30 June 2019

Weather obsessed. And duck!

Accuweather says the temperature hit 39ºC here yesterday. Our outdoor thermometer, located on the north side of the house, read about 36º. It was about 32º in the house. We closed shutters and shades on the west-facing back of the house (two windows in the loft and 4 on the main level), but we kept the windows on the north and east sides open. I'm not really a fan of living in darkness. We toughed it out, and I was able to sleep when bedtime came.

We had duck legs cooked on the barbecue grill for lunch. I read about cooking them that way on the internet, where a French chef posted his method: put the legs on the grill at very low temperature and cook them for an hour or more. Actually, I cooked them in our countertop oven in a baking dish for about 90 minutes at about 140ºC (285ºF). That way I could "capture" the duck fat they released as they cooked.

Walt then grilled the duck legs to brown them while I opened a jar of the French white beans called mogettes, which are grown and packed in the Vendée region. In other words, we kept indoor cooking to a minimum because it was a hot day. When the duck legs came out of their baking dish and went on the grill, I poured the beans into the dish and stirred them around in the duck fat. I set the dish in the countertop oven until the beans started to bubble slightly. Lunch was then served, with salads (carottes râpées, céleri rémoulade, etc.) following the main course.

* * * * * * * * * *

Back to the weird weather: Accuweather and MétéoFrance both predict a high temperature of about 32ºC for Saint-Aignan today. Their forecasts have been on the high side compared to the temperatures our thermometer has been registering. It's breezy and cool this morning, so maybe it will be significantly cooler all day. Actually, MétéoCiel says we should expect a high of 28ºC this afternoon. That would be nice. It's supposed to turn even cooler tomorrow. We have survived.

29 June 2019

France or Las Vegas?

Yesterday France recorded the highest temperature that has ever been recorded in the country. It was about 115ºF (just shy of 46ºC — off the chart) in the town of Gallargues-le-Montueux, in the South of France about halfway between the cities of Nîmes and Montpellier. Here in Saint-Aignan, our thermometer read about 36ºC in the afternoon, and the temperature in the house was in the high 80s in ºF.

I just took this photo of some of our heat-loving potted plants out on the deck. They seem happy with the current weather conditions — as long as we keep them watered. You'll recognize the basil on the right, and that's a Donkey's Tail plant (Sedum morganianum) on the left. It's a Mexican succulent. In the planter box hanging off the deck rail is a clump of Sempervivum tectorum, called Joubarbes in French and Houseleeks or Hens and Chicks in English.

Finally, here are a Jade plant that I've had going for years, and a big pot of Aucuba that seems happy with its growing conditions. Thanks to CHM for the Aucuba cuttings.

Today is supposed to be even hotter here. MétéoFrance, the national weather service, says we should expect a high temperature of 39ºC. Accuweather says to expect a high of 37ºC — that's the normal human body temperature, or 98.6ºF. We'll see who's right.

Today is supposed to be the last really hot day, at least for a while.

28 June 2019

Un grand « petit coin »

I'm realizing something this morning. I think we could have made the new WC a lot smaller than we did. I suppose an argument could be made for having made it so spacious. Later, after we're gone, somebody might decide to put a small shower stall in there.

Here's the WC in the gîte rural we stayed in last October in the Vendée, out on the Atlantic coast. It really was a petit coin — and rustic-looking. It was downstairs in the rental property, off the kitchen. There was a full bathroom, with a toilet, sink, and shower, upstairs.

And here's the petit coin in the gîte rural we stayed in last March in Le Puy-en-Velay (Auvergne). It was more finished, felt cleaner, and was located off the living room. There was the same kind of bathroom upstairs as in the Vendée gîte — shower, sink, and toilet.

I thought our new WC was going to be a cramped space. I was wrong. It's a big room, considering its function. We'll be able to put a storage cabinet inside, to the right of the door. We might also decide to put a shelving unit or cabinet of some kind on the opposite side of the room. I'm thinking we might have chosen a larger sink too. Things can always be changed.

