31 October 2018

The Vendée gîte : la cuisine et la salle de séjour

Walt posted a few photos of the gîte (vacation rental, pronounced "zheet") we stayed in last week over toward the Atlantic coast in the area called La Vendée. The first thing I did when we arrived there on that Saturday afternoon was to take some photos, before we messed the place up with everything we had hauled over there in the trunk of the Citroën. One exception: this first photo shows the kitchen in mid-week, after we had moved in. I took it from the top of the stairs that lead up to two bedrooms and the bathroom. That red cord snaking across the floor is an ethernet cable (see below). The door on the lower right opens into a half bath.

So the downstairs floor of the gîte, which is called La Petite Maison, consists of a large kitchen (about 200 square feet), a small WC (or half bath), and a large living room (350 square feet). The house has a front door leading into the living room, and a back door that opens into the kitchen. The price of a gîte like this one is 300 euros for seven nights, including a 40 euro cleaning fee that is optional but which we chose to pay, to avoid having to spend time cleaning the place ourselves before we left. In the living room there was a big flat-screen TV connected to a basic satellite TV service carrying all the standard French channels as well as some English language channels including Sky News and CNN-London. We discovered that some American movies on some channels were available with an English-language soundtrack (version originale, it's called — not dubbed into French).

Much of the furniture  and kitchen equipment in the gîte came from Ikea, it seemed. I'm not even sure where the closest Ikea store is — in La Rochelle, maybe, which is an hour's drive south. The gîte's renovation dates back to 2006. All the furniture downstairs was comfortable, and the kitchen was completely functional. I liked the way the place was decorated, in a fairly plain style. It was spacious and not too fancy. I was glad to see that the staircase wasn't an open-tread model. That meant that Natasha was not afraid of running up and down from one floor to another.

We used the stove, refrigerator, freezer, and dishwasher while we were there. We were preparing all our own meals because we didn't want to go to restaurants with the dog. We packed a cooler and took a lot of our food with us from home. It just needed reheating, and we bought fish and some other things locally that were simple to prepare. French gîtes ruraux are really just a step up from camping in some ways. You don't expect all the comforts of home, but you want a place that's serviceable and reasonably comfortable. This one was fairly luxurious by gîte standards. There was plenty of hot water, and there was even a washing machine (un lave-linge) but we didn't need to use it. We also didn't need to turn on the heat during our stay because the weather was on the warm side.

We had some trouble with the internet connection, which ran off a PLC (power-line communication) unit plugged into an electrical outlet in the living room and connected us us to the gîte owner's modem/router, in a separate building, through the property's electrical wiring. It provided wi-fi but the signal it delivered was fairly weak and flaky, and it completely failed on the second day. Then the owner got it working again, and he also provided an ethernet cable that let us connect our laptop computer to a dedicated ethernet port in the gîte's kitchen. That limited where we could place and use the laptop, and our tablets can't connect via ethernet so we couldn't use them that day. I had wanted to set the laptop up on the table below, in the living room, but the ethernet cable wasn't long enough to reach all the way there from the kitchen.

First world problems, eh? I finally realized that if I plugged the PLC unit in upstairs in the hallway, directly above the coffee table downstairs, the wi-fi signal was much stronger than when it was plugged into an outlet in the living room. The living room ceiling was the upstairs floor. In other words, there was no insulation or brick or tile separating the downstairs from the upstairs, and the signal had no trouble passing through wooden floorboards. When I figured that out, the wi-fi mostly worked pretty well for us the rest of the time. Overall, the gîte was a good place for us, considering the price. I'll post about the bedrooms and bathroom over the coming days, just to give you an idea of what the place was like.

30 October 2018

Dans les rues de Niort

Here are a few street scenes from our quick visit to the city of Niort in western France. We weren't there long enough for me to gather a lot of detailed information about the place, but I did get a feel for it. I'll go back one day if I get a chance — but there are so many places to see in France....

This is a spot near the central market hall in Niort. The weather there last Friday morning was basically an indicator of what was to come. Cold and gray. We have been plunged into winter here in Saint-Aignan — and in Niort too I imagine — over the past three days. High temperatures are around 5ºC (40°F). A cold rain is falling. It was predicatable, but it's still a shock.

Again, I was surprised by the hills that Niort is built on. I had imagined it very flat, since it's on the edge of an old marsh/swamp. There were nice views and perspectives in the part of the town we walked around in. I think that's the donjon in the background.

I managed to avoid including too many "wheely bins" — garbage totes — in my photos, but it's impossible to eliminate cars. They and the totes are unavoidable features of French cities. Above is a typical street in the neighborhood surrounding the Eglise Saint-André, on the left bank of the Sevre Niortaise river.

