30 November 2018

La Rochelle : une chaîne et un anneau

Rabelais wrote that the heavy chain used to close off the harbor entrance to boat traffic at La Rochelle in past centuries had also been used by Gargantua to chain young Pantagruel to his cradle. The chain can still be seen at the Vieux Port in La Rochelle.

The plaque below tells the Rabelais story about the chain.

This is a mooring ring on the quay. It's called un anneau d'amarrage in French, I believe.


On another subject, I'm happy to report that the little Peugeot 206 has passed its biannual inspection one more time. The diesel-powered car, which I bought in 2003, will be 18 years old at Christmastime. Here's a post about the Peugeot, with photos, from two years ago.

There's been a lot of talk over the past year about how the European Union is tightening up the inspection rules for older cars, and I was afraid the Peugeot might not pass this time. I really like the car and want to keep it running. It has nearly 116,000 miles (186,000 kilometers) on its odometer at this point. I've had the clutch replaced and a new set of tires put on over the past two years. Between December 2016 and now, we have driven it a grand total of 4,600 km (less than 3,000 miles). It's our "runabout" for errands and grocery shopping, and a lot of fun to drive. I've had the car twice as long as any other car I've ever owned.

29 November 2018

La Rochelle : La Tour de la Chaîne

At the entrance to La Rochelle's old harbor (le Vieux Port) stand two towers. The taller one is the Tour Saint-Nicolas. The other one is La Tour de la Chaîne. It's called that because at its base there was a heavy iron chain that could be stretched across the harbor entrance and attached to the other tower to keep boats from passing in or out. The Michelin guide implies that the chain was used to close the harbor every night. Nowadays, the harbor is more a yacht basin than a fishing or military port.

Here's a view of the two towers (you couldn't call them "twin towers") from a different angle. I'm standing outside the harbor, with a view of the channel that leads from the harbor out to the open waters of the Atlantic behind me. The Tour de la Chaîne was built in the 14th century (late 1300s) and used to be taller because it was crowned by a high roof. It was 34 meters tall then but only 20 meters tall today. An explosion in the 17th century, during the reign of Louis XIV, destroyed that roof and the tower stood roofless for a few centuries.

At the time, the Tour de la Chaîne was used as a munitions warehouse. The king of France had again taken possession of La Rochelle , ending the Protestant control of the 16th century. There were plans to tear down both the towers at the entrance to the harbor, but the people of the city opposed them. The towers still stand, and major — controversial — restoration work was undertaken in the late 19th century, lasting into the mid-20th century. There's one more tall tower in La Rochelle that I haven't mentioned yet...

28 November 2018

La Rochelle : chez le poissonnier

The first thing we did in La Rochelle back in October was go to the town's marché central to see about buying some seafood. There weren't very many vendors with stands set up that morning, but there was one very good, very helpful fishmonger. Here's a photo of what he was selling.

The enormous sea creature in the foreground is an octopus (un poulpe in French). I won't try to name all the different kinds of fish displayed on shaved ice at the seller's stand, but there were sole, bass, hake and sea bream (among many others). A sea bream is what I bought and wrote about in a blog post at the time.

I was also tempted by these sea bass, called bar [bahr]. These are bar de ligne, meaning they are line-caught, not netted by trawlers. The man running the stand and cleaning fish for customers was also giving cooking advice. He was very informative. I asked him to clean the dorade (bream) I picked out, and to fillet the fish. Before he started working on it, he told me how much the two fillets would weigh, and his estimate was accurate.

There were at least two vendors selling oysters in the market. We decided to buy some, knowing that they would keep for a few days in the refrigerator (they're alive when you buy them, you know). We paid 10 euros for 20 oysters.

I'm not sure if there was an oyster knife at the gîte — I think there was — but we took the path of least resistance when it came to opening the oysters. We washed the shells, arranged them on a baking tray, and set them in a hot oven just long enough for the shells to pop open. As you can see, the oysters weren't really cooked, just warmed up. And they were very good. We both like eating them raw, on the half-shell, too.

27 November 2018

La Rochelle : Restaurants et menus

Some of the things you could eat in other restaurants around the Vieux Port are on these signs. Oysters are "farmed" all along France's Atlantic coast, from Cap Breton in the far southwest all the way up to the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. Muscadet wine, a dry white which many people think is the best "oyster wine" in France, is made just north of La Rochelle in the Vendée and up to Nantes on the Loire river. The oysters advertised here come from the Île de Ré, which is just a short drive over a bridge from La Rochelle.

Here's a blackboard menu from another restaurant, showing the day's specials. Customers have a choice of three formules — three courses for 26 euros, two for 21 euros (main course with either starter or dessert), or just a main course for 16 euros. There's a lot of seafood on the menu, including squid (fricassée d'encornets), tuna (tartare de thon), sea bass (filet de bar), cod (pavée de cabillaud), and haddock.

