21 July 2018

Gratin d'aubergines à la polenta

This could be called moussaka but it's not traditional. Instead of making a thick sauce béchamel (flour, butter, milk) as a topping and adding cheese as well as egg to it to make it set up to a firm consistency as it cooks, I just made a batch of polenta with melted cheese in it. That was the topping for an eggplant gratin made with tomato/meat sauce. Those are slices of pre-cooked potatoes on the bottom. They're optional.

The tomato sauce is made with ground beef and flavored with oregano, onion, garlic, bay leaf, cinnamon, and powdered fennel seeds. I used about 500 grams of beef and two cups of home-made tomato sauce thickened with a few tablespoons of tomato paste (also home-made but that's not crucial). After browning the meat, I poured on the sauce and let everything cook together so that the result was not too watery but, instead, pretty thick.

The most time-consuming and labor-intensive part of the recipe is preparing the eggplant (three large aubergines) before putting it in the gratin dish with the sauce. Most recipes call for slicing the aubergines, salting them, letting them drain for an hour or so, and then frying them lightly in olive oil. That's not what I do. I think the salting is unnecessary. I slice the eggplant, put the slices on silicone pads or parchment paper (papier de cuisson) on cookie sheets, brush them with a little olive oil on both sides, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and bake them in a hot oven for 10 to 15 minutes until they are tender and browned. This time, I had three batches of eggplant slices to cook that way, so it took a while. But it's a lot less messy than frying.

The polenta came from the supermarket. I just made it according to package directions and then added about 100 grams of grated Gruyère ("Swiss") cheese to it, along with salt and pepper. Then I spread it over the top of the layered eggplant and sauce and scattered another 50 grams or so of grated cheese over the top of the polenta. It baked in the oven for about 40 minutes, just to brown slightly. I like this revisited « moussaka ». I posted the original recipe in 2015.

20 July 2018

Une tarte aux courgettes, et un orage impressionnant

Last night around 8:30 we had a very strong thunderstorm, with a lot of lightning and thunder. It had been hot in the afternoon, and the storms were moving up into central France from Spain and the Pyrenees. We happened to be out and had to run home in the rain at 9:00. We'd had apéritifs at a neighbor's house with two women who are my age and have lived here for 40 years or more. We heard a lot of good history about the hamlet over the years, and some good gossip about current and past residents. It was fun.

Today I'll post about a zucchini pie I made a couple of days ago. We are harvesting one or two (or more) zucchinis (courgettes) from our vegetable garden every day. We've made a zucchini lasagne. We've blanched and frozen zucchini rondelles for later. We've been making zucchini stir-fries and what they call poêlées (skillet dishes) in French, with various other vegetables and sauces. Then in our database I found this recipe for a tarte croustillante aux courgettes.

The tarte can be made with North African feuilles de brick, or with phyllo dough, or with a standard pâte brisée pie crust. In other words, you don't have to make dough — just buy it. With feuilles de brick, you first brush a pie plate with a little bit of olive oil. Then you layer in five feuilles one at a time, brushing some olive oil on each one. You bake that in the oven for about 10 minutes to crisp the crust up. You could do the same with layers of phyllo. Or pre-bake a standard pie crust so that it's fairly crispy.

Then you slow-cook some sliced or diced onion at low temperature until the onions are browned and caramelized. You can add a teaspoon of sugar to the onions to make them brown without burning them. A splash of white wine at the beginning of the cooking time can tenderize the onions quickly, but you have to let it all evaporate before you stop the cooking. Add some thyme and a bay leaf, along with salt and pepper. You want all the ingredients for this tart to be dry when they go into the pie shell so that it stays crispy.

I admit I took the whole morning to do all this cooking. Most of it was just waiting, so I could do other things as all the ingredients cooked on low in a skillet. After browning the onions and setting them aside, I browned some slices of steamed potato in the same pan. And finally, I browned a sliced zucchini, a big one, also in the same pan at low temperature, in two batches. I already had a couple of leftover sausages that had been poached and then finished on the barbecue grill a couple of days earlier. So all the ingredients for the tart were cooked and slightly caramelized.

Finally, you layer all the ingredients in the pre-baked pie shell, starting with the onions. On top of the onions I put a layer of zuke slices and then a layer of potato slices. I sprinkled on some grated cheese (but not too much). Then I put in a layer of sausage slices, another layer of zucchini slices, and, finally, a little more grated cheese. The tart then goes into the oven at 400ºF (200ºC) for 15 minutes or so until the cheese melts. Serve it hot or at room temperature.