I have a book called Vanishing France (published in 1975). It's full of photos like this one — shuttered store fronts, houses in ruins, and other signs of the pace of change. I took classes from a professor in college who told us that the old France was disappearing rapidly. I'm not sure that the process is all that rapid. However, it's true that small, specialized shops are closing down, now that nearly everyone has a car, in favor of huge "superstores" called hypermarkets on the outskirts of the towns that sell groceries and whole ranges of clothes, hardware, and household goods. On n'arrête pas le progrès...

29 October 2018

Looking up, looking down

Walt and I are actually coordinating our blogs, on a very high level, this week. He's starting his Vendée posts with photos he took at the beginning of our trip and working forward, and I'm starting with photos I took at the end, working backward in time. Yesterday he posted photos of the gîte rural where we stayed, near the town of Fontenay-le-Comte (pop. 15,000).

What can I say about the town of Niort, which we visited last Friday. The 1986 Michelin green guide describes the town as "giving off an impression of prosperity and bourgeois tranquillity that is not without charm." There are three big churches in the town. The name Niort derives from an old Gaulish term, novioritu, meaning a ford, as in a place where people could ford the river. The place has existed as a settlement and then a town since before the Romans conquered Gaul. The town, including the built-up area surrounding it (l'agglomération is what it's called in French), has a population of about 150,000.

Niort certainly felt peaceful and quiet at 10 o'clock on Friday morning. Cars were arriving to park in the lot across the river from the market hall, but slowly, with no sign of a rush hour. People were just getting out and about, so the place had a calm air about it, not noisy but also not deserted. The morning's weather was gray and surprisingly chilly, after all the beautiful sunny afternoons we had enjoyed all week.

We just wandered. Walt had Tasha on a leash that attaches to special belt he wears, so that he has both hands free to take photos. The dog was calm, curious, and well behaved. The old houses of the historic district seemed dignified and well looked after. After seeing the donjon and the market, we found the street called la rue Saint-Jean which, according to the guidebook, is the main artery through the neighborhood where many of Niort's most interesting and impressive mansions and residences are located.

The town is built on two hills that face each other across the slow-flowing Sèvre Niortaise river. The hilliness surprised me, because just west of town sits the area called the Marais poitevin, a network of water courses, ponds, meadows, and villages on flat lands that form a sort of reclaimed swamp. It's also known as La Venise verte — a "green Venice" where bateliers (boatmen) pole their barques (skiffs), carrying tourists along canals through deep green woods. We had spent two afternoons there earlier in the week.

28 October 2018

Sneaking off to the Vendée, La Rochelle, and Niort

So yes, we sneaked out of here for a week's vacation over in the Vendée region of France. We didn't want to broadcast the fact that the house here in Saint-Aignan would be sitting empty for a week. Natasha the Sheltie went with us, and Bertie the black cat stayed home. A neighbor made sure he was fed and watered — he has free access to the outdoors.

We almost didn't make it to the city of Niort (pop. 60,000). We decided at the last minute to drive over there on Friday morning. It was only about 30 miles southwest of the gîte rural near Fontenay-le-Comte where we were staying, and it had been on the list of places I wanted to see. Click here for a map of the Vendée; Niort is in the lower right corner. I thought it was beautiful, despite the gray, chilly weather that morning. Above is the donjon de Niort, near which we parked the car before walking around in the old town for an hour with Natasha.

My old Michelin guide (1986) to the region says that construction of the medieval donjon (the fortified tower) in Niort was begun by Henri II Plantagenêt in the late 1100s, and was completed by Richard the Lion-Hearted in the 1200s. (Both were later to become kings of England.) It's actually two towers and one of the most remarkable such structures in France. The 80- to 90-foot-tall twin towers were part of a gigantic fortress with walls that enclosed the whole town — houses, gardens, markets, and a big church. The  city walls were dismantled in later centuries, and the church was left in ruins after the religious wars of the late 1500s.

If you look at the first photo above, you can see that Niort's central market hall, built in 1869, is located right next to the donjon. Here's a photo of it. I ducked in for a minute or two to look around, but dogs were not allowed inside so Walt had to wait outside with Natasha. It seemed to me that about half the market stalls were open, selling cheeses, vegetables, charcuterie and other meats — not to mention poultry and seafood. I just read on a web site that the outdoor market in Niort is held on Thursdays and Saturdays, so we missed it. Since we would be leaving for home in a few hours, we weren't buying anything.

27 October 2018

Tasha's restaurant adventure

You might have figured out by now that when I bought and cooked fish the other day, we were on the coast. The fish market where I bought the "sea bream" that I cooked and posted about is in the central market hall in La Rochelle (photo above), which is an old port city on the Atlantic Ocean north of Bordeaux and south of Brittany.

