30 April 2015

The first balloon

Last Sunday morning I took the dog out for our walk at about 7:30. As soon as we stepped out the back door, Callie looked over her shoulder toward the sky and went wild barking. I couldn't get her to stop. Why does that always seem to happen on Sunday mornings, when I think the neighbors are trying to sleep late?

What was the cause this time? Often it's the moon. But no, this was worse. It was a hot-air balloon — the first one of 2015. In a minute or two, I was looking directly up into it. It was floating over the house, not very high up and basically from east to west. That meant Callie and I had to walk along under it out into the vineyard.

Walk? Did I say walk? She ran. She barked and howled. She disappeared into the distance. In a minute or two, she was far enough from the houses that I felt sure she wasn't bothering any late sleepers. I could hear other dogs barking all around the area. We watched the balloon disappear behind some trees over the horizon after five or ten minutes. It was moving at a pretty brisk pace.

I was surprised to see a montgolfière on such an unsettled morning. It's true there wasn't much wind at ground level, but big clouds were rolling in from the west. Some were passing to the north of us, but some headed right at us. Predictions were for stormy weather. Usually, balloons go by when the wind is perfectly still and the sky is crystal clear. We'll be seeing a lot more balloons as spring turns into summer.

29 April 2015

Five fotos

I'm still trying to re-compose myself after all the recent events. It doesn't help that the weather has turned chilly here again. I've had to turn the heat back on for two days now. We are expecting more rain as April ends and May begins. My allergies have come back...

Red maple leaves bursting out in springtime

Irises along the edge of the ditch just down the road from our house

Our wisteria, slightly stylized

Wind through the poplars

Looking out across the river valley with the new camera

The houses in that last shot are several kilometers away. You can vaguely see a field of colza (a.k.a. rape or canola) in the foreground. I'm certainly enjoying the Canon camera.

28 April 2015

2006 memories of Susan and Ray in Saint-Aignan

Susan and Ray were are friends of ours from Oakland, California. They came to visit us in Saint-Aignan in March 2006. That was nine years ago — who knows where the time goes? The memory is vivid and it all seems like it happened last week.

At the Valmer gardens near Vouvray
Instead, what happened last week was shocking and saddening for those of us who knew, worked with, and admired Susan. She died. She had fought a 17-month-long battle with cancer, which started as breast cancer. "Fuck cancer," as another friend and former colleague, Ginny -- a cancer survivor herself -- wrote on Facebook a day or two ago. All of us who worked and became friends with Susan, who appreciated her talent, intelligence, and kindness agree. We are angry and very sad. She didn't deserve that affliction.

At Saint-Aignan
Susan wrote a library of technical books and manuals over the years. She was prolific, and almost intimidating, by dint of of her drive, talent, and accomplishments. She acted as if it was all no big deal, but those of us who did that kind of work knew different. Her accomplishments were awesome, and she seemed to manage it all with ease. And she never lost her sense of humor, her cheerfulness, her modesty, or her caring nature.

At Villesavin
She came to work at Claris (Apple's software subisidiary), where I worked, sometime between 1992 and 1995, as an independent contractor. It's hard to believe that was more than 20 years ago. Claris laid me off in 1998, when Steve Jobs closed the company down. Susan had long moved on by then. I took a year off work, and then found a job as a technical writer at another company.

Susan instead took a position as a manager at a start-up company, setting up a whole new department. She got in touch, or I did, and we had lunch together a time or two. She asked me to think about coming and joining her new group. She had put together a talented team, made up of some writers I had worked with before, and others who I am happy now to have gotten to know and to have worked with back then.

Susan and Walt taking photos at Amboise
It took me six or eight months to get to the point where I felt comfortable leaving my the job I had taken on only a year earlier. I felt had to finish the project I was working on. When it was done, I called Susan and told her I was ready if she still had a place for me. She said yes, come talk. I did, and in June 2000 I joined her team. We worked together for about two more years before our start-up was sold to yet another company, she in turn got laid off, and, several months later, I threw in the towel. My career was over.

