30 April 2016

Sunset yesterday

Threatening skies.

Good-bye, April.

29 April 2016

« Souris d'agneau » with beans and greens

It is funny that the shank end of the leg of lamb is called "the mouse" in France. From what I've read, it's the shape and plumpness of the lump of shank meat that reminded somebody of a mouse (une souris). We enjoyed slow-cooked lamb shank at the restaurant called La Villa in Montrichard a week ago, but I forgot to take a photo.

Then I was at SuperU a couple of days later, and I was surprised to see souris d'agneau in the butcher section of the supermarket. I'd never noticed them there before. I looked through the half-dozen shanks (€13/kg) and picked out two of about the same size for a future lunch. Well, yesterday was that future. I cooked the lamb "mice" in the slow-cooker (la mijoteusemijoter means to simmer) with some tomato sauce, red wine, and vegetable stock — say about half a cup of each.

Foods slow-cooked tend to release a lot of liquid that doesn't evaporate, so 1½ cups (about 350 ml) was enough to put in for the two souris. Some onion, garlic, bay leaves, hot red pepper flakes, and thyme went in along with the liquid. With the lamb, we had rice and some left over collard greens and red kidney beans cooked in a little tomato sauce. That way of cooking collards, with chickpeas or now red beans, is becoming a kitchen standard around here.

28 April 2016

Le cimetière de Notre-Dame de Nanteuil

When I went to see the dentist and had another look around the church called Notre-Dame de Nanteuil, in Montrichard, I also took a quick look around in the cemetery next to the church. I parked my car there.

As you can see, it wasn't crowded. In fact, it was deserted, as was the church.

The first thing you see when you enter the cemetery is this memorial to the French prisoners of war and citizens who were killed in the great wars of the 20th century, including those sent to the concentration camps in Germany.

This is a detail of the monument aux morts, showing a shining church tower and castle on a hill. It's Montrichard, I suppose.

I was a little surprised to see an American flag, along with the French tricolor flag, on this grave right behind the monument aux morts.

Here's a close-up of the headstone. William Ross Tyree (I think) from Missouri is buried here. The was a major in the U.S. Army. I can't quite make out the date on the stone.

27 April 2016

Le dentiste de Nanteuil et le mauvais temps

Yesterday morning, I drove over to Montrichard, the next town down the Cher River from Saint-Aignan, for a routine appointment with my dentist. I parked the car close to the church across the street from the dentist's office, and I noticed that the street I was on was called la rue du Faubourg-Nanteuil. (The guy below seems to have pretty good teeth...)

By the way, it was freezing cold yesterday morning. It was also raining off and on. I mean drizzle, really, or bruine in French — a heavy, soaking mist. I came home after doing some shopping at Intermarché, a local supermarket, and we had lunch. Right after lunch, I noticed that it was raining harder.

And then I was surprised to see that it wasn't just rain. It was an ice shower. I could see little ice pellets bouncing off the skylight windows upstairs. It didn't last long, but it just shows how cold it is. On our thermometer, the temperature outside this morning is +2ºC, which is about 35ºF. This why we haven't planted delicate plants out in the garden yet. It's good that we now have the greenhouse tent.

Back to Nanteuil: I had wondered why the church on the west side of Montrichard was called Notre-Dame de Nanteuil. Now I know. Nanteuil is the name of a village that was at some point incorporated into the adjacent town of Montrichard ("cheater's mountain") — a very old village. On Wikipédia, I found an article about another village called Nanteuil (there are many in France) that explained the Gaulois (Celtic) meaning of the word: The Nant- part came from nanto, the Gaulois word for "valley", and the -euil from ialo, the word for "clearing", as in a clearing in a forest.

The closest village to us is called Mareuil-sur-Cher. Apparently, the Mar- part of the name came from the Celtic word for "large" and the -euil part from that same word for "clearing". So Mareuil is "the big clearing (on the Cher)". And Nanteuil is "the clearing in the valley".