Here's the WC door. You can't really see through it, but the frosted glass panels let in daylight from the window on the right. That's nice, even though the light fixture we found and have had installed over the door lights the room more than adequately. In this photo, the light inside is switched on.

27 June 2019

The half-bath downstairs

This is approximately what our downstairs half-bath looked like until last week. I say "approximately" because I took this particular photo in 2007 — 12 years ago. It's a long narrow room resembling a hallway, with a toilet, a small sink, and a radiator in it. We painted it blue all those years ago and hung pictures on the walls.

It's funny, this morning when I went to take a photo of what the little "loo" looks like right now, I pushed the light switch and nothing happened. Almost in protest, the light bulb in the ceiling fixture has burned out. I guess. Or there's some other problem. I hope it's just a coincidence that it has burned out during the plumbing work. I thought we had put a new LED bulb in there, but maybe it's an old incandescent.

I got this photo using my camera's flash. Since significant plumbing work needed to be done to hook the new upstairs fixture into the drainage system, we decided to have a new toilet installed in here too. It'll be a wall-mounted commode (une toilette suspendue or un WC suspendu) — I think "commode" might be a Southern U.S. term for toilet. We figure it will be easier to clean the floor in the WC if the toilet is wall-hung. The old toilet is 16 years old, and right now it's sittingoutside in our front driveway, below the terrace.

In this photo you can see the frame or bracket on which the porcelain toilet will be mounted. The frame will be boxed in using wall board, and there will be a shelf on top of that. Our first plan would have involved running the drain pipe from upstairs down the back wall in one of the corners of this room and having the whole back wall boxed in to hide the pipes, but then the window would have been in a kind of tunnel.

Finally, at the last minute, we decided it would be better to run the big drain pipe down the wall in the main bathroom, which is just on the other side of a partition from the half-bath. (There is no toilet in the main bathroom. That's a French way of arranging the facilities.)

You can see the drain pipe and the way it comes into the room and hooks into the same drain pipe that connects, or will connect, to the new downstairs fixture and to the sewer mains down below.

26 June 2019

Up close in the vineyard

It's 22ºC on the front terrace this morning. The "historical average" low for the morning of June 26 here in Saint-Aignan is 12 degrees — and the historical average high is 23 degrees. So it's nearly as warm at dawn as we would usually expect it to be late in the afternoon.

This is the western wall of the grape-workers' shed out back, bathed in afternoon sun. Workers who came from their homes on foot could store tools here and even spend the night if need be.
I don't think the shed is used any more and I've never seen the shed door open in 16 years of living here. Nobody walks to work in the vineyard any more. Everybody drives.

I'm trying to spare you more toilet pictures. One of the building contractors came over and sanded the walls of the new little room and put a coat of primer on the sheetrock. Now we are getting an idea what the loft is going to look like once the work is finished.

These are some "macro" or close-up shots I took out in the vineyard last week. It was obviously a very sunny day, but I don't think it was a hot as it is now. On, I just looked and Accuweather says the high temperature that day was 24. That was nice.

The grapes were already starting to flower more than a week ago, as you can see in this shot. You can enlarge the images to see more detail by clicking on them or touching and then "unpinching" them.

It'll be my turn to walk the dog out in the vineyard late this afternoon. I think the walk will be brief. Neither I nor the dog could stand to go very far in this heat. Predictions are for a high between 32 and 37 degrees, depending on which weather service you believe.

25 June 2019

Reasonable heat and progress

Yesterday's high temperature on our outdoor thermometer was only 30.4ºC — see the temperature conversion table on the right for the ºF equivalent. This morning, the temperature outside is about 21ºC. I got up at 4 a.m. and started opening windows and shutters to let the cool air in. So far, sleeping is comfortable and the house isn't too hot (23.4ºC).

