30 June 2015

“The Walnut Tree”

The next place we visited after the village called Jars (pop. 511) is called Le Noyer (pop. 235). That means "the walnut tree" in English. It's where CHM stayed, in a hotel, when he visited the area more than 70 years ago. More than 2500 people lived in the Jars-Le Noyer area two centuries ago, at the time of the French Revolution, by the way.

CHM told me he remembered walking from Jars to Le Noyer on the long, straight road you see in the photo above. We were driving my old Peugeot, so the trip was easier for us. That's Le Noyer in the distance, and the photo below shows a closer view.

I thought the church in Le Noyer was nice. There was some road construction going on, but we made it through without being shunted off onto a detour. I just stopped the car in the middle of an intersection and got out to take these picture.

There is a château in Le Noyer called Le Boucard that dates back to the 14th century, but we didn't find it. It's the venue for a music festival that takes place every summer.

This whole area between Sancerre and Orléans, Giens and Bourges, is beautiful rolling countryside. It's on eastern edge of the flat, forested Sologne and is contained in a wide arc of the Loire River to the north and east. The vineyards of Sancerre lie to the southeast. It feels very much off the beaten path. Here's a map:

Meanwhile, here I am in Saint-Aignan and it's the last day of June. Where did the month go? We are in the middle of an unusual (for this early date) heat wave, but we are on the eastern edge of the hottest temperatures. So far it's been pretty pleasant, even without air-conditioning. Today the contractor who's been working in Walt's office room will be wrapping up the job. By the coming weekend, we should have Walt be moved back into his office and our house will get back to normal.

29 June 2015

Why Jars?

One of the reasons why CHM and I drove over to the Sancerre area, about 2 hours east of Saint-Aignan, was to see the village of Jars [ZHAHR]. CHM had visited Jars more than 70 years ago, when he was a teenager. A cousin of his was spending the summer there, so he took his bicycle on the train from Paris to the nearby town of Cosne-sur-Loire [KOHN-syr-LWAHR]. From there he rode his bike the 12 or 15 miles to Jars and spent a few days touring around the area.

When he told me about that trip, I asked him if he'd like to drive over there and see the village again. So we went there in early June. A few days earlier, we had driven out to the Perche region, north of Saint-Aignan, and we had also gone to Etampes, in the country near Paris, to see old friends of CHM's, a couple I met 6 or 7 years ago. CHM and I have traveled all around France together since the late 1990s — Normandy, Picardy, Touraine, Anjou, Berry, Burgundy — not to mention parts of California back in the '90s. CHM always has good ideas about places to go and things to see.

Jars in earlier days

In this post, I'm just putting in a few photos I took in Jars for documentation purposes. CHM didn't stay there long, all those years ago, but I'm sure it was interesting for him to see it again. I much enjoyed seeing that whole area north of Sancerre — La Chapelle-d'Angillon, Vailly-sur-Sauldre, Jars, and other villages and towns.

Who is CHM, anyway? How did we get to be friends? Well, CHM is a Parisian-born American. He has both nationalities — if I say he's "a former French native" he'll laugh. He moved to the U.S. in the late 1960s and has lived in the Washington DC area ever since. (The first time I ever came to France, at the age of 20, was in late 1969.) CHM never gave up his apartment in Paris, however, and since he retired from his position as a translator and editor in DC he's been coming back to France nearly every summer.

CHM hired me as his assistant editor when I returned to the U.S. from France back in the early 1980s. CHM was the editor of a magazine published in French by the U.S. government for an African audience. I'd been living in Paris for a dozen years at that point, on and off, but even when I was in the U.S. I lived in a French environment at the University of Illinois in Urbana. I spent three years in Paris between 1979 and 1982 before realizing, at the age of 33, that it probably would be a good idea for me to return to the U.S. and find a job that would give me some chance of having a retirement pension later in life.That has all worked out.

CHM hired me in Washington because he thought it would be helpful to have as his assistant an American — native language: English — who could also read and write French. We made a good team for a few years, until life took me off to California and work in the computer software industry. It turned out that CHM had friends back then in the SF Bay Area as well as in Southern California, so he started visiting me and Walt out there in the early 1990s, just a few years after Walt and I had moved out there.

