31 August 2018

Au revoir le mois d'août

Here are six signs of the season in photos that I took yesterday afternoon. In meteorological terms, autumn starts tomorrow. In the Loire Valley, we often have a nice arrière-saison, meaning a warm and sunny September and even part of October, but we can't count on it. Time marches on. Weather happens.

Apples covering the ground

Tomatoes picked and waiting

Grapes begging to be harvested

Enjoying warm days on the terrace

Firewood neatly stacked

Autumn clouds rolling in

30 August 2018

Une belle journée... pluvieuse

What a nice day we had yesterday! The high temperature was only 71ºF (22ºC), and it rained for several hours. Accuweather says 4 millimeters of rain fell. That's not much — less than two-tenths of an inch. But we'll take what we can get. We'll check our own rain gauge once the sun comes up.

You can see how dry the ground was (and is still) in the photo above. I took the picture three days ago. The ground around the vineyard is just parched. Only the vines and trees are green, and that's because they have very deep roots.

There are a lot of blue grapes on the vines, that's for sure. I looked at the regional newspaper's web site yesterday to see if a date for the start of the grape harvest has been announced, but I didn't find anything. It's bound to be earlier than in most years, with the heat and drought we've been having. One of our neighbors, who has a daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren living the the Los Angeles area, is convinced that because of climate change France's weather patterns are starting to resemble California's, with wet winters and long dry, hot summers.

The weather is supposed to turn dry again starting today, and stay dry all next week. That's according to meteociel.com. The pink grapes (Sauvignon Rose, I think they're called) in the photo above will be happy if that forecast comes true. No big worries about blight (mildiou).

29 August 2018

Lamb kidneys braised in red wine

A week or so ago I was shopping at SuperU and I was surprised to see that there was a tray of lamb kidneys on offer in the butcher counter display case. Rognons d'agneau are a specialty I've enjoyed, though not frequently, since the 1970s. I can't remember who cooked them for me back then — they are not something I would have bought and cooked for myself at the age of 25. Anyway, I went back to SuperU on Monday and the butcher prepared six lamb kidneys for me. They cost me a little less than four euros and weighed 11 oz. (330g).

I'll spare you all the photos of the preparation of the kidneys for cooking and just focus on the finished dish. What I made was based on a recipe I found for rognons d'agneau à la berrichonne — Berry-style lamb kidneys. I'd never cooked them this way before. The kidneys were flavorful but not gamey, and their liver-like texture was perfect. They were cooked but not overcooked — rosé is the French term for lamb cooked medium-rare. I decided not to put in the mushrooms that the French recipe called for.

The sauce for these rognons d'agneau is made with red wine and smoked pork lardons, along with onion, garlic, herbs, and spices. I don't understand why lardons are not sold and eaten in North America. Especially in the South, vegetables and stews are often flavored with salt-cured pork or smoked bacon. Here in France, the pork is very lean and the flavor lardons give to sauces and dishes is delicious. They come in plain, smoked, or salt-cured forms, but I nearly always use lardons fumés.

I put plenty of spices — allspice, cayenne pepper, powdered cloves, black pepper, smoked paprika, etc. — along with sliced onion and garlic, thyme, and tarragon, in the sauce for the braised kidneys. And I soaked the kidneys for an hour in cold water with a good squirt of vinegar in it before searing them in a hot frying pan and then pouring on the red wine for the braise. I also cut up two nice ripe tomatoes and added them to the sauce for extra flavor. We ate the braised kidneys and sauce with pasta.

28 August 2018

’Tasha Tuesday

I'm stealing a page from Walt's playbook. While he was busy stacking firewood over the weekend, I was nursing a sore back. (It's slowly getting better, by the way.) I was also experimenting with a camera that I bought in 2015 and really haven't ever used very much.

Tasha was helping Walt with the wood-stacking and also posing for photos for me. She is such a cooperative little dog. She a Shetland sheepdog and is 18 months old now.

The photo on the right is a fairly soft-focus image. I took it before I found the settings I'm now using to take photos with the TZ60 Panasonic camera.