Meanwhile, progress continues on the new "facilities" upstairs in the loft. Detail work remains to be done up there — a shelf on the ledge over the sink and toilet, baseboards all around the inside and outside of the room, a toilet seat, the pocket door, a couple of coats of paint — but the focus is now shifting to the work needed in the downstairs bathroom and throne room. Pipes between the downstairs half-bath and the upstairs half-bath still need to be connected together.

Yesterday the building contractors boxed in the big drain pipe that runs from the new "loo" down through the floor and along a corner of the bathroom. The resulting column will be painted the same color as the walls. We'll be getting a new "wall-hung" toilet in the downstairs petit coin too. Both toilets will drain through the same pipe out to the sewer mains.

I happened upon a nice light fixture for the new W.C. on amazon.fr last week, and I ordered it. After I did, I got worried that at just 600 lumens of éclairage it was going to be too dim. Doesn't it look like something you'd see in the Starship Enterprise?

It came yesterday and the contractors installed it. Walt got up a few minutes ago — it was still pretty dark outside and in the loft — and switched on the new loo light. "It's almost blinding," he said. That means it's fine and bright enough for the space.

Here's that boxed-in pipe in the bathroom downstairs. Not much of it will be visible, because under the white cabinet we have a little brown wood cabinet that we moved out of the way for the duration of the construction project. We'll paint the column to match the walls. And yes, that's a bidet next to the sink. We've kept it because it's a nice French touch in the room.

I was just looking at the MétéoFrance web site, and they appear to have lowered temperature predictions for the rest of the week. They say we might have temps of 34, 35 or 36ºC, instead of 39 or 40 degrees. The other site we follow, MétéoCiel, actually has the highs Wednesday through Friday two or three degrees lower. That's significant, and better.

24 June 2019

Memories of the 2003 canicule

The weather we're predicted to have this week reminds me of our arrival in Saint-Aignan in 2003. Sixteen years ago, we flew into Paris from the U.S. on June 2 and spent five days in Rouen in Normandy. On June 7, we drove down to Saint-Aignan in our rented car to start cleaning our new house and yard. The place was a mess, and the grass in the yard was more than knee-high because the previous owner had canceled her gardening service when we became the new owners in late April. Having tall grass to deal with was not something we had thought about. It was really too hot to be doing the work of dealing with thoroughly cleaning the house and at the same time getting the yard under control.

Predicted temperatures in Saint-Aignan for the next two weeks — in ºC above, in ºF below.
Notice that I've added a temperature conversion table in the sidebar on the right.

So that June the weather was already extremely and abnormally hot in northern France. We had had outdoor lunches in Rouen and in Étretat up on the English channel. That's almost unheard of in damp, drizzly Normandy. We were wearing shorts and T-shirts. It was hot in Saint-Aignan too, and was going to get even hotter. We didn't expect that. All through June and July, we suffered from the heat. Remember, we had spent many years living through chilly, gray San Francisco "summers" before moving to France. (Mark Twain famously wrote that the coldest winter he had ever experienced was a month of August in San Francisco!)

Morning low temperatures in ºC recorded in France on Aug. 12, 2003.
Our low temperature this morning is about 19ºC — we would normally expect 12ºC.

This week's weather will be comparable to the weather we had in the first half of August 2003. The hottest day was August 12, with a high in Tours, for example, of 39.8ºC (103.8ºF). The low in Tours that day was 22.6ºC (72.7ºF). The weather station in the town of Romorantin, 20 miles east of us, recorded temperatures above 104ºF for six straight days around that time. Houses had time to heat up to uncomfortable levels, and mornings were much warmer than usual. Walt remembers that he actually suffered from the skin condition called "prickly heat" or "sweat rash" at the time. We had a rental car with no air-conditioning, and of course no AC in the house. On August 8, we bought and took possession of a little Peugeot 206 (we still have it) that did have good AC, so many days saw us put the dog in the car and go for long drives out in the countryside just to escape the unrelenting heat.