It was a Monday, which in France is usually a very quiet day, but in La Rochelle there were a lot of people out and about. It was because of the great sunny weather, I'm sure. By the end of October, people expect the weather to turn chilly and gray very soon. They take advantage of the last sunny days of the year by taking walks through town and sitting down for some food in a sidewalk café.

26 November 2018

La Rochelle : le port, les quais, les terrasses

We had lunch in La Rochelle the day we were there. We sat outdoors at one of the cafés on the quai Duperré at the north end of the Vieux Port. The line of buildings in the photo below shows the buildings along the quai, which all have cafés with terrasses (outdoor seating) at street level. The tower is again the clocher de l'église Saint-Sauveur.

Below is a closer shot of all the sidewalk cafés. The one we found that would accommodate us and the dog is called Les Régates, on the left in the photo. We got a table on the edge of the terrasse where the dog wouldn't be in anybody's way.

You can see how low the tide was, and how sunny the skies were, that day. It was all very pleasant. We ordered two plate-size pizzas, as we often do when we are out at lunchtime.

25 November 2018

La Rochelle: L'Église Saint-Sauveur (2)

Built in the late 1600s, the Église Saint-Sauveur in La Rochelle is a Louis-XIII-style church. He was king of France from 1610 until 1643, and he re-captured La Rochelle after Protestants had seized it during their religious wars with Catholics in the late 1500s. The newer church is attached to a tower that was built in the 1400s. However, the history of the site goes back much further.

The first church was built here, near the town's Vieux Port, in the mid-1100s. That church was destroyed by fire in the early 1400s. A second church was built over the course of the century, and the reconstruction work was finished by 1492. The foundations of the old bell tower had not been destroyed by the fire, and the Gothic tower, which exists still today, was built on those foundations.

In the late 1500s, anti-Catholic forces sacked and pillaged La Rochelle's churches. They feared that the city would soon come under siege, and they needed to build better fortifications to protect the Protestant-held town. Where were they to get stone to build with in an area that is sandy and marshy? Well, they tore down the city's churches and used the carved stones as building blocks. The old tower of the Église Saint-Sauveur was left standing because it could be used as a watchtower and cannon-mount. The only other parts of the 15th century church that survived were elements of its main portal.

That's just a summary of a Wikipédia article in French about this church in La Rochelle. It was rebuilt between 1652 and 1679. Then that church was in turn destroyed by fire and was rebuilt again between 1708 and 1718. During the French Revolution, later in that century, the church was used by anti-Catholic revolutionaries as a warehouse. The building was put up for sale in 1794 but no buyer was interested. It was in pretty bad shape by the early 1800s, when it again started being used for Catholic religious services. More recently, it was completely restored between 1995 and 2008.

24 November 2018

La Rochelle : L'Église Saint-Sauveur (1)

October 22, 2018. La Rochelle, on the French Atlantic coast. I was standing about 200 meters (700 feet) from this church tower when I took this photo. It's the Église Saint-Sauveur, and the tower dates back to the 15th century. The rest of the church, not visible here, is much newer. The building has a long and complicated history, which is more interesting than the architecture.

I was standing across the the northwest corner of the Vieux Port, looking toward the southeast. The bar-brasserie in the photo is at the corner of the Quai Duperré and the rue du Port. I like the combination of the old church tower with the lively street scene. The only reason the church tower survived the Guerres de Religion of the late 16th century was that it had a clear military value.

23 November 2018

La Rochelle: La Tour Saint-Nicolas

Two towers stand at the mouth of La Rochelle's vieux port. They are the Tour Saint-Nicolas on the left, and the Tour de la Chaîne on the right, in the photo below. We sat down in a café with the dog and had lunch here, with this as our view.

The Tour Saint-Nicolas was built in the 14th century and stands 42 meters (nearly 140 feet) tall. Saint Nicolas is the patron saint of sailors. Construction began around the year 1345. The tower leans slightly, according to the Michelin guide, but I'm not sure I noticed that. In later centuries, it was long used as a prison.

According to local legend, the mythical fée ("fairy") called Mélusine built the Saint-Nicolas tower in the Middle Ages. I wrote about such legends here, a few weeks ago. In reality, the massive tower was built on sandy, marshy ground on top of oak pilings set down into the muddy ground. Of course it started leaning. Work to stabilize it was done in the second half of the 14th century. It's hard to imagine what kind of work that would have been and how it was done. But it was basically a success.

This last shot is just a detail of the cobblestone walkways around the old port and the two towers. We walked all around the port for an hour or two before lunch the day we were there.

