29 February 2020

La fin de février

So February ends as it began — dark and rainy. And very windy. But not cold. This will probably be the warmest February ever recorded in northern France. And probably one of the dampest. We've been housebound for days at a time, except for walks with the dog, rain or shine. We've tried to take advantage of every dry day.

Walt took an unexpected trip to Upstate New York in the middle of the month because of death in his family. That made me remember my impromptu trip to North Carolina in February 2018, when it became obvious that my mother was not going to survive cancer. In many ways, February is the cruelest month. Now comes March, with my 71st birthday and all the wind and cold rain or sleet that March usually brings. But springtime is the light shining at the end of the tunnel.

28 February 2020

Croque et frites

Here's what the Grand Larousse Electronique (© 2007) food and cooking
encyclopedia says about the French sandwich called un croque-monsieur:

Sandwich chaud, formé de deux tranches de pain de mie beurrées, garnies de lamelles de gruyère et d'une tranche de jambon maigre. Le croque-monsieur est doré sur les deux faces, soit dans une poêle, avec du beurre, soit sous le gril.*

On peut napper le dessus d'une béchamel au gruyère et faire gratiner, ou remplacer le jambon par du blanc de volaille, le gruyère par du gouda, ou même ajouter une rondelle de tomate, voire d'ananas.**

Le premier croque-monsieur fut servi en 1910 dans un café du boulevard des Capucines, à Paris. Resté une préparation typique des cafés, brasseries et snacks, il constitue aussi une entrée ou un hors-d'oeuvre chaud.***

We ate our lunchtime croque-monsieur sandwiches with home-made French fries yesterday.

French Wikipédia adds:

L'origine du mot reste [...] inconnue, même si certains avancent plusieurs théories, la plus répandue étant que le bistrotier du café ait lancé, sous forme de boutade, que la viande à l'intérieur du sandwich était de la chair humaine.****

* A hot sandwich made with two slices of buttered loaf bread garnished with thin slices of Gruyère cheese and a slice of lean ham. The sandwich is browned on both sides, either in a frying pan or on a griddle.

** On the top of the sandwich is sometimes spread with a béchamel sauce made with Gruyère and browned in the oven. Sometimes the slice of ham is replaced by sliced white meat of chicken, the Gruyere by Gouda cheese. You can even add a slice of tomato or of pineapple.

*** The first such sandwich was served in 1910 in a café on the boulevard near the Paris Opera. It has remained a sandwich typically served in cafés and snack bars, and can also be served as a hot hors-d'oeuvre or first course.

**** The origine of the name croque-monsieur (croquer means to bite into something crunchy, and monsieur means man of course) is unknown, though people have offered various theories. The most widespread explanation is that the café-owner who invented the sandwich might have joked that the meat inside the sandwich was not ham but human flesh.

27 February 2020

Gratin de chou-fleur aux lardons

Cauliflower au gratin is so good that it's a shame not to make it whenever you can find nice cauliflower at a good price. I made this one with French lardons fumés (diced smoked pork belly) but you could use diced ham or even something like smoked turkey or chicken for good flavor. This was our lunch yesterday, and we ate almost the whole thing. I had bought a beautiful chou-fleur at the supermarket for two euros.

Cut or break the cauliflower into florets and pre-cook them in boiling water or in a steamer pot until they are just tender. Sauté the lardons, ham, or poultry with a little bit of oil or butter. Then, separately, make a sauce béchamel. That's a white sauce made with butter, flour, and milk. Add cream for a richer sauce. Make the sauce fairly thick or fairly liquid, to taste. Season the sauce with black pepper, a grating or pinch of nutmeg, and a little bit of salt.

Arrange the cooked cauliflower florets in a baking dish. Pour the sauce over them. Grate about three-fourths of a cup of Swiss or Cheddar cheese. You can add some of the cheese to the sauce, or just sprinkle it over the cauliflower and lardons before you pour on the white sauce. Save a third or so of the grated cheese to sprinkle on top of the sauce. Bake the gratin de chou-fleur in a hot oven for 20 to 30 minutes until the sauce is bubbling and starting to brown on top. Serve hot!

