13 April 2021

La blanquette de...

This is the second of two posts about a cooking experiment. Click here for the first post.

Oh, the cream sauce... For
2 lbs. of meat and a generous half liter of broth plus half a cup of cream, make a roux by melting 3½ ounces of butter in a pot. When it's completely melted, stir in 6 tablespoons of flour. Once the roux has thickened, add blanquette broth and cream and stir until you have a nice silky sauce. Add more broth (or water) and/or cream as necessary to get the consistency and color you want.

One ingredient in a blanquette that is essential is mushrooms. Clean them and cut them into halves, quarters, or slices. Then just drop them, raw, into the cream sauce you've made for the blanquette. Cook them for 20 minutes or so and they'll add good flavor to the sauce. The last step is to put the cooked meat and vegetables back into the pot with the sauce and mushrooms and let everything get good and hot.

Another ingredient that really makes the blanquette flavor "pop" is lemon juice. Don't add it during cooking, but at the last minute, at the table. Or just serve a lemon wedge (or several) with each portion and let those eating the blanquette add lemon juice to their own taste.

Below is another view of the blanquette as served. It was delicious. And there are leftovers for today's lunch. We steamed some broccoli separately to have with the meat, rice, and sauce.

And below is the secret ingredient in this blanquette. Instead of making it with veal (the classic dish), I made it with pork.
It was an experiment. I had a pork loin roast that was very lean. I cut it into cubes and cooked it longer
than I would have cooked veal — about three hours of simmering —
to make sure it was tender and succulent. And it was.
You can also make blanquette with turkey or chicken, or with lamb. Or rabbit. — but if you can't get good veal
where you live for a reasonable price, you certainly can't get rabbit. I say the pork blanquette was good
and I'll make it again, maybe using pork tenderloin (known as filet mignon here in France) because
it's more like veal. Of course, it costs about as much as veal does, at least here in France.

12 April 2021

Une blanquette pour midi

Yesterday I made a blanquette for lunch. That's a white stew made with meat, aromatic vegetables, and mushrooms in a creamy sauce. It's often served with steamed rice, but is good with pasta or steamed potatoes as well. And it's good on a damp, chilly day like the one we had yesterday. The recipe is not complicated, but it does take some time, because the meat has to simmer in a mixture of water and white wine for at least a couple of hours.

The first step is to cut up the meat into cubes — cubes as large or small as you want them to be. Also cut up an onion or a few shallots and a couple of carrots.

Put the cubed meat in a pot — un fait-tout in French, meaning an all-purpose pot for cooking stocks, soups, or stews — with the cut-up vegetables. Add some black peppercorns and salt, along with a few allspice berries and bay leaves if you have them. Other herbs and aromatics like celery or leeks can go into the pot too.

Pour in about half a bottle of dry white wine and then add enough water to just barely cover the meat and vegetables. Set the pot on the stove over medium heat and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and skim off any white foam that floats to the top. Add more water as needed to make sure the meat and vegetables remain submerged in liquid. Let the meat cook for two or more hours, until it is very tender and almost ready to start falling apart.

Don't rush the meat, because you want it tender. However, if the carrots and onions look like they might be starting to get over-cooked and mushy, take them out of the pot before you finish simmering the meat. I always put the vegetables into the blanquette before serving it, but you can decide not to put them in the stew if you don't want to.
What you end up with is a good quantity (about a liter) of very flavorful broth. Pour it through a strainer to remove the peppercorns, allspice berries, and bay leaves. The next step is to make a roux and then a white sauce with the broth and some cream in which to finish cooking the meat along with some mushrooms... that's a blog post for tomorrow.

Here's a link to part two of this post. And here's a link to a recipe in French with my translation.

11 April 2021

Where were we?

Here are a few more photos I took at the horse and buggy show at the Haras du Pin in August 2011. Here's a link to the Haras du Pin web site, with information about the horse show (les spectacles équestres) and the different breeds of horses there. The site is in both French and English.

This map gives you an idea where we were. Our gîte for the trip was just east of the big town of Alençon near the smaller towns of Mortagne-au-Perche and Bellême. Northwest of Alençon is the Chateau de Carrouges, which we visited. And straight north of Alençon is the little town of Sées and it's gigantic cathedral. North of there is the Haras and the town of Argentan.

