31 December 2023

La Tour de l'Horloge à Chinon

Happy New Year to all! This is the tower on the far right in the photo I posted yesterday. I think I took the picture here in the year 2000, when Walt and I were staying in a gîte in Vouvray, a famous Touraine wine village. As I said yesterday, I think we climbed cup to the top of the Tour de l'Horloge back then. In a later post, I mentioned that the photo (below) of the black slate rooftops of Chinon might have been taken from the top of the tower. However, I can't believe I would have climbed all the way up to the top of the tower to take only a single picture. I can't find any more that look like they were taken from so high up. The tower itself is 22 meters (72 feet) tall. According to Google Earth, when you're at the top of the tower you are more than 250 feet (80 meters) above the level of the Vienne river below.
The Cadogan Loire guidebook describes the town of Chinon like this: "With fine medieval houses as close knit as chain mail fighting for space down between the hillside and the Vienne river,Chinon is dominated by the secure walls of one of the great ruined castles of the Plantagenêt kingdom. The town may appear distinctly provincial today, but Chinon is a place that retains more than a spark of old courtly glory. It's a magnificent little spot, with charming streets behind the riverside road and its pruned trees."

30 December 2023

Le Château de Chinon

The author of the Cadogan Loire guidebook writes that the Château de Chinon, from the town below, looks like "little more than a string of beautiful battered towers and fortifications..." He goes on to say that "making the climb up the winding, treacherous paths... offers wonderful views of the town and the Chinonais [the local countryside]."

I think I remember that Walt and I once climbed up to the top of the Tour de l'Horloge, on the right side of the picture. I'm glad we had a chance to go up there. Chinon itself is a beautiful town and it's a famous wine town too. Oh, and Tasha was born there. Chinon is not much more than an hour west of Saint-Aignan by car.

29 December 2023

Wrapping up another December

Above, our back yard on Dec. 17, 2009 (left) and Dec. 30, 2009 (right)

On the right, a mountain of apples in our back yard on Dec. 24, 2009

Below, two pictures of sunset as seen from our back door on Dec. 30, 2009

28 December 2023

Une vieille maison à Saint-Aignan (Loir-et-Cher)

This is one of the oldest houses in Saint-Aignan. It's a maison à pans de bois, remplissage de briques. It dates back, apparently, to the end of the 15th century and is called la maison Patin, but I don't know why. I took this photo on 31 December 2010.

27 December 2023

Bread stuffing cooked as "dresssing"

As the second-most important part of our Christmas meal, after the capon (or turkey if you want), I made a bread stuffing. It's like bread pudding — it's not actually sweet but sucré-salé. I used French baguette, but a cornbread stuffing would be just as delicious. After the bread, the most important ingredients make up the flavor base — chopped or diced onions and celery stalks. And bell peppers (red, green, yellow, or all three).

Meat in the stuffing is optional — especially since you're eating it with meats anyway — but if you have some to spare, it's good. I had smoked pork lardons (thick-sliced bacon) that needed to be used, and I also had a chunk of pâté that I bought from the butcher a few days earlier... not to mention the poached liver and neck meat of the bird. All that is the salé (savory or salty) part of the stuffing along with herbs (thyme, oregano, etc.) and spices (grated nutmeg, paprika, allspice, etc.) to taste, and some nuts — walnuts, chestnuts, pecans, or pistachios.

The sucré (sweet) elements in this stuffing (I call it "dressing" when it's cooked separately from the bird) are prunes or raisins, dried cranberries, and orange zest. You can substitute raisins or dried apricots for the prunes. Don't throw out the poaching liquid that the liver and neck cooked in. It's what you'll use to moisten the stuffing after you toss all the dry ingredients together in a big bowl or wok. Also put in a good bit of melted butter or duck fat. And put in two or three beaten eggs as a binder. Cook the dressing in a baking dish after all the liquid has been absorbed by the bread. Stir it all around, put in a loaf pan or other oven-proof dish and bake it alongside the bird for 30 to 45 minutes, until it springs back when touched. I don't know why we usually have this only during the holidays. It's good year round, whenever you bake a bird or maybe a pork roast.

26 December 2023

The 2023 Christmas capon

This is the 2023 Christmas bird. It's a capon (a fattened chicken) and it weighed about eight pounds before we cooked it. I stuffed a big bouquet of celery leaves, an onion, and a few garlic cloves into the cavity before I roasted the bird for 3.5 hours at 150ºC (300ºF) in our convection oven. I read a lot of French web sites about cooking a capon, and they all recomended cooking the bird low and slow.