26 February 2020

Seeking sequoias

Ten days ago when I drove through the area between our house and Saint-Aignan that's called Saint-André (that's a local place name or lieu-dit in French), I thought I had found the giant sequoia that supposedly grows near here. Then I looked up the place on Google Maps street view, and this is what I saw.

Photo credit: Google Maps Street View
[the other four photos here are mine]

It seemed to me that the tallest tree in this grove could be the sequoia. I happen to know that there is a dirt road that runs parallel to the paved river road between our hamlet and Saint-Aignan, and that it passes close to the grove of trees I wanted to examine. Those trees stand on a steep embankment, at the edge of a field. I wanted to see the grove from behind it compared to where the main road passes below.

Since it was threatening to rain Sunday morning, I thought I'd better drive over there. That meant driving on a muddy dirt track through fields for about a kilometer (more than half a mile). I hoped the Peugeot was up to the task. Maybe, I thought, I can drive down that steep slope and get onto the main road (I was on the way to the supermarket). I wasn't confident I could drive up the slope, however; I could probably coast down. It looked pretty rutty and muddy from below.

And I made it. It was slow going, and the car was slipping and sliding. I enjoyed some good views out over the Cher river valley (there's a big grain silo on the other side of the river). And I got close to the stand of trees. They grow so thickly that I couldn't really see the individual tree trunks, and I had hoped that seeing the trunk would let me identify the sequoia. In other words, I couldn't identify it.

The French giant sequoia inventory says there is a sequoia at the place called Saint-André in Saint-Aignan. This place called Saint-André is not actually in Saint-Aignan, officially, but in the village we live in. The border between Saint-Aignan and our village is right there, so it might be a close call. Maybe there's another place called Saint-André in another part of Saint-Aignan — I have to look into that.

25 February 2020

Le pain de mie de Mme Child

Pain de mie. Sandwich bread. I hadn't made any for quite a while. Months. I decided to make a loaf yesterday.
I looked back at several recipes that I had saved, but none of them appealed to me. So I went to the internet
to see if I could find something new. Or old. Just something that sounded good.

What I came up with was this: Julia Child's White Sandwich Bread. I liked the fact that it had just water in it — no milk. I decided to follow the recipe and put some sugar in the dough. Deviating from the recipe, I used fresh baker's yeast, and I substituted vegetable oil (olive and sunflower mixed) for the soft butter that Julia Child put in her bread dough.

This is a loaf that cooked in what is called a "Pullman" bread pan — the one I use measures, in inches, 8 x 4½ x 4½ (about 20.3 x 11.5 x 11.5 in centimeters). Pullman pans come in many sizes. They're deep, with vertically straight sides and a tight-fitting lid that slides and locks onto the rolled edges of the pan. Mine has non-stick interior surfaces. After I made and kneaded the dough, I rolled into a log shape and just dusted it with flour before I dropped it in the pan to rise.

About 90 minutes later, the dough had risen to completely fill the pan. It wasn't easy to get the lid off because the soft dough was sort of stuck to it, but I managed to slide it off anyway. I punched the dough down just a little, slid the lid back on, and put pan in the oven at 375ºF (190ºC). Because the pan has a lid, the resulting loaf has a square profile, with a flat rather than rounded top, and is fairly dense.

Julia Child's recipe, at least the version I found, calls for making two loaves out of this amount of dough (700 to 750 grams of flour + 600 milliliters of water) but I decided to make just one. I wanted a dense loaf that would be good sliced and toasted. And that would make a good grilled ham and cheese sandwich that's called un croque-monsieur in France. I'm pretty happy with the result. There's a link to the recipe in the second paragraph, above. The Pullman pan is optional.

24 February 2020

Mon prunier

This is a plum tree, un prunier, that I planted a decade ago here in Saint-Aignan. You can see what it (or they, because there are two of them planted together) looked like in their clay pots back in 2010. Here's what it looked like yesterday. I grew the two tress from plum pits, and just planted the of them as if they were one.

So many fruit trees are flowering right now. It's too early, but you can't stop them. The danger is that we have heavy frost or a freeze before springtime really arrives and we won't get any fruit. That happened last year, if I remember correctly. The few prunes that survived were half-eaten by birds as soon as they were ripe.

It doesn't matter, because the plum tree is an ornamental first of all. It blooms early, usually in March, and adds some color to the landscape. Above you can see it the way we see it right now from a back window of the house. Below too.