Because CHM visited California every year, we never lost touch. Our four years of working together turned into a 30-year friendship. The first time we were *ever in Paris at the same time was in 1992. Walt and I were staying at a hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens, and CHM stayed there too that year. At that point, he didn't know that Walt and I had been living together for about 10 years. We never talked about it, because in Washington DC in the Reagan era, being a same-sex couple was not something you told your boss or co-workers (or the security people — Walt, CHM, and I all worked for the federal government).

Anyway, after 10 years of spending time together on CHM's annual visits to California, and from time to time in Paris, the day came when Walt and I had to make a decision about what the rest of our life was going to be. Where would we live? We wanted to leave the San Francisco rat race and scale back our lives. We decided to move to France, and found a house in Saint-Aignan. CHM had retired from his DC job, and was coming to Paris on a regular basis. We've been able to stay in touch and have done a lot of traveling around together.

28 June 2015

La fin des haricots*

The série noire continues chez nous. Yesterday morning, as TéléMatin wound down, I changed the channel on the satellite decoder box — I got a replacement box on Friday and it seems to work fine — to put on the TV channel that we have watched more than any other for 12 years now. It used to be called CuisineTV, but then it was taken over by France's Canal + media company and renamed Cuisine +. Here's what I saw instead of the program I wanted to watch:

RIP, Cuisine +. Nous t'avons tant aimé. Au revoir Eric Léautey, Laurent Mariotte, Louis-François Marcotte, Carine Teyssandier, Jamie Oliver, et tant d'autres cuisiniers et présentateurs. I don't know what our go-to TV channel will be now that Cuisine + is gone. It's hard to believe that France, le pays de la gastronomie et de la haute cuisine, no longer has a food network or cooking channel on TV.

Meanwhile, here's another photo that I took nearly a month ago in the Sancerre area. Maybe with this last convulsion, the série noire de l'été 2015 is coming to an end. I have to say that we are enjoying fine weather. There's been no rain for weeks and weeks. Over the next few days we are supposed to experience an extreme heat wave, but we'll survive.

* The expression « c'est la fin des haricots » — "that's the end of the beans" — means something like "that's the last straw" or "it's all over now but the shouting." A similar expression is « les carottes sont cuites » — "the carrots are (finally) cooked."

27 June 2015


Just one photo today. That's the wine village Sancerre in the distance, on a hilltop. Sancerre is what is called un village perché — a "perched" village. The Sancerre area is one of France's most beautiful wine regions. The vineyards grow on steep hillsides. I had driven some distance out on a dirt road at the crest of a ridge to take some photos.

Sancerre's white wines are made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes and are dry and grassy-tasting. Sancerre's light-bodied, dry reds and rosé are made with Pinot Noir grapes. I was there last October with Walt and again in early June with CHM, just enjoying the scenery. I was lucky to have great weather both times.

26 June 2015

La série noire... actuelle

So it turns out that one of our satellite decoder units — from CanalSat, the only remaining satellite TV provider in France — really has bitten the dust. (On peut dire ça en français aussi — le décodeur en question a mordu la poussière.) I messed with it for a couple of hours yesterday morning, but couldn't revive it. This is not the first time one of the decoders has suddenly given up the ghost (a rendu l'âme) chez nous.

I'm decorating this post with some more photos that I took near Le Château d'Angillon three weeks ago.

We have two such decoder boxes, one upstairs in the loft room and one in the living room. I brought the one from the loft down here to the living room and hooked it up to see if it would work here. At first, it wouldn't. It told me that le signal was insuffisant. I went outside and peered up at our satellite dish (antenne parabolique or parabole) to see if anything looked unhooked or damaged. Nothing did. The dish has worked well for 12 years now, and nothing has changed.

I came back in and changed out the ID cards, one of which is inserted into each box to provide it with connection information about the packages of programs we subscribe to along with our account name and password. I tried each card in each machine. At one point the working decoder box displayed a message on the TV screen saying that one of the cards was invalide. I thought I was on to something but that message went away and never came back, no matter how many times I took one card out and inserted the other one.

This means not "please don't roll in the grass" but "please don't drive on the grass."

Still, I wasn't getting any TV signal so I figured there was something wrong with one of the two heads on the satellite dish. The one for the upstairs TV worked, but the one for the downstairs TV must have malfunctioned. That meant I would need to call for a repair person to come look at it. Then I suddenly realized that the cable running from the dish to the box had come unplugged while I was messing with the machine, pushing cards into the slot on the side and pulling them back out. Once I got the cable hooked back up, bingo! Voilà ! I had TV on one box, both upstairs and downstairs.

