31 January 2019

Churches, and some history

I think most of these photos are scanned slides. That would mean that Walt took most of them with a film camera. This first one, of the cathedral at Laon in eastern France, dates back to September 1994. We were staying in Paris in an apartment on the Île Saint-Louis, and some people we knew in California were also on vacation in Paris, staying over near the Place Monge in the Latin Quarter. We all decided to rent a car together and do a day trip up to several places with large churches north and northeast of Paris. We were pretty ambitious, drove too far, and were exhausted when we got back to Paris that evening. But it was fun. In 1994, I was 45 years old.

I've been back to Laon at least once since then. Here's a 2011 post to prove it.

On that same day trip, we stopped in the town of Noyon to see the church there. It was CHM (I've known him since 1983) who suggested we go there, and we enjoyed it. If I remember correctly, we had packed a picnic lunch and we found a spot in the gardens of the Cathédrale de Noyon where we could have the picnic. We didn't want to spend a lot of time in a restaurant that day, because we had a long drive planned. We left Paris early, drove up to Beauvais (I can't locate photos we took there), then continued on to Noyon and Laon. Three cathedrals in one day...

There are three 2010 posts about Noyon here.

Skip ahead nearly three years. It was 1997, and I was in Paris with my mother and my 15-year-old niece Charleigh. After a week in Paris, we went to Rouen to stay with friends there. And we went to one of the big sights to see in Normandy — the ruins of the abbey church at Jumièges, on the Seine between Rouen and Le Havre. My niece took this picture of me with my friend Jeanine, whom I've known since 1972. I lost touch with here about 15 years ago — she'd be 85 now, if she's still living. I met her because her son was in one of the English classes I taught at the Lycée Corneille in Rouen in 1972-73. Jumièges must have been quite impressive before it fell into ruin and was pillaged by local people who needed the stones it was built of to build their own houses, barns, and walls.

This isn't actually a church, but it was supposed to be one when it was built. It's the Panthéon and has been called that since the time of the French Revolution. In the mid-1970s, I worked in the neighborhood around the Panthéon, which is in the center of the Latin Quarter. I took French language classes at the Sorbonne (it's in the center of this photo) and I taught English classes at what was called La Sorbonne-Nouvelle, part of the greater Université de Paris.

Finally, here's another photo of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. I think these photos are scans of slides that Walt took with a film camera back in 1994. He and I met in Paris in 1981, ended up both living and working in Washington DC for several years and then moving to San Francisco in 1986. We didn't come back to France for six years, but we started traveling and coming to France on vacations in 1988. After 17+ years in SF, we re-located to Saint-Aignan in 2003.

30 January 2019

Juin 1998 à Paris

Paris doesn't look like this today, apparently. The Paris area got the snow yesterday, as did parts of Brittany, Normandy, and Picardy. The worst weather stayed north of us, even though I had a very wet and chilly walk with the dog yesterday afternoon. More rain is predicted for today.

This is Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. I'm not sure how often the Seine is so glassy and reflections are so clear. June is a great time to visit Paris because the hours of daylight are so long, with sunset after 10 p.m.

This is another set of photos that I took in June 1998 using a now-vintage DC50 digital camera. The images have all been enlarged and edited in Photoshop Elements.

I took this photo somewhere along the quais on the Left Bank — in other words in the Latin Quarter. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité is the slogan of the French Republic. I need to look at Google Maps street views to see if these doors are still painted blue 20 years later. By the way, bleu, blanc, rouge (blue, white and red, in that order) are the colors of the French flag, and you see all three of them in this photo.

And no, the big carriageway doors are painted a dull gray these days.

The 2CV you see here is painted blanc et rouge, but somebody forgot to add the bleu. Citroën stopped making 2CVs in the late 1980s, at least in France. Nearly four million of them were built, starting in 1948. We still see quite a few of them on the roads. They, like Notre-Dame, are iconic — symbols of France.

In 1996, Walt and I had dinner in this restaurant with an old friend who lived nearby in the Marais. Les Mauvais Garçons means "Bad Boys" — and I remember that the place was packed with people the evening we were there and that the food was good.

Here it is more recently. It hasn't changed. The dinner menu will cost you less than 30 euros (plus wine).

Farther west along the Seine, I spotted not a mauvais garçon but a cherub sitting, I'm pretty sure, on the Pont Alexandre III. Many say it's the most beautiful bridge in Paris. You can see the Louvre in the background, another bridge, and a lot of péniches (barges, many of which are houseboats these days) on the Seine.