Finally, below is a close-up of some of the blossoms, which have a plummy color. Last year I made plum jelly, and I always make too much. We still have a lot of it on hand. Neither one of us eats big breakfasts, or enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to use up all that much plum jelly.

Yesterday morning, the rain that was predicted didn't materialize, so I went looking for our local giant sequoia tree. I didn't really find it. I took a lot of pictures though, and I haven't yet had a chance to process them. You'd think a giant sequoia would just jump out you if it was in a photo, but I haven't really identified it yet.

23 February 2020

The Sequoia, the Hamlet, and the Vineyard

I've been sitting here for the last 90 minutes looking at Google Maps and Google Earth. On the site with a list of the thousands of giant sequoia trees in France, one is listed as being in Saint-Aignan and another in our village, which borders on Saint-Aignan. I think that the same tree has been listed twice — there's just one, and I can see it on Google Maps street view. It seems to be mostly hidden by trees all around it, but it is taller than those other trees. I'll try to go take a photo on the next clear day we have.

In this image, north is on the left and south is on the right.

Meanwhile, while looking at Maps and Earth, I captured these images of our hamlet and the vineyard that we live in. There are nine houses in the hamlet — you can count them. You can clearly see our back yard, our hedge along the road, and our vegetable garden in, basically, the center of the image. The paved road ends at the western edge of our hamlet and the gravel road continues out through the vines.

And here's a map that shows the vineyard, with our hamlet on the right side of the image and on the left side the end of the gravel road that runs through the vines. The distance from the hamlet to the end of the road is just over a kilometer — about four thousand feet. There are two other hamlets in the image, one to the north and one to the south, both on paved roads that meet the end of the gravel vineyard road. Enlarge the maps by clicking or tapping on them for a more detailed view.

22 February 2020

Sequoias at the Château de Cheverny

There are nine giant sequoia trees growing on the grounds of the Château de Cheverny, according to an inventory of the giant sequoias of France published in 2007. Cheverny is just about half an hour north of Saint-Aignan by car.

I took these photos on April 1, 2004 (no, this is not a joke), when I visited Cheverny for maybe the first time. Our friend "Chrissou" was visiting from California, and she thought it would be fun to go see the souper des chiens — the dogs' supper — in the park at Cheverny. That's when the enormous pack of hunting hounds are fed daily. It's quite a show. We also wandered around the park to took a tour of the interior of the château. The English-style gardens at Cheverny were planted between 1820 and 1860. The park at Cheverny covers 100 hectares (250 acres).

According to the sequoias.eu web site, the first giant sequoias were planted in France in the mid- to late 1850s, no none of them are much more than 150 years old. They were mostly planted as ornamentals in parks and gardens, and not just in France but all over Europe. There are more than five thousand giant sequoias growing France.

The giant sequoias became popular because they are evergreens, they are so big, they're exotic, and they are very hardy. They are also fast-growing (50 to 100 centimeters a year when conditions are favorable). I know I've seen many of them in France over the past 50 years, especially in Normandy where I lived in 1972-73 and which I visited many times over the following decades. Dozens of sequoias grow in and around the city of Rouen.

Here in the région Centre-Val de Loire, there are more than 15 giant sequoias growing in Amboise, the same number in Tours, in Blois and in Romorantin, and 10 or so in Loches. They have been planted in many of the parks of well-known châteaux, including Chenonceau, Langeais, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord (73 sequoias!), and Chaumont-sur-Loire. There's even one growing in our little village outside Saint-Aignan.

The Taylor's Guide to Trees that I have says that giant sequoias grow up to 76 meters (250 ft.) tall in their native California. The girth of the trunk can reach 24 meters (80 ft.). Giant sequoias in France grow as tall as about 55 meters, and are vulnerable to lightning strikes that slow their growth.

21 February 2020

50 feet (15 meters)

When we moved into this house outside Saint-Aignan in 2003, there were two Christmas trees growing in the back yard. Two different landscapers told us that one of them needed to be removed. It was in danger of falling. So we had it taken down.

This composite image shows the same tree twice, once in 2003 and once in 2020. Look how it has grown.
In the photo above on the right it looks very healthy, but in reality it looks slightly scruffy.

