31 May 2019

Back to Normandy

Looking at photos I took when I made three separate trips to Normandy in 2004 and 2005 has made me want to go back there again. I'm talking about the part of Normandy called the Cotentin (département de la Manche), which includes the Mont Saint-Michel and the big port city of Cherbourg. That was before I started this blog, and I want to post some photos from back then.


The last time I went to the Mont Saint-Michel was in 2007. I went there twice that year, once on a trip with Walt to celebrate my birthday, and the second time with my sister and a friend of ours who were visiting us in Saint-Aignan and really wanted to see the Mont. I took the photo above, however, in September 2004. I don't think I've ever posted it before.


Cows are emblematic of Normandy. It's milk, cream, and cheese country. I took this photo of a friendly, curious Normandy cow in May 2005, when Walt and I drove up there for a short stay. I wanted to see Carteret one more time, and I wanted to see picturesque fishing port called Barfleur. We also went to Saint-Vaast-la Hougue to eat some of that town's famous oysters. I don't think I've been back to Carteret since then.


In 2004, I drove past the town of Coutances, which is famous for its cathedral. I just stopped on the side of the highway and took some pictures of the town off in the distance. I was on my way to Carteret to see J.L., who passed away this week, and CHM, who was visiting her with his partner Frank.


I had been to Coutances and the Mont Saint-Michel back in 1972 or '73, when I was spending a year in Normandy as an assistant d'anglais in a high school, the Lycée Corneille in Rouen. Rouen, the capital of Normandy, is not in this part of the province, but farther east, on the Seine between Paris and Le Havre. But I traveled around some with friends while I was there. And Walt and I did a car trip to many of these places back in 1992.


In 2005, on the trip Walt and I took to Normandy, we actually went into Coutances, where I took this photo of the cathedral. It dates back to the 13th century. Coutances (pop. 9,000 or so) was bombarded and almost completely destroyed during World War II, but somehow the cathedral was spared. Anyway, I think it's getting to be time for a return to Normandy.

30 May 2019

CHM, J.L., and how we all met

It was the autumn of 1982. I had decided that year that it was time for me to go home. Back to the U.S., I mean. I had been living in Paris for three years, working part-time as a teacher and as the resident director of a small American college's study abroad program in Paris. I was 33 years old and I was starting to think I needed to find a "real" job, start a career, and start paying into a retirement system so that I'd have something to live on when I got older.

The harbor and small port town of Carteret, in Normandy, where J.L owned a house.

I had always thought I would like to live in Washington DC. I had friends there, and had spent time there with them. Chicago was tempting too — I had spent five years as a graduate student at the University of Illinois in Urbana, teaching and working toward my PhD in French linguistics. But Washington had a more international feel than Chicago, not to mention a milder climate. It was also much closer to North Carolina, where I was born, had grown up, and gone to college. My whole family lived in North Carolina.

I wasn't sure what kind of career I might manage to create for myself. In August 1982, I rented a apartment in Arlington, Virginia, and set about looking for opportunities. After having spent six or seven years of my life living and working in France, I hoped I could find a job that would involve French language skills. Walt and I had become friends in Paris, and soon he moved to Washington too.

From the beach in Carteret, and in this photo, you can see the Isle of Jersey on the horizon.

Sometime in October, an old North Carolina friend of mine who had been living and working in DC for about 10 years phoned me and said she had just seen an ad in the Washington Post for a French-language translator position. She and I had studied French together and even spent six months on a study abroad program in Aix en Provence in 1970. You should apply, she told me. So I did.

The person who was trying to hire a translator was, it turned out, CHM's old friend J.L., the head of the French translation unit at the U.S. Information Agency. CHM had been living in the DC area for nearly 15 years, having moved there from Paris at about the same time I first came to France as a student. He was working as a translator at USIA too. J.L. and her husband, who was a childhood friend of CHM's, had been living and working in DC for 30 years or so. I didn't know either of them at that point, of course. I'm writing this because CHM told me yesterday that J.L passed away this week.

In 1982, there was a test to take for that translation job. J.L. gave me an American news article to translate, put me in a quiet room, and let me have a go at it. That was that. Weeks went by and I heard nothing. I'm not even sure I actually met J.L in person during that time; somebody else administered the test, I think. Time was passing, and Christmas was coming. I was still unemployed, but Walt had found a job.