Tasha does seem to stand around a lot with her mouth hanging open. I guess that's her version of a smile. Or maybe she was hot and sweating from helping with the stacking.

In this last shot you can see the status of the woodpile on Monday morning. Walt has now filled out that second row of logs. There's one more row to go, but it actually rained a little bit yesterday morning, so Walt took a day off. Those big green cans are rain barrels, not garbage cans.

I went to SuperU in the morning and got some corn tortillas so that we could make shrimp-and-chorizo tacos for lunch. The taco recipe I based it on is a really good one (spicy shrimp, fresh guacamole, and a cilantro cream sauce).

27 August 2018

Sharp flowers

It all started when the days started getting shorter. The sun rises later. Last week I went out for a walk with the dog and took my camera with me. I got too many blurry photos. There wasn't enough daylight.

Walt said I should take my photos in shutter-priority mode and see if that worked better. Until now, I've used the camera in more or less automatic mode, letting the camera itself choose the shutter speed and the F-stop. So I tried shutter priority, where you set the camera's shutter speed (it's a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ18/ZS8) to take pictures at 1/60th or 1/100th of a second, for example, and let it automatically choose the F-stop (aperture). I got better results.

Then I thought, what about the newest camera I have, the one I never use? I tried taking pictures with it in shutter-priority mode. I got much better results. Then I did some reading on a couple of internet forums where people discuss issues with that camera. Like me, a lot of other people were having trouble getting good sharp photos out of it.

One contributor to that forum said to try the camera (it's a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ60/ZS40) in aperture-priority mode (mode priorité ouverture in French). He said the results might be surprising. Well, at this point I think he was right. That's how I took these images of flowers — wisteria, hortensia, and marigold — around our house.

26 August 2018


We went out to stack our recently delivered firewood yesterday. The weather is much cooler, so it was not such an unpleasant task. Problem is, my back has been really hurting for the past four or five days. I couldn't help Walt with the stacking as much as I wanted to.

As I gave up — I could feel my back muscles tightening up and starting to ache — I came into the house through the greenhouse and above is a photo of what I saw in there. It's the first time I've seen a praying mantis, called une mante religieuse in French, in years. I posted photos of the only one I've ever seen here back in 2009. The mantis is a Mediterranean insect that has been introduced in North America.

Here's a photo of our house that I took yesterday morning. I was standing under some big trees that grow on the north side. Walt was still stacking wood. They predicted some rain for us yesterday, but we got just a few drops — not enough to do us any good. The landscape looks like California in summertime right now. It's brown and parched.

Finally, I'll post a photo of Natasha that I was able to take while I was outside. She gets very excited when we go outdoors, and it's hard to get her to keep still. Tasha is now 18 months old.

25 August 2018

Summer visitors

On hot nights and warm mornings — we've had many this summer — we often leave windows open enough to let in a little bit of cooler air. Inevitably, other things besides air come into the house. Sometimes it's a bat, or a huge moth of some kind, or even a bird.

Recently, though, we haven't had any really big visitors. Small moths are what I see the most. They are especially noticeable when they are hanging onto the white tiles we have over the sink in the kitchen.

I get the camera and try to get good photos of such moths. Then I try to shoo them outdoors, and I'm usually successful. What happens to them once they fly outside, nobody knows.

And then one day this summer I looked out the loft window and I noticed a big dark spider hanging by a thread and blowing around in the wind. Getting a photo of him suspended there in mid-air wasn't easy, but I tried anyway.

After taking pictures, I reached out with scissors and cut the web he was hanging from. He floated away on the breeze rather than coming into the house.

24 August 2018

Je change mes pneumatiques

For anglophones, pneumatique is a funny word in French. The funny thing about it is that it's pronounced [pnømatik]. In other words, you have to pronounce the initial P, the same way to do with a French word like psychologie [psikɔlɔʒi]. The short, everyday form of the term, meaning "tire" as on your car or your bicycle, is the one-syllable word pneu, pronounced [pnø]. At least the correct pronunciation of the word is as a single syllable, but I do hear people here say something like puh-neu, in two syllables. Pneu and pneumatique are masculin-gender words in French, and I've learned this morning that they are short forms of the technical term bandage pneumatique, the rubber, air-filled "wrapper" around a car or bicycle wheel.

