30 April 2018

Seen around the hamlet

It's been raining here for 22 hours now, sans discontinuer as they say. It started yesterday morning at eight o'clock, just as I was getting back to the house after a walk in the vineyard with Natasha the Sheltie. I haven't checked the rain gauge yet. I hope it hasn't overflowed. When I took Tasha out for a pee a few minutes ago, it was raining harder than it did at any time yesterday. [P.S. I checked the rain gauge at 7:45. It was getting ready to overflow. I estimate we got 38 mm of rainfall — 1½ inches. That's a lot in this climate, where we would normally get about 2 inches of rain per month.}

For years I've enjoyed the view above, which is what you see when you walk around the vineyard parcels to the north and east of our hamlet. We won't have such a view soon, because trees are slowly growing up and blocking it. A few years ago, the electric company under-grounded our wires, which is a good thing. The wires used to run on poles that brought them up the hill through a break in the trees. The company periodically sent out crews to cut back the trees to keep branches from growing into or falling onto the wires and pulling them down. Bye-bye river valley views.

This weekend, Walt has posted a couple of photos like the one above. (He's in Paris.) It's what's happening around here in this season. The garden plot is ready, but the conventional wisdom says we shouldn't set out delicate plants before May 15, when the frost danger is over in this climate. Accuweather says tomorrow morning's low temperature at Saint-Aignan will be just +3ºC — well below 40ºF. That's chilly for May 1. It's not so cold this morning because it's cloudy and raining.

By the way, can you tell I'm enjoying putting my photos in round or oval frames?

Finally, here's a view of our house and the big red maple trees that grow just east of our front terrace. We've been living here, at the end of the paved road, for nearly 15 years now.  I retired (quit my job) in California at the age of 53, fed up with the traffic jams, earthquakes, long commutes, long hours, and office politics after nearly 20 years of working in the San Francisco Bay Area (SF itself, on the Peninsula, and in Silicon Valley at various times). I had always thought I might come back to France late in life, after living and working over here, mostly in Paris, between 1970 and 1982. I did it! I plan to finish out my days on Earth here — in France, if not in this house.

29 April 2018

Les fleurs de la fin avril

Dandelions have bloomed yellow and now are releasing white seeds all around the vineyard.

The sage plants in our back yard are sending up flower buds.

Our neighbors' snowball bush is covered in white blossoms.

These little bell flowers come up every year in the same spot in the neighbors' yard.

I noticed yesterday morning, when I took these photos, that many of the vines are now producing grape flowers like this.

28 April 2018

Life around the vineyard

On chilly mornings, fog forms over the Cher river valley, about a kilometer from where we live. Sometimes an even deeper layer of fog forms and engulfs our house and yard as well. We're on a hill a few hundred feet higher up than the river.

Workers are busy in the vineyard almost year-round. There aren't many of them — only about half a dozen on any regular basis. They prune the vines in winter. They tie the vine canes to support wires in spring. And they are constantly repairing the support posts and wires that hold the vines and grapes up off the ground.

Sometimes vineyard plots are abandoned. A grape-grower dies and his or her heirs aren't interested in continuing the business. They can't agree to sell because they have different ideas about the worth of the land. Then trees grow up on and the vines slowly die back. The support posts and wires are still in place, however. That's what happened here, where there's a stand of invading trees behind a tended parcel of vines.

It's springtime and there are a lot of flowers right now. These are in our back yard.

Walt's in Paris this weekend so I'm doing double duty on dog walks. Luckily, it's not raining this morning. It's cold and I won't be surprised if there's fog in the valley. Tomorrow is supposed to be pretty damp, with rain all day long. We'll see.

27 April 2018

Des lilas inattendus

The lilac bush that Walt planted years ago is a variety that usually only flowers every other year.

This year, we didn't expect any blossoms, but nature has tricked surprised us.

Maybe it's because of the mild wet weather we had nearly all winter. Whatever the cause, we don't mind.

Above is the whole lilac bush. In French, it's called un lilas [lee-'lah] and this one is 11 years old. I see a photo of it on this blog in a 2009 post, when the bush was much smaller.

26 April 2018

Springtime plants and weather

Look at these clumps of oregano growing out on the edge of the vegetable garden plot. They're easy enough for Walt to mow around, I guess. Soon, we'll pick a bucketful of leaves and dry them so we can use oregano in sauces all year. You can see the oregano at the top of the photo below too. It grows under an apple tree, but gets full sun in the afternoon. It comes back up every spring.

