31 January 2018


The Renaudière vineyard outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher in the Loire Valley, late January 2018

Did you know that certain (if not all) car rental companies in the U.S. charge people who live outside the U.S. an automatic 20% premium on their rental fees compared to what they charge people who are U.S. residents? I know, because I am a U.S. citizen but a resident of France.

Soupe à l'oignon gratinée was what was for lunch yesterday

I've compared car rental prices recently. I have a U.S. passport but a French billing address on my credit card (issued by an American bank) and a French driver's license (which is recognized as valid in the U.S.). I don't like paying more without knowing why I'm being penalized. Do you think they would be allowed to charge somebody from California more than somebody from, say, Virginia based exclusively on an address?

30 January 2018

On hold

For the past three for four days, I've been scrambling to put together an emergency trip to N.C. I've had trouble finding affordable flights, getting my credit card accepted by reservation services, and getting through to U.S. phone numbers from here in Saint-Aignan. I've run into one roadblock after another. But now it's done. I'll be leaving in a couple of days, if all goes well.

I'll write more about the details of all that went wrong in arranging the trip, but later. Meanwhile, don't expect a lot more here for the foreseeable future than some pictures I took out in the Renaudière vineyard last Friday.

29 January 2018

Will need bulldozing

I like this view for the clouds, the light, and the long row of brush between the two stands of big trees on either side. This was the atmosphere around here a couple of days ago, before dense fog rolled in again. (It's raining this morning — quoi de neuf ?)

The spindly trees in the distance that line the horizon have overgrown a parcel of vines. They weren't there when we first came here more than 15 years ago. Back then, we had a clear view of the horizon. The vines and their support posts and wires were not removed; they were abandoned and trees just grew up among them. If and when anybody ever wants to grow grapes there again, I guess the first thing needed will be a bulldozer.

28 January 2018

Je reprends ce que j'ai dit hier

I take back what I said about the weather yesterday. Yes, it is not raining. Yes, it is colder. No, it's not a lot better than it was. After a beautiful Friday, we were blanketed in thick fog all day yesterday. It was dim and gray. Oh well. At least it didn't rain. But because of the pea soup fog I lost sight of Tasha a time or two on the morning walk, and I don't like that. I finally had to put her on the leash.

So I got busy in the kitchen after the morning walk. I made a Bœuf miroton (or is that mironton?) using the leftovers from (remains of?) our recent pot-au-feu (boiled beef). It's basically a hash with the beef roughly chopped up and shredded, a lot of sauteed onion, and some sliced carrots in a thickened sauce flavored with a little bit of vinegar and tomato paste. I didn't take pictures of any of that. But I did take a couple of photos of the pie we made to have as dessert with it.

It's a banana cream pie, and an American recipe as far as I know. Walt, the pastry whiz, made a flaky pie crust in a deep tin that has a removable bottom. I made a sweet custard thickened with flour and cornstarch using a mixture of milk and cream, and enriched with three beaten egg yolks, a dash of vanilla, and some melted butter. Sliced banana went into the pie shell and the the warm custard got poured over all. The warm custard softened the banana slices just slightly and then firmed up as it cooled. Delicious.

27 January 2018

Le temps a changé

You'll be glad to hear me say that the weather has really changed. It's turned dry and colder. You won't have to read my moaning and groaning about damp and dark any more, at least for a while.

Yesterday afternoon the sky was a deep blue with huge puffy clouds. There's very little wind, and it's chilly now — but it's a dry, seasonal cold, and still not below freezing. Forecasts say it will stay this way for a week or so.

The ground is still sloppy wet but at least the air isn't. My camera didn't know how to act yesterday because of the high-contrast light conditions. Paris and other places to the northeast of us are still waiting for the rivers to crest so they can assess the extent of the flooding. I like this French expression for a river that is flooding: La Seine est sortie de son lit. "The Seine has gotten out of its bed." No damaging floods here at Saint-Aignan so far.

26 January 2018

C'est quoi, un pot-au-feu ?

« Pot-au-feu » — "pot on the fire" — is a strange expression, don't you think? Here's what a recent edition of the Larousse Gastronomique food and cooking encyclopedia says about it:


This one-pot meal of boiled beef is a specifically French dish that produces both a soup (a clear bouillon), boiled meat (primarily beef), and boiled vegetables (both root vegetables and leafy green vegetables). There are many variations on the theme, as there are with other dishes — boiled pork (la potée), other soups, or  boiled chicken (la poule au pot) — that are cooked in a wide, deep soup pot in which the ingredients simmer together in water with herbs and spices. To make a good pot-au-feu, it's a good idea to include several cuts of meat with different tastes and textures — some lean, some with more fat, and some gelatinous. Thick slices of beef shank bones provide marrow as a good accompaniment.

