31 August 2019

Feuilles de vigne, et un ouragan

This slideshow is made up of just six photos of grapevine leaves. I think a slideshow is the best way to display them. You won't have to scroll around, and I won't be tempted to write a lot of text just to fill in gaps between static images. And it will take you only a minute or so to see them.

I'm pretty preoccupied with the news of Hurricane Dorian right now. It's a monster storm that's headed for Florida, where Walt and I both have family members and friends. Twenty million people live in Florida and millions more are there as visitors and tourists. In addition, this is a major holiday weekend in the U.S.

Hurricane Dorian, with winds at 200+ kph, is headed toward the central Florida coast and is then
predicted to ride the warm-water Gulf Stream up to the North Carolina coast, 800 kilometers north.

Now predictions are for the storm to ride up the U.S. southeast coast, pulled along by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, toward my home town in North Carolina, Morehead City. Most of my family and many old friends of mine still live there. I worry about them. The town is on very low-lying, marshy, sandy coastal land and is highly vulnerable to hurricane-force winds and flooding.

30 August 2019

Berries and other fruit

Maybe it's because we haven't had any significant rain for months now that there is so much fruit all around the hamlet. I've picked plums several times and made more jelly that I know what to do with. I just can't pick any more, and now they are really ripe. Why aren't the birds eating them? The plums are sweet and juicy.

Most of the blackberries I see around the hamlet and vineyard are tiny. While they look ripe, they don't taste or feel like they're ready to pick or good to eat. A day or two ago on my morning walk I saw these growing over a hedge right on the paved road that ends right behind our house. These are ripe and sweet, but nobody is picking them. Maybe I should.

And of course this is grape country. Wine country. It's time to start thinking about picking these too. The harvesting here is done almost exclusively by machine. One day soon I'm sure we'll see and hear the harvesters out in the vineyard and the grapes will be gone pretty fast. Because of the drought, this will probably be a banner year for Touraine wines, even if the harvest is smaller than usual.

It's just so dry. I wonder if the last time northern France experiences such a long summertime dry spell was the one everybody remembers from 1976. I wasn't living here then — I had gone back to the U.S. in February 1976 after living and working in Paris for a couple of years. I believe weather patterns are cyclical, but this current one is way off the charts. It really does seem like the weather is completely out of whack. And now there's a big hurricane moving relentlessly toward Florida...

29 August 2019

Paëlla aux moules, crevettes et poulet

Yesterday for lunch we made a big pan of paëlla (some write it paella without the accent). Do you know it? The French dictionary I rely on defines it this way: Plat d'origine espagnole, composé de riz au safran et de légumes divers cuits avec différentes viandes, du saucisson au piment, du poisson, des crustacés et des moules.

Last Saturday I went to the open-air market to buy some of the paella ingredients from the fishmonger there. I was unsuccessful — the seafood vendor was nowhere to be found. On vacation, I guess. So we had something else for lunch on Sunday. A couple of days later, I was at the supermarket and as I walked past the seafood counter, I noticed there was no line. I went and asked the young woman in charge if she had any moules (mussels). She did, a huge burlap bag full of them. « Il vous en faut combien ? », she asked me. « Douze », I told her. That's 12. She stared at me blankly.

"What are you going to do with 12 mussels?", she then asked me, laughing. I'm going to garnish a big pan of paella with them, I told her. Do you have any extra-large mussels? She showed me one of the moules she was taking out of the bag. It was pretty small, so I told her I'd take 20 instead of 12. She still looked dubious and amused. Anyway, I told her I'd also like some shrimp. How many?, she asked hesitantly. When I again said 12, she laughed. Then she carefully counted out an even dozen (she's not a baker!).

The mussels cost 64 cents, and the shrimp €2.91. That didn't break the bank. We already had some chicken parts, a package of Spanish chorizo sausages, and plenty of rice on hand. Also some tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions. Spices of course. I had set out to make a small batch of paella, but it turned out to be a lot more copious than I intended. We ate all the seafood, some of the chicken and vegetables (I diced up and threw in a zucchini from the garden and some artichoke hearts out of a can...), two of the six sausages, plus a good amount of rice. The rest will go into the freezer this morning and can easily be turned into another pan of paella whenever we want to eat it again. Here's a recipe.

