31 May 2018

Good-bye May, hello June (and Sue)

Our friend Sue from California is scheduled to arrive today for a two-week stay. She's flying in from Slovenia, where her tour of the Balkan states ended. She's flying to Paris CDG airport this morning, and then taking the high-speed TGV train down to Tours — if all goes well. I'll drive over to Tours and pick up up at noontime. We've been friends since 1975 — we met in Paris that year — but we haven't seen each other in 12 years now. Sue, Walt, and I became really good friends during the years when he and I also lived in California (1986-2003).

This is the room Sue will stay in at our house. It's a fairly small bedroom, and it was the first room we refurbished when we moved here in 2003. The house had stood unoccupied for years when we bought it, and humidity and age had taken their toll. In this bedroom, ugly old wallpaper was hanging in strips from the walls, unstuck by moisture. The floor was austere, cheap-looking asphalt tile. We pulled all the wallpaper down, sanded the walls lightly, and painted the walls and ceiling. We contracted with a company to come put down carpet over the old tile. The paint job and carpet are still in pretty good shape, but it's definitely time to redo the room.

We slept in this room from 2003 until 2010, before we had the attic space finished off and moved our bedroom upstairs. This 1960s-era house is like many French houses and could even be compared to a large Paris apartment. The rooms are small, except for the living room and the bathroom. The two bedrooms are tiny, and in the whole house there was only one closet when we moved in. The people who had it built came here from Paris and this was to be their retirement home, but they never really lived in it. She died in 1976, and he moved into an apartment in Saint-Aignan, keeping the house as a place to come and spend some summertime weeks "in the country" — two miles from town.

The bed you see here is one that my mother found at a garage sale back in the mid-1980s. Walt and I were living in Washington DC. We drove down to my mother's in North Carolina, saw the bed, and decided to sand and refinish the headboard and footboard. We did the work in my mother's garage, and when we finished she offered the bed to Walt as a gift. We've had it ever since. We brought it to France in 2003. Sorry it's kind of hidden by the comforter on it, but here's what the room looked like in 2010.

The room has a good view of the back yard and vineyard. It faces west, so you don't have the sun shining in your eyes when you wake up in the morning, but the afternoon sun can make the room bright and cheery.

In past years, we've done a lot of touring around with Sue — Yosemite, northern California, Utah, the Loire Valley, Paris, the Dordogne, Provence, the Mont Saint-Michel, etc. And we are going to be fairly busy for the next two weeks, though the years have slowed us down slightly. On the schedule now are the gardens at the Château de Villandry, an hour west of Saint-Aignan. Walt wants to take Sue to Versailles; she's been there before, back in the 1970s with me, but maybe not since. It's two or three hours north of here. The city of Bourges, its cathedral, and the nearby Cistercian abbey of Noirlac are another possible destination. It's only about 90 minutes east of Saint-Aignan. There's a picture of Sue and Walt in this post about our Dordogne trip in 2006 and the beautiful town of Collonges-la-Rouge.

30 May 2018

Une trancheuse à pain...

I made another loaf of sandwich bread. This time it's whole-wheat, or semi-whole-wheat. I used about one-half whole-wheat flour and about one-half all-purpose flour. I put a little bit of molasses in the dough, for color, and some honey, to feed the yeast. I used fresh baker's yeast instead of the dried kind. And instead of softened butter, which French recipes for pain de mie include, I put in a tablespoon or two of sunflower oil in the dough. It all worked and the bread is good.

I recently ordered a "bread slicer" from Amazon France (amazon.fr). It arrived yesterday. Cutting even slices off a loaf of sandwich bread or a loaf cake is not easy. Actually, "bread slicer" is a misnomer. It's not that but a knife guide. It's very simple, and the one I ordered is made of fairly flimsy plastic, but it works and it cost only about five dollars. If I end up using it a lot, I can always get a better one made out of something sturdier like wood. Look at this selection on Amazon in the U.S.

The reason for all this bread-baking is that our village baker recently canceled his home delivery service. For 10 years or more, our "bread lady" (porteuse de pain) would drive up our road in her "little white van" and toot the horn to announce her arrival. We'd go out to the front gate and buy bread from her. No pre-ordering was required. She carried baguettes, other breads, croissants, and even butter, cheese, milk, and other grocery supplies for people who have a hard time getting to the supermarket or to village shops.

