31 December 2020

La porte Saint-Denis à Paris

Last week I posted about the porte Saint-Martin on the grands boulevards on the right bank in Paris. Just a little farther west on the boulevards stands another, even grander old triumpnal arch, la porte Saint-Denis. For three years, 1979 to 1982, I lived just a 10 minute walk from there, and just a few hundred feet from the rue Saint-Denis, which back then, at least, had a pretty bad reputation as a street where a lot of prostitutes worked the sidewalks. I think it still does. See this YouTube video from last April.

L'arc de triomphe de la porte Saint-Denis was built in 1672 to celebrate the military victories of king Louis XIV.

This one is the fifth such arch that has stood on the rue Saint-Denis over the centuries, each farther north than the last as Paris grew bigger and bigger.

The street is the old road that joined Paris and the town of Saint-Denis farther north. The church there, a basilica, was the traditional burial place for French monarchs.

I really enjoyed living in this neighborhood. It's in the center of Paris, and I could easily walk to the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Marais and even the Latin Quarter. I lived just a few steps off the rue Montorgueil, a long and, back then, very picturesque, old-fashioned market street. Walking up the five or six flights of stairs to get to my apartment was harder than walking to the places I just mentioned, but hey — I was 40 years younger then.

I took this last photo about 15 minutes after I took the one above it. I was walking west and took it at the corner of the boulevard Haussmann and the rue Chauchat. That's the Sacré Coeur basilica on top of the Butte Montmartre that you can see in the distance.

30 December 2020

Paris in springtime... and mussels in winter

April in Paris... with any luck, the weather is beautiful, after the sudden downpours of cold rain (giboulées) and chilly winds of March. Imagine you are walking around the center of Paris, just enjoying the lights and the sights.

Twenty-twenty is winding down fast now. For New Year's Eve, tomorrow, we're planning to make a big pot of moules marinière for our celebratory dinner. Here's a link to a 2019 blog post about cooking moules this way. Walt will be going down to the holiday market in Saint-Aignan to buy some. [Actually, there were none to be had, so we have to postpone our mussels meal.]

Moules (à la) marinière are fresh, well-washed, and de-bearded mussels in their shells that are cooked with onions and herbs (celery, bay leaf...) in butter and white wine. Put in lots of black pepper, but there's no need for extra salt. The moules themselves are salty. They're done as soon as the shells have opened up. Lift them out of their broth with a slotted spoon so that any sand that was in them will stay in the bottom of the pot. Pour the liquid off carefully, leaving the sediment in the pot. Eat some of the liquid as soup or dip the mussels in it. Make a batch of french-fried potatoes to have with them.

29 December 2020

Paree-by-night (2)

Three of these photos are looking downstream from the Île de la Cité toward the Eiffel Tower. One was taken when the tower was lit up with sparkling lights. The dome on the left in those photos is the Institut, where different French académies, including the Académie Française, meet and do their work. I took these phtos in April 2006, while we were spending a week in Paris. We were lucky — the weather was beautiful.

Have I already mentioned that both my cars passed their 2020 contrôle technique inspection? French cars that are more than four years old have to be inspected every other year. It's a rigorous test to detect safety and emissions issues and costs about $80 per vehicle. The inspection stations are government-licensed and don't do repairs, just inspection, so there is no conflict of interests.

My Peugeot 206 is 20 years old and has 190,000 kilometers (close to 120,000 miles) on its odometer. My Citroën C4 is 12 years old and has 100,000 kilometers (about 60,000 miles) on its compteur. We put about 3,000 miles (5,000 km) on the Citroën between December 2018 and now. The mileage was was really low in part because we had to cancel two week-long road trips in 2020 because of Covid-19 confinements. We didn't put many more miles than that on the Peugeot either. We just use it for running errands and doing grocery shopping within 20 miles of home. It would be almost impossible to live here without a car — just as it would be almost impossible to live in Paris with a car nowadays.

28 December 2020

Gratin d'endives au jambon, sauce tomate

I bought some endives [ã-deev] last week, thinking we might eat them as salad with ranch dressing or thousand island dressing. They're good served as salad with the kinds of dressings that are good with iceberg lettuce, and are a nice change. But instead we ended up making salads of leaf lettuce (batavia in French) and vinaigrette to have with our cheese fondue on Christmas eve and our oven-roasted guinea-fowl capon on Christmas day — not to mention the leftovers. What was I going to do with those Belgian endives? That's what we call them in the U.S., where they are not all that commonly cooked or served. They're a wintertime staple in France.

