30 April 2019

Un visiteur aux longues pattes

Wikipédia says that people in France mistakenly call these insects « cousins » — yes, "cousins" — that being a popular name given to mosquitoes. Interesting image, that — cousins as pests that suck the blood out of you. In this case, this is not a mosquito, and it won't bite or sting you. It's a fly —  a crane fly in English, both in Britain and America, it seems. I guess we've all seen them often in our lives. In French, the crane fly is more correctly called une tipule (a member of the Tipulidae family of flies, from what I've read).

This one landed on our terrace door yesterday morning. I noticed it when I opened the curtains for Tasha so that she could watch the birds through the glass. Then I grabbed my camera. It seems to be a male because its abdomen is not pointed (if I understand the Wikipédia article correctly). The females have a pointed abdomen, the back end of which is their ovipositor. The crane fly larvae are pests, eating the roots of plants and sometimes the leaves.

Wikipédia also says that there are 4,000 species of crane flies in the world — 200 in France alone, and nearly 500 in all of Europe. Note that that's the number of species, not individuals. It's surprising we don't see them even more often.

29 April 2019

Fleurs pourpres du printemps

Here's a slideshow featuring some of the purple flowers around our yard and the vineyard out back here in the Saint-Aignan area (Loire Valley, France). They are bellflowers (campanules), lilacs (lilas), and local wild orchids.

We are eager for the weather to start its predicted warming cycle now, after several days of chilly, gray weather. Where is springtime? Behind us?

28 April 2019

Spinach or chard?

The plant we call Swiss chard in America is called silver beet in Australia. It's true that chard is the plant called Beta vulgaris, which is a family of beet varieties. Chard has beet leaves but no beet root — at least not one that we eat.

I just learned this morning that in British English chard is, or maybe used to be, called "spinach." Sometimes "perpetual spinach." It's a plant with complicated naming conventions in France too — in my experience, most people call chard by the name blettes. Purists, and some dictionaries, including the Larousse Gastronomique food encyclopedia, seem to prefer the term bettes, without the L, even though the Académie Française recognized the form blette as early as 1798 and again in 1835.

As for cooking, some people cook chard leaves whole, including the green part of the leaves as well has the thick, fleshy leaf ribs. Cooked, the green parts do resemble cooked spinach, but with a milder flavor. They're good cooked with some crème fraîche with a spoonful of moutarde de Dijon added. Or with olive oil and garlic. In France, people often cook the white chard ribs separately, either in butter, olive oil, or meat jus. They're also good au gratin, with béchamel sauce, cream, and/or melted cheese.

I'll be putting some chard leaves from the 2019 blette plants into a zucchini lasagna for today's lunch, with sausage meat, mushrooms, and tomato sauce. Chard leaves and/or ribs are also good baked in a tart or a quiche, or as as a filling for an omelet. This years springtime weather seems to have made the chard plants I planted last year happy and healthy — they survived our admittedly mild winter out in the garden plot just fine.

27 April 2019

More wisteria pictures

Yesterday was a pretty nice day, but it's awful this morning —
gusty, gray, chilly, and spitting rain. Time for some flower pictures.

This is a wisteria vine that we planted a dozen or so years ago and have trained up onto the west-facing wall of our house. It's been a success, though once it came crashing down to the ground because of strong winds. We put it back up after trimming it to make it more manageable and not so heavy.

I went on a drive yesterday afternoon, but I didn't have time to take any pictures. The sun was shining, all the trees are now turning green, and there are big yellow fields of rapeseed (canola, colza) flowers scattered around the countryside between Saint-Aignan and Saint-Georges-sur-Cher, which was my destination.

While we are waiting for springtime weather to return — we really need to mow the grass again and get the vegetable garden tilled up, but it's too wet out — we're getting some "routine maintenance" done. Haircuts, for example. Visits to the dermatologist's office in Saint-Georges (near Montrichard). The news from la dermato has been pretty good, by the way.

26 April 2019

All hail broke loose

Yesterday afternoon at about 4 o'clock, I noticed that the sky was getting very dark out toward the west. I heard thunder off in the distance, and it was getting louder. I opened a weather site on my tablette tactile to look at the live radar. A severe thunderstorm appeared to be coming right at us.

