31 March 2019

Sur la route en Auvergne

When we left Le Puy-en-Velay on March 9, we drove north through the Haute-Loire (Auvergne), passing through the village of Vieille-Brioude and the town of Arvant. We covered a distance of about 70 kilometers (40 miles) that morning. Here's what the countryside looked like, in a slideshow consisting of 12 photos that runs for a little less than a minute. I thought you might enjoy the ride.

The Michelin Guide Verte describes Vieille-Brioude (pop. 1,200) as a charmant bourg très fleuri on a rock outcropping along an ancient Roman road. Until the late 19th century, when imported phylloxera insects decimated the grape vines, it was an important wine town. We made one stop on that Saturday morning, and that was in the town of Brioude (pop. 6,700) to see the beautiful church there. More about that over the next few days...

30 March 2019

C'est le fromage !

“It's the cheese!” That was an ad campaign on TV in California many years ago. Well, California cheese can be good, but if you want a wide variety of really good cheeses you have to come to France. And the old Auvergne province is one of France's best cheese regions.

While Touraine, where we live, is a prime area for goat's milk cheeses, Auvergne is, along with Normandy, one of France's prime regions for cow's milk cheeses. Some of the most famous of those are Cantal and Salers, which are cheddar-like, along with Bleu d'Auvergne and Fourme d'Ambert, two blue cheeses made with lait de vache. (The Roquefort cheese we all know and love is made with ewe's milk.)

In general, farm-made cheeses (fromages fermiers) are considered to be more distinctive in flavor than dairy-made cheeses (fromages laitiers). One big difference between France and the U.S. when it comes to cheeses is that a lot of French cheeses are made with raw milk (lait cru) — unpasteurized milk, in other words. The cheeses are more natural and tasty when the milk that goes into them has not been "cooked" in the cheese-making process.

Here are some cheeses that we bought while we were in the Auvergne and brought home to Saint-Aignan. We're still enjoying them. One of the best-known is called Saint-Nectaire, and it's made in the town that goes by that name. It's a soft cow's milk cheese that carries the European AOP label. That stands for Appellation d'Origine Protégée, and it means that there are strict controls on the methods used in its production, including requirements that the milk used come from a specific region. Saint-Nectaire is a slightly creamy cheese with a thick, natural rind.

I don't know a lot about the other cheeses pictured here, except that they are all made with lait cru de vache, and they are mostly fromages fermiers, as you can see on the labels. The first cheese above, Le Roc Affiné, is made in the Haute Loire, near Le Puy-en-Velay. The second one, L'Artisou de Margeride, comes from the Cantal département, just to the west. The Saint-Nectaire cheese in the photo above is made in the Puy-de-Dôme département, not far south of the big city called Clermont-Ferrand.

This last cheese, called La Fourme du Forez, is a blue cheese made in the Loire département, just north of the Haute-Loire and northwest of the town of Ambert, where the well-known Fourme d'Ambert cheese comes from. It's actually a fromage laitier but made with lait cru. The Forez is a separate geographical area in the Massif Central that touches the eastern border of the Auvergne province.

29 March 2019

Arlempdes : le village

Arlempdes (pop. 135, pronounced as Arlandes) is officially one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. In other words, it's one of the 158 villages that belong to that organization. This is my final post about it. There are a dozen photos in the slide show and it runs for just over a minute.

As you can see, the village, built of the local dark-colored volcanic rock, is pretty rustic. We saw decorative chickens there, but no live ones. We saw only one person, who was doing some maintenance on the exterior of the village hotel. And then that big heating oil delivery truck arrived and managed to fit itself into one of the narrowest of the streets of Arlempdes.

Here is the Google Maps satellite view showing the entire village, from the cemetery in the top left corner to the château on top of a rock in the lower right corner.