I measured the height of this tree yesterday using the stick-and-camera method. It's about 50 feet (just over 15 meters) tall. As you can see, we've had more and more lower branches cut off to let more sunlight into the yard and to make it easier to mow the grass under the tree.

Above is a view of the tree I measured as seen from a window up in the loft, with the vineyard beyond. You can also admire the state of the laurel hedge that encloses our yard on three sides. It was trimmed a couple of months ago, at the end of the 2019 growing season, by the same landscaping crew that took down the moribund blue spruce tree a week ago. On the left you can also see our neighbor C.'s house, which is on the market right now.

Photos can be deceiving, because of phenomena of perspective.Viewing the photo on the left, you might get the idea that the two remaining conifers in our yard are approximately equal in height. In fact, the Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodara) on the left in the photo is 50% (about seven meters) taller than the one I've been calling the "Christmas tree." I think that one might be a Noordman fir (Abies nordmanniana), but I'm not an expert.

20 February 2020

Une omelette aux épinards

You know, I've been doing this blog for nearly 15 years. Before I started using blogger, I did two other little websites where I posted photos. There's bound to be some repetition when a enterprise like this one goes on for so long. Of course, I remember very well a lot of the posts I've done over the years, but most readers of a blog like this one don't have total recall. Nor do I. I posted a recipe for a spinach and mushroom omelet, with photos, about 10 weeks ago.

So here's a post about making une omelette. It's one of my favorites, an omelet with spinach and cheese. For this one, I cooked the spinach with some chopped onion and just a little bit of cream and then folded it into the omelet. Here's another post I did about a French take on making a truly delicious omelet about 10 years ago.

Eggs and spinach are a match made in... well, some famous chef's famous kitchen. Or just in a home kitchen, to please friends and family. One of my favorite egg and spinach concoctions is creamed spinach served with warm boiled or poached eggs (œufs pochés) — hard-boiled (œufs durs) or soft-boiled (œufs mollets) eggs. Another is Jacques Pépin's mother's simple soufflé made with sauce béchamel, cheese, and spinach, which I posted about in December 2011. We ate yesterday's omelet with some left-over gratin dauphinois — scalloped potatoes with milk and cheese.

Yesterday's spinach omelet featured a good amount of spinach and not too much egg (even though I used six smallish eggs). After the spinach was cooked, with a diced onion, I added a little bit of cream. Then, separately, I beat the eggs and poured them into a hot frying pan coated with melted butter. When they started to cook on the bottom but where still runny on top, I sprinkled on some grated "Swiss" cheese (Abondance in this case) and put the cooked spinach on the half of the omelet farthest from handle of the pan. I was using a non-stick pan so it was easy to slide the omelet out onto a platter, folding the half closest to the handle of the pan over the top of the spinach filling as it slid onto the platter.

19 February 2020

How tall is it?

Yesterday I wrote in my post that I had measured the Himalayan cedar tree, Cedrus deodara, in our yard to see how tall it was. I guess I was a little surprised that nobody asked me how I accomplished that. For years, I'd been thinking and maybe even saying that the H. cedar was probably about 75 feet tall. My measuring method put it at about 72 feet. Not bad, eh? By the way, a book I have called Taylor's Guide to Trees says that under cultivation this kind of cedar grows to about 80 feet in height. (It grows a lot taller in the wilds of the Himalayan mountains.)

I didn't figure this out all by myself, of course. I found the measuring solution on... wait for it... the Internet! Here's how you can measure the height of a tree, or anything else, using your digital camera. You need to find a stick, pole, or piece of pipe, for example, that you can measure to determine its length. You could even ask a person whose height you know to stand up against the tree trunk.

By the way, the view of the tree that you see in the photo on the right is one that we've never had until now. It was blocked by the blue Colorado spruce tree that we just had cut down. You can see the spruce stump in the photo, and see how close together the two trees were growing.

Once you have that pole or person up standing up against the trunk of the tree, you move back and take a photo in which the whole tree is visible. In the two pictures above, you can see the pole — a broomstick — that I used. It might be hard to see in the first picture, which shows the whole tree, but if you click or tap on it to enlarge the image, the stick will come into view. Just to make sure, I did an enlargement for you, above.