I stayed in this hotel/restaurant Carteret in 2004, and again with Walt in 2005.

One day between Christmas and New Year's Day, I was at home in my apartment when the phone rang. It was a Frenchman named CHM calling, out of the blue. He explained to me that his friend and colleague J.L. had asked him to take a look at a translation I had done as part of a job application and to give her his opinion of my skills. He asked me to come to the USIA offices on Pennsylvania Avenue and talk to him about a position he himself was trying to fill.

I did so in January 1983. CHM was the editor of the French-language edition of magazine that USIA published for distribution in Africa. CHM's assistant editor, a Frenchwoman, had retired and gone off to live in — guess where — North Carolina. CHM needed a new assistant, and he asked me to come work with him as a contractor, on a trial basis. If it worked out, he would try to get me hired on a permanent basis, either as an editorial assistant or as his assistant editor.


Well, it obviously worked out. I was hired as a translator, though I actually never really translated anything. CHM farmed out English-language texts to various francophone translators around the DC area, and then we turned the draft translations into publishable material by comparing them to the original English texts and making sure they were accurate. My French was good enough for me to be able to tell CHM when I thought the French translation was off the mark, not conveying the meaning of the English original. We would spend hours trying to figure out how to re-word and polish up the translations. Plus, we had all the work of entering the French texts into the computer, formatting them, and proof-reading, which I could also help with.

After about two years, everything changed again. USIA decided to move the magazine's editorial offices to Paris — but not us. I was transferred to the agency's press service for African affairs, where I worked not as a translator but as a reporter, writer, and editor. J.L., whom of course I had met by then, was still the head of the service's translation section. I think she and her translators were happy to have on staff an American who spoke and wrote pretty good French and could help them with language and translation questions.

I was enjoying my new "career" — it turned out that J.L. had never actually been authorized to hire a translator back in 1982 when I was a candidate. It was just luck that CHM had been consulting with her during the hiring process and happened to need somebody with my skills to join his staff. Le hasard fait parfois bien les choses...

In 1986, Walt and I moved to California. That's another long story. I started over again, searching for another career. I ended up working as an editor and manager of a computer magazine, and then moved to work as an editor and manager in a series of software companies. CHM and I stayed in touch, partly because he had California connections too and frequently came to the U.S. West Coast for vacations.

In January 1992, Walt and I came to France to spend some time in Paris, Normandy, and Brittany. We drove up to Cherbourg because I wanted to go see the nearby town of Carteret. The reason for that had to do with historical connections — I was born and raised in Carteret County, North Carolina, and vaguely knew how it had come to be named after a town in France. That year, CHM came to Paris while we were there, and I told him about our Normandy excursion.

Wow, he said, that's a coincidence. Our friend J.L. owns a house in Carteret. It was her grandparents' house, and she spends her summer vacations there. Years later, after CHM had retired from his position at USIA — he had become the head French translator there when J.L. retired — and he started visiting J.L. in Carteret during his summers in France. In 1998, I flew to Paris and drove up there and spent a few days with CHM and J.L., touring around the area. I went back to Carteret several times after Walt and I moved to France in 2003, and I also saw J.L. in Paris many times over the years.

I'm including a few photos I took in Carteret in 2004, before I started blogging. R.I.P., J.L.




J.L.'s house in Carteret, where she spent many summers

29 May 2019

Pick me! Pick me!

The verb in my title is slightly ambiguous. It could mean choisis-moi ! Or it might mean cueille-moi ! As in, quoting a well-known local figure, Ronsard : « Cueillez dès aujourd'hui les blettes de la vie ! » All I'm trying to say is that I really have to go pick some more chard leaves. They are too pretty to resist.


Yesterday I baked chard into a dish of lasagne. (My spell checker tells me that lasagne is an error, but I don't think so. It's the plural of lasagna in Italian, I think, and it's the form of the word used in French — des lasagnes for what we usually call lasagna.) I cooked the chard first, and then I drained it and mixed it into a sort of paste of cream cheese (fromage à tartiner), crème fraîche (cultured French cream), and grated Emmental, with spices like nutmeg, allspice, hot paprika, garlic powder, onions powder, and black pepper.


