30 November 2016

Un tajine : ustensile et plat

I've mentioned that last weekend I made what is called un tajine, using lamb and pumpkin. It occurred to me that you might not know what a tajine is. Here's one. It's pronounced [tah-ZHEEN], with the same -zh- sound as in our words measure, treasure, and pleasure.

The tajine is the name given to both the cooking dish (l'ustensile) and the food (the "dish" or le plat) that's cooked in it. Tajines are a specialty of  northwestern Africa (Morocco and Algeria). It seems they were an important part of the cooking of the original Berber people who inhabited the area before the arrival of the Arabs more than a thousand years ago.

You don't absolutely need a special cooking vessel to make a tajine, which is a highly spiced sauté or stew of meat and vegetables or meat and fruit. Highly spiced doesn't mean the tajine preparation is hot like some Mexican or East Asian dishes can be. The tajine spices include non-fiery cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, coriander, fenugrec, curry, caraway, and turmeric, plus a small quantity of hot red pepper like cayenne. The tajine "utensil" is a nice way to serve it, however.

I don't always use the tajine dish when I cook a tajine. I did use it for the lamb and pumpkin tajine the other day, because the recipe I found called for braising the lamb for an hour or more in a slow oven. A few years ago, I bought a tajine and was told that I could cook in it on a burner on top of the stove. I did so, but the pan cracked after after a time or two. As you see, the conical lid has a small vent hole or "chimney" in it so that some steam can escape, though most of it condenses on the sides and drips back down into the base, keeping the meat and vegetables moist. It works great in the oven.

For the lamb with pumpkin, I first browned chunks of lamb and a lot of sliced onions with spices in a metal pan on the stovetop, and then I transferred all that to the tajine, added some liquid, put on the lid, and put the whole thing in the oven at a fairly low temperature. The meat ended up very tender, and it was flavorful with all the spices and onions in the cooking liquid. The pumpkin went in later...

29 November 2016

Cold mornings, short days

Today is a big test for the new greenhouse. The outside temperature is just below freezing. A few minutes ago, I checked the thermometer inside the greenhouse and it read something in the low 30s in ºF — barely above 0ºC. I hope none of the plants we've put in there is too sensitive to the cold.

Yesterday morning it wasn't so cold, but the temperature outside didn't get above about 45ºF (7ºC) during the day. Inside the greenhouse in the afternoon, with the sun shining brightly, it was a pleasant 60ºF (15ºC). It was sunny when I went out to walk with the dog at about 4:45, so I took my camera with me and shot this series of photos pulling away from the house and the lean-to greenhouse.

Earlier, Walt gone and spread out the leaves we raked up a week or more ago and hauled out to the vegetable garden. The layer of leaves will keep weeds and grasses from taking over the garden plot during the winter, and make it easier to till in the spring. I'll till the leaves into the soil at that point. Those are apple trees that still have a few golden leaves on them.

I took the last photo from outside the back fence. The vineyard is right behind me. You can see the three big conifers that stand in our yard. The sun was going down quickly — it rises at about 8:20 a.m. and sets at 5:05 p.m. right now. That makes for short days, but at least the sun will be shining some this week.

28 November 2016

Cockles etc.

The shellfish that I got Saturday morning when I went to the market in Saint-Aignan turned out to be cockles. We've cooked them several times over the past couple of years, and we enjoy them. At 12 euros per kilo, they are much less expensive than clams (praires 24€/kg, palourdes 20€/kg).

I've done posts over the years about making spaghetti or linguine with what is called "white clam sauce" — here, for example. It's called "white" because it's not made with tomato sauce, but with olive oil, white wine, and garlic or onions (or both).

Cockles are reputedly full of sand, so letting them disgorge in salted water for at least an hour, if not two or three, is important, as I described a couple of days ago. You need to put in 35 grams of salt for each liter of water to mimic seawater.

Meanwhile, yesterday for lunch I made a Moroccan tajine of lamb and pumpkin, using the rest of the lamb I roasted for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and about a quarter of an orange pumpkin from our 2016 vegetable garden. It was a success and would be good made with chicken or turkey too. More later...