Now what you have to do is measure the length of the pole on the photo of the whole tree, and measure the height of the tree on the photo. I knew that the broomstick I was using actually measured 1.3 meters in length. I printed the photo, thinking it would be easier to take measurements on a paper image than on a computer screen. It turned out that the tree was about 17 times taller than the broomstick. So do the math: 1.3 x 17 = 22.1. That's the approximate height of the tree in meters. In Google, search for "22 meters in feet" and you learn that it's 72 feet. Neat.

18 February 2020

Cedrus deodara

Above is the tall Himalayan cedar Cedrus deodara tree that still stands in our yard. I just measured it and it is about 22 meters tall — that's about 75 feet. We can see it from the other side of the Cher River, about two miles distant.

Below is a short video of the felling of the trunk of sapin bleu (blue spruce) tree that we had cut down the other day. It was about 11 meters tall, so about half the size of the cedar. The house shook when that tall, heavy trunk hit the ground. The stump is 2 feet in diameter at ground level.

17 February 2020

Focusing on details

While Walt was in Albany, I was walking Tasha the Sheltie twice a day. We had the full range of local weather over the course of the week he was gone, including high winds, heavy rains, sunny spells, and just gray days. All that was missing was some snow and ice, but it hasn't been that kind of winter so far. A recent news report said that January 2020, for example, was the warmest January ever recorded in France. I think the same will be true of February.

I mostly walk out into the Renaudière vineyard when I go out with the dog. There are other paths in the ares that I could follow, but some of them are too muddy right now. One advantage of walking in the vineyard is that we very seldom see a car, another person, or another dog out there. There are a lot of rocks, however — this is rocky ground compared to the land down in the river valley, half a mile away, which is mostly sand. Some rocks I can't resist picking up and taking home. The white one in the photo above has to be chalk, and I believe I can see some seashells embedded in it. They say that prehistorically this area was seabed. You can zoom in on the images here by clicking on them a couple of times.

Last fall, while I was on my most recent trip to America, the biggest apple tree in our back yard split in half and fell to the ground. It wasn't a surprise, because it had lost several big limbs over the past five or six years. We had a landscaping crew come and cut up the wood, which we kept for firewood. Here's what the stump looks like. It's hollow, and it had a lot of ants and other insects living in it. The stump was cut off at ground level, and it will eventually finish rotting a way. Maybe it's a good candidate for the rock salt treatment. Our friends and part-time neighbors who live in Blois told me that a linden ("lime") tree in their back yard suffered a similar fate back in November. It broke in half and they saw that the trunk had been hollowed out by insects or fungus or whatever.

I'm glowing kale out in the vegetable garden. It's the Red Russian kale variety, also called Siberian kale — even though it is most likely native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Asia Minor. Kale is a loose-leaf cabbage as opposed to cabbages that form a hard head as they grow, and greens like kale and collard greens tolerate freezing temperatures so can be grown over the winter in our climate. They don't really like dry, hot weather, so I wasn't sure these plants would survive the June-to-October drought we lived through in 2109. But they did. I like the color of this variety's leaves. And they're tender and tasty too.

Here's another example of a tree — an apple tree — that has succumbed either to disease or to extreme weather conditions, including long dry spells like last summer's, or prolonged rainy periods like the weather we've had since October 2019. It's hard to believe it was drought that killed this tree, because it grows within a few feet of a pond that has never gone dry since we've lived here. Its roots have to have been well watered. The tree used to produce little green apples that were sweet and crunchy. The man who owns the vineyard once told me that he considered them to be the best apples out of the dozen or more varieties that grew around the vineyard. Now the tree stands dead — even the mistletoe that grew in the tree has died now — and one limb after another falls to the ground as winter windstorms blow through the area.

As I just wrote, it has been exceedingly rainy here for five months now, and the recent weeks have been no exception. Rain or shine, the dog needs a walk, so out we go. Sometimes the walks aren't very long, and that was especially true over the week when I was going out twice a day. Rain like the rain making these ronds dans l'eau on the vineyard road is not hard enough to discourage Tasha, or me. The vineyard road is full of pot holes and puddles, but it's made of gravel so not too muddy. This morning a hard rain is falling — it started sometime right after midnight.