I decided to go out early with the dog. Normally I would wait until between 5:00 and 5:30. But I didn't know how long the rain would last, if the storm clouds actually moved over Saint-Aignan. Better to go out early than not at all. Thunder rumbled steadily during the 30 minutes that Tasha and I spent walking around edges of the vineyard. There were a few drops of rain, and the winds got gusty.

Just as we got back to the front gate and were almost inside the house, heavier rain started falling and I thought I noticed some ice in it. Back in the house, we realized that we were experiencing a heavy hail shower. Luckily, it didn't last more than 3 or 4 minutes before turning into rain again. No damage was done in our yard that I've noticed. I hope no damage was done in the vineyard.

25 April 2019

What the LG says about asparagus

Here's a loose translation/adaptation from French of the article about asparagus that appears in the Larousse Gastronomique (©1996,2007) food and cooking encyclopedia (PDF format). My photos here show the « violette » asparagus variety. The spears are very subtly colored, as you will notice.

The asparagus plant is a perennial in the lily family. It grows as an underground rhizome, called a "claw" (une griffe in French) and sends up shoots called "spears" (turions in French). Asparagus was known and appreciated in ancient times and and has been cultivated in France since the French Renaissance (16th century).

Louis XIV loved asparagus, and his gardener supplied him with asparagus spears beginning in January of every year. The sandy soil along the Loire and Cher rivers became choice land for growing asparagus in about 1875, when "claws" (roots) were brought to the area from Argenteuil, a town on the Seine northwest of Paris that has long been known for growing fine asparagus. Asparagus is also grown in the sandy soils of the Landes region (SW France), in Touraine, in Anjou, and in the Nantes area (near the mouth of the Loire).

There are six types of cultivated asparagus, categorized according to color:
  • "purple," which used to be grown in the Nice region but now is imported from Italy
  • "white" from Touraine, Les Landes, etc.
  • "violet" from the same regions as white asparagus
  • "false green" from the Languedoc and Toulouse regions
  • "green" from the Beauce and Blois regions

In reality, "violet" asparagus is simply white asparagus, which is grown under mounded up soil, that is harvested after the tip of the spear has poked up through the soil and been exposed to sunlight, which turns it a pale purple color. Green asparagus is also the same plant but is grown above ground, so exposed to sunlight, which activates its chlorophyll.

Asparagus is a low-calorie food that is rich in fiber, potassium, and vitamin C. It is usually cooked in boiling water or steamed and should be served warm or hot.

How to prepare asparagus for cooking: Cut the spears to a uniform length on a board to keep them from breaking. Peel each spear from top to bottom with a vegetable peeler. [The LG doesn't mention that green spears don't need to be peeled.] Wash quickly in plenty of water. Drain them and tie them into bundles.

How to cook asparagus in water: Cook whole spears in boiling salted water for about 15 minutes, according to size. Then drain them on a towel or on a wire rack. They can also be cooked in a steamer pot. Cook aparagus tips (pointes in French) by cutting them off the whole spears and tying them into bundles. Dice the rest of the spears and cook them in boiling salted water for five minutes. Then add the tips to the pot and cook them another seven or eight minutes. Refresh them in cold water to stop the cooking.

The LG gives half a dozen recipes for asparagus spears and tips:

  • Flemish-style asparagus— spears served hot with clarified butter, crumbled hard-boiled egg yolks, and chopped parsley)
  • Asparagus au gratin — cooked asparagus arranged in a baking dish, covered with hot Mornay sauce, sprinkled with grated Parmesan, drizzles with melted butter, and cooked under the broiler until golden brown
  • Polish-style asparagus — peeled and trimmed asparagus cooked in boiling water, drained, arranged in a buttered baking dish, sprinkled with chopped hard-boiled egg, chopped parsley, buttered bread crumbs
  • Asparagus served hot — with clarified butter, lemon butter, hazelnut butter, or with cream, hollandaise, or mousseline sauce
  • Asparagus served warm (or cold, but better warm) with mayonnaise, mustard sauce, tartar sauce, or either plain or flavored vinaigrette
  • Asparagus tips with butter and cream — serve them as a side dish, or use them as a garnish for poached, soft-boiled, or scrambled eggs, or for fish dishes, grilled meats, sweetbreads, chicken, or game

24 April 2019

Le Pâté de Pâques berrichon

Even though bunny rabbits are not part of Easter traditions in France, eggs certainly are. One of the foods French people enjoy at Easter, at least here in Loire Valley, is a kind of pâté en croûte (a meat pie) called le pâté de Pâques (Easter pâté).