22 November 2018

La Rochelle : La Tour de l'Horloge

We were in La Rochelle on Monday, October 22, a month ago today. We'd been trying to get to La Rochelle for 10 years, and we finally made it. When we were staying in a gîte on the nearby Île d'Oléron in 2008, all the ports and bridges were closed by striking marins-pêcheurs (commercial fishermen). Our excursions were limited to seeing places on the island.

Above is the Tour de l'Horloge in La Rochelle. It's a Gothic-era tower but the top section was added on in the 18th century. The tower is actually an old city gate called La Port de la Grosse Horloge that leads into the old town from the port.

Originally, La Rochelle was a fortified city, but it outgrew the old walls a long time ago. The city used to have a tramway, with streetcars passing through the old gate. The man whose statue you see in the first photo is Guy-Victor Duperré, a La Rochelle native who was a naval officer and French admiral in the first half of the 19th century, during the Napoleonic era.

21 November 2018

At the beach in late October

Today is the first morning since last winter, I believe, that our thermometer has displayed a temperature below freezing. Not much below, but still... It's hard to believe that four weeks ago, to the day, we were in Les Sables-d'Olonne, on the French Atlantic coast, and people were out on the beach sunbathing.

I didn't know what to expect when we decided to drive through Les Sables, as they call it. We had been to La Rochelle a couple of days earlier, and while it was pretty and impressive, I thought Les Sables was even more impressive. It's a big port, and we drove along the wharf before discovering that it's also a big resort, with a fine beach strand.

I guess on a colder, grayer day it wouldn't have been so strikingly different from all the other places we saw on our trip to the Vendée area. It wasn't at all what I imagined. Especially considering we were there on the 24th of October. Remember, the warm Gulf Stream runs toward the north off the coast, and not very far out to sea. That tempers the climate. Besides, we had a very long, hot summer here in France in 2018.

Look at this photo on the French Wikipedia page for Les Sables. The town is located about 140 miles north of Bordeaux, and 130 miles southwest of Tours (our region) — so a 3½-hour drive from Saint-Aignan. It's 250 miles southwest of Paris. The population of the urban area at Les Sables-d'Olonne — three separate municipalities that are scheduled to merge in January — is about 50,000. It has been an important French port town since the 13th century. Tourisme and sunbathing came much later.

I can't believe tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the U.S. It's not a holiday here, of course.

20 November 2018

Hake cakes, NC-style

As I wrote yesterday, I decided it might be good to have the leftover poached hake made into fish cakes. Back in the 1970s, an Englishwoman I knew made fish cakes with canned tuna and mashed potato, and they were good. But I didn't necessarily want potato in the fish cakes.

Crab cakes came to mind, and I started searching — where else? — on the internet. Crab cakes made with blue crab meat were a frequent seafood dish we ate when I lived in North Carolina back in the 1960s and '70s. My mother made them. If you've never eaten blue crabs, you haven't lived.

The North Carolina recipe for crab cakes that caught my eye was a mixture of bread crumbs, bell peppers, green onions, crab meat or, in this case, flaked cooked fish, and spices, all bound together with a beaten egg and some mayonnaise.

The N.C. recipe for crab cakes called for two ingredients I can't easily find here: green onions and a spice blend called Old Bay Seasoning. For the green onions I substituted onion powder, but you could also finely dice an onion or a shallot, cook it lightly in olive or vegetable oil, and use it in the fish cake mixture.

I looked up Old Bay Seasoning to see what spices go into that blend. Then I made my own spice blend using many of the same ingredients. I found this list of powdered spices: celery salt, paprika, black pepper, cayenne pepper, dry mustard, mace (or nutmeg), cinnamon,  cardamom, allspice, cloves, and ginger.

It was easy to put in pinches of some of these. The recipes called for just one teaspoon of the spice blend. I just chose what I liked — smoked paprika, for example, mustard powder, allspice, cloves, etc. It's your choice. I didn't have celery salt, but I had some celery leaves I could add to the mixture. Chopped basil or parsley leave would also be good.

Otherwise, the recipe is pretty simple. You mix together all the dry and wet ingredients to make a sort of paste, and then you carefully fold in the flaked fish or crab meat. I think I might make the same with some cooked, chopped shrimp soon. I used panko (Japanese bread crumbs) that I can get at local Asian markets, and I used commercial mayonnaise (Maille). And I used a commercial N.C. hot sauce called Texas Pete, but Tabasco or other hot sauce would work just fine. Oh, and I didn't have a lemon so I put in a teaspoon of white wine vinegar instead (Maille Chardonnay vinegar, which I think is very tasty).

