14 December 2018

“Swiss” steak

First of all, I have to say that the chunky tomato sauce was — is — very good. That's what you cook the steak in to make so-called Swiss steak. It really should be called "swissed" steak, I think. "Swissing" is apparently a process of pounding or flattening either cloth or meat to soften or tenderize it.

You could cook many meats and even vegetables this way. Okra, for example, or green beans. Actually, in this recipe, I'm not sure why the steak needs to be pounded with a batte à viande or attendrisseur to make it into thin slices. The meat is going to cook in the sauce for two to even three hours anyway. It will be tender when it is served — forcément — after long, slow cooking, even if it is not very thin.

I left the steaks whole — they were something like flank steak, which, to tenderize, needs to be  seared just lightly in a hot pan, or cooked "to death" by slow braising. You could make this Swiss steak recipe using what they call bœuf à bourguignon in France — in other words, stew beef. Another name for Swiss steak is "smothered steak" — which you might call bifteck à l'étouffée or estouffade de bœuf aux tomates.

Again, I'm not sure why the steak is dredged in flour before cooking. I did that, but in the frying pan the flour didn't adhere to the meat. It sort of peeled off. It really serves as a thickener for the sauce the meat cooks in. If I made this again, I'd skip the dredging in flour and just sprinkle flour on the vegetables in the frying pan before pouring in crushed or diced tomato, with the juice, and putting the seared steak into the sauce.

So here it is: Swiss steak. Most of us probably remember it as a Swanson's TV dinner when we were growing up. It's better than that, made this way. I looked at three or four recipes, including one in the old Joy of Cooking that my mother left behind and I brought back to France. Another was Alton Brown's version. Some contain more and some contain less tomato. I like more rather than less, especially at this time of year, when the weather is often cold and dreary.

Here's a list of the vegetables I put into the pan to make the sauce: onion, garlic, celery, mushrooms, carrots, bell peppers, and crushed tomatoes (tomates concassées in French). As for spices, I put in some smoked paprika, dried oregano, bay leaves, and powdered fennel, plus a dash of Worcestershire sauce. I sprinkled the vegetables with flour as they cooked before adding broth and the tomato to make a kind of gravy or sauce for the meat to cook in. By the way, the steak was fork-tender — no need for a knife to cut it.

As I said, the sauce was delicious. It wasn't like a pasta sauce, partly because it was slightly thickened with flour. It tasted meatier than pasta sauce, and celery and peppers gave it a distinctive flavor. Oh, we debated whether to serve the Swiss steak with rice, potatoes, wheat berries, millet, or pasta. Finally, we decided just to add some chickpeas (out of a can) to the sauce at the end of the cooking time. I plan to add some okra pods and some olives, green or black, to the sauce to finish it this weekend. We ate all the steak.

13 December 2018

More December skies

The temperature is below freezing here for about the first time this year. Warmer weather will return by Sunday. I guess steel gray skies will be the rule, not the exception, for a while. And we might have a few snowflakes on Saturday morning, according to some forecasts.

The trees on the horizon in the photo above and the one on the right weren't there when we moved here 15 years ago. They've grown up on a plot of vines that was abandoned back then. All the vines and posts and support wires are still in there. For eternity, maybe, or until somebody comes in with a bulldozer to knock it all down.

The holidays are almost here. For our Christmas dinner, Walt has ordered a guinea fowl capon from our favorite poultry vendor at the Saturday market in Saint-Aignan. Today, to ward off the cold, I'm going to make a dish I haven't ever made before, if I remember correctly: Swiss steak — an old-fashioned American classic. From what I've been reading, there really isn't much Swiss about it except that the process of tenderizing steaks by pounding them into thin slices is called "swissing"...

12 December 2018

The garden, and December skies

I decided that we needed to cover the vegetable garden plot this winter, to keep weeds from taking over. It's really hard to till the soil when it's full of tough native plants with tenacious roots. It's also hard for me to realize that the next time I do the tilling out in the garden I'll be 70 years old!

A couple of weeks ago, Walt went to our local Bricomarché DIY/hardware/gardening store and found two tarps that cover most of the garden plot, and we put bricks, concrete blocks, heavy tiles, boards, and rocks all around the edge to keep the tarps from blowing away. So far so good. The tarps didn't budge, despite the windy weather we had last weekend. The plants on the edges of the plot are Swiss chard (on the left) and Tuscan kale (on the right). I harvested some kale leaves last week and we enjoyed them at lunchtime.