Yesterday, I tilled the vegetable garden plot for the second time this spring. It was much easier to do this time, because the first pass with the tiller turned over all the matted-down dead leaves we had spread out there last November, and it also uprooted a lot of tenacious weeds. We're supposed to have rainy weather for the next few days. After that, I'll till the plot at least one more time before the end of May, when the plants go in.

The wisteria on the back of the house is blooming, but after its hard pruning last year it's not flowering as much and it's not as heavy as it used to be. We'll see what the rain will do to the flowers. I figured it was time to take a photo before it's too late.

We had a windy day yesterday, as the temperature dropped — the low this morning is in the upper 40s in ºF (below 10ºC). Look what the wind did to the blossoms on the flowering cherry tree out back. The lawn and path around the tree are carpeted in pink petals. The tree trunk right on the other side of the path is a big apple tree, and there are two other apple trees on the right side of the photo.

Finally, irises have started blooming. We had a hard rain shower or two yesterday afternoon, but the squalls were brief. Forecasts are for steadier rains over the coming weekend, especially on Sunday. We have four big patches of irises in the back yard, and I'm hoping we'll have a lot more flowers in May.

25 April 2018

Plants that proliferate

The kind of plants I like are plants that spread and multiply. I'm not crazy about finicky plants that are difficult to grow. I guess I like success better than failure. And I enjoy taking pictures of plants in different seasons.

On the left, that's oregano. Walt planted some years ago, both in planter boxes and in the ground. In both places, it keeps spreading. And not only is it beautifully green, but you can eat it! Dry bunches of the leaves in the food dehydrator in the spring and keep oregano all year in jars in the pantry and kitchen. In the summer, it sends up attractive purple flowers. Walt mows around it so it keeps spreading.

I really enjoy taking photos like these and working with them in Photoshop on my computer. On the right is a lichen that grows everywhere around the vineyard here. In Wikipedia, I see this description: "A lichen is a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi in a symbiotic relationship. The combined lichen has properties different from those of its component organisms. Lichens come in many colours, sizes, and forms." These lichens proliferate on certain trees around here. They're not parasitic.

I started growing jade plants in California, where we lived from 1986 until 2003. In San Francisco, jades could stay outdoors year-round, because the temperature there hardly ever goes down to freezing. Here in Saint-Aignan, the jades like the one on the left have to be brought inside to over-winter. They are very easy to propagate from leaves or branch cuttings. I must have nearly a dozen pots of jade in the house, on the front porch, and in the greenhouse. The one on the left has grown into something like a bonsai.

I haven't had the greatest luck with growing aucuba plants like the one on the right, which lives in a pot on the front terrace. Right now, it's flowering (you have to click on the image to enlarge it if you want to see the tiny purple flowers) and sending up a whole new set of fresh leaves. I have some aucuba planted out in the yard too, and it's growing but slowly. I wish it would grow and spread faster.

The little white daisies on the left are called pâquerettes in French because they flower around Pâques, which means Easter. In English they're called lawn daisies, and the flowers are about an inch across. They grow everywhere around the vineyard and in our back yard. When mowing season starts, as it has now, they don't last long, but they always come back.

24 April 2018

Prunus flowers and a pink tulip

The weather has changed now and our hot spell is over, at least temporarily. The rain hasn't come back yet but showers are predicted for the coming weekend. That's too bad, because Walt is going to Paris for four days and he was hoping for dry, sunny weather there. Maybe the rains won't materialize — you never know.

The Prunus tree in the back yard is in full flower right now. It was here when we bought the house 15 years ago — typing that just made me realize that today, April 24, is the 15th anniversary of the day we actually became property owners here. We weren't actually in France that day but still in California. We had given the real estate agent a power of attorney so that he could sign all the papers for us. We ended up moving here in June 2003.

Anyway, the tree I call the Prunus seems to be a flowering cherry tree, and it doesn't produce any fruit. Wikipedia says that Prunus is a genus that includes plum, cherry, peach, nectarine, apricot, and almond trees. There are 430 species in the genus.

The tulips are still in flower here too. Maybe they'll last a while longer if we don't get too much rain.

23 April 2018

Grilled lunch

The temperature again approached 80ºF (26ºC) yesterday. The sky was milky white, not exactly sunny, but no rain fell. It was a good day for cooking outdoors on the barbecue grill. Walt took some photos but I don't know if his plan is to post them today.

