30 June 2020

Le gîte rural à Saint-Chamant

Here's a short slideshow with photos I took mostly inside the house we rented in Saint-Chamant (Cantal, Auvergne, central France). The Plus Beaux Villages called Salers and Tournemire are both within 10 miles, and there's a château in Saint-Chamant too. We were five people, and we rented this house for 300 euros (about $340 U.S. at today's exchange rate).

The house is old-fashioned-looking inside but it's very spacious. It has all the conveniences: a good kitchen, a huge living room and equally huge dining room downstairs, as well as three bedrooms, two bathrooms (one downstairs and one upstairs). I didn't take pictures of the bedrooms or bathrooms, but you can see them on this web site. Yes, the house is still for rent at prices comparable to what we paid in 2009. It costs more in high season, but not much more — about $400. Have a look.

Bob R., I'm curious to know if you recognize the place from your stay in Saint-Chamant years ago.

Saint-Chamant du Cantal in pictures

Here are a few fairly random photos I took in Saint-Chamant in the Cantal (Auvergne) nearly 11 years ago. This is Walt looking out a window at the house we rented for that trip.

Here's a house in the village. The date over the door says 1851. I wonder if it's occupied. Maybe just the ground floor is lived in. Those shutters on the upstairs windows have seen better days, and the ones on the downstairs windows are just gone.

I liked these carved plaques on the village school building. Schools in France used to be segregated by gender.

That was the case when I was a teaching assistant in Rouen in 1972-73. I worked in the boys' high school, the Lycée Corneille. The girls' high school was the Lycée Jeanne-d'Arc. I think both are what they call mixte nowadays.

These are cows that I photographed pretty much in the center of the village, near the Château de Saint-Chamant. Photos of that monument TK, as we used to say (to come).

This beast and the ones above are not even cows of the Salers breed. This one looks like a charolaise to me.

29 June 2020

Le Château de Val en Auvergne

This is a 700-year-old château that was almost submerged when a dam was built downstream on the Dordogne river in the late 1940s. It survived when the decision to limit the size of the artificial lake created when the dam was finished. The Michelin Green Guide remarks that the château de Val thus commands un site de toute beauté. It ended up standing on a little rock island in the lake, and a walkway or jetty was later built so that pedestrians could cross over to the island.

In 1946, when the dam construction began, the family named d'Arcy who owned and lived in the château was expropriated by the French government. The plan was for the château to be flooded. The d'Arcy family left, taking all the furniture with them. When the waters rose but didn't flood the château, it was left unguarded. Burglars broke in in 1949 and pillaged and plundered the place. The château de Val is a survivor. My slide show runs for less than two minutes.

28 June 2020

Saint-Chamant dans le Cantal (Auvergne)

When we spent a few days in the Cantal (in Auvergne), about a four-hour drive south of Saint-Aignan, we rented this house. There were five of us plus a dog, so we needed a pretty big place. And we found this one. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a nice kitchen, a huge living room, and a huge dining room. We rented it for 300 euros for the week, but we only stayed four nights. We drove down there in two cars. That's Evelyn's husband L. in the photo, next to the car they had rented for the trip.

The house was in the village of Saint-Chamant (pop. 239), and within easy walking distance of the village center. According to what I've read, Saint-Chamant has about 225 housing units, nearly 100 of which are résidences secondaires. In other words, they are not lived in year-round. So it's a pretty quiet place. It's only four or five miles from the more-famous and busier town of Salers, and 12 miles north of the big town of Aurillac (pop. 25,000), where the nearest major supermarket is located. The picture on the left shows the village church in Saint-Chamant.

As far as I can remember, and according to Google Maps, there is only one shop in Saint-Chamant. It's this little supérette called Au P'tit Market(when I took this photo). We bought things there. I remember that it also served as the village post office. We also shopped at the open-air market in Salers, which operates only on Wednesday mornings. There are also a few bakeries and at least one cheese shop in Salers. I remember buying potatoes and some tomme fraîche cheese and making a melted-cheese dish called truffade one evening. And Walt and I went to a butcher's shop one day and bought a couple of Salers beefsteaks, just to try them.

This must be near the church, and near the house we had rented. We could see the church from the house, and as I said it was an easy walk away in good weather, across a pasture (the shortest route) or on a paved road.

Here's a different kind of house that was nearby. It's obviously an old farmhouse. The house we were in is what's called a maison bourgeoise.