28 March 2019

Arlempdes et sa pierre noire

Translating a description I found on an Auvergne tourism site in French:

“...People often say that Arlempdes gave the youthful Loire river its first château. However, it is in no way comparable to the magnificent Loire Valley châteaux farther downstream toward the Atlantic ocean.  Here, in the heart of the Massif Central, south central France's high country, the white stone of Touraine seems like a dream. This dark stone, the heritage of long-ago, intense volcanic activity, shapes the lanscapte. Black basalt flows from the approximately 500 extinct volcanoes of Auvergne's Devès range long ago overwhelmed the original white bedrock...”

That dark-colored stone is what was used to build the ancient village church in Arlempdes. The church, known as l’église Saint-Pierre, is older than the château that looms over it.

Again translating: “Typically Romanesque, the church dates back to the 12th century. It was built out of multi-colored volcanic stone (tuff and breccia). The bell tower, built of granite, was added later, as was the lateral granite buttress that props up the older structure... Houses are built up against the church, so you can't walk all the way around it. The beautiful front portal, with its four arches... is typical of the Velay architectural style. Two of the columns that hold up the arches are decorated with different helix patterns....”

The church was closed for the winter when we were in Arlempdes on March 6. The Auvergne tourism site describe the interior as being very plain, which is typical of local churches. Above are a few more exterior photos that I've put together as a slideshow.

27 March 2019

Arlempdes, et la vétérinaire hier

Les Plus Beaux Villages de France — the most beautiful villages in France — is an association founded in 1982 "for the promotion of the tourist appeal of small rural villages with a rich cultural heritage." That's how Wikipedia describes it. Arlempdes in the Haute- Loire (Auvergne) is one of the villages that is a member. I'm not sure when it earned that honor.

I've been doing some research and reading about Arlempdes, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of information about the village available on the internet. It is very small, after all, with just about 135 inhabitants. And it's pretty isolated, though it's only about four miles (7 km) off a main north-south highway, the N88, and only about 25 miles south of Le Puy-en-Velay, the area's biggest town.

This is the village church's bell tower in Arlempdes. I've read that it was added on long after the church was built in the 1100s or 1200s. You can also see it in the other two photos in this post.

On another subject entirely: Yesterday I took Bertie the black cat to the veterinary clinic for his annual checkup and vaccination. The vet who saw us was the same woman who received us when our border collie, Callie, had to be put to sleep in 2017 (link to this post, and the two before it are about that terrible time too.) I wrote about the whole experience at the time, and I posted a copy of the kind sympathy letter that the vet wrote to us after Callie was gone. To my surprise, she told me yesterday that she was surfing the web not long ago and she came upon my blog post. She teared up slightly when we talked about that day nearly two years ago. I probably did too.

26 March 2019

Le Château d'Arlempdes in Auvergne — some history

The château at Arlempdes, south of Le Puy-en-Velay and 15 miles from the source of the Loire River (which is 629 miles long), is mentioned for the first time in a bull published by the pope Clement IV in the year 1267. Building on top of the basalt "dike" continued until the 16th century. The château complex is completely integrated into the volcanic peak, so it's not a typical feudal fortress. The ramparts are extensions of the natural rock and it is almost impossible for anyone to climb to the top. Its purpose was to protect the site against invaders coming down from the north, who coveted this part of the country.

Until the 16th century, the château was owned by several different local families, including some of the most powerful families in the southern part of the Auvergne region. It became a part of the properties around France controlled by Diane de Poitiers (1500-1566) — of Chenonceau and Chaumont fame —when the daughter of a local baron married into her family. Diane's coat of arms is carved into a wall of the Arlempdes château. The family's residence, of which only one wall remains standing, was built during Diane's time. Later in the same century, during the Wars of Religion, it served as barracks for royal troops fighting the local Protestants.

Increasingly neglected by families who owned it in later centuries, the Arlempdes château was completely abandoned by the time of the 1789 French Revolution. The site was no longer strategically important. It fell into ruin, and was quarried by local people who needed stones to build houses and walls. In the 19th century, the château was sold for one symbolic franc to a Catholic charity. In 1963, descendents of some of the old families that had owned it in past centuries bought it back and undertook to restore the château.