The adjective berrichon appended to the name marks this kind of meat pie as having originated in the Berry province of central France. (Historically, Saint-Aignan was known as Saint-Aignan-en-Berry, but not any more...)

What distinguishes pâté de Pâques from other pâtés en croûte, and makes it an Easter tradition, is the hard-boiled eggs that are baked in the pie along with the meat filling. The meat is a mixture of ground pork and ground veal. Some versions also include some ground duck meat. Here's a recipe.

It's interesting — to me, anyway — that the dictionary lists the primary meaning of the word pâté as originally meaning pâte en croûte. I think for most people nowadays the primary meaning would be what we also call pâté in English — a meat "paste" baked in a dish that the French call a terrine.

In other words, pâté de campagne, for example — the baked-in-a-dish meat mixture that's served cold, often with little gherkin pickles (cornichons). That's the second meaning of the term pâté in the dictionary I use (CNRTL).

So there was a time when pâté used alone was understood to be a ground meat mixture cooked in a crust, but in France since I've known it (50 years and counting) people say pâté for the meat mixture, and they specify pâté en croûte for the meat pie version where the meat mixture is cooked in a kind of pie crust (either pâte brisée or pâte feuilletée).

Now I understand why the Cornish/Welsh meat pie is called a "pasty" (pronounced pass-tee, not pay-stee). Even though in Great Britain the meat used is beef, and the recipes includes vegetables in the mixture, it's a pâté en croûte by another name.

What I take away from this is that the pâté de Pâques is an old-fashioned concoction. The Berry province is rural and agricultural, meaning old-fashioned and conservative. I don't remember ever hearing about or seeing pâté en croûte with œufs durs baked into the pie in Paris, though I'm pretty sure you could find pâté de Pâques there these days.

23 April 2019

Nouvelles de fleurs

Food? I have more photos. Or plants? I'll go with plants today. Yesterday I had one of the worst allergy days I've had since we moved here nearly 16 years ago. I don't know what pollen was in the air, but it was poison to my eyes and nose. I must have sneezed 100 times during the day, and I went through a couple of boxes of mouchoirs en papier (a.k.a. Kleenex). I'm exhausted, but I'm not yet feeling full symptoms of the hay fever this morning. I need to go to the supermarket to get more mouchoirs. The last time I had such a severe allergy attack was 10 years ago, on an April day when I happened to be in North Carolina.

On a better note, here's the view we are seeing right now when we exit the lean-to greenhouse that's attached to the west wall of our house.

This is a wisteria that we planted about a dozen years ago. One year it came unattached from its support wires, which Walt put up on the wall of the house back then, and we found it lying on the ground one morning after a bad windstorm. On the advice of friends, we pruned the fallen vines, put up new, stronger support wires, and managed to get the unwieldy wisteria put back in place. It worked, obviously.

There's news about other plants too — some good and some bad. It's definitely purple-flower season in Saint-Aignan. On my walks around the edges of the Renaudière vineyard, all over the place I'm seeing a lot of the little purple wildflowers called Pentecôtes or orchis pourpre around here, (which are the wild orchids Orchis purpurea). They have proliferated this season. And irises — we have irises galore in the back yard. I stopped and tried to count the iris blossoms and the iris buds that are about to burst open in the three or four patches where we have planted irises over the years, and there are well over 100 of them. I need to get out and take some photos of all these flowers. However, this allergy attack is slowing me down and it's supposed to start raining this morning. We're in for a week of rains, if predictions are accurate.