I won't go into the details of the phonetic transcriptions in the first paragraph — I copied them out of the CNRTL on-line French dictionary. But I will say that the vowel represented by the symbol ø is the vowel of words like feu (fire), bleu (blue), jeu (game), eux (them), or deux (two). It's a very common vowel in French and we don't have any such vowel in English. To say it, you have to really round your lips (pucker up!) and touch your bottom front teeth with the tip of your tongue. Now you know more than you ever wanted to know.

Why am I writing about this? It's because I'm getting new tires (you might spell it "tyre") on the old Peugeot today. I bought my Peugeot 206 as a used car (une voiture d'occasion) in August 2003, when we first came to live in the Saint-Aignan area. So I've had it for 15 years, longer than any other car I've ever owned. The Peugeot (there's that ø sound again — [pø'ʒo] is the way to say it) is the smaller blue car in the photo above; the other one is the newer, gray-colored Citroën C4). In 2003, the 206 had 65,000 kilometers — 40K miles — showing on its odometer (le compteur de kilomètres) and its tires were not new. Otherwise, it was in very good condition. I like it, and driving it, as much or more than any other car I've ever owned (a Ford, an Opel, a Renault 4L, two Subarus, and three VWs between 1971 and 2003, and now a Citroën C4).

The Peugeot doesn't get driven very much any more, however. It's the car we use for going to the supermarket or running other errands within 25 miles or so of Saint-Aignan (going to Romorantin, Blois, Loches, or Montrichard, for example). If I had realized how rotted the tires were, I wouldn't have been driving the car even that far from home. By the way, and à propos of nothing, in France we drive on the right side of the road as you do in the U.S., not on the left as they do in the U.K. Somebody asked me about that the other day.

The 206 now has 115,000 miles (185,000 km) on it. It's a year 2000 model — it's nearly 18 years old — and is (or was) a "luxury model" when new, with a powerful 2-liter diesel engine, automatic air-conditioning ("climate control"), fog lights, windshield wipers activated by a rain sensor, and airbags. It has a five-speed manual transmission and is a tiny car by U.S. standards. All that still works fine. The 206y gets close to 50 miles per gallon of diesel fuel so is very economical to run. And it's easy to park in small spaces.

Even so, yesterday I looked at my records to see how much the Peugeot 2016 has cost me in maintenance since I bought the Citroën in 2015. It comes to about 2,500 euros, or close to $3,000. Since there are two of us, it's nice to have two cars. We always had two cars back when we lived in Washington DC and then in California. Only for the first 12 years we lived here in Saint-Aignan did we manage with just one car, and it wasn't always easy. Since the Peugeot is not worth much now (maybe $3,000), I figure we might as well keep it. It would cost a lot to replace it with a newer vehicle.

Doing my research before buying new tires, I calculated how many miles or kilometers I've put on my current set of tires. I bought them in 2010. I was surprised to see that I've only driven the car 18,000 miles in those 7½ or 8 years. That's 30,000 kilometers. In California, I drove my VW an average of 20 to 25K miles per year for many years. I depended on it in my work life and I always had to keep it well-maintained because driving it was how I got to work in the morning and back home at night (100+ miles a day for much of my career).

The Peugeot's tires actually don't show obvious signs of wear and tear. They're Michelins and the tread is still deep, but the tires are rotting away from what we call "dry rot" but which is not really that. It's just old, sun-damaged rubber that is starting to crack and split. I've read that any tire that's more than six years old is "suspect" and needs to be inspected frequently. My Michelins are eight years old and I'll feel a lot safer riding on new tires.