And here's a very grand house that was nearby as well. I've tried to find it on Google Maps street view, but without success so far. I wonder if it has been turned into an apartment building, since it's so big.

27 June 2020

Six mois + 24 heures

The haircut deed was done yesterday, and it's a relief. However, I couldn't let that photo I posted yesterday stand as the only evidence that I needed my hair cut. I took that photo when I was still half asleep, and my hair looked really out of control. I had bed head. Here's what it looked like a few hours later, after I took my shower and just before the shearing began. My tonsure (bald spot) doesn't even show...

Here's some of what Walt cut off my head. I just had to take a picture of it. I don't think I'd ever imagined that one day we would need to give each other haircuts.

Here's the result. As Walt says, it's not perfect but it will get better-looking as it grows back. The big birthmark I have on the nape of my neck really shows right now (no photo, please!).  I hope we will be able to go to see the coiffeuse for our next shearing. We don't even know if she will ever re-open her salon down in the village center. If all went well, she had twins in April.

26 June 2020

Six mois plus tard...

I did something this morning that I'm not sure I've ever done before. I took a selfie. It's been six months now since my last haircut. I wanted to see what the back of my head looked like, so I stood with my back to the bathroom mirror.

And I'm shocked to see what a big bald spot I have on the back of my head! I had no idea. I knew my hair was thinning on top, but I hadn't seen the back of my head in decades. Connais-toi toi-même, the ancient Greeks said. I guess it's time to take stock. And get a haircut. I'm going to ask Walt to give me a buzz cut today. We were going to do the haircut yesterday, but I got busy and well... it didn't happen. I cut his hair a few weeks ago.

How many times have I posted photos like the one above? More than I can count. We are coming out of a period called un pic de chaleur in France — a brief heat wave. The temperature outside hit 32ºC yesterday. That's about 90ºF. And inside the house, up in the loft, the temperature was 30.9C in the afternoon — about 88F. We're more comfortable at 68F. It's hot in here this morning. I have all the windows open, and I'm feeling a few breaths of air. We're supposed to have some thunder showers today as cooler air off the Atlantic moves over the region.

25 June 2020

Salers houses and buildings

Salers is one of the 150 or so little towns that are members of the Plus Beaux Villages de France association. In fact, the organization was founded in Salers, after the idea of creating it was conceived by the mayor of Collonges-la-Rouge, less than 50 miles to the west. (However, it takes between 90 minutes and two hours to drive those 50 miles on twisty little roads, according to Google Maps.)

Salers, pop. 350 or so, is five or six hours south of Paris by car, and four hours south of  Saint-Aignan. Two hundred years ago, its population was about 1,600. It feels like a town but now has the population of a village. About half the housing units in the town are occupied only seasonally.

Above is a short slideshow of photos I took when Walt and I spent a few days in the Salers area in September 2009. You can see our friend Evelyn in the first photo, and Walt and our now-deceased border collie named Callie in the second photo. Compare this slideshow to one about Collonges-la-Rouge that I posted a couple of months ago. Maybe Salers should be named Salers-la-Noire. The local building stone is gray and black volcanic rock.

By the way, the final S of Salers is silent as pronounced locally, so Salers rhymes with the French word salaire (salary). You do sometimes hear people from other places say [sa-'lehrce]. The town is famous for producing a cheese called Salers, which is the high-end Cantal cheese made only in summer when the cows are grazing out in the pastures on fresh grasses and wildflowers. The town is also famous for the meat of the Salers breed of bovines — more about those later.

24 June 2020

Buns, barbecue, and 'maters

As I said yesterday, I ended up with a very busy morning. I had cooked a lamb shoulder in the mijoteuse (slow-cooker — mijoter means "to simmer") overnight. It cooked on low temperature for about 12 hours. It was lightly seasoned. The idea was to make "pulled lamb" (épaule d'agneau effilochée), which is good served in sandwich buns (petits pains).

So I had been thinking about making what we call "hamburger buns" or "sandwich rolls"— I'm not sure what the difference between a "bun" and a "roll" is. I just read on a web site that the U.S. federal Food & Drug Administration says the two terms are often treated as synonyms, but in general buns are softer and rolls are crustier. I wanted soft 'burger buns. In looking around on YouTube, I found a recipe for buns made with a dough containing mashed sweet potato. That reminded me of a pumpkin brioche that made a few years ago and buns like that sounded appetizing. See the photos above and below.