One final piece of news. We have "new" neighbors. One of the daughters (along with her husband) of our former neighbors across the street has taken over the task of maintaining that property, even though they have no plans to live here full-time. Her elderly parents no longer drive and therefore no longer come to stay in their house in the country here.

The husband is an enthusiastic mower, and that's commendable. The grass needs to be kept under control. The man in question is overly zealous, though. He's on a campaign to cut down every low-hanging branch around their huge yard so that he can mow under trees more easily. Day before yesterday I walked around the edge of their yard and saw, shocked, that he has cut down a plum tree that has given us many kilos of little sweet, juicy red plums over the years. In her day, his mother-in-law, who's now 85 (her husband just turned 89), used to always tell me to come and get as many plums as I could use when they started ripening. I would mostly pick them up off the ground. Now they are no more, I think. I'll miss them. I believe the new neighbor had no idea what kind of tree he was cutting down.

22 April 2019

Comment cuire un lapin à la moutarde

Lapin — fresh rabbit — is always available in French supermarkets and open-air markets. It's domesticated, not wild, rabbit — in other words, it's raised for food. The cooked meat is very white and very lean. It's not gamy. It tastes like chicken, as we say. You could very well make this recipe with chicken, in fact. Remove the skin to keep it lean like rabbit.

I won't go into the details of cutting up a whole rabbit, but that's what I did. You can also buy parts and pieces. The meatiest parts are the back legs and the fillets (or "saddle" — rables in French). The front legs don't have as much meat on them but they're good too. As are the liver and the kidneys. I de-boned the fillets and trimmed as much meat as possible off the carcess. That lean meat can be chopped up and added to the mustard-cream sauce.

The first step is to season the rabbit pieces with salt and pepper. Then make a marinade by mixing together about half a cup of mustard and a quarter of a cup of vegetable oil. Add a little bit of dry white wine if you think the marinade is too thick. Then brush it onto the rabbit pieces. Before cooking it, you can let the rabbit marinate for a few hours in the refrigerator if you have time.

When I say mustard you can assume Dijon mustard. That's what people use in France. Or whole grain mustard, which has the same taste as smooth Dijon mustard. Such mustards can be very spicy if you eat them right out of the jar, but they become much milder when cooked. Other ingredients in the lapin à la moutarde are thyme, bay leaves, onions, garlic, lardons (bacon), and mushrooms. All are optional, but you do want to include good seasonings and herbs.

You can brown the rabbit pieces in a pan on the stove or in the oven. I chose the oven, because it's less messy. Oil the bottom of a deep baking dish. Scatter diced onion and smoked pork lardons over the bottom of the dish. Arrange the marinated rabbit pieces on top of the onions and lardons. Set the baking dish, uncovered, in a hot oven, say 200ºC (400ºF), until the rabbit pieces are golden brown — for about 15 or 20 minutes. Adjust the heat (higher or lower, top or bottom) as you go to keep the cooking even.

Meanwhile, mix together about a cup of cream with another quarter cup of Dijon mustard and some white wine. Drop in the thyme, bay leaves, or other herbs, along with some pressed or chopped garlic. Heat up that mixture on the stove, letting it boil and thicken slightly. I saved out the rabbit liver and cooked it in the cream mixture instead of browning it with the rabbit pieces. Separately, if you want, slice and sauté a dozen or so big mushrooms.

When the rabbit pieces are golden brown, pour on the creamy mustard sauce and stir in the mushrooms. Let everything cook together for another 30 minutes or so — longer, if you want the meat to be falling off the bones.

We served the lapin à la moutarde with some grilled asparagus spears, some steamed Swiss chard, and some pasta. Think of it as chicken or actually cook chicken this way — potatoes, either steamed or sautéed, would also be good. Or rice, for example. That's a piece of the rabbit liver that you see on the left side of the plate.

21 April 2019

C'est la saison des asperges...

...et la journée du lapin. Asparagus is grown in the Sologne region, the southwestern edge of which is just over on the other side of the Cher river from Saint-Aignan. The soil over there is sandy and the land forms a flat plain that stretches from the Loire river, south of Orleans and Blois, all the way down to the Cher. It's perfect land for growing asparagus.