27 November 2016

Fast and furious in the Peugeot

I went out for a long but fast drive in the old Peugeot yesterday morning. It's time for the car, a 206 which will be 16 years old in December, to be taken in for its biannual contrôle technique, or vehicle inspection test. It now has about 120,000 miles on it, but it has a diesel engine that should last for many more years and kilometers. In December 2012 the car failed the required emissions test, so I had to take it in for a second inspection after pouring an additive to the fuel tank and driving it around hard and fast for a week or so, following my trusted mechanic's advice. On the second try it passed the test.

The view from our kitchen window yesterday morning

Yesterday morning, conditions weren't ideal for a drive in the country, but I felt like I had to go out anyway. The car has a five-speed manual transmission, so driving it hard means running it fast in low gears so that the engine revs at 3,000 to 4,000 RPMs for a while. We normally just tootle around town with the Peugeot these days, and that does cause carbon to build up in the engine, I guess. It needs to be driven like a teenager might drive it — fast and furious.

My 40-mile loop around eastern Touraine

So out I went at about 9:00 a.m. I turned on the fog lights and tried to drive on roads where there wouldn't be many other cars. That took me into central Mareuil, through woods and fields on narrow lanes over to the pretty village of Céré-la-Ronde, and up a wider, hilly road to Montrichard (where I did some shopping). Then I continued on to Pontlevoy, down to Thésée, and finally to the market in Saint-Aignan. That's about 35 miles of zooming and careening. At times, the visibility was severely limited by patches of thick fog. I wanted to take more photos but it was just too foggy.

Arriving at Saint-Aignan on a gray morning, with the château looming

I carefully obeyed the speed limits so that I wouldn't get a ticket. Two years ago in December, the car passed inspection, including the pollution part, with flying colors. I think that was because I put the engine-cleaning additive in the fuel tank and then Walt and I drove it over to Burgundy (Chablis, Noyers, Montbard) for a three-day excursion. That seemed to work. I'm hoping a few more spins around the local countryside will do the trick this year. The inspection is scheduled for December 7, and the contrôle technique is a very rigorous set of tests here in France. The old Peugeot 206 is running great right now, I'm glad to say.

26 November 2016

Palourdes, clams, ou coques

Walt said yesterday that he felt like eating some spaghetti with clam sauce, after two days of meals based on lamb, beans, and potatoes. So I'll be going to the market in Saint-Aignan in a few minutes, while he takes Callie for her morning walk. There's a seafood vendor at the market who comes to town every Saturday from the Marennes-Oléron area on the Atlantic coast, between Bordeaux and La Rochelle. It's a four-hour drive.

The last time we had spaghetti with clam sauce, we made it with a kilogram of what were called « palourdes japonaises » that I got from the fish section of our local SuperU grocery store. When I bought them, I wondered to myself if they could possibly be imported. The little net bag they were packaged in was well labeled, however, and set me straight.

It turns out that these Pacific Ocean clams are "farmed" in France, along the country's southwest Atlantic coast. Palourdes are in the same family as the North American clam, but they are smaller. There are native French palourdes, and there are palourdes in all the world's oceans, if I understand correctly. The "Japanese" shellfish turned out to be what are known as Manila clams in the U.S. We used to enjoy eating them in California, where they were often cooked the way mussels are cooked in France — à la marinière, with garlic, white wine, and herbs.

The clams from SuperU were of the species Ruditapes philippinarum. That second term was a good clue that they were the same Manila clams we had on the U.S. west coast. I grew up eating clams, mostly as chowder, on the coast of North Carolina, where we would go clamming on sandbars in the sounds in summertime, using rakes, shovels, or just our hands and feet to dig the clams out of the sand. The French-raised Manila clams are labeled as having been "fished" out of the sand and water the same way — Pêch. à pied, the label says ("fished on foot"), in the Golfe de Gascogne.