Susan clowning around at Chaumont
Susan's wasn't, however. She worked for another couple of companies, very successfully, for 10 more years. And then, in late 2013, she was diagnosed with cancer. I saw pictures of her on Facebook so I realized what was going on. The clue was the head scarf. She went public last December. She must have known what was going to happen. Five months later she is gone.

Near Vouvray
Susan and her husband, Ray, came to Saint-Aignan for a visit in March 2006. Our 14-year-old dog, Collette, had died two days earlier. I really didn't feel I was in any shape to entertain anyone, but with Susan it was all very natural and comfortable.

Actually, Susan entertained us during those dark  days. Looking back at the photos reinforces the positive feelings I have about that time, even though we had experienced a big loss. Susan helped us get on with our life.

Susan (a.k.a. Susie) arrived in Saint-Aignan first, and we toured around for three or four days before Ray got here, saving the major chateaus for his arrival. Meanwhile, Ray had been on a tour of the battleground sites of World War II's Battle of the Bulge, in Belgium. His father had been part of that military campaign back in the 1940s.

Susie and Ray at Chambord on a sunny day...

While they were here, I took the photos of Susie and of the both of them that are in this post. It was their first trip to the Loire Valley, if I remember correctly. I didn't publish these photos back then. Now is the time to do so. Susan's funeral is today, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Oakland, California. I wish I could be there, but it isn't possible. She was one of those people who was always there for you, and it's hard to imagine that she is not there any more. My heart goes out to Ray and to all of Susan's friends and loved ones.

...and at Chenonceau in the rain

These are my memories, for the record. You have yours too, I'm sure. Cherish them.

Don't forget that you can click or tap on any of the images to see them at a larger size. Think about the good times. Here are a couple of other blog posts — this one and this one — about that time in all our lives.

27 April 2015

Le pain perdu aux fruits du restaurant Le Galion

Photos are like baguettes (bread) around here right now — there are so many of them that it's hard to keep up. With photos, it's the new camera and the beautiful weather. That said, the weather has taken on a damp character now. We had rain at the middle of the day yesterday, then a nice sunny period in the afternoon, and finally a very hard downpour for several hours in the evening, with thunder and lightning.

With bread, I've made bread pudding twice in the space of a few days now. Why twice? Well, there was that much bread in the freezer that I thought needed using up.

The French term « pain perdu » can be used to mean either bread pudding or what we call "French toast".

When the bread lady came by on Saturday — wouldn't you know it? — she announced that she is going on vacation for 10 days starting on May 1. That means we'll get bread just twice more, Tuesday and Thursday, before the bread famine starts around here. We'll make cornbread, or buns for pulled pork sandwiches, or eat store-bought tortillas.

We'll survive. Why did I make bread pudding twice last week? Well, it's CHM's fault. In reaction to my first post about bread pudding, he sent me by e-mail a recipe for Pain perdu aux fruits that he got from a restaurant in Paris called Le Galion. It closed down years ago, and the building it was in was torn down and replace with a much more modern structure.

I remember going to the Galion for lunch just once, and I even remember what I ate that day. My mind and memory are like that. Food. Always food. It was 1998, in August. I was taking a year off work (Apple had laid me off in January when Steve Jobs closed down the company's Claris software subsidiary).

CHM was in France, and he was going to the town of Carteret in Normandy, where an old friend of his (and mine) has a house. I worked with Jeanine in Washington way back when, and the house in Carteret was her grandparent's place, if I remember. I flew over from San Francisco, rented a car, and drove up to visit CHM and Jeanine. I wanted to get to know Carteret, partly because I come from a place called Carteret County in North Carolina.