The Haras du Pin is in the southern part of Normandy, 160 kms (100 miles) west of Paris. It's 60 kms south of Caen and 100 kms southwest of Rouen. The Mont Saint-Michel is 125 kms west. The Haras 80 kms north of Le Mans, and 150 kms north of the city of Tours. It's a 2½-hour drive from Saint-Aignan on the autoroute.

10 April 2021

Au Haras du Pin : couleur et mouvement

Looking at the timestamps on my photos, and at the clock in pictures of the château, I think I've figured out that the Thursday afternoon show at the Haras du Pin in lower Normandy lasted about three hours. Every minute of it was enjoyable, even when big raindrops started hitting us and the horses. I guess I don't have a lot to say about it, but I do want to share the photos. It was exciting to be so close to such big, impressive animals.

I warn you; I have a lot of pictures of horses and buggies — more than 200. Don't worry. I won't post them all. Just for the record, my camera that day was a Panasonic Lumix ZS1. I still have it but it doesn't get much use these days.

09 April 2021

Horses at the Haras national du Pin

Un haras is what a stud farm is called in French. The dictionary says it's an Établissement où l'on sélectionne et élève
des étalons et des juments pour la reproduction et l'amélioration de la race chevaline.

Un étalon is a stallion and une jument is a mare.

I was in the middle of planning some posts about other châteaux in the Loire Valley as a follow-on after my Valençay series, but since the subject became horses, I was reminded of another trip we took in 2011, up to southern Normandy.

It's was Marie's idea to go to the Haras du Pin while we were up there. She's the woman from Normandy who wore
the flowery pink dress that blended right in with a mass of flowers growing in the gardens at Valençay

At first I wasn't convinced I wanted to go to the haras, but I was so glad I did when we got there. Evelyn and her husband were with us too. Actually, it was Marie who introduced me to Evelyn and her husband in 2003, when we first came to live
in Saint-Aignan.

It was a hot, thundery day in August. On Thursdays back then they had a horse show at the haras on Thursdays — maybe they still do — and we happened to be looking for something to do on a Thursday afternooon.

The national stud farm at Le Pin was founded in 1665 and the château was built in the early 1700s.
A thundershower threatened to wash out the show that Thursday afternoon, but finally only a few fat raindrops fell.
It was all very summery and atmospheric.

08 April 2021

Valençay's horse-drawn carriage

One of the features of the fine-weather season at Valençay is a series of little costume dramas that are performed in the courtyard of the château. Quite a few local people are employed by or have signed contracts with the château to provide costumes and other services. The actors wear microphones and the spectators can hear them over loudspeakers, but unless things have changed the scenes are performed only in French.

I think this will be my last Valençay post. I'm moving on... to where I'm not sure. Another month of lock-down (confinement) in France means more travelogues from me, in all likelihood.

07 April 2021

Covid-19 vaccination rates in France and the U.S.

I've just been reading some Covid-19 vaccination figures for France and for the U.S. My impression was that a much larger percentage of Americans have been vaccinated at this point compared to the percentage of French people vaccinated. Here's what I've seen:

As of 5 April, 9.3 million French people have had at least the first shot (including Walt and me). That represents 14% of the population (18% of the adult population). More than 3 million in France have had both shots now.

The goal in France is to have a total of 15 million people get the first shot by 15 April. Authorities predict that goal will be met, and probably early.

Here's the perimeter we are confined to now and for the rest of April at least, according to maps made available on the internet by the French government and other mapping sites. The circle on the map represents a 10 km (6 mi) ring around our house just west of Saint-Aignan:

Enlarge the map by "unpinching it" or clicking on it a couple of times.

Nearby towns including Montrichard, Valençay, Selles-sur-Cher, Romorantin, Blois and Tours are outside the circle. Actually, Romorantin, Blois, and Tours are all three more than 30 kilometers from our house, and we can't even request special permission to travel that distance. Within the circle on the map, we are required to carry a document that proves our address (a utility bill) when we go out so that the gendarmes, if they stop us, can verify that we are obeying the rules. There are two supermarkets, many wineries, and maybe 8 or 10 bakeries within our circle.

Meanwhile, here are some statistics for the U.S.:

According to an NPR web page updated yesterday, 32.4% of Americans have had at least the first shot now, and 18.8% have had both shots. In more than 20 states, more than 20% of the people have had both shots and are considered to be fully vaccinated.

State-by-state figures show about 25% have had the first shot in the states with the lowest rates (Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee...) and as many as 42% have had the first shot in the states with the highest rates (New Hampshire, New Mexico, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, for example).