— Thanks to the article about Arlempdes on French Wikipédia  for this information. —

25 March 2019

Arlempdes : le premier château de la Loire

Geographically speaking, the village called Arlempdes is the site of the first château on the Loire River. It's very close to the source of the Loire, 15 miles east. Here's the first view we had of Arlempdes (pop. 134), which is less than 20 miles south of Le Puy-en-Velay in the Haute-Loire département of Auverge.

Obviously, the village cemetery is the most striking thing in this image. There was a Roman camp near here in the first century B.C. The site has been inhabited since the high Middle Ages (between the 6th and 10th centuries), and the church dates back to the 12th century.

Here's a view showing less of the cemetery. Arlempdes is, at least to me, an unusual looking word in French. It derives from an old Celtic term or expression meaning something like "sacred place." According to the article about Arlempdes in French Wikipédia and also the Michelin Green Guide, it's pronounced as if it were spelled Arlandes [ar-'lãd], with ã being the French nasal A vowel.

It's kind of hard to distinguish the ruins of the old château in the first two photos here. They blend into the rock in the background. In this third view, you can see them a little better. The château ruins are open to the public from March 15 to October 15. We were there a few days to early to be able to go in, but we did go for a walk around the village, taking advantage of the improving weather that day.

24 March 2019

Food "interlood" 2 — the first 2019 kale crop

I harvested my winter crop of kale yesterday. It's the variety often called "dinosaur kale" because the bumpy dark green leaves made somebody think they had the texture of dinosaur skin. This variety is also called "black" Tuscan kale. I harvested six or eight plants and picked all the leaves, large and small, off the stalks yesterday morning. That took about 90 minutes I think, and the leaves filled up a 15-liter bucket. That's 1.7 pecks, or 0.43 U.S. bushels of kale leaves. I looked it up, and learned that the U.K. bushel is not exactly the same as the U.S. bushel.

The first photo, above shows just a small portion of the harvest. This second one shows all of it, blanched, filling, for overnight storage, a fairly deep 12-inch baking dish. There are a few baby collard leaves in there too. I wanted to cook the greens in my crock pot (slow-cooker) but 15 liters far exceeded its capacity. So I had to blanch the leaves in boiling water on top of the stove first. That didn't take very long because I didn't need to put a whole lot of water in the big stock pot. When it boiled, it produced enough steam to cook the kale just enough to soften the leaves and make them collapse.

I thought I really hadn't planned this harvest very well, because I didn't have any bacon grease in the refrigerator. Then I remembered that the last time I went to Intermarché I had bought a big chunk of smoked poitrine fumée (pork "belly" or "breast" a.k.a. "side meat"). That was perfect. I try to keep a piece of it on hand. It's sold vacuum-packed so it will keep for several weeks in the fridge after I buy it.

Here is the six-liter insert or liner of my slow-cooker with the blanched kale and the chunk of poitrine fumée in it. There's also about a liter of the blanching liquid in there, along with some salt and plenty of black pepper. The slow-cooker insert I have is an aluminum pot with a non-stick coating on the inside. One advantage of having a metal insert is that I can set it on a burner on the stove to pre-heat it before putting it in the slow-cooker's heating element, giving it a head start so it cooks a little more quickly.

A Tuscan kale plant looks like this. The leaves are not as curly as the leave of the curly kale I used to cook, so they are much easier to wash thoroughly. The result is no sand in the bottom of the cooking pot. I also like red Russian kale, and I have some seeds so I think I'll grow some of that is spring. Notice how the Tuscan kale leaves are a nice dark blue-green color. I'm not sure if you can buy Tuscan kale in the U.S. but I know I've never seen it on the markets or in the supermarkets here in the Loire Valley. The widely available greens here are cabbage ("white" or Savoy), Swiss chard, and of course spinach.

23 March 2019

Six pix of chix

The house we rented near Le Puy-en-Velay is called un gîte rural — rural accommodation, a vacation rental out in the country. The first definition of gîte in one standard French dictionary is « Endroit où l'on couche, réside, temporairement ou habituellement. » — "Place where one sleeps, resides, either temporarily or habitually." The word gîte derives from the verb gésir, which means "to lie" in the since of "lie down, sleep."