I'm not getting new Michelin tires. It's just because they are expensive, and I drive the Peugeot so little that I don't see the point of paying their price. In six or seven years, if I can keep the Peugeot going that long, I'll just have to replace them anyway, for the same reason as now. So I'm going with a set of Firestones that my mechanic recommends and that are costing 230 euros, including balancing and mounting. Firestone in France is pronounced something like [fee-reh-stun]. I'm looking forward to seeing if the car drives differently with new tires on it.

Here's the definition of pneumatique that I found in the CNRTL on-line dictionary: Enveloppe de caoutchouc renforcée intérieurement par une carcasse de textile et de fils d'acier contenant de l'air sous pression soit directement soit dans une chambre à air qu'elle recouvre et s'adaptant sur la jante des roues de divers véhicules et appareils de locomotion de façon à assurer par son élasticité une bonne adhérence des roues sur la surface de roulement. Whew! A sentence worthy of Proust! I like the fact that what we call a tire's "inner tube" is called une chambre à air in French. I can't help thinking of Airbnb.

23 August 2018

Of wood and heat

Yesterday was one of the hottest days we've had this summer. According to Accuweather, seven other days in August 2018 have been hotter — but only by a degree or two or three. The temperature hit 33ºC yesterday afternoon. I had a pretty miserable walk with Tasha between five and six o'clock. The sun was scorchingly hot, and I tried to stay in the shade as much as I could... which wasn't much, considering I'm walking in a vineyard.

It's ironic that we took delivery of our firewood for the winter yesterday afternoon, on such a hot day. The man who delivers it, Monsieur Duval, owns the Entreprise Duval firewood business that's in the village called Vallières-les-Grandes, up near Chaumont-sur-Loire. I had called him a couple of days ago, and 48 hours later, there was the wood, all four cubic meters of it, cut into approximately foot-long pieces.

Here's what the house looks like on hot afternoons. (The ºF equivalent of 33ºC is 92.) Without air-conditioning, the only way we can survive the heat is to close all the shutters on the west side of the house. The Velux skylight windows in the roof have roll-down blackout shades that we also close. We have a big extractor fan in the loft to try to pull cooler air into the room. Fortunately, I guess, we have only one window in the south side of the house, and it's made of glass blocks. We close a heavy curtain over it to keep the heat out.

I got up at five this morning, as is usual these days, and opened as many windows and shutters as I could to let in cooler morning air. Today is supposed to be a degree or two less hot than yesterday. And then the temperature is supposed to drop radically over the weekend, with a high of 23ºC on Friday and only 18ºC on Saturday. That's low 70s to mid-60s in ºF. It's bound to feel cold — good weather for stacking a cord of firewood. I hope the predicted rain isn't too cold for the tomatoes that are still ripening in the vegetable garden.

22 August 2018


One definition of that word, récidive, is: Fait de faire de nouveau ce qu'on a déjà fait. That means "doing again something you have done before." I made another cheesy summer vegetable gratin yesterday. We had a cool morning and still had six or eight zucchinis in the kitchen. Some of them needed to be used.

First I made a quick tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic, grated carrot, bell peppers, tomato paste, and basil. Walt cooked thick zucchini slices on the barbecue grill. I followed CHM's recipe (in a recent blog comment) and made layers of grilled zucchini, sauce, grated cheese, and thin slices of ham. It cooked for about an hour in the oven at a fairly low temperature, and we used a turkey baster to take extra liquid released by the zukes out of the pan as they cooked. That worked well. It was delicious, and two-thirds of the gratin went into the freezer.

21 August 2018

Preparing and transitioning

We have a month of summer left, officially. Somehow, it's become clear that this is the end of the season. Mornings are almost chilly, and even though afternoons can be warm, verging on hot, the air feels different. It's more refreshing. The sun rises later and sets earlier. As we used to say when I worked in Silicon Valley, "change is our friend." Fighting it is counter-productive. So bring it on. Get on with things.

We are preparing for autumn and winter. Yesterday we made another six quarts of tomato sauce for the freezer and our winter meals. I've stored a lot of summertime foods in the freezer, and they'll comfort us over the cold months. We still have to figure out what to do with all the rest of the tomatoes growing out in the garden. Paste, probably. Next year, Walt says, he'll grow fewer of them so that we won't feel so overwhelmed by the huge harvest we have to deal with. I don't know about you, but I hate to see good things go to waste.

