23 October 2018

Riz rouge de Camargue

A few days ago I made fried rice using riz rouge de Camargue — red rice from the Camargue region of southern France. It's a whole-grain rice that doesn't get mushy when you cook it, but retains some crispness. It comes in red or in brown, but it's not like "regular" brown rice. It's got more texture — it cooks up al dente.

Flavoring ingredients in the fried rice were cabbage and carrots cut into strips, onions, garlic, and basil in a garlicky hot pepper sauce. Also soy sauce, fish sauce, ginger, and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce.

With the fried rice, we had some chicken wings with Japanese yakitori sauce. I dredged the wings in rice flour, baked them on parchment paper in the oven for 30+ minutes, and then dipped them in sauce that had been heated up.

I see that you can buy red Camargue rice on Amazon.com for $4.00/lb. Here's the link. That's a little expensive, but it has to be imported and it might be worth trying. Here's a post about Camargue rice from 2017.

22 October 2018

The vineyard in October

The weather continues to be just beautiful. It's so odd. I mean, we've had nice stretches of warm, sunny days in late October before, but this one, unlike those, was not preceded by a gray, rainy period earlier in autumn.

We've had beautiful summers, lasting into late September, in past years. The summer of 2009 was like that. But summer 2018 is one for the record books. I took a walk with Natasha yesterday afternoon in golden sunlight and in my shirtsleeves. In the photo above, that's our house and, on the right, two neighbors' houses.

Tasha is loving the walks this summer fall. She's mostly very good at staying close to me as we walk — I don't bother putting a leash on her. There's always the danger that we'll encounter a deer (un chevreuil) or a hare (un lièvre) and she'll take off running after it, but she always comes back after a minute or two when I start calling her.

The vineyard is such a pleasant environment for walks with a dog. Dogs love running up and down the long straight rows between rows of vines. This time of year, they get very curious about grapes. Natasha just sniffs them, but our late border collie named Callie would always eat a few on walks at this time of year. Most of the grapes have been harvested now, but there are always a few left on the vines after the harvest.

The hamlet we live in, which is located just 3 kms (2 miles) from Saint-Aignan, is on a high bluff on the "left bank" of the Cher River. Between us and the river there are woods and some houses along the road down into the river valley. Because we're high up, the land is very dry in rainless periods like this one. Grapevines, with have very deep roots, thrive in these situations. The 2018 wines are predicted to be some of the best our region has produced in decades.

20 October 2018

French chard

The other greens we have growing in the autumn garden are Swiss chard, called blettes, bettes, bettes à cardes, or poirée. The plant called bette is closely related to the betterave — which means beet root — plant. Chard seems to be a specialty of the Lyon area and the Rhône Valley in France. The plants in our garden are fairly small still. I expect them to grow a lot more once it starts raining here again. Look at these chard plants that spent the whole winter of 2017 out in the garden.

In France, the wide, white ribs of the chard leaves are often cooked separately from the green parts. The ribs are cooked in gratins, for example, with melted cheese. They're good diced up and cooked in a vegetable soup.

The white ribs of chard leaves, blanched in boiling water first, are good as a layer in a pan of lasagne (photo above). The green parts of the chard leaves are cooked like spinach, but have a milder flavor. The whole leaves can also be cooked together in the same pot.

The electronic Larousse Gastronomique (2007) calls the chard rib (the côte or carde) un légume délicat that can be cooked in a white sauce or a tomato sauce, or au jus. Chard is good cooked in butter or cream. Adding some Dijon mustard to a cream sauce is how one local woman told me she likes them cooked. The older hard-bound Larousse Gastronomique (1967) gives more than a dozen recipes for bettes. Chard is a really good filling for an omelet.

19 October 2018

Lacinato kale

Posting this makes me realize I really need to go out and water the kale we have growing in the garden. No rain, you know. At least it's not so hot outside, so the kale plants are really starting to grow.

I know the plants would like some rain, but they'll have to make do with some spray from the garden hose. I hope they'll grow bigger, up to three feet tall, with a lot more leaves.