I don't know what kind of clams I'll find at the market in Saint-Aignan. They could be palourdes like the Manila clams, which were introduced into French waters in the 1970s, according to the Larousse Gastronomique. Or they could be another variety known simply as « clams » [klahmss], which are the North American ones. Those were introduced into French waters about a century ago. There's another clam-like mollusk called the « praire » (the venus clam) in France. And finally, there are cockles or « coques », which we like a lot, and also a local Atlantic clam that's called the « lavagnon » on the SW French coast.

Whatever the variety, it's a good idea to give clams time to disgorge themselves of sand before you cook and eat them. What you do is make up a batch of cold salt water (unless you can get actual seawater), add in a tablespoon or two of corn meal (polenta) or semolina (cream of wheat), and let the clams soak in the water for a few hours. They will feed on the corn meal and expel any sand that remains in their digestive tract. Then they won't be gritty when you eat them.

25 November 2016

Gigot - flageolets

In France, more often than not, you will be served little pale-green flageolet beans with lamb. I don't know where that tradition came from. A gigot is a leg of lamb, and the Larousse Gastronomique food and cooking encyclopedia says: Le gigot rôti, piqué d'ail et accompagné de flageolets, est le plat traditionnel des fêtes familiales et des repas fins. The Grand Robert dictionary says that the flageolet bean is « très estimé » — "highly prized."

What are flageolet beans anyway? The LG says they are small, green or white beans that are grown in Brittany and in the north of France. They are harvested slightly immature, in August and September, and you can find them dried, canned, or frozen in the supermarkets. I remember reading somewhere that flageolets, also called chevriers, are closely related to the French haricot vert green bean, or maybe even the same plant.

The LG also says that in the Touraine region, where we live, dishes prepared « à la tourangelle » are large cuts of mutton or lamb that are roasted, served with their natural juices, and accompanied by « une garniture de haricots verts et de flageolets liés à la béchamel claire ou au velouté. » You often see flageolet beans and green beans cooked and served together.

By the way, a flageolet is also a little flute. I think the name for the beans is an allusion to the fact that they make you toot after you eat them. We had our flageolets and some Tuscan kale as the garniture (vegetables) that we ate alongside our rolled-and-tied, boneless leg of lamb yesterday.

24 November 2016

Giving thanks

That sounds very religious and solemn, but for me what it means is more like "thank my lucky stars!" I am so thankful that I've been able to live this life in France for the past 13 years. I'm grateful for the good food, for the productive garden, and for the home improvements that we have been able to organize and complete since we came to live here — this year, the greenhouse and the new shower.

Meanwhile, we'll have our own special Thanksgiving today. I got a beautiful lamb roast from the butcher counter at SuperU for our dinner. It's a gigot d'agneau désossé, roulé, et ficelé — a de-boned leg of lamb rolled and tied to make a roast for the oven. Walt and I started eating lamb on Thanksgiving 20 or more years ago, because it made sense compared to having roast turkey in both November and December.
So it's our French version of a Thanksgiving meal, because roast leg of lamb with the little green beans called flageolets verts is the classic French Sunday or holiday dinner.
And then something from the garden: Tuscan (dinosaur) kale. Greens (braised in white wine with duck fat), beans (with duck fat and garlic), and a lamb roast for Thanksgiving in the Loire Valley.
And something else from the garden: a pumpkin to be made into pumpkin pie by the pastry-chef-in-residence.
To start the meal, something sort of exotic which is a French specialty and a holiday treat: foie gras de canard. It's the liver of a fattened duck, cooked in duck fat, and eaten with toasted French bread delivered by our porteuse de pain, to whom we say Merci !
And with candied figs, cooked with port wine, sugar, and star anise. The figs were a gift from friends, to whom we again say thanks.

It's always a strange feeling to celebrate a holiday that the culture you live in doesn't know much about, much less observe. You get it in your head that everybody has the day off, a lot of business are closed, people are celebrating at home. And then you realize it's just a normal weekday for everybody but you.