Also, I wanted some good sandwich bread. Not the "industrial" supermarket stuff, which is not all that good. I had memories of boulangeries in Paris and other places where you could buy what is called pain de mie — soft loaves of sandwich bread. It turned out that only one bakery in Saint-Aignan made such bread on a regular basis, and that baker made pain de mie only on Saturday mornings, for weekend customers.

I went back to that bakery this past Saturday morning at about 8:45 a.m. and asked if they had any pain de mie to sell. The young clerk said no, we don't make that. I told him I had been informed back in April that the baker made pain de mie on Saturdays but that I'd need to come in early because the loaves were usually sold out pretty fast. The clerk said yes, that was true, but the baker no longer makes pain de mie. So I ordered myself a nice metal, non-stick loaf pan and started making bread. Now I have a slicer too.

29 May 2018

Mogettes de Vendée

The Vendée is a French département located on the Atlantic Coast north of Bordeaux and La Rochelle, and south of Brittany. It was named for the Vendée river, which runs through it. There aren't any big or well-known cities in the Vendée, although Nantes is nearby. It's about three hours west of Saint-Aignan by car.

Anyway, they grow some good beans in the Vendée. That's what mogettes are — white beans. Phaseolus vulgaris is the species. Evidently, the maritime climate of the Vendée area is perfect for growing meltingly tender white beans like mogettes. The cooking instructions are below. Among other interesting things, they say Trempage facultatif — soaking the beans before cooking is optional. I didn't pre-soak these, and I cooked them at very low temperature for about 3½ hours.

Actually, mogettes are the same variety of bean as the white beans known as haricots lingots that are grown farther south near Toulouse, around the town of Castelnaudary. Lingots are the basis for the bean, duck, and pork dish called cassoulet. I've cooked lingots many times. But I don't believe I had ever cooked or eaten mogettes until a few days ago, when I noticed a box of them at Intermarché. You mostly see mogettes cooked and packed in jars, and they are fairly pricey. I do sometimes buy cans of beans — pinto beans, black-eyed peas — but now that I'm figuring out how to cook beans here with better results I much prefer dried beans.

Cooking dried beans has everything to do with the water you use in the cooking. Our water here in the Loire Valley is very "hard" (calcaire) — that means it has a lot of calcium in it. That calcium prevents dried beans from cooking up tender. The skins can be especially tough. For years, I had always heard that it's not a good idea to salt dried beans at the beginning of their cooking time, because salt will toughen their skins and prevent the beans from getting tender. Ha!

Now it seems that salt has little effect on how tender dried beans are after cooking. It's all about calcium. (We didn't have hard water in San Francisco, where we lived before coming to Saint-Aignan, so I never had to deal with these issues before.) Once I learned about the bad effects of calcium-loaded hard water, I switched to distilled water (eau déminéralisée) for cooking beans.

And then I watched a Carnets de Julie show on TV about making cassoulet. The advice of experts that Julie Andrieu presented was to cook dried beans in a good mineral water instead of hard tap water. Or, even better, cook them in sparkling water, which makes them more tender still. I cooked these mogettes in about two-thirds distilled water and one-third sparkling mineral water (which contains a good amount of bicarbonate of soda). This is one of those things where the devil is in the details. These mogettes were meltingly tender. We ate them with some boudin noir (black pudding, blood sausage) that Walt cooked on the barbecue grill.

28 May 2018

Du raisin, etc.

We, and especially the local vignerons, are lucky that our little hail shower on Saturday lasted only 2 or 3 minutes. On my walk in the vineyard yesterday morning, I didn't see any evidence of damage to the vines or grapes. Neither have I heard about any hail over in Chinon or Bourgueil, west of the city of Tours. I did read that down in Poitiers, 90 kilometers south of Tours, Saturdays storm was a major wind event, with branches and trees down, but no hail fell.

