during the night. Now we are on heure d’été, and we’ve said au revoir to l'heure d’hiver. So for the next six months, we’ve again got a six-hour jump on the U.S. East Coast and a nine-hour jump on California and the West Coast.

Our weather is pretty lousy for a place that’s now on "summer time." It’s supposed to rain for days now. You’d think we’d be used to it at this point. To tell the truth, it does get old.

28 March 2015

Spring flowers, and my photos

I guess these are flowers of some kind. I'm sure somebody will tell me what family, genus, and species they belong to. For me, these are just some trial photos I took yesterday morning with my new camera, with which I am struggling. Some of the photos I've taken have been over- or under-exposed. Some are not sharp at all. So far, I don't really get it. I'm not sure what settings to try. I got better results using my old Lumix DMC-ZS8 than I'm getting with the new ZS30 (called the TZ40 in France).

I've never been secretive about the fact that I use Adobe Photoshop to edit, improve, crop, sharpen, and otherwise "improve" the photos I take. I know there are people who think you should be able to use just your camera to get good photos. I don't agree. The camera is just a tool, and so is Photoshop. What the photos look like is what I want them to look like, and what I remember seeing when I took them.

27 March 2015

Equal time

I've taken a few photos with the new camera, but I'm still working to get it set up to suit me. Actually, I'm missing the camera I left behind in North Carolina. Sigh. I'll get going with the new one soon. Here, however, is a not-very-good photo of Bertie, who deserves his day after Callie's yesterday.

Meantime, there are some signs of springtime. My plum tree, planted five or six years ago now, is in full blossom. I'm hoping for a bumper crop of little red plums this year. They'll make a good clafoutis or tarte.

Why did the earthworm cross the road? How did he get all that energy in such cold weather? Why didn't he go underground instead of at surface level? Worms are mysterious creatures. There are billions and billions of them on Earth, but we hardly ever see them. This one was about a foot long.

It's time for the morning walk with Callie. Bertie is curled up on his towel on a pillow on the sofa. Callie is patiently waiting for me to come upstairs and put my outdoor clothes on. Here I go.

26 March 2015

Three for a Thursday

Jet lag. It's worse coming this way, against the sun. Here I am, early-bird me, struggling to wake up at nearly eight o'clock in the morning. Yesterday, I wanted to go to the supermarket, but by mid-morning (5:00 a.m. in N.C.), I was too groggy to drive. A cup of coffee revived me, and the same thing is helping this morning.

I did enjoy the walk with Callie yesterday morning, between eight and nine. We walked through vineyard and woods, out to the paved tourist road, and back home again. You would have thought that might wake me up and get my mind and body working again. Not really.

So I guess I'll try to get to the store this morning. There are things we need and want, including some cream cheese for the bagels I packed in my carry-on and brought back. This morning, the sun is again shining. It's cold out, and light rain is supposed to move in again this afternoon. March is going out like a wimp.

I am enjoying getting back to my old stomping grounds, even if I am half out of it and the weather is a lot colder than I would like. It will soon be time to get to work in the garden. Early springtime is probably the cruelest season. You just have to wait it out.

25 March 2015

Le retour

The departure from North Carolina and the arrival in France came off without a hitch. This morning, my thoughts are with the families and friends of the Spanish and German people, including a lot of young students, who died yesterday in a mysterious plane crash in the French Alps. The plane I was on, flying from Atlanta to Paris yesterday, passed through several zones of turbulence as we approached the European continent, but we landed safely and on time. I took the TGV from Roissy-CDG airport to Tours, and it was on time as well. All in all, it was an easy and speedy trip.

Here's a photo of some of the food products I brought back from N.C. I took the photo with my new camera, a Panasonic Lumix TZ40, which I ordered from amazon.fr. Texas Pete is a North Carolina hot sauce. I also brought back a lot of new clothes.

Callie was glad to see me, I think, and seemed surprised by my sudden reappearance. It's time for me to take her out for the morning walk. Yesterday afternoon we had to go out in a cold rain, but I screwed up my jet-lagged courage and got the job done. It's cold here — much colder than in N.C. — but this morning there's some hazy sunshine and no rain. Where is springtime?

24 March 2015

Breakfast in America, and a packing report

On Saturday morning we went to breakfast at Shirley's Market in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was a really good and very typical American breakfast experience. I thought I'd post a photo of the place plus some photos I took of the menu.

If you are not American, you might not be familiar with sausage patties, Texas toast, home fries, French toast, buttermilk biscuits, or sausage gravy. All are items on the breakfast menu at Shirley's and thousands of similar grills, diners, cafés, and restaurants across the U.S.

You can also get one of these omelets. Chesapeake Bay crab meat (from blue crabs), American cheese (processed cheese — highly industrial as they would say in France) and Philly steak are foods you might not know much about.