In half of the 50 states between 30% and 36% of the people have had the first shot. For example: Florida 30.5%, North Carolina 31%, California 32%, New York 34%, Illinois 34.5%. Those five states combined have a population of 100 million people. France's population is between 65 and 70 million.

If you live in the U.S., you are probably more up to date about vaccination rates over there than I am. I just saw a report saying that Canada is again suffering from high infection rates, and that the province of Ontario may soon go into a new lock-down.

P.S. Our outdoor thermometer reads +1.1ºC this morning, which is slightly colder than yesterday at this hour, but not below freezing. We are being warned that we might have snow flurries or cold rain/sleet showers this morning, and it's snowing up in Normandy, about 150 miles north of us.

06 April 2021

Freezes, confinements, curfews, and closures

The big news here in the Cher river valley this morning is the cold weather. We had a spell of warm weather last week, and the grape vines sprouted tender new leaves. Our thermometer reads +1.7ºC right now, but out in the vineyard it's probably colder than that.

One weather site is reporting temperatures below freezing right now, and it's supposed to be even colder tomorrow morning. Our little fig tree/bush will probably freeze again, as it has several times in recent years. It too had sprouted during the spell of warm weather.

Some of the wineries have giant vineyard fans they turn on in situations like these. The fans stir up the air and keep the cold from settling in at ground level. In theory, it's just enough to keep the new growth on the vines from freezing. We can hear them whirring this morning — they sound a little like helicopters.

Meanwhile, here are some more or less miscellaneous detail shots I've taken over the years in and around the Château de Valençay. Grape-growers over there must also be holding their breath this morning.


Our new one-month confinement has now started. We're not allowed to venture more than 10 kilometers (six miles) from home, and when we need to go farther than that we have to carry with us a signed sworn statement that details the purpose of our trip and the time and date of our departure from home. We are also required to carry with us a document that serves as a justificatif de domicile, usually a utility bill that shows our current address. And don't forget that we are still under a night-time curfew (from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m.), during which time we're not supposed to go out at all unless it's to go to work or to deal with an emergency. The government is urging people to work from home and business to systematically allow employees to work from home. You of course need documents to prove your reason for violating the curfew if you go out at night. All non-essential businesses are closed, as are schools. The rules are pretty complicated, so it's just easier to stay home as much as possible.

05 April 2021

Valençay : la cave à vin

Is it fake dust, do you think? It's hard to tell. I wonder if all these bottles have wine in them, or are they empty? Next time I go to Valençay and into the château, I'll go equipped with a corkscrew. Anyway, this is the wine cellar, la cave à vin, at the Château de Valençay.

I don't have time to write anything else this morning because I'm trying to work my way through a Facebook crisis. Apparently, a hacker has created an account using my name. I don't know how to go about deleting the hacker's account. Meanwhile, the hacker is using that fake account under my name to send out weird stuff on FB messenger.

A friend in Australia wrote to me on e-mail this morning to say she had decided to find out if the weird messages were coming from me, or not from me, by replying to one and asking the sender a simple question: "I finally asked if it was true that Bertie is getting married. They said yes. So, either congratulate Bert from me, or maybe check your fb account." I asked the friend to go to the fake account with my name on it and unfriend the hacker. That's what Walt had to do, because he also had accepted the FB friend request from the fake me.

04 April 2021

Valençay : les cuisines et les cuisiniers

The kitchens at Valençay are famous because the château's 19th century owner, Talleyrand (Napoleon Bonaparte's foreign minister) had in his employ one of the great figures in the history of French gastronomy and cooking. His name was Marie-Antoine (a.k.a. Antonin) Carême (1784-1833). It has been said that Carême refined and developed techniques and ideas brought to France by Catherine de Médicis, the Italian queen of France who lived for a while at the Château de Chenonceau, where you can also visit the kitchens. The kitchens at Valençay are in the basement of the west wing of the château.

There's an interesting article here in the regional Nouvelle République newspaper about Antonin Carême's life and influence. While the Wikipédia article about the Château de Valençay says sort of snootily that that rien ne prouve qu'il [Carême] a séjourné au Château de Valençay, he worked as a cook for Talleyrand for 12 years. Somewhere else I read that he was the first cook to be called chef in France. He was known as le roi des chefs et le chef des rois. Maybe he just stayed in Paris and had staff that took care of the cooking at Valençay following his instructions. It has been written that cooking on wood fires and inhaling a lot of toxic smoke for many years might be reasons why he died prematurely at age 48.