Notice how different les asperges look, compared to what you are probably used to. In most of France, it's the white variety that people grow and eat. The green variety is becoming more popular, but it's still not that easy to find locally. (It's actually the same variety, but grown differently.) A group of growers of green asparagus has been formed up around Chambord (the famous château), but I don't see the point of driving all the way up there to buy the green spears. I like the white ones, whether poached or grilled, served with melted butter, home-made mayonnaise, or vinaigrette dressing.

One of the biggest differences between white and green asparagus is that you have to peel the white spears. Starting about two inches from the top, use a vegetable peeler to remove the tough skin. It only takes a minute to two to do. Walt got the asparagus pictured here from a local grower (he also grows strawberries, another Sologne specialty) who sells his produce at the open-air market in Saint-Aignan on Saturday mornings. In season, of course, not year-round.

By the way, we have a very bright moon in our sky this morning. It was full yesterday, but the sky was cloudy. We had a couple of light thunderstorms over the course of the day.

I mentioned lapin above. That's French for rabbit. It's what Walt and I cook for Easter — that's today — every year. It all started in the spring of 1984. We were living in Washington DC, having rented a Capitol Hill apartment for ourselves in June 1983. What should we cook for our Easter dinner? That was the question we asked each other.

Getting on toward moonset

Easter, somehow, made me think of rabbit, which was something I had enjoyed cooking and eating in Paris between 1979 and 1982. And the rest is history. Rabbit for Easter is not a French custom — anyway, the Easter bunny is unknown in French culture. For us, Easter rabbit is a personal, private tradition. People in the Loire Valley eat rabbit year-round, and a lot of people raise rabbits for food.

20 April 2019

Doubting myself

I confess. I'm doubting myself now. I don't think Walt and I did walk out onto the roof of Notre-Dame cathedral in 1988. In fact, I'm sure of it. I've been looking at aerial photos of the building, and I see that the peak of that roof is really sharp, with no flat surface to walk on. There's no way we walked out there. The mind and the memory play funny tricks on me sometimes. It was more than 30 years ago. Look at this aerial photo from Google Maps.

Where we were standing, when an incident occurred that I remember clearly, was on top of the south bell tower, not out on the roof below it. We were admiring the views, and I took (I believe I took it; maybe Walt did) this photo, which I posted last January 29. You can see the edge of the north tower on the left in the photo, as Walt just pointed out to me.

Other photos we took that day were slides; digital photography was not yet a reality. The slides are packed away in a box in a closet up in the loft and we haven't tried to find them to see what other pictures we might have from that day's adventure. Looking at other pictures might have clarified my memory.

Here's the incident I remember from that day in, I believe, 1988. In the aerial Google Maps photo above, you can see the metal caps on the tops of the towers. Other people were up there on the roof of the south tower with us when we were. One guy climbed up onto the metal cap to get a view from even higher up. He looked back over his shoulder and called out to his companions: « Monte là-dessus ! Tu verras Montmartre ! » ("Climb up here — you can see Montmartre!") Walt burst out laughing, because he had heard me quote that expression in the past. He was amused to hear it in this context, coming out of the mouth of a Frenchman. That's what I recall.

The south tower is the one on the right in this photo. Fire got into the north tower Monday night — we saw it clearly on television coverage of the inferno. But the pompiers we able to put it out. The two bell towers are still standing.

Tu verras Montmartre ! is a joke people quote to tease people who boast about having a view of Montmartre and the Sacré-Cœur basilica from the windows of their modest Paris apartment. Often, you'd have to climb up on a chair or some other piece of furniture and really lean out the window and crane your neck to actually see that kind of view.  Walt lived in an apartment like that when he was a student in Paris in 1982. It comes from a 1922 song with that title. In the lyrics, it says braggarts might even go so far as to claim that on a clear day you can see Chartres from their windows. You can hear the song here on YouTube.

So there's my confession and my correction. I think my mind confused memories of our walking across the top of the Pont du Gard aqueduct in the south of France in 1989 — we really did do that — with our Notre-Dame de Paris rooftop experience in 1988. And just above are two more of my old Notre-Dame photos. You can see people up on top of the south tower in the last image.