And finally how about an "eggzilla"? It's a real pig-out, from the looks of it. Do you know what fixings are?

Finally, it's Monday morning as I type this and I'm all packed. Question was: would everything fit in the suitcase + carry-on? It did. Now the question is: how much does the suitcase weigh? I have to haul it over to the community center because there's a bathroom scale over there. Max. weight allowed is 50 lbs.

A few minutes later: good news — it weighs in at 46 lbs. I'm good to go. Packed are three pairs of jeans, 15 or 20 T-shirts, countless pairs of socks, one can each of baby lima beans and field peas, at least 10 bottles of hot sauce and liquid smoke, two pairs of shoes, a wide variety of drugstore items, and a lot of other things I just couldn't live without — including a bag of bagels.

23 March 2015

Flocks of snow geese

On Saturday, when we were driving around lost in the northeast corner of North Carolina, on the flat coastal plain, we kept seeing huge flocks of white birds in the distance, out over the wide farm fields along the edge of the road. They were veritable swarms or clouds of birds, swooping and turning as they flew so that the sunlight reflected off their wings and bodies to great visual effect. The flocks seemed to disappear and reappear without warning.

We were driving along a straight road with no other traffic on it and with a wide treeless shoulder when we spotted a large group of white birds sitting in a field. I was able to pull the car off the road and get out to take a few photos.

The birds were obviously geese, and a search on the Internet tells me they were white snow geese that migrate northward in springtime to get to their breeding grounds in northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. The North Carolina Outer Banks and coastal plain are under their flyway.

As you can see, my "old" Lumix camera does a pretty good job of zooming and then focusing on distant subjects. I've had it since 2012. Now I've ordered a newer model Lumix (called the ZS30 in the U.S. and the TZ40 in Europe) with an even longer zoom lens. It's waiting for me in Saint-Aignan, where I will be returning on Tuesday.

Both the old and new Lumix cameras have a long zoom and a really wide wide-angle lens. I hope I'll be as happy with the new one as I have been with the one I'm leaving behind in North Carolina. Don't forget that you can click or tap on the images in this post to display them at full size.

22 March 2015

We once were lost...

...but now we are found. That was the story of the trip back to North Carolina from Virginia Beach yesterday.

When I say Virginia Beach, what images pop into your mind? In mine, it was a small resort town by the sea, with narrow streets, maybe some sand dunes, a few restaurants, and a lot of picturesque houses. The reality was fairly different from that. Do you know how many people live in Virginia Beach? No? Well, I'll tell you. I just learned all about it. The population of Virginia Beach is 500,000. That's right — half a million people. It's the most populous city in a metropolitan area with a population of 1.7 million.

Road signs in North Carolina

Instead of narrow lanes and pretty houses, the whole place — all 500 square miles (1,295 sq. kms) of it — seemed to be wide boulevards with three or four lanes of heavy traffic moving at a brisk clip in each direction. There were vast intersections with many turning lanes and a tangle of traffic signals. I saw no pedestrians. Some of the roads were elevated. Those at ground level were lined with shopping center after shopping center, and huge complexes of multi-story apartment a.k.a. condominium buildings. Neighborhoods of single-family homes, including not a few "gated communities," were tucked in here and there.

 The bridge across Albemarle Sound in northeastern North Carolina

It was certainly another world compared to Carteret County in North Carolina, where I'm wrapping up a two-week visit with my mother, sister, and other relatives. Carteret County also covers 500 sq. miles but it has a population of 60,000. Yes, that's not much more than 10 percent of the population of Virginia Beach. And get this: Carteret County has 500 sq. miles of dry land! Virginia Beach's 500 sq. miles of territory includes 250 sq. miles of water! So the density of population and cars and houses and shopping centers and parking lots is double what you think it might be.

We had lunch on Friday in this soda shop in downtown Edenton, N.C.

Oh well. Live and learn. We had a good time visiting our friend there. And then we left this morning to drive back to N.C. and we I promptly got lost. I stopped in at least four 7/11-type shops along the road and tried to buy a map of Virginia. No dice. So I just kept driving south. I crossed the border into N.C. and I kept on heading south. Suddenly I was driving through a quite extensive salt marsh. Then I found myself on an island: Knotts Island, N.C., snug up against the Virginia state line.

 A lighthouse on the Roanoke River in Plymouth, North Carolina

Suddenly the road ended at a ferry landing. It was exactly noon by my watch. And the ferry was just pulling away from the dock. If we had arrived five minutes earlier, we and the car would have been on it, and in a few minutes we would have been on the N.C. mainland and on roads that are clearly marked on our North Carolina road map. Instead, we had to turn around and drive 20 miles back to Virginia. The next ferry was in two hours, and we didn't want to wait.