Some of the vines in the local vineyards — depending on the grape variety, I guess — already have tiny grapes on them, as in the photo above. Or are these flower buds that haven't opened yet? I'm not sure. Either way, if all goes well they will turn into grapes. There seem to be a lot of them compared to past years, and I guess that's because we've had better-than-decent weather since April. No frost. No black ice. Some chilly mornings but mostly warm afternoons, and not much rain.

Some of the other grape varieties have little white flowers on them, like the one above. I'm pretty sure these are of the Chasselas variety. There's just a very small parcel of them. Some growers around here make wine from Chasselas, but they are also good table grapes. The Chasselas wines are only semi-dry and these days are kind of an acquired taste. Over in Pouilly-sur-Loire, a good hour east of Saint-Aignan, a lot of acreage is planted in Chasselas, and made into a wine called, well, Pouilly-sur-Loire. The more renowned Pouilly wine is called Pouilly Fumé, and it, like the white wines of neighboring Sancerre, is made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes only.

Meanwhile, the frogs are still raising a ruckus in the little pond out behind our back gate. But it depends on the morning. Today, when I took the dog out for a pee, the frogs were quiet. That surprised me, because the temperature this morning is so mild (18ºC, near 65ºF). A lot of our summer mornings are not that warm.

Finally, here's one more insect that I haven't identified. There seem to be a lot of insects this year. I assume that's because we had a mild winter and now we are having a very mild month of May. I haven't seen or felt any mosquitoes, however. Maybe the frogs out back are eating them and their larvae for us.

27 May 2018

White "crab spiders"

We had a big surprise late yesterday afternoon, and the color white was part of it. No, not the white spiders, but hail! I haven't yet heard reports from other parts of Touraine, but big hailstones fell here in Saint-Aignan for two or three minutes. I'd estimate they were two to three centimeters (½ to 1 inch) in diameter, and they caused a lot of noise but no damage that we've detected so far. The clatter from the hailstones hitting the backyard greenhouse glass was almost deafening. By the time I realized what was happening and grabbed my camera, the hail shower was over. Tout est bien qui finit bien, je suppose.

Meanwhile, here are some macro photos I took a few days ago of the many white "crab spiders" that seem to live all around the hamlet and vineyard. At the end of a morning walk, I was taking photos of some of the flowers in our yard when I noticed the spider on the left, which was lurking in a red rose. The spiders are tiny.

I took a couple of photos of the flower when I noticed that the spider had jumped out to escape my prying eye (or lens). I kept taking pictures. I don't think these spiders, which are tiny, pose any danger to human beings.

Insects beware, however. The white spiders, called thomises in French, or araignées-crabes, hide in or on flowers and ambush pollinating insects that happen to come near.

The Thomisidae family of spiders includes more than 2,000 species, according to Wikipedia. Not all of them are white. And they live on every part of Earth except the north and south poles. A lot of them are able to change colors to more closely match the color of the flower they are living on. 

Right now I'm watching France 24 television to see if there are any reports of damage over to the west of us from yesterday's hailstorms. According to the MétéoCiel weather graphics we were able to see on our computer screens before the power suddenly went off around 7:15 p.m., knocking us off the 'net, the area to the west of Tours — Chinon, Saumur, Bourgueil — took the brunt of the storm locally.

Here in Saint-Aignan, the rumble of distant thunder was constant for 30 or 40 minutes. MétéoCiel has a screen that shows lightning strikes in real time as yellow or red dots lighting up on a map — impacts de foudre en direct — and there were thousands of them all around the Touraine region yesterday evening. On France 24 they just mentioned damage from hail in the Bordeaux and Charente vineyards a few hours southwest of here.

26 May 2018

Pas de voisins ce weekend

There will be almost no one on our end of the hamlet this weekend, it seems — just us, a dog, and two cats. Of course part-time neighbors might show up if the weather stays nice. But for the time being we have five empty houses all around us. Neighbors are "fleeing"  to the east and west, mainly to spend time with relatives. And it's not even a holiday weekend here in France.

Our neighbor across the street asked us if we would take care of her cat while she's away, until next Wednesday or Thursday. She's the neighbor who said back in 2010, when Bertie first came on the scene, that he had scratched her. She's gone to Annecy to spend some time with the cousin who also said Bertie had scratched her back in about 2013 or 2014.

