31 May 2020

Roses du mois de mai

Here's a two-minute slideshow for today, featuring macro images of some
of the roses that bloom in May around our house and in the back yard.

Otherwise, every time you think things couldn't get any worse, they do. Enough said.

30 May 2020


The millepertuis plants that grow along the fence on the south side of hour house and along the road are blooming right now. Here are some macro shots of the flowers. That's all I have for today. The plant is called St. John's wort in English. Some species are called goatweed. It's an invasive plant, but a beautiful one at this time of year.

I had planned to go to the supermarket yesterday for the first time since March 14.
I changed my mind after I thought about it for a few minutes yesterday morning.
There really wasn't anything we especially needed.
So I'm still staying confined. Self-isolating.

29 May 2020

Carottes ou champignons ?

I wanted to eat peas — English peas, not black-eyed peas — but I couldn't decide whether to cook them with carrots or with mushrooms. So I cooked them with both, along with onions. Seasoned with duck fat and bay leaves.

Walt says that for his family in upstate New York, "peas" meant green garden peas. For us in eastern North Carolina, "peas" was just as likely to mean black-eyed peas, crowder peas, or field peas. I can get black-eyed peas here in France. They come from Portugal, either as dried beans or in cans, and are called cornilles and other names. I wish I could get crowder peas or field peas here. All three of these "peas" are varieties of beans that are called "cowpeas." Most of them are grown in Africa, including the counties of Niger and Nigeria, which account for 66% of world production (according to Wikipedia).

But back to "English" peas. They are not just English, of course, but also French, and called petits pois. Here's a well-known French song about them. I myself was born and grew up in a part of the United States where there were two great culinary traditions, each based on its own products and specialties. One tradition was English — green peas, fish and chips, beef stew, pot roast, butter beans, spinach, string beans, roasted chicken, white sandwich bread, butter and cream — and the other was African — collard greens, cowpeas, cornbread, hush puppies, pork and pork fat, okra, rice, corn (maize), fried chicken. Those were what later came to be called "soul food." When we said peas, we had to say which kind we meant.

28 May 2020

Poulet en crapaudine

The Larousse Gastronomique food and cooking encyclopedia says that en crapaudine  is a way to prepare a small chicken or, especially, a pigeon. I've never cooked a pigeon, but I've eaten "squab" in restaurants. Anyway, Walt and I prepared and cooked a poulet en crapaudine a few days ago. He cooked it over indirect heat on the barbecue grill. The French word crapaud, which crapaudine is derived from, means "toad" — the chicken or pigeon ends up looking a little like an overgrown toad or frog.

In America, you might call this a "butterflied" chicken or even a "flattened" chicken. It's a very easy to do. I use kitchen scissors and cut up one side of the backbone of a whole chicken (starting next to "the pope's nose") and then cut it up the other side to complete remove the backbone (make stock with it). Use a big sharp knife to make a small cut in the hard part of the breast bone of the bird. That will make it lie flat.

Another thing you can do to make it easier to put the flattened chicken on the barbecue grill and then turn it over during cooking is run a long skewer through the thighs and legs, across the width of the bird, to hold it together. Sorry, no photo of that. We seasoned the chicken well on both sides with a spice blend we made ourselves, along with some garlic powder and onion powder. Spice blend recipe below...

While the chicken was cooking on the grill, I made a side dish of glazed carrots for us to have with it. Walt had bought a nice bunch of baby carrots — true baby carrots, not the ones that are the ground-down cores of big carrots — at the open-air market the day before. I didn't peel them but just scrubbed and washed them to get them ready. Then I cooked them in a steamer pot.

When the carrots were cooked — les carottes sont cuites is a French expression meaning something like "the time has come" or "we're good to go" — I melted some butter in a pan, put in a tablespoon of "raw" sugar (cassonade) and some salt and pepper, and then I glazed the cooked carrots in that mixture. Add a spoonful or two of water to dissolve the sugar (or use honey) and when the water has all evaporated, les carottes sont... glacées. Sprinkle on some fresh chives.

Here's the cooked poulet en crapaudine, which we had seasoned with this Arabic spice blend of powdered spices before cooking. I found the recipe on the internet years ago, and for us now it's a standard blend. Here's a link, and here's another to make a larger quantity of the spice blend.