I didn't have any sweet potatoes but I had seen two containers of roasted and mashed winter squash pulp in the freezer. I made a dough with a cup of mashed pulp that we had labeled as sucrine du Berry, a local winter squash we've grown in our vegetable garden for years. It sort of resembles a butternut squash but the flesh is slightly different in texture and maybe not as sweet. As you can see, it worked well. Rather than give you a recipe, I'll point you to this video and this recipe, which I recommend. After the very soft and slightly sticky dough rose for 90 minutes (the instant dry yeast I used made it nearly triple in volume), I punched it down, pressed it into a maybe 2 centimeter thick oval shape on the work surface and cut out rounds of it using an emporte-pièce (a "cookie cutter" or "biscuit cutter" in American English). Those rounds rose again for 45 minutes and then baked for about 12 minutes in a fairly hot oven. They turned out perfect — 10 soft, bready, and tasty buns.

Above is the deboned, pulled lamb shoulder. "Pulled" means shredded, or effiloché in French. Recently I've also been cooking beef, the kind you used to make French pot au feu or bœuf bourguignon, which are comparatively inexpensive cuts, in the slow cooker. After whatever meat you choose is completely cooked and tender, falling off the bone if not already boneless, the pieces of lamb shoulder, stewing beef, turkey legs, or — more conventionally — pork shoulder, can be shredded or pulled apart (use your fingers or two forks) and then seasoned as you like. After adding seasonings, brown the pulled meat for a few minutes in a hot oven if you want a crispier texture. Spicy pulled pork that has been slowly barbecued over oak or hickory wood is a standard preparation where I come from (North Carolina). It's good served as a meat course with cornbread (hushpuppies) and cabbage salad (cole slaw) or in sandwiches on buns.

Often, Walt and I eat salads like the ones above as a kind of combined cheese and salad course at the end of a meal, before dessert. You can have it as a first course or "starter" to a meal as well. Walt bought tomatoes for this salad at the outdoor market in Saint-Aignan — it's far too early for our garden to be giving us tomatoes — and we got some packages of mozzarella di latte de bufala — mozzarella made with the milk of the Italian water buffalo (lait de bufflonne). I'm sorry I didn't take a picture after Walt tossed some fresh home-grown basil leaves over the salad. Anyway, I bet a lot of people don't realize that mozzarella cheese is traditionally made with buffalo milk. Much of the mozzarella you find in supermarkets is made with plain cow's milk.

23 June 2020

Picturesque things I saw in Salers in 2009

It was September 2009 and we were in Salers with our friends Evelyn, Lewis, and Linda.

We had arrived the day before and were staying in a gîte rural in a village just a few minutes' drive south of Salers, which is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.

The gîte we stayed in was a huge old stone house with a couple of bathrooms, three (or was it four?) bedrooms, a big kitchen, and an enormous dining room — more about that later.

I hope it's not presumptuous of me to ask you all to supply your own commentary this morning.

I don't have time. I want to make a batch of hamburger buns. I also need to hang a big load of wet laundry out on the outdoor clothesline to dry, partly because it's supposed to be a hot, sunny day.

And I have a cooked lamb shoulder in the slow-cooker that I need to take out and make into "pulled lamb" — that's Kentucky-style lamb barbecue. That's what the buns are for.

22 June 2020

Le Château d'Anjony à Tournemire en Auvergne

One of the most memorable trips we've taken since we came to live in France in 2003 was ja few short days that we spent in the Cantal département, which is part of the mountainous Auvergne region in central France. We went there with our friends Evelyn and Lewis from Alabama, along with their friend Linda from Florida, and our dog Callie. We had to take two cars. We stayed in a huge mansion of a house just a few minutes by car from the little town of Salers, and the rent for the week was just 300 euros.

One of the sights we saw in Auvergne was this château in the village called Tournemire. It's the Château d'Anjony, and it's open to the public. I'd love to go back there one day. We didn't have time to go inside when we spent a couple of hours in Tournemire at lunchtime on a September day in 2009. I think it was closed for two hours in the middle of the day, so we went and had lunch instead. (I just read on this web site that the château will re-open on June 27 after the pandemic shutdown.) We did have a look inside the village church and enjoyed walking through narrow streets of the picturesque village.

Somewhere along the way I had seen this painting — I took a picture of it — probably in a café or restaurant. I'm not sure I knew about Tournemire when we planned the trip to the Cantal area, but maybe I had seen information about it in the Michelin Green Guide. The painting convinced me we needed go see it. We saw other châteaux in the area, of course; after lunch, we drove up to the top of a puy, which is an extinct volcano. It was the 6,000-foot-high Puy Mary. There were rain showers off and on all day, and it was especially misty and foggy on top of the ancient volcano.