This is the variety often called "dinosaur kale." That's because its leaves are sort of dark green and bumpy, resembling somebody's idea of what a dinosaur's skin might look like.

It also goes by the name of "lacinato kale," or cavolo nero, meaning "black cabbage" in Italian. Other names, according to Wikipedia, are Tuscan kale, Tuscan cabbage, Italian kale, black kale, and palm tree kale. It's my favorite variety of kale. The leaves cook up to a "meaty" texture, like collard greens, and the flavor is good too.

Some of these photos were taken early in the morning, before the sun was fully up in the sky. Others were taken late in the afternoon, in bright light. The differences in the quality of the light make the leaves look very different.

Like chard and collards, kale will survive all but a very hard freeze and can grow all winter out in the garden. Frost supposedly improves the greens, making them sweeter (January 2017 photo). I'm looking forward to harvests of dinosaur kale in December, January, even February...

18 October 2018

In the neighbors’ yard

Our neighbors across the street, whose main residence is in Blois, have sold their car. They've quit driving, I mean, and it's not clear when they'll come back to their house in the country or how often they'll come back in the future. Here are some photos I've taken recently of plants in their yard.

I'm not sure what this is. Is it a crepe myrtle? It seems happy planted up again the west wall of the neighbors' house. It's in full fall color right now, as you can see.

I know what these are called: they're medlars in English and nèfles in French. I've never tasted them but I may well do so this fall. They're not good to eat until they've been touched by frost. Then they are "bletted" and can be eaten raw or cooked. Unless the neighbors or their children come pick them, I'll ask for permission to take some after our first frosts occur.

These red flowers are called mandevilla or dipledenia. They are tropical or sub-tropical in origin, and frost will kill them. The neighbors left 6 or 8 pots of them on their terrace and around the yard. Unless somebody comes to take them away, I'll ask permission to put one or two of them in our greenhouse for the winter. Evidently, you can root cuttings and propagate new plants that way.

17 October 2018

October grapes

The weather site we look at daily, météociel.fr, gives us a forecast for the next 10 days. This  morning, there's not one drop of rain in that 10-day forecast. There are times when that would be wonderful news, but right now it's just plain strange. I guess the only thing to do is to take advantage of the sunshine while it lasts. Make hay...

By the way, in most years the winter rains start in late October. If it doesn't start raining in early November, I'm going to know something is seriously wrong. Meanwhile, most of the grapes around here have been harvested now, so the local vignerons have nothing to fear. With the warm days we are having, they probably could have left the grapes on the vines even longer. The photos here are a week old.

Two or three days ago, I was walking between two rows of vines near our house with Tasha. They were in a parcel that had been harvested a few days earlier. I noticed there were still quite a few little bunches of grapes on them, so I picked a few.

I pressed the grapes I'd picked when I got home, using a big mortar and pestle. I strained out the seeds and skins and made myself a glass of grape juice for breakfast. Delicious. It tasted as good as the grapes in these photos look.

16 October 2018


For several days last week, the weather reports said we were having our last warm days of the year. The weather, they said, would turn rainy and chilly on Sunday. Then Sunday came, and it was still dry and almost hot. I think the rains passed to the north, falling not on northern France but on England. Typical, no? (We did get 3 mm of rain — 0.12 inches. On appelle ça du pipi de chat.)

Yesterday was again warm, and then it got windy in the afternoon. The wind was warm and dry, and it didn't really seem all that strong. It was just a little gusty and breezy. I was upstairs watching TV after lunch, and Walt was downstairs sitting out on the front terrace.

Suddenly there was a loud cracking sound. And then another. What was that? I called down to Walt. He had of course heard it too. I think a tree fell, he yelled back up the stairs. He said he'd go out and see if that was what had happened. When he came back, he told me about it and said I should go see it when I took Tasha out for our afternoon walk.

So there it is. A very big tree just broke off and crashed to the ground out on the edge of the vineyard parcel closest to our house. Maybe trees are fragile because of our long dry spell. It's amazing that it didn't really fall on anything. The top of the tree missed the closest row of vines by about 10 feet. This happened just a few dozen steps from our house.

