22 November 2017

Walks, past and present

When I lived in Paris, Washington (D.C.), and in Champaign-Urbana (Illinois), I spent a good part of my day, every day, walking. In all those places, I could walk to work every day, and walk back home at night. We're talking about the years from 1971 until 1986.

You can tell these are old pictures, because that's Callie the collie in the one above. She died last June.

Wow, 15 years. Now we've lived in Saint-Aignan for nearly 15 years, and I still take a long walk every day — with the dog. An afternoon walk one day, and then a morning walk the next. Repeat repeat repeat.

We walk down and around — which means walking back up.

In the years from 1986 to 2003, we lived in the San Francisco area in California. For most of those years — at least 15 out of the 17 or more we spent out there — it seems like all I did was drive around in my car. Commuting. The scenery was a freeway and thousands of cars, not vines and woods. I grew to despise that life.

On some mornings we see a nice sunrise.

I'll tell you: walking is better. It's less dangerous, to start with. It's less expensive (though you might go through many pairs of shoes). And you feel better about your life and your health. The pictures here show you some scenes from my daily walks.

Finally, here's a map of the short walk I plan to take with Natasha in a few minutes. It starts at the back door of our house and ends at the front door. It's only about a kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) — a loop around our hamlet and a couple of vineyard plots. Many of our walks are longer, but this will do for today.

21 November 2017

Prickly pear cactus

Cactus plants are native to the Americas, and the one below is growing on a street corner, across the intesection from a church, in Morehead City, North Carolina. It's called a prickly pear cactus.

When you think of American cacti, you probably think of the arid southwestern part of the United States, and not the humid Atlantic coast. But prickly pear species (Opuntia) are native to the East Coast from Florida north to at least New York. Another local cactus is  a small plant we call a pear pad. You have to be careful not to step on one when you are going around barefoot on sandy ground.

Above is a close-up of the same plant. The climate of coastal North Carolina is hot compared to Saint-Aignan's, and it's characterized not by persistent dampness but by heavy downpours of rain year-round, alternating with bright sunshine. I guess the cactus plants like that kind of climate and the area's sandy soil.

20 November 2017

Raclette for lunch

Raclette means "scraper" or "squeegee" — from the French verb racler meaning "to scrape," including "to scrape off" or "scrape out." Said that way, it doesn't sound like a very appetizing idea for lunch, does it?

Above is an appareil à raclette. Un appareil is an apparatus or appliance. This one is basically an electric heating element with little non-stick pans that slide under it and a griddle over the top. What do you scrape? Well, you put a slice of cheese in each little pan, set it under the hot element, and wait for it to melt. Then you scrape the melted cheese out onto your plate.

In fact, a raclette is a lunch or dinner of melted cheese served with meats and vegetables, especially steamed potatoes. It's a do-it-yourself kind of meal. It's self-service. Each diner or convive (dinner guest) melts her or his own cheese and serves his or her own meats and potatoes. Thus, in France it's seen as a repas convivial — a convivial meal, fun, friendly, and informal. No real ceremony is involved. The cheese is also called raclette, and it melts into a soft creamy mass.

Fromage à raclette is pretty good, with the right charcuterie (cold cuts) and warm cooked potatoes. For our recent raclette meals, with ours we've had the Alpine jambon cru called speck, saucisson à l'ail (cooked garlic sausage), the salami called rosette, and of course cornichons (pickles), both the classic little French vinegary ones known as gherkins, as well as the new-comers to France, cornichons aigres-doux (sort of like dill pickles). And good bread, of course.

When people used to cook in fireplaces rather than on modern appliances, they would put a big wheel of cheese on a special stand close to the fire and wait for the cheese to start melting. Then they would scrape the melted cheese off the cut side of the cheese wheel onto plates and take them to the table, where meats, potatoes, and pickles were waiting (along with hungry convives). That's the legend, anyway. Images here.

19 November 2017

A custard tart called « flan pâtissier »

So this has turned out to be a food weekend. In other words, cooking has taken up much of my time. I figure all the leaves that need to be raked up out in the yard can just wait. No rain is predicted for the coming week, and the temperature on Thanksgiving Day, this coming Thursday, is predicted to be in the mid- to upper 60s in ºF (about 18 ºC). That'll be perfect weather for raking up leaves and carrying them out to the vegetable garden plot as mulch.

So what did I cook yesterday? Dessert. A pastry concoction that's called a flan pâtissier. It's not like a Mexican flan, which is called a crème caramel in France. It's more like a custard tart or a chess pie.