I made a pan of bread stuffing (or "dressing") to cook alongside the capon. We always had bread stuffing (or cornbread stuffing) with turkey when I was growing up in North Carolina. Some of the ingredients in yesterday's stuffing were onions, celery, bell peppers, prunes, dried cranberries, walnuts, pâté, the precooked capon liver, pork lardons, melted butter, capon (or chicken) broth, and a couple of beaten eggs.

This was my plate at dinnertime. I like the leg and thigh of the bird (dark meat), while Walt prefers the breast (white meat). He made his family's cranberry sauce as a kind of chutney to have with the bird. He makes it with re-hydrated dried cranberries and a whole orange, skin and all, ground up in the food processor. The other side dishes were Brussels sprouts and winter squash purée. Butternut, for example, or, in this case, the mashed flesh of a French sucrine du Berry that Walt grew in this year's vegetable garden.

25 December 2023

A sunset and a fondue

We had a fairly nice, mostly sunny day yesterday. There was, however, a brisk, chilly wind blowing when I went out with Tasha in the afternoon.

Earlier in the day, at noontime, we had a cheese fondue for lunch. Here are some examples of the cheeses you can use to make what in France is called une fondue savoyardela Savoie is a region in the French Alps. Our fondue was a pound of grated cheese melted in a cup of white wine and flavored with black pepper, a tablepoon or two of kirshwasser, and a good grating of nutmeg. We ate it all, dipping cubes of French bread and cubes of apples into the melted cheese.

24 December 2023

A French-dressed capon for Christmas

You might be interested to see what a chicken, in this case a chicken capon, from our local poultry vendor looks like. It's been prepared for cooking. Most of the feathers have been plucked off. The little ones (pinfeathers, no?) that are left on the bird are burned off. The poultry preparer uses a little blowtorch to do that job. separator

The feet are cut off below the joint of the leg. That way, when the bird is roasted the meat doesn't pull away from the bone and get dried out. You can't see them in these photos, but there are giblets inside the chicken's cavity — the gizzard, the liver, etc.

The neck is left on. It's suprising how long it is. I took off the layer of skin that was left on the neck, and then I cut the neck off and poached it along with the other giblets to make stock for gravy and stuffing. I'll pull the cooked meat off the neckbones and feed the morsels to Tasha as a kind of gastronomic Christmas present for her.

Here's that neck and its shroud of chicken skin, along with the gizzard, starting to cook in salted water. The livers go in for a few minutes at the end of the cooking and will be incorporated into the stuffing we'll have with the bird. More tomorrow or the next day, after the capon has been roasted in the oven.

23 December 2023

Still here, almost awake

I got my fourth dose of the Covid 19 vaccine yesterday morning, not quite 24 hours ago. The pharmacist jabbed the needle into my left shoulder, which is both hurting and itching this morning. I did not get a good night's sleep because of the pain I felt every time I moved.

In addition, in the middle of the night, Tasha heard something and went wild barking. Walt said he thought he had heard a bell ring, but I didn't hear it. We have a bell at our front gate, and we can see it from an upstairs window, but there was nobody down there that we could see.

I never did get back to sleep. I hope that 24 hours from now I'll feel a lot better. Meanwhile, I think I'll start researching stuffing/dressing recipes in preparation for Monday's capon feast that we'll be cooking for our Christmas dinner.

22 December 2023

Birthday dinner no. 41

Walt and I started making and eating French steak au poivre as his birthday dinner in 1982. That makes this one number 41. This year, we bought a thick steak called a faux-filet from the local butcher. Instead of Cognac, we made a sauce with Calvados (apple brandy) from Normandy, along with crème fraîche, veal stock, and Dijon mustard. And a good amount of crushed black peppercorns, of course.

Surprisingly, the sauce, despite all that pepper, is pretty mild. It's also very tasty. The raw steak gets coated with crushed pepper and "marinates" for an hour or two before being seared in a hot frying pan. The meat absorbs the peppery flavor, and the brandy and cream tone it all down. Here's a link to a 2020 post about French steak au poivre, including a recipe. BTW, we didn't eat all of this. We have leftovers for today or tomorrow.

21 December 2023

Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera)

I have three little pots of these plants in the greenhouse, but they haven't bloomed this year. I think I haven't given them enough shade, and maybe I've been watering them too much recently. All of them, I think, are plants that I grew from cuttings taken from a bigger Schlumbergera that was growing in a pot in our garage when we moved into the house 20 years ago. I'm going to re-pot them together in a bigger pot or planter box this weekend and see if they do better.