It's hard to take photos of the wind, but you can sort of see it in the ones just above and below. Well, you can see its effects. How many more of these trees might just come crashing down one day?

I've seen trees being uprooted, but that was when winds were at hurricane force, back in North Carolina. I've seen trees uprooted here in Saint-Aignan by hurricane-force winds— we lost two plum trees in a storm in 2010, and several big trees fell out around the edges of the vineyard. And I've heard of trees just coming down for no obvious reason. That's what seems to have happened here yesterday.

15 October 2018

Polenta pour la première fois

I remember the first time I ever ate polenta. It was in 1975 and I was living in Paris. An American woman that I knew from the university where I had been a student in North Carolina was also living in Paris then. She had a French friend named Jean-Louis.

Linda was living in a tiny fourth-floor walk-up apartment in the 9e arrondissement just off the rue des Martyrs, up behind the église Notre-Dame de Laurette. I think she had invited me and Jean-Louis over for lunch. I was living out in Asnières-sur-Seine that year.

Jean-Louis (I can't remember his last name, but I think it sounded Italian) said he was going to make polenta for lunch. I asked him what that was. I had never heard of it before. He said it was something he learned to cook in Provence, where he had family. It was more or less Italian, but also southern French.

When he cooked the polenta, I realized it was a form of grits, a southern U.S. food staple. Only it was yellow, not white. And J-L was cooking it with sausages and tomato sauce as an accompaniment. In the North Carolina, we ate grits only at breakfast, with butter, salt, and sometimes some grated cheese stirred in to melt, for flavor.

I was happy to find out I could get grits in France. And of course good sausages cooked in tomato sauce was something anybody would like. J-L cooked the polenta in a pot on the stove, poured it into a baking pan, and laid cooked sausages over the top. The polenta was thick, not runny. Then he poured tomato sauce over the top and popped the dish into the oven to heat through and brown.

I loved the taste and the simplicity of it. I thought of it a few days ago, because we had polenta, fresh tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and plenty of tomato sauce, as well as some little veal meatballs that I had stored in the freezer. We'd been eating rice, potatoes, and pasta for a few days, so polenta would be a nice change. I browned the meatballs with sliced onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and then poured tomato sauce over all that and let it finish cooking. The sauce would be spread over the cooked polenta and the dish then browned in the oven. (You could make it without meat...)

I cooked the polenta (1 part polenta and 3 parts water), with some grated cheese stirred in, for five minutes in the microwave. Then we enjoyed the gratin with parmesan cheese grated over it at the table, and a drizzle of olive oil. On the internet, I see recipes for something similar called polenta con salciccia. Bon appétit ! And thanks to CHM for the frying pan and the baking dish.

14 October 2018

Sunday's finest

It's Sunday and it's my morning to go out for a walk with Natasha. These Sundays in October are difficult, because hunters arrive in the vineyard at 9 a.m. and start shooting at game birds or hares. The sun doesn't come up until 8:12 a.m. today, and if it's cloudy outside it doesn't really get light until 8:30 or so. So timing the walk is tricky.

Here are some recent photos of Tasha. I took them on a sunny afternoon four or five days ago. As you can see, she keeps her nose to the ground when we go out into the vineyard.

Walt will take Tasha to the groomer's (le salon de toilettage) on Tuesday for her semi-annual brushing-out. The dog's coat looks pretty good right now but, even so, there's just too much of it. She doesn't really enjoy getting brushed, so we don't do it as much as we ought to.

We went to our late neighbor Daniel's burial (enterrement) yesterday morning. It was well-attended; I'd say there were 40 or 50 people there. There was no service at the church, just as his wife's funeral was a simple burial ceremony at the cemetery in 2015. We learned that Daniel had lung cancer but didn't know it. He wasn't somebody who went to see a doctor on a regular basis. He had some kind of malaise a week ago today and his daughter had him hospitalized. That's when the cancer was diagnosed. He passed away 48 hours later.

Daniel's daughter plans to sell her parents' house, I understand. And the other house in our hamlet that is for sale is already under contract. The new owners are supposed to close on it at the end of the month. I don't know who they are, or if they plan to live in the house or rent it out as a gîte rural — a holiday rental, as the British say. It will need some renovating, I'm sure.