After spending a couple of days there, CHM and I drove back toward Paris, touring along the way, and spending a couple of nights in Rouen with old friends of mine there. Back in Paris, we went and had lunch at the Galion one day. It was August in Paris, when all the Parisians decamp for the countryside and the beaches. The city was very quiet, but the Galion — lucky for us — was open. For lunch, I had Saucisson chaud lyonnais, served with steamed potatoes and a vinaigrette sauce. I'm not sure why I would remember that except that it was very good and I hadn't had anything like that to eat in years.

Anyway on to the pain perdu. CHM says he had feasted on bread pudding at the Galion many times over the years. He pestered the restaurant staff for months or years for a recipe, and the owner of the place finally gave it to him one day. The head cook at the Galion was a woman from the African country of Togo who had trained in France as a pastry chef, so the pain perdu was professionally good. CHM sent me the recipe in the original French. Here's my translation of it, along with some photos of the different steps involved in making it.

Below is a photo of the Galion restaurant in Paris that CHM describes to me as "a daguerrotype of the digital age". He took it with a Kodak digital camera back in 1998. I didn't even yet have a digital camera at that time. Below that photo is one that I think dates from 1999. You can see progress in the image quality, and you can see what was about to happen to the poor Galion.

Pain perdu aux fruits, façon du Galion

Make a syrup using 250 milliliters of water and 100 grams of sugar. When the sugar has dissolved add some vanilla and some rum. Put the bread to soak in the sugar syrup.

(I used the raw, unrefined sugar called sucre roux or cassonade in France to make my syrup. I added about half a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a tablespoon each of rum and sweet white vermouth. I had the equivalent of 2 liters of loosely packed bread crumbs.)

Mix up 500 milliliters of milk with 150 grams of sugar and five whole eggs. Add in a little more vanilla and rum.

Butter a baking dish and sprinkle some sugar over the butter. Put the bread and the fruit in the dish and along with the milk and egg mixture.

(I mixed everything together in a big bowl before I poured the pudding into two good-sized baking dishes. The fruit I used was some plums from our neighbors' tree that I had put in the freezer last summer. Any fruit you like — raisins, blueberries, dried cranberries, cherries, pitted prunes, apples, pears — and the quantity you feel is appropriate will be good. The dish you see in my photos was CHM's grandmother's soufflé dish, which he kindly gave me a couple of years ago.)

Cook the bread pudding in a water bath in the oven for 45 minutes.

(I baked it in a 350ºF / 180ºC oven in the water bath you can see in my photos.)

Here's the recipe in French as CHM gave it to me:

Faire un sirop avec un quart de litre d'eau et 100 g de sucre.
Lorsque le sirop est fait, ajouter de la vanille et du rhum.
Mettre à tremper le pain dans le sirop.

Mélanger un demi-litre de lait avec 150 g de sucre et 5 œufs.
Ajouter la vanille et le rhum.

Beurrer un moule, saupoudrer le fond du moule avec un peu de sucre.
Mettre le pain dans le moule et mettre les fruits et
le mélange obtenu précédemment.

Faire cuire au bain-marie pendant 45 minutes.

25 April 2015

Rainy Saturday

I hate to start another post with a picture of the crow cage, so I'll start with this one. It's raining this morning, but I haven't yet taken any photos, so these are sunny pictures.

Our every-other-year lilac bush is in full bloom. We wish it bloomed every year, but why complain when it is so beautiful right now. We planted it where it is so that it would provide a kind of screen for the back yard, which has always been completely visible to people driving or walking by on the road.

I finally got to talk to somebody about the crow cage out in the vineyard. Yesterday monring the regular Renaudie vineyard crew was out replacing some posts on one of the vineyard plots. We've gotten to know them over the years, and they love Callie, so the dog and I walked over near them to say hello and to talk.

I'm going to avoid the cage from now on, because Callie is too curious about it. I think here she was trying to get some of the dog kibble inside the cage that I assume is meant to attract foxes and maybe weasels. Could it be poisoned?

