13 December 2019

A slideshow and a birthday

The overnight rain ended at about 8 a.m. yesterday, well before the sun came up. I waited until sunrise to go out with the dog for our morning walk, and I took my camera with me. This slideshow will give you an idea what the vineyard looks like in mid-December — a lot of rain has fallen over the past three months, and weather reports show rain continuing over the next four or five days at least. Luckily, there are some breaks between weather fronts moving in off the Atlantic and sweeping across the Loire Valley.

One piece of news today: it's my friend CHM's birthday. He's turning 95, and congratulations to him for achieving that milestone. He's in the U.S. for the winter, so we won't be able to celebrate his birthday together. Bon anniversaire, mon vieux !

12 December 2019

A door slams shut

You are probably aware that major strikes by railway workers and teachers, among others, are causing chaos in France, and especially in the Paris region. One blogger we've been reading for years, Loulou of Chez Loulou — who now lives and works in Paris — wrote the other day that she's been walking about seven miles a day to get to work and back from her apartment. I imagine a lot of others have been doing the same, and the news on TV shows mobs of people trying to jam themselves into the cars of the few trains and subways that are actually running right now.

Yesterday, the French prime minister gave a major speech about the government's plans to deal with the crisis. According to an editorial in the left-leaning Paris newspaper Libération, he ventured into controversial territory and has made the situation even worse. When he was running for election in 2017, French president Macron (who appoints the prime minister) promised that he wouldn't raise the current retirement age, which is 62. Here's a translation of the editorial:
Let's salute this tour de force. Yesterday Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave a major speech in an attempt to calm the ongoing strikes against government-proposed pension plan reforms. He has succeeded only in uniting everyone against the government. His goal was to resolve the conflict that is paralyzing the the national railways, only to see it now double in intensity. He wanted to divide and conquer the subway drivers, but now they are more united against him than ever. He sought to reassure teachers, but they're even more uneasy and anxious. He thought he could make a separate deal with hospital workers; instead, they've joined the movement against the government's plans. He reached out to white collar workers for support, and now they will be demonstrating next week as well. He moved to exempt the police from the planned pension reforms — now they plan to take an even harder line against his proposals.

The prime minister thought he might be able to win neutrality from two of the country's major labor unions. One of them has now said that it is determined to prolong the strike, and the leader of the second stormed out, furious. What a stellar  success! The prime minister had warned he could not perform miracles. In fact, he actually performed one: he turned the white flag of surrender into a bloody-red rag.

How did this happen? As I wrote last Tuesday, the main mistake the prime minister needed to avoid was mixing together wide-ranging social and government reforms with short-term economic measures. Instead of avoiding that trap, Edouard Philippe fell right into it. After enumerating a series of changes to already announced government plans that he thought would reassure workers in one group or another — some of his concessions were significant, which shows strikers that their movement is working — he insisted on the idea based on a ​​"pivotal age" that he is now calling an "equilibrium" age for retirees. From here on out, workers will have to stay on the job until age 64 if they want to retire with a full pension. According to the prime minister, people who leave the work force earlier will get a reduced retirement pension, and those who stay longer will get a bigger pension. For him, this is the only logical plan. For the unions, it is the kind of slip of the tongue that reveals the government's real intentions and sends union members and leaders into bouts of apoplexy.

In the current battle, the labor leader who was the government's only possible ally issued only this terse reaction: "A red line has been crossed." Edouard Philippe says that "the door is open" and that "his hand is outstretched." Nevertheless, the door seems to have slammed shut, the outstretched hand has gone  limp, and, in all likelihood, commuters and other transit users will still be hoofing it
next week.
Meanwhile, a fairly big wind- and rainstorm is moving in off the Atlantic today. We will probably be closing shutters and staying in except for the mandatory walks with the dog. I have a pot of beans cooking on the stove for our lunch and I'll make a big salad. Hang on tight.

11 December 2019

Sausages and peppers, tomato sauce and pasta

I'm prone to calling this time of the year "the dark days" but maybe I should just call it "the food days" — even though we try to make and eat good food all year long. It's just that the weather here in November, December, and January (let's not even think about February at this point) keeps us house-bound for days and weeks on end. I always have two projects for the winter doldrums — whatever I'm working on to better organize and optimize my computer and all the files on it, and whatever I can find to cook for lunch.

Here's one that we always enjoy: Sausages and peppers with pasta and tomato sauce. This short slideshow is pretty much self-explanatory. This kind of dish is not sorcier, as they say in French. In other words, you don't have to be a wizard, a witch, or a sorcerer to make it.