And I learned something else yesterday. The people who are selling the little house had the equivalent of a "garage sale" or "estate sale." Maybe it will continue today. It's the first time in all these years of living and traveling in France that I've ever seen that kind of sale. I thought they weren't allowed, but it turns out they are if the organizers get the permission of the mayor and follow rules that specify that only used items may be sold, and the sale can only last for a specified number of days. It's called a vide-maison or a vide-grenier à domicile. Those terms mean "empty out the house" or "empty out the attic" to clear out. I don't know where it was advertised, but there were quite a few cars up and down the road during the day yesterday.

13 October 2018

Préparatifs pour l'hiver et la saison des pluies

We've been getting a lot of work done around the yard and garden. Finding I now have the energy and inclination to prepare our property for winter makes me realize how lethargic I was over the long hot summer we lived through this year. I felt lousy, and a lot of it was because of the seemingly endless stretch of hot days and nights we had to endure. Sitting still was easy during that time, but sleeping well was difficult, and doing physical work outside was no fun at all.

So many plants out there needed trimming. Tall, tough grasses were growing up along the gravel path that runs through the middle of the yard, as well as up into the wire fencing we had put up back in 2004 to keep the dog in and the deer and hares out. The four patches of irises we have around the yard had brown, sunburned leaves and were full of weeds. I've cut a lot of that stuff down.

Walt mowed the lawn, mostly to take down the spiky, deep-rooted weeds that had grown up. The grass itself, or what passes for grass in our prairie-like yard, hadn't grown much because of the drought. I continued clipping branches off the overgrown rosemary bush that we wanted to save, and we cut the unwanted rosemary plant off at ground level. I think both of them will come back quickly once the rains return.

The biggest task was getting the plants pulled out of the garden, including 30 tomato plants, a lot of bush and pole beans, and a few out-of-control zucchini and winter squash (potimarron) plants. Walt did most of that. I still haven't tilled up the vegetable garden plot, but I'll try to get that done this coming week. I'm sure our clay and limestone soil is like concrete — we desperately need more rain, and we may get some tomorrow. It hope it's not too much, because it's hard to work in mud with the rototiller.

The new back gate is a big improvement. Not only is the metal gate much sturdier and better-looking than the old falling-down wooden gate was, but it is also more securely attached to the concrete gate posts than the rickety old gate was. Now we're just waiting for a local gardening service to set a date for this year's trimming of the tall, wide laurel hedge that wraps around three sides of our yard. It's more than 100 meters (375 ft.) long and 8 or 9 feet high in places.

12 October 2018

Tristes nouvelles

Another neighbor of ours has died. He's the seventh or eighth neighbor who has left this world since we came to live here a little more than 15 years ago. Four of those neighbors were people who lived to be 90 years old or older. The others were about my age. Remember, our neighborhood or "hamlet" consists of just nine houses. I learned yesterday that one of the nine is on the market. Now another will be sold.

Daniel and his wife Andrée, who lived two doors down the road from us, bought an old ruin of a house here in this hamlet back in about 1970. They spent many summers restoring the place. They showed us pictures. They told me that when they bought the house, it consisted on one big room and a rudimentary kitchen. Nine people lived in that room! Daniel and Andrée transformed it into a beautiful place. I happened to take a photo of it a few days ago. Here it is:

Andrée (I guess the English version of her name would be Andrea) passed away in 2015. She had stomach cancer, and she lived for just two or three months after the cancer was diagnosed. She once said that as a young woman, she had been a factory worker. Then she got a job in the offices at the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris. I wrote about her and her funeral here.

Daniel was a baker, but not the kind who runs his own shop. He worked in an "industrial" bakery in the Paris area. After years of working in and breathing down tons of flour dust, he refused to even consider ever eating bread again. He and Andrée lived in an apartment in the suburbs northwest of Paris, and they had this house here in the Saint-Aignan area as their lifetime project. They moved here more or less permanently about 10 years ago, but they never got around to selling their apartment in the Paris region. One daughter survives them. She lives nearby. She intends to sell the house here, I'm told.