Arabic (Lebanese) Spice Blend
All the spices are in powdered form.

2 tablespoons each : black pepper – paprika – cumin
1 tablespoon each : coriander seed – cloves (girofle)
1 teaspoon each : nutmeg – cinnamon
½ teaspoon : cardamom

27 May 2020

U.S. “biscuits” — they are not “cookies”

It's ironic, but I received three packages of yeast over the past few days (thanks J. and K.), and yesterday I made some bread that is not leavened with yeast but with baking soda (bicarbonate de soude) or baking powder (levure chimique). This is a bread that we Americans call biscuits — I think they originated in places like Scotland and the Channel Islands, actually. At least that's what Wikipedia says, and I found this recipe for a yeast-leavened bread or cake that resembles our American biscuits and is called a Guernsey biscuit. A lot of Americans can trace their ancestors to Scotland and the Channel Islands — as I do.

Our American biscuits — a specialty of the U.S. South — resemble British scones, but they are not usually sweetened and they are not made with eggs. They are made with flour, fat — butter, lard (saindoux), margarine, or vegetable shortening — salt, baking soda (or powder), and an acidic liquid — sour milk, buttermilk, or yogurt. Anyway, these pictures show the ones I made yesterday. I made them with duck fat, because I have a lot of duck fat in the fridge these days. And because that was the flavor I wanted. We were going to eat these with our lunch of grilled chicken and a side dish of green peas that I also flavored with a little duck fat instead of butter.

The most important thing about making biscuits is to work the dough as little as possible. The first step is to "cut" the butter or other fat into the flour. The fat needs to be cold. I use a pastry cutter to do that, or you can just do it with your fingers if your hands aren't too hot. I also used French type 45 flour, which is "cake flour" that's made with soft rather than hard wheat varieties. All-purpose flour (French type 55) works too. Bake the biscuits in a hot oven.

In the photo on the right are two jars of melted duck fat. The smaller jar has some duck broth in the bottom.

Here's our friend Tom's recipe for biscuits, with our modifications to adapt it to the ingredients we can get here in France. For example, we can't get vegetable shortening. (Also, I doubled the recipe and ended up with seven three-inch biscuits. Tom lives in Illinois and I've known him since the 1970s. Walt uses the same recipe, with butter and yogurt, to make what we eat as "shortcake" with strawberries and cream. Thanks to Tom.

Biscuits for two
Makes 4 biscuits

4½ oz. flour by weight (about 125 grams)
1 tsp. baking powder or soda
1 pinch of salt
2 Tbsp. butter or other fat
½ cup buttermilk or plain yogurt (120 ml)

Preheat the oven to 450ºF (230ºC).

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder and/or baking soda, and salt. Using your fingertips or a pastry cutter, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. (The faster the better, you don't want the fat to melt.) Make a well in the center and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together. The dough will be very sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, dust the top with flour, and gently fold the dough over on itself 5 or 6 times. Then press it into a 1-inch thick round. Cut out biscuits with a round 2- or 3-inch cutter (emporte-pièce) or cut it into squares or triangles with a knife, being sure to push straight down through the dough. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet (or in a cake pan) so that they just touch each other. Reform any leftover pieces of dough, working the dough as little as possible and continue cutting out biscuits.

Bake until biscuits are tall and a light golden brown color on top, 15 to 20 minutes.


The whole trick with biscuits is to handle the dough as little as possible. The more handling the biscuits get, the tougher they will be.

But don’t fret. It takes practice to be able to turn out consistently light biscuits. But look, there are millions of people that make great biscuits, and if you’re new to making biscuits, the only advantage they have over you is practice. Decide you want to make good biscuits and then just keep at it until you develop a feel for what the dough should be like.

There are a few interesting variations you can make with this dough. One thing is to shred some sharp Cheddar (or Comté) cheese and add it to the flour before the buttermilk goes in. That will make really nice cheese biscuits that are great with dinner. You can add some sugar, cinnamon, and raisins if you want sweet  biscuits.

I wish I had made some duck cracklings to add to my duckfat biscuits. Next time...