19 July 2018

Ruines gallo-romanes à Thésée

Thésée is a village on the right bank (north of) the Cher river about five miles from our house and Saint-Aignan. It has a hotel, a restaurant, a pharmacy, a butcher shop, and a bread bakery. The train station no longer provides regular rail service but the autoroute on-ramp is very close by for anybody with a car. That's about it, besides the ruins. The population of Thésée is approximately 1,200.

We have a fond memory of Thésée because when we arrived here to live in early June 2003, our house was basically uninhabitable. It needed a thorough cleaning, and we needed to order appliances including a kitchen stove, a refrigerator, a micowave, a coffee-maker, a telephone, and a washing machine before moving in. So we rented a little gîte to stay in for the first week we were here, while we worked to our own house ready. The gîte was in Thésée. It was a comfortable little place and the people who rented it out were very accommodating and welcomed us and our dog. The price for a week's stay was less than $250.

The ruins in these photos, on the west side of Thésée, date back to Gallo-Roman times. That means the period when Gaulish culture was being "romanized" after the invasion by the Roman Empire and its subsequent rule over all Gaul. This was centuries before the Franks invaded from what is now Germany and turned Gaul into France. The Romans held sway in what is now northern France from the first century B.C. until about the 5th century A.D., when their empire went into decline.

Cities (or towns then, probably) like Tours, west of us, and Bourges, to the east, existed before the Romans arrived, and they became important Gallo-Roman centers nearly two thousand years ago. A major road was built to link Tours and Bourges, and Thésée was a stopping off point for traffic along that road. The Gallo-Roman name of the village was Tasciaca. Apparently, it was easy to ford the Cher river at this spot.

The ruins at Tasciaca are thought to be what's left of a ceramics manufacturing facility that dates back to the second century A.D. The walls of the buildings are nearly 25 feet (7 meters) tall in some sections, and they are remarkably intact. The Gallo-Roman site that includes Thésée extends to the left bank (south of) the Cher river and the village of Pouillé. It includes less well-preserved ruins — only the foundations are visible — of a Roman temple or sanctuary on the opposite side of the river from the ruins in my photos here.

Thésée is also a wine village. As I've said, the potter/ceramicist Claude Gaget in the village of La Borne, 60 or 70 miles east, told me when I met him in June that he drives to Thésée on a regular basis to restock his wine cellar. I've identified a vigneron in Thésée who makes Chardonnay wine, my favorite white, but I have yet to make contact with him and arrange to go there when he's actually at home. I want buy a few bottles so I can see and taste what  the wine is like. One of the first wine co-ops to produce and promote top-quality Touraine wines was — and still is — the Confrérie des Vignerons de Oisly et Thésée cave cooperative (located in the nearby village of Oisly). I used to buy their wines in a shop in our neighborhood in San Francisco back in the 1990s.

18 July 2018

Deux sortes de pain...

...using the same dough. I decided to make a focaccia-bread pizza for lunch yesterday. I made dough according to a recipe I had in our database (mostly recipes we've found on the internet over the years) but I accidentally poured in too much water for the amount of flour I was using (où ai-je la tête ?).

So I just kept adding flour until a dough ball formed in the stand mixer, doing it completely au pif (following my nose) or, as we say, eyeballing it. The other ingredients were 10 grams of yeast, a teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon or two of raw cane sugar (cassonade in French). At the end, I got tired of putting in more and more flour — in all, I must have used 6 or 7 cups — so I poured in about ¾ cup of instant-cooking polenta. I figured that would give the focaccia some texture, crunch, and extra flavor.

The toppings were fresh sliced tomatoes, frozen bell pepper strips (three colors), and a cooked chicken breast, shredded (we had one left over from grilling a whole chicken a couple of days ago). All of that topped with grated Comté ("Swiss") cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and some black olives. I baked the focaccia pizza in a big oval oven dish, in a hot oven.

Well, I ended up with so much dough that I briefly considered freezing half of it and just using one half to make the focaccia itself. Then I thought, why not just put half the dough in the non-stick Pullman-type pain de mie pan-with-a-lid and cook it first? Then the oven would be hot and ready for baking the focaccia. Both halves of the dough ball rose beautifully, doubling in volume. The pain de mie turns out to be the best one I've made so far in the special pan. It's light, almost fluffy, and doesn't taste gummy when you eat it. I think the polenta made a big difference.

17 July 2018

More Saint-Aignan street views

There are a couple of houses on the main street in Saint-Aignan built in the style of the one in the photo below. They date back to the 14th or 15th century. Other buildings, including the church and the nearby ruins of the town's old fortifications, are a lot older.