28 August 2019

White-wine grapes in late August 2019

The photos in the slideshow below are some that I took four days ago when I was out on my morning walk with Tasha the sheltie. The sky was clear and the light at sunrise was pretty. I was surprised to see how the grapes had suddenly plumped up and how ripe they looked. It rained off and on here yesterday afternoon, with a heavy shower late in the day. I hope the rain was beneficial. This slideshow is made up of 10 images and runs for less than 90 seconds.

The main white wine grape varietal grown here in the Renaudière Vineyard is Sauvignon Blanc. A lot of it goes into still Touraine-Chenonceaux wines. There are also parcels of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc grapes scattered around the vineyard. They go mostly into making sparkling wines called Fines Bulles de Touraine.

27 August 2019

Est-ce que c'est l'esca ?

It's not supposed to be as hot today as it was yesterday and over the weekend. Today's predicted high is 33ºC, according to Accuweather, and on Sunday and Monday it was 36ºC. See the chart on the right for Fahrenheit equivalents.

Walt posted a photo of this dying (or dead) grapevine on his blog a couple of days ago. He was standing farther from the little building that it grew on than I was when I took these photos. I don't think this summer's heat is what killed the vine, but it could have been a contributing factor. There's a fungal disease called esca, which has been known since Roman times, that might well be the reason for the plant's demise.

Esca is believed to be caused by several different fungal parasites that attack the vines. The fungi spores are airborne.Esca is not well understood and is very hard to prevent. The French Wikipédia article says temperature is a factor in its spread. The parasites enter the grapevine trunk over winter, through "wounds" left by pruning in autumn, especially when winters are damp and mild. That describes the weather we've been having in recent years.

26 August 2019

Clafoutis d'épinards, de pommes de terre, et de poulet

Here's a photo of this clafoutis after it spent the night in the refrigerator. It slices more cleanly when cold.

Thaw a package of frozen spinach in the microwave. Meanwhile, dice and sauté about three medium-sized potatoes in butter in a big pan. When the potatoes start to brown and go tender, push them to one side of the pan and put the spinach in with them.

Cover the pan and let the potatoes and spinach heat up together. Pour the vegetables into a baking dish. Sauté a diced chicken breast in the same frying pan and add the cooked chicken to the baking dish with the épinards and pommes de terre.

Make a clafoutis batter using:

• 4 whole eggs
• ½ cup flour (60 grams)
• 1 cup whole milk (or
    half & half)
• grated nutmeg to taste
• salt and pepper

Whisk the flour into the eggs, then add the milk or cream to make a smooth mixture. Optionally, add some herbs (basil, oregano).

Pour the batter into the baking dish over the vegetables and chicken. Stir gently so that the batter is well distributed. Dot the top of the mixture with chunks of fresh goat cheese (it's okay if the cheese crumbles a little). Push the pieces of cheese down into the batter so that they are almost covered.

Bake the clafoutis in the oven at about 325ºF (160ºC) to give the batter time to cook through completely. After about 30 minutes, turn the heat up, or turn on the broiler, to brown the clafoutis on top. Serve hot or warm (using a big serving spoon), or cold (sliced).

This is the kind of goat cheese I used in this clafoutis (or "crustless quiche"). Buchette just means "little log" and nature means "plain" (no herbs or spices). It's made here in the Loire Valley. It's a pure white, sort of grainy, crumbly cheese that is not aged but sold fresh. Walt and I prefer the Loire Valley goat cheeses to the creamier, sort of Camembert-style goat cheese logs made south of here in the Poitou region (Soignon is a well-known brand). You could use cream cheese, a flavored cream cheese  like Boursin, or mozzarella instead. Or just put some other grated cheese that you like in the batter.

25 August 2019

The 2019 red wine grapes

Yesterday I took my camera with me on my walk with Natasha in the Renaudière vineyard out behind our house near Saint-Aignan. Here's a look at the state of the red wine grapes in late August 2019. The slideshow is made up of 11 images and runs for a minute and a half.