Back in the town of Creeds, Va., I stopped in another shop (a convenience store/sandwich bar) and tried again to buy a map of Virginia. There were none to be had. I guess everybody but me has a GPS device in his car. I asked the store clerk if she could give me directions from Creeds to the road that leads to Elizabeth City, N.C. She looked confused and then asked the customer in line behind me if he could help. He was a plump young man in coveralls who looked as if he had just finished his shift sweeping chimneys. His face and hands were covered in smut. Or maybe it was grease.

He was very helpful, however, and he asked me if I wanted him to write down the directions, which were fairly complicated. I thanked him and said yes. On the left is the piece of paper he handed me. He talked me through it as he wrote it down. And he really knew the area, because the directions were perfect. Within 20 minutes we were on the right highway headed south. His help saved us an hour or so of driving back into that city to the north of half a million people, and I think as many cars, where we would have been able to find the route back toward home.

The northeastern corner of North Carolina is rural and almost lost in time. Salt marshes and ferries, broad flat fields, and flocks of migrating birds are the scenery. The southeastern corner of neighboring Virginia is a megalopolis. It's mind-boggling.

21 March 2015

A walk through the cemetery

I'm writing this on Friday morning for Saturday morning, and it's been raining here for 12 or 15 hours now. We'll be leaving to drive the four hours up to Virginia Beach, just across the border in, well, Virginia (duh), during the middle of the day, to visit a friend up there. It looks like we'll have rain all day, at least on the immediate coast.

As I said yesterday, I took a walk around the cemetery in Morehead City a couple of days ago. Here are some photos. I was just enjoying being outside in the sun, and I was only vaguely looking around at the gravestones to see if I could locate the burial sites and tombstones of old friends and relatives.

I actually never did find my father's grave. He died in 1990 and is buried next to his own parents. I thought I knew where the grave was, but I wandered around for a while without locating the site.

I also haven't succeeded in finding any information about the history of Bayview Cemetery. The town of Morehead City was founded only in the mid-1850s, when N.C. Governor John Motley Morehead decided to develop the town as a new port for ocean-going ships. (The old sailing port of Beaufort, two or three miles to the east, was founded in the early 1700s.) Gov. Morehead sponsored the building of a rail line from the state's capital city, Raleigh, down to the coast and the town that now bears his name, at a distance of 150 miles or so.

So the cemetery must have been created sometime between about 1860 and the end of the 19th century. Right after the town of Morehead was founded, the American Civil War (1860-1865) broke out. Even though North Carolina seceded from the Union, much of the state's coastal area was occupied by Union (Northern) forces for most of the war years. The war and the occupation probably delayed a lot of local infrastructure projects.

Most of my grandparents and other ancestors, as well as many aunts and uncles and cousins I knew when I was growing up, are buried in Bayview Cemetery. It's actually a beautiful and peaceful final resting place.

20 March 2015


Some people say it that way. From what I've read, it's a pronunciation that you might hear in New York or New Orleans, and I know it is also heard on the North Carolina coast. Some people say something like "oishters" as well. I'm talking about oysters...

 Looking east from the cemetery out over Calico Creek

The creek my mother lives by is full of oysters, as you'll see from my photos. When I say "creek" I mean a tidal creek, not a stream or brook. In our area, there are a lot of tidal creeks, including Broad Creek, Gales Creek, Pelletier Creek, and Hoop Pole Creek — as well as Calico Creek, which runs for a few miles past my mother's retirement apartment complex and flows into the estuary of the coastal water feature called Newport River.

Bancs d'huîtres — "oishter" beds — in Calico Creek

We ate oysters for dinner last night. We were invited to a kind of a mini family reunion with cousins of ours. Families are complicated, and while we are not really first cousins but cousins several times removed with these relatives, we all grew up together as if we were close cousins. We were a good-sized clan of people descended from Benjamin and Ida Willis of Morehead City, and we all lived in the same neighborhood. Now we are all in our 60s or older.


The cousin who invited us still lives just two doors down from the house I grew up in — he inherited his house from his parents. He "roasted" live oysters for our dinner. That means he put them in a big pot, with a little bit of water in the bottom, and set the pot on a gas burner outside for a few minutes until the "oishsters" were lightly steamed and had started to pop open. They're served with a hot cocktail sauce (tomatoes or ketchup with some vinegar and horseradish added).

 A shore bird among the oysters

The feast included a batch of sauteed shrimp with herbs, garlic, and olive oil, along with a basket of pan-fried cornbread and a plateful of crab cakes made with crab meat from the local blue crabs. For dessert, we had a lemon meringue pie and a key lime pie, which is similar but made with limes instead of lemons.

Looking west up Calico Creek toward my mother's apartment complex

The photos above are of oyster beds in Calico Creek at low tide. The town cemetery is on the edge of the creek, and I took a "photo walk" around the cemetery yesterday afternoon before we went to the oyster roast.