The Le Puy gîte, although just a mile or so from a huge shopping center and a couple of miles from the center of the town, which probably qualifies as a small city, was certainly in a rural environment. The people who own it and rent it out to tourists and vacationers keep chickens. They were fenced in on a big plot of land right outside the gîte.

When I read about the gîte on the internet, I assumed that the owners were a couple and that they lived on the property. They had different last names on the rental contract, but that's not unusual nowadays. They also had four phone numbers — each one listed a land line and a cell phone. That wouldn't be unusual these days either. If both are professionals, it would be easy to explain so many phone numbers.

The thing I read right over in the description of the gîte on the internet was a quick mention that the house being rented was the owners' maison natale. That should have been a big clue, but it didn't dawn on me what it meant right away. On arrival, we learned that the man and woman who greeted us and showed us around the place didn't live on the property at all. They turned out to be brother and sister, each married. The brother lived across the way from the gîte, and not all that close. The sister lived in a different town, several miles away.

Very often, gîte owners do live close by their rental property, either in the same house or building, or in a separate building or house on their land. That was the case when we rented a little house on the coast, in the Vendée, last March. It wasn't a big deal, but you do feel you have less privacy when you see the owner every day, often several times a day. You don't have the impression that you really are chez vous in the gîte.

In Le Puy, the fact that there was a flock of chickens nearby certainly added to the rural atmosphere. Each time we went out the front door, the chickens would come running, clucking wildy because, I imagine, they thought we might intend give them something to eat. We never did. But they gave us something to eat. Freshly laid eggs. The owners set a basket of them on the kitchen table for us. They were delicious.

P.S. You can enlarge the pictures and stare into the chickens' beady little eyes by clicking on the images or "unpinching" them (on a tablet).

22 March 2019

Deux villages en Auvergne : Le Monastier et Goudet

We put our recent trip to the Auvergne region together very quickly, and at the last minute. My birthday was approaching, and I suddenly felt like doing something different that week. We arrived at the gîte we'd rented at Le Puy-en-Velay armed with a Michelin Green Guide, and with internet access linking us to Wikipédia and other sites and pages.

This is the Château de Beaufort, which looms over the village of Goudet in the Haute-Loire.

One excursion I had read about in the Michelin Guide would take us south to places named Goudet, Arlempdes, and Pradelles, three villages on the banks of the Loire river headwaters. We headed south in the car on Wednesday, March 6, heading toward a little mountain town called Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille (pop. 1,800). The drive took much longer than we thought it would because the roads were so narrow and winding.

The Château de Beaufort stands as ruins on top of a big rock.

When we finally got to Le Monastier, it was gusty and rainy, the sky was leaden, and we even saw a few snowflakes. I had read on one web site that Wednesday was market day in Le Monastier, and that it was a very picturesque market that has been a weekly event since the year 1495. Also, I'd read that the Monastérois (the locals) speak a distinctive dialect that I wanted to hear in person.

Tiny Goudet is located on the tiny Loire River in the Haute-Loire département of Auvergne.

Upon arrival, we saw a big sign that said Le Monastier's open-air market sets up on Tuesdays, not Wednesdays, so we were out of luck. We didn't even get out of the car. We just drove around in the rain for a few minutes and then continued on our way. Later, the owners of the gîte where we were staying said I probably wouldn't have heard the dialect spoken anyway, because it has pretty much died out.

The mighty Loire River doesn't look quite so majestic up near its source.

The next village I wanted to see is called Goudet (pop. 59 — not a typo). One of the reasons I wanted to see it is that on of the main landmarks in Goudet is the Château de Beaufort. Since my home county in North Carolina, Carteret Country, has the town of Beaufort as its county seat, I wanted see and take pictures of Beaufort Castle on the Loire River. It was built in the 1200s, and it's now in ruins.