It turns out that the cage was placed where it is by local "officials" called les gardes-chasse. The French-English dictionary says they are called "gamekeepers" — their job is to keep down the local population of noxious animals like foxes, weasels, and, yes, crows. The gamekeepers also keep an eye out for poachers and generally work to protect the environment. Some are appointed officials, and some are hired by private property owners. One of the vineyard guys said such traps are numerous around the area, in woods and fields. Oh well...

We had some wind a night or two ago, and we woke up to a carpet of apple blossoms on the ground the next morning. This is going to be a banner year for apples. If anybody wants any, speak up. They'll be ready toward September and October. One man who lives on the next road over takes some to feed to his pet donkey.

One noxious creature we could do without around here is the stinkbug, also known as a "shield bug". They can damage crops. They come into the house in the autumn and winter, seeking a warm place to hide. We pick them up with a paper towel or kleenex and either throw them out the window or flush them down the toilet. The live up to their American name: they stink when you touch them. They are not North American, but I understand they are now invasive over there.

24 April 2015

12 years and counting

It was 12 years ago today that Walt and I became the owners of this house we live in near Saint-Aignan, in the Loire Valley. I'm sure that on April 24, 2003, we had no idea what our lives were going to be like over the next dozen years. But the fact is, we were homeless — we had sold our house in San Francisco with the idea that we would soon be moving, lock, stock, and barrel, to France. We were spending time with friends in the SF Bay Area and in the Sierra foothills, waiting for our French long-stay visas to be granted — with fingers crossed.

We didn't actually come to France for what they call les signatures — the closing. Instead, we made an appointment at the Consulat de France in SF and signed a procuration — a power of attorney — giving our real estate agent in Montrichard the legal permission to sign the papers for us on April 24. All we had to do was wire the money over here from the Bank of America. We had faith that it would all work out, and the real estate agent, the seller, and the two notaires involved in the signing acted in good faith.

We didn't arrive here until June 7 that summer (during a sizzling heat wave) after finishing our time in California, driving across the U.S. with the dog, and spending about a month at my mother's house on the North Carolina coast — not to mention nearly a week with old friends in Normandy. Then we spent most of a week in a gîte across the Cher river from our new house, in the village of Thésée, because we didn't yet have any furniture or appliances in the house, which needed a thorough cleaning anyway. It had sat unoccupied for at least two years before we moved in.

This was not a dream house for us, as houses in France are for so many expatriates. We had a plan when we moved here, not a dream. It was all very practical. We wanted a place with some privacy, but we didn't want to be far from towns and neighbors. We wanted to have a vegetable garden. The bonus we got was the vineyard, which is like our own big park, maintained by people who we don't have to pay or supervise. We walk the dog out there every day, rain or shine. It's an ideal location.

We didn't want a house that needed major work, but we've made the house our own. We've had new windows put in all around — double-glazing and all that. We've repainted every room in the house over the years. We had a wood-burning stove installed in the fireplace, which was pretty much useless for the first three years we were here. We've had the back yard fenced in so the dog can't wander off. Mainly, we had the attic space finished, putting in new windows and a new stairway and floor, five years ago, nearly doubling our living space. We've had electrical and plumbing improvements made, and we have now been hooked up to the town sewer lines for nearly 10 years.That was a fantastic improvement all by itself.

And we've had a lot of fun, accumulating a lot of good memories here. Many old and new friends have visited and spent time with us. Much good food and wine has been consumed. Our French neighbors have been welcoming, friendly, and helpful. We've had fantastic vegetable gardens. Our dog Collette departed at age 14, but then we brought Callie into the household — not to mention Bertie the Black Cat. Unfortunately, we've seen at least five neighbors pass on, and one good friend down in the village. As for quality of life, we have been getting bread deliveries for many years now — for the first two or three years we didn't know we could have that service. What would life be in France without fresh bread? We've enjoyed all the local food and wine, markets and supermarkets. I think we are settled in for the duration, however long that might be.