Above is the sunset day before yesterday as I was going out for an afternoon walk with the dog. It was nice to see the sun that day. Yesterday, we were completely socked in — the fog was so thick that visibility was really limited.

Above is a view over part of the vineyard, looking away from the sunset and toward our house. The eastern sky is much softer and more peaceful-looking than the western sky on these mid-December afternoons.

11 December 2018

Solar-powered shutters and a new garage door for Christmas

I actually took my camera out on the walk with Tasha yesterday afternoon. And this morning I've been going through the photos I took (nearly 75 of them) and "processing" them. The light level is low late in the afternoon these days, as I've said, but the photos came out better than I expected them to. They'll remind you what the environment around Saint-Aignan looks like.

What motivated me was taking photos of our new garage door and the new solar-powered shutters on our back windows. You might already have seen some photos that Walt posted, but here are mine. The one above is the front of our house, which faces east. The old garage door was a dark brown door with four vertical panels that had to be opened by hand. The new one is a sectional, automated door controlled by what we used to call "genies" — remote controls, télécommandes — that we keep in our cars. Here's what the front of the house used to look like.

Above is a photo of the back of the house. The new shutters are volets roulants — roll-down exterior shades made of aluminum slats. They are solar powered. The photovoltaic cells are the black strips on the top left corners of each shutter. The produce electricity that keeps batteries charged, and the batteries provide electricity for the motor that rolls the shades up and down. Each shutter has its own remote control, and Walt has mounted those on the walls of each room next to the windows. You touch a button that sort of look like a light switch and the shutter goes up if it's down or down if it's up. The shutters can be partially closed as well, as you can see. Click this link to see a "before" shot of about the same view (but in a different season).

The back of the house faces west, and our prevailing winds come from the west as well. We are on high ground, and the vineyard produces a kind of wind-tunnel effect when storms roll in. The roll-down shutters are so easy to close compared to the old "finger-pincher" folding shutters that we will be closing them more often, especially on windy days and nights. And we won't even have too open the windows to close the shutters, which means we won't be letting as much heat escape from the house.

Here's another gratuitous photo of the house. It's the squarish one with the dark brown tiles on the roof, just to the right of the two big, dark-colored conifers. You can almost see the shutters from this distance. There are two other houses visible to the right of ours. I took these "soft-focus" photos just after sundown yesterday afternoon.

10 December 2018

Of darkness, light, and snow

The sun will rise at 8:30 a.m. and set at 5:04 p.m. today here in Saint-Aignan. These are very short days. I'm tired of darkness at this point. At least it's not yet freezing cold outdoors.

We got a lot of rain on Saturday — more than half an inch (14 mm) — but we did see the sun yesterday (Sunday). And we're supposed to see it again today. That's a relief.

I know, I shouldn't complain. Look at what's happening in North Carolina, my home state in the U.S., right now. At least two people who occasionally comment on this blog must be looking out on more than a foot of snow. And they might get a layer of pure ice from freezing rain before the storm ends.

The weather situation is why I'm enjoying looking back to our time out on the Atlantic coast in October. I'll say again how lucky we were to have a week of blue skies and sunshine. The photos here are ones I took on the Sunday and Monday of our week-long trip.

Pretty soon, I'll start posting some photos of the beaches, rocks, and houses of the Île de Noirmoutier. We went there on Wednesday 10/24 and it was again a beautiful day. You could have mistaken it for a fine summer day if you hadn't looked at a calendar.

09 December 2018

More about the Gîtes de Brillac in the Vendée

The sign says Gîte rural de Brillac, in the singular, but the people who own the property now have a second gîte available as well. I didn't really see that one because a French family was staying there while we stayed in the one you see below, which is called La Petite Maison. They are both rented for the same reasonable price (in October, about 400 euros for the week, everything included). You can see more information for both on this Gîtes de France web page. The second gîte is called L'Étable (The Stable).

In the photo above, the building on the left is a separate residence. The stone walls in the middle are the ruins of a building that might have once been a house or a barn. The gîte we stayed in is the house with red shutters, and the owners' house is on the far right. L'Étable is part of that building.