I used that mixture to make layers, along with tomato sauce and lasagne (lasagna noodles). I also put in one layer of sauteed mushrooms and smoked port lardons, and some grated cheese to melt on top. It was pretty good, if I do say so myself. Above is a photo of half of it — we ate the other half. Below is a close-up of the layers.


So now I have to go out one more time and pick as many of the pretty blette leaves as I can, before I finally pull the chard plants out of the ground. We've done other things with chard leaves. Pesto, for example, the way you'd make pesto with basil leaves or radish leaves. And I want to make a savory Auvergne-style pounti cake with chard leaves sometime soon.

28 May 2019

Flowers, tilling, chard, and annoying phone calls

A few days ago I went for a walk with the dog around our hamlet and back yard and took my camera with me. The light was nice, and I took a lot of close-ups of both cultivated and wild flowers. Here are some of them — peonies, roses, daisies, sage, bell flowers, various unidentified blooms, and fluff from a cottonwood tree.



Yesterday, I tilled up the vegetable garden plot one last time (I think). A light mist or rain was falling as I worked on it, but that was nice because there weren't any swarms of little insects in the air or buzzing in my face. Our high temperature yesterday was about 20ºC (68ºF) and it's not supposed to get as "hot" as that today. Yesterday I also picked another batch of Swiss chard leaves and cooked them when I came back inside. Les blettes won't quit.

And I finally just turned off the ringer on our téléphone fixe (land-line phone). I don't know how things work where you live, but here we are tired of the phone ringing and ringing all day long, because all the incoming calls are from marketers trying to sell us something. Yesterday we got at least 20 such calls, and probably as many as two dozen, over the course of the day. As far as I know, the only way to stop marketing calls from flooding in and driving you crazy is to silence the phone and ignore them. We just never answer the thing any more, unless we happen see on its little display screen the name of a friend that we recognize. So if you call, please leave a message. We'll get back to you. Or just send me an e-mail.

27 May 2019

Pan-roasted filet de canard

This is a reprise of a post I first published in December 2011.

A duck breast filet is what we at with our potatoes cooked in chicken broth the other day. We're lucky to be able to buy affordable duck legs and breast filets here in Saint-Aignan. This particular piece of lean duck cost me 11.50 euros/kilo, which is about 5.25 euros/pound. It weighed about three-quarters of a pound (360 grams).

A pan-roasted duck breast filet, with a spicy rub

This was a filet de canard, not a magret. The word magret comes from the same root as the French word maigre, meaning lean instead of fat. The term magret applies only to the breast meat of a fattened duck — un canard gras — that has been raised and force-fed to produce foie gras. The word filet is used for the breast meat of ducks that have not been fattened by force-feeding (gavage).

Score the skin side deeply before applying the spice rub...

...to both sides of the filet.

Whatever the word, the duck breast is delicious meat. It's more like a nice piece of beefsteak than it is like chicken, turkey, or even guinea fowl. The meat is red and you eat it cooked fairly rare rather than well done like other poultry. The best way to cook it is broiling, grilling, or pan-roasting, and it cooks pretty fast.

Start cooking the duck filet in a hot pan
with the skin side down.

Before cooking the duck filet, it's a good idea to score the skin side of the meat deeply in a cross-hatch pattern, using a good sharp knife. If you don't score the fatty skin, the breast filet will curl up as it cooks. And you don't want to remove the fat, because that's where much of the flavor is. Don't add any fat to the pan if you are pan-grilling the breast — just start it cooking skin-side down and it will make its own cooking fat.

Here's the pan-roasted duck breast after
it has rested for 20 minutes.

You don't have to marinate duck breast before cooking it, but I like to apply a dry spice rub. The spices and herbs I used this time were dried thyme, crushed red pepper, smoked paprika, black pepper, and allspice (Jamaican pepper). I rubbed both sides of the meat with the spices and let it rest for an hour or two before I cooked it.

Serve it rare or medium-rare so that it doesn't get tough.

The cooking doesn't take long at all. The important thing is to sear the meat on both sides and then let it rest for a while so that the heat can distribute itself through the lean center. This time, I set the skillet in a medium hot oven, turned off, with the door ajar, for about 20 minutes after searing the duck on top of the stove. Another way to let the meat rest is to transfer it to a hot serving dish, covering it with aluminum foil and a kitchen towel to hold in the residual heat.

Pan-roasted duck breast with a generous portion of
potatoes « boulangère » and some green garden peas.