29 January 2019

Images d'il y a 20 ans

It feels really cold this morning, and on Télématin they're telling us to prepare for snow this afternoon. A "named" winter storm, la tempête Gabriel, is moving in off the North Atlantic. I have a feeling Normandy, to the north of us, will get snow, and maybe Paris, but we might not.

I've now been sitting in front of my laptop for more than two hours going through photos I took in Paris in the 1990s. Or maybe Walt took some of them — the photo formats and the cameras in those days don't seem to have saved a lot of "metadata" like "date taken" or "camera model" the way they do now. If I had carefully labeled some of these photos 20 years ago... but, well, I didn't. I'm not sure which bridge this is.

Actually, I do know that three of these images date back to June 1998, before I had my own digital camera. They are labeled. But the one on the right, showing the Brasserie de l'Isle Saint-Louis, is one I'm not sure about. I wanted to post it because the photo I posted of this same restaurant yesterday shows it all closed up. This one give you a better idea of the atmosphere when the terrace is crowded with people. I think Walt took this one, but I can't be sure when he took it.

I'm using a very old version of Adobe Photoshop Elements (4.0) to enlarge, contrast, sharpen, and/or soften these old images. Here is one that I took using Walt's camera, I believe, from the roof of Notre-Dame cathedral. It's a scanned slide. I think it was in 1994. We were staying in an apartment on the Île Saint-Louis that year too, but not the same one as in 1998. We had climbed the stairs up into the towers of Notre-Dame and were admiring the views of Paris from up there. Even though I had been spending a good amount of time in Paris since 1970, I'm not sure I'd ever been up there before.

I'm not sure where this was taken — where along the banks of the Seine, I mean. Seeing photos like this showing Paris without all the buildings, cars, and crowds of people, can give people who haven't been there the impression that Paris is more of a village than a city. It really is a city, though, with more than two million people packed into just 40 square miles. It's not particularly bucolic.

Finally, here's a nice "soft-focus" street scene that I took, I believe, on the rue Saint-Antoine near the église Saint-Paul in the Marais. That's just across the "north branch" of the Seine from the Île Saint-Louis, so maybe we were out shopping for groceries or take-out food for a lunch or dinner in our rental apartment. Have I told you how much I love and miss Paris? We almost went there more often when we lived in San Francisco than we do now that we live in the Loire Valley. And I'm older too.

28 January 2019

Memories of Paris and early digital days

In June of 1998, Walt and I came to France to spend a week in Paris. I had actually flown over a week earlier to go spend some time with friends in Rouen. I wasn't gainfully employed at the time, because Apple had laid me off (along with 400 other employees) six months earlier. I hadn't decided what my next move was going to be, and I was enjoying a few months off. On the day of Walt's arrival, my Rouen friends drove me to Paris and we met up with him on the Île Saint-Louis, where Walt and I had rented an apartment for our stay. We all enjoyed lunch in a good restaurant (La Rôtisserie du Beaujolais — I'm sure it still exists, at least not under that name).

If I remember correctly, CHM had loaned me his Kodak digital camera for the trip. He was spending the summer in California, and he said he didn't need the camera. Generous as always, he said all he wanted was a copy of the photos I took with the camera in Paris.

Walt and I had meals and drinks several times at this place, the Brassserie de l'Île Saint-Louis, with great views of the flying buttresses of the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris.

These photos were mostly taken on the Île Saint-Louis, except the one of the Bazar, which was, and maybe still is, on the rue des Écoles in the Latin Quarter. That's Walt strolling past the shop.

This winter, I'm spending a lot of time going through photos and other files that I copied onto CDs back in the 1990s, trying to sort them all out and, in some cases, enlarging the photos and processing them to make them look better.

Back in '98, some friends of ours in San Francisco had recently come back from a trip to Paris, and one day they had tried to explain to us where a certain Paris café they had liked a lot was located. Or what the name of it was. They couldn't remember — all they could tell us was that it was the café with the red awning! So I had red awnings on my mind I think.

Cameras have improved so much in 21 years. Even if these are not up to 21st century standards, I'm glad to have these digital photos to jog my memory about trips we took to France back then. The apartment we had rented on the Île Saint-Louis turned out to be a tiny one-windowed studio with a sleeping loft up over the kitchen. The weather was really hot, and the window faced south. The sun beat in.
It was smotheringly hot up at ceiling level, where we were sleeping. If we opened the window, we just let more noise than cool air into the apartment, since all the other residents around the courtyard we faced had their windows open as well. I think we had an electric fan, but all it did was blow the hot air around. No matter... we had a great time on that trip.