The map (thanks to Google Maps) above shows the area. The Vendée river is literally just steps from the gîtes. Brillac is a hamlet of the village of Chaix, on the upper right. There are no shops or supermarkets in either place. You have to drive into Fontenay-le-Comte for those (a HyperU and a Centre Leclerc, among other grocery stores).

Above is a view of the Vendée river when you turn right at the point just above the little pink marker for the Gîtes de Brillac on the map. Cars drive on this road, but traffic is very light, and as you can see, the speed limit is 30 kph (about 20 mph). The blue sign warns drivers that this is principally a hiking and biking path.

Many little canals flow into the Vendée in this area, but because the land is very low and flat the waters flow very slowly. This canal, not far from where I took the preceding photo, is covered with duckweed (called la lentille d'eau in French, I think — lentils, the little beans, are called lentilles too, as are lenses).

The river looks like this around Brillac. This is not far from where I took the photos I posted yesterday, including the cows. You can see that some people had parked an RV (un camping-car) just at the point where the road become a pedestrian and cycling path only. They were out fishing on the riverbank.

08 December 2018

Pictures from a walk along the Vendée river...

...near the gîte. We arrived in very good weather on a Saturday afternoon in October. This is the house we had rented for the week. I took walks on Sunday afternoon and on Monday morning, with my camera.

Like many French départements (counties, more or less), the Vendée is named for the river that runs through it. It looked like this near the gîte. The path was for hikers and cyclists, and closed to cars. It runs for more than a kilometer and was a nice place to go for walks with Tasha.

Because the sun was shining brightly, the colors and contrasts were beautiful. I don't know what these red berries are, but they were pretty against the reflective river. The Vendée is a very slow-moving river here.

Lichens on a very big tree trunk caught my eye. The yellow ones are especially attractive.

At one point, I noticed a patch of mushrooms growing by the path.

At another point, cows and several calves were grazing in a pasture on the opposite bank of the Vendée river. There were just a few other people out walking, and a few on bicycles, and a few fishing along the riverbank. It was all very peaceful and bucolic, even though the gîte was only four miles from the center of the big town of Fontenay-le-Comte (pop. 25,000 or more).

07 December 2018

Much ado about weather

When I told the man who owns the gîte we stayed in near Fontenay-le-Comte, in the Vendée, that we had stopped in the town of Esnandes, he seemed surprised. I didn't ask him why. We had been in La Rochelle earlier in the day, trying to enjoy walking around with our cameras and with the dog on a leash. It seemed like it would be more fun outside the city, where we'd find wide-open spaces.

Many of these fishing piers along the Atlantic coast of France washed away in big storms back in 1999 and again in 2010.

Traveling with a dog is very different from traveling without a dog. There are many things you just can't do because dogs are allow inside building, and there are things that otherwise would be easy and pleasant that become logistically difficult. We figure if we're going to keep a dog, we need to adapt our lives to the animal's needs, at least to some degree.

I've mentioned a couple of times that there were a lot of birds feeding on the mudflats
 in the Baie d'Aiguillon. You can see some of them in this photo.

The weather that day — October 22 — was gorgeous. You can see that from the photos I've been posting. We were so lucky — it could have been chilly and rainy the whole time we were out on the coast. Next week, I'll be posting photos I took a couple of days later of the beaches on the Île de Noirmoutier, a little farther north.

I wonder what this thing is? A road to nowhere? Or what's left of a stone path that people
could walk on to cross the mudflat at low tide and get out to deep water?

Speaking of weather, I should note how strange it is here in Saint-Aignan and in nearly all of France right now. Here we are in December and our morning low temperatures are about the same as we we would expect in summertime. Afternoon temperatures are not much different from early morning temperatures. And it's rainy (but that's normal).

This is the only boat I remember seeing on the bay that day...

I might have mentioned in a comment this week that I was talking to a local grape-grower out in the vineyard a few days ago. I said we were having pretty nice weather. Yes, he agreed, but it needs to be colder. If we have another warm, wet winter, it won't be good for the grapes or for plants and trees in general. He said swarms of gnats were driving him crazy as he tried to work on pruning the vines. In December, swarms of gnats! Weird.

06 December 2018

Mud, rocks, marshes... and storms

So there was no beach, or at least no sandy beach, at the edge of the Baie d'Aiguillon at Esnandes. There was a rocky shore. You wouldn't want to walk on it bare-footed. The tide was very low when we were there.