And we are laying in stocks not just of tomato sauce and summertime foods, but also firewood and heating oil. Living out in the country means we don't have piped-in gas. We have to be proactive about getting supplies ordered and delivered. Our boiler, which heats water for the radiators all around the house, is oil-fired. We expect a delivery of 1,500 liters of oil on Friday. That's about 400 U.S. gallons and should get us through the winter.

And yesterday I called our supplier and ordered four stères (cubic meters) of oak logs to burn in the wood stove. That's just over a cord of wood. It's our fall-back in case the electricity is cut or the boiler fails. Yes, the boiler needs both oil and electricity. We really need a new wood-burning stove. The one we have is 12 years old and worn out. We think we might have found one yesterday that will meet our needs (photo above). It has to fit inside our fireplace and the door has to open the right way. Our winters are usually mild, but it would be difficult to live without a good heating system.

I am looking forward to autumn. The summer has been very hot and dry, and I'm tired of it now. It gets kind of boring after a while. And the life style we've fallen into since we came to live here 15 years ago requires us to do a lot of work from spring through fall. In winter, we can relax again. It's not so much that we work really hard in summertime — it's more that we realize all the things that need to be done but are being neglected. It's a race to finish everything before the rains come back and the weather turns cold.

20 August 2018

Making moussaka with grilled eggplant slices (2)

Let me finish up with a few photos of the grilled eggplant moussaka I made over the weekend. I realize that I also made moussaka in July, and I've made moussaka in different ways several times since 2010 and posted about it. I guess it's one of my favorite kinds of food.

Grilling thick-cut eggplant slices seems to be the tastiest way of preparing them for baking in a moussake sauce. Frying them seems pretty oily to me, and it makes a mess on the stove. Baking them in the oven after brushing the slices with olive oil and sprinkling salt, pepper, and even herbs like thyme on them is good too, and less messy. But grilling gives them great flavor.

I call this one "three little aubergines in a blanket."

I put mozzarella slices in layers in this moussaka, but I'm not sure I would do it that way again. I think some grated Swiss-style cheese like Comté, Gruyère, or even Cheddar would be better. Mozzarella has a lot of water in it, and that water is released as it melts. Then the moussaka meat sauce is a little too liquid. It tastes good, but the moussaka can get too soupy. Here is the moussaka ready for the oven.

I made a white sauce to cook as the top layer of this moussaka. It's actually a sauce Mornay, which is what a white sauce with melted cheese in it is called in French. Instead of starting with a butter-and-flour roux, I made the roux with olive oil and flour. I got that idea from a Julie Andrieu show about making moussaka that I found on Youtube, and I like the result. It gives the recipe a more Mediterranean flavor. I sprinkled on some grated Parmesan and some smoked paprika before I browned the moussaka in the oven.

19 August 2018

Making moussaka with grilled eggplant slices (1)

Making moussaka — eggplant with a meat sauce and cheese — has been a three- or four-day process this time. I went shopping over in Romorantin on Tuesday and bought three aubergines. On Thursday, our generous neighbor brought us almost a pound of sliced, roasted leg of lamb. It all came together. We obviously had enough tomatoes and tomato sauce, given the season.

I had considered making this gratin with ground chicken or beef. But lamb is best. Serendipity stepped in. On Friday I made the meat sauce with lamb, which I just chopped up finely with a big knife. Herbs and seasonings for the sauce included dried oregano, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, powdered fennel, onion, garlic, and a pinch of cayenne pepper powder. A splash of red wine also gave the sauce some extra richness.

Usually moussaka recipes say to fry the eggplant slices in olive oil. I'd rather cook them on baking sheets in the oven after brushing them with olive oil. Better still is when Walt cooks them on the grill, as he did yesterday. That adds a lot of flavor to what is a fairly bland, though delicious, vegetable (or fruit, really).