The neighbor's cat, an 11-year-old female called Chana, scratched Walt yesterday when he went over to feed her. It's just a small scratch. Our job is to go feed Chana and let her out for the day each morning. In the evening, we go over again, let her back inside, and feed her again. If she isn't waiting at the back door when we go over there, the neighbor said Tant pis ! — Chana will just have to spend the night outdoors. And by the way, it turns out that the neighbor has been feeding Bertie regularly for the last few months.

The nights are warm and basically dry right now. We did have a short, light shower last night, though. The thermometer reads close to 17ºC this morning — that's 62 or 63 in ºF. I'll go to the market after a while for strawberries and asparagus, and maybe something like saucisses de Toulouse or boudin noir for today's lunch. 

Yesterday's lunch was meatloaf sandwiches using that latest loaf of pain de mie I made, with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. I sautéed some potatoes. Today I plan to check at the Pâtisserie du Château in Saint-Aignan, which is actually a boulangerie nowadays, to see if any of their weekend pain de mie is available. I'd like to taste it and see how it compares to the loaves I've been making.

The photos here are some
close-ups of flowers that I
took a couple of days ago
around the Renaudière
hamlet and vineyard.

25 May 2018

Le jardin potager de 2018

The vegetable garden — le jardin potager in French — is mostly in now. We have had a long spell of fine weather, with just enough rain to keep the ground damp but not make it muddy. In recent years, May has been a very wet month, but not in 2018. We've only recorded about one inch (28 mm) of rainfall this month, so far.

I was able to run the rototiller (le motoculteur) over the garden plot three times this spring. That's pretty good, considering that the winter and early spring were so gloomy and rainy. Walt set plants out earlier this week. They are still very small — 25 tomato plants of four or five different varieties — along with flat beans (haricots plats), snow peas (pois gourmands), zucchini (courgettes), chard (blettes), and winter squash (potimarrons). Those curly-cue steel rods you see are tomato stakes.

Here's one of the tomato plants. They look healthy but have a lot of growing to do. In many years, we don't even get the garden planted before June 1, so we are slightly ahead of the game. I have some Tuscan kale seedlings that still need to be planted outside, and Walt plans to sow green beans (haricots verts) in stages over the next few weeks so that they will keep bearing all summer.

Meanwhile, it's time to harvest some grapevine leaves (feuilles de vigne). We have a few vines (pieds de vigne) in our yard, but they almost never produce many grapes — the plants don't get enough sun. We do however get a lot of nice leaves in the spring and we can blanch, stuff, and roll them to make dolmas (stuffed grape leaves). In the photo above, you can see the  grape leaves in the background on the right. Those are sage flowers in the foreground, and the hedge in the back is hazelnut bushes.

24 May 2018

Plantes, ou animaux ?

I started processing yesterday morning's photos today thinking that I would do a post about plants and flowers. After sorting through the photos I took on the walk with Natasha, I realized I was doing a post about some of the animals I saw along the way.

First and foremost, there was Natasha. For about the first time, we walked along the paved Route du Vignoble, which runs along the highest point in the vineyard. Natasha shows signs of wanting to chase cars, so I've been reluctant to go onto roads that carry car traffic. Well, we didn't see a car, but we did see, close to where we were standing when I took the photo above, a roe deer. Tasha chased it, of course, but after I called her for a few minutes she came bounding back, panting with excitement and joy.

On the way back home, the frogs in the pond near our back gate were croaking and chirping like crazy. Usually, as soon as they hear my footsteps, they go quiet. But I know they're still there. Sometimes I hear a plop and one jumps off the edge the pond into water. Yesterday I stood quietly and looked where the croaking had been coming from. I couldn't see any frogs — they're green against a green background — but I took some photos anyway. I got the one above with a frog in it, and a couple of others with frogs in them too. Having a long zoom camera is almost better than having a pair of binoculars.

I was taking photos of flowers along the way as we walked, but I was distracted by arachnids and insects. There are a lot of the local white "crab spiders" everywhere right now. I often see them lurking on white flowers, where they are pretty well camouflaged. I think their plan is to ambush an unsuspecting insect.