My contributions to lunch were 2½ things I did. Walt did the hard part, which was trimming, peeling, washing, and steaming the locally grown white asparagus spears before cooking them on the grill. I made some sautéed potatoes, which turned out really well. Sunflower oil, a hot non-stick pan with a big domed lid — the diced potatoes went in raw and unpeeled, and they had a chance to cook through as they browned. Season them with salt and pepper before serving them.

I also made a batch of whole-egg mayonnaise with garlic and chervil. That process is easy. Put a cup of canola oil in a tall measuring cup or pitcher. Add a teaspoonful each of vinegar and Dijon mustard. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Break a whole raw egg into the mixture. Blitz everything with a stick blender until it emulsifies and becomes mayonnaise. It's surprising how easy it is to do. Add peeled, chopped garlic and fresh chervil (or some other fresh herb) and blitz it again to make what might be called une mayonnaise verte.

Finally, I did the first step in cooking the pork sausages — grosses saucisses aux herbes — which are made by the butchers at our local SuperU grocery store. I poached them in the water over which Walt had steamed the asparagus. That meant bringing the water back to a boil, covering the pan, turning off the heat, and then waiting. Poaching them first gets some of the fat out of them. They're then ready to be browned on the grill.

22 April 2018

Sweet and spicy cashew chicken

I haven't been doing a lot of food and recipe posts lately. Circumstances, I guess. I still cook nearly every day, and I make mostly French but also American and Asian-style foods, depending on our tastes and moods.

Yesterday's lunch was a version of Kung Pao Chicken made with dry-roasted, unsalted cashew nuts instead of peanuts. The sauce is sweet and as spicy as you want to make it, using dried hot chili peppers — whole or crushed and de-seeded or not.

You can add vegetables like sliced carrots, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots to the mix. I put in one red and one green bell pepper, sliced into strips, along with a can of "baby corn" for texture and flavor.

Sweet and Spicy Cashew Chicken

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
3 Tbsp. peanut oil
3 slices fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 small onion or 1 large shallot, peeled and sliced
 2 bell peppers, de-seeded and sliced
1 small can "baby" ears of sweet corn
¾ cup dry-roasted cashews
6 dried red chilies

For the marinade
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. light soy sauce
1 Tbsp. rice wine, hon mirin, or dry white wine
1 Tbsp. hoisin sauce or sweet, dark soy sauce
1 tsp. peanut oil
For the cooking sauce
2 Tbsp. light soy sauce
1 tsp. sweet, dark soy sauce
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. vinegar
2 Tbsp. water
2 tsp. cornstarch (Maïzéna)

Cut the chicken breast into bite-sized cubes and marinate for at least 30 minutes with the ingredients listed above. Separately, mix the cooking sauce ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside.

Heat up a wok with one tablespoon of oil and stir-fry the marinated chicken cubes until they are nearly done. Take them out of the wok and keep them warm. Add the remaining oil  to the wok. Stir-fry the onion, ginger, and garlic for a minute or two. Cut the dried chilies in half and, optionally, remove the seeds. (You can use a tablespoon of hot red pepper flakes instead of whole peppers.)

Add the bell pepper strips and continue stir-frying until everything is aromatic and the peppers are slightly tender. Then put the chicken cubes back into the wok along with the baby corn and cashews. Stir well and pour in the cooking sauce. Continue cooking and stirring until the sauce thickens slightly. Serve hot with steamed rice.

With the onset of warm, even hot weather — we had an impressive storm with lightning, thunder, and about 20 minutes of heavy rain last night — it's grilling season in Saint-Aignan now. Today we're going to have a lunch of blanched and then grilled local white asparagus, along with locally made pork sausages, parboiled and then browned on the grill as well. I'll be taking photos.

21 April 2018

Vine trunks

Soon the vine trunks won't be so visible. The vines are now covered in leaf buds, and leaves will soon be all we'll see. The weirdly hot weather we are having right now has a lot to do with the sudden budding.

According to Accuweather, the historical average high temperature for April 20 is 15ºC. That's 59ºF. Yesterday, according to the same source, the high temperature in Saint-Aignan was 28ºC. And that's slightly above 82ºF. The sun seems burning hot.

I wore shorts and a T-shirt on my walk with the dog yesterday afternoon. The ground has dried out to the point where there's almost no mud left, and Tasha didn't need to have her paws washed off when we got home. It feels like July or early September right now.

It's tempting to write about what these vine trunks might represent if they were works of art. Comparisons to wild or mythical animals — reptiles or extinct birds — come to mind. I won't say more. Let your imagination do the work.

P.S. Bob Rossi, who lives in Maine and often comments here, is in France and is blogging right now. Here's a link.