Daniel was a couple of years younger than I am, I believe. After Andrée died at age 68, his health seemed to decline steadily. He walked with a cane. He still drove his car, and I ran into him at the supermarket fairly frequently. He always had a smile and a handshake to offer, though I don't think he knew my name. He seemed to know Walt and me only as « les Américains ». One day a few months ago I saw him at SuperU and he looked terrible. He had a big bruise on his face and he was obviously not steady on his feet. He told me he had fallen and hurt himself, at home.

He talked more with the other neighbors than with us. This past summer, he told at least two of our neighbors, who had noticed he'd lost weight, that he had stopped eating. He had no appetite and no ambition. His only wish was to « rejoindre sa femme » — to be with his wife again. So I guess he believed in the afterlife. He got his wish. He died at the hospital. A neighbor who knew them well told Daniel and Andrée's daughter that she can console herself with the thought of her parents being reunited.

11 October 2018

Gratin d'aubergines et de pommes de terre

In a book about Moroccan tajines (spicy stews) that I've had for a few years now, I recently noticed a recipe for eggplant (aubergines) that tempted me. I read it and thought about it for a couple of days, and it dawned on me that it didn't have any Moroccan spices in it. Those were easy to add and they really livened the tomatoes up.

Thinking about how tajines are often sweet and spicy at the same time, and how there's a recipe in the book for chicken with tomatoes and honey — I've made that before —  I decided to add a big spoonful or two of honey to the spicy tomato sauce I was making for this gratin. It worked really well. And since I had some ground veal in the freezer, I thought: why not make this a meat sauce and turn it into a full meal? There's no cheese in it, but we ended up grating some parmesan over it at the table.

Instead of frying or even baking eggplant slices, Walt browned and partially cooked them on the barbecue grill out on the terrace. That added really good flavor to the dish. The recipe turns out to be a kind of Moroccan-spiced lasagna with layers of sliced, pre-cooked potato in the place of pasta.

Moroccan eggplant and potatoes
au gratin

2 large eggplants (aubergines)
2 or more large potatoes
5 tomatoes
3 onions
3 cloves of garlic
1 or 2 Tbsp. honey (to taste)
3 parsley stalks
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. dried thyme
4 Tbsp. olive oil
optional: oil for frying
salt and pepper to taste
cayenne pepper to taste
ras-el-hanout spices to taste

Cut the eggplants into slices and brush the slices with olive oil. Cook them on the barbecue grill or on a baking sheet in the oven. It’s messier, but you can also fry them in a non-stick pan on the stove.

Wash the potatoes and boil or steam them until they are mostly done but still firm. When they’ve cooled down, peel them and cut them into slices.

Peel and onions and the garlic cloves. Cut the onions into slices. Dice, mash, or slice the garlic cloves. Optionally, peel the tomatoes by dropping them for a few seconds into boiling water, putting them into cold water to cool down, and then slipping the skins off.

Make tomato sauce: sweat the onions and tomatoes together in olive oil in a frying pan, and then add the garlic and parsley. Add salt and pepper, thyme, and bay leaf. Season the mixture with ras-el-hanout spices and some cayenne pepper (don't overdo it) and let it cook for 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200ºC (400ºF). When the tomato sauce is cooked, put a layer of it in the bottom of a baking dish. Over it put alternating layers of potatoes, eggplant, and sauce, finishing with a layer of tomato sauce. If all the ingredients are hot, slide the dish into the oven and let it cook for 5 minutes. If the ingredients are cold, slide the dish into the hot oven, and gradually turn the heat down so that the ingredients heat through without burning on the bottom or top.

P.S. My store-bought, imported ras-el-hanout
spice blend contains:

   • curry (curry)
   • coriander seeds (coriandre)
   • cumin (cumin)
   • salt (sel)
   • carraway (carvi)
   • turmeric (curcuma)
   • corn starch (farine de mais)
   • piment fort (hot red pepper)
   • cayenne (cayenne pepper)

Modify freely...