21 October 2016

Dried cayenne peppers, etc.

On Wednesday, friends — and not the same ones who gave us the figs — brought us a big bag of beautiful cayenne peppers from their garden. To preserve them, I got out the food dehydrator that I bought a few weeks ago. The result is beautiful, don't you think? The long hot peppers are perfectly desiccated, almost weightless, and dark red. You can hear the seeds rattling inside them when you shake them.

We many decide to turn these into crushed red pepper flakes, but not today. This morning we have a plumbing and heating contractor coming in to begin work in our bathroom, putting up a towel warmer to replace the old radiator, changing out the old faucets on our bidet, and, finally, plumbing in a new shower stall.

I'll get back to Châtillon-sur-Indre tomorrow.

20 October 2016

Rooftops in Châtillon-sur-Indre... but not much else

Yesterday we drove 30 minutes down to the town of Châtillon-sur-Indre to have lunch with friends at a restaurant called L'Augerge de la Tour. More about that later... After lunch we took a walk around the town. The streets were basically empty on a Wednesday afternoon. It was picturesque in a ghost-town kind of way.

Châtillon-sur-Indre, like many places in rural France, has lost a lot of its population over the last few decades. From 3,600 in the 1970s, the number of people who live there is now is down to about 2,700 — a 25% drop. The town has existed since at least the year 850.

Many storefronts are empty. Shutters on houses are closed up tight. It's all slightly run-down. While we were walking, an 87-year-old man rode up on a bicycle (he told us his age) and asked us if we had come as tourists to see Châtillon. We said yes, and he told us we would pretty much have the town to ourselves. "All the young people have moved away," he said. "There's not much left." Disappearing France...

19 October 2016

Encore des figues

Our friends' fig tree just won't quit. Day before yesterday we received an impromptu delivery of another 3 lbs. — 1.4 kilos — of ripe green figs. It was a nice surprise.

This time I thought about making fig newton cookies — or as somebody on the web called them, "fig chewtons." I washed, de-stemmed, and cut up all the figs into quarters.

Here you can see that they might be called green figs — figues vertes ou figues blanches en français — they are pink inside. And ripe.

I figured if I cut them up and cooked them down to make a compote, I could freeze the compote in small containers and take some out whenever I wanted to make some cookies or enjoy some compote de figues avec du fromage de chèvre, du roquefort, ou du foie gras.

Here's the compote after two or three hours of cooking. I'm not sure if it's done yet, and I'm wondering if I should puree it. Maybe I'll puree a mall batch and see what that's like. I cooked the figs with sugar, honey, lemon juice, port wine, and pinches of powdered cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.

18 October 2016

Magret de canard aux navets

I just searched my blog from top to bottom and back again to see if I could find a recipe with photos of the classic French dish called « canard aux navets ». I could not. I can't believe I've been blogging for 11 years and I've never posted about Duck with Turnips — especially since I love glazed turnips.

Usually duck with turnips is made with a whole roasted duck and the standard purple, white-fleshed turnip. What inspired me to make the dish yesterday was two things — we had a couple of very large duck breasts, or magrets de canard, in the freezer, and at the supermarket on Saturday I found some pretty little yellow turnips. One piece of magret was easily enough for the two of us. The yellow turnips were a little smaller than a tennis ball.

All I did to cook the duck breast was to sear it in a hot frying pan, cooking it skin-side down first to render the fat under the skin, which I had scored with a sharp knife to keep the breast from curling. Then I set it in a warm oven to wait while I glazed the turnips, which were first steamed in a steamer pot along with some pearl onions. I sauteed the partially cooked turnips and onions in the duck fat and then added some teriyaki sauce as a glaze. I could have used honey or sugar, but I had made up a batch of teriyaki sauce a few days earlier and decided it would be good in duck with turnips. I laid the duck breast back in the pan, surrounded by the vegetables, covered the pan, and let everything finish cooking that way. Duck breast is served rosé, as we say in France, meaning it is medium-rare. It tastes more like beefsteak than like poultry.