19 March 2015

Foods I enjoy...

...in America. Even in North Carolina, where they are certainly not traditional, bagels and cream cheese have become a common breakfast food, competing with the traditonal Southern biscuit and hominy grits. People from all over the U.S. have relocated to N.C. over the past 50 years, and the population has increased by 150%. The state has become more diverse culturally. Bagels are sold in all the supermarkets, and there are a couple of bagel shops in the area.

Cream cheese has been a favorite food here for years. It used to go into making cheesecakes and cake frostings, and it still does of course. But it's also the classic topping for a toasted or at least warmed-up bagel with your cup of coffee in the morning. Given all the good bread we get from our boulangeries in France, you might be surprised to learn that I miss bagels and wish I could find them in Saint-Aignan. We get very good cream cheese in the supermarkets there, but no bagels.

P.S. Walt makes bagels from time to time and they are even better than the ones I buy here in N.C.

18 March 2015

Newport, North Carolina, and Touraine wines

Yesterday was the warmest day so far. In New Bern, 35 or so miles inland from the Crystal Coast, the high temperature was 84ºF (29ºC on March 17 — can you believe it?). I didn't go to the beach, however. We were too busy elsewhere.

One place we went was the town of Newport, North Carolina, just a few miles up the road toward New Bern. The settlement was known earlier as Shepardsville or Bell's Corner at different times (before the U.S. Civil War), and the current population is about 4,000, which puts it in the same category as Saint-Aignan, where I live. It couldn't be more different, though. Above is a photo of one of the churches in the town. You'll agree that it doesn't look much like the church in Saint-Aignan, which you can see in my blog header photo above. Below is a close-up of the sign out in front of the Newport church.

One thing we enjoyed doing in Newport was stopping and shopping at a new wine bar in the downtown section to browse through the wines on sale there. I found a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from the 18 département in France, which is Le Cher and is not far from Saint-Aignan. I would have expected those wines to carry the Quincy or the Mènetou-Salon appellation, but they were just labeled Sauvignon. Nearby, there were two bottles of a Chenin wine from a place called St-Georges-sur-Loire, which is a little town of some 3,500 souls over near Angers.

I asked the owner of the wine shop if he had any other Loire Valley wines. He seemed not to know what or where the Loire Valley was. He asked me if it was in California. When I told him it is in France, he asked me to write the name down for him. I told him that some of the best-known wines from the Loire Valley are labeled as Chinon, Bourgueil, Vouvray, or Touraine. He asked me to write those names down for him too. I don't think he'd never heard of them. Maybe now he'll order some.

P.S. I don't know how many of you in the Touraine du Sud or elsewhere saw this article about the town of Richelieu a few days ago in the Paris newspaper Libération.

17 March 2015

Another day at the beach

The photos below will attest to the kind of weather we had yesterday and are supposed to have again today. The temperature a little ways inland may hit 80ºF / 27ºC, but on the beach it will be slightly cooler because the ocean water is still cold after a frigid winter.

My sister Joanna and I drove over to the beach for a late lunch of some steamed "peeler" shrimp on the deck of a restaurant that faces the ocean. We were surprised to see people in bathing suits out playing on the sand. Children and teenagers mainly, I admit — they seem to be especially hot-blooded. However, we were sitting outside in the sun and it was pleasantly warm despite the breeze.

This is the beach we used to call "the main beach." It's always been a public beach and is the place closest to the bridge where you can spread a towel or blanket on the sand, sunbathe, and take a swim. I can guarantee that the beach will be more crowded in a month or two and all through the summer. There used to be a bowling alley here, but it burned down decades ago, and there was a sort of nightclub with a big dance floor called The Pavillion where you could dance the shag to Carolina beach music. Now they are building tall "summer cottages" and condominiums at the main beach.

Sitting out on the restaurant's oceanfront deck, I looked east and noticed that at a certain point the perfectly flat horizon was broken by two bumps that were too large to be waves. Oh, it must be the dunes on Shackleford Banks, I thought to myself. Just at the moment when I spotted the Cape Lookout lighthouse. I was surprised to be able to see it with the naked eye, because the lighthouse is 12 or 13 miles — entre 18 et 20 kilomètres — distant. My (old) camera, at full image size and full zoom, caught the shot above. It's "noisy" as photos go but it definitely shows the far-away lighthouse.

I still can't get used to these huge condominium complexes that have sprung up all along Bogue Banks (in Carteret County), which is known as "The Crystal Coast." Traffic in summer must be horrendous on the single two-lane road that runs the length of the barrier island, parallel to the beach. I haven't visited The Crystal Coast in summertime since the early 1990s. It's too hot and too crowded for me. ("Nobody goes there anymore," as they say, "because it's too crowded.")