This is not fancy food, but it can be delicious and satisfying. The LG goes on to explain that potatoes are optional in or with the pot-au-feu. We made boiled beef and vegetables yesterday in the slow-cooker — beef shank with carrots, onions, leeks, and celery. It seemed like the kind of meal that would help protect us from the ill effects of our recent chilly, damp weather. Instead of potatoes, we cooked topinambours à l'étuvee (browned and braised Jerusalem artichokes) as a side dish. Don't forget the bread, red wine, and Dijon mustard!

25 January 2018

A dry sunset for a change

It's raining this morning, but the sun was shining yesterday afternoon during my walk in the vineyard with Natasha. She was happy and so was I. And it was relatively warm at about 55ºF. I don't often get to take sunset photos at this time of year.

Predictions are for fairly heavy rain today. That's not a huge problem here, as far as I know, even though the Cher River down the hill is slightly out of its banks. The bigger problem is Paris, where the Seine may well crest on Saturday at even higher levels than we saw during the floods of May and June 2016. It all depends on how much rain falls today.

Already, the expressways and train tracks that run along the banks of the Seine through central Paris are flooded or so at risk of flooding that they have been closed for safety reasons. The RER-C trains along the left bank of the river are not running and the line won't re-open before next Wednesday.

We are in no danger of flooding where we live, but we always worry about leaks that might cause water damage inside the house. So far so good — the kitchen ceiling is dry for now. By the way, Bertie the black cat just came inside, soaking wet. He let me dry him off with a towel. He spends most of his days in the house right now.

24 January 2018

Springing through winter

It's raining again this morning, but the temperature is above 50ºF (10.5ºC) at 5:00 a.m. It's almost like we are having springtime weather in January. I hope we don't pay for it in February and March. It's not too late for us to have snow and ice.

A lot of the plants around the yard seem confused by the weird weather. Bulbs are coming up two months early. Walt planted a lot of them in a refurbished flower bed last fall. Hens and chicks are growing fat and sassy. I have them in planter boxes and pots all along the back side of the house. Insects are having a field day.

Don't get me wrong — it didn't rain all day long yesterday. There was just a short shower in the morning, right as I was heading out for a good walk with Natasha. But rain threatened all day. Skies stayed gray and dim.

Cyclamens are coming up out in the yard. That's not unusual. These are cyclamens that bloom in January and February. They are "escapees" I believe. In other words, the woman who sold us this house threw them out into the yard when they had outgrown the little pots they were in when she bought them to keep them as houseplants for a season.

Looking at this vineyard scene in a picture I took on Friday 1/19, when we had a beautiful sunny spell that lasted all of two hours, you have a hard time saying whether the photo was taken in autumn, winter, or spring.

23 January 2018

Gratin de pommes de terre au fromage de Neufchâtel

At some point earlier this month, I realized I had bought far too many kinds of cheese over the holidays. Having lots of left-over cheese is pretty much inevitable in France. Several pieces were lurking in the cheese drawer in the refrigerator, including some that hadn't even been cut into yet. One of those was a heart-shaped Normandy cheese called Neufchâtel. It's one of my favorite cow's milk cheeses.

I decided that the best way to eat the little pieces of left-over cheese and the whole Neufchâtel would be to make a dish of  "au gratin" potatoes with melted cheese. In the Alps, this kind of dish is called une tartiflette and is made with the local Reblochon cheese. In the Auvergne mountains, it's called une truffade and is made with the local Cantal or Salers cheese. These are wintertime "comfort" foods.

The first step was to peel, slice, and brown the potatoes — about a kilogram of them.  It seemed like the easiest way to brown them would be to arrange them on silpat (or parchment papier de cuisson), brush them with oil, and put them in the oven to cook and get golden brown on top. Actually, you don't really need to brown the potatoes. You could use steamed or boiled potato slices, but the browning does add flavor and texture.

Meanwhile, recipes like tartiflette and truffade include flavor ingredients including onions, garlic, smoked pork lardons (bacon), and, for tartiflette, small amounts of cream and white wine. I had all those things in the fridge too. While the potatoes were browning in the oven, I cooked the bacon and onions in a pan on top of the stove.

Finally, the idea is to cut the main cheese through the middle horizontally, as is done with Reblochon for a tartiflette. The other pieces of cheese I had left over were Munster, Pont-l'Evêque, and Cheddar, if I can trust my memory. Use whatever melts well.

I did the Neufchâtel the way I would do Reblochon for a tartiflette. You could do the same with a Camembert or a small Brie. I cut it and put the cut side down on top of the potatoes after making layers of golden brown potato slices and the bacon-onion mixture. That way, the soft center of the cheese melts down into the potatoes, and the cheese crust gets, well, crustier. Pour on a little cream and wine — just enough to moisten the potatoes. Bake in a hot oven. This was a success.