Yellow turnips are not the same thing as rutabagas, but from the little bit of reading I've done there's a lot of confusion about that in the U.S. Rutabagas are also yellow, and they resemble giant turnips, but they are not of the same species as turnips. The navet jaune « boule d'or » is a variety of turnip and its scientific name is Brassica rapa. The rutabaga — known in the U.K. as "swede" because it supposedly came from Scandinavia — is a turnip-cabbage hybrid (Brassica napobrassica), and is called « un rutabaga » in French as in the U.S. It is also sometimes called « le chou-navet ». What I had was not at all rutabaga, but real yellow turnips.

17 October 2016

Fall colors and activities

I don't think all the grapes are in yet. Well, there are always some white ones that say on the vines much later than others. They are used in making late-harvest vin doux or vin demi-sec — sweet apéritif or dessert wines. I think there are some red-wine grapes still out there too.

Last week, the two Domaine de la Renaudie guys were harvesting right outside our hedge. Below, the one driving the vendangeuse is emptying its bins of grapes into the trailer for transport down to the winery. We'll see if they come back to harvest some more grapes today.

Grape leaves and others are just starting to take on their fall colors. Below is a blackberry leaf. Soon the vineyard will be yellow, orange, and red instead of bright green.

Yesterday for lunch we had teriyaki-glazed turkey wings with sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Today, lunch will braised duck breast with yellow turnips. Canard aux navets is a classic French dish.

16 October 2016

Vingt-cinq figues... confites

Generous friends with a prolific fig tree gave us about three pounds of these green figs a few days ago. They're Americans who live just a few miles upriver from us. Walt made a tart using the few figs we got from our little tree, plus some of these. I set about candying the green figs to preserve them for the winter. They're really good with cheeses like goat and Roquefort, and especially with foie gras.

The way to confire or "candy" the figs is to cook them in a sugar syrup. Put them one layer deep in a wide, shallow pan. Cover them with sugar as on the left. Set them on a burner at medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes and let the sugar melt. Add just a few drops of water if you need to as the figs get hot and start to release some juice.

Then set the pan aside and let it cool. Leave it in a cool place for 24 hours — I set it outside on the terrace, well covered. Then the next day, put the figs back on the heat and let them come to the boil. Simmer them again for 10 minutes, let them cool, and leave them in a cool place for another 24 hours. When you re-heat them, they plump up noticeably from absorbing the sugar syrup. Don't throw the syrup away — it's figgy and delicious.

On the third day, plump the figs up again by putting them back on the heat to simmer for 10 more minutes. Let them cool for a while. Then arrange them on a sheet pan on a silicone pad or parchment paper. Set the pan in the freezer. On the fourth day, take them out of the freezer and transfer them to a plastic container or bags. You'll see that they don't freeze hard because of their sugar content, but they won't really stick together and you can keep them for a few months in the freezer. Take a few out every week or so and enjoy.

15 October 2016

Poulet à la créole

I got an unexpected prize from the vegetable garden a few days ago — four very nice bell peppers that were two-toned. Green, and partly red. What came to mind was Shrimp Creole, a New Orleans dish. The last time I made that was more than 10 years ago. You can make it as spicy as you like, adding cayenne pepper or bottled hot sauce to taste.
I didn't have any shrimp in the freezer, but I did have chicken breasts. So it would be chicken creole, or Poulet à la créole. The first step is to make the creole sauce. It's onion, bell peppers, and celery (the "Louisiana trinity" of flavor ingredients) cooked in oil, with chopped tomato and sliced or chopped garlic added. The first step is to brown the chicken breasts in vegetable or olive oil, and then take them out of the pan when they are pretty much done and set them aside. Cook the vegetables in the same pan.
When the sauce is just about done to your liking, with the peppers cooked as much or as little as you like, add the chicken back in and cover the pan for a few minutes to make sure the chicken is cooked through. One final ingredient we had was some fresh basil growing in pots that Walt brought inside when the weather turned cold outside. You can see I just tossed in a handful of whole leaves and let them collapse into the creole sauce.
When all was said and done, and we were at the table enjoying our lunch, Walt said:  "So what's the difference between this and Poulet basquaise?" Good question. I made that Basque specialty just a couple of weeks ago. It's basically the same thing, but spiced with piments d'Espelette from SW France.

Here's a recipe for Chicken Creole using tomatoes out of a can, just in case you don't have any fresh garden tomatoes.