Afternoon high temperatures in France on August 12, 2003, during the canicule.
We'll see what today brings. Accuweather predicts 33ºC (91.4ºF).

Canicule means "dog days" — normally, canicules occur in July or August, so this one will be early and temperature records will fall. You can see from the charts I posted above that temperatures are predicted to be extraordinarily high by the end of the week. In August 2003, as many as 20,000 French people, mostly elderly, died from heat exhaustion and dehydration during the great heat wave. I'm now elderly, no matter how much I want to deny that reality, so I have to be careful. Drink lots of water, they say. Limit physical activity. Stay in the shade. And so on. We have a car with AC but still no in-house AC.

23 June 2019

Where we stand (and will sit, actually!)

The man who is building the room that will be our new half bath came over yesterday morning and put in the section of wall on which the new toilet will (appear to) hang, and on which the sink and the cabinet that holds it actually will hang. Here's the result. Now it just needs to be painted — along with the rest of the walls, inside and out.

The sink cabinet is not blue. That's just the peel-off plastic film that protects the door surface from scratches during installation. The actual surface is actually shiny white melamine. The room looks spacious in this photo

Let me step back in time and in distance. Here's the room before that back panel was put in yesterday. The toilet hangs on the blue frame that is bolted to the floor and back wall. The toilet tank is what you see inside the big square at the top of the blue frame. The sink and cabinet will hang on the wooden supports on the left, which will be behind the wall panel. We have a piece of furniture that we'll put in the room on the right side of the door. It's a storage cabinet that my father built for me in the 1950s.

Here's another view from a little farther back. We're going to have a new window put in on the right side. Right now it's a French window with panels that open into the room. It's really not practical in this location, and it's pretty old. In its place, we'll have a sliding window put in. We have a chest of drawers that we'll put under the window, and we'll be able to set the electric fan on top of it for the summer, when we leave the window open at night. A potted plant or two might be happy there too.

And here's another step back. We have a second chest of drawers to put along the exterior wall of the new loo next to the radiator. I can't wait for this all to be finished.

Meanwhile, we're supposed to have daytime temperatures well up into the 90s in ºF this week. Some weather services are predicting highs of 100ºF (39ºC). It's going to be miserable for the contractors to have to work in such heat, and for us sleeping will be miserable too.

22 June 2019

Quinze fleurs

This time of year, when the hours of daylight are so long, it's a lot easier for me to take photos on my early morning and early evening walks with Tasha. When it's not raining or threatening to rain, I take my camera with me. I took this set of 15 flower photos almost a week ago. Some of the flowers are in our yard, some in neighbors' yards, and some out on the edges of the Renaudière vineyard. You'll notice that we've had a major "bloom" of little black beetles over the past week or two.

The new bathroom upstairs is getting close to being finished. The contractors who are building out the room is coming back today to try to get the work done to the point where the plumber can actually install the WC and the sink. Both are wall-hung units, so the wall needs to be finished and painted before they go up. Walt posted photos yesterday, and I'll try to take some today and post them tomorrow.

21 June 2019

Choses vues chez la voisine...

We have a part-time neighbor who hasn't come to stay in the hamlet in a while now. She lives in the Paris area, and she has inherited her late husband's family home here. She hires a man to keep the yard mowed and her rose bushes in good shape. Here are some things I've seen on her property recently.

In a fairly big windstorm last week, one of her trees fell down. Or at least half of it did. It's a willow. I wonder if she even knows about it. A neighbor who lives here full-time, as we do, told me yesterday he had gone to look at the big limb on the ground. He said the trunk of the willow tree seemed to be rotting from inside out. It couldn't stand up to the strong winds. I've seen at least two other big limbs broken off trees out around the edges of the vineyard.