You can see that the duck breast meat really is red, and it is served rare or medium-rare — in French, that's called rosé. Again, it's more like eating beef than poultry. The duck fat and the spice rub give it a fine, rich taste. It's good with the pommes boulangère, and since we had some leftover green peas, we had some of those with it too.

Duck breast is much more expensive than duck leg & thigh sections — the last of those that I bought were only 2.90 euros/kilo, or 1.32 euros/lb. (note that these are 2011 prices) — but the texture of the meat and the appropriate cooking method are totally different. It's like having two entirely different kinds of meat, in fact. Both are excellent.

26 May 2019

Jambon de magret de canard

Salt-cured duck breast, in English. Or, to be fancier, duck breast prosciutto. In French, "ham of breast of duck" — as in the title of this post. It's easy to make, if you can get a boneless duck breast. But it takes nearly a month.

Most of that time is just waiting.The meat is not cooked — it's cured. Like air-, salt-, or smoke-cured ham. After salting, the duck breast, or magret de canard, is left to "cure" for three weeks in the refrigerator or in a cold cellar. You just roll it up, skin side out — or leave it flat, the way I did — and wrap it in a dish towel or cheese cloth. Leave it there for three weeks to mature and dry.

The first step, though, is to salt it down. Cover the magret in coarse sea salt and leave it to macerate therein for 48 hours, also in the refrigerator. Then take it out of the salt, wipe or brush the salt off, and put a generous amount of black pepper on it. You can also rub some dried herbs — thyme, rosemary, cumin, hot or smoked paprika, or whatever — onto the magret along with the pepper before you wrap it in the towel and put it back in the fridge or cellar for a long cure.


Wait three weeks. Take it out of the refrigerator. Unroll it (if you rolled it) and slice it thinly on a slant. Eat on bread or toast, or use slices as an ingredient in a salad or a pasta dish. If you've ever eaten French jambon crujambon de Bayonne, for example — or Italian prosciutto — jambon de Parme — well, you eat the duck breast "ham" the same way. You could even make French-style lardons out of it and use them in your cooking.






Jambon de magret de canard
( Duck breast prosciutto )

Recouvrir un magret de gros sel.
Placer le magret 48h au frigo.
Débarasser du gros sel.
Poivrez.

Rouler le magret, peau à l'extérieur.
Oublier 21 jours le magret enveloppé
dans un torchon au frigo.
Le déguster en tranches
à la manière d'un jambon de pays.

Above is a recipe that I found on the French cooking site marmiton.org, and which I followed. The recipe in French is a shortened form of what I wrote in my post above.

Note: This is a reprise of a post that I first published in April 2011. In France, you can buy vacuum-sealed packages of sliced, cured, smoked duck breast at the supermarket. Also, smoked duck lardons...

25 May 2019

Pintades, lapins, et magrets de canards

According to the 2007 Grand Larousse Gastronomique, France produces more Guinea fowl (pintades) than any other country in the world. I wouldn't be surprised if the French consume more pintades than any other people. The same is probably true of rabbit, and the GLG says France is the world's second biggest rabbit producer, after China. The GLG notes too, in its article about poultry, that duck production in France, especially in the southwest region, has been increasing for years, mostly because of the demand for foies gras (fattened ducks' livers) and magrets (duck breast filets).

This is a pintade, or Guinea fowl.


Again according to the GLG, the a magret is the pectoral muscle (le muscle de la poitine) of a duck that has been fattened by force-feeding. The fattened duck is called un canard gras. In that sense, the magret is a by-product of the foie gras industry. The duck breast meat has the skin and the layer of fat that lies under it still attached. For generations, the duck breast was made into confit (slow-roasted in fat) along with duck legs, thighs, and wings.

This is a three-pack of magrets de canards that I bought at the supermarket. The total weight of the duck is about 2½ lbs. The total price was 15.46 euros, or just over $17 U.S.

I remember doing exactly that myself 20 years ago, when I was making confit with frozen whole ducks that I could buy in San Francisco. I'm not sure that I had ever cooked or eaten a duck breast pan-fried or oven roasted when I lived in Paris in the 1970s and early 1980s. I don't remember them being served that way in restaurants back then. The only duck I remember eating was Peking duck or canard lacqué in Asian restaurants in Paris, and I remember how good that was.