Along that shore, there were several of these high wooden piers (below) equipped with big square nets used catching small fish, shrimp, and crabs (I imagine). The nets are lowered into the water, presumabley at high tide, and after a while they are pulled back up by their edges, scooping up anything that has walked or swum onto them.

There were a lot of birds feeding on the mudflat. I didn't get very many good pictures of them because they mostly weren't close to the shore. There was however a sign near the shore that showed a lot of them, and explained how they used their long beaks to find, catch, and open mollusks, for example, or eat worms and other creatures that live in the mud and water.

Looking across the bay toward the north, on the horizon you could see a very very thin strip of land with trees and houses on it. My long-zoom camera lens could "see it better than could my naked eye.

The Baie d'Aiguillon is the estuary through which the slow-flowing Sèvre Niortaise river flows into the ocean. A decade ago in late February, a very violent storm — une tempête — a cold-weather hurricane, really — which was given the name Xynthia, came ashore here. We remember it well, because we felt the effects all the way back in Saint-Aignan. Two plum trees in our back yard were uprooted by high winds, and a dozen heavy concrete roof tiles went flying off our roof.

On the coast, the storm surge was devastating. It has been compared to a tsunami. As many as 50 people along this low-lying coast were killed, most of them in La Faute-sur-Mer (on the upper left corner of the Google Maps image above). For scale, I'll tell you that the town of La Faute is 11 miles northwest of Esnandes, which also suffered a lot of flood damage. In the storm's aftermath, the French government bought some 700 houses that had been built in zones that flooded during Xynthia and tore them down, in order to prevent such disasters in the future.

05 December 2018

Easing into Esnandes

When we left La Rochelle after lunch, we decided to drive along the coast to get back to the gîte, which was more inland than coastal. Walking around in La Rochelle with Natasha on the leash hadn't been easy. We didn't go into the old city, which is made up of narrow streets that would be crowded with people on a sunny day, making it even more difficult with a dog. We wanted to see the real coastline, so we drove little roads north through the town of Esnandes, headed toward the bigger town of Luçon.

At Esnandes [ay-nawnd], Walt saw on the map that there was a road that ran straight west from the town and led to what might be a beach. We didn't know what to expect the coastline to look like. The weather was nice, and we imagined a walk on a strand of sand, with maybe some surf. The photo above shows where we ended up: on a sort of cliff overlooking what we didn't know then was the shallow body of water called the Baie d'Aiguillon.

The high ground was good because it gave us long views out over the bay, which at low tide was actually more of a wide mudflat rather than an expanse of pretty blue water. There were birds feeding on the mudflat, but there's weren't many boats and there certainly weren't any crowds. And no beach! Oh well.

Esnandes itself is a small town (pop. 2,000) on low flat land where the houses are also low and small. The Michelin Guide describes them as humbles maisons basses, chaulées ("modest low-roofed, whitewashed houses"), and says the people who live there are gens de mer — people who work on or around the water —and make their living from oysters and mussels. It was picturesque in its own way, but we didn't stop to take pictures. I kind of liked it, and it felt (and smelled) familiar.

04 December 2018

Port cities

Here are some of the last photos I plan to post from our October morning visit to La Rochelle. I took this photo of a map in a glass case on the street near the Tour de la Chaîne. It shows the layout of what is called the Quartier de la Chaîne and the location of some of the city's towers — there are actually five of them around the Vieux Port, if you include the Tour de l'Horloge.

I snapped this photo of a detail on the wall of the Tour de la Lanterne. I've been examining it for a couple of days, but I can't figure out what it represents or represented. I guess the salt air has caused it to deteriorate badly.

Finally, here are two views of the channel that leads into La Rochelle's old port and harbor. The tide was very low when I took the photos. I wonder how deep the channel actually is. Some fairly big ferries and tour boats call in at the port, as you can see. They ply the waters between La Rochelle and places like the Île d'Oléron and the Île d'Aix.

This reminds me of home, of course. The town where I was born and grew up, in North Carolina, is also a port city. The style of the buildings and the history of the place is very different from La Rochelle's, but the natural landscape is similar. I've posted photos I've taken on trips back there on many occasions, so you might know what I'm talking about.

I figure I'll go back to La Rochelle one day. We didn't go out to the Île de Ré this time, and we didn't go to nearby Rochefort. Those are places I'd like to see. And smell, and taste.