19 April 2019

Notre-Dame at night, ghostly white

In March 2011, I took one of my annual trips back to coastal North Carolina to spend time with my mother, sister, and nieces, as well as with cousins and friends I grew up with. I stayed a night in a hotel in the Latin Quarter (the Hôtel du College de France), just steps from Notre-Dame, the Sorbonne, and the Cluny museum.

In the evening, before going out to the airport the next morning to catch my plane, I went for a stroll over to the other side of the river and around the cathedral to take some photos. Then I went and had dinner in a pizzeria in the Latin Quarter, if I remember correctly. That was eight years ago, already. Nowadays, I usually take the train from Saint-Aignan to Tours, and then directly to the airport instead of spending a night in the center of the city.

Here's a photo that shows the fleche (spire or steeple) that burned up in the fire last Monday and then toppled over, piercing the cathedral's roof and falling to the floor inside the building. I'm glad I took these pictures, which came out better than I thought they would. The cathedral is like some kind of phantom, standing tall and luminous against the black nighttime sky.

Here is a full-on view of the façade of the cathedral. These are the bell towers, and there's a rose window in the center, with intricately carved doorways below, opening into the building. Even though fire got into one of the towers Monday night, it survived basically intact. Firemen were able to put it out before this part of the church was heavily damaged.

18 April 2019

Notre-Dame seen from the Tour Saint-Jacques

Here are two photos that I took from the top of the Tour Saint-Jacques in central Paris. I climbed the 300 steps to the top of that old tower in late July 2013. It was hot and humid that day in Paris, and there was a definite summer haze in the air.

I've been busy exploring my photo archives, which contain something like 250,000 files, with an eye out for photos of Notre-Dame de Paris taken from different angles and in different light conditions. In the image above, you can see the Paris Panthéon off in the distance — it stands just about 800 meters (half a mile) south of the cathedral. I worked in its shadow for a few years back in the mid-1970s.

Above is a much closer view in which you can see the extent of the sheet metal roof that burned away, along with its ancient wooden support structure, in Monday night's fire. I can't believe Walt and I (with other tourists) were permitted to walk out onto the crest of that roof back in 1988. I wonder if they still allowed people to wander around out there in recent years. (Ignore all this. I corrected myself in a subsequent post...)

17 April 2019

Surviving windows, and Notre-Dame over the decades

Last night I saw photos that made me think that the south-facing rose window at Notre-Dame had been destroyed by this week's fire. Fortunately, I was wrong. Some research this morning shows me that all three of the cathedral's rose windows, including the Rose Sud a.k.a. Rose du Midi, has withstood the fire and water. My picture dates from my last walk around the inside of the cathedral, in September 2007.

The Rose Sud dates back to the year 1260, when it was installed in the wall of the church. It was a gift to Notre-Dame cathedral from the French king Louis IX, who is also known as saint Louis (b.1214-d.1270). The diameter of the window is about 13 meters (more than 40 feet). There are two other rose windows in the cathedral, one on the opposite (north) end of the transept, and the other in the front façade between the bell towers.

You can see the Rose Sud in the photo above, which I took a few years ago from the "balcony" of the Panthéon in the Latin Quarter. It is the big round stained-glass window near the center of this image, directly under the spire that fell during the fire. The smaller and less ancient window just above it appears in yesterday's photos to have succumbed to the heat of the fire.

Above is another view of the cathedral from afar and on high. I took it from the top of the Tour Montparnasse in April 2002. Walt and I were spending two weeks in a rented vacation apartment about about a five minute walk from the tower, and took advantage go up to the top and take some panoramic and long-zoom photos of Paris. I had a new Canon digital camera at the time.

Speaking of photos from long ago, here's one that I found on the internet showing what the façade and bell towers of Notre-Dame looked like in 1970. This is the way I remember it from my first stay in Paris in March or April that year. I was spending a semester in Aix-en-Provence as a student and had decided to go to Paris for my two-week spring break. I stayed in a hotel in the Latin Quarter and was thrilled to be able to explore the city. It's hard to believe that was nearly 50 years ago.