We happened to have two kinds of sausage on hand — chorizo from Spain (the one in the slideshow comes from Portugal...) and French chipolatas aux herbes (a mild pork sausage). And we had peppers from the garden as I described yesterday, as well as onions from the supermarket and home-made tomato sauce from the freezer. There was also a box of mini penne pasta in the pantry downstairs. Voilà — tout ce qu'il nous fallait comme ingrédients.

It's raining this morning (what else is new?). We had a fairly dry day yesterday but the soil around the vineyard is still more like gadoue (sloppy mud, sludge) than solid ground. Above is this morning's weather radar map, showing the front that is sweeping across France. Saint-Aignan is not far from the F in the word France on the map. And guess what. It's supposed to be worse tomorrow, with heavier rain and a lot of wind. To spend the winter here, you have to know the meaning of the expression "hunker down"...

10 December 2019

Food sources and inspirations

Twice over the past month we've made a dish called Mongolian Beef for our lunch. Why? Well, we had the TV on one morning and it was showing a travel documentary about Mongolia. One of the segments in the show was based on people riding a train across the steppe and enjoying a meal of Mongolian Beef in the dining car. We both remembered eating beef prepared that way in the past, probably in San Francisco where there were do many good Asian restaurants... back in the day when we still went to restaurants quite frequently.

This is our own addition to Mongolian Beef — peppers. Sweet peppers, actually. Why? Well, because one of the most successful crops we grew in our 2019 vegetable garden was peppers like the ones you see on the left. Our American friends K and J, who live just on the other side of Saint-Aignan, gave us some plants K had grown from seed. She had a surplus, and she offered them to us. The pepper plants enjoyed our hot and very dry weather over the summer. And even after the rains returned in October and November, the peppers kept on producing. Here are some Walt harvested in mid-November, when he was in the process of pulling out the year's tomato and zucchini plants. Those were finished, but not the peppers. We also got a few eggplants at that point.

So how you make this kind of sweet and spicy beef dish? Well, first you need some tender, lean beef, cut into strips. In France, we've been buying a very lean and tender cut of beef called une pièce à fondue at the supermarket. It's the kind of beef you use to make a meat fondue — une fondue bourguignonne — and it's often very reasonably priced. After cutting it up, you dredge the strips of beef in cornstarch (Maïzéna is the most famous brand of such fécule de maïs in France) and then you stir-fry it.
Then you take the beef out of the pan and keep it in a warming oven. You pour off most of the fat and you stir-fry onions, peppers, garlic, and ginger root in the same wok until the peppers and onions are cooked but still slightly crisp.

In the meantime, you've made a sweet and spicy sauce by blending together and cooking soy sauce, water, hot red pepper (paste, powder, or flakes), and sugar until the sugar dissolves and the sauce starts to resemble a syrup. You can use brown sugar or what we call raw sugar (cassonade) for extra flavor.

The last step is to put the stir-fried beef back into the wok with the peppers and onions and along with the sweet and spicy sauce. The beef and vegetables are already cooked, so you just need to stir everything around for two or three minutes until the Mongolian Beef is hot and ready to serve.

Serve the Mongolian Beef with steamed rice or some cooked Chinese noodles, with some sesame oil if you like it. Garnish it with fresh coriandre (cilantro) or other herbs you like. We get our Asian ingredients from shops in Blois and over in Tours. Things like noodles and sauces in jars will keep indefinitely, so you can always have them on hand.

Here's a recipe that we based ours on. We added sweet peppers diced and red onion to ours.

09 December 2019

Sunrise, sunset

One of the nice things about living where we do is that we get good views of both sunrise and sunset every day. My friend Evelyn pointed that out to me one day, years ago. Sometimes I grab my camera and take a photo through a window from inside at those hours. Often, skies like the one on the right disappear quickly as the sun rises or wind blows the clouds away. According to the timestamp on it, I took this picture at 7:50 a.m. It was still too dark outside to start the morning walk with the dog.

At about 5:30 p.m., I happened to glance out the window and I saw this sunset. It had rained on and off all day. Hours later, I heard hard rain pelting down on the roof tiles and skylight windows as I tried to get some sleep up in the loft. It's been very windy for about 36 hours as well.