14 October 2016

Scènes de la saison

There aren't many apples on the trees around the hamlet and vineyard this year, but there are a few. Maybe I should pick these before they fall and get lost in the high grasses and weeds. That's part of the vineyard in the background, with our house on the right. The harvesting of grapes is ongoing, by the way.

Yesterday was a foretaste of winter. We expected rain, but all we got was a fine mist that turned into a soft drizzle every now and then. This morning it's 10 degrees F warmer than it has been for the past week or so at this hour.

Here's a closer shot of the house seen through the weeds around the pond out back. The image above is a close-up of the plant I was looking through when I took the photo below. You can also see the garden shed and back gate, below.

And finally, tall artichokes. Obviously, we haven't had a lot of wind lately or they would have blown over. All that fluff would have blown away. Those are apple trees and a hazelnut hedge behind them, and then the woods on the north side of the yard.

Yesterday we had teriyaki-glazed parsnips and sausages for lunch. Today it will be chicken creole, using the some of the bell peppers I picked a couple of days ago and some of the tomatoes too. I'm hungry already and it's not even 7 a.m. yet.

13 October 2016

Les dernières tomates

I woke up this morning to the sound of radiators popping and cracking as they heated up and expanded. In other words, it's cold outside. Yesterday when I went out in the vineyard there was a fairly heavy frost in places that weren't sheltered by trees. I was wearing two fleece jackets, a hat, and gloves. I should have put on long underwear, but I hadn't thought to.

When I got back home, I decided to go pick the rest of the tomatoes and peppers out in the garden. There were quite a few fully ripe tomatoes to be gathered, and a lot of tomatoes that were just starting to turn pale pink. I picked them all. The pink ones will continue ripening. I also gathered up half a dozen bell peppers that are partly green and partly red..

Now the weather is supposed to turn rainy, and warm up. The kale plants will enjoy that. On dry days, we'll go pull out the tomato plants and get rid of them. Maybe we'll bring in some green tomatoes and see what we can do with them. We'll also gather up the winter squashes and pumpkins and store them somewhere. Let's hope that the rain isn't too constant and that we'll have decent working conditions.

12 October 2016

Forbidden fruit

C'est-à-dire « cépages interdits ». According to an article I just read, there are six grapes varietals that are "outlawed" in French wine-making. Apparently, the grapes can be grown but they can't be made into wine. It's not really clear why. The ban dates back to 1935.

One day years ago I was talking to a neighbor who has about 15 acres of vines up behind our house. I don't know if I brought up the subject of outlawed varietals, or if he did. Either way, he told me that one of his fellow vignerons had a row of such grapes planted among his "legal" vines. He treated the news like a big secret, but he told me more or less where the banned grapes were planted.

Walt located them a while back, once they had grapes on them. I'd never noticed them. I see two signs that they are the ones the neighbor told me about. First, they are planted in a short row on the edge of a plot of white-wine grapes, but half the grapes in the row in question are red. Also, the white grapes in the forbidden row are different from the white grapes planted next to them, and they haven't yet been harvested, while the grapes in the rest of the parcel have been.

Why are these varietals — clinton, noah, jacquez, herbemont, othello, isabelle — unfit to be turned into wine? People whisper that the wine made from them would drive people crazy, the way it was rumored that absinthe did. Others says wine made from them just wouldn't taste good. There is some evidence that the ban might date back to the 19th-century importation of vines from North America that brought the phylloxera scourge to French vineyards and nearly killed the wine-making business here.

I don't know what the grapes in my photos here are, but they are the ones. I've tasted a grape of each color and I don't feel any crazier than I did before. Here's a link to the article (in French) that I read this morning.

11 October 2016

Left behind

Harvesting continues in the vineyard. Les vendanges continuent. Now the Renaudie guys seem to be working not just mornings but also afternoons to bring the rest of the grapes in. The weather is supposed to turn rainy in a day or two, and the rains will continue next week. That's normal for the second half of October.

I went out with the dog yesterday morning and I was admiring the grapes all around us as we walked. Walt went out in the afternoon and said two big plots just on the north side of our yard have now been stripped of their fruit.

I took these photos farther out in the vineyard, about half a mile (nearly a kilometer) from our house. I don't know what this thing is called that is left behind when the grapes are harvested by machine. I heard or read the word last week, but now I can't remember it and I don't know where I saw or heard it.