Photo credit and link

Here's a much more recent photo of Notre-Dame — I took it in April 2007. The black grime was scrubbed off the church back in the 1970s. This part of the cathedral looks the same today, as far as I can tell. It wasn't much damaged by the fire that raged behind it Monday night. There's that to be thankful for.

French president Emmanuel Macron says he wants Notre-Dame cathedral to be rebuilt within five years' time. Many experts are saying that is unrealistic. Only time will tell.

16 April 2019

« Notre Drame »

If you look at this blog often, you might remember that I've recently posted many photos of La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris that I've taken over the past 20 years. Here's a set from April 1, 2013. They're in chronological order, unedited. I was in Paris, on my way to North Carolina, and was walking from my hotel to a subway station to catch a train out to the airport. This morning, one of the Paris newspapers, Libération, carries this banner headline on page 1: Notre Drame.

When you've spent time in Paris, you've probably rushed, strolled, sauntered, and even driven past Notre-Dame hundreds if not thousands of times. I first saw it in 1970. I must have gone inside, but I don't even remember. It was overwhelming to a small-town American at age 20. The last time I actually walked around inside the cathedral was in 2007, when my sister and a friend were visiting France for the first time and I was showing them around. I'm so glad I went inside then. There are photos here and here. Walt pointed out a minute ago that we might not live long enough to see the restoration completed.

15 April 2019

Garden survivors.... we hope

Here are some more of the plants in our big back yard that I hope have survived our recent frosty mornings. We don't see any smudge pots or hay bales burning out in the vineyard this morning. Our thermometer reading is slightly higher right now than it was 24 hours ago. Tonight rain is supposed to move in and tomorrow's morning low will be a lot higher. Finally. These just might have been our last cold mornings of the season.

Here's a a brief description of the photos in this 80-second-long, ten-photo slideshow. The first two show a perennial plant that grows in our yard and that we call saxifrage because the previous owner of our house called it that. The scientific name is Bergenia crassifolia, and it's in the Saxifraga plant family. It's commonly called Bergénie or Oreilles-d'éléphant in French. It flowers in winter and is very hardy.

The second two photos are of peonies (pivoines in French). They have big round flower buds on them right now. I hope that they are survivors. If they are, I'll take photos of the open flowers very soon.

The next three photos show plants that we want to survive because we want to eat what they produce: plums on a branch of a tree I planted a long time ago; an apple blossom on a tree that is slowly dying, so we hope what might be its last apples are good ones; and finally, Swiss chard, which is also very hardy, and the leaves actually benefit from being frost-bitten before being harvested.

The last three photos are of a flowering Prunus tree. That's a genus that includes cherries, plums, peaches, almonds, and apricots. The one in our yard is purely decorative and doesn't produce any fruit. It's pretty though.

14 April 2019

Poulet à l'estragon et à la crème

Poulet à l'estragon, or tarragon chicken, is a classic French dish. I remember the first time I ever tried it. In 1972, I was teaching English in a lycée (secondary school) in Rouen, a big city in Normandy. A French couple I had met through American friends who were also working in Rouen that year invited several of us over for dinner — they were getting ready to go live and work in New York for a few years and wanted to get to know us and practice their English. They served us poulet à l'estragon, which I had never even heard of before. It was delicious, and obviously memorable.

Above is a slideshow that I think is fairly self-explanatory. You start the recipe by cutting up a whole chicken so that you have eight pieces — two each of the drumsticks, the thighs, the breast filets, and the wings (with a portion of the breast meat attached). You can of course use chicken pieces and chicken broth from the supermarket and save yourself some prep work. I can give you a more detailed recipe if you want one, but maybe the summary below will be sufficient.