23 November 2016

Verre dépoli

Glass that is frosted is said to be "depolished" in French. The smooth surface of the glass has been "roughed up" so that the glass is no longer clear. The Robert dictionary gives this meaning of the espression « verre dépoli » — « verre qui laisse passer la lumière, mais non les images. Le verre dépoli peut encore être qualifié de " translucide " mais plus de " transparent ". »

For our new shower, we decided to have the glass shower enclosure panel that faces the door into the room made of verre dépoli. That way, the shower is less "in your face" when you look into the bathroom through the doorway. One reason for that is that we don't generally keep any interior doors closed in our house.

Here's what the shower looks like from inside the bathroom. As far as the color of the tile goes, well... it changes all the time. It's a little like my Citroën C4 automobile, if you remember my photos of that. I bought it nearly two years ago, and we had a discussion on the blog about what color it really was. Mauve? Taupe? Gray? It's all of those.

Sorry if the photos here are blurry. It's probably not too smart to be trying to take photos before dawn and without using a flash, for fear of getting blinding reflections in the tile and glass.

22 November 2016

Three weeks and counting

It's now been more than three weeks since we started our bathroom remodeling project. It's not a complete makeover, but we are getting a new radiator and a new tiled shower stall. For three weeks, our guest bedroom has looked like this — full of bathroom stuff. We are eager to get it cleaned up again.

The project has been plagued by a series of surprises and errors. First we ended up ordering the wrong color tile because of a typo in an e-mail. We re-ordered and suffered a delay. Then we found out that the tile we originally wanted was not really the color we had in mind. Meanwhile the new towel-drier radiator doesn't seem to working right and may have to be replaced.

Yesterday, the glass shower enclosure panels arrived, and we discovered they weren't the ones we had ordered. The supplier said if we wanted to send them back and re-order, we'd have to wait until the end of January to get the other ones. No way. But it's okay, don't you think? Above is just a preliminary photo. The bathroom clean-up work will begin in a couple of hours, and we'll be able to move things back in.

21 November 2016


The red and gold season is fading to brown now. Twice last week we had high winds overnight, so many of the remaining leaves fell to the ground. It's nice that the grass stays green in wintertime here, and so does the laurel hedge.

Above are the maple leaves that we raked up on Saturday and carried out to the vegetable garden plot. In the gap between the cherry laurel hedges on the left and the hazelnut hedge on the right there's a view of the vineyard and the woods behind it.

The leaves are also off the linden tree right behind the house. And above is the house with its new look, now that the greenhouse is in place. We are still in the process of moving plants into the new space, and there's Callie in the photo watching me as I wander around the yard with my camera.

Finally, I'll finish my brown theme with a closeup of the tile in our new shower. We're expecting the plumber in a couple of hours. He needs to put up the glass enclosure around the shower base and install the plumbing fixtures. Maybe we'll be able to start using the new shower tomorrow.

20 November 2016

Now you see 'em...

...and now you don't. All the maple leaves had fallen to the ground. It was time to get them off the driveway.

So we did the job yesterday morning — even though the leaves were still dripping wet from all our recent rain.

The driveway is certainly not as pretty now as it had been for the last month or so. Raking and picking up the leaves is a dirty job, especially when they're so soggy, but it has to be done.

We hauled all the leaves out to the vegetable garden and dumped them on the ground. They'll keep weeds from taking over the garden plot. And next spring, I'll till them into the soil as compost.

19 November 2016

The best lunch we had yesterday

We've had a rainy, gray week. It hasn't been cold, but it's nearly impossible to get much done outside. So I focus on food and cooking. On Wednesday, we had to drive up to Blois to ask some questions about the tile we had chosen for our new shower. Luckily, within a few hundred meters of the tile supplier's store is the Grand Frais super-produce-market. Some grocery shopping made the trip more fun.

I bought something I never find in our Saint-Aignan supermarkets — some bok choy, a.k.a. Shanghai choy. It's a vegetable I like for its crunchy texture and mild clean taste. It's also very easy to cook. You just blanch it in boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes and it's ready. Serve with soy sauce and sesame oil.