P.S. My friend CHM sent me via e-mail a recipe for the bread pudding that he used to enjoy at the restaurant across the street from his building in Paris. It was made by an African (Togolese) woman who was the chief cook, and he requested and was given the recipe. With CHM's permission, I'll post a translation of the recipe here in a few days.

23 April 2015

Keeping up with the bread

Sometimes we just can't keep up with the bread. The bread lady — la porteuse de pain — comes by on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. We buy what we want from her. We try to buy something every time she comes by, because bread delivery is a use-it-or-lose-it kind of service. We don't want the village baker to stop delivering bread.

Leftover baguette de tradition
Most days we opt for a traditional style baguette (we pay 1 €). Sometimes we choose an ordinary baguette (0.85 €), which comes in two styles: moulée or non-moulée. The first, cooked in a mold, is softer (plus tendre). The second, cooked directly on the stone or brick floor of of the bread oven, has a crunchier bottom crust. Once in a while we buy a pain, which is a larger loaf made in the same styles as the baguette ordinaire. Here's a post about the bread lady from 2007.

Every once in a while, we take stock and realize we have a ton of bread in the freezer. That's how we preserve the bread that's left over, because we seldom eat a whole baguette in one day. The frozen bread, thawed over an hour or two at room temperature and then briefly heated up in the oven, is perfectly good. That's what we have on Wednesdays, Sundays, and Mondays, the days when the bread lady doesn't drive up to the front gate and toot her horn for us to come out and buy a loaf. (She also sells croissants and other products, including sliced bread, butter, eggs, cheese, and newspapers.)

When we have way too much bread in the freezer, we sometimes tell the bread lady on Thursday, for example, that we won't need bread on Friday, so that she doesn't have to drive all the way up here just for us. We're her only customers in the hamlet where we live. Sometimes we'll tell her on Tuesday not to come back until Saturday. If we happen to be eating a lot of Chinese or Mexican food, as we are right now, we don't need French bread. Once in a while, we like to make sandwich buns to have with pulled pork or cornbread to have with other American-style food.

Frozen bread

Finally, sometimes we let the surplus French bread dry out and run it through the food processor to make bread crumbs that we can use on top of our gratin dishes. Or we cut it into cubes, toss them in olive oil or melted butter — sometimes with garlic — and toast them to make croûtons to have with soups and salads.

And sometimes we make bread pudding. That's what I did last week when I noticed a whole pain in a zip-top bag in the downstairs freezer. It was perfect for a good bread pudding with apples and walnuts in it. Here's the recipe.

Apple-Walnut Bread Pudding

5 cups soft bread cubes
½ cup walnut pieces
2 cups peeled and diced apples
¾ cup sugar
1¾ cups milk
½ cup melted butter
1 tsp. cinnamon (or mixed spice)
½ tsp. vanilla extract
3 eggs, beaten
Preheat oven to 350ºF (175ºC). Butter a baking dish.

In a large bowl, combine bread, walnuts, and apples. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine sugar, milk, and butter. Cook and stir until butter is melted. Pour over bread mixture in bowl. Stir and let cool slightly.

In a small bowl, whisk together spice, vanilla, and eggs. Stir into bread mixture, and then pour all into prepared dish.

Bake in preheated oven 40 to 50 minutes, or until center is set and apples are tender.

Note: a U.S. cup is eight fluid ounces.
Remember, real French bread contains only wheat flour, yeast, salt, and water. I like to make this bread pudding with what is called cassonade in French — raw sugar — not white refined sugar.

22 April 2015

Sticker shock, sort of

The visit to the Invicta Shop over in Saint-Georges went well. The staff seemed helpful, knowledgeable, and low-key. No pressure. There were enough stove models on display for us to get an idea about what we would like to have in a new wood-burner.