The name of this place is a pun. Rougets are fish — red mullets — and this shop must be a fish market. But Rouget de Lisle is also the author of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.

27 January 2019

Chémery (2) : more views

Here are a few more photos of the Château de Chémery that I've taken over the years.

Can you tell I'm sort of taking a couple of days off from complicated blogging?

The château has its own web site here. With photos and a lot of other information. I can't find an English-language version, however.

Chémery is operated as a B&B (called chambres d'hôtes in French), among other things. There are nice photos of the rooms on this page.

This is a detail shot of a window in the Château de Chémery.

Meanwhile, this morning I'm getting ready to take a estouffade de bœuf out of the slow cooker. It's beef shank with carrots, onions, garlic, mushrooms and red wine. It cooked for 8 hours overnight. Got to get busy.

It's supposed to rain here today, so we'll enjoy the stewed beef. Comfort food. It's that time of year.

One of the times that I went to Chémery with friends, there were dozens of croaking green frogs in the moat. I can't find any photos, though. Guess I need to go back over there in two or three months...

26 January 2019

Chémery : le château

A while back, I found this old photo of the Château de Chémery somewhere on the internet. I can't remember where, so I can't give credit.

Chémery is located just 7.5 miles northeast of Saint-Aignan. Not much is known about the ancient history of the château because all the archives that would have documented it were destroyed during the 1789 Revolution and the following years. Seeing this old photo reminded me of some photos I've take in Chémery over the years. Here's one from 2006.

French Wikipedia says the Château de Chémery was built in the early 1200s by a local seigneur (lord) named Regnault. The château complex is completely surrounded by a moat. It is known, apparently, that the property belonging to the château at the time of the French Renaissance in the 1500s measured some 600 hectares (about 1500 acres).

The Count of Saint-Aignan, René de Beauvilliers, owned the Château de Chémery as well as the Château de Saint-Aignan in the 1700s. Beauvilliers was one of Louis XIV's closest advisers and friends. The king assigned him responsibility for the royal children's education. In 1729, Chémery's château was turned into a simple ferme — just a regular old farm — according to Wikipedia. In the 1970s, it was owned for a brief time by the French singer/songwriter Alain Souchon, whose family lived in the area.

25 January 2019

Clafoutis de chou-fleur

Okay, here I go again. The other day I made a clafoutis — a kind of crustless custard pie — with "dried plums" (click this link and scroll down). Those are also known as prunes, though the term has sort of fallen into disfavor in the U.S. In France, prunes are fresh plums, and prunes are pruneaux. The classic clafoutis [klah-foo-TEE] is made with fresh cherries (but it's not the season for them, of course).

A day or two earlier I had bought (for 1.09€) a beautiful cauliflower at SuperU — it is definitely cauliflower season now — and Walt and I had talked about how we wanted to prepare and eat it. It must have weighed a kilogram. I often make a gratin de chou-fleur with smoked-pork lardons when I have chou-fleur, and I had made one just a few weeks ago. Then we talked about making a cauliflower quiche. Suddenly I thought: what about a savory clafoutis with chou-fleur. No crust needed.

I steamed the head of cauliflower whole, along with the green leaves that the chou-fleur grows wrapped in — those are good to eat too. They're cabbage leaves, and I saved them for later. I thought it would be better to cook the cauliflower first, before cutting it up, because when you cut up a raw chou-fleur and the florets, they can crumble and you feel like you're being wasteful.

I did have to cut up the florets, because they were going to be too big to bake in a pie plate. They work for a gratin, because you can make that in a deep dish, but not for a clafoutis. So I steamed the cauliflower and let it cool before cutting it up. I arranged the pieces in a buttered baking pan.

I had a stray slice of jambon de Paris in the refrigerator, so I chopped that up and sprinkled the pieces over the chopped up chou-fleur. Then I looked up "clafoutis chou-fleur" on the internet, and of course I found a couple of recipes (here's one) immediately. Everything is on the 'net these days. I was looking for proportions for the custard I was going to pour over the cauliflower before it went into the oven.

So here are the ingredients and quantities that I decided on for the custard:
  •  80 g de farine = ¾ cup of flour
  • 20 cl de crème liquide entière = 7 fl. oz. of heavy cream
  • 20 cl de lait = 7 fl. oz. of milk
  • 4 œufs = 4 eggs
  • 1 pincée de noix muscade = 1 pinch or grating of nutmeg
  • Sel, poivre = salt and pepper to taste
  • 100 g de fromage râpé = 3 or 4 oz. grated cheese

No sugar, right? This is a savory clafoutis. Salt, pepper, nutmeg, and melted cheese provide the flavor, not sugar.