I went into the church again and took some more photos. I also took some exterior shots, despite the miserable weather.  A few of them are here. Oh, and I got a good report from the dentist. My teeth are in good shape and now they have been cleaned one more time. I'm so glad to have found a good dentist again.

26 April 2016

Making fresh mayonnaise at home

Mayonnaise is an emulsion formed by carefully and slowly whisking oil and raw egg together. One type of mayonnaise uses whole eggs, but the more delicate and tasty kind of mayonnaise uses the yolk only. The other ingredients in a basic mayonnaise are small amounts of Dijon mustard, salt, pepper, and vinegar (or lemon juice). One egg yolk will "absorb" approximately 6 fl. oz. (175 ml) of vegetable oil. You can try to blend in even more oil, but you risk making the emulsion break down if you put in too much.

Some people say that the oil and egg must be at the same temperature, preferably room temperature, but I've never found that rule of thumb to mean much. You wouldn't, of course, use oil that has congealed because it's too cold. Anyway, I start by separating an egg and dropping the yolk in a bowl big enough to allow for easy and vigorous whisking. I dip the end of a small clean whisk (or a fork) into the jar and pull about about a teaspoon of mustard for one egg yolk. It's easier with a whisk, but you can also make the mayonnaise just using a fork. (By the way, in France you can buy Dijon mustard in tubes, as you can commercially made mayonnaise.)

Before starting to whisk the yolk and the mustard together, add pinches of salt and pepper plus a small splash of vinegar or lemon juice (three or four drops — no more than half a teaspoon). The mustard and vinegar will help the egg yolk "absorb" the oil and make the emulsion come together. La mayonnaise « prendra » plus facilement. If you want to add herbs or pureed garlic, you can put them in at this stage. Use whatever kind of vinegar you like, other than balsamic. Sometimes I use wine vinegar (white or red), or cider vinegar, or just plain distilled vinegar (vinaigre blanc).

While I don't worry much about temperature, I do believe that it helps to whisk together all the ingredients I've listed and let that mixture sit and rest for a few minutes before starting to incorporate the oil. Somehow, that seems to prepare the egg yolk to receive the oil. As far as oil goes, you can use what you like. I think huile de colza (canola) makes a thicker mayonnaise than does huile de tournesol (sunflower), but either of these widely used oils will work. So will olive oil, but unless it's the very best olive oil the flavor might turn out to be a little bitter. What I normally do is use a mixture of half colza or tournesol and half olive oil. Any neutral-tasting vegetable oil can go into such a blend.

So you have the egg, mustard, vinegar, and seasonings blended together in the bowl, and you've measured out the 6 fl. oz. of oil into a cup with a pour spout. Now comes the test. Start whipping the egg + mustard mixture with the whisk using one hand and then, using your other hand (or a helper), begin pouring the oil into the bowl in a very thin stream, or even drop by drop, as you whisk. You'll see the oil start blending with the egg into an emulsion that gets thicker and thicker as you go. As the mayonnaise develops, you can begin going a little faster in pouring in the oil. Don't stop whisking. If you accidentally pour in what seems like too much oil all at once, don't try to mix it in too fast. Instead use the whisk to carefully touch just the edge of the pool of oil and gradually pull it into the mayonnaise until it all smooths out. In the photo above, about half the oil has been incorporated, and there's a pretty big pool of oil on its surface. I'm carefully blending it in, little by little.

I made the mayonnaise in this last photo using a half and half blend of sunflower oil and olive oil, with white wine (Chardonnay) vinegar. The egg yolk, olive oil, and Dijon mustard all contribute to its yellow color. It is well emulsified (la mayonnaise a bien pris) but it's a soft, not stiff, emulsion. If your mayonnaise seems too stiff, carefully mix in a few drops of vinegar, lemon juice, or even water to thin it. By the way, the acid in the mixture (vinegar or lemon juice, plus mustard) keeps bacteria from growing and prevents the mayonnaise from going bad. It's best, of course, to keep it in the refrigerator if you aren't serving or eating it immediately. If you use olive oil in the mixture, however, it can congeal at low temperatures, and that might break the emulsion, causing the mayonnaise to separate. You can try to recoup it by bringing it back to room temperature, adding a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice, and whisking it back together.