26 May 2020

Fraises locales et un gâteau aux fraises

Asparagus and strawberries are mainly what we go to the weekly open-air market in Saint-Aignan for these days. Before the coronavirus pandemic, it was fun to go to the market on Saturday morning and just wander, looking for the best produce and other local products, including goat cheeses. It's less fun when you are nervous about being in crowds and when you have to wear a mask.

Above is a photo of the strawberries Walt got at the market last Saturday. The variety is called "charlotte" — the man who (with his son) grows them also sells them at the market. We've been buying strawberries and asparagus from him for 15 years now. Along with the garriguette variety, charlottes are some of the best strawberries you can buy in France. Strawberry and asparagus plants thrive around here, in the sandy soil of the Sologne region and the Loire and Cher river valleys.

Walt frequently makes "shortcake" to have with the strawberries. It's actually an American biscuit recipe that he makes with butter, flour, yogurt, and baking soda. The original recipe, which we owe to our friend Tom in Illinois, calls for butter + vegetable shortening, but we can't get shortening here. It also calls for buttermilk, for which we substitute plain yogurt. So I guess it's Walt's recipe now. Still, many thanks to Tom.

What I did on Monday with the leftover strawberries from Sunday's shortcake dessert was make a strawberry cake. It was a spur of the moment, basically improvised thing. There were some strawberries in a bowl that had been lightly sweetened with sugar and had released a small quantity of liquid. I strained them and added the juice to a yogurt cake recipe. I dusted the strawberries with flour, which helps prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the pan, and added them to the cake batter. Yogurt cake is a French classic, and it's a very easy recipe to make. Yogurt, sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, flour, and baking powder go into the batter. I added a little bit of kirschwasser (cherry brandy) for extra flavor.

25 May 2020

French things

I just saw a New Yorker magazine article saying that the sharing the communion cup in churches might turn out to be a victim of the coronavirus pandemic. It's too dangerous for all the congregants to drink out of the same cup. I've been wonder whether, in France, the bises (cheek kisses) and the poignée de main (handshake) that French people share every time they see each other — often every day —might be victims too. Too dangerous. Unsanitary. It's a cultural earthquake is shaking French society.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned yesterday Walt went to the open-air market in Saint-Aignan Saturday morning and got us some more strawberries and some asparagus. The locally grown asparagus spears we get here are white, not green.

The grower who sold us these actually called them asperges violettes, saying the purplish tinge on the tips of the spears was given to them by brief exposure to the sun before they were picked.

Asparagus like this is grown in mounds of sand. The spears are "blanched" because they are never exposed to sunlight as they grow. They're the same plant as green asparagus, just grown differently. I don't really know why they came to be grown this way, but it's such a widespread practice and so taken for granted that none of the web pages about growing asparagus even mentions it.

The white spears on the left have been peeled with a vegetable peeler, starting an inch or two from the tip of each spear.

The sandy soil of the Loire and Cher river valleys and of the Sologne region is ideal for growing asparagus, and there are fields of them all around the area. There's not much to see, however, since the spears stay underground and are cut as soon as their tips reach the surface. All you see is a field of sand in mounds or piled up in rows.

These have been cooked by steaming after being peeled. The purple color fades when they're cooked.

There is a difference in taste between asparagus spears that are white and asparagus spears that have grown above ground and allowed to turn green. I've never done a side-by-side taste test, because we so seldom find green asparagus here. In my opinion, the white asparagus has a milder, almost sweeter taste. The green ones have a stronger, slightly metallic taste. But that's just me. I like both.

These bundles of cooked asparagus spears are wrapped in thin slice of boiled sandwich ham (called jambon de Paris in France).

In culinary terms, the main difference between white and green asparagus spears is that the white ones need to be peeled before you cook them. Use a vegetable peeler, called un couteau économe or just un économe in French. The skin on the spear is fibrous and not really edible. In preparing green asparagus, some cooks carefully trim off the little triangular leaf buds on the spears. Sometimes a little bit of sand might be lurking under the buds.

Ready to be reheated and browned in the oven...

...and, finally, ready for the table. Serve them in the baking dish — one bundle per person.