There are several large maisons bourgeoises along the banks of the Cher River and the river road, as well as along the town's main street and market square. The church and the Renaissance-era château stand above them.

The town faces an island that divides the Cher in two at this spot. The old bridge in the photo below is the only one over the river at Saint-Aignan. Newer bridges cross the Cher a few miles east (at Thésée) and west (at Châtillon-sur-Cher) of the town.

I took the photo below from the town's main market square. The church, built in the 11th and 12th centuries, really dominates the town. The population is only about 3,000. Here's a link to a 2006 post I did about Saint-Aignan. Not much has really changed.

Saint-Aignan sits at the point where three old provinces — Le Berry, La Touraine, and L'Orléanais — come together. The town's biggest attraction these days is the zoo at Beauval, just south of town, with its giant pandas and extensive collection of animals from all around the world.

16 July 2018

The streets of Saint-Aignan

One day last week, I went into Saint-Aignan to meet a couple of Americans who were visiting the town. One of them has commented on this blog many times in the past, and this was not her first visit. Here are a few views I enjoyed as I walked up into town.

This is a street that runs from the town's main thoroughfare down to the road along the river. It's not wide enough for a car to get through. It's really just a passageway, with no shops or businesses on it. It makes a good shortcut between the bridge and town's main market square.

The main street in town is more welcoming. It's lined with shops, but there are also empty storefronts. There are sidewalks, and there is parking for cars. The town is especially busy on Saturday mornings, when the weekly open-air market sets up on the town's central square. On a Wednesday afternoon, the place was fairly quiet.
There are cafés and restaurants with outdoor seating scattered around. I met the visitors from the U.S. at this café/wine bar, called Aux Cépages, for an early evening glass of wine. Cépages means grape or wine varietals. I had a glass of Chardonnay from the same place where I bought a few bottles a couple of weeks ago. The waiter told me it was an excellent wine, and I was able to tell him I knew from experience that he was telling me the truth. On my way back to the car, I stopped a picked up a pizza that Walt and I enjoyed as a light dinner that night.

15 July 2018

A rare treat: des épis de maïs

On Friday I drove over to Romorantin, a big town (pop. 18,000) about 40 km (25 miles) from our house. It's a 40-minute drive on little roads, passing through villages like Billy and Gy-en-Sologne. I was shopping for a huge clay pot that I want to plant a grapevine in, and for groceries in stores like Picard (frozen foods) and LIDL (discount groceries) that we don't have here in Saint-Aignan.

I found the pot I wanted in a garden center (Delbard), and I found some nice things at the LIDL store. One was a rare treat: fresh corn on the cob. It was corn imported from Germany. We seldom find corn on the cob around here. My impression is that a lot of feed corn is grown in France and around Saint-Aignan, but very little sweet corn.

I also got some good saucisses de Toulouse pork sausages. So for lunch yesterday we had poached, grilled sausages, corn on the cob wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked on the grill, and a batch of Italian flat beans from our vegetable garden. Everything was delicious and it was a fine Bastille Day meal.

I cooked the flat beans in butter and chicken broth with some sliced shallot. The beans had been picked an hour or two before we ate them. They're about my favorite kind of green beans these days.

A couple of days ago I mentioned and showed a picture of some wine (or water) pitchers that I saw over in La Borne in June. They made me realize we haven't used our own wine pitchers in a while. I did a quick count and found at least 10 of them of various sizes in our kitchen and dining room. I took a photo of these five. The biggest pitcher came from a shop in Collonges-la-Rouge — we were there in 2006. The glass pitchers are standard items in France, and we have two sets of them.

14 July 2018

Baked ratatouille

Usually ratatouille, which is a vegetable dish made with zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and sometimes bell peppers, is cooked in a pot on the stove. Or it can be cooked in the oven, but not usually this way. This method makes ratatouille into a summertime, Mediterranean-style gratin or casserole.

The first step is to put a layer of sliced or diced onions in the bottom of a baking dish. Drizzle some olive oil over the onions. Cut into disks an eggplant or two, a zucchini or two, and a few tomatoes. Arrange them in the baking dish on top of the onions as in the photo on the left, alternating the different vegetables.

Season the dish with thyme, salt, pepper, and more olive oil. Peel and slice a couple of garlic cloves and slip the slices in among the vegetables. Bake the dish in a medium-hot oven for at least an hour, until it is browned and the vegetables are soft and more or less confits (slow roasted, almost "candied") in the oil and their own juices. Add a little water or diluted tomato sauce as needed to keep everything from drying out as the dish bakes.