One thing I read about machine-harvesting as compared to hand-harvesting is that when bunches of grapes are cut by hand, the woody structure at the center of a bunch goes with the grapes. It can impart a flavor to the grape juice and resulting wine that is not necessarily desirable. So chalk one up for machine-harvesting.

10 October 2016

Hunters, grapes, and leaves

Yesterday afternoon I took Callie out for our walk at about 5:30. It was Sunday, and at this time of year, that means there were hunters out there. I could hear gunshots off in the distance. As we went out the back gate and started down the hill, I saw a little brown dog, a terrier of some kind, just disappearing between two rows of vines. I told Callie to stay close to me.

Our relatively new neighbors have a little brown dog like that, and I figured he was out there, maybe having escaped from their fenced-in yard. And then I saw a hunter. He was dressed in camouflage — a real costume, right out of central casting. He was carrying a rifle and it was not "broken" — not open but, I assume, loaded and cocked. Most hunters don't carry guns around like that when they're in the vineyard. With this hunter was a little boy, maybe 10 years old.

I was close enough to the man and the boy to shout a big Bonjour! to them. The hunter looked at me and almost scowled. That's never happened out there before. Most hunters flash and smile and return the greeting. They chat, and they are curious about Callie. What kind of dog is she? A hunting dog? No? And so on. This surly hunter just turned and walked away. I didn't enjoy the encounter. It's strange having unfriendly people carry and even fire guns just a hundred yards of so from our house.

Meanwhile, the vines in a lot of vineyard plots and rows all around us are still heavy with big bunches of purple grapes. This is the latest harvest we've seen since we came to live here in 2003. The grapes are beautiful, and you really are tempted to pick some and take them home. Of course you don't do that. But you can pinch one here and there and taste the differences between different varieties. At this point, they are all sweet and juicy.

09 October 2016

Today's weather report

This morning, as best I can determine after watching CNN reports and looking at maps, videos, and articles on several weather sites on the internet, what's left of Hurricane Matthew is sitting very close to, or even right on top of, Morehead City, my home town in North Carolina. But it has weakened, and the major winds and rains seem to be north of the eye of the storm, up the coast near or even in the state of Virginia.

It's funny to see the names they put on these maps. Emerald Isle is resort town on the barrier island across from Morehead City, with a small year-round population but a lot of rental properties and what in French are called résidences secondaires ("cottages" and "condos"). The only road and bridge to the place now called Emerald Isle have been built in my lifetime. It's especially curious to see the name Portsmouth on the map. It's a ghost town — the last people who lived there passed away many years ago. There's a big town called Portsmouth up in Virginia. Maybe that's what confused whoever put the place names on the map.

Most of the heavy weather is in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey,
even though the eye of the storm is over coastal North Carolina.

Oh well. Still now, sustained winds in Matthew are at 75 mph (120 kph), with gusts up to 90 mph (150 kph). That's nothing to sneeze at. I won't know until later today how my family, friends, and home town have fared. I do know that there is major flooding in N.C. inland, with roads washed out and trees down. There apparently have been numerous rescues of residents and drivers by emergency services over a wide area. I hope the people that I know have been smart enough just to stay at home over the past 24 hours.

08 October 2016

Hurricane Matthew rides up the SE U.S. coast

I'm of course still preoccupied with the bad weather along the U.S. southeast coast. All I can do is look at weather sites on the internet (accuweather.com, weather.com, etc.) and try to understand what is happening and what might happen next. My home town, Morehead City (pop. 8,000) in North Carolina, is at the northern end of Matthew's path, they are saying, and therefore is less at risk than other cities and towns. Right now, it's about 1 a.m. over there.

Above is a map I grabbed off weather.com a few minutes ago. You can see the storm sitting off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, between the beautiful old cities of Savannah (metro pop. 375,000) and Charleston (metro pop. 740,000). I hope a lot of people have left those areas and moved westward to get out of the way. For scale, the distance from Savannah to Morehead City is about 400 miles (650 km) — a 6½ hour journey by car.