It's always interesting to see how blue, not red or even purple, the grapes are. They have plumped up a lot over the past week or two and they are ripening quickly. With afternoon temperatures still in the 90s and predicted to stay that high over the coming week, it won't be long before the harvest starts.

By the way, the population of our hamlet increased from eight to nine this past week. The young couple three houses down the road from us had their second baby. Yesterday afternoon they invited us over for a celebration with about two dozen of their relatives — parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The baby, a little boy they are calling Nils, is beautiful.

24 August 2019

More jelly

About a week ago, I decided I had let the little yellow mirabelle plums I picked off our neighbors' tree — with permission — had ripened enough. Instead of sitting for an hour or more and pitting them, I decided to make more jelly.

As you can see, I also went and picked some more red plums to add to the mix. The reason is that the red plums weren't as ripe as the yellow ones. They would give the jelly some acidity that would improve the flavor and would also help the jelly jell, activating the natural pectin in the fruit.

The first step is to bring the fruit to a boil in a pot of water and wait for the plums to burst, releasing their juice. Mashing them a little as they simmer is a good idea. The next step is to pour the cooked plums into a colander lined with a kitchen towel or some cheesecloth and them them drip for a couple of hours.

For every liter of juice that you end up with, add about a kilogram of sugar and wait for it to dissolve. Stirring it helps. When the sugar has all dissolved into the fruit juice, bring the pot back to the boil and let it simmer for... well, this is the hard part. You just have to decide at what point you think the juice and sugar have boiled enough to turn into jelly when it cools down. Skim off any white foam that rises to the surface as the liquid simmers.

I ended up with these jars of plum jelly. It's good on toast for breakfast, or stirred into plain yogurt to be eaten for breakfast, dessert, or a snack. It will make a good glaze for fruit tarts over the fall and winter. It's tart enough, though pretty sweet. Just a little jelly like this makes a good serving, however you eat it. I'm thinking about jelly roll cakes this winter.

23 August 2019

French... well, Italian, really... potato salad

Summer — yes, the hot afternoon weather is back here in Saint-Aignan — is definitely potato salad season. One of my favorite potato salads is one that's often served in French cafés and restaurants. It's not actually French, but Italian, and it's called une salade piémontaise. Le Piémont is a region in northwest Italy, in the foothills of the Alps, bordering on France and Switzerland. The two biggest cities in the Piémont are Turin and Asti.

The ingredients are pretty standard but the combination of ingredients is really good. It's potatoes, of course, but with firm, ripe, diced tomatoes along with big pieces of French cornichons (pickled gherkins), hard-boiled eggs, chopped onion, and ham. You could use dill pickles or sour pickles instead of cornichons, but don't dice them or the tomato too finely. You want to taste them when you eat the salad.

I like to cook the potatoes and the hard-boiled eggs in a steamer pot. The potatoes don't get water-logged, and the eggshells break less frequently during the steaming process than they do when cooked directly in boiling water. The cooking times for steaming are the same as for boiling — steam the potatoes for 20 to 25 minutes, until tender, and then steam the eggs for 10 minutes.
For this salade piémontaise, I made a dressing by combining supermarket mayonnaise with Greek-style yogurt and an extra splash of vinegar. The mayonnaise by itself is too sweet, I think, and it's too thick. Yogurt thins it and reduces the sweetness. The ham is just packaged sandwich ham (jambon de Paris in France) diced up. Being fancy for once, I used a pastry ring (also called a "food stacker") to make these neat little piles of potato salad on the plates. That's sweet paprika sprinkled on top — but smoked paprika would be good too.

Here's a French recipe for salade piémontaise, in English, that I found on the internet.

22 August 2019

Clafoutis aux courgettes et au fromage de chèvre

I've made and posted about the French cream pie called un clafoutis many times. Usually they are for dessert, but you can also make what you might call a savory clafoutis — savory in French would be salé because the clafoutis mixture is salted, not sweetened. I've made savory clafoutis before, with cauliflower. Another name for this kind of pie is "crustless quiche" ( une quiche sans pâte).