Instead of letting the endives go to waste, I figured cooking them was the best way to eat or preserve them. They can be frozen once they are cooked. The best way to cook them is to brown them lightly in a skillet in either butter or olive oil with garlic and then braise them in white wine until they're tender. Adding aspoonful of lemon juice or white wine vinegar to the wine gives the endives some tang and cuts their bitterness. Here's a link to a blog post that will lead you to a detailed recipe. Then it dawned on me that I might cook the braised endives in a casserole with tomato sauce instead of the cheese sauce that I usually make to bake them in. After the cheese fondue on Friday, we didn't need more cheese sauce. So tomato sauce it was, and it was delicious. Here's a short slide show.

These days it's hard to invent anything in the kitchen. Everything you can possibly think of is already in a cookbook or on the internet. And that was the case here. I found French recipes for endives in tomato sauce on the 'net, and this morning I found a recipe in English on a blog, based on a recipe in a book about French cooking. It's here. It says to braise the endives in water, but I can tell you they're better cooked in white wine. Then you can reduce the braising liquid and add it to your tomato sauce, which can be store-bought or home-made.

27 December 2020


We in northern France and people in England are having some rough weather this morning. Sky News reports 80 mph winds on the English coast, and here in the Loire Valley the winds are getting really gusty too. We are supposed to have gusts up 55 to 60 mph and about an inch of rain today. It's good that we don't have to go anywhere. I'll just post some nighttime photos I took in Paris, around the Île de la Cité, in early April 2006. We were spending a week in the city for the first time in four years, after leaving California to move to France in 2003.

I took these photos with a Canon Pro90 IS camera that I bought in 2002. And I've cropped and otherwise edited them using Photoshop. I really do hope to go back to Paris one day...

26 December 2020

The Christmas capon feast

I think we are in a rut, but it's a happy rut. We seem to have pretty much the exact same Christmas dinner every year. I guess everybody does. Oh, sometimes it's a turkey, sometimes it's a chicken capon, and sometimes it's a Guinea hen — or a Guinea fowl capon, as it was yesterday. Then it's cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts, winter squash puree, and a stuffing or dressing of some kind. I also think our table was really overloaded yesterday. Here it is:

In the background, on the cake stand, you can see the applesauce cake Walt made yesterday morning, with pecans.

Here's how the chapon de pintade — a Guinea fowl capon, which is a specially fattened bird. I didn't oil or butter the skin at all; it had enough fat under it to keep the meat moist. I didn't stuff the bird except for putting a shallot, a garlic clove, and a cut-up celery stalk inside.

This is the cranberry sauce Walt makes with dried cranberries and orange peel — it's sweet and tart at the same time.

 This is a dressing, which is a stuffing that is cooked separately from the bird rather than inside it. It's made with sausage meat, duck liver plus the liver of the capon, cubes of bread, shallot, onion, garlic, pecans, and dried cranberries "rehydrated" in cognac. It's a kind of terrine that's served warm...

And last but not least — we both love them —Brussels sprouts trimmed and then steamed, cut in half, and sautéed in butter with a little bit of flour sprinkled on them to give them a crunchy crust. Pan-roasted, I guess you could call them.

25 December 2020

Joyeuse fondue et bonne pintade

Our regularly scheduled programming is being interrupted by the holiday. It's Christmas where I am, and it might be Noël where you are when you read this. I hope you will have or are having a merry one, despite lockdowns, confinements, Brexit, pandemics, and presidential pardons. Stay well and stay safe. Maybe we'll all be vaccinated by next summer and things will get better.

Meanwhile, life goes on at the domestic and kitchen levels. Yesterday we made our Christmas Eve fondue savoyarde and a big green salad with garlicky vinaigrette. Here are the cheses that went into a pot of simmering white wine to melt into fondue. Maybe Walt will post a picture of the finished fondue. This year's was one of the best in recent memory, in part because of the cheeses we used.

Starting on the left in the picture above the cheeses were Comté, Beaufort (upper right), and Abondance (lower right). All are what we Americans call "Swiss" cheeses but these are French, and all are AOP (the European label of quality) so are guaranteed to be authentic and made according to strict, time-tested criteria and standards having to do with where the milk comes from, from what breeds of cattle, and how long the cheeses are aged.