This is the view facing west as we walk out on the vineyard road at sunset. The gravel road is nearly a mile long from its starting point near our back gate, ending out where it intersects the next paved road. That one is marked on maps and by signs as a pretty road through the local vineyards for tourists driving, biking, or hiking through the area. At least some of the grapes grown here go into wines that carry the Touraine-Chenonceaux label of quality.

16 February 2020

Avant et après

Here are two photos showing what the view from the back gate looked like on Feb. 12 and then what it looks like now. The first photo is the one I posted a couple of days ago with the tree names added on as labels. I think the trees look much less crowded together with the sickly sapin bleu gone.

And here are two more photos, one before and one after, taken from farther away. In these, you can see how much taller the deodar cedar (a.k.a. Himalayan cedar) on the left is than the fir tree that I call "the Christmas tree" on the right. I'm pretty sure the woman we bought the house from said that was a live Christmas tree her family had in the house one year. They planted it in the back yard when the holidays were over.

As you've no doubt noticed, I never get tired of taking pictures of our house and hamlet from out in the vineyard, and thinking how lucky we were to find this house 17 years ago. See below. Our house is the tallest one, and the one with the brownest roof, in the photo.

As for the stump of the felled tree, here's how it was left. We can live with it. After a few years, it will have rotted away. It would have cost a lot more money to have the stump dug out, and would have left a big mess in the yard.

The violent and destructive storm that is supposed to hit the U.K. today seems to be going mostly north of us living here in the Loire Valley. Saint-Aignan is 300 miles south of London as the crow flies. We are supposed to have gusty winds during the day today, but nothing extreme. And we're supposed to get some rain overnight and into Monday morning. We don't need the rain but we don't get to choose, right?

15 February 2020

Three dogs, one vineyard

Over the nearly 17 years we've lived here on the edge of a vineyard near the town of Saint-Aignan, in the Loire Valley region, we've had three dogs. The one living with us now is Natasha — we call her Tasha. She's a pure-bred Shetland sheepdog. She'll be three years old next week. I was going to post six photos of Tasha this morning, but then I happened upon old photos of her predecessors.
The dog before Tasha was named Callie. She was a pure-bred border collie. Compared to Tasha, Callie was pretty neurotic. The would go crazy barking at the moon, for example, or chasing the beam of a flashlight. She hated riding in the car. Tasha loves riding in the car, and she doesn't even notice the moon or flashlights. Callie lived for just 10 years. She died less than two months after we brought Tasha home in 2017. That was sad.

The first dog that lived in France with us was Collette. She was a "rescue dog" that we found at the Santa Clara County Humane Society shelter in California. We took her home in 1992 and she lived to be 14, passing away in 2006  after a severe stroke paralyzed her on one side. We made an appointment to have her euthanized, but according to the vet she died before the drug could be administered. Collette also loved riding in the car, so it was appropriate for her to die on the back seat of the Peugeot.
Collette was never crate-trained, but when we left California in 2003 we bought a kennel for her to travel in. Walt had a Jeep, so there was room for it in the back. We put it in there and she started sleeping in it during our week-long drive across the U.S. to go spend some time in North Carolina while waiting for our French visas to be granted. Then she traveled in it on an airplane to France. She wasn't fazed and she loved being here in France — I'm happy she had three good years in the vineyard after more than 10 years as a city dog.
Callie hated the car, and it was probably my fault. When we went to get her from a breeder three hours from Saint-Aignan in 2007, she was 10 weeks old. I decided to drive back home on little curvy roads, and Callie got very carsick. That did it, I think. She was in good health but died young after an injury paralyzed her hind legs and her tail — she couldn't walk or wag. There was no solution but to have her put down.
We hope to have Tasha a lot longer than we had Callie. She's a very barky dog, but her barking is not constant. She's just vocal when she gets excited. She was really happy, of course, when Walt got home yesterday from his one-week trip to Albany NY. I took her with me in the car to go pick him up at the Tours TGV train station (an hour's drive each way).

I enjoyed taking all these photos (from 2004, 2010, and 2020) and I've enjoyed looking at them this morning. It's surprising to me to see the high quality of photos from 2004, when I had a Canon digital camera. The 2010 photos are ones I took with a Panasonic camera. Tasha's photos are Sony camera images.