A quiche normally has a crust made with flour and butter. A clafoutis doesn't have a crust that you have to make (or buy) separately — it makes its own crust, in a way. The clafoutis batter contains a small amount of flour, whereas the quiche batter is just eggs and cream (or milk), with cheese, ham, and/or vegetables for flavor. For this crustless quiche, the first step is to sauté a zucchini that has been cut into chunks the about size of cherries. (Cherries are the classic and original clafoutis ingredient.)

After the zucchini cubes are slightly cooked and slightly browned, put them in the pan you are going to bake the clafoutis in. For this pie, I decided to add some meat too — it's diced turkey breast that I sauteed in the same pan I cooked the zucchini in. Into the pie plate it went. The idea is to put the flavor ingredients in the pan and then pour the creamy egg custard over them.

The other flavor ingredient in this savory clafoutis is cheese — goat cheese, called fromage de chèvre in French. As I wrote about yesterday, here in the Loire Valley we can buy locally made goat cheeses that are either chèvre frais (not ripened), chèvre demi-sec (medium ripe), or chèvre sec (ripened until dry and hard, sort of like Parmesan cheese). For this pie, I decided to use fromage frais de chèvre, which has the consistency of cream cheese or cottage cheese — both of which would be a good substitute for fresh goat cheese.

I mashed the fresh goat cheese with a fork, added some flour, and then added milk and eggs to make a custard with a smooth, liquid consistency. For a clafoutis like this in a 10-inch pan, I used 200 grams of cheese, 60 grams of flour, 200 milliliters of milk, and three whole eggs. Carefully pour the liquid over the pre-cooked zucchini and turkey cubes. Oh, and add some fresh herbs to the custard — I had fresh basil and fresh thyme. Don't forget the salt and pepper.

Here's the result pictured as a slice ready to be served. You can see some zucchini and turkey cubes embedded in the cooked custard.

Okay, you could make this same crustless quiche using grated cow's milk cheese (cheddar or swiss), or with cream cheese or cottage cheese. And next time I make one, I want to use a ripened goat cheese cut into chunks along with the zucchini and turkey chunks. Cubes of ham or pieces of smoked bacon (lardons) instead of poultry would also be good. There are so many possibilities.

21 August 2019

Affiner, affinage, affineur

Affinage is the French term for the process of bringing cheeses to their optimal degree of maturation. It's one of the important processes in cheese-making. The person whose profession or trade is "ripening" or "aging" cheeses is called un affineur or une affineuse. The time it takes to affiner a cheese can vary widely, from a period of a few days or weeks to as long as several years. The methods and results vary depending on the characteristics of each variety of cheese.

Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano), for example, is ripened — dried, in this case — for at least 12 months and for as long as five years. The goat cheeses of the Loire Valley region are sold in several stages of ripeness: frais (fresh), demi-sec (medium hard), and sec (hard, dried).

Cantal cheeses, one of France's first and oldest cow's milk cheeses — the Romans discovered it when they conquered Gaul 2,000 years ago — are ripened to several different stages before being marketed: you can get cantal jeune (young, ripened for 30 to 60 days), cantal vieux (aged for at least 240 days), or cantal entre-deux (medium, "between the two" other styles, ripened for 90 to 210 days).

For cheddar cheese, which was supposedly developed in England after Romans took the cantal cheese-making method there, those stages of ripening are called mild, sharp, and extra-sharp in North America. In the U.K., the corresponding terms seem to be mild, medium, mature, and extra-mature.

This is a long post about cheese-ripening because Walt and I use a lot of Parmesan cheese in our cooking, but we would also like to use the cheese called Pecorino Romano, which we don't have a good source for here. I'm sure you can find it in Paris and other big cities, but not out here in the countryside.

Pecorino Romano is a cheese made from ewe's milk. The ewe, if you don't know, is the female sheep, as the cow is the female bovine. So in Italy and Europe, Romano cheese has to be made from sheep's milk. It is aged and grated like Parmesan, but with a different taste of course. (On the left, pasta with pesto and my ripened and grated sheep's milk cheese.)

Well, in the U.S. it's not so simple. American Romano cheese can be made from sheep's milk, cow's milk, or goat's milk. It's an industrial product.