  • Comté cheese is made in the 4,600 sq. mile Franche-Comté region in eastern France, which shares a long border with Switzerland. Annual production is more than 60,000 tons, more than for any other French cheese.

  • Abondance cheese is made in a 1,350 sq. mile area centered on the Haute-Savoie département in the Alps, a part of France that's east and south of the Swiss city of Geneva. Annual production of Abondance cheese is smaller, coming to about 3,000 tons.

  • Beaufort cheese is made in a 1,550 sq. mile area in the Savoie département, in the Alps just south of the Haute-Savoie. Annual production is just over 5,000 tons.

The other ingredients in this kind of fondue are white wine, garlic, kirschwasser (cherry brandy), and corn or potato starch as a thickener, seasoned with black pepper and grated nutmeg. We eat it with cubed French bread and fresh apple also cut into cubes. Our version is 500 grams (just over a pound) of cheese, once cup of white wine, and small amounts of the other ingredients. We put in about 150 grams each of Abondance and Beaufort, along with 200 grams of Comté.

This morning Walt is making an applesauce cake for our Christmas and weekend dessert enjoyment. And we'll be putting this guinea-fowl capon (the chapon de pintade above) on the rotisserie in the oven around 10 a.m.for 2 to 2½ hours. We'll have it with giblet gravy, bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, steamed Brussels sprouts, and pureed pumpkin as our Christmas dinner at noontime.

24 December 2020

More about the Arts-et-Métiers neighborhood

Today is cheese fondue day at our house. It's another tradition that goes back to when we lived in San Francisco. Maybe I'll take some pictures. Making a dish like fondue, which you don't tend to prepare very often, into something like a Christmas eve tradition means it doesn't get lost in the mealtime shuffle. It ensures you will have it at least once a year. We have three cheeses for the fondue (c'est une fondue savoyarde en français): Beaufort, Abondance, and Comté. All are examples of what we just call Swiss cheese in America. Meanwhile, here are some more photos I took in the neighborhood around the Musée des Arts et Métiers ("arts and trades") in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris.

This is one restaurant on the rue du Vertbois ("greenwood") that I wanted to try but didn't get around to it. It's a place that specializes in Moroccan couscous. We make our own version of that, and there's a couscous restaurant in CHM's neighborhood where we've had good lunches many times. Here's a link to Alain's menu.

I also wouldn't have minded trying the nearby Bistro de la Gaîté. It serves both French and Italian specialties, including pasta dishes and salades composées. Here's a menu.

Above is the corner of the rue du Vertbois and the rue St-Martin, just steps from where our studio apartment was located. This is the Musée des Arts et Métiers. That corner tower dates back to the 13th century, according to a book I have (Connaissance du Vieux Paris by Jacques Hillairet, 1951). He writes that the rue du Vertbois was built in the 16th century and was probably named after a patch of leafy woods that used to stand there and belonged to the nearby Saint-Martin-des-Champs priory (church), dating back to the 12th century. He says that all the houses along the even-numbered side of the street are very old.

This neighborhood, called the Quartier des Arts-et-Métiers, is not very green any more. It's less than one-third of a square kilometer of territory (about 77 acres) is home to nearly ten thousand residents. That would work out to about 79,000 people per square mile, a density that is about 50% higher than the density of the city of Paris overall (if my calculations are reliable). Anyway, it's a pretty crowded and diverse neighborhood. The sign above is for a kosher caterer.

At the intersection of the rue St-Martin and the boulevard St-Martin just a few blocks up the street from the Musée des Arts et Métiers, facing the triumphal arch called the Porte St-Martin, is the Théâtre de la Renaissance, which I don't think I had ever heard of before. Apparently, there are about 150 theaters in Paris. The building dates back to about 1875 and the theater seats an audience of 650. Sarah Bernhardt ran it in the 1890s. The theater specializes in comedies and comics these days.

23 December 2020

Je retourne à Paris

I am so enjoying looking at and re-processing photos I took in Paris in March and April 2006 that I can't stop now. That's why I say I'm returning to Paris — it's virtual. The first photo below shows a train like the ones that run on the line that passes through the Saint-Aignan area, taking passengers from Tours all the way to Lyon. We took one like this but changed in the nearby town of Vierzon to get to to catch a train on the north-south line that goes to Paris...