This third image shows the view through the linden tree out back a minute or so later. Today, the sun will rise here in Saint-Aignan at 8:29 a.m. and it will set at 5:06 p.m. That give us just 8½ hours of daylight, and it is dim daylight when rain is falling. It's hard for me to imagine living farther north than this. We are farther north than Quebec City, at about the same latitude as Seattle. In Aberdeen, in Scotland, for example — almost as far north as Juneau in Alaska  — the sun will rise at 8:34 this morning and will set at 3:26 p.m. That's a seven hour day. Evening starts there in mid-afternoon.

08 December 2019

Riz cantonais

"Cantonese rice" is what Chinese-style fried rice is called in France. You can often find it ready-made in the supermarkets, but that version doesn't seem to me to have nearly enough vegetables in it. This is a short, self-explanatory slideshow. We ate the rice with frozen nems (Vietnamese spring rolls) that Walt bakes in the oven.

I like riz cantonais with diced red onion, garlic, celery, carrots, and bell peppers — and some hot red pepper flakes. Not to mention green garden peas, diced ham or bacon, and beaten and fried egg. Go light on the soy sauce and pour on some sesame oil at the table.

We decided to make fried rice because a few days ago we had cooked up a big batch of rice to have with the last of our recent lamb curry. One of the secrets when it comes to making fried rice is that you need to start with rice that has been cooked and then spread out on a tray or in a wide bowl air-dried for an hour or more so that the grains separate easily. Clumps of rice won't do. The leftover rice was perfect. The curry with rice was good too.

07 December 2019

Une omelette pour midi

A recent lunch: une omelette au fromage, aux épinards, et aux champignons. There is no particular recipe, I guess, but there is a method. I usually make a five-egg omelet for the mid-day meal, and we usually have leftovers, which can become a nice, light supper. I cook the spinach (frozen) beforehand, seasoned with salt, pepper, and a grating of nutmeg, in the microwave, and I sauté the sliced mushrooms quickly, unsalted, in butter or a mixture of butter and oil, over high heat, so they don't poach in their own liquid.

A slightly runny, soft, tender omelet — not overcooked

One secret to making a nice puffy omelet is this: if you want to add a little liquid to the beaten eggs (les œufs battus en omelette), just add a little bit of water. Never add milk because the milk won't really blend into the eggs (a tip I learned from watching Jeff Smith, "The Frugal Gourmet"). The steam from water makes the eggs puff up slightly. When the omelet is just barely starting the brown in the pan, but the top of the omelet is still not set — not completely cooked — sprinkle on as much grated cheese as you like. Pepper the eggs but don't salt them yet. Make sure the omelet is not stuck to the bottom of the pan (non-stick coatings are great).

Thanks again to CHM for the gift of this nice set of stainless-steel serving dishes, a classic in France.

On the half of the omelet that is farthest from the handle of the frying pan, lay down the cooked spinach with the mushrooms on top it. Then tip the pan to start sliding the omelet out onto the serving dish. When about half or a little more of the omelet is out of the pan and is on the serving dish, lift up the pan to fold the "undressed" side of it over the filling ingredients. Voilà. The omelet is folded but the filling ingredients are still visible. Serve with French fries and a salad if that floats your boat.

06 December 2019

More and more jade flowers

A couple of weeks ago, I took and then posted some photos of the biggest jade plant in our collection (I keep propagating new plants from cuttings) because I noticed it was starting to flower. I don't think I've ever seen a jade plant flower before. Here's a very short slideshow of images of its blossoms now.

Meanwhile, much of France is paralyzed right now by strikes involving transit workers and teachers. We are not really affected, since we don't commute or travel much. Most of the demonstrations and protests are taking place in the cities. It's all about government plans to reform the national retirement system.

The weather is freezing cold over much of the country, but that's supposed to change over the weekend. A big perturbation (warm front) will be moving in off the Atlantic Ocean and sweeping across the country, bringing rain and raising temperatures back into the upper 40s and low 50s in ºF. Laissez les bons temps rouler !

05 December 2019

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle

Here in Saint-Aignan, we seem now to have said au revoir to a three-month period of frequent soaking rains. The autumn rains arrived on the heels of three months of extreme drought, which had made the summer of 2019 the driest we've had in 16 years of living here.

The pendulum swung the other way in September, and between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30 about 425 millimeters of rain — nearly 17 inches — fell from the skies. That's about three times what we would normally expect. The rain, however, was just one aspect of the change in the weather. The other was the near constant darkness — after months of blue skies, we lived through months of gloom, even as the hours of daylight got shorter and shorter because winter was approaching.