We can easily find ewe's milk cheeses here in our Saint-Aignan supermarkets. It dawned on me a couple of months ago that I might be able to "ripen" a soft, mild piece of ewe's milk cheese until it really dried and hardened enough to be grated like Parmesan cheese. The ewe's milk cheese we get is mostly made in Basque country and the Pyrenees Mountains in southwestern France.

The ewe is called la brebis in French, and the cheese is called fromage au lait de brebis. One commercial cheese is called Etorki, and it's aged for 50 days before being sent to market. Another is Ossau-iraty, a farmstead AOC/AOP ewe's milk cheese that is ripened for 80 to 120 days, depending on the size and weight of the cheese being ripened. Other famous ewe's milk cheeses are Roquefort and traditional Greek feta...

My affinage experiment worked. I can't remember which ewe's milk cheese I bought — it might well have been a piece of Etorki. I cut a thick slice of it and just wrapped it in a paper towel and put it in the refrigerator. Then I basically forgot it for a couple of months. It could "breathe" through the paper towel, and refrigerators are notorious for drying foods out. At the end of this fridge-based affinage, the chunk of cheese had really dried and hardened. It didn't go moldy. As you can see, it grated the way Parmesan does, and take my word for it, it tasted good in pesto on pasta.

20 August 2019

Views of "downtown" San Francisco

Several times over the years people here in France have asked me how big a city San Francisco is when they found out I used to live there. When I tell them, they are surprised. "Only 800,000 people?" is the reaction. SF is so well known that people assume it is a lot bigger than it actually is. On the list of the biggest cities in the U.S. by population, SF is only no. 13. And it's not a capital of a state or country; it's basically a provincial city. But it's a spectacularly scenic one... when the sun is shining.
The land area occupied by Paris is 105 km² (just over 40 mi²). The land area covered by SF is 120 km² (47 mi²). So there's not much difference between them, area-wise. But the population of Paris is about 2.2 million. The population density of Paris is nearly 22,000 people per sq. km. Of SF, it's 7,300. So Paris is very crowded by SF standards. The atmosphere is totally different. In SF, 60% of the land is given over to single-family houses. Not in Paris! It's all apartment buildings.
These are again 20 year-old-views of "downtown" San Francisco. I took the photos on Dec. 31, 1998, with my first digital camera. Again, you can see how nice the SF weather can be in wintertime. It basically never snows there, and the temperature very seldom goes down to freezing. That only happened once during the 17 or 18 years that Walt and I lived there. A lot of big outdoor plants were killed. We couldn't get our apartment warmer that 55ºF for several days. No insulation!
These weren't the views we saw from our house in SF. We were on the south slope of the hill I was standing on when I took the photos. I was looking north from the other side of the hill called Diamond Heights, about a kilometer from our house. I was on Beacon Street, not far off Diamond Street,  in an area called Billy Goat Hill. By the way, SF doesn't have much wintertime weather, and it doesn't have much summertime weather here. The temperature basically stays between 5º and 15ºC year-round. That's between 40º and 70ºF. There are very few cold days and very few hot days. We never had air-conditioning in any place we lived out there. But our heat would come on every morning, even in summertime, and even with the thermostat set at just 65ºF. The whoosh of the furnace coming on (it was forced-air heat) in our house on Congo Street served as my alarm clock.

19 August 2019

The other SF bridge

There are two big bridges in San Francisco, which sits on the north end of a peninsula with the Pacific Ocean to the west and San Francisco Bay to the east. The Golden Gate Bridge spans the mouth of San Francisco Bay and connects The City to the land to the north. The Bay Bridge links San Francisco to the land to the east where Oakland and Berkeley are located. Those two regions are called, respectively, the North Bay and the East Bay.

The official name of this bridge is the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It's actually two bridges: a classic suspension bridge from SF out to Yerba Buena Island in the bay, and a self-anchored suspension bridge from Yerba Buena Island over to Oakland. This span is a new bridge that recently replaced an older cantilever bridge, a section of which had collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. (These are photos I took in January 1999.)