Here's the Château d'Anjony as you see it when you walk up to it from the center of Tournemire. The towers are about 40 meters (130 feet) tall. They were built in the early to mid-1400s, toward the end of the Middle Ages. Louy d'Anjony was apparently one of Joan of Arc's "companions" or allies. The Anjony family feuded with their neighbors and rivals, the Tournemire family, for several centuries. There were skirmishes and duels, but there were also marriages between members of the two families over the generations.

As we drove toward Tournemire, we came upon this spectacular perch from which to see views of the château. We stopped on the little winding road and took pictures. Red Salers cows mooed and grazed in a pasture on the other side of the road. They came up to the fence around the pasture, curious about us. Later in the afternoon, we would walk out into another pasture north of the town of Salers to watch the cows being milked in the fields. Finally, toward sundown we stopped at a dairy farm near our gîte and saw how the local Salers and Cantal cheeses are made from the afternoon's milk. It was definitely a red-letter day.

21 June 2020

Food or landmarks?

This morning I've been looking back to some photos I took in 2009 in the Cantal department, in the Auvergne region, of central France. But I also have some photos of food from yesterdays lunch. 'What to post? What a dilemma!

I guess I'll go with food. CHM says I always fall back on cooking and food when I'm not sure what to post. Yesterday morning, on the spur of the moment, I decided to make a gratin dauphinois — scalloped potatoes in cream in the style of the Grenoble area. Well, maybe not exactly, because I put some grated cheese in it. We ate it with steaks that Walt bought at the market earlier in the morning and cooked on the grill. That's them above — the cut is called bavette and is similar to skirt or flank steak.

What you do is cut some potatoes into thin slices. Boil some milk or a mix of milk and cream seasoned with salt and pepper, garlic, and bay leaves. When the potatoes are partially cooked, put half of them into a buttered baking dish. Sprinkle on some grated cheese — I had grated Edam from the Netherlands and grated ewe's milk cheese called Osso-Iraty from Basque country. White cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese would be good. One top of the cheese layer, spoon in the rest of the partially cooked potatoes and then sprinkle more cheese on top. Pour the hot milk/cream into the dish until the potatoes are just barely covered with liquid. Set the pan in the oven and let the melted cheese turn golden brown as the milk evaporates until the potatoes are tender. Serve in the baking dish. Voilà.

To round it all out, we had a few florets of steamed broccoli as a side dish.

Oh, and as a first course we ate some radishes dipped in a little salt that you sprinkle on your and served with French bread and butter. That's a classic French appetizer. When we get radishes that come with fresh, unblemished leaves, like these, we use the leaves to make pesto the way you would make pesto with basil. Delicious.

20 June 2020

Un clafoutis aux prunes

Think of it as eating a watermelon that has seeds in it. I know, seeing how far you can spit a watermelon seed is something kids like to do, but don't try that when eating a wedge of clafoutis in the house. Just delicately purse your lips and slide the pit into your spoon. Then place it on the edge of your plate. Clafoutis [klah-foo-TEE) is a pretty informal kind of dessert, especially if made with cherries or plums that still have their pits in them. Some say the pits give good flavor to the clafoutis.

The classic clafoutis is made with cherries. They can be tart sour cherries or sweet black cherries. You can make a clafoutis with other fruits too — blueberries, apples, bananas, peaches, apricots, or plums. I made this one yesterday with little red plums that are just slightly larger than plump cherries. They are the fruits of a tree I grew in a pot from plum pits more than a decade ago and later planted in the ground in the far corner of our back yard. Larger fruits would need to be cut up to go into a clafoutis.

I'm not sure I'd ever made a clafoutis with these particular plums before. Often the birds get them before I get out there to pick some, but for some reason not this year. These are not what is called a "freestone" fruit. It's not easy to pit them, especially when they are very ripe. You end up with a handful of mush, and you can't really scrape the pulp off the pit. The pits I planted all those years ago were from freestone plums, but that's not what the resulting tree produces. Their flavor is very good, however. Last year I made plum jelly because that was an easy way to get rid of the pits too.

It turns out that baking these plums is perfect, and the way to bake them is in a clafoutis. Arrange them in a buttered baking dish, pour on a sort of custard made with eggs, milk, flour, and sugar, and bake the clafoutis in the oven for 40 to 45 minutes. When you eat the clafoutis, the fact that it's basically a soft custard makes it easy to find the plum or cherry pits with your tongue and politely dispose of them. No problem. Delicious. Like eating a seedy watermelon in summertime.