Autumn is the season when not only rain but also leaves come falling down. In October and November, there wasn't much we could do but watch the leaves fall and accumulate. It was just too wet for us go out and get them up off the ground. A major part of living the life in Saint-Aignan is taking care of the house and garden. It's hard work for people our age, but it can be very satisfying.

Now, finally, in December, we've been able to clean up a little bit. Our house is surrounded by river-rock gravel driveways and pathways, and when leaves rot on the gravel they turn it a dark color that is almost depressing — not to mention neglected-looking.

The trees that drop the most leaves are two big maples out front, and a big linden tree out back. We got all those leaves that were on the gravel driveway and the gravel path moved yesterday. We raked them up and packed them into "garbage toters" — "wheelie bins" — and hauled them out back to dump them on our vegetable garden plot.

The leaves that are covering the grass under the linden will probably just have to stay there for the winter. Come spring, when the growing season starts up again, the lawn mower will turn them into mulch that will be good fertilizer. I'll till the leaves we dumped on the vegetable garden plot into the soil in the spring to enrich the garden for the 2020 season.

Here's what the linden tree looks like now.

Compare the photo above to how the tree looked in this photo I took on November 19. All those leaves came down all of a sudden.

P.S. I just heard on the weather report that the rains are predicted to return starting this weekend.

04 December 2019

Des légumes et du fromage

It's very cold this morning — freezing, which is 0ºC, near the house, and that means it's probably several degrees colder out in the vineyard. It's my day to do the morning walk, and then today is the day we've picking for raking leaves. It will be frosty work. We need to get it done before the rains return.

Meanwhile, yesterday I went shopping in Saint-Aignan's newest grocery store. It's basically a big produce market stocked with local products. It also has a selection of meats, cheeses, and wines. That's my kind of place. I bought celery (stalks), flat green beans, red onions, escarole for salad, and a cucumber we'll use to make raïta yogurt sauce to have with the rest of the lamb curry at lunchtime. I also picked up some saucisses de Toulouse and some jambon blanc cut into cubes I can use like smoked pork lardons. And a couple of local cheeses, pictured here.

One of the cheeses, the square one, is a goat cheese called un pavé de Betz, and it's made with raw (unpasteurized) goat's milk. The other is called un Neuville, a cow's milk cheese (the round one) made from pasteurized milk. The goat's milk cheese has a light coating of ash, which is a common coating for goat cheeses around here. The cow's milk cheese is coated with cracked black peppercorns. Both are really good — you'll notice that I cut into them yesterday afternoon.

Both cheeses come from towns that are within 30 or 40 miles from Saint-Aignan. One, Betz-le-Château, is southwest of us, and the other, Montoire-sur-le-Loir, is to the northwest. I took close-up photos of the cheeses to show what the cheese really looks like. Above is the Neuville, and below is the pavé de Betz. Sorry you can't have tastes of each...

I would love it if somebody could tell me how Betz in pronounced locally — is it [beh]? Or [bess]? Or just like it look: [betz]? There's a town north of Paris named Betz, and it's pronounced [beh] according to one of my dictionaries. And then there's the city of Metz, where I worked as a teacher for a year way back when, and it's pronounced [mess].

03 December 2019

The last of the lamb...

...will be lunch tomorrow. We already enjoyed part of it on Sunday. To turn the rest of our Thanksgiving lamb into a curry, first I had to take the remaining meat off the leg bones and cut it into cubes. It turned out that there was about 750 grams — 1½ lbs. — of lean meat left after I trimmed away most of the fat and skin.

Here's one way to make the curry. First, slice up a couple of onions and sauté the slices in vegetable oil until the onion starts to turn a golden brown color. At that point, take it out of the pan and let it cool. Then puree the onion using a blender or stick blender.

During that time, peel and slice a couple of garlic cloves and a couple of pieces of ginger root. Put those in a blender (or a container you can use a slick blender in) and add about half to three-quarters of a cup (120 to 180 milliliters) of tomato paste. Puree that mixture thoroughly as well.

Put the onion puree back in the pan and let it brown a little more. Then add the tomato mixture and the curry spices to your taste — a few tablespoons of garam massala along with some hot curry powder. Taste the mixture and season it with other spices as you like it (don't forget salt and pepper). I added in a couple of bay leaves.

When the curry "gravy" is tasty, add in the lamb or other meat or vegetables (I used potatoes) and let it cook until the meat is tender — an hour or so. Add water to the gravy as needed to make it as thick or thin as you want.