I also noticed a lot of brightly colored bugs all around. The one above is called une punaise arlequin in French — a "harlequin bug". I see on English-language Wikipedia that they are known as "minstrel bugs" in English, or "Italian striped bugs". These insects are called "shield bugs" by the British, punaises by the French, and "stink bugs" by me and other Americans. We see a lot of them, of different sizes and colors, and they do stink if you touch them.

I don't know what this last insect is. It looks to be some kind of beetle. Maybe somebody can identify it. As usual, you can click on the photos to enlarge the view, or "pinch" and "unpinch" them to do the same thing on your tablette tactile.

23 May 2018

Five funky feline fotos

Thanks to Walt for the funky title. And to Bertie the black cat for the funky poses and photos. I took these about two weeks ago, as Tasha the sheltie and I were going out for an afternoon walk. I think the cat wanted to go with us.

Tasha, short for Natasha, is the third dog we've had as part of the household since 1992. Bertie, not a nickname or shortened name, is surely the only cat we'll ever have. He came to live here in 2010, when British friends of our who lived just down the road decided to return to the U.K.

For a variety of reasons, they couldn't take the cat back to England with them. He was four years old at the time, and he had been part of a litter born just across the river in Noyers-sur-Cher. He's part Siamese and he's now 12 years old. He's a fixture in the hamlet.
When Bertie was left with us, we were told that we should keep him shut up in the house for a week or two so that he would come to think of chez nous as chez lui too. We ended up keeping him inside for only two or three days. One time he disappeared for three days, and it turned out he had been shut up in our neighbors' garage by accident when they went away for the weekend. Otherwise, he never ran away or even roamed much.

Maybe it helped that the cat had gotten to know us when he was just a little kitten. When he came to live here, he fought with all the other cats in the neighborhood. Sometimes I wondered why in the world I had agreed to take him in, because he caused so much trouble and noise. He even scratched one of our neighbors and, another time, a cousin of hers who was visiting. I've never figured out what those two did to provoke the attacks they described.

All that is behind us now. Bertie gets along with the other neighborhood cats and with the neighbor who said he scratched her. Better yet, he gets along with Tasha just fine. He spends a lot more time in the house than ever before, but he still sleeps on his bed down in the garage, with a window open so that he can come and go as he pleases.

22 May 2018

Lapin au vinaigre et à la moutarde

I ordered six "saddles" of rabbit from the poultry vendor in Saint-Aignan at Easter and when I got them home, I realized they were much bigger than I had thought they would be. That meant, I'm pretty sure, that the rabbits were older than what I was used to — I've been cooking and eating rabbit for at least 40 years. These pieces of rabbit needed longer cooking than would young rabbit. That called for the slow-cooker, and making braises or stews.

Here's what the Larousse Gastronomique (1967 edition) says about rabbit:
« La chair du lapin est assez blanche et un peu moins grasse que celle des volailles. Sa saveur dépend beaucoup de la nourriture qu'a eue l'animal. Elle est plus filandreuse, moins fine que celles des volailles blanches, mais a sensiblement la même digestibilité.  »

“Rabbit meat is fairly white and contains a little less fat than the meat of fowl. Its flavor depends greatly on what food the rabbit was raised on. Rabbit is stringier and less delicate than poultry, but it is just as easy to digest.”

The six saddles of rabbit (râbles de lapin) made three stews, and each time we had at least four servings, if not six, out of the stews. The râbles, raw or cooked, freeze well, and I still have some of this last rabbit stew in the freezer. I made it by adapting a recipe for chicken called Poulet au vinaigre et à la moutarde. Not a lot of adaptation was required, actually, because rabbit meat is so similar to chicken, and because two of the râbles weighed about as much as a whole chicken.

You might not think so from the title of the recipe, which mentions vinegar and mustard, that this is dish of poultry or rabbit in a cream sauce. The sauce contains onion or shallot, carrot, smoked pork lardons, mushrooms, and, in my version, oven-dried tomatoes and fresh tarragon. Since rabbit is slightly bland, it needs strong seasonings to add flavor — wine, vinegar, mustard, pork, and herbs.