The other one still wouldn't work. I had it hooked up — correctly and completely hooked up — upstairs. It wouldn't come to life up there or down in the living room. Satisfied that it really was the box and not the antenna that had pooped out, I called the CanalSat representative, a home appliance shop over in Selles-sur-Cher. I explained the situation as best I could, describing the symptoms and the things I had done to try to get it working again. The man listened patiently and then said, well, just bring it in and we will give you a new one.

So that's what I have to do this morning. Selles is about 10 miles downriver from us. I had planned to go to SuperU this morning anyway, and the fact is that there's a SuperU right next door to the appliance store over in Selles. I'll do my shopping over there rather than here in Saint-Aignan.

Meanwhile, yesterday afternoon I popped an old disc into the DVD player upstairs and settled in to watch a movie. I couldn't get the aspect ratio right — the picture looked distorted. I started trying to adjust it, pushing buttons on the remote control to make the picture look right. Some button I pushed disabled the whole machine. Now it will play sound but it won't play video. I ended up messing with it for a couple of hours until I finally gave up in frustration.

Meanwhile, our weather has turned very hot. The high temperature is supposed to be 32ºC this afternoon — that's close to 90ºF. I heard a report yesterday saying that this month is on track to be the driest June since 1949 in France. And the temperature is supposed to stay close to or even above 90 all next week. Can you say canicule?

25 June 2015

La goutte...

...qui a fait déborder le vase ! The proverbial last straw. AAACCKK! When I got up this morning — at 5:00 a.m. because it was too warm to try to sleep any longer — I came downstairs and turned on the TV to see the news. Nothing. The satellite box seems to be deader than a doornail.

Another photo from the Château d'Angillon

Okay, I'll miss not seeing the news and the weather reports on Télématin, but I'll survive. I'll just turn on my little wifi internet radio, I thought, and listen to France Inter for news. Guess again! It wouldn't work. When I started up the TuneIn radio application, it just reported an error. I turned the radio device off and rebooted it. Still the same error. In frustration, I cursed it and turned it off again.

Lily pads in the lake at La Chapelle-d'Angillon

I got TuneIn radio working on one of my tablets, but it was completely unstable. I'd hear the radio for two minutes, and then there would be two minutes of silence. It kept losing the connection, or just churning. Okay, the DSL modem is the problem, I thought. I turned that off, let it rest for a minute or two, and turned it back on. Then I thought I ought to do a blog post, and I realized that my computer upstairs, where all the photos are stored, was off-line. Not to be found on the network. Damn.

Is this a gremlin?

By now, Walt was up too. "Are you okay?" is what he said when he came into the living room. I wasn't, so I told him about everything that was happening. Or not happening. Oh, I forgot to add that I had run the washing machine overnight, and when I went downstairs to feed the cat and take the laundry out of the machine, guess what the first thing that fell out was. Go ahead — guess. A camera battery! I had washed one of the the new camera batteries I bought a couple of weeks ago. Left it in the pocket of my dog-walking jeans, which I had finally decided to wash again.

How does the garden grow? Well, it's late this year but it is growing.

Walt went to check the wireless weather station that records our high and low temperatures every day, and it reported that the high yesterday was 36.9ºC. Normal human body temperature is 37ºC, so yesterday must have been a pretty hot day. Well, we know it wasn't that hot. It was 25ºC at the most. What kind of gremlin got into the weather station?

Collards, nasturtiums, and tomato plants

Now that I've written all this, I'm not sure what that dernière goutte or last straw was. There are plenty to choose from. Meanwhile, on the plus side, my ribs are nearly completely healed now. I can move freely and painlessly, even when turning over in bed. My bruised, scraped knee is healing too. All the devices in the house except the satellite TV box are working again. The house itself is a mess, because of the work going on in Walt's office room. There's stuff from that room in odd locations, all over the place. It's almost more mess than I can stand. But the garden is growing, as you can see from the pictures in this post.

24 June 2015

Le Château de La Chapelle-d'Angillon

How's that for a long name? The village is called La Chapelle-d'Angillon, and it features a château on which construction began as early as the 11th century. I could do a lot of research about it — mostly looking for information in the Michelin guide to the old province called Le Berry, in central France. Problem is, our main collection of books is behind plastic right now.