The new part of the Bay Bridge between the island and Oakland is said to be the widest bridge in the world. The whole bridge complex from SF to the shore of the East Bay is at least twice as long as the Golden Gate Bridge, which itself measures nearly 3 kilometers. Both bridges were built in the 1930s. The Bay Bridge carries U.S. Interstate 80, a transcontinental highway that links SF to New York, 4,000 kilometers to the east.

18 August 2019

The Golden Gate

I don't know what got me thinking about San Francisco this morning. Or maybe it wasn't that at all — I just happened to stumble over these photos of the Golden Gate Bridge that I took in January 1999. I had just gotten my first digital camera, a Kodak DC260, as a Christmas gift from Walt and CHM.

Walt and I lived in San Francisco from 1986 until 1992, and then again from 1995 until 2003. In between, we lived 50 miles south in the heart of Silicon Valley (Sunnyvale) for 3+ years. We were both working down there. When we finally got around to buying a house, we decided to buy one in SF, not in the Valley. We missed the place that is called “The City” out there — the sights, the restaurants, the shops, the atmosphere...

We found a house we liked and could afford to buy on Congo Street in SF. We lived just three miles from the Pacific Ocean beaches, five miles from the Golden Gate, and four miles from downtown SF (the Financial District). We were in a residential neighborhood, close to two supermarkets and two wine shops that sold French wines, and with good public transit that would whisk us downtown. We liked the house and the area (Glen Park).

For walks on weekend mornings, we could easily drive up to the Golden Gate or out to Ocean beach and let our dog Collette, a Sheltie mix, run on the beach. You can see that she enjoyed it. So did we. I took these photos on January 3rd, 1999. As you can also see, SF winters were pretty nice. They were actually better than the summers, which were windy, foggy, and damp. Collette moved to France with us in 2003 and passed away here in 2006 at the age of 14.

17 August 2019

Trimming, and waiting for rain

This is what we see from the window in our guest room bedroom window. the big trees are a fir of some kind on the left, a linden tree (called un tilleul [tee-yuhl] in French] in the middle, and a blue spruce on the right. The fir was somebody's live Christmas tree that got planted in the yard after the holidays decades ago. The linden is called a "lime" tree in the British Isles, but I don't know why — it's not a citrus tree. And the blue spruce is dying; we're thinking of having it taken out this winter. It's too big and too close to the house.
The linden tree really developed a serious load of leaves and branches this summer. It probably had to do with the rainy weather we had in the winter and late spring, and then the intense summertime heat. As for the name "lime tree", Wikipedia gives a complicated explanation here. Anyway, our tilleul had a lot of heavy, low-hanging branches right over the gravel pathway down the center of the yard, and I had to take pruning shears to them this past week. I got tired of forgetting them and having them slap me in the face every time I walked out there. You can make an herbal tea from linden flowers, but we've never done so. Bees love the flowers.

Walt just came downstairs and informed me that it is raining lightly...
On the north side of the house, there's this gigantic juniper bush that takes up a huge section of yard. I assume it's a juniper, and I just read that junipers are members of the cypress family. I'm extremely allergic to cypress tree pollen, so I was surprised. For years we've talked about having this shrub taken out, and maybe now is the time. Who knows what lives in and under it. Weeds do, and I have to trim them every year.
The weeds are rogue hazelnut, poplar, birch, and other saplings. Worst of all, a lot of them are blackberry brambles with really sharp thorns. I trim around the edge of the juniper shrub, but there's no way to get the things that grow up in the middle of it. That's another reason for having the bush taken out. In the background of this photo, you can see the north side of our house, where we stack firewood, and where junk collects. Our outdoor clothesline is also out there. We use it when we can over the summer months.
The north side is also a good place to keep potted plants in summertime. They stay in the shade and they get rained on when we actually get summertime rain. The big "Christmas cactus" you see in the pot here was in the house — in the garage, actually — when we moved in 16 years ago. I water and feed it. I've never re-potted it, though I have taken cuttings to start new plants. I wonder how old the plant is — nobody lived here full-time for about 20 years before we bought the house, so the plant might be 40 years old for all I know.