I was just reading an article about Christmas cacti in Southern Living magazine on the internet. It explains how to get the plants to flower. It may be too late for this year, but maybe I'll get a good bloom next year.  Here's a post about the Schlumbergera plants that I wrote in 2012.

20 December 2023

Wines and vines outside Saint-Aignan

Yesterday morning on my walk with Tasha out in the Rendaudière vineyard, I ran into one of the people who tend the vines out there. He said his day would consist of a morning of pruning vines and then an afternoon of helping bottle wines. The expectation was that the winery, called le Domaine de la Renaudie, would have filled 20,000 bottles by the end of the day.

Above are some of the 75 acres of vines that belong to the Denis family, who own and operate of the Domaine de la Renaudie wine business. Our house and hamlet are visible in the distance. The Denis family grows Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Côt (aka Malbec), Pineau d'Aunis, and a few other grape varietals. The woman running the business these days is great-granddaughter of the man who founded the business many decades ago. She recently took over from her parents. According to the winery's web site, their potentiel de production is about 190,000 bottles a year, and about half of that is Sauvignon Blanc white wine that is part of the Touraine Chenonceaux appellation. The famous Château de Chenonceau is a 30-minute drive west of Saint-Aignan.

19 December 2023

Details of our life in the French countryside

This is part of our "neighborhood" — it's just two miles from Saint-Aignan. We are surrounded by vineyard plots and fields where crops including rapeseed, sunflowers, and wheat are grown. There are woods too, and maybe two three dozen houses.

This is a Christmas cactus that we found in the house when we moved in. It bloomed faithfully in December for many years. I still have some of these plants that I grew from cuttings, but so far no flowers this year.

A lot of us in the neighborhood heat with wood. We had a wood-burning stove put inside our fireplace in 2006 and have heated mostly with wood since then. We also have a boiler that burns fuel oil and radiators in every room in the house. Wood is a lot cheaper to heat with than fuel oil, but it's also a lot more work (cutting, stacking, carrying the logs). We have a good balance with the two systems, and if the power goes out so does our boiler. But we have the woodstove for heat and can even do some cooking on it.

Our December sunsets can be spectacular. We have good sunrises and sunsets all year long, in fact.

Have a look at this house for sale in our village. The asking price, including closing costs, is 134,375€ — a little less than $150,000 U.S. at today's exchange rate. To me it looks tempting. If we were thinking of buying right now, we'd be looking for a place with less land and fewer stairs to climb. This one comes close to fitting the bill.

18 December 2023

Views of and from our house in Decembers past

Above left, Walt talking to a neighbor who was walking her dogs back in from the vineyard.
Above right, the house itself, built in the late 1960s, has been home for us since 2003.

A photo taken from out in the vineyard, as snow melted. Our house is the one farthest on the left in the distance.

Left, the house through woods from a vineyard plot on the north side.
Right, our house, again, farthest on the left, with three neighbors' houses across the road.

17 December 2023

Watching clouds, watching birds...

...and watching Christmas sneak up on us. It's only a week away. I have busy days ahead. I have to take the Peugeot in tomorrow for a minor repair. Then I need to go into Saint-Aignan for a haircut on Wednesday.

Walt's birthday is Thursday, so I'll shop for his birthday dinner on Wednesday as well. And then Friday I go to the pharmacy for a Covid booster shot. On Saturday, one of us will go pick up the capon we've ordered for our Christmas dinner. We'll cook it on the morning of the 25th.

Just above is one of the older and grander houses in our hamlet on the edge of Saint-Aignan. And then there's a December picture of the woods that surround our hamlet and the Renaudière vineyard. I'll mention the weather: The temperature is very close to freezing this morning. It's supposed to be below freezing tomorrow morning. We're supposed to have freezing fog today and tomorrow. And have I mentioned sunshine in a while? No? That's because we're getting so little right now. According to the weather site I track for data like this, we've had a little less than 15 hours of sunshine over the course of the last 16 days. And almost 2 inches of rain.

16 December 2023

More December scenes and skies

I'm following the calendar but switching the years a little. Today I'm focused on mid-December photos between 2009 and 2013. In winter, sunrises and sunsets are definitely the most colorful times of the day. And at the bottom below are a couple of pictures of Bertie the black cat in Decembers past. Bert gave up the ghost in April 2023. He departed peacefully. We decided not to bring another cat into the household.