For "meatiness", smoked pork is perfect. White wine balances the tartness of the vinegar, and mustard is a standard ingredient in rabbit dishes in France. I mean Dijon mustard, of course. Finally, cream added to the cooking liquid toward the end balances it all out. Tomato, in the form of tomato paste or, in this case, oven-dried tomatoes cooked along with the rabbit, also adds flavor and richness. Don't forget the mushrooms.

Here's a post with a recipe for Poulet au vinaigre that I made in 2010. The recipe is good with either chicken or rabbit. Or turkey, for example.

21 May 2018

Aujourd'hui, un pain de viande

Yesterday I mentioned that my whole series of experiments in baking sandwich bread started because I wanted nice toasted slices to have with the mousse de foie de lapin that I had made. Well, that was part of the story. The other part is that our village baker decided a few months ago to end door-to-door bread deliveries in the area.

When we first came here to live here 15 years ago, the bread lady — la porteuse de pain, in French — would drive by five days a week, honk the horn, and wait for us to come out and buy a loaf of bread, or a few croissants, or even some butter, cheese, or milk, which she also carried in the van. A few years later, a new baker arrived and cut the service to just four days a week. Then again another new baker took over the boulangerie, and he cut the service to three days. Now it's been done away with entirely, except for people with "mobility issues" — a disability, old age, or no car — who can order by phone in advance and receive deliveries.

One day, years ago, I asked the porteuse de pain at the time if our baker made and sold pain de mie. She said no. She got out of the van and went around to the back. She opened the doors and handed me a loaf of factory-made sandwich bread in a plastic bag. She said that was what people bought when they wanted pain de mie. I tried it, and I didn't think it was good at all. The slices were tiny, and the bread was dry and crumbly. I could get better loaf bread at the supermarket.

When our bread deliveries ended, I started looking around in local bakeries to see what new breads I could find — handed lemons, I was trying to make lemonade. There are half a dozen boulangeries withing five miles of our house. One day, back at the beginning of April, I made the rabbit-liver pâté. I happened to go to a good bakery in Saint-Aignan around that time and I noticed, in a glass display case, a beautiful, very long loaf of pain de mie. I made a mental note to go back there are buy one of those one day soon.

When I did go back and ask about that kind of bread, I learned that the owner-operator of that bakery made a loaf or two of pain de mie on Saturday mornings only. That's market day in the town. The clerk at the bakery said I would need to come in early on a Saturday morning if I wanted some, because it normally sold out almost immediately. She didn't mention ordering in advance, and I neglected to ask.

That week, I drove "the boulangerie circuit" and looked for pain de mie in different nearby boulangeries. Only one of the four establishments where I stopped actually had pain de mie available, but I didn't like the look of it. The slices were cut far too thin and they were huge — almost the size of dinner plates. That was over in Thésée, which is a fairly long drive for us. In our village, the clerk at the boulangerie confirmed that the baker still does not make pain de mie. Over in Noyers, the baker whose shop is fairly close to the Intermarché supermarket — where I go frequently — told me that pain de mie was available only if ordered in advance.

So there you go. It occurred to me that I had always wanted to have one of those metal loaf pans with a slide-on lid. The time had come. I ordered one from Amazon France, and it arrived a few days later. I started experimenting. Now I've made
the fourth in a series of loaves in it. I made it yesterday, using about five cups (600 grams) of all-purpose flour, 400 milliliters of warm water, two packets (11 grams) of yeast, a tablespoon of honey, a teaspoon of salt, and about two tablespoons of softened butter in the process. The dough rose nicely, doubling in volume on its first rise, and on its second rise in the pain de mie pan with the lid on it, it actually overflowed slightly. The result was the loaf you see in these photos.

Besides mousse de foie, we've enjoyed eating American-style "pimento cheese" on slices of pain de mie. I made the pimento cheese using aged Gouda and Edam cheeses, both Dutch-made and available at the supermarket. The cheese is grated, mixed with mayonnaise and/or softened cream cheese (fromage à tartiner), and garnished with diced roasted red bell peppers along with salt, pepper, and a little powdered cayenne pepper. Today I'm making a meatloaf (un pain de viande — remember, pain means "loaf") with beef, veal, and pork, and this week, we're bound to enjoy lunching on more than a few sandwiches made with leftover meatloaf.