Moussaka is layers of cooked eggplant, cheese, and tomato/meat sauce. I had a block of mozzarella, and I sliced it up and used it in two layers. Sauce, eggplant, cheese. More sauce, more eggplant, and more cheese. More sauce, and then the top layer of eggplant. What remains to be done today is to make a thick and cheesy white sauce (butter, flour, milk, nutmeg, and grated cheese) thickened with an egg. That gets poured over the top layer of eggplant slices, and a little more grated cheese gets sprinkled on top. Then the whole dish bakes in the oven until the cheese melts and the eggplant finishes cooking in the bubbling sauce. Flavors blend. I wish it were lunchtime right now.

18 August 2018

What!? More tomatoes? Oui...

I dehydrated five or six trays of little tomatoes this week. It took about three days for them to dry out completely. This is all I got, but the dehydrated tomatoes pack a lot of flavor in a very compact form. After the tomatoes are dried, I pack them in jars and heat the jars up in the oven so that the lids seal. They'll last over the winter this way.

And I use them. I actually cooked some from last summer — about the quantity you see in one of these little salsa jars — in a batch of tomato sauce yesterday, to enrich it. I made the sauce with onions, spices, herbs, and lamb, using a container of 2017 tomato sauce from the freezer. The lamb was a gift from our neighbors across the street, who had more than they could eat. It was nice slices of cooked leg of lamb, and the meat sauce I made will go into a nice moussaka-style eggplant gratin that I'll be cooking today.

The tomatoes I dried are both yellow ones and red ones. Most of the red tomatoes in this batch were the little long ones that you see in the photo above. They are volunteers from a 2017 plant that re-seeded itself and came up in this year's garden. We don't remember what variety of tomato these were. But they are meaty and good, and don't have a lot of seeds or juice in them.

17 August 2018

What!? No Zucchini?

This is a recipe I came across a few days ago in our database of recipes collected from all sorts of web sites over the years. I really don't believe I had ever made it before yesterday. It just so happened that we had the potatoes, bacon, eggs, and cream on hand, and it was a cool morning that didn't discourage me from baking something in the oven.

The recipe is in French and its title is Quiche Tatin. If you've spent any time in France, you've probably eaten and enjoyed the dessert called Tarte Tatin. It's an upside-down apple pie in which the apples are caramelized in butter and sugar and then a crust is laid on top of them  before the tart is baked in the oven. To serve it, you turn it over on a platter so that the nicely browned crust ends up on the bottom and the beautiful caramelized apples are on top.

Well, this is a Tatin made with potatoes instead of apples, and bacon instead of butter. I have a hard time with calling this a quiche, though, because of the potatoes. It's really a Gratin Tatin, or a Tatin de pommes de terre. It actually does include a standard quiche mixture of eggs and milk (or cream).

The first step is to peel and cook six or eight potatoes. Steaming is a good way to cook them, or you can boil them. When they are mostly cooked but still a little firm, let them cool down and then cut them into thin slices.

While the potatoes are cooking, carefully line a pie plate or other baking dish with strips of bacon. In France, these are fines tranches de poitrine fumée, and you can buy them at the supermarket, usually 8 or 10 slices per package. American bacon would be perfect.

The next step is to put a handful or two of grated cheese in the bacon-lined baking dish. I used grated Emmental (emmental français râpé), but any Swiss cheese or even Cheddar would be good.

Next, cover the grated cheese with potato slices — as many as the pan will hold, in one or two or more layers. Season them well with salt, pepper, and a grating of nutmeg. Beat three eggs in a bowl with about three-quarters of a cup of milk or cream and pour the liquid over the potatoes. Don't overfill the dish.

And then lay a sheet of pie crust (regular or puff pastry) over the top, tuck it in around the edges of the baking dish. Bake the tart in the oven at 350ºF (180ºC) for about 30 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Put a platter or large plate upside-down over the pie plate while the tart is still hot. Carefully turn it over using a kitchen towel or pot holders. The Quiche Tatin should fall right out on the plate or platter and look kind of like the one above. This is something that would be good to eat hot, warm, or cold.