The cream custard is thickened with cornstarch and eggs, and flavored with a touch of vanilla. Cornstarch is an American term, I think, and it French it's called fécule de maïs or amidon de maïs and often goes by the best-known brand name, Maïzena. In the U.K., it might be called corn or maize flour.

Here's the recipe for the flan, which is a standard item in French pâtisseries (pastry shops). You often by it buy it by the slice (une part, deux parts, etc. de flan), and if you've ever spent much time in France you must know it. Okay, here are two recipes, actually, if you want to make your own crust.

Flan pâtissier

1 pre-cooked pie crust
1 liter of crème fraîche liquide (heavy cream)
150 g sugar (⅔ cup)
100 g cornstarch (1 scant cup)
3 eggs
½ tsp. vanilla extract

Mix the cornstarch into ¾ cup of cold cream, stirring well. Bring the rest of the cream to a simmer in a large saucepan. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Separately, beat the eggs with the sugar. Add in the cold cream and cornstarch mixture. Then gradually pour in the hot cream, stirring constantly. Be careful not to add it too fast because you might curdle the eggs.

Pour the egg and cream mixture back into the saucepan and set it on low heat, stirring constantly with a whisk until it's well thickened and close to starting to boil.

Line a pie pan with the crust. Pour in the thickened custard mixture. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes at 325ºF (160ºC). Keep an eye on the flan for the last 10 minutes of cooking to make sure it doesn't get too brown on top. Serve cold.

I thought the flan would be good with a crust called pâte sablée, which might be described as a cookie-dough crust, rather than with a standard pie crust ("shortcrust" or pâte brisée). Here's the recipe I followed.

Pâte sablée
250 g of flour (2 cups)
130 g sugar (4 or 5 fl. oz.)
1 egg
100 g butter (7 Tbsp.)
1 pinch salt

First, melt the butter and let it cool slightly.

Next, stir the sugar and egg together. Add a pinch of salt and stir in the flour (I used a stand mixer).  Finally, pour in the melted butter and mix well to form a smooth dough.

Put the ball of dough into a pie pan and spread it using your fingers to cover the bottom and sides of the dish. Prick the crust with a fork and bake it for 10 minutes at 375ºF (190ºC).

You could let this "sugar-crust" dough rest in the refrigerator for a while and then roll it out, but I think it's quicker and easier to press it into the pie plate using your hands. Patch as needed.

18 November 2017

Food, anyone? Let's have chicken.

Life goes on. We've had a série noire of unexpected and therefore unplanned house repairs and maintenance issues over the past few weeks. Warning lights have come on in cars, drains have started to overflow, computers have gone down, debit cards have been deactivated, lights have suddenly gone dark, leaks have sprung, and the power has failed... For too long, it has seemed never-ending. The good news is that it feels like the situation is coming back to normal now.

So what are hapless homeowners to do? Eat, that's what. Healthy food, if possible, with wine and bread. One wintertime dish (these are dark, chilly, foggy days here in northern France) is the classic poule au pot — a chicken in the pot. In other words, a one-pot boiled dinner of chicken with flavorful vegetables including leeks, carrots, onions, potatoes, and turnips or parsnips. Nowadays, the pot you cook the chicken and vegetables in is likely to be a modern one: a slow-cooker or mijoteuse. And you're more likely to be cooking a tender chicken (un poulet) than a tough old stewing hen (une poule). So it's a poulet à la mijoteuse rather than a poule au pot. Adjust the cooking time accordingly.

Put the chicken or stewing hen into the slow-cooker crock along with some leeks, carrots, and onions. Add black peppercorns, allspice berries (piment de la Jamaïque), two or three whole cloves, and a teaspoon of dried thyme for extra flavor (I put them all in a spice ball). Pour on water and maybe some white wine, and throw in a couple of bay leaves. Cover the chicken with liquid if you can, or not entirely if there isn't enough room in the crock (it will still cook). Turn the slow-cooker on low and let the bird cook for four or five hours, until it and the vegetables are done.

Now you have a big slow-cooker crock full of good chicken broth as well as a tender chicken and some tender vegetables. Toward the end of the cooking time, you can add vegetables like turnips, parsnips, and potatoes to the crock. Or you can cook them separately — in a steamer, for example.

To the left is the chicken as it looked when it came out of the slow-cooker after about five hours of simmering at low temperature.

Here's a finishing touch. Put the cooked chicken in a baking dish, surround it with cooked vegetables, spoon a little of the chicken broth over all, being sure to get some of the fat floating on the surface of the liquid. Set the dish in a hot oven for 30 to 45 minutes, keeping an eye on it so it doesn't burn. Let it brown though.