In my recent post about the studio apartment we rented for a week in Paris in 2006, I mentioned the advantages of staying in an apartment. One is that you can go to a boulangerie and bring back baguettes and croissants for breakfast in your own place. Here's a boulangerie that was just a few steps up the rue du Vertbois, where we were staying.

There were half a dozen restaurants within easy walking distance too. We didn't eat in many or any of them, though, because were spending time walking through other parts of the city, meeting up at lunchtime and dinnertime with our friend from California who happened to be in town too. I just saw on the internet that Le Clos du Vert Bois has gone out of business....

The restaurant called Chez l'ami Louis (below) is a very famous one, but we didn't eat there either. It seemed too expensive. Web sites that review restaurants say its prices are $$$$ (or €€€€) — too rich for my blood. I remember a TV news report about Brad Pitt and some of his movie star friends — maybe George Clooney — having dinner there a few years ago. I've also seen it called le dernier vrai bistrot à Paris. Maybe it would be worth trying it one day.

Our studio apartment was just around the corner from the triumphal arch below that's called La Porte Saint-Martin. It's located at the intersection of the rue Saint-Martin and one of the so-called grands boulevards where there are many restaurants, cafés, and theaters. Louis XIV had it thrown up there a few centuries ago.

I'll be headed to the special holiday market in Saint-Aignan this morning to pick up a chapon de pintade (guinea fowl capon) that we've ordered for our Christmas dinner on Friday. I'm hoping it doesn't start raining, but rain is what the forecast for today shows. Yuck.

22 December 2020

Le traditionnel steak au poivre

Yesterday was Walt's birthday. We made his traditional birthday dinner: steak au poivre et pommes frites, with a big green salad dressed with vinaigrette. The first time Walt had steak au poivre, he's told me, was in a restaurant on his birthday in 1981 when he happened to be in Antibes, or maybe Nice, in the south of France sur la Côte d'Azur. Memories blur. The second time he had that dinner for his birthday was with me, in Arlington, Virginia, on his birthday in 1982. We cooked it at his apartment. And we've cooked it for his birthday every year since then. That would be 38 times.

This kind of steak au poivre is made with crushed black pepper (poivre noir concassé) and a cream sauce with Cognac or Calvados (apple brandy from Normandy) and veal or beef broth in it, along with small amounts of Dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce. The first step is to coat the steak in crushed pepper, let it "marinate" for an hour or two, and then sear it in a hot frying pan.

Transfer the seared steak to a warming oven and make the sauce in the same pan, de-glazing it with Cognac or Calva, adding a good amount of cream plus the other ingredients. Put the steak back in the pan with the sauce and let it all warm through, but don't let it boil or cook too long. You want the steak rare or maybe medium rare. This year we cooked a thick slice of faux-filet from Limousin cattle (raised a couple of hours south of Saint-Aignan) that we got in a local butcher's shop. Faux-filet is sirloin, I believe. And it's good — especially with the sauce. Here's a page in French about steak names in France and in the U.S.

21 December 2020

A studio apartment in Paris

After arriving here and getting moved into our new house in 2003, we went three years without staying in another gîte. It wasn't that we didn't travel a little bit, but we stayed in hotels. In February 2004, we drove down to Madrid (it was a real adventure involving a snowstorm!) to see our friend Sue, who was spending 4 or 5 months there studying Spanish. We went with the dog, and we booked a room in a French hotel (Novotel) because French hotels usually welcome dogs while, if I understand correctly, Spanish hotels do not.

In June 2004 I drove up to Normandy because CHM and his partner Frank were up there, in Carteret near Cherbourg, visiting a friend. I drove them back to Saint-Aignan for a two-week stay, and then I drove them to Paris. I can't remember if I stayed overnight in Paris or just turned around and drove back home. Maybe CHM remembers.

In March 2006, Walt and I rented a studio apartment in Paris and went to spend a week there, wandering the streets and eating in restaurants. A friend from California happened to be there at the same time, so we shared lunches and dinners with her. The pictures here show the place we stayed in.

It was a fine apartment. Actually, I think it looks better in these photos than it did in reality. The exterior of the building was fairly grim. The shutters had to stay shut all the time because the windows were at street level and it wasn't comfortable to feel like you were on display. At least there weren't several flights of steep, narrow stairs to climb.