20 April 2018

A white-post post

This is the Renaudière vineyard outside Saint-Aignan in April. It's a sea of white posts. The vines have been pruned. The remaining canes have nearly all been attached to the vine rows' support wires. Fruit trees, mostly cherries and peaches, are in bloom all around the edges of the vineyard plots.

The image above is what we see from the end of the gravel road that runs from our house and joins up with some paved lanes a mile from here. We used to walk on the paved roads with Callie the border collie, who was well-behaved around cars, but with Tasha we have to be more careful.

This view is much closer to our house. We walk out here twice a day pretty much every day. Leaf buds are appearing on some vines, but not all. I guess some varieties of grapes bud out earlier than others. The main grapes planted here are Sauvignon Blanc and Gamay Noir, with some Cabernet Franc, Côt (Malbec), and Chenin Blanc. There's at least one plot of Chardonnay near our house.

The vine trimmings are lined up on the ground along every other row. Then a tractor pulling a chipper comes through and grinds them up, leaving the chips on the ground. In the past, workers would burn the trimmings in big old oil barrels on wheeled carts, but that practice stopped nearly a decade ago.

Tasha loves this weather, and so does Bertie the black cat. He's 12 years old now, but he is still a crafty hunter. Yesterday morning he brought us a live green frog. I took it from him, carried it out back, and threw it into the pond, which is full of frogs right now. Then the cat brought us a pretty lizard, which we also took from him and returned to safety, unscathed except a bit missing off its tail.

19 April 2018

On reprend les mêmes...

...et on recommence. In this case, les mêmes are the rototiller, the lawnmower, and the two guys who walk behind them and keep them on course. This is the rototiller's 15th season in the vegetable garden plot — mine too, of course — but the lawnmower is the second one we've had since we moved here in 2003. It gets used not just in the spring but all summer and into the fall.

Above was what faced me on Tuesday. That was the day when the weather suddenly changed for the better. The photo shows the vegetable garden plot, of course. Last fall we had raked up dead leaves that fell out of the maple trees and spread them over a lot of the plot. Then Walt burned some downed branches and other yard trimmings there in the middle.

And here is the plot as it looked yesterday afternoon. I didn't do a deep tilling, but I did what I call a désherbage pass. In other words, I ran the tiller over the surface to uproot and pull out the weeds, and to turn all the dead leaves over. The ground was muddy in places, because the leaves and the weeds' roots hold in a lot of moisture. And it has been so rainy for months. I'll till  it again tomorrow or next week.

Here's the rototiller. It's a heavy, awkward piece of machinery that's not easy to handle. The wheel with the tire folds up when you run the tiller, so that the blades and disks dig into the ground and turn the soil over — in theory. Sticky mud and tenacious roots make the job harder than it would be in dry, loose soil. This morning, I woke up with a backache, but that's not surprising. At this point, the ground is drying out because of our sunny, warm weather.

Meanwhile, Walt dealt with the mess shown above. We don't know why the grass grew so tall and thick in that spot by the real fake well outside the greenhouse and back door, but it did. Maybe it got better light than did other parts of the yard.

Anyway, he got the grass back under control once it dried out enough to be mowed. He uses a self-propelled mower — the motor turns the wheels as well as the blade — but it's not a riding mower. It's not as heavy as the rototiller, but it's still a lot of work to follow it around, tilt it up to get it to go through tall grass, and to turn it around dozens of times when he comes to the edges of the yard and path. Yesterday he mowed the grass all around the section of the yard where the vegetable garden plot is located.

18 April 2018

Un jour qui ne ressemblait pas...

...aux précédents. In other words, what a difference a day can make! It seems like forever since we've had a warm, sunny morning. April is not being cruel right now.

Look at that sunrise! You'd think we were in the Sahara or somewhere else exotic. But no, it's just Saint-Aignan in springtime.

Tasha the Sheltie was pretty excited. Well, she's always excited when it's time for a walk, but yesterday was definitely different. There was a spring in her step.

There was such good early morning light that I was able to take photos like this. The gloom is gone. Good riddance. The temperature today is supposed to be in the high 70s in ºF. That's 25ºC.

Next week will be the first anniversary of Tasha's arrival in Saint-Aignan. She was born in Chinon and lived there for two months before we brought her home. She often needs bathing and grooming after the morning walk, as you might notice.

It occurs to me that next week will also mark the 15th anniversary of our becoming owners of our house here. Time is just flying by. We've been enjoying this tree's spring bloom for all these years already.