Brown the chicken pieces lightly in butter and/or oil and take them out and reserve them. Separately, sauté some mushrooms. Then sauté some diced shallot or onion in the fat the chicken cooked in. Put the chicken and onion together in a pot and pour chicken broth and an equal quantity of white wine over all to barely cover. Cook on medium heat for 20 to 30 minutes. Then add a good amount of cream, the sautéed mushrooms, and some fresh or dried tarragon. Don't forget the salt and pepper. Let it cook for another 10 or 15 minutes. If the sauce is too liquid, take the chicken and mushrooms out and boil the liquid down to thicken the cream. Serve the chicken with rice, potatoes, or pasta and the sauce. Garnish with some fresh tarragon leaves if you have any. Enjoy.

Here's one more photo of the cowslips (coucous). Enlarge it and pan across it to see detail.

P.S. It's about one degree C (two ºF) colder this morning than yesterday at this time. The Renaudie vineyard people have their smudge pots burning. Our thermometer is mounted on an exterior wall of the house, so it reads a little high. Even though the smudge pots are only, say, 100 yards from the house, it's probably significantly colder out there.

13 April 2019

April flowers

Yesterday morning, I took my camera out with me on the daily walk with the dog. It was really too dark to get the best results using the camera I have, but I did get a few salvageable shots. As I've said, there are flowers and blossoms everywhere right now, despite the morning frosts and freezes we're experiencing right now. Here's a slideshow that lasts just over one minute.

On our outdoor thermometer, the reading now is just slightly lower than it was 24 hours ago but not all the way down to 0ºC. The flowers in the slideshow above are primroses that come up spontaneously in our yard every spring, some plum and pear tree blossoms, purple flowers on our lilac bush, and yellow cowslips that grow wild all around the hamlet and vineyard.

12 April 2019

L'hiver en avril

Morning temperatures are supposed to be down to freezing, or even slightly below, these next few mornings. This is a critical time for fruit trees and especially for the vineyards and the people who own and tend them. We had warm, sunny weather early this year, back in late February and again in mid- to late March, so the plants got ahead of themselves and are especially vulnerable to frost and freezing temperatures right now.

Yesterday the people from the Domaine de la Renaudie, who own all of the vineyard plots that border on our hamlet and yard, came and set out smudge pots on the northern edge of their vineyards. A north wind is blowing right now, and it's cold. Afternoons are warm but mornings are frigid. I guess lighting what are called bougies ("candles" — smudge pot = bougie antigel) on the upwind edge of the vineyard plots will warm the air currents just enough to prevent freezing. That's the theory and the hope anyway. You might remember this post Walt did with photos of the burning bougies back in 2017.

I was up early this morning. I couldn't sleep for most of the night. Anyway, it's 5:05 a.m. right now and a couple of cars just drove by the front gate. That's unusual. I'm sure it's the Renaudie crew out lighting the smudge pots. We all remember that we were in this same situation two years ago. (My photos in this post are from April 2017.) Right now, the apple trees in our yard are covered in blossoms, as is our big lilac bush. Cherry trees all around the vineyard are blooming too. The plum tree I planted a decade ago is covered in tiny plums. We can only hope the damage won't be too bad. The people who will suffer the most if the frost is very damaging are the ones who make their living by growing grapes and making and selling wine.

11 April 2019

L'Auvergne : La Cascade de la Beaume

The day we went to see the villages of Le Monastier, Goudet, and Arlempdes in the southern part of the Haute-Loire, we drove back north toward Le Puy and our gîte on little back roads. Along the way, looking at the map, Walt noticed that there was a waterfall along the way, near the village called Le Brignon (pop. 600). We decided to stop and see if we could get a photo of it.

The photo above shows what the countryside around Le Brignon looks like. A small river called la Beaume cuts a fairly deep valley near the village as it flows northeast and joins up with the Loire river. La Beaume is just six miles long, while the Loire is 600 miles long.

Leaving Le Brignon, we came to a turn-out where we could park the car. We were on high ground, and we weren't sure we wanted to walk all the way down to river level at the bottom of the waterfall, la cascade de la Beaume, which is 27 meters (about 90 feet) high. We walked part way down a path and got the view you see above.

We thought the sign above was funny. If you just read the English translation of the French warning, you might get the idea that your valuables are out walking around, clambering to get into your vehicle.

The headwaters of the Loire are somewhere off in the distance in this photo. We didn't drive quite that far south.