Yesterday we decided to have asparagus au gratin with ham for lunch. We cooked the spears in a steamer pot. Then we made two bundles of five or six cooked spears and wrapped each bundle in a thin slice of ham. We put them in a baking dish and covered them with a cheese sauce and some grated cheese, leaving the asparagus tips uncovered. I decided to use the ewe's milk cheese called Ossau Iraty, from Basque country, as the cheese for the dish. It tasted good.

24 May 2020

Virtual sightseeing: Angles-sur-l'Anglin

Earlier, I wrote a series of posts about taking a virtual vacation, since our April getaway had to be canceled. Confinement, you know. But for that, our quasi-annual visitor Peter H. would be here from San Francisco right now. We'd be shopping in markets and supermarkets and cooking the good things we'd bring home. Walt would be enjoying the Roland Garros/French Open tennis tournament on TV, and looking forward to a good lunch or dinner. None of that is happening.

In the picture above, the woman wearing a bright blue scarf and carefully framing a photograph is our friend Sue. She lives in California, where we used to go on cool camping trips every year — Yosemite National Park, Salt Point park on the northern California coast, Zion National Park in Utah, etc. etc. Well, she's decided to cancel her trip to France and Morocco, which was scheduled for early September. The last time she came to France was in 2018. I spent a week showing her Carteret County in North Carolina — where I was born and grew up — last October.

Another good friend who's had to cancel her 2020 trip to France is Evelyn — a lot of you reading this know her, if not personally, at least virtually, through her comments on this blog. I met her and her husband thanks to an Internet forum at about the time Walt and I relocated from California to France in 2003. Evelyn was going to visit in August. She too has had to cancel. For me, and for E. and Sue too, the idea of sitting in the middle of a crowd in the claustrophobic space available on an airplane is just not imaginable at the current time.

I wasn't planning to write about such sad turns of events. What I was going to write about was how I am looking forward to days when I can return to see places like Lavardin and Angles-sur-l'Anglin one more time. Both villages are about an hour from Saint-Aignan. Or Paris, for example, and the Baie de Somme. Another old friend who has had to cancel his annual Atlantic crossing in an airplane is CHM. He has an apartment in Paris and he has family connections in the Somme. Even before he had his accident about two months ago, he had decided he mostly likely wouldn't be willing to take the risk involved in flying to France in 2020.

It's going to be kind of a quiet, lonely summer. My sister and our best cousin had been planning a trip to France in late September. I had started making plans for and lists of all the places we would go to see. They've had to cancel too, of course. I'm so glad I went to North Carolina last October and got to spend a couple of weeks with them. I'm not sure when I'll be able to go back there, or when they'll be able to come over here.

Sorry to be so downbeat today. On the positive side, the weather here is beautiful, and the garden is in. I had my doubts about that job getting done in 2020, but it has all turned out great. The ground got tilled, the seedlings grew strong in their little pots, the weather cooperated, and the plants are now in the ground. We even had just enough rain and clouds yesterday so that the tender little plants got a nice welcome rather than a fatal sunburn. Oh, and Walt went to the market and got strawberries and asparagus yesterday morning. Lunch today... By the way, the neighbors from Blois went back to Blois yesterday morning.

23 May 2020

Distancing, + ’Tasha x 5

We brought our sheltie ’Tasha home from Chinon three years ago, in May 2017. She was born in February that year. She's all grown up now. In this first photo, you can see what the vegetable garden plot looked like that day. Walt planted tomato, pumpkin, and zucchini seedlings out there yesterday. So we got a garden going one more time. It's our 17th Saint-Aignan vegetable garden.

Today I'm posting five photos of ’Tasha (short for Natasha) that I took a couple of days ago when we went for our daily walk in the vineyard. In the first one, above, you can see what the vegetable garden plot looked like on Thursday afternoon.

We've had a long string of warm sunny days, and on Thursday it was actually hot. It felt like July or August, not May. However, it's raining this morning. I hope the rain doesn't prevent Walt from going to the market for more asparagus and strawberries.