22 January 2018

Damp dogs and hunters

Guess what — it's raining again this morning. Yesterday the morning walk with Natasha the sheltie dog got washed out. Besides, when we went out in the rain at about 8:45, a procession of cars drove into the vineyard. The drivers were hunters, carrying shotguns, out for an organized hunt called une battue, which I suppose means that they "beat the bushes" to flush out game. In this case, it was a fox hunt. Foxes are treated as pests here.

Here's a photo of our house in wintertime. As you can see, the edge of the terrace now has a lot of moss and algae (I guess that's what it is) growing on it. It's been that damp. But we still have geraniums blooming in the kitchen window planter boxes. It's been that mild. For a month or two now, a little bat has been spending the daylight hours behind one of the big brown shutters on the terrace.

Two tourterelles have discovered a food source under the bird feeder we have hanging from the branch of a maple tree out front. Other birds perch on the feeder and end up throwing a lot of seeds on the ground. The tourterelles (turtledoves) are not too proud to scavenge there. Once it a while we see jays, wood pigeons, blackbirds, or robins out there.

Out back, we didn't get as much cleaning-up done back in the fall as we would have wanted to do. That green garbage can has not garbage but potting soil in it. Anyway, the plants we left outdoors don't mind cold weather — if we ever have any this winter, they'll be fine. This morning the temperature is close to 12ºC. That's getting into the mid-50s in ºF, and is much warmer than normal. Tasha is surveying the yard.

21 January 2018

Not raining... yet!

Yesterday when I got up at 5 a.m. it was raining. It rained steadily for 12 hours. That put 15 mm (more than half an inch) of water in our rain gauge, bringing the total rainfall over the past 20 days up to 93 mm. That's nearly two inches. It has fallen gradually, meaning most days have been damp and gray. Meanwhile, it's not raining today — at least not yet. Just give it a few minutes.

The pond out back is overflowing, with the extra water running in a torrent down the tractor path behind our back gate. It's runoff from the vineyard plots and the gravel road that feeds the pond then continues downhill to feed the Cher River. A few months ago, the water level in the pond was about as low as we've seen it in the 15 years we've lived here. Not any more. All the water holes out in the vineyard are full to the brim.

However, Friday morning was glorious, I must say. Being able to take the camera out and snap pictures of a beautiful sunrise reminded me of why we decided to move here in 2003. I took the photos in this post that morning, just before the clouds closed in again.

On another subject, we've managed to find a gîte rural (vacation rental) to stay in for a four-night road trip in March. We've been cooped up too long — cabin fever. The gîte is in a little town near Moulins in the Allier département, just 2½ hours' drive southeast of Saint-Aignan. We'll leave on my birthday in early March and, of course, take Tasha with us. The house we're renting allows dogs to stay for no extra charge.

Besides Moulins (pop. 20,000), other nearby Allier towns we hope to see are Vichy, a famous spa and resort; Saint-Pourçain, a wine village; and Souvigny and Bourbon-l'Archambault, both known for their Romanesque churches and medieval châteaux. The royal House of Bourbon called this area home. And Callie, our recently departed border collie, was born in 2007 on a farm near the town of Montmarault in the same area. The last time we were over that way was when we drove there, first to meet her, and then to bring her home, eleven years ago.

20 January 2018

Que d'eau !

So much rain! That's what my title says in French. It's raining again this morning. We've been in a very wet and windy period since early in December. The rivers are high. Fields are flooded down the road, along the Cher. Rivers to the east of us are also overflowing, and the Seine around Paris is one of them. The ground in the vineyard is squishy.

The Renaudière vineyard, 9 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2018

The rains came a little late this year. I remember that I was dreading them on my blog back in October and November. A month later, we started getting dowsed. If we didn't each have a walk to take with the dog every day, I guess it wouldn't matter so much. Still, all these gray skies when we are living through the shortest days of the year are fairly depressing.

Winter sunrise

The news reported last week that people up in Lille, in the north of France near the Belgian border, had not seen the sun in two months. More rain has fallen in the eastern part of the country than here in the Loire Valley. So we're not the ones suffering the most.

Tasha waiting and watching while I snap a shot

Then, yesterday morning we had sunlight for about two hours. It was amazing. That's when I took these photos. Now that Tasha is well behaved on our walks, and we don't feel like we have to keep her on a leash, my hands are free to hold a camera. It's like we are back to the good old days when we still had Callie.

On the road home after a morning walk

It clouded over yesterday like most days, but it didn't rain. This time of year, we either have warm (for winter), windy, and wet weather. Or we have colder, still, foggy weather. I'm not sure which is worse. Gloomy days, oras the weather forecasters say — "perturbed" days — you don't get to choose. At least it's not cold. We've had very little, if any, freezing weather so far this winter.