These duck breast filets come from the Périgord in the French southwest, which, like the Touraine, Berry, Anjou, Poitou, Perche, and Orléanais, all around Saint-Aignan, was an old province that was given a new name at the time of the French Revolution. The modern name of the Périgord is La Dordogne, and you might be more familiar with that name. La Dordogne is a département (a county, more or less) in modern France. Some old provinces were small enough so that now they are just one county, but other, more extensive old provinces are divided up into several counties nowadays.




The GLG says that it was restaurant chefs in the Landes (southwestern France, bordering on Spain and the Atlantic Ocean) who revived local tradtions by starting to grill duck magrets, skin-and-fat side down first so that the melted duck fat would "nourish" the lean breast meat when the filet was turned over to finish cooking, and serving the magrets rare (saignants) or medium-rare (rosés), with crispy skin. The best duck magret for this kind of cooking comes from ducks that have been slaughtered no more than 48 hours earlier.

Finally, a couple of days ago I opened Wikipedia, both French and English,  to look up magret. There's no such entry in the English-language Wikipedia. In the French-language Wikipédia, I read that magret de canard can be air-cured (dried) or smoked and then cut into thin slices and served like air-cured ham. But most often, the magret is grilled or pan-fried the way the GLG describes doing it. Sometimes the little tenderloin muscle attached to the duck breast (as on a chicken breast) is sold and cooked separately, in a sauce. It's the tenderest and leanest part of the breast filet.

Finally, the French Wikipédia article enlightened me as to when grilled, rare duck magret became a standard preparation and popular menu item in France. It was a chef named André Daguin, whose restaurant was in the town of Auch in Gascony (southwestern France). He started cooking and serving grilled magrets in the late 1950s and became famous for it. He recommended that the name of the duck filet should be maigret [may-'gray], based on the French word maigre, meaning lean. The new name didn't catch on, however, and the old Gascony dialectal form of the word, magret [mah-'gray], is still used all around France today.

24 May 2019

Cuisses de canard braisées aux navets

The author (Waverly Root) of the food encyclopedia simply titled Food (1980), calls the turnip "a capricious vegetable"— "protean" is a another word he uses to describe it. The turnip season is brief, he says, adding: "The Paris restaurant where I used to eat that classic dish, duck with turnips (canard aux navets), when the management would permit it, served it only during six weeks in April and May. For the rest of the year, turnips were deemed unfit to eat."



Personally, I'm not so persnickety about turnips. I love them, for example, cooked in broth with carrots, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, and spices and served with couscous, in summer or winter. But that's for another time; this is a post about canard aux navets. The slide show above features 10 photos I took during the cooking process yesterday.

It's very simple, really, to have qualified as a classic of French cuisine. I happen to have a 1960s-era translation of the Le Guide Culinaire, written by the great French chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) and first published in 1903. Here's a summary of his recipe for duck with turnips:

Brown the duck or duck legs well in a skillet. Add some butter if you need to. Then take the duck out of the pan. Take the fat out of the pan separately and swirl it with a little white wine. Add some chicken or duck broth. Drop in an herb bouquet and, optionally, some sautéd carrots and pork lardons. Return the duck to this liquid and braise it gently on the stove or in the oven for about 40 minutes. The total cooking time depends on the duck you are cooking (how young and tender, or old and tough, the bird was).

While the duck is braising, trim and cut up a pound or more of spring turnips (navets nouveaux). Sauté them in another skillet with some butter or duck fat. Sprinkle sugar over the trunips and continue cooking them until they are glazed to a nice golden brown. Set them aside until the duck is cooked — partially cooked, that is, because it will still need to cook for another 30 or 40 minutes.

Add the glazed turnips to the duck and continue cooking everything gently until the duck and vegetables are tender. Put the duck in a serving dish, arrange the vegetables around it, and strain the cooking liquid (reduced or thickened as you like) over all.

There are more recent recipes in French here and here.

23 May 2019

More about duck in France

On this web page, I just found some statistics about the amount of duck people eat in France nowadays. It says that the French consume more duck (which on the page is called canard à rôtir — roasting duck) than people in any other country, even China. It goes on to say that France is the world's number 2 producer of ducks — 85 million ducks a year. That's half the ducks produced in Europe, and comes to about 450,000 tons.

Aiguillettes ("little needles") are duck "tenders" and are very lean and, well, tender.