Since we had potatoes in the curry, we didn't eat it with rice on Sunday. We did have some of the gravy spooned over steamed broccoli alongside the lamb and potatoes. That's a corn muffin on the plate too. Tomorrow, we'll serve up the rest of the curry with some steamed rice.

02 December 2019

Pulled duck and Scott's BBQ sauce

Our Thanksgiving weekend cooking spree has come to an end. ("Spree" is a funny word — it means "a period or outburst of extreme activity" according to one dictionary.) Anyway, la fête à la cuisine lasted five days. Pumpkin pie, roast leg of lamb, slow-cooked duck legs, broccoli and potatoes with home-made mayonnaise, corn muffins, lamb curry, and "pulled duck" barbecue were some of the results. It's what we do when lousy winter weather settles over the region.(According to Accuweather, be got nearly 160 millimeters of rain in November (about six inches, three times the average).
Here's what pulled duck (on the pulled pork model) looks like. Pulled meats are a North Carolina specialty, and in a way they are like French rillettes (potted pork) but with less grease and more spice. You eat pulled pork, turkey, or duck hot, on your plate or on a petit pain (a bun, as in "hamburger bun") as a sandwich. In France, rillettes are spread cold on French bread — a slice of baguette or pain de campagne, toasted or not.

The sauce you add as the seasoning for pulled meats, at least in eastern North Carolina, is a vinegar & hot pepper concoction. Don't get the idea that the meat ends up tasting pickled — you don't put that much on. Other concoctions based on vinegar are mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and of course vinaigrette. Those sauces don't taste "pickled" any more than pulled meat à la carolinienne does. The pulled meats do taste spicy, however, and they are not served dry but slightly moistened and tender.

To make our pulled duck barbecue, I put chunks of slow-cooked duck in a frying pan and sprinkled on some Scott's BBQ sauce. I mashed the lumps of meat with a wooden spatula so that they would end up shredded into strands — falling apart — and brown slightly. That way, the sauce and spicy heat spread all through the meat. The ingredients in Scott's BBQ sauce are "vinegar, water, salt, peppers, and spices" — it's a patented mixture invented by a man named Adam Scott between 1917 and 1920 in Goldsboro, North Carolina, as a seasoning for pit-cooked pork.

The late Mr. Scott's BBQ restaurant closed down some years ago, but the sauce is still made by his descendants and sold on-line in in many North Carolina supermarkets. I bring it back from my trips to N.C. That said, it's not hard to reproduce. Notice that it contains both vinegar and water. You don't want it to be too acidic. And you don't put sugar in it, as you do to make most other American BBQ sauces. (In western North Carolina, people make a BBQ sauce with ketchup, or sometimes tomato paste, in it. It's sweet and not to the eastern half of the state's taste. In South Carolina, they put sweet mustard in their barbecue sauce.)

We ate our pulled pork with some of the beans we had cooked and seasoned to have with our roast leg of lamb. I added two things to the beans — some duck fat and some peppers (sweet yellow and hot red). The beans were French flageolets and some of our garden-grown haricots verts, and they were also good with some of Adam Scott's BBQ sauce sprinkled on them. This is not fancy food, but it is full of flavor.

01 December 2019

Le gigot de Thanksgiving : le lendemain

Most years, Walt and I cook a gigot d'agneau (leg of lamb) just once a year here in France. Back in California we did the same, and we made it into our alternative Thanksgiving dinner decades ago. Why? Just because it was an occasion for us to cook lamb the way we remembered eating it in France in the 1980s. It's the same with Easter — we cook a rabbit at Easter because we missed eating rabbit after we moved back to the States. It became "a thing" we enjoyed doing.

We enjoy the Christmas turkey or capon more when we haven't already gorged on poultry in late November. So on Thanksgiving weekend we have three or four meals of lamb prepared and served in different ways — hot, fresh out of the oven, with beans — cold the next day, with steamed broccoli, steamed potatoes, and home-made mayonnaise — and finally, cooked into a curry or a shepherd's pie to use up the leftovers. My plan is to make a lamb curry today. That will be a good way to celebrate December 1. The weather is supposed to turn cold over the next few days.

P.S. (medical update): The big toe that I jammed when I fell on our slippery wooden stairs
a couple of weeks ago is healing nicely. I'd say it's about 90% of the way there.
I can still feel the sprain, and there's still a little swelling,
but it's not really painful any more.