With recent rains, the pond out behind the part-time neighbor's house has a good amount of water in it now. Sometimes it goes completely dry. In olden times, before there were so many people living on the land and sewage mains were put in, these ponds, called fosses, were used for waste water and sewage disposal. They are holes that were dug to contain that waste, along with rainwater. Now they just collect rainwater.

The other day, as I walked by with Tasha, I startled a big heron that was standing in the fosse. Now I know why. It was hunting frogs that have invaded the little pond. Not far away, there's a larger pond, called a mare, which is out behind our house, and it is full of frogs right now. They croak and chirp in a loud chorus on warm mornings. I guess some of them have crossed the dirt road and colonized the fosse. Maybe they make the land crossing when the weather is rainy.

20 June 2019

Le Mont St-Michel en 15 images

I don't think the Mont St-Michel needs any introduction. Here is a slideshow containing 15 photos that I took there in June 2006. It lasts less than two minutes and will "loop" endlessly if you let it. You can pause it using YouTube controls if you want to examine a particular image. Indluded are views both of and from the Mont, which is an island at high tide and surrounded by mud flats, marshes, and "salty meadows at low time. Normandy cows as well as sheep graze nearby, and the bay north of the Mont is famous for the mussels farmed there.

I've been lucky to go the Mont Saint-Michel many times over the decades, including several trips since we moved to Saint-Aignan in 2003. Here are some of my older blog posts about the Mont. See also this Normandy tourism site about it.

P.S. The work up in the loft space continues. Progress is being made, but we've got a way to go yet. I didn't really have a chance to take any photos yesterday. Everything seems really chaotic at certain moments, but I'm sure it's going to be great when it's done. À suivre...

19 June 2019

Work has started

The plumber came yesterday and started the work of installing the new bathroom (WC, or half-bath) that we are having built in our attic loft space. It's hard to describe how it will work, and I'm not much of a graphic artist. I'll try to show with words on a photo how it might be configured:

If you've spent much time in France, you know how small such bathroom spaces can be. I think this one will be about five feet by five feet — 25 sq. ft. That's all. It'll be just enough room for a small sink and a toilet. WC means "water closet" and this will be a closet — a convenience, not a luxury.

We had the attic of our house finished as new living space nine years ago. It's one big room, which is our bedroom, a family room with sofa and TV, and my desk and computer. We like the size of the space (about 650 square feet). As you can see in the photos above, there are closets under the eaves of the house, on two sides, that run the length of the room (behind the radiators). In the first photo here, you can see that we've taken the doors off the closet so the plumber can crawl around in there. I took the second photo before I took the doors off.

The closets are where the pipes go (for both the radiators and the new WC). You can see them here. The big drain pipe from the toilet is what the plumber put in yesterday. It runs about half the length of the room, in the back of the long closet. There will also be a smaller pipe to bring water up from downstairs, and a small water heater for the new sink so we won't have to wait so long for hot water to flow upstairs from the bigger water heater two stories down.

The new drain pipe drops down into the big bathroom downstairs, as you can see here. We don't know yet whether we'll have it boxed in using what we call "sheetrock" (plaster wall board) or whether we'll just paint the PVC pipe white. Either way, it will blend in to the decor, I think, and not be too noticeable. The fact that the new bathroom is not directly above the old one has complicated things, but that's just the way it is.

On the main level of the house, the WC is also separate from the bathroom. It's adjacent though. From the bathroom, the big drain pipe runs through the wall into the WC and will be connected to the existing pipe that runs from the existing toilet down to ground level and connects to the sewer mains. So the plumber had to drill big holes in the ceiling and the wall yesterday. He managed to make surprisingly little dust in the process.

I'm not sure any of that is clear, but I'm doing my best. I'll keep posting photos as the work progresses.

18 June 2019

Le pounti auvergnat

Changing regions and focus, from Normandy to Auvergne and from drink to food. You won't believe this, but I harvested some more Swiss chard this week. It was the last of it. After I cut down three of the plants, they re-sprouted a profusion of tender green leaves. I dug those three up a few days ago and picked off the new growth.