If you want more statistics about duck and other meats produced and consumed in France, have a look at this PDF file. A few days ago I had started putting together a post about duck and I wrote that I figured people in France, along with the Chinese, eat more duck than people in any other country. So that turns out to be true, as best as quick and dirty googling can determine.


In the PDF version of the Grand Larousse Gastronomique (2007) food and cooking encyclopedia, which I managed to download a few years ago, I found other statistics. The article about poultry says that France was then producing these quantities of poultry annually, in tons:
chicken ....... 900,000
turkey ........ 620,000
duck .......... 300,000
rabbit ........ 120,000
Guinea fowl .... 38,000
goose ........... 3,000
Remember, these are 12-year-old statistics, at least, so the raw figures might not mean much, but the ratios are revealing. France produces 100 times as much duck as goose. Not to mention twice as much turkey as duck, and three times as much chicken. (It's interesting that these statistics include rabbit in the poultry category, but that's the way it works in France.)


There's also an interesting paragraph in the 1967 print edition of the Larousse Gastronomique that says the production of confit d'oie (slow-cooked goose), which was traditionally put up in stoneware crocks of goose fat for storage (the same is true for duck), had already started being packed in tins and processed using modern canning techniques. It continues:
Ce confit a absolument les mêmes qualités que celui conservé dans les vases en grès et a, de plus, la qualité de pouvoir être conservé bien plus longtemps. ["This canned confit has absolutely the same qualities as confit packed into stoneware vessels and, in addition, has the advantage of allowing the confit to be stored for a much longer time."]
In the 2007 PDF version of the Larousse Gastronomique, I came across a recipe from a restaurant chef in Rouen (where I spent a year long ago, and still have friends, at least one of whom has spoken of this chef in glowing terms). It's a recipe for canard aux navets — duck braised and served with turnips — which is a classic preparation. That's what I'll be cooking today. It's not made with confit, but with fresh, raw duck. I'm including here some of this week's ads from our local supermarket flyers that feature duck.

22 May 2019

Confit d'oie ou confit de canard ?

The day before yesterday, I posted about grilled duck breast (magret de canard) and about duck legs slow-cooked to make confit de canard. The duck breast that Walt grilled was fresh (raw, I mean, even though out of the freezer), but the confit de canard came pre-cooked, out of a can. So did the pinto beans, which are imported from Portugal. I thought both were delicious.

There are four or five slow-cooked duck leg/thigh sections in a big can like this one.

I'm really interested in both goat cheese and duck these days, as you may have surmised, partly because they are such important food products in France but not much known or appreciated in the U.S. I've done some reading in the 1960s-era Larousse Gastronomique. In the book's 8-page chapter on duck (le canard), I've found only one brief mention of confit de canard, but no mention at all of magret de canard. More about magret in future posts...

To get the slow-cooked duck legs out of the can, you need to open it and then heat it up in a slow oven until the fat melts.

About confit, the LG points out that in southwestern France, around Toulouse, where large ducks are raised and fattened for foie gras production, the meat of the ducks is preserved by cooking it in duck fat and potting or canning it up in the same fat. In that region, geese are prepared the same way, the article says, but many people prefer duck foie gras and duck confit to the equivalent goose preparations. That surprised me, because I thought the general opinion was that goose is somehow superior in quality and taste compared to duck.

Here are the duck legs as they come out of the tin after the fat is melted.

In its article about goose (l'oie) and how it is prepared, the LG does give detailed descriptions about how confit d'oie is made but doesn't say you can make it with duck. It points back to the book's article on cassoulet, which is a famous southwestern dish of white beans cooked with pork and confit of either goose or duck. In fact, in the whole cassoulet article, goose is mentioned over and over again, but duck is mentioned, unless I missed something, only once. Goose magret is not mentioned either. I think the reputation of duck has greatly improved in France, and it has nearly completely replaced goose for making foie gras and confit. The only goose product I find in the supermarkets is jars of goose fat (alongside jars of duck fat).

21 May 2019

Remue-ménage

I've posted pictures of our loft space several times over the years. Here are some that I took and posted in 2010, as we were still just moving into the space. Filling it up with too much stuff, I mean. Right now, we are having to move a lot of furniture from one end of the loft to the other, because we are soon going to have a small bathroom put in up there.