This is a very low coastline of mudflats, salt marshes, sandy beaches, and wide estuaries. It's called "the low country" in South Carolina. If the winds push water up against it, as they will likely do, the flooding from the storm surge might be disastrous. And that's especially true if the worst of the storm's winds arrive at high tide. Much of Charleston, for example, is at sea level, and the highest points in the town are only 20 feet above sea level. Morehead City is even lower — 0 to 16 feet (5 m) of elevation.

Look at the rainfall totals! Five to fifteen inches of rain (between 125 mm and 400) will fall in just a few hours. Right along the coast, the rain might not be a big problem, but 50 miles inland, where there are hills and valleys and a lot of small and larger rivers, flooding can be catastrophic. Eastern N.C. has already had significant rain and some flooding over the past few weeks.

07 October 2016

October sunrise

I'm kind of preoccupied with Hurricane Matthew right now. I have friends and relatives on the east coast of Florida — I think of commenter Notes from Abroad who just moved to Jacksonville — and my home town, Morehead City in North Carolina, is vulnerable to the storm too. For right now, the forecast is for Matthew to turn out to sea before it reaches the central N.C. coast, but that can change. My mother, sister, and many relatives and friends still live in Morehead.

Meanwhile, the weather here in Saint-Aignan is kind of surreal. We're still in this long dry spell. There are very few windy days. Skies are crystal clear much of the time. Temperatures at sunrise are in the low 40s in ºF — around 5ºC — which feels really cold.

Clear skies are to blame for the frigid-feeling mornings. Yesterday I went out for the walk with the dog and I regretted that I hadn't put on gloves and a hat. I cut the walk short because it was uncomfortable. I'm not sure I'm ready for winter weather. It seems like it was summer just a few days ago.

06 October 2016

La potée à ma façon

So it's back to wintertime food. It's cold this morning, and the weather, while clear and sunny, stays chilly until mid-afternoon. Since our main meal is lunch, hearty foods are back in the meal plans.

This is what is called a potée, and in France each region — probably each cook — has a slightly different recipe. The French-English dictionary says it's called a "hotpot" in English, but I've never used that term. I think "hodgepodge" is a related word. I think I'd call the potée a boiled dinner. In France, the ingredients are pork, cabbage, and potatoes, with other vegetables as available. Made with beef it would be a pot au feu, and with chicken a poule au pot. I first learned to make potées from a woman who ran a charcuterie (pork butcher/deli) on the rue Montorgueil in Paris more than 30 years ago. She seemed to enjoy telling me what to make with, and how to cook, the products she sold.

I made my latest potée with Tuscan "dinosaur" kale instead of cabbage. I cooked the kale with onions and carrots in chicken broth seasoned with bay leaves, black pepper, and allspice. When the kale and carrots were tender (after 60 to 90 minutes of cooking), I added chunks of potato, turnip, and rutabaga to the pot and let that cook for another 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a separate pan I poached a couple of sausages (one smoked Montbéliard, and one plain Toulouse) and two slices of smoked pork belly (poitrine fumée). When all the vegetables were cooked, I added the meats and some of their poaching liquid (fat skimmed off) to the pot for extra flavor. We enjoyed the potée. Now I can make soup with the leftover broth and vegetables.

05 October 2016

Vendanges à la machine

I went out yesterday morning with my camera, hoping to see a group of people hand-picking grapes. No luck. I did see a big blue harvesting machine running up and down the rows of a vineyard plot planted in white-wine grapes (probably Sauvignon Blanc).

A couple of hours later, before lunch, I snapped a photo of the tractor that was working in tandem with the harvester (Fr. vendangeuse) as it drove by our kitchen window on its way back down to the winery to deliver a trailer-load of grapes.

It was followed closely by the vendangeuse itself. I wonder what one of those machines sells for. It must represent a huge investment by the winery owners.

Above is the machine à vendanger working out in the vines earlier in the day. The Domaine de la Renaudie has about 60 acres planted in grapes and produces about 230,000 bottles of wine annually, including more than 20,000 bottles under the new Touraine-Chenonceaux appellation. It's a big operation, but family-owned.

It seems to me that nearly all the red-wine grapes — mostly Gamay, Cabernet Franc, and Côt (or what is now being called Côt/Malbec on labels) — are still hanging on the vines. I'll be interested to see how many of those are harvested by pickers and how many by machine. The grapes above are just outside our back gate.