19 January 2018

The Maxenceul reliquary at Cunault, part 2

Here's the second batch of photos of the châsse or reliquary chest at the Eglise Notre-Dame de Cunault. I've muted the colors, especially the red and yellows, on these, and I went back and did the same on the photos I posted yesterday.

One photo I didn't take back in 2006 was a full view of the chest itself. You can see it here however. What I'd like to know is its actual dimensions, but I can't find that information and my memory is vague.

On that blog I just linked to for a photo of the chest I read that primitivement the chest, in the form of a church, was covered in thin silver "leaf" with black markings to make it resemble the work of a goldsmith. It was later painted as we see it now.

Here's a link to a site that has a lot more photos of the interiors and artwork at Cunault. In it I read that because there are no representations of St. Maxenceul on the chest, it is assumed that it was named after him long after it was placed in the church, and it may well hold relics of another saint or of the Virgin Mary.

I was happy to find these photos in my archives and I've enjoyed working on them and reading about the châsse at Cunault. P.S. This blog has an even better photo of the reliquary chest.

18 January 2018

Cunault : la châsse de saint Maxenceul

One of the key figures in the history of Christianity in Europe — especially here in the Loire Valley — is the man called saint Martin de Tours. Martin was a Roman soldier born in the early part of the 4th century (316 or 336, depending on who you believe) and deceased at the end of that century. He converted to Christianity in mid-life and then converted a lot of other people in the Loire Valley. One of his disciples was a man named Maxenceul, also a saint, who evangelized the area west of Tours, near Saumur on the Loire, where the Eglise Notre-Dame de Cunault now stands.

Without doubt, one of the most amazing things there is to see at Cunault is a reliquary chest — une châsse in French — that is said to have been carved from a massive piece of walnut wood in the 13th century. The word châsse is etymologically related to "case", "cassette", and French caisse, meaning "trunk" or "crate". One source I read says that the poly-chrome painting is not original but a later "improvement" (no date specified).

Maxenceul lived nearly a thousand years earlier than the 13th century. He founded a monastery in the Cunault area, on the model of Martin's in Tours. Five hundred years after its founding the Normans (Norsemen, Vikings) invaded central France, pushing up the Loire River. The religious community at Cunault had to retreat eastward.

The monks ended up in Burgundy, carrying the "relics" or remains of Maxenceul with them. A few decades later, when calm returned to the Saumur area, a few of the monks from Cunault returned. With the support of the dukes of Anjou, including Foulques Nerra, they founded a new monastery and built the Cunault church, which was built between the 11th and the 13th centuries. Sometime around the time the church was being completed, some artist or group of artists carved a chest to keep the revered "relics" of Maxenceul in.

I read in another account that one of the miracles cited at the time of Maxenceul's beatification was something that happened in the 16th or 17th century, during the wars of religion. The reliquary chest that supposedly contains Maxenceul's relics (there is some doubt about what is actually inside the chest) was thrown into waters of the Loire by Huguenots. Instead of sinking and being lost, it miraculously floated a few miles downstream and washed up on the banks of the river. Wood floating — imagine!

I wonder if the chest was painted after that incident. Anyway, it's a beautiful piece of work. I was lucky to have good light conditions back in July 2006 when I took these pictures. I wasn't using a tripod, and my camera then was vintage 1999. Maybe these photos are another miracle! I have some more that I will post tomorrow.

17 January 2018

Cunault : mère et enfant

Two of the most striking pieces of statuary in the Église Notre-Dame de Cunault are respectively 900 and 500 years old. And one of its most impressive artifacts, a reliquary chest, is 800 years old. The church itself was built over a period of 200 years from the 11th to the 13th centuries.

This Virgin and Child, carved in wood, is from the 12th century. One page I read said it came from or is at least in the style of works done in the Auvergne region of central France.

The work above, also in wood but painted, is from the 13th century. More about it tomorrow.

Finally for today, this Pietà goes back to the French Renaissance of the 16th century, according to what I've read.

Here's a close-up of the Vierge de Pitié, the French term for this kind of statue, or Mater dolorosa (Latin). I assume it was the work of an artist, or artists, in the Loire Valley, but I haven't found much firm information about it.

16 January 2018

More Cunault images

Sometimes it's just photos and I don't have a lot to say about them. That describes today.

The author of the Cadogan Loire guidebook says that it has been claimed that there are more than 200 carved capitals like this in the church at Cunault. Somewhere I read that most of them are perched so high up that you need binoculars to get a good look at them. I wonder if my longest zoom camera might let me get more photos.

This is a shot I took in the year 2000 with the Kodak camera I was using back then.

The church at Cunault seems alive and well-cared for nowadays compared to many I've seen in rural France. It's not dark and dank but bright and full of light.

A tile floor in the church

Many of the old churches around here have rows of chairs instead of pews, so this shot surprised me when I saw it again. The poster in this shot is announcing that a concert is being given in another local church on this day.