One idea I had for using those tender leaves was to make a savory cake called a pounti, which is an Auvergne specialty. I also see it called simply a gâteau de blettes (a chard cake) on some recipe sites on the web.

We first learned about and tasted pounti cake when we spent a view days in the Cantal (Auvergne) 10 years ago. I posted about it, including a recipe, back then.

The flavor ingredients are prunes, cheese, onions, and ham or other meat. Making pounti is a way to use up leftover meat like cooked pork or poultry. It's more a concept than a strict recipe, as are so many regional French dishes.

As usual, there are now a lot of recipes for pounti cakes on the internet, including quite a few in English. First you make a cake batter with flour, eggs, oil, and warm milk. Then you mix in grated cheese, sliced chard leaves, and pitted prunes. Walt says we should make a pounti-style cake with diced smoked chicken and dried cranberries, and that sounds like a good idea to me.

In this pounti, I used Emmental cheese and smoked pork lardons. If I'd had any Cantal cheese on hand, I would have used that, and I almost decided to make it with goat cheese. That will be for another day. You can also substitute fresh spinach leaves, tender kale leaves, or even lettuce for the chard.

17 June 2019

M. Breton, bouilleur

When I took those pictures of Normandy cows grazing in an apple orchard, the ones I posted yesterday, we were driving around on the east side of La Ferté-Macé looking for Monsieur Breton's house, where he sold calvados apple brandy to retail customers. We had driven right past it, it turned out. Breton is or was a bouilleur — a distiller or "boiler" of cider. We had seen him featured on a TV show about French regional products called Carte Postale Gourmande.

Breton's sign was almost hidden by vegetation. It looks like there were two other producers partnering with Monsieur Breton to make calvados and pommeau. Calvados can be single-distilled to about 60 proof (30% alcohol) or double distilled to 140 proof (70% alcohol) — it resembles cognac but is made with apples rather than grapes. Pommeau is a less powerful brew: it's an apéritif wine made by fortifying cider with calvados to about 30 proof (15% alcohol). Both calva and pommeau are to be consumed avec modération, bien sûr.

After finding the sign, we drove through the gate and parked in front of the house inside. There were no cars or people to be seen. I snapped the photos above and below, and we were getting ready to leave when Monsieur Breton drove in. He was friendly and didn't seem to be bothered to find us there.

In the photo above, you can see his still, with his name spray-painted on it in blue. This is obviously a working establishment, not a tourist site. If you want to read more about calvados, here's a link to a site written in English by a blogger in Normandy. I just read on Wikipédia that 50% of the region's production of calva is exported.

Above is a photo of the Bretons' house. He invited us in and pour us little snifters of the calvados he was selling. He told us his wife was off in the Loire Valley (if I remember correctly) spending a few weeks with her sister, so he had the place to himself. He was talkative and interesting, and was interested to meet two Americans who could speak French with him.

I believe Monsieur Breton's first name was or is Marcel. I've tried to find web sites that give more information about him, but without much luck. I did find this photo on one site, and i believe this is him. I wonder if he is still living. He told us the orchard where the cows were grazing belonged to his son, and maybe the son is now running the calvados business. Here's a site where you can buy a bottle or two, if you want. Some are more than 50 years old and sell for two or three hundred euros.

16 June 2019

Vaches et pommiers

I took these photos of cows grazing in an apple orchard in the Perche area of Lower Normandy in May 2005. We were trying to find the farm of an apple brandy producer near the town of La Ferté-Macé.

Cows and apples are two of the greatest symbols of the province of Normandy in France.

The cows produce milk, which is turned into cream, butter, and cheeses including Camembert, Livarot, and Pont-l'Éveque.

The apples are baked into pies, of course, but they are also turned into hard cider and the apple brandy called calvados.