Goudet is a "starry village" — the street lights are turned off at night so residents and visitors can enjoy good sky views.
Here are some of those photos. If you start traveling along the Loire River from its source, heading toward Le Puy, Beaufort is the second château you see along the way, after the one at Arlempdes. More about that to come...

There's at least one hotel in Goudet if you want to spend the night there.

21 March 2019

La Forteresse de Polignac, en Auvergne

Look way off into the distance toward the right in this panoramic view of Le Puy-en-Velay below and you see another looming monument. This one is the château fort or forteresse de Polignac. It stands on top of a volcanic "platform" 60 meters (200 ft.) high. The family that lived there back in the Middle Ages took its name as theirs. It's a monument to war rather than a monument to religion.

The viscounts of the Velay province were allies of the king of France, but they had a pronounced independent streak, rebelling against king Louis VI in the 11th and 12th centuries and against Louis XI in the 15th. Their château fort could accommodate 800 soldiers as well as the family and all its domestic staff.

I was standing more than four miles from the Forteresse de Polignac when I took this long-zoom photo.

The donjon or grosse tour was built around the year 1400. King François 1er and his entourage visited Polignac in the 1530s. The occupants of the Château de Polignac were allies of the Catholic French monarchy during the Wars of Religion later in that century, while the population of Le Puy and the Velay were mainly Protestants.

I wasn't much more than a few hundred yards from Polignac when I took this one.

In the 18th century, the viscounts of Velay abandoned their château fort and moved a few miles east to the more comfortable Château de Lavoûte-Polignac, on the Loire river. The donjon at Polignac fell into ruin. The Polignac family fled the country at the time of the 1789 revolution. The forteresse was declared to be the property of the state, was sold as such to a private owner, and was then operated as a stone quarry.

The Polignac family returned to France after the revolution and bought back the fortress in 1830. It was decared a monument national in 1840. The Polignacs restored and rebuilt the huge square donjon over the course of the 19th century. The site is open to the public for much of the year but closes for the winter, so we couldn't go up there. Thanks to French Wikipédia and the Michelin Guide Vert (Auvergne) for the information here.

20 March 2019

Views from the front porch

Imagine yourself standing around on the front porch of the cathedral at Le Puy-en-Velay. It's early March, and the weather is nice but fairly cold. You're waiting for somebody (Walt, in my case) to come back out of the cathedral after having a look around inside — you've already been inside yourself and had your look around. Why couldn't the two of you go inside together? Because one of you has to stay outside with the dog, that's why. So you take turns. You are just standing around and taking in the views of the church and the city.

City is a big word for a place with a population of less that 20,000. It's more a big town, but it's the biggest town in its département (county). And it definitely feels like a city. The first two pictures in this slideshow show another one of Le Puy's big monuments — it's a gigantic statue of saint Joseph that stands on top of a church in the neighboring commune (village or town) of Espaly. In the first image, the big white statue is off in the distance. In the second, it's a full-zoom shot. There are 20 photos in this slideshow. I slipped in a few that weren't actually taken from the front porch. The running time is only 1m15s.

19 March 2019

Autour de la cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy [slideshow]

On one of our mornings in Le Puy-en-Velay, we decided to go see the cathedral. It's one of the most famous churches in France, in part because it was and still is a starting point for the long pilgrimage to the church in Santiago de Compostela — Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in French. The pilgrimage is a long walk that it takes at least two months to do.

Above is a photo showing you what the cathedral looks like in its urban setting, with the huge statue of Notre-Dame de France above and behind it. The statue dates back to about 1860. Below is a slideshow with photos I took in and around the cathedral.

The cathedral in Le Puy is also famous for its Black Madonna (Vierge Noire) — I managed to capture an image of it and you'll see it in the slideshow (the one in the purple cloak). It was very dark inside the cathedral so I don't have many other photos of the interior. The other images here are ones I captured as we explored the little streets of Le Puy's Ville Haute (the upper city) around the cathedral.