Our part-time neighbors who live in Blois are here this weekend, which is a long weekend because of the Ascension holiday day before yesterday. They've been working hard to get their yard, which is about an acre of land, mowed and trimmed. Because of rainy winter weather and then the coronavirus confinement (lockdown), they hadn't come to Saint-Aignan since New Year's Eve. Blois is about 25 miles north of here.

They keep asking us to come over and spend the evening with them. I told them the first time they asked that I'd prefer to respect the social-distancing guidelines that are recommended by the French government. Even now, while the the lockdown has been partially lifted, vulnerable people are being asked to stay at home as much as possible. Being vulnerable means you have some history of respiratory difficulties or heart disease, or you are diabetic or obese. Being 70 years old or older also makes you vulnerable. That means I need to be careful. The neighbors are in their mid 60s — not spring chickens.

They invited us over again yesterday. She, M-L, talked to Walt, who told her that he would be surprised if I said yes. They are here with their two daughters and several of their grandchildren, along with a friend of theirs from Blois. They are a crowd. I'm sorry not to be able to spend time with them, but I think it's the right choice. M-L's husband had a minor heart attack in February and had a couple of stents put in. She told Walt that doctors are saying he needs another stent. Seems to me that makes him vulnerable to the coronavirus too.

22 May 2020

Levure boulangère > pizza !

Levure is a confusing term in French for us anglophones. In English "yeast" is what you you use to make leavened bread. In French, you have to specify that it's bread-making yeast by saying levure boulangère or levure de boulangerie— bread-baking or baker's yeast. That's because the other kind of levure — what we call "baking powder" — is called levure chimique in French. It's "chemical yeast" as opposed to natural yeast. Natural yeast is a living organism that in French is called un champignon.

"Chemical yeast" (baking powder) is what we use to make cakes and what we call "quick breads" like zucchini bread or banana bread. Those kinds of breads are not called "bread" in French but cakes. Yes, that's a French word, and it's pro-nounced [keck]. Un cake is baked in a loaf pan rather than in a "cake pan."

Be all that as it may, we finally got yeast. The yeast we got is called spéciale pains. It's marketed as bread yeast and as idéal for use in a bread machine (une machine à pain or MAP). The total amount of yeast in the box is 30 grams — one ounce — divided into 6 little 5-gram envelopes.

So Walt made pizza for lunch yesterday. He uses a no-knead recipe that involves making the dough — flour, water, yeast, and salt — 18 hours before you plan to cook the pizza. He makes the dough at about six p.m. the day before for lunch at noon the next day. It makes a good crust — crispy but not too crispy, bready inside. Chewy. (Can you tell I love bread?)

We topped the pizza with tomato sauce, ham, grated Comté cheese, and mushrooms. We're out of our own tomato sauce from last year's vegetable garden, so we had to use commercial sauce. We put thinly sliced raw mushrooms on top of the grated cheese, with the sauce and ham underneath. We make two individual-size pizzas and eat the first one cut in half before putting the second one in the oven, on a pizza stone, to cook. Then we eat that one while it's hot.

21 May 2020

Du nord au sud

Recently I posted some photos I took in the town of Lavardin, which by car is about an hour north of Saint-Aignan, on the Loir river. An hour south of Saint-Aignan, where the historical Poitou, Berry, and Touraine provinces meet, is another little town (pop. 350) with impressive ruins on a hilltop.

This is the place called Angles-sur-l'Anglin. The Anglin is a small river, less than 60 miles long, that flows into the larger Gartempe river near the village of Angles, which is about 45 miles south of Tours and 30 miles northwest of Poitiers.

Why is it called "Angles"? One hypothesis is that the name derives from an Occitan term, anglar, meaning a sheer cliff or a steep rock promontory. The river would have been named for the rock or the village.

Another hypothesis is that the place was settled many centuries ago, at the time of Charlemagne, by a group or tribe of Angles (as in Angles and Saxons) migrating south from the north of Germany.

These photos are from April 2006. I think Walt and I went to Angles once before that, in 2003 or 2004, but I haven't located those photos yet.

20 May 2020

Asperges, fraises, jambon, et une brioche

Last Saturday, Walt went to the open-air market in Saint-Aignan, which is back in business but in a larger space where vendors and shoppers can spread out and respect the coronavirus distanciation guidelines. He said there were a good number of shoppers, spaced out (as it were...), and all the regular vendors were present too. He found our asparagus and strawberry grower's stand, where he bought a kilogram of white asparagus and two trays of fine Charlotte strawbabies. We had strawberry shortcake for dessert on Saturday and Sunday.