The apartment was small but comfortable, very clean, and not expensive. Above, you can see a sofa that folds out into a kind of sofa-bed. It's what's called a clic-clac because, I think, of the sound it makes when you fold it out and it locks into place. I remember it as being fairly comfortable, and it was convenient in such a small studio apartment.

It's nice when you're in Paris to have a kitchen and a dining-room set, even if you don't do a lot of elaborate cooking. You can buy salads and pâtés, for example, in charcuterie shops, so it's good to have a refrigerator. You can also buy prepared dishes that just need re-heating. And in the morning you can make your own coffee or tea and then run out to a boulangerie and bring back croissants and fresh bread for breakfast in the apartment.

It's also nice to have a private bathroom even if it is not very spacious. There was a tub with a shower and plenty of hot water. Still, one thing that would have made the apartment much more comfortable and pleasant would have been some pull-up shades on the windows. Then you could have pull them up for privacy, so that passersby couldn't easily see in, but leave them open at the top to let in some sunlight in the morning. Across the street there were no apartment buildings, just the Musée des Arts-et-Métiers.

20 December 2020


It was nearly a month after we started living in the house in France that our shipping container full of furniture and assorted belongings arrived. It had traveled from San Francisco to Le Havre on a ship, and then from Le Havre to Saint-Aignan on a truck. The movers unpacked a lot of things and put them in the living room, and they left a lot of boxes in the garage. We had to figure out where we'd put everything. Here's a short slideshow:


We were still camping in the house, but we had a functional kitchen. We had bought a washer and dryer. It was July 2003 and the weather was hot and sunny — it was the summer of the great heat wave or canicule in France. Of course, you need to be sure you're eating well to keep your strength up when you have so much unpacking and furniture-moving to do.

19 December 2020

The place we were cleaning

While we were staying in the gîte in Thésée, we were spending a lot of time in our house just outside Saint-Aignan clearing out and cleaning the place. We also had to go to Blois to buy appliances — the only ones in the house were a water heater and a furnace. We wanted to get a refrigerator and a stove as soon as possible, and we were soon going to need a washing machine, since there are no laundromats in the Saint-Aignan area. Here are a few photos of the inside of the house we had bought and where, 18 years later, we still live. I'm sparing you photos of all the junk and clutter we had to carry out of the house over the first few days and weeks.

The pictures above and below show one of our houses nice features: the big living room. It would be even better if we had a separate dining room, but we don't. So this is our living/dining room. It measures nearly 40 m² (more than 25 x 15 feet, and has a big north-facing window as well as a wide east-facing glass door leading out to a deck (terrasse in French). The floor is tiled, and it was badly in need of cleaning when we got here in 2003.

In the photo above, you can see the kitchen on the left and a big landing/hallway on the right. The main living area in the house is on what we'd call the second floor in American English. Downstairs are an entry hall, a big utility room, a pantry, and a large garage. Below, you can see how we had the living room furnishe for about a month until our shipping container arrived from California in July 2003.

Above is the kitchen. We've painted these rooms over the years — in fact, we've painted every room in the house, including the 60 m² loft space created when we had the unfinished attic converted into living space in 2010. The kitchen came with a built-in hood for the stove but no fan. We had one put it. So far, we've kept the white tile on the kitchen walls. We were very happy when we realized that those blue motifs on some the tiles around the edges were just decals that were easy to scrape off. We've also kept the cabinets and sink in the kitchen.

One urgent task was to get the yard back under control (see below). The closing on the house took place by proxy — the notary and real estate agent signed the papers for us so we didn't have to make another special trip from California to France — on April 24. We woman who sold us the house stopped her gardening service, so the grass had grown tall. It was continuing to grow, and would become a bigger and bigger problem the longer we let it go. We went out and bought a weed-eater and a lawnmower. Walt spent several days cutting the grass while I scrubbed floors, walls, and windows in the house.

The front porch/deck/patio or terrasse (below) was a problem. It had been covered with astroturf-style outdoor carpeting that was soaking wet when we got here. There were also a lot of sheets of rotting plywood laid down on top of the carpet — who knows why. We had to pull in all up and haul it to the dump after we let it dry out. The black adhesive under it was not sticky or dusty, so we could use the deck until September, when we had the whole deck redone in ceramic tile. We're planning to have it re-tiled this winter because it still needs repair and improvement. It's also an important feature of the house for us.