Doing some reading, I thought about the origin of the term "custard" in English. It's actually a sort of "umbrella" term, and there are many different kinds of, and recipes for, custard. It's a term that is more used in the U.K. than in the U.S., I think. And in France, the equivalent term is probably crème, though that also means cream, the dairy product, of course. The word "custard" actually derives from the French word croustade, which means a "filled" crust, like a pie or tart. Tart crusts have been filled with creamy custards for at least a couple of thousand years, apparently. The eggy-creamy mixture used to make a quiche is a custard.

Anyway, pour on the liquid, sprinkle some extra grated cheese over the top, and bake the clafoutis in the oven at 350ºF (180ºC) for 30 minutes or so until the custard has "set up" and browned on top. There you have it. Enjoy hot, at room temperature, or cold. You could decide to make such a clafoutis with broccoli, too. Or spinach.

24 January 2019

Le pho, c'est de la vraie soupe

Pho is not French, but Vietnamese. It's beef noodle soup, but very different from what you might eat in the U.S. It's a soup that's very fresh and comforting.

Since I had cooked a capon that was glazed with soy sauce and other Asian flavor ingredients, I had plenty of soup broth to work with. I took the last of the meat off the capon carcass, and then I boiled the carcass to make broth. For the pho, I added some beef bouillon to it. I had about four liters of broth. I just needed to add a few more flavor ingredients. Below is a non-comprehensive, non-exclusive list.

  • 2 medium yellow onions (about 1 lb. total)
  • 1 four-inch piece ginger (about 4 oz.)
  • 5 star anis pods
  • 3 or 4 allspice berries
  • 10 or 12 black peppercorns
  • 1 or 2 dried hot peppers like cayennes
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 Tbsp. nuoc-mâm fish sauce
  • sugar (sparingly, to taste)
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves

Since the broth cooks for several hours, you'll have plenty of time to taste it and adjust the aromatics and seasonings until you think you've got the taste you want. At the end, strain out all the spices and aromatics so that you have a clear, flavorful broth for the soup. (The lettuce and mint leaves in this photo are for eating with nems.)

The main ingredient in pho soup, besides broth, is cooked noodles. In fact, I'm pretty sure the word pho means noodles. Any Asian noodle will do, and you could even use spaghetti or angel hair pasta. The other soup ingredients go in raw: bean sprouts, grated carrot, thinly sliced onion or shallot, thinly sliced mushrooms, and strips of tender raw beef.

While the cooked noodles are still hot, put them in pre-heated soup bowls. Put the sprouts, carrot, onion, mushrooms, and beef on top of the noodles. Ladle boiling hot broth over all, and let the hot soup sit for just a minute or two to cook the vegetables and beef. Obviously, the most important ingredient is a hot, flavorful broth, along very tender beef that needs minimal cooking.

At the table, add more fish sauce and some hot sauce, soy sauce, or sesame oil to taste. We also had some of the nems (crispy spring rolls) that Walt made recently as a side dish with our soup. Here's a recipe but I didn't really follow any recipe closely when I made our pho.

23 January 2019

Ça n'est pas allé bien loin...

This was about the extent of it. It was no blizzard, that's for sure.

Above is the view out the kitchen window. Forecasts were for snow starting at 6 a.m. and ending before noon, changing to rain. In fact, it didn't start snowing until 12:30, at a point when we thought it was all over.

As you can see looking out the guest bedroom window, there wasn't really much to it. This morning it's not so cold and it is raining outside. Walt and I were both slightly disappointed that we didn't get a little more snow. It would have been pretty, and would have brightened up the environment.

