30 April 2017

Moi, froid ? Jamais !

One plant that doesn't mind the cold — in fact, it thrives on it — is Swiss chard. That's called bettes or blettes in French. I planted some in the garden in 2016. The icy January weather of 2017 didn't hurt it. Neither has the recent "black ice" — the hard spring freeze that has damaged vineyards and orchards all over France.

There are a dozen or so chard plants in our garden plot. They spent the winter out there. When you want to cook and eat some, all you have to do is go cut leaves from around the bottom of the plant (see below). You only choose the pretty, unblemished leaves for your dinner. The other ones go onto the compost pile.

In France people often cook the white ribs of the leaves separately from the green, leafy parts of the chard. The leafy parts can be cooked like spinach. The ribs might need to be peeled if they are thick and sturdy. They can be cooked and then made into a gratin with cheese and/or cream. When the leaves are tender like these, you can cook the ribs and the leaves together. Some Dijon mustard added to the cooking liquid gives the blettes a good flavor.

This second close-up photo shows the same plant as the one above it, but on a morning when the temperature had gone down below freezing. The leaves take on a glassy or waxy appearance, but they bounce right back as soon as temperatures climb back above freezing. Collard greens and kale are affected the same way by the cold. Freezing and thawing actually improves the flavor and texture of all these greens.

29 April 2017

Bordeaux too

On Thursday, there was a damaging freeze down in the Bordeaux and Dordogne regions in southwestern France. The event is being compared to the situation in April 1991, when major damage to vineyards and orchards was caused by the kind of weather we're having now.

What has happened this year in the Loire Valley and farther south is that warm weather caused grape vines and fruit trees to start sending out new growth early. Then morning temperatures dropped below freezing over the past ten days. For example, smudge pots were again burning in the Renaudière vineyard, where we live, just two or three days ago.

I was out in the back yard with Natasha the new pup 10 minutes ago and I saw frost on low-growing plants, even though our thermometer says the temperature is in the high 30s in ºF. An article in the Sud-Ouest newspaper says that fully one-third of the Bordeaux vineyards have suffered freeze damage, and orchards in the area have been damaged too.

The photos here are not from Bordeaux but are ones I took recently here in the Touraine vineyards of the Loire Valley. Afternoons are deceptively warm these days, because the sun is hot when it shines. Mornings are frigid.

28 April 2017

Billboards flying by

The local autoroute, which was built and opened to traffic during the first few years we lived here, runs east-west from Vierzon over to Anger and Nantes. The closest exchange is only 3 or 4 miles from our house. However, we hardly ever drive on autoroutes (interstates, expressways) any more, so when we do it's an eye-opening experience.

I'm always reminded that France doesn't really allow advertisers to put up big billboards along public roadways. And I'm reminded that the tolls are sky-high. The toll for the round-trip from Saint-Aignan to the toll booth for the Tours area, a total of about 70 miles, is 12 euros (US $13) if you take the autoroute. If you did that every day, it would really add up.

Add the cost of fuel for the car ($5 per gallon) to that, and it becomes cheaper to take the train. I guess that's the point. That's why there's not much traffic on the autoroute, too. As for billboards, here are a few of the ones you see when you drive the autoroute from Saint-Aignan over to Tours. And you can drive fast, as you see in this photo of our Citroën car's speedometer.

The official speed limit on the autoroute is 130 kph (kilometers per hour), which is the equivalent of 81 mph. That's what we had the car's régulateur de vitesse (cruise control) set for, and our actual speed when I took this photo was slightly above that. Even so, some cars were passing us, going even faster.

When we drive over to Tours, usually to go shopping at Ikea or the Paris Store Asian supermarket, we always drive the non-toll roads, where the speed limit is 90 kph (55 mph). It takes a lot longer, but it also costs a lot less — especially since the car uses a lot less fuel at lower speeds than at autoroute speeds. We're usually not in a big hurry.