When I say "bathroom" I mean what we call a "half-bath" in the U.S. It's a toilet and a small sink. Nothing more. It won't take up much space. Still, it's a mess to move so much furniture around, and to empty the long, low closet that runs the length of the room (11 meters, or 35 feet) under the eaves. The new plumbing will run through that closet, so the plumber will need to crawl around in there.




This is the corner where new walls for the bathroom will be built and then the new plumbing and fixtures put in. The constraints are the windows and the radiator, which will not be moved. Good news: the space looks pretty good, considering we've been living in it for nine years. We're doing a good "spring cleaning" as we move things around. The floors and walls, which we varnished and painted ourselves back in 2010, still look good.


It feels a little funny to post photos of the loft, because it's really a private space for us, the dog, and the cat. We never entertain guests up here. That's what the downstairs — the living/dining room, kitchen, bathroom, den, front "deck" or terrace, and guest bedroom — is for. The loft is our "family room" — where we watch TV and sleep. I also have a couple of computers up there. We had a similar arrangement in San Francisco, where our family room was a downstairs space that only the two of us and the dog ever spent time in or even saw.



The loft, which was the empty, unfinished attic of this approximately 50-year-old house, never was really a loft, of course, if you take the term to mean a hayloft. No hay or straw or grain was ever stored up there, to my knowledge. The French word for "attic" is grenier, meaning grainery, more or less. Maybe grain was "lofted" or lifted up there and stored, with the added benefit, I think, of insulating the house over the winter. In German, Luft means air, and the loft was the air space under the roof of a house.

20 May 2019

Canard de deux façons

This is not just about two ways of cooking duck, but about two different morceaux or parts of the duck. One is the leg, called a cuisse de canard. The other is the boneless breast, which is called either filet or magret, depending on whether or not the duck has been fattened to produce foie gras.


The magret is the breast of a fattened duck. The word is related to the French word maigre, meaning "lean" — and to the English word "meager" ("meagre" in British English). The way a magret de canard is cooked is the way a good beefsteak is cooked: it's grilled, oven-roasted, or pan-roasted. Duck breast meat resembles beef in color and texture more than it resembles, for example, chicken or turkey.





Walt cooked the magret de canard in these photos on our barbecue grill. He first "scored" the skin in a cross-hatch pattern to keep the magret from curling as it cooked. Then he seared the magret, starting with the skin side, and continued cooking it over indirect heat until he judged that it was about medium-rare inside. He's good at grilling and judging doneness just by feel.

The other part of the duck that is delectable is the cuisse, or leg, including both the thigh and the drumstick. You can cook cuisses de canard in red wine, the way you cook chicken to make coq au vin or beef to make bœuf bourguignon — duck legs take to braising. But the best way to prepare cuisses de canard is as confit. That means slow-cooked and the technique can be used for fruits and vegetables as well as meats.




Duck legs (and duck wings too, but they are less meaty) are slow-cooked in duck fat at low temperature until the meat is starting to fall off the bone. In France, you can buy confit de canard already cooked, either in cans or vacuum-packed in plastic. These photos show confit de canard at two stages: right out of the duck fat after the fat has been melted, and then after being browned in the oven. Notice that I obviously like both kinds of duck served with beans (white beans or pinto beans, for example) and greens (kale, collard greens, or chard).


19 May 2019

Un après-midi dans le jardin avec les animaux

The weather forecasts for today and tomorrow say we should expect scattered showers and maybe some thundershowers. High temperatures will be in around 60ºF (between 14 and 16 in ºC). The radiators in the house are warm, so that means the boiler is running. I guess the weather could be worse — we'll muddle though. Yesterday morning a hard rain fell for a couple of hours, but it tapered off over the course of the day. This morning it's raining only lightly.


Here I'm posting two pictures each of the vegetable garden plot, of Bertie the black cat, and of Natasha the Sheltie pup. I took thephotos on Thursday afternoon, May 16. It was a beautiful moment, and I felt good about things because I had finished tilling up the garden plot in the morning. Walt had finished mowing the grass. Those are Swiss chard plants on the left in the photo, and the green mounds on the opposite end of the plot are clumps of oregano.


The garden soil will need tilling one more time before we can set seedlings out in it. This won't be the first time we have had to wait until about June 1 to do the planting. In our area, the last danger of morning frost is May 15, they tell us. Problem is, May is often pretty rainy. We need to wait until we've had a few fairly dry days so the soil won't be so muddy to work in.