25 April 2016

Asperges blanches

The man we usually go to for white asparagus this time of year, at the market in Saint-Aignan, didn't have very many bunches to sell on Saturday morning, and they were not only skinny spears but expensive (8€/kg). He and his son grow asparagus and strawberries on the other side of the river from Saint-Aignan, in the area of forests, small lakes, and sandy soil known as La Sologne. Maybe (surely) the weather conditions haven't been favorable. He didn't have any strawberries on his table at all.

I didn't talk to him on Saturday because he had other customers to wait on, and rather than just stand there, I decided to walk around the market to see who else might have asparagus to sell, and for what price. A produce vendor we don't often buy from had big crates of very fat white asparagus spears on display. At 9€/kg — $4.60/lb. in U.S. terms — they were even more expensive, but I decided to buy some anyway. One other vendor had bunches of skinny green asparagus, but they were a lot more expensive (12€/kg)  and didn't tempt me. The green and white varieties are the same plant; they're just grown differently.

To prepare white asparagus spears for cooking, you have to peel them. Their skin is tough but thin. When you get really fat spears — some of the ones I bought were an inch or so in diameter — it doesn't take long to peel enough to serve two people. We cooked six spears, but we ended up eating only four. That was plenty — the six spears weighed about a pound (450 grams), and we'll have the other two today or tomorrow.

We decided to cook the asparagus by simmering the peeled spears in water in a pan and then ate them with home-made mayonnaise. The other options would be to have them with melted butter or a good vinaigrette. Mayonnaise is pretty easy to make once you get the knack, though, and it's very different from mayonnaise you buy in jars or tubes at the supermarket. Yes, in tubes, like toothpaste tubes.

Store-bought mayonnaise is good for many uses (tuna salad, pimento cheese, ranch or thousand island dressing), but when you want to serve plain mayonnaise with a simple ingredient like hard-boiled eggs (œuf dur mayonnaise), fish, asparagus, or artichokes, the freshly made stuff is much better. For tomorrow I'll do a post about the method of making fresh mayonnaise that I learned from a French friend back in 1973.

24 April 2016

I saw Mme Doudouille at the market

I went to the outdoor market in Saint-Aignan yesterday morning, despite the dreary and drizzly weather. If I hadn't had a doctor's appointment in town at 8:30, I would have just stayed home. After the doctor's, I needed to go to the pharmacy, and the market is right there. Seeing Mme Doudouille  at the market was a pleasant surprise.

Walt and I wanted to get some asparagus, anyway. The locally grown ones are just coming to market. They're big fat while asparagus, which you have to peel before you cook them. I'll make a batch of fresh mayonnaise that we can have with the cooked asparagus at lunchtime today. I'll also be making œufs en meurette for lunch. That's eggs in a red wine sauce, as I described yesterday.

The surprise of the morning was a chance encounter with Mme D., one of the people we have most enjoyed knowing here over the years. I was standing around, waiting to be waited on at a produce stand, where only one young woman was working. The well-dressed, older woman customer in front of me in line was taking her own sweet time, ordering very carefully a lot of different fruits and vegetables.

 Above is Walt waiting in line at Mme Doudouille's market truck on New Year's Eve 2005 (more than a decade ago). I can't find a good photo with her in it.

Are these kiwis ripe? The last ones I bought were not, and it took them two weeks to ripen before we could eat them, she told the seller. Well, it's a matter of personal taste — that was the reply. Some people like them very ripe, and others don't. Well, I'll take two anyway, the customer said. And I'll have some bananas too, but I don't want ripe ones. I want them almost green. The woman working the stand had to dig around in a huge pile of perfectly ripe bananas (for once) to the find just the right green ones. And so on.