So I enjoyed seeing these billboards, which are obviously designed to inform drivers from other regions and direct them toward the local tourist sights — châteaux, of course. Local people know all these places and how to get to them by taking the narrow, winding back roads. We were driving over to Chinon to get the new puppy, and the autoroute saved us about an hour of driving in each direction — two hours rather than four hours on the road.

27 April 2017

Tasha and Bertie: first contact

This morning I tried to take a few impromptu photos of Bertie the black cat and Tasha the sheltie starting to interact a little. Bertie lets the puppy sniff around him and they even touched noses a couple of times.

It wasn't easy to take photos because the two animals were sitting right by my feet and it was dark in the living room at about 6 a.m. I used the flash. I just let them do their thing, because we don't want to rush them.

Bertie was raised with a dog companion. The people who left the cat with us in 2010, because they were going back to England to live and couldn't take him, had brought a puppy and a kitten into their home at the same time back in 2006. I remember seeing the two animals sleeping together in the same pet bed, and Bertie used to go on walks with the dog and its people.

So Bertie must have been disconcerted when Callie failed to take to him. Things will probably be different with Tasha. Bertie and Callie were both already adult animals when they first met.

26 April 2017

Baby doll...

Angel... Those are the terms that I find myself thinking of. Natasha a.k.a. Tasha slept all night on her little dog bed that I ordered from Amazon. She made no noise and did no pipi or poo-poo in the house... so far. She's too little to go up and down stairs at this point, so we don't have to worry about her wandering all over the house yet.

I need to back off for a while and keep an eye on her. She is a puppy, after all, and they can be willful and destructive. We haven't seen any such behavior over these first 18 hours, though. She is playful this morning, and she knows her name because Isabelle in Chinon taught her to respond to it. Smart dog. Can you see how tiny she is?

When we got home with the puppy around noontime yesterday, we were able to introduce Callie and Natasha to each other out in the back yard. Walt stayed out there with them for a few minutes while I got our lunch ready. Both dogs were mildly curious about each other. I snapped a few photos from the bedroom window. Then they came in. It was all very smooth.

The tamarisk tree is in flower and is pretty right now, but the weather has turned chilly and damp — wouldn't you know it? We hope to be able to spend a lot of time outdoors with the two dogs over the next weeks and months. But it rained all afternoon and evening yesterday, starting around 2:30.

The same thing happened in 2007, when we brought Callie home in early May. After a gorgeous month of April, in May it started raining and we had the wettest summer we've had since we moved here in 2003. Let's hope the whole pattern doesn't repeat itself.

25 April 2017

Callie to meet Tasha today

Callie is in for a big surprise today. Walt and I will be driving over to Chinon to pick up Natasha (a.k.a Tasha) and bringing her home to Saint-Aignan around mid-day. With any luck, the weather will cooperate and we'll be able to spend part of the afternoon out in the back yard with the two dogs, giving them a chance to get to know each other. Tasha is a 9-week-old sheltie (Shetland sheepdog).

Here's a recent photo of 10-year-old Callie the border collie. When I took the picture, Callie was trying to get Walt to play with her by throwing her favorite tennis ball out in the yard. He did, and she was happy. I hope she'll be happy with a new playmate, and not too jealous.

Here is a recent photo of Tasha — she's a tricolor Sheltie puppy — that I grabbed off the breeder's web site yesterday. She was born on February 23, so she's just 9 weeks old.

24 April 2017

Pain de campagne

About 10 days ago, the woman who delivers bread four days a week to people in and around the village — she's called la porteuse de pain or "bread carrier" — let us know that the local bakery would be closed from April 18 to 25. Therefore, we'd have to make do without deliveries of baguettes for more than a week. Deliveries start up again tomorrow.

The first thing I did last Monday was to make a big loaf that would tide us over for a few days. Then the next time one of us went out in the car for any reason, we'd be able to stop in a boulangerie or even the supermarket and pick up some bread for the rest of the week.