Of course, it always costs more than you hope it might cost. The stove we picked out, after considering several smaller ones, is Invicta's Kazan unit. It will take logs as long as 58 cm (about 23 inches) — our old stove is much smaller.

The Kazan lists at about 925 €, plus tax. That's less than a thousand dollars these days. The amount of tax you pay depends on whether you buy the stove yourself and install it (20% tax on the stove) or have a professional buy it and install it for you (5.5% tax on the stove and labor). Charging professional tradespeople less in taxes is the French government's way to encourage  people like us to hire work done by artisans rather than do it ourselves, thus creating jobs.

And as an incentive for people like us to install new, more efficient, less polluting heating systems, the French government also gives us a 30% tax credit on the price of the new stove. In other words, we'll get about 300 € back when we file our taxes next year. Such a deal!

So how much is the labor and what work needs to be done to put in a new stove? Well, the Invicta people say they need to remove the old stove and everything that was done to insulate and protect the chimney and house when the stove was installed in 2006 — they start fresh. That means new insulation in the top of the fireplace and a new stainless-steel sleeve for the brick chimney. Delivery of the new stove, a sweep of the chimney, and removal of the old stove are included in the total price for materials and labor, which comes to about 2,500 € (including the stove of course).

We didn't realize that the whole installation would need to be re-done from scratch. We were surprised when we got an estimate (via e-mail) yesterday afternoon for an amount that high. But then Walt looked back in our files to see what we paid in April 2006 to have the old stove installed, and that was also 2,500 €. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, comme on dit.

Here's the old stove.
It sits inside the big fireplace
in our living room.
The new one is much bigger
but will fit.

One side benefit of the Invicta visit is that we picked up a flyer there advertising wood for sale by an outfit in the village of Vallières-les-Grandes, near Amboise. We need to find a new wood supplier since our old one quit the business. This company sells 50 cm logs for 60 € per cubic meter (or stère), delivered.

That's only 10 € more than we have been paying for the same quantity of logs cut one meter long. They also sell 33 cm logs for 66 € per stère. (A U.S. cord of wood equals 3.6 stères.) One of our options is to keep the old stove for a while longer and order some logs pre-cut to the length we need for it. That would save us a couple of thousand euros this year and give us more time to consider our options.

21 April 2015

Sidelined, but not idle

It is so important to take advantage of every day to do something you enjoy, something that's important for the future, something productive. Thank goodness I got the garden plot tilled up, for example, before I was sidelined by this malady that has had a grip on me for a week now.

I have plenty of indoor activities — cooking, which I'm still doing even though I'm not taking many or any photos most days, and blogging and reading. Watching movies. Doing laundry. Editing photos on the computer. I have continued to go out on walks with Callie the collie, though they are slightly abbreviated and certainly less strenuous walks than normal. The good thing is that I'm not coughing or sneezing. I just have a really bad sore throat. For whatever reasons — allergies or a virus? I can't tell.

At least I'm not sitting here thinking about the big job that needs to be done before we can get the garden put in next month. I'm just waiting this out. I actually feel a lot better this morning than I have in days, and I got a much better night's sleep. Maybe, just maybe, I've turned a corner. Things are looking up.

Today we're going over to Saint-Georges-sur-Cher, 10 or 12 miles west of Saint-Aignan, to have a look around in a store that sells wood-burning stoves. Our plan for a while now has been to replace the stove we had put in back in 2006 with a larger stove in which we can burn larger, longer logs. We are looking at Invicta stoves, and it just so happens that Invicta has a dealership with a showroom in Saint-Georges. Wish us luck.

The wood-burning season is pretty much over, by the way. We haven't had to have a fire in a couple of weeks, and we haven't been using the oil-fired central heat either. Weather reports now are saying, however, that we might need a little blast of heat over the coming weekend. Often there is a chilly spell in this part of France in late April and early May. That's why we don't plant the vegetable garden until mid-May.