As our main course on Sunday, Walt made one of his classic ham and asparagus tarts. He bought ham from a charcutier's stand at the market, and it really was quite tasty — better than the supermarket equivalent. The tart is what the pictures here show, and here's a link to a description Walt posted years ago to explain how he makes it.

The weather here is very warm, sunny, and dry right now. I did some more tilling in the vegetable garden on Monday, after Walt pulled up the tarp that protected part of the plot over the winter. I'll do one more tilling today and we'll start setting out the tomato, squash, and pumpkin seedlings Walt has been growing in the greenhouse for a month or more now.

I ordered groceries from Super U on Monday and went to pick them up yesterday. I got yeast! It's just one package — six little sachets — but that will go a long way. Walt is going to make pizza crust this evening, let it rise overnight, and then make pizzas for lunch tomorrow.

First, I put diesel fuel in the Peugeot. That's something I have to do once every two or three months. I was the only person refueling my car at Super U, which has 6 or 8 pumps. I had my gloves on. Then I got my groceries — broccoli, steak, a chicken, mushrooms, potatoes, Brie and Comté cheeses, ham, Ricotta, fruit juice, and wine. I had ordered some baking powder, but it was en rupture (out of stock). Chicken wings and pot au feu beef were en rupture as well. Tant pis. We're in good shape for a week or so.

Then I went to our village bakery, where I bought two baguettes, two round boules blanches, a brioche au miel (honey), two strawberry tartelettes like the ones we had last week, and deux parts de flan (two wedges of French-style custard pie). Only one customer entered the shop at a time. Others waited their turn outside (spaced out...). I spent 20 euros at the bakery. Most of it was for the little tarts (nine euros) and the brioche (six euros... photo below). Paiement sans contact, bien sûr.

Here's my new mantra, in rhyme:

« J’ai mon masque, jai mes gants,
Jai mon gel désinfectant...
Me voilà un homme content. »

19 May 2020

L'Église Saint-Genest de Lavardin

St. Genès (or Genest, Genêt) was a Roman actor who converted to Christianity during a performance and later was martyred. The church in Lavardin is dedicated to his memory, as are churches and chapels in about 10 other towns all around France, including Metz and Flavigny-sur-Ozerain. A dozen French towns towns also carry his name.

L'Église Saint-Genest de Lavardin — I haven't read anything that explained why the church is dedicated to him — is famous for the wall paintings inside the church, which date back to the 12th century. The church itself was more than likely built in the 11th century, or at least construction was started then. Here's what it looked like when I was there in January 2004.

Back then, Walt and I drove up to Lavardin and Vendôme from Saint-Aignan just for a day out, after feeling a little confined because of miserable winter weather through December and January. We took advantage of one of the first nice days we'd had in two or three months to enjoy an excursion. I didn't really know anything about Lavardin at that point, but Walt and I had drive through the village in June 2001, when we were spending two weeks in the wine village called Vouvray, nears Tours. We didn't go inside the church, however. We didn't know about the wall paintings inside. This is another view of the interior of the St. Genest church.

Here's another photo of the church. It's bathed in the light of the afternoon sun on January 25, 2004. That's Walt on the road taking a photo. I went back to Lavardin in 2015 with my friend CHM and finally went inside the church to take some photos. It was more interesting and the murals were more extensive than I had imagined.

I took these pictures of the murals using a Canon SX700 HS camera that I don't even have any more — I gave it to a friend in 2018 because I had another camera that I liked better, a Panasonic. But I have to say the Canon camera did a very good job inside the Lavardin church. I've posted some of the photos as slide shows and others in other blog posts over the past five years.

This painting, or what is left of it, looks fairly mysterious, I think. If you have any ideas about what it represents, I'd appreciate hearing them.

These wall paintings in the church at Lavardin were hidden by a coat of whitewash or plaster for two or three hundred years and re-discovered in the early part of the 20th century, just before World War I. They've been restored in recent years.