I had more eggplant and zucchini than tomato, so I made another gratin using just those vegetables, with the same seasoning. I cut the larger eggplant and zucchini slices in half before arranging them in the baking dish as shown.

Even though there were no tomato slices in the mix, I used some thin tomato sauce to keep the vegetables from drying out. Optionally, you could peel the zucchini and eggplant before cutting them into slices, but I didn't bother.

13 July 2018

Just looking around in a pottery shop

In addition to flower pots, we saw many other pottery items in the Bottani-Dechaud shop in La Borne. This one's a decorative fish. There's a hole in the dorsal fin through which you can thread string or a piece of wire to hang it by, inside the house or out in the garden. Price: 25€.

I was very tempted to buy one of these casserole dishes, but our kitchen and dining room cabinets are already full of oven-proof dishes and serving bowls. Price: 48€.

Wine pitchers like these, which were priced between 15 and 35 euros, are standard items in France. We have half a dozen of them of them, some pottery and some glass. People often buy wine in packaging called a BIB ("bag in box") or even take their own containers to a winery and have them filled from the storage vats. Then they can put wine in pitchers like these and serve it at the table at mealtime.

Bowls and pie plates were priced between 35 and 50 euros, depending on size. I like them, but as I said, our cabinets and buffets are running over. (Add about 20% to these prices to convert them to U.S. dollars.)

And finally, another big covered baking or serving dish... I can't quite read the price tag. The little black sign on the table says « Va au four » — "Goes in the oven." Oven-proof, in other words.

I didn't buy anything in La Borne but our friend Sue bought a few small things that she could easily take back to California in her bags and keep as souvenirs of a successful and enjoyable trip to France. As for me, I can go back to La Borne any time I feel like it.

12 July 2018

Le totem de Pierre Digan à La Borne

One of the most influential and controversial figures in the modern history of La Borne was a man named Pierre Digan. He was a cérmiste and sculpteur who came to the village in 1960 and set up his own business, producing a wide range of pottery and ceramics in both traditional and "modern" styles. He was successful and his work was widely known across France. He opened a gallery on the rue des Francs-Bourgeois in the Marais district in Paris. By 1979, however, the Digan Grès company he had set up in La Borne was struggling financially and he closed it down.

In 1983, Digan sculpted and painted this very tall totem pole on his land in La Borne. As a native of the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, he claimed Native American and African ancestry. His last work of art in La Borne is a spectacular one, and in creating it he was probably thumbing his nose at the village and contemporary consumerism, which he blamed for his business failure. He moved south to the even more rural Creuse département and opened a shop in the city of Limoges. He turned to sculpting in granite rather than working in stoneware pottery and ceramics.

Many of the potters who had worked with Pierre Digan set up their own businesses in La Borne in the 1980s, so his influence in the village lived on. In Limoges, Digan's shop was called Enfer and it was located on the rue du Paradis...

Pierre Digan died in January 2016 at the age of 74 after a brief illness. Here's a link to an article about him in French. Digan's former workshop is now occupied by the Bottani-Duchaud pottery business I've been blogging about for a couple of days now.

11 July 2018

Plants and pots, and the current weather

Yesterday I showed the gray unglazed pots at the Atlier Bottani Dechauid on racks drying in the sun. (Atelier means "workshop".) Today here are some examples of the finished pots. I was tempted by these, but we really don't need any new pots for plants.

No only do we have too many pots, we really have too many plants. I've never counted them, but I know there are many dozens of them around the house, on the terrace, and in the greenhouse. Even outdoors. Someday soon I'm going to have to get rid of some of them. (I just did a quick count of the potted plants in the living room and on the terrace: there are more than 25 of them.)

Still. I was tempted. The other day when I went over to Thésée to try to buy some bottles of Chardonnay white wine, I noticed that the winery had a grapevine planted in a huge pot outdoors, and it was loaded down with bunches of grapes. I have two grapevines that have been growing in small pots for several years now. I need a bigger pot for at least one of them.

The pots in this post are probably about 18 inches in diameter. That would be 45 cm. I need one much bigger — a pot so big that you couldn't possible lift and move once it was full of soil. So I'd have to find a permanent spot for it and for the grapevine. Full sun is required.

Speaking of that, our weather remains sunny and warm. This morning's low is cooler than it has been in a week or more, but the lower temperature made this a good night for good sleeping. The high today is predicted to be around 21ºC — that's about 70ºF. Our heat wave has ended, at least temporarily. For comparison, the high temperature in my home town in North Carolina will be 32ºC (nearly 90ºF) today.