It was taking forever, but I didn't have anything else to do. The pharmacy I go to wouldn't be open for another 10 minutes. I looked over my shoulder and saw the woman we've always called Mme Doudouille greeting some other shoppers, and carrying a shopping basket herself. She used to be a vendor at the Saint-Aignan market. We bought charcuterie — sausages, ham, pâtés, etc. — from her for years. Here's a post I did years ago about her market truck and what she sold from it.

And I always enjoyed spending a few minutes talking to her when I stopped in front of her market truck. She's probably about 60 years old now, and she and her husband live in Blois, or just outside Blois. That's about 40 minutes north of Saint-Aignan. The last few times Walt and I had been to shop at the market, she hadn't been there. I'd been meaning to ask one of the other vendors whether she had retired.

Well, she has. That's what she told me when I asked her, calling her situation une pré-retraite. She said her husband had had a heart operation, and he had taken a year off. We used to see him at the market in Amboise on Fridays, back when we went to Amboise more often. His business was called Chez Doudouille, so we assume his name was Edouard, for which Doudouille is a nickname. I have no ides what M. and Mme Doudouille's real name is.

I'm surprised to see you in Saint-Aignan as a shopper, I told her. She said she just likes coming to our market do do her shopping, despite the drive. I guess she had done that drive in her truck for many years, so it became a Saturday morning habit. I told her about my three trips to the U.S. over the past year. She said her daughter might start coming to sell charcuterie at the Saint-Aignan market soon. Her husband is back at work after recovering from his surgery, but only for one more year. He also plans to retire soon.

This story doesn't have a punchline. I just enjoyed the experience of seeing and talking to a person I had sort of gotten to know over the years but probably won't see much any more. I remember one time her telling me, beaming, that her first grandchild had been born. A few years later, I asked about that grandchild, and she said her family had grown — she already had five grandchildren at that point! Earlier, she had told me that she and her husband planned to buy a hotel-restaurant in the Auvergne and move down there, but that plan fell through.

Since 2003, we've exchanged jokes and pleasantries, and stories about our respective families, when she had time to talk. Yesterday, she asked me to be sure to give Walt her greetings and good wishes. Over the years, Mme Doudouille has given me cooking ideas and advice, whenever she had time. Always, she would pick out the nicest sausages, cuts of meat, and pâtés and salads when I ordered. Often she would throw in some special treat, on the house. She always had a smile and good laugh.

I wish I had taken my camera with me yesterday. No more photos here — you'll have to click on the links in the text if you want to see photos.

23 April 2016

The reward: lunch at La Villa in Montrichard

The reward for the work we got done out in the yard and garden this week was a fine lunch in a restaurant yesterday. We drove over to Montrichard and went back to the place where we had a good meal back in March. It's called La Villa. The restaurant already has its outdoor seating area set up for the summer, but we ate indoors.

This time we didn't have hamburgers. We had the restaurant's nicest menu, which is priced at 26€ and includes three courses: entrée, plat principal, et dessert. In French, the entrée is the first course, which in the U.S. we might call the starter or the hors-d'oeuvre. Mine was a Burgundian specialty called œufs en meurette.

We joked that the egg dish might aptly be called œuf bourguignon, because the meurette sauce is the same as the sauce that is served with that other Burgundian specialty, bœuf bourguignon: red wine, mushrooms, onions, and the chunks of smoked bacon called lardons.

Meanwhile, one of the main courses was a suprême de pintade — a guinea hen breast/wing piece. The pintade was served with cabbage leaves stuffed with chopped cabbage and lardons, along with some steamed potatoes and cherry tomatoes. Our friend Nick had that, and his wife Jean had a seafood brochette (below) with shrimp, salmon, and other fish, served with nice vegetables.

As our main course, Walt and I both had a slow-cooked souris d'agneau — literally, a "mouse of lamb" — which is what we call lamb shank. It's called a souris because of its plump, round shape. Problem is, in the excitement of it all I forgot to take a photo. It was falling-off-the-bone tender, and tasty. I'll have to go back and have it again sometime, and maybe get a picture.