Optionally, you can also make gravy (in the form of a velouté sauce) with butter, flour, and the broth. Another option is to serve rice and the gravy with the chicken and vegetables instead of potatoes.

17 November 2017

Autumn leaves — les feuilles mortes

Probably not what you were expecting.

As I wrote in a comment yesterday, I got the new power supply for my laptop and I'm back in business. Now all I need is some inspiration! You might wonder why I can't use my desktop computer for composing blog posts. It's a long story that I will spare you... take my word for it.

By the way, I'm supposed to go get my new debit card from the bank in Saint-Aignan (photo above) this morning. I went there on Wednesday only to discover that my card had been wrongly sent to a different Crédit Agricole agency. I was given the option of driving to that branch office or waiting until today.

I'm not optimistic that the Saint-Aignan agency will actually have the card for me this morning. I've now been without a debit/ATM card since about October 25, which is pretty inconvenient. Besides, I pay an annual fee for the privilege of having an ATM card. The bank has so far been unable to explain why my card was de-activated in the first place. Their error, I say. I'm seriously wondering if it's time to change banks.

16 November 2017

Dead in the water

That's what we used to say in Silicon Valley. In other words, there is an obstacle that can't be overcome, and we can't do anything about it.

Out toward the end of the road

In my case, it's my laptop computer. It's the computer I use early in the morning to compose my blog posts. The power supply has given up the ghost. I've ordered a new one, but it might not get here for another couple of days. I'll be back soon, I hope. The computer itself seems to work just fine, but the battery has a limited lifespan. It just doesn't have any incoming juice.

15 November 2017

En rentrant à la maison (Going back home)

The other day Natasha and I walked out to the end of the gravel road through the vineyard, which is about a mile long. Then we turned around and walked back. It probably seems like a boring walk to the dog, because we don't go up and down vineyard rows or through any woods. But she's a good sport and likes her exercise.

I took this series of photos, hoping that dim morning light conditions and a cloudy sky wouldn't make them come out too blurry to use. Above is the view from about half a mile (plus ou moins un kilomètre) from the house.

Just a little farther along, the house starts coming into view. Our landmark is the tall cedar tree in the yard — about the tallest tree in the whole area on this side of Saint-Aignan.

This is the home stretch. From here, maybe 500 meters from the house, you can distinguish it clearly.

And then we're almost there. That's the other side of the Cher river valley rising up in the background.

14 November 2017

Back yard trees in November

I took some photos early Sunday morning (Nov. 12), as I went out for a walk through the vineyard with Natasha. The light was dim but some of the photos came out. On the left is the linden (or "lime") tree that's right outside our back door.

Yesterday, right after lunch, I took the photo on the right, from a bedroom window. Yesterday (Nov. 13) obviously was a sunny day. It's cold and dry outside now. Click this link to see what the linden tree (un tilleul) looked like in November 2012, but two weeks later.

The wind we had on Sunday (Nov. 12) really knocked most of the leaves off the ornamental prunus tree farther out in the back yard.

Look at this photo of the same tree that I posted on Nov. 13, 2012. I must have taken it on Nov. 11 or 12 that year. There's dearly departed Callie. Les années se suivent et ne se ressemblent pas forcément.

13 November 2017

Boudin noir — good sausages

We ate boudin noir for lunch on Saturday, with some French-fried potatoes and a big green salad. These were boudins noirs made with onions. Another variety is made with apples.

Boudin noir in English is "blood sausage" or (mostly British) "black pudding". The English word "pudding" is a derivative of the French word boudin. For boudin noir, the filling inside the sausage casings is a kind of pudding. There are also boudins blancs, which are made with a "pudding" of bread crumbs, pureed chicken, turkey, or pork, with herbs, mushrooms, truffles, etc.

Here are the ingrédients as listed on the packaging of the boudin noir that we ate, and which I bought at SuperU.

sang de porc 36,5% (origine France) [blood]
oignons 34% [onion]
gras de porc (origine France) [fat]
couenne (origine France) [pork rind]
sel, sucre, épices et plantes aromatiques [salt, sugar, spices, herbs]
boyau naturel de porc [casings, a.k.a. pork intestine]

Remember, natural sausages are made using pork intestines as casings (including hot dogs). Or the intestines of other animals like lambs. And all the meat we eat contains blood, to one degree or another. So boudins noirs are good eats. And tasty. Especially when served with good, hot Dijon mustard.