The clafoutis I made yesterday is one I found somewhere as a recipe for a clafoutis aux quetsches. Here's one, in French. There are many more, with photos, here. What are quetsches [kwetch]? They are large, blue or purple damson plums. Large enough that they need to be cut in half and pitted to go into a clafoutis. Not really like my little red plums except in taste. Notice in the photo above how the clafoutis puffs up when you bake it, even though it is not leavened. It will "fall" as it cools, like some kind of soufflé.

Yesterdays plum clafoutis rose up so much that it started to overflow the baking dish. Tant pis. As I said, this is an informal, rustic kind of dessert. The recipe I used calls for 125 grams of flour, 125 grams of sugar, three eggs, and 500 ml of milk to make the custard. There's no crust involved; the floury custard will form its own kind of crust around the edge of the baking dish. I just noticed that I made a clafoutis with little yellow mirabelle plums six years ago and posted the recipe here. I like to eat clafoutis and most desserts with a spoon, but you can eat it with a fork if you want to.

19 June 2020

La maison de la voisine

This is the view from our back gate, looking toward the left. It's a part-time neighbor's house. In other words, it's used as a vacation place — une résidence secondaire. When we first moved here in 2003, the house was lived in full time by a woman who died about 10 years ago at age 95. Her son and daughter inherited the house and the son bought out his sister. Then he passed away (cancer). His wife, who lives — as they both did —  in the Paris area, now has a lifetime right to live in the house, I believe. She has children and grandchildren who will inherit the house when the time comes. Under French law, children cannot be disinherited by their parents. The neighbor is in her early 70s, like me.

Partly because of the coronavirus pandemic, I assume, the neighbor has not driven down here from Paris since last fall. We had a very rainy winter, and such weather does not encourage city people who own houses out in the country to come spend time in them. Just as the weather started to improve in March, France declared the grand confinement, requiring people to stay at home. Travel to a résidence secondaire was not allowed. So here's what the neighbor's yard looks like now. Nobody is tending to it.

Despite all that, the many rose bushes in the neighbor's yard have been covered in blooms over the past three months. Only now, after three weeks of rainy, gray, and almost chilly June weather, have some of the roses started to show signs of stress. These red ones are still looking good.

And these pink ones are right next to them. They grow between the road and the low wall that surrounds the neighbor's yard. She also owns a strip of land out behind her house and yard that has five or six apple trees growing on it. The grass and weeds under those trees is now chest high.

We walk by the neighbor's yard every time we go out into the vineyard with Natasha the Sheltie. It's been beautiful and it's too bad the part-time neighbor hasn't been able to enjoy it. I have no idea when she might come back to Saint-Aignan, or if — ne parlons pas de malheur ! — she might have contracted Covid-19. If she had, somebody would probably have told us.

Not all the rose bushes look as healthy as the ones above, of course. This one, for example, has seen better days. I assume the neighbor suspects that her yard is in sad shape. She must be trying to get somebody to come clean it all up, but I'm sure that's not an easy task when you live three or four hours away. Personally, I think having two houses to look after would, in practicality, be a real pain in the neck. Not to mention expensive and a source of stress...

18 June 2020

Une boule de pain complet

I made another « boule » loaf yesterday morning, this time with farine complète (whole wheat flour). Actually, I used a mixture of about two-thirds whole wheat flour (type 110) and one-third bread flour (type 65). I made the bread with yeast from China that I ordered from amazon.fr.

I used the same bread-making method that I used earlier in the week: make a "high-hydration" dough, with 80% of the amount of water by weight based on the amount of flour. In this case, it was 400 grams of flour and 320 grams of water. The dough was very sticky but I was able to shape it on a floured work surface. I baked it in a covered, pre-heated pot in a hot oven (450ºF, 230ºC). Here's the result.

This is my boule alongside two baguettes that Walt bought at the village bakery yesterday. It's always good to have bread on hand. In our experience, bread like this freezes very well. Thawed and then heated up at low temperature in the oven, it tastes as fresh as when you have just bought it home from the boulangerie.

Another photo of the same boule — we didn't eat any at lunchtime, because it was still too hot and fresh to slice.

But we did slice the boule in the evening, toasted the slices, and enjoyed them with some rillettes (potted pork, French style) and cornichons (pickled gherkins).