Finally, above is one of the desserts, a tarte tatin served with a glass of crème à la vanille and a good squirt of whipped cream. Tarte tatin is a caramelized upside-down apple pie. With drinks, wine, and coffee the price of the meal was about 35€ per person. Here's a post about a lunch we had at La Villa with a group of Australian friends back in May 2012.

22 April 2016

Taking advantage

I just told Walt that it's amazing. We had three or four dry, fairly warm days. When we saw the forecast last weekend, we told ourselves we'd better get some work done outside. And we did. Now, it's supposed to rain for the next three or four days — not much, but enough to keep us inside. A lesson constantly relearned is that you have to take advantage of every nice day here if you want to accomplish anything.

Walt did the mowing. You can see him pushing the mower around in the photo above (top left corner). The yard looks great. My job was the tilling, and I got it done. I tilled up a patch of tough grass to enlarge the vegetable garden plot. I also ran the tiller over a lot of the area that I had worked on back in March, to uproot weeds and grasses that were starting to take hold.

Above, you can see the tiller and the new greenhouse tent. There are a couple of rogue rhubarb plants growing in it. When we arrived here years ago, we got shovels, picks, and hoes out of the garden shed and tried to dig up this section of yard manually to prepare it for our first vegetable garden. That was the spring of 2004.

We quickly realized that we would never get anything done unless we invested in a rototiller. We drove up to a garden-supplies store in Blois, found a tiller that looked like it would be up to the job, and somehow managed to fit it inside our little Peugeot run-about to get it down here. So it's been going strong for 12 years now.

Those first three photos are ones I took with an Android tablet. Just because. The colors are different. The last photo, just above, is one I took with my new old Lumix camera from a back window of the house yesterday afternoon. Soon the linden tree will be covered in leaves and we won't be able to admire the garden without going out there. Of course, watering and weeding will keep us out there all summer.

21 April 2016

Mowing and tilling

Yesterday the garden grew. No, not plants, because there are few planted in the ground so far, and they are growing very slowly. When I say the garden grew, I mean I increased the amount of land that is tilled and ready to receive this year's tomato, pepper, eggplant, collard, and kale plantings — etc.

I do wonder sometimes how long we will be able to keep doing this kind of gardening. Tilling is hard work, and some years weeding is a lot of trouble. I guess we will continue as long as we are able, because it's so good to have homegrown tomatoes, for example, which are so much better than store-bought tomatoes. And it's good to have greens like kale and collards, which are not readily available — yet — in our supermarkets.


We started the garden in 2004, when we "offered ourselves" a rototiller, with four 4 meter x 4 meter plots (at 39 inches, a meter is three inches longer than a yard). Later, we started two more plots for overflow. One was a long strip, maybe 10 m x 1 m, which was good for tomato plants, and the other was a 3 m x 2 m plot where we've grown greens some years, and potatoes other years. Right now, it's planted in rhubarb and strawberries, both more or less perennials.


Last year, we tilled up the strips of grass that separated the four original garden plots, turning what was 64 m² of worked ground into one big plot covering 100 m² — that's about 1100 sq. ft. Yesterday, I tilled some new ground, combining the 100 m² plot with the long, narrow strip, and tilling up the long strip of grass that separated them. So now the main garden plot must be about 120 m², or 1300 sq. ft., or about double what we started with 12 years ago.

The grass, the garden plot, and the greenhouse tent

Meanwhile, Walt has mowed the whole yard, and it looks great. Mowing in springtime is satisfying but also distressing, because it means that many pretty wildflowers end up mowed down. That includes most of the primroses, a lot of little blue violets, patches of lawn daisies (pâquerettes or "Easter daisies" in French), and even a native orchid or two (I noticed at least one, an orchis pourpre, commonly called a pentecôte in French or a lady orchid in English, growing out there a couple of days ago).

You can see in this photo, and in one of the ones above, why we had another part of the back hedge cut lower — for the views and the increased sunlight.