I went down to the cellier (the cold pantry off the utility room) to check on our supply of flours. There I found a partially used bag of whole-grain rye flour and another of whole-grain wheat flour. Combined with some all-purpose flour, yeast, salt, and water, those would make a good loaf of the kind called pain de campagne — country-style bread — in France.

Here it is. I included one secret ingredient, which was about a tablespoon of American molasses that I brought back from the U.S. in February. Molasses is known as "black treacle" in the U.K. and other countries. I'm not sure you can find a French equivalent very easily. The big loaf I made baked up crusty on the outside and tender in the middle, with a nice crumb and a nice taste. It made good toast, and was good with cheese.

23 April 2017


Compare these photos to the ones I posted yesterday. Leaves in the vineyard that were green and tender are now brown and crisp because of the recent freeze.

The damage is spotty. Don't get the idea that the whole vineyard looks like this. But too much of it does. The weather has warmed up now, but predictions are for more cold weather later this coming week.

On some "canes" (or sarments), one set of leaves is green and untouched, while another, nearby, is crinkled and brown. It's hard to understand how some leaves froze and others didn't.

Nobody yet knows how much the 2017 grape harvest will be reduced because of these two or three cold April days. As a consumer, it matters to me, because wine prices will inevitably go up. I've already seen local prices double over the past 14 years. And it certainly matters to people who are trying to make a living by growing grapes and making and selling wine.

These are the "smudge pots" that the owners of the Domaine de la Renaudie wine operation set out and lit in a couple of vineyard plots to try to limit the damage. They're called bougies antigel in French — bougie means "candle." I think the theory is that the heat released from the fires in these pots creates air currents that keep frigid air from settling at ground level and freezing tender new growth. These bougies were set out in every other row of a parcel of vines (Chardonnay grapes) and every few meters for the length of the long rows.

22 April 2017

La gelée noire — “black ice”

It's too soon to know how extensive the damage is, says an article in the regional newspaper (La Nouvelle République), but a major freeze has affected many of the vineyards around Saint-Aignan and the town just across the river, Noyers-sur-Cher. Ground-level temperatures have plunged into the mid-20s in ºF over the past two or three mornings.

The smudge pots in the Renaudière vineyard just outside our back yard were lit again last night, for the third night in a row. According to our own outside thermometer, the temperature this morning is 6 to 8 ºF higher this morning than it was day before yesterday, but I took Callie out for a walk in the vineyard yesterday afternoon and I was surprised to see so much of the new, tender growth on the vines has been completely burned up — grillé — by freezing temperatures. Shriveled. Drooping.

That includes the leaves on our little fig tree, both in the far western end of our yard, near the garden shed. It has definitely been colder out there than closer to the house. I haven't had a good look at the cherry tree back there yet. I'll do that this morning, and take some photos. When the damage is so clearly visible to the naked eye, you can be sure that it's pretty bad. It takes a few days to measure accurately because the tender growth is still slowly dying. Ironically, it was so warm yesterday afternoon that I was out in shirtsleeves on my walk with Callie.

The NR newspaper article lists as hard-hit the vineyards around Cheverny, Oisly, Châtillon-sur-Cher, Saint-Romain, and Noyers, on the north side of the Cher river, but also Saint-Georges on the south bank about 10 miles west of Saint-Aignan. It doesn't mention Saint-Aignan and Mareuil-sur-Cher specifically, but I can attest to the fact that the damage is disheartening. I'm glad I don't depend on agriculture — that's what grape-growing is, after all — for my living.

Over in Montlouis, the television news reported, grape-growers have hired helicopters and pilots to fly low over their vineyards to stir up the air and keep the cold from settling at ground level. Drastic measures are called for. Montlouis makes some of the best white wines in the Loire Valley, along with Vouvray. The Touraine-Amboise vineyards have also suffered major damage from the extreme cold, according to a separate article in the paper.