On the spur of the moment, I made a clafoutis aux pruneaux — a kind of crustless prune pie or custard — yesterday afternoon. We didn't have anything else in the house in the way of dessert. A clafoutis is very easy and quick to make, and it is delicious. Besides, prunes are good for you. According to Monique Maine's book La Cuisine pour toute l'année (1969), the ingredients for a clafoutis are:

  • 500 grams of fruit
  • 80 grams of flour (¾ cup = 6 fl. oz)
  • 125 grams of sugar (½ cup = 4 fl. oz)
  • 250 ml of milk (1 generous cup)
  • 4 eggs
  • 60 grams of butter (4 generous tablespoons)

In this case, I used a generous pound of prunes — about two dozen of them. The ones I had were very tender and not too dried out, so I didn't have to soak them. I also didn't pit them. The recipe instructions say to mix together the flour, sugar, and eggs first. Then add the milk gradually, stirring, along with half the butter, melted. The mixture resembles crêpe batter. Butter the baking dish with the rest of the butter, arrange the prunes evenly in the buttered dish, and pour in the batter. I sprinkled some cassonade (raw sugar) over the top and it browned nicely, as you can see. Bake the clafoutis in a 350ºF (180ºC) oven for about 30 minutes, until set and golden brown.

22 January 2019

Phénomènes hivernaux

It's supposed to start snowing here any minute now, according to the weather report I just heard on Télématin. In fact, the reporter said that it is already snowing in our département, le Loir-et-Cher. Maybe I should go look out the window. It's still pitch dark outside.

Here are some photos I took out in the back yard one week ago today. We have patches of wild or "escapee" cyclamens all around the yard. They flower in January and February, like these.

We also have an artichoke plant that puts up new leaves in December and January. We planted five of them something like 10 years ago, but three of them didn't survive for very long. The one in this photo seems to be very hardy. There's another one, not pictured, that is surviving but not thriving.

This is the pond in wintertime. It's not in our back yard, but just outside our back gate. It's public property, owned and maintained by the commune (our village authorities). It's pretty full right now because we've had a lot of rain. It hasn't yet overflowed the way it does at some point in most winters.
Yesterday morning it was cloudy or foggy and we couldn't see the moon until just before it was about to sink below the horizon. Here's a picture of it I took through the branches of the linden tree (tilleul) in our back yard.

I just opened a window and stuck my hand out. The moon is shining brightly. The air feels sort of sparkly. It felt like freezing fog to me. It might turn into snow or it might not. We are at the far southern edge of the Loir-et-Cher, so it might be snowing in more northerly parts of the département.

21 January 2019

Moules (et) frites — toute une histoire

A few weeks ago we decided we wanted to make moules-frites for lunch sometime in January. That's mussels with French fries. We have a good fishmonger who comes from the Atlantic coast of France every Saturday and sets up a big stand at Saint-Aignan's open-air market. We hadn't cooked mussels in a long time, and, surprisingly, in 13+ years of blogging, I have never before posted about cooking them.

The day arrived on January 19, two days ago. Problem was, we had a few hours of freezing rain before dawn that morning. The car, which I had failed to park under the carport out front, was completely iced over. Walt went out for a walk with the dog at about 8:30 and when he came back he said it was seriously slippery out there. The dog had fallen flat on her belly when her feet slipped out from under her on the vineyard road.

I decided it wasn't worth the risk to go out. The road from our hamlet down to the main road along this side of the river is very steep. The freezing rain had stopped but the temperature was still below freezing at 9:00. We made other lunch plans — leftovers. I told Walt I'd go over to the market in Noyers the next day (that was yesterday) because I thought there was a fishmonger there as well.

And I did go. I found no seafood there. I talked to a woman at a produce stand, who told me the fishmonger who used to set up in Noyers on Sundays stopped coming to the market months ago. It's obviously not a market I go to often. I'm out of touch.

I had some shopping to do at the Intermarché supermarket over there, so I headed that way. The fish counter was open in the store, but the selection of seafood was limited. Dismal, really. There were some mussels on display, but they were pretty sad-looking — small and not appetizing, lying there gasping for air or water. Half of them had popped open, and that's not a great sign. I decided to pass. I had about given up on mussels for the time being. But as I was driving across the bridge toward home, I realized I had forgotten to buy potatoes.

And we were out. Oh well, I might as well run up to SuperU and get those, and I'll see if they have any decent looking mussels on display. And guess what — they did. I bought them, and the potatoes.

There was still plenty of time before noon to wash the moules, pick through them to eliminate any with open or broken shells, and "de-beard" those that needed that kind of grooming. Once they were cleaned and sorted, it was a pretty fast process to cook them.

Sauté some onion and/or shallot in butter in the bottom of a big pot. Dump in the mussels, shells and all (of course). Toss in some chopped parsley and celery (one stalk). Grind some black pepper over all, and pour in about a third of a bottle of dry white wine. Don't add salt; the mussels are salty enough. As soon as the shells open up, the mussels are ready. It doesn't take much more than five minutes. Oh, and don't forget to cook some French fries. Voilà — lunch.