We spent a week in the area, and we also visited the coastal island of Noirmoutier, the port/resort called Les Sables d'Olonne ("the sands of Olonne"), and the beautiful old city of Niort. I have a lot of photos to post. Over the course of a week, we went to exactly one restaurant, and it was in La Rochelle. That's because we were traveling with a dog, and it was too hot to leave her closed up in the car. While dogs are welcome in many French restaurants, Tasha had never had the restaurant experience before, and we didn't know how she'd behave.

In La Rochelle, there's a long row of restaurants with outdoor seating along the street that runs along the western edge of the town's old harbor (photo of view above). We got to town at mid-morning, and after walking around and taking pictures for an hour or so, we decided to sit down and eat lunch. We got a table at a sidewalk café, on the edge of the seating area where Tasha would be out of the way and less likely to bother anybody or get stepped on.

We made sure we got there early so that we'd have our choice of tables. By 12:30, there wasn't a free table left on the terrace. Tasha was very good. She barked a couple of times when people rode by on bicycles, but nobody seemed to notice. She enjoyed attention and petting from a little girl sitting with her mother at the table next to ours. The waitperson brought a container of cold water for the dog when we sat down and ordered our lunch.

The food and wine were good. The sun was shining brightly. The temperature was in the low 70s in ºF but it felt a lot warmer in the sun. There was only a slight breeze. We couldn't have asked for a nicer day. In fact, during the week we spent on the coast not one drop of rain fell. There was fog some mornings but the afternoons were sunny and pleasant. It felt like what northern French summertime weather feels like.

26 October 2018

Le Grolleau, un cépage méconnu

The other day I went shopping at Intermarché. Walt wanted some rosé wine — he waited in the car with Natasha while I went into the store. It was fun to browse around in the wine section of a supermarket outside the region where we live.

I came across two wines I have never seen before. They are rosé wines made with a grape called le Grolleau. It's a red wine grape that is grown, I've been told, on a vineyard plot right outside our back gate in Saint-Aignan. And I've been told it is used to make rosé wines, but usually the juice is blended with the juice of other grapes, including Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Pinot Noir. The rosé can be still or bubbly.

Here, however, the wines are 100% Grolleau. They are very dry, not sweet, and very pale in color. They they have a peppery quality. They remind me of the Pineau d'Aunis rosés that are made in the Cher and Loir Valleys. I went to a Leclerc hypermarket (superstore) yesterday to see if I can find a few more bottles, but no luck. I think I'll go back to Intermarché today.

25 October 2018

L'église et l'école du village

I'm still having a lot of trouble with our flaky internet connection, but I'll try to post these today. One afternoon earlier this week, we were driving through a village called Benet (pop. 3,600), near Niort, and we stopped so that I could take some pictures around the church. A school bus (no, not a yellow one) was waiting next to the church, and I realized that the school in a nearby building was just letting out.

Here are the students walking to the bus. You can see what a beautiful day it was, with a deep blue sky. I walked all the way around the church taking photos, and I noticed a very big stained-glass window in one wall. So I went into the church to see what I looked like. Here it is:

I'm posting these photos at a very large size and I've divided each one in half so that each half can be viewed at full size when you click on it. I wish I could figure out how to do away with the black horizontal line that runs through the two halves of the photos (I tried to disguise it on the second image), but my HTML skills are not that good. Okay, here goes. I don't even know if this lame internet connection will let me upload the post.

P.S. You might have noticed that I misidentified the town where this church is located when I posted these photos yesterday. So many villages, so little time. I have corrected the post.

24 October 2018

La Dorade royale

One morning this werk I stopped in at a poissonnerie — a fishmarket — and I saw these beautiful fish called « dorades royales » on display. Fish are poissons [pwah-sawn] in French. The young man who was selling and preparing fish for customers told me these fish were wild, not farme-raise7d, and very fresh. I decided to buy one. He cleaned and filleted it for me. Each fillet weighed about 250 grams (half a pound) and cost about 11 euros. That a little rich for my blood but we really wanted to eat some nice filets de poisson.

The dorade is called a "sea bream" in English, but it has no name in my dialect of English (the coastal North Carolina brogue). We don't have such fish in our waters back there, as far as I know. The out-going, well-versed fish guy assured me they were about the best fish he has in his shop these days. They come from the Atlantic Ocean waters off the western coast of France. This particular species, Sparus aurata, is called the "gilt-head bream," I gather. Related fishes caught in U.S. waters are the "porgy," the "scup," and the "sheepshead." I know we had sheepshead in N.C. waters.

I cooked the fish fillets skin-side down very carefully and very quickly in butter with just salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice. When they were almost done, I turned off the burner and turned the fillets over, covered the pan, and just let it sit for two or three minutes. The fish was not under-cooked. I had already peeled and boiled some potatoes and steamed some spinach. Dinner was served.

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.