I made up the "cakes" or patties with that mixture. (I didn't actually use bell peppers because I didn't have any.) There were four of them, each a generous portion, and froze them for later. We cooked a couple a few days ago. I just took them out of the freezer, put them in a non-stick skillet with some oil in it, let them thaw for an hour or two, and then turned on the burner and browned them. Here is the recipe adapted to my ingredients and tastes.

NC-style Crab or Fish Cakes

1 lb. flaked cooked fish or crab meat
½ cup bread crumbs
½ cup (or less) chopped bell pepper, red or green
¼ cup mayonnaise (or more)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. Old Bay Seasoning
1 tsp. hot pepper sauce
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
1 pinch garlic powder (or more to taste)
1 tsp. onion powder
¼ cup vegetable oil (for frying)

In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients except for crab meat and vegetable oil. Then gently fold in the crab meat or fish. Form into patties, using about ½ cup of mixture for each patty.

Heat oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium or medium-high heat. Carefully place crab cakes in skillet. Fry approximately 3 to 4 minutes on each side or until golden brown.

Place the cakes on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil. Serve immediately.

As you can see, we had the fish cakes with hush puppies, a salad with a mustardy yogurt-mayonnaise dressing, and French-fried potatoes.

19 November 2018

Poached hake...

Hake in French is merlu. The hake is a long, round, fierce-looking fish — a member of the cod family. Look at those teeth. The European hake (Merluccius merluccius), is found in the Atlantic Ocean off the  coast of Europe and western North Africa, in the Mediterranean, and in the Black Sea. That's according to the Wikipedia article on hake.

In La Rochelle back in October, at the fishmonger's in the city's central market, I waited in line, listening, while a woman tried to decide what fish to buy for her dinner. The fishmomger recommended merlu and told her to cook it in a court bouillon and remove the skin after the fish was cooked. He said all the fish he sold was local, so I know that hake live in the Atlantic off the French west coast. That day I  bought a sea bream, but a couple of days later, while we were still staying in the gîte, I bought some boneless hake fillets at a supermarket in Fontenay-le-Comte. We enjoyed those just panned in olive oil.

Back here in Saint-Aignan, a week or two ago we got our regular weekly supermarket, garden center, and DIY advertising flyers in Monday's mail and hake put in another appearance. SuperU was having a big special on Portuguese products — I think a lot of Portuguese people must live around here (I know a few) — and one of the imported products was whole hake at 6.50€/kg. That's less than three euros a pound. Walt went and bought the one you see in these photos.

The hake weighed in at 1.7 kg (3¾ lbs.), so we had leftovers after we poached it and had eaten some for lunch. It had poached lightly in a court bouillon of water, white wine, vinegar, onion, garlic, bay leaf, and leek tops, plus some black peppercorns and allspice berries. What you do is slide the whole fish into simmering bouillon after the aromatics have cooked and given it good flavor. As soon as the liquid returns to the boil you turn off the heat and just let it all sit there and poach for 10 or 12 minutes.

We enjoyed a lunch of fish with garden peas, carrots, and mushrooms. I made a white sauce using some of the bouillon and some cream. But we had a lot of fish left over, and we put it in the refrigerator. A day or two later, I decided to go ahead and take the rest of the flesh off the bones. And I had an idea: crab cakes. Well, not exactly: why not hake cakes? I found a North Carolina recipe for crab cakes and adapted it. More tomorrow...

18 November 2018

The cat

These photos are nine days old. I took them while we were still having sunny weather. For nearly a week now, our daytime weather has been foggy — and I mean the pea-soup kind of fog. In French, they say purée de pois to describe it.

That day, I was taking some photos of our fall colors — mostly yellows —from an upstairs window. This yellow tree is called a tilleul [tee-'yuhl] in French. It's a linden tree, and in some flavors of English it's called a lime tree. That's very confusing, I think, mais passons... And a related tree in North America is called a basswood.

We were having Indian Summer weather then. Anyway, I was taking pictures of the linden tree when I noticed that Bertie the black cat was out sunbathing on the path that runs through the back yard. He was taking advantage of the fine weather and warm sunshine.

So I focused on Bertie with my long-zoom camera and took some photos of him. He'll be 13 years old in the spring, and he's lived with us here for 8½ years now. It hasn't always been easy, but he has stayed with us. Callie the Border Collie, who departed this world in June 2017, never accepted him. The neighbors didn't get along with him. I think black cats don't have an easy life. He's a hunter and a fighter, and he has lost both the upper and lower fangs on one side of his mouth in battles with other local felines.

Bertie, who was named by the English woman who left him with us when she left France to return to the U.K. in 2010, was born here in Saint-Aignan. He is half Siamese and very vocal. At this time of year, he likes to spend time sleeping near a radiator, for the warmth. He and Tasha the Sheltie get along well, so Bert is spending a lot more time in the house than he did when Callie was still with us.