Despite a night of heavy rain last week, the ground here is very dry and the grass is turning brown. We were remarking a couple of days ago when we went out for a drive in the country about how much the landscape here looks like the California summer landscape right now. Brown grass, green trees. It's dry enough that weeds are not a problem in the vegetable garden. Walt waters the plants out there by hand, targeting the roots and avoiding getting unplanted spots too wet so weeds are not encouraged to invade.

10 July 2018

From modern to rustic at La Borne

The first place we tried to get into at La Borne ended up being the last place we visited. We were there too early after lunch, so we wandered to the very modern and sleek ceramics center, the more traditional pottery museum, and several different potters' shops before returning.

Here's a photo of me taking a picture that my friend Sue took in the ceramics center. I was trying to get a wide-angle view of one of the display areas. I don't remember how successful I was.

Sue also took this photo in the ceramics center shop. I don't even remember seeing it. Would you call it "Handyman"? Reminds me of an old joke of CHM's about a place where « la main de l'homme n'a jamais mis les pieds ».

At the end of the afternoon, we stopped at this pottery studio and shop where we had started right after lunch. You can see that a big batch of pottery was out drying in the sun. Here's another view of it.

The local clay is gray and contains a good amount of sand or crushed sandstone. That makes stoneware, a very hard, almost unbreakable product. This shop, l'Atelier Bottani Dechaud, was a place where I saw a lot of things I felt like taking home, but I resisted. The big flower pots and planters were pretty... and pretty expensive.

Here's a photo of the inside of the shop that Sue took. The people are not anybody that we knew. The place was jam-packed with pots of all kinds. Here you are seeing only one end of it.

09 July 2018

Pretty pots, bad beetles, and green greens

The last place Sue and I went into at La Borne was the first one we had tried to get into after arriving in the village. We had arrived too early, it turned out, after having a good lunch in the nearby town of Henrichemont. It was about 2:15, but we soon learned that all the pottery shops and workshops didn't open until 3:00 p.m. for the afternoon. We decided to take a long walk around the village while we waited.

Above is just an example of the pottery we found in this shop when we finally got back to it around 5:00. In the meantime, we had had a good time looking around in the ceramics center and the pottery museum, as well as three or four other boutiques. As I've said, all the people we met were cheerful, curious about us Americans, and informative about the ceramics and pottery.

I'll get back to La Borne in posts tomorrow and over the next few days, but right now I have gardening on my mind. Specifically, greens, including kale and collards. Both these varieties of cabbage that don't form a head, but instead grow as a bunch of loose leaves, are coming back into fashion in France. Just above are some collard greens seedlings that I've had planted in a jardinière out on our front terrace this summer.

This is a gratuitous photo of Natasha the Sheltie with another favorite plant of mine.
Collards and kale are members of a set of vegetables like, for example, parsnips, which have now come to be considered légumes oubliés — "forgotten" or heirloom vegetables — in France. Collard greens are known by names like chou cavalier (I don't know why), chou en arbre ("tree cabbage" because the leaves grow on tall, thick, semi-woody stalks), 'or chou à vaches ("cow cabbage" because the leaves were formerly fed only to livestock).

In May, I had grown some lacinato or "dinosaur" kale (a.k.a. Tuscan kale) from seed in a planter box. The seeds came up abundantly and a couple of weeks ago Walt planted the seedlings out in the vegetable garden. They started growing faster but now they have been attacked by an insect pest called the "flea beetle' in English, or des altises in French. At least I think that's what they are. These beetles look like the ones you can see the on this rose, in a photo I took over in La Borne a month ago. The variety of altises infesting our garden must be ones that loves to eat cabbage leaves.

A lot of people love to eat cabbage leaves, too — collards included. Not only are they a prized food in the U.S. South, but people in Portugal, northwest Spain, and Brazil enjoy them too. In regions with mild climates, including those and the Loire Valley, they are a green vegetable that can grow all winter long. Before refrigerators and freezers, they were among the few green vegetables people could count on in wintertime.

Yesterday I thinned out my collard green seedlings and replanted them in other planter boxes and pots. One planter box of seedlings gave me three, plus one round pot, as in the photos. I'm glad I hadn't yet planted them out in the garden, where flea beetles wouls surely have attacked them.

Maybe the altises won't find them up here, and the leaves will stay as pretty as they are right now. I hope they will grow big and strong so that they can resist future flea beetle infestations. I'm going to keep them up here on the terrace for a few more weeks, or maybe a month, before I transplant them out in the garden plot. They should give me green leaves all winter.