This is a savory apple tart made with boudin noir. Apples and pork are a good marriage. Here's a link to the recipe.

Boudin noir is sold already cooked. It's good warmed up in a frying pan on medium heat, in a hot oven, on a barbecue grill, or even in the microwave for 5 minutes at about 450 watts (medium). Or baked in a tart.

12 November 2017

A late, wet autumn

I went to the pharmacy last Friday. One of the employees greeted me and asked if I had enjoyed l'été indien (été means summer) that we had experienced in central France in October. It told him I was in the U.S. for much of the month of October, so I'd missed it. The point is, it's rained now for four days in a row, starting Friday. November weather can be depressing.

11 novembre 2017

But there are some pretty scenes despite the rain. The photo above and the photo below are ones I took from our living room windows yesterday, despite a steady drizzle.

11 novembre 2017

Autumn has unfolded very late this year, it seems to me. Look at the photo below, which I took out in the vineyard in October nine years ago. Maybe autumn was just especially early that year. It's hard to remember.

12 octobre 2008

One good thing about having a 12-year old blog is that it lets me go back and review events and conditions in earlier years compared to now.

11 November 2017

Gratin de pommes de terre aux lardons et aux trois fromages

As I said yesterday, I had three pieces of cheese I wanted to find a good use for before they got too ripe, along with a package of smoked bacon lardons and a bag of nice firm-fleshed potatoes. Not to mention a good appetite. So I made a potatoes au gratin dish that fit those ingredients and appealed to me.

I based my gratin on the recipe for Truffade auvergnate (meaning from the Auvergne region of France). I didn't have the un-aged Cantal cheese (called tomme fraîche) used in a classic truffade, but I did have a block of Mozzarella, a triangle of Munster, and a left-over piece of heart-shaped Neufchâtel (a Normandy cheese). All three fit the bill — soft, creamy, and not too strong-tasting once rinds were removed.

 Usually, a truffade — it's called that because French and Italian people thought potatoes resembled little white truffles (truffes) when they first saw them two or three centuries ago — is cooked in a covered pan on top of the stove. I decided to cook mine in the oven, but to sauté the sliced potatoes first in a frying pan, in batches, and then layer them in an oven-proof dish with cooked lardons fumés. After I cooked it, I found this recipe that pretty much describes what I had done, right down to the proportions and amounts.

I cut up the cheese into little cubes — the cheeses were too soft to grate — and just spread them over the top of the layers of partially cooked potatoes and cooked lardons. Then I put a domed lid on the pan and set it in a hot oven until all the cheese had melted and the potatoes were very tender.

For a truffade, the point is not to brown the cheese. It should be melted and creamy. But the potatoes and bacon are slightly browned so that you get that good caramelized flavor. This would be a great breakfast or brunch dish served with eggs. Try not to eat too much.

10 November 2017

Pommes de terre... mais comment ?

It's going to be potatoes (pommes de terre) for lunch today. I bought a bag of nice potatoes at SuperU the other day. They are of the Anoë variety, which are « pommes de terre à chair ferme »  and are ideal for steaming (pommes vapeur), sautéeing (pommes rissolées), or scalloping (en gratin). In other words, they are boiling potatoes, not baking potatoes.

So this morning I have to decide how I'm going to cook them. One dilemma I have to resolve involves bouillon vs. cheese. I have a liter of smoky chicken broth (as well as a liter of smoky pork broth) in the refrigerator. I also have some cheeses — Mozzarella, Munster, Neufchâtel, Emmental, and Tomme de Savoie — that are lurking in the fridge and calling out to me. "Melt us!" — that's what I hear them saying.


One possible potato preparation for lunch is truffade, a specialty of the mountainous Auvergne region of central France. It is made with thinly sliced potatoes, smoked pork lardons (diced thick-sliced bacon), and a bland young Cantal cheese. You cook it in a skillet on top of the stove. Here's a link. Mine will have to be unconventional, because I don't have the prescribed kind of cheese.

Pommes de terre à la boulangère

A second possibility is pommes de terre à la boulangère — potatoes cooked the way the baker's wife would cook them, which means in the still-hot bread oven after the day's bread is baked. These potatoes are cooked in broth with aromatics (onions, garlic, herbs) as a kind of scalloped-potato casserole. Problem is, the pommes boulangère, don't include cheese or lardons. Here's a link.