In the freezer we had some duck wings from the package I had bought last weekend. Since the bok choy gave me an Asian theme, I cooked the wings — just four pieces, but enough for the two of us — and glazed them with teriyaki sauce. They cooked for three hours, because I wanted to make sure they were very tender, with the meat nearly falling off the bones.

And to round it all out I made a pan of fried rice with smoked chicken lardons, mushrooms, onion, peanuts, and corn. Do you know the secret that makes fried rice really good? It's to cook the rice as you normally would, but then spread it out in a wide dish or pan and let it cool and dry out completely before you fry it with the flavor ingredients and sauces. I learned that from Elise at Simply Recipes.

18 November 2016

Du boudin noir et des coings caramélisés

Out on my afternoon walks over the past week or two, I've noticed at least two quince trees that still have fruit on them, or lying on the ground under them. Nobody is around to pick or gather the quinces — except me, it seems.

A quince is a large, hard, grainy fruit that resembles an overgrown pear but is bright yellow when ripe. In French it's called « un coing » (the G is silent) and the tree is « le cognassier » [koh-nyah-'ssyay]. In our climate, which not hot enough tp allow quinces to get really, really ripe, the fruit needs to be cooked to be edible. It makes good jelly, which turns red as it cooks. Quinces are much more acidic than pears, and more acidic than most apples. They are also rich in pectin.

Cooked quince, like cooked apple or apple sauce, makes a good accompaniment for roasted or grilled pork, lamb, chicken, or duck. In North Africa, people make spicy sweet-and-sour tajines using quince and lamb, for example. Since the quinces I found recently were not numerous (above, you see two out of the four I got this time), I decided that the best way to cook them would be as a side dish to have with meat.

What you do is peel and core the fruits and cut them into slices. Melt some butter in a frying pan and, when it's hot, put the quince slices in. Add about a tablespoon of honey or sugar and let the quince slices cook until they start to brown. Carefully turn them over and brown them on all sides as best you can. If you want to make the same thing with apples, add some lemon juice to perk it up.

The pork product that we decided to have with the quince — a kind of chutney that would be good with spicy sausages — was boudin noir. That's called "black pudding" in England, or blood sausage in other places. In the British Isles, black pudding is served as part of a full breakfast. In France, boudin noir is a lunch, dinner, or barbecue treat. Walt and I both like it. The flavor is not strong or gamy, and the texture is nice. The sausage is made with pork blood, fat, and rind, seasoned with onion and spices. It's sold already cooked, so you just have to heat it up and serve it.

17 November 2016


The carreleur put up the carrelage yesterday. In other words, the tile guy put up the tile for the new shower in the bathroom. We are trying to match, or at least not clash with, the colors in old tile in the bathroom, which is is good condition.

The two photos in the composite above are not in scale with each other. The busy old tiles are actually much smaller than the plain new tiles. I'm not sure how authentic or accurate the colors are in these photos, really. And after the tile guy applies white grout to the new tiled surfaces, it may look different.

Well, it doesn't look at all green here, but green was the idea we started with. We definitely need to paint the walls a different color, to try to tie it all together. I think the shower itself is going to be nice. Maybe we'll need to change the tile in the rest of the room after all. And give that shower base a good cleaning.

16 November 2016


Yesterday we finally received the tile for our bathroom improvement project. Or we finally became convinced that it was the right tile and the right color for our shower. It's a long story, and one day either Walt or I will tell the whole thing. Not today.

The tile contractor will be here this morning to start the job. We have jerked him around a little, but we didn't mean to. I'm sure he'll be glad to get the job started, and even happier when it is finished. So will we. Meanwhile, above is the view looking north off our front terrace this week.

It's all about color. And our colorful autumn leaves are really holding on this year around Saint-Aignan. The maples off our front porch are still in full display mode. Walt said he looked back into his blog and saw that by Nov. 11 last year all the leaves were on the ground and the branches were bare.

Yesterday we drove up to Blois, and along the way we passed through sections of road that are lined with trees that formed a golden canopy over our heads. I couldn't take photos because I was driving and, besides, it was raining. It was very atmospheric.