I also want to go see that long patch of orchids again too. I took the photos here 48 hours ago, before the effects of the freeze were visible.

21 April 2017

La maison au printemps

The smudge pots in the vineyard near our house were burning at 2:30 a.m. but they seem to have gone out now. Our temperature this morning is just slightly higher than it was yesterday this morning — still just a few degrees above freezing. The afternoons are sunny and pleasant, though.

The house creates its own little heat bubble. Just a few steps away, out in the back yard, it's colder early in the morning. Walt just told me that he noticed yesterday that the leaves on our little fig tree have frozen and shriveled up. We'll just have to wait and see if it will recover. Same for the apple trees.

The greenhouse so far is proving to be a major improvement. It really dresses up the back of the house, and it's useful as well. It has stayed warm inside, and you can really feel the difference when you come back from a walk out in the cold. In these photos, you can see a wisteria, a lilac bush, and a stand of lavender that we've planted over the past 10 years.

Our house is a really typical 20th century French house. It's called a pavillon sur sous-sol — a pavillon is a small, single-family house, usually surrounded by a yard, and a sous-sol is a basement. In this case, and often, the basement is not actually below ground level. Our sous-sol has lower ceilings than the floor above it (which is the main living area, with kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms) and is made up of a big garage, a cold pantry (un cellier), a utility room, a small front porch, and an entry hall with stairs up to the main level. And now a greenhouse.

A few years ago, when we had a mid-April freeze like the current one, we didn't get any apples at all. Also, the local grape harvest was reduced by about 30%, according to reports. People here like to tell us how they got 6 inches of snow one year back in the '70s or '80s on about May 10. So there's nothing unusual about this weather. April being cruel and all...

20 April 2017

Orchids and apples

It's pretty cold this morning, and the next three or four mornings are supposed to be cold too. When I got up this morning, I looked out the north window of the loft and I saw sparkling lights through the trees. At first I thought they might be some kind of reflection in the window glass, but I couldn't see any lights in the house that would be causing reflections. Then I realized that the owners of the vineyard had set out smudge pots to protect the vines down below from freezing. I hope for them that the pots are effective. See Walt's blog for photos.

Depending on how much frost there is a kilometer out west from our house, these orchids might be finished for the year. I'm not sure how frost-tolerant they are. I stood between the orchid pictured above and the rising sun so that I could get a photo of it in shade.

The photo above gives you an idea of how small the orchids are. They are wild, so they aren't planted in a bed but are spread out in a long strip of grassland about a hundred meters long next to a vineyard parcel.

I'm posting all these photos now rather than spreading them out over several days. I'll go out for my walk with the dog and inspect the place where the orchids are growing to see if they've survived the frosty morning.

Bright sunlight at sunrise makes for very high-contrast photos.
Remember that you can click (twice) on the images to see them at full size.

In my title today, I mention apples. About every other year we get a bumper crop of them from the four trees in our yard. We spend days and days raking and picking up fallen apples so that Walt can run the lawn mower under the trees. This morning's freeze may take care of that problem by killing the blossoms on the trees. The same thing happened on April 17 a few years ago. We'll see.

19 April 2017

The 2017 wisteria bloom

I thought these turned out to be nice clear closeups of the flowers on our wisteria plant this spring. The plant is on the west side of our house, and I took the photos early in the morning when it was in deep shade.

Here's a view of the whole plant, with all it's flowers. We planted it in 2006, three years after we moved into the house.

Back in 2012, a bad windstorm tore the whole wisteria plant off the wall. We found it lying on the ground one afternoon. But we were able to put up better support wires for it and get it back up there after pruning it some.

18 April 2017


There is a place out in the Renaudière vineyard where hundreds, literally, of the wild orchids you see in these photos are blooming right now. It's about half a mile, a kilometer or so, from our house.

The middle photo in this set shows a place in the vineyard near where all these orchids are growing. Callie is looking into the woods because she has detected movement in there.