Angillon, an 11th century château that, like most, has been modified and enlarged over the centuries

Walt's office room, just off the living room and sort of behind the fireplace, is being refurbished. There was an ugly crack in the ceiling, and some sections of wall were still covered in ugly, decrepit wallpaper that we never got around to taking down over the 12 years we've lived here. A contractor came in yesterday and started stripping off the wallpaper and filling the cracks. He carefully wrapped the built-in cabinets in the room in protective plastic, meaning we can't get to our books until the work is finished.

These geese were swimming around on the small lake next to the château.

So I've told you just about everything I know about the Château d'Angillon. Well, there is information on the internet, as you can imagine. The town of La Chapelle-d'Angillon has about 700 residents. It reached its highest level of population — nearly 1,000 — back between 1880 and 1910. It's located in an area about 90 minutes by car east of Saint-Aignan and about 40 minutes west of the famous wine village of Sancerre. That makes it about an hour south of Orléans and half an hour north Bourges.

The Château d'Angillon is available for weddings and other events.

It seems that in medieval times there was an little sovereign principality in this area that is now square in the center of France. It was called Boisbelle and nobody knows exactly when it was first founded. For a time, it was the fief of the princes of Henrichemont and Boisbelle, including the famous Duc de Sully, a powerful finance minister under the good king Henri IV of France (he was assassinated in 1610). For centuries, Boisbelle remained independent from the kingdom of France to the north and the dukedom of Berry to the south. It was finally sold to the French king in 1776.

Lily pads floated on the glassy waters of the lake at La Chapelle-d'Angillon.

Nowadays, the old Boisbelle territory is very rural and forested. Little towns and villages dot the landscape. As far as I know, no major train lines run through it, and no main highways either. It is crossed, though, by the Sauldre River, and many of the towns are called "whatever"-sur-Sauldre — Argent, Vailly, Brinon, Ménétréol, and so on. CHM and I had a good lunch in the town of Vailly-sur-Sauldre, you might remember. I posted about it here and here.

The writer Alain-Fournier, author of the novel Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) and a casualty
of The Great War of 1914-18, was born in La Chapelle-d'Angillon.

Okay, I've probably lost you by now. This is what happens when you have "an embarrassment of photos" — if photos are actually "riches" — and you don't know much about the places where you took them. You can either do a lot of research, turning your blogging into a real work assignment instead of the simple pleasure it ought to be, or you can just post the photos and blather on about incidental and tangential matters to fill in the gaps between images.

23 June 2015

Goulache hongroise au veau

I looked at a lot of recipes for Hungarian goulash, in books and on the web. Some were very simple (the French ones) with just a few ingredients. Others were very complicated (the American ones) with lists of dozens of ingredients. I tried to find a middle ground. To the left you see what I came up with.

My goulash didn't look much like these American versions of the dish, which are often made with ground beef ("mince").

I used a 900 gram (2 lb.) veal shoulder roast, because I had one in the freezer. I had planned to make Veau aux olives with it, but then the goulash idea came up. It's actually similar. The goulash sauce has less tomato in it, and of course a lot of paprika. I had some frozen bell pepper strips in three colors, and a couple of carrots, so in those went with the meat and onions.

The first step is to brown the meat, onions (2), and carrots (2) in butter or oil or lard. I used butter and rendered some larding fat in it (the roast I had was bardé — wrapped in thin strips of fat or bacon). I seasoned the mixture with a couple of tablespoons of paprika (three types: mild, hot, and smoked) along with salt at pepper.

Then I transferred the meat and aromatic vegetables to a baking dish. I wanted to cook the goulash in a slow oven for about two hours to make sure the meat was tender or moelleux. I didn't have any carraway seeds, which a lot of recipes called for, so I put in a piece of star anise (same kind of flavor).

Besides water and paprika, the sauce also contains about a cup of tomato sauce. You could also use fresh tomatoes or tomato paste. The goulash sauce isn't like an Italian tomato sauce, however — it's much thinner and more liquid — that way the paprika flavor shines through because it's not masked by too much tomato taste. Some oregano or marjoram is good cooked into the sauce.

After about 90 minutes of cooking, I added a good handful of frozen bell pepper strips to the dish. Thanks to the Picard frozen food stores for stocking such a nice ingredient.

I like this version of goulash. Next time I'll make it with beef  or pork (but I have to say the veal is very tender and tasty). I think it was good served with pasta and plain green beans. The paprika-flavored sauce went well with those.

And I forgot two things. I meant to add a tablespoon or two of vinegar to the sauce. I'll do that to perk up the leftovers. And I also meant to serve the goulash with a good tablespoon of crème fraîche (i.e. sour cream) on each plate. Today's lunch..