Bertie the cat has lived here since 2010, after his British "guardians" moved back to the U.K. and left him with us. He's now just over 13 years old. He's an outdoor cat and sleeps in our garage, but he spends a lot of time in the house and back yard these days. He has free access to the house in the daytime, but not at night because he likes to bring in dead and even live rodents, which we don't want to step on during the night or have scurrying around. He's pretty nocturnal, I think, and likes to be outside at night. The vet says the fact that he's still an active hunter means his health is pretty good.


Bertie and Natasha, who's now two years old, get along well. The cat was already 11 years old when we brought the new puppy into the household. Earlier, between 2010 and 2017, we tried in vain to get our now deceased border collie named Callie to play nice with the cat. Bertie could have run away in frustration with the whole situation, but from the day he arrived here, he just settled in and has never wandered far. He once disappeared for three or four days. It turned out he was trapped in our neighbors' garage, who hadn't noticed him when they locked up and left for a long-weekend excursion.


We bought Natasha, a Shetland sheepdog, from a couple who breed them over in Chinon, an hour west of Saint-Aignan. That was in 2017. We figured we'd have two dogs for a few years before Callie, then 10, reached the end of her life, but that wasn't to be. One Saturday afternoon two months after Natasha's arrival, Walt found Callie lying in the entryway of our house, paralyzed. She had to be "put down" (euthanized) 48 hours later. It's just not possible keep a dog that can't stand up or walk.


For Natasha, Bertie the cat was just a fact of life. She had never seen a cat before she came to live here. While Bertie had been afraid of Callie, or at least wary of her, for all the years they lived here together, but he wasn't bothered by the new puppy at all. He had in fact grown up with a small dog between 2006 and 2010 because our U.K. friends had adopted a puppy and a kitten at the same time back then. The fact that Callie the collie was twice as big as Natasha might have been a factor in Bertie's wariness.

18 May 2019

Gratin de pommes de terre au fromage de chèvre

I've done a few posts about goat cheese (fromage de chèvre) recently. Goat cheese — and maybe it should more properly be called goats' milk cheese;  we don't say "cow cheese" after all —is a local specialty in the Loire Valley and around Saint-Aignan. Here's another post about using it in your cooking: potatoes au gratin with goat cheese and ham.


I had about 700 grams (1½ lbs.) of little firm-fleshed potatoes in the cold pantry that were just begging to be cooked and eaten. And I of course had several pieces of locally made goat cheese in the refrigerator. That seemed like a good ingredient match.




Here's the process: peel and cook the potatoes (in a steamer pot is a good way to do them) until they are done but still slightly firm. When they cool down, slice them into disks. Meanwhile, slice an onion or two and sauté the slices in butter or olive oil until they're softened and starting to turn golden brown. Set them aside.

Next, make a cream sauce by heating up about a cup of (cow's milk) cream and stirring three or four ounces (about 100 grams) of soft, fresh goat cheese into it until it is melted and, well, creamy. If you can get hard, dry goat cheese — it is hard like Parmesan cheese — grate enough of it to cover the top of the gratin you are about to assemble, and add a little bit, if there's enough, to the cream sauce for flavor.



Plan on a three-layer "casserole" or gratin. First put a thin layer of the cream sauce in the bottom of the baking dish to keep any potatoes from sticking to it as they bake. Arrange a third of the potatoes on top of the sauce and spoon a little more sauce over them. Lay on about half of the sautéed onions. Optionally, lay a piece of ham in with the onions (you could put in some cooked smoked-pork lardons or even diced or shredded chicken breast). Add salt only sparingly.





Add on another layer of potatoes, more sauce, more ham, and more onion. Finally, put on a third layer of potatoes and spoon the rest of the sauce creamy goat cheese sauce over those. Then sprinkle on as much grated goat cheese as you want.



You can sprinkle black pepper and/or paprika over the grated cheese, and drizzle on some olive oil. Bake the gratin in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes to finish cooking the potatoes — they ought to be tender — and to brown the grated cheese topping. (I wish I had mixed the paprika and black pepper into the grated cheese beforehand...).

It occurs to me that you could make the same gratin, but with a different flavor, using cream cheese and grated Parmesan.