You can choose to view the slideshow in full-screen mode as well as control the speed of the show by using the YouTube tools in the lower right-hand corner of the window or screen. It lasts a little less than three minutes if you run it as I posted it. I've set it up to "loop" — to run again from the beginning after the last image displays.

18 March 2019

Food "interlood" — slow-cooked lamb

I cooked a leg of lamb over the weekend. It was and is un gigot de douze heures — I cooked it for 12 hours or a little more in the slow-cooker. I've seen recipes for slow-cooked lamb that call for roasting the leg for either five or seven hours. Nowadays, with slow-cookers a.k.a. crock pots, the lamb can cook at very low temperature for 12 hours.

 The lamb leg just barely fit in the slow-cooker. It weighed 3+ kg (7 lbs.) and simmered with:

• 2 cut-up carrots
• 2 sliced onions
• 3 chopped garlic cloves
• 2 sliced celery branches
• ½ bottle of white wine
• 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
• 2 Tbsp. dried thyme
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
• 1 tsp. ground allspice
• salt and black pepper

To cook the gigot, on Saturday night I set the cooker's temperature to low and its timer for 10 hours. And when I got up Sunday morning, I checked the lamb's temperature. It was at 190ºF or slightly higher (90ºC). At that point, the meat is starting to fall off the bone and is perfectly tender. I took it out of the slow-cooker, put it in a roasting dish, and set it in the refrigerator. At noontime, I reheated it for a hour or so in a slow oven.

It is pretty tasty too. There was a good amount of liquid — more than half a liter — in the pot, and a good bit of rendered lamb fat too. I de-greased the broth using a gravy separator and served the lamb with that flavorful broth and the onions, carrots, and celery that cooked in the crock pot with it, along with some pale-green flageolet beans out of a jar and some home-grown Tuscan "dinosaur" kale out of the freezer. Lamb is always good with beans, be they pale green, red, or white. And beans are always good with greens.

We had slow-cooked lamb for our Sunday dinner but, as you can imagine, we have quite a bit left over. This week, I think I might cook a dish of moussaka with eggplant, tomato-and-chopped-lamb sauce, grated cheese, and béchamel. And I plan to "pull" (shred, effilocher) some of the lamb and season it with barbecue sauce for sandwiches served with cole slaw. It will be good in Mexican-style tacos or enchiladas too, seasoned with ground cumin and chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Some of the cooked lamb can go into the freezer for future meals.

17 March 2019

La Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy

Here are two composite images of the cathedral in Le Puy-en-Velay, in central France's Auvergne region. I took them about 10 days ago.

You can see the cathedral in its context in the photos in this recent blog post. I just read on this site (which includes a beautiful panorama of Le Puy) that in the mid-19th century, the cathedral was at risk of falling into ruin. It was not only restored but basically rebuilt later in that century. The work was finished in 1890.

The French-language Michelin Green Guide points out that Le Puy is unusual in France because when you are in the lower part of town ("downtown"), you can't see the cathedral at all. You can see it up close, or you can see it from various high points all around the town, which is located in a fairly deep basin or valley. For tomorrow, I think I'll do another slideshow of some of the details I photographed around the cathedral when we were there.

16 March 2019

La chapelle perchée du Puy

I posted one close-up photo of the Chapelle Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe in Auvergne at Le Puy-en-Velay a few days ago, and you can also see it in several of the panoramic views of the town over the past week. We came back from Le Puy a week ago today. It was a place that I had wanted to see for years.

Here are three more views that I think might give a better impression of how highly "perched" this thousand-year-old chapel actually is. I took the photo above from street level right at the base of the old volcanic chimney, called une aiguille ("a needle"), on March 5.

The chapel took 12 years to build, starting in the year 969. That alone is pretty amazing. The rock "needle" is more than 80 meters (270 feet) tall. The towers of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris are 69 meters tall. The floor of the church on top of the Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy is 78 meters above sea level.

I'm sorry we weren't able to climb the 268 steps, carved into the stone of the needle, to go to the top. We walked around the base of it again on March 7, and that's when I took the two pictures directly above. We were coming down the hill that the cathedral stands on.