Anyway, that's how it goes. Walt also moved a lot of plants off the front terrace (which I prefer to call "the deck") and power washed the whole thing. We never had to bring all those plants inside last winter, because the weather stayed so mild. They all survived. We'll put some of them back out on the deck for the summer, but not all — too much clutter.

20 April 2016

The vines

The natural things are just starting to happen out in the vineyard. All the human-driven things — vine-tending, including pruning, chipping and grinding the trimmings, and repairing support posts and wires  — are done now. Leaf buds are breaking out all over. The vines are waking up.

Now the weather is supposed to turn chilly again. Maybe that will be better for the vines. You don't want them to get ahead of themselves and produce flowers too early. According to predictions, we'll get two more nice sunny days, and then rain overnight Thursday followed by much lower temperatures for the weekend and all next week. Low temperatures in late April and early May explain why we don't set plants outdoor in the garden until about May 15.

Yesterday was the first day in I-don't-know-when that Callie didn't need a bath when we came back from the afternoon walk. I compare the poor dog to the character Pigpen in the Charlie Brown cartoons — sand and mud and burrs just seem to jump up and stick tight to her, especially when her fur is wet.

19 April 2016

Circling back and looking forward

That whole incident with the mystery iPhone, which was sent to me out of the blue by a company I used to buy things from, isn't yet wrapped up. Can you believe it? I sent the phone back, only to be told I would be given a credit for its price of some $900, but then no credit ever showed up on my account with the company. That's fine, because I never paid for the phone in the first place. I wrote to the company and pointed that out.

I have not received any any further explanations that would help me understand what happened, how, or why. My Visa card, the one that somebody tried to hack after the iPhone showed up, had to be canceled. The credit union in the U.S. has sent me a new one, so that part of the incident is now history.

The company that sent me the iPhone seems to think I was somehow at fault. At least that's my impression. I wrote to them last week and told them I want to close my account with their outfit, but now they tell me I have to send them a copy of my ID before they'll close the account. You'd think that my having a password on the account would be enough ID to allow me to close it down. But no...

Maybe I should have filed a complaint at the gendarmerie when it all happened, but I didn't, and now I'm not motivated. I just want it all to be over with. I will never again do business with the company, which is called LDLC. I was never a frequent customer anyway, but I first ordered things from LDLC in 2004, right after we moved to France.

Meanwhile, here are some more photos of springtime flowers in the yard and out in the vineyard. We're in a dry spell for a few days, and the ground is gradually drying out. Walt did some mowing yesterday, and we'll both be out working in and around the vegetable garden plot today.

The greenhouse tent is holding up and the seedlings in it are green and growing. It won't be many more weeks before we can start transplanting some of them into the garden plot. May 15 is the day when it's safe to assume that there's no longer any danger of frost here in the Loire Valley. It was cold yesterday morning, there were frosty patches in the yard, and there was a layer of fog over the river valley, as you can see above.

18 April 2016

Catkins and other greenery

Everything is in full bud right now, all around us. The photos here are actually a few days old, and the environment just keeps getting greener and greener. I've noticed that the grapevines are starting to be covered with leaf buds too.

Many of the trees around here are covered with the flower features called catkins (chatons in French) at this time of year. I guess they're catkins because they have that cat tail look. They make good photography subjects, especially for macro shots.

Weather reports say we are going to have a fairly dry week, so we and all the other local gardeners — that means a large proportion of the population — will be able to get out and start working in our yards again. The vegetable garden needs attention, but it's been just too muddy.

It's probably still too muddy for very much tilling, but maybe by Wednesday or Thursday it'll dry out. It's cold this morning, almost down to freezing, but at least it's not raining. Or snowing!

Callie, for one, is really looking forward to summer. Despite her twice-daily trots around the vineyard, she's bored. I guess you'd call it doghouse fever — our house is her doghouse. When the poor canine does get to spend a nice hour or two outside in the yard, you can tell she's less antsy.