Pommes de terre gratinées clermontoises (et deux boudins noirs)

Another Auvergne specialty is called pommes de terre gratinées clermontoises and is definitely a possibility. It's made with whole boiled or steamed potatoes, cream, and cheese. You mash the cooked potatoes slightly with the back of a fork to flatten them, put them in a baking dish, and then you pour on cream, sprinkle on grated cheese, and bake everything in the oven. Again, here's a link. If I choose this one, I might have to be rebellious and add some lardons — or cook some sausages to go with the potatoes.

Pommes de terre fumées

Finally, there's an Alsace specialty that is really tempting. It's called pommes de terre fumées ("smoked potatoes") and is made with sliced potatoes, butter, onions, and smoked bacon lardons — but no cheese. Again, a link to the recipe. I have some decisions to make while I'm out walking in the vineyard with Tasha this morning.

09 November 2017

Three for a Thursday

Three photos of Tasha. She's just over eight months old now. She's a pretty good dog, although we still have to walk her on the leash because at the drop of a hat she'll take off running and disappear down the road or into the woods. So far, she eventually comes running back, but it's not a good feeling to lose sight of her like that. She's still a puppy.

Above is her "Are we going out now?" look.

This is the "Okay, I'll wait while you take the photo." look.

Finally, a stylized (a.k.a blurry) shot of Natasha posing in mid-walk on the rue des Laurendières, which runs through the hamlet down the hill from ours. It's interesting that it's called une rue — "a street". It's more of a dirt track, but it makes for a good place to walk, since there's really no car traffic on it. When a car does come along, once in a blue moon, it's going slow enough that we have plenty of time to get out of the way.

08 November 2017

Vouvray once more

Yesterday we did something we don't do often, and we went to a place we hadn't been to in several years. It was Vouvray, where our 17-year-old Loire Valley adventure started in October of the year 2000. That was when we first spent time in the region and stayed for a week in a gîte rural in Vouvray that we really liked.

This is the first Loire Valley winery we ever visited, back in 2000.

In 2001, we spent two weeks with friends in the same gîte (a two-bedroom house with a big open kitchen and living room, as well as a huge grassy front yard). We continued exploring the Loire Valley. In 2002, we decided to see if we could find a house to buy in France, with eventual retirement in mind. We had been living and working in California for more than 15 years. We started our French house search in the Loire Valley, and it wasn't a long search. In fact, four days after we arrived in the area as house-hunters in December 2002, we had bought a house. Now we've lived here since June 2003.

The winery and caves are built into a steep hillside.

One of the places that we stumbled upon in October 2000 was Jean-Claude Aubert's winery, located in an area of Vouvray that's called La Vallée Coquette. Coquette means "pretty" or "charming" and the valley has an element of that, but it's mainly agricultural- and rural-looking. That's one of the things I like about it — it's not prettified or pretentious. It has authenticity. Here's an old post of mine showing the winery from the inside and giving more information about the wines.

Fall colors at the Aubert winery in Vouvray's Vallée Coquette

The point of going to a winery in Vouvray is, of course, to buy some wine. If you don't know Vouvray wines, you might be surprised when you taste them. They tend toward the sweet, and they are some of the most prized white wines in France. They can age beautifully over many years. The only grape allowed in Vouvray and its wines is Chenin Blanc, which is also known locally as Pineau de la Loire.

Grape-growing and wine-making are agricultural endeavors, and it shows.

What we bought yesterday was six bottles of dry sparkling Vouvray, and two bottles each of three still (not sparkling) Vouvray wine — dry, semi-sweet (demi-sec), and "mellow" (moelleux, meaning "sweet" or "dessert" wine). The price for these 12 bottles of fine Vouvray white wine came to less than 80 euros — considerably less than $100 U.S. Yesterday, the two customers ahead of us, a couple from Brittany, completely filled up the trunk of their car with cases of wine and headed home with it all.

Houses and other buildings like these are called "troglodyte" — cave dwellings.

We'll enjoy the sparkling wines over the winter. Vouvray sparkling wines are made by the same process as Champagne but with a different grape varietal. And they sell for about half the price of the most inexpensive Champagnes, which are not inherently better, just different. The sweeter still Vouvrays will be good with, for example, foie gras and figues confites (duck liver and candied figs) at Christmastime, and with holiday desserts including cheese like Roquefort and our local goat cheeses.

Here's Walt maneuvering our Citroën car to get it out of the winery's tight courtyard.

Over the years, I've done a number of posts about Vouvray, and we used to go over there (an hour's drive) more often than we do nowadays.  It was fun to see the place again, and to take a few photos around the Aubert winery.