P.S. Here's a link to the recipe for goulash that I used as a guide.

22 June 2015

Un accident est si vite arrivé...

I suffered a nasty fall last Friday morning. I had gone out for my regular walk with Callie the collie. We walk along the south edge of the vineyard, into a small patch of woods, and then along the edge of the next vineyard plot before heading back up to the gravel road. I try to be careful where I step. The ground is rough and uneven in many places.

Along the edge of the gravel road there's a shallow drainage ditch. I've stepped over it a million times. This time, however, maybe because the grass between the grapevines and the road is getting to be almost knee-high, I thought I was stepping over the trench but I stepped into it with my right foot. Surprise!

As they say in French, un accident est si vite arrivé. An accident can happen at any moment, without warning. One moment you are just strolling along, enjoying the morning air and light, and an instant later you are rolling on the ground, flailing.

So Friday morning, about 7:30, down I went, like a sack of potatoes. I was sprawled on the rough, sharp gravel of the road (photo above). I landed first on my right knee and then on my right shoulder. I lay stunned for a minute. I realized I was holding my newest camera up in the air, to protect it from damage. It was unscathed, but I wasn't.

Callie came rushing over, wagging her tail and squirming around, kissing me all over the face. Maybe she thought we had invented some new kind of horseplay. I thought: what if I can't get up? Would Callie go home and get Walt? Probably not. She'd just stay there with me, waiting. Eventually, Walt would realize I had been gone too long, and he'd come find me. Or some vineyard worker or a neighbor might just come driving along the gravel road.

After a couple of minutes, I was able to "reboot" myself — to get myself up and running (or walking) again. Nothing was broken. My knee felt sore, and so did my arm and shoulder. My ankle was not sprained. I continued the walk and followed my usual path around the other side of the vineyard, back to the house. When I got home and took my jeans off, I realized my right knee was not just bruised but scraped, and I was bleeding.

I think I cracked or badly bruised a rib. When I got up yesterday morning, I was in excruciating pain. In fact, I had been in pain for 48 hours. Because I've been having allergic reactions to pollen for a few days (again, sigh),  my sinuses are plugged up and my throat is sore. That means I'm sneezing some, and coughing quite a bit — or at least I was yesterday. Every sneeze or cough was agony because my ribs are so sore.

I guess falling once in a while is an occupational hazard when you like to go for a walk with the dog every day. Or maybe it's just my age. I've fallen down out in the vineyard three or four times over the past ten years, including last Friday's accident. I've promised myself that I would be more careful, and wouldn't do anything stupid like trying to climb or step over any wire fences or vineyard support wires (I fell that way at least once). At the same time, you just never know when an accident will happen.

I feel a lot better this morning. My knee is healing. My ribs hurt less. Turning over in bed is still very painful, and I can't lie flat on my back — it hurts too bad in that position. I got a much better night's sleep last night than the night before, partly because the allergies seem to be receding. I'm not coughing today.

So that's my tale of woe for the moment. Included here are some recent photos I've taken on my walks.

21 June 2015

Lunch in Montoire

What did we have for lunch in Montoire that Saturday? Chez Françoise (Le Café de la Paix) has a varied menu, including a daily special or two, a full range of both savory buckwheat pancakes (galettes) and sweet crêpes, as well as several different omelettes.

That day, there was a three course menu that CHM ordered. The first course was what they called une salade de crudités, but it was an unusual one, I think. It was very good though, and I ordered the same salad as my starter course.

Above is CHM's photo of the crudités or vegetable plate, which was made up of some salade piémontaise (potato salad), some chopped cabbage salad with golden raisins, and some sliced cucumbers.

My main course was the omelette that I had had in mind all morning. French omelets are usually served baveuse or runny, and this cheese omelet was a good example.

CHM had the goulash as his main course (his photo above). Hungarian goulash is a kind of pot au feu or stew made with beef, pork, or veal — or a combination — cooked in a broth flavored with sweet paprika and served with potatoes or noodles. Some hot paprika can be added to enhance the flavor, and onions are a standard ingredient. It's the paprika that makes it goulash.

To wash it all down, we ordered a small carafe of the local red wine. It was light and tasty. I don't really know what grapes went into it, but there was probably some Pineau d'Aunis and maybe some Pinot Noir or Gamay. Dessert was the daily special: far breton, a kind of pudding cake made with prunes.