24 July 2017

Teeth and clutches and green mayonnaise

Today I have an 8:30 dentist's appointment over in Montrichard, which is 10 or 12 miles downriver from us. I broke a filling a while back. I had an appointment a couple of weeks ago and the dentist repaired the filling, but it broke again. I'm hoping the second time will be the charm. But as they say, jamais deux sans trois...

I'll be driving the Peugeot over to Montrichard, because it now has a new clutch. We picked it up from the mechanic's on Friday. Yesterday morning I took it out for a test drive — pleasure jaunt, really, just because I enjoy driving it. I went to places like Châteauvieux, Faverolles-en-Berry, and Lye (where I bought some good bread at the bakery) — about 25 miles of driving in all.

I'm hoping we'll be able to keep the little Peugeot in running order for many more years. I realized recently that we have driven it only 5,000 kilometers, or 3,000 miles, since I had the timing belt replaced in February 2015. The car is nearly 17 years old.

The pictures here are ones I took on Saturday morning, when we had such a spectacular rainbow out over the vineyard. Yesterday, by the way, was Natasha the Shetland sheepdog's five-month-iversary. She's becoming less a puppy and more a dog. In other words, she's settling in and calming down.

We made fish and chips for lunch yesterday. To accompany the fish, I made what is called une mayonnaise verte. I read different recipes for it in books and on the internet. Some called for blanching fresh herbs — we had basil and parsley, but dill or tarragon would be good too — in boiling salted water and then pureeing the leaves. I decided to go the simple route and just puree the raw, fresh leaves in the blender with vegetable oil, and then make the mayonnaise with that oil. It was good with the fish.

23 July 2017

Au bon endroit, au bon moment

We were surprised by a few hours of rain yesterday morning. And I was even more surprised because it was my morning to walk with Natasha into the vineyard. When I stepped out the back door, it was already raining very lightly. Here's what I saw.

The rainbow formed a full arc across the western sky, from north to south. I couldn't take it all in with my camera, though, from my viewpoint. Some photos from our upstairs windows might have shown it all, but then the big trees in our back yard would have probably been in the way.

The light kept changing from minute to minute. The rainbow itself would go faint and then the sun, behind me, would peek out between passing clouds and the rainbow's colors would really glow. The clouds kept changing colors too.

Natasha and I tried to keep walking but rain started falling harder. At one point, we veered off the gravel road down along a row of vines. A sudden downpour caught us, and heavy raindrops were slapping and tapping on the grape leaves. The sound was impressive.

The dog and I turned tail and headed back toward the house. This is the view we saw as we looked toward the east and into the sunrise. By the time we got back to the house, the rain had stopped. Isn't that always the way? But it started up again and lasted for a few hours.

I decided to go out the front gate and take a picture from out on the road as the rain started up again. The rainbow was soon just a memory... and a few photos. Events like this often last more no than 5 or 10 minutes. It's good that the time for our walks is at sunrise.

22 July 2017

Flan pâtissier au lait de coco

Yesterday I made what is called a flan pâtissier (a kind of custard tart or cream pie) using coconut milk instead of cream. It's a recipe you can find here, on La Cuisine de Jackie, in French. I've adapted the recipe for American cooks, substituting vanilla extract for the vanilla bean in Jackie's recipe and converting the measurements to U.S. cups.

Flan pâtissier au lait de coco

1 pie crust
1 liter of coconut milk
150 g sugar (⅔ cup)
100 g cornstarch (1 scant cup)
3 eggs
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. dried grated coconut
1 Tbsp. rum (optional)

Mix the cornstarch into ¾ cup of cold coconut milk, stirring well.

Bring the rest of the coconut milk to a simmer. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Separately, beat the eggs with the sugar. Add in the cold coconut and cornstarch mixture. Then gradually pour in the hot coconut milk, stirring constantly. Add the grated coconut and the rum (optional).

Pour the mixture into a saucepan and set on low heat, stirring constantly with a whisk until well thickened.

Line a pie pan with the crust. Pour in the coconut milk mixture. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes at 325ºF (160ºC). Keep an eye on the flan for the last 15 minutes of cooking to make sure it doesn't get too browned. Serve cold.

The coconut custard tart is delicious, even if I do say so myself. Thanks to Jackie for the idea and recipe. (The term "custard tart" always makes me think of Lionel Hardcastle on the British comedy series As Time Goes By.)

A U.S. cup, by the way, is 8 fluid ounces (240 ml, or less than half a pint in British terms). You can use less sugar than my recipe specifies, but don't use less cornstarch. You can also try using two whole eggs and one yolk rather than the three whole eggs I put in. Oh, and I bought a crust — pâte sablée — at the supermarket. You could easily make the flan with a different crust or no crust at all.

21 July 2017

Fleurs bleues

The Renaudière vineyard is just full of these blue flowers right now. The hot dry weather we had for a couple of months must have been ideal conditions for them. The flowers are one of several that are commonly known as cornflowers.

The plant that flowers this way is actually wild chicory. It's closely related to the salad greens that we call "curly endive" and "Belgian endive" in the U.S. Bitter salad greens like radicchio and escarole are also closely related to it. Wild chicory is native to Europe, but has been naturalized in North America, China, and Australia.

By the way, I'm throwing in this photo of yesterday morning's sky over the vineyard because of how blue it is too. I mentioned hot weather up above, but we're in a cool snap right now. It feels almost chilly outside this morning, and yesterday I had to put on jeans and a long-sleeved shirt before I went out walking with Natasha.

 Back to the flowers — why are they called "cornflowers"? It's because they grow on the edges of fields of grain, and the British word "corn" just means grain. In America, "corn" is maize, which is also called "Indian corn." In France, the wild chicory plant is called — surprise! — chicorée sauvage. It's also called chicorée amère — bitter chicory — because its leaves have a bitter taste.

In the middle ages, the wild chicory plant was considered to have magical qualities. It was used to blunt or quell the human libido. In other words, it was understood to be an antiaphrodisiac. The French wikipedia article lists 13 varieties and subspecies of wild chicory. One variety gives the chicory that is added to or substituted for coffee.

20 July 2017

Flowering hens

Sempervivum tectorum, commonly known as "house leeks" or "hens and chicks", just keep spreading in our back yard. Right now, they are flowering. Sempervivum means "always living". They're called joubarbes in French, or Barbe de Jupiter. Some people refer to them as petits artichauts.

I have them planted in pots, planter boxes, and  concrete blocks all around. Some are growing directly in the sand and gravel that surrounds the house as a kind of patio.

Sempervivum plants are the kind of plants I like. They are hardy. Drought doesn't bother them. Freezing weather doesn't hurt them either. They seem to love heat and full sun. They survive and spread gradually without being invasive.

This species is native to southern Europe and North Africa, apparently. They obviously also thrive in the Loire Valley climate. They grow on rooftops and were thought in ancient times to protect houses from lightning strikes.

The first ones I had were given to me by a woman who lives on the other side of the village. G. is nearly 90 years old now, and she doesn't get out and about as much as she used to. I thank her for these plants, which I've been growing for a dozen or so years now.

19 July 2017


It was 90º up in the loft space yesterday afternoon, and 95º on the front terrace. Fans couldn't do us much good because it was hotter outside than it was in the house. It's a dry heat, however, so sleeping conditions weren't too bad. Predictions say to expect a thunderstorm today, with a high temperature in the mid-80s (all temps in ºF). Maybe the house will cool off a little.

The little sheltie puppy Natasha continues to be impeccably well-behaved on our walks in the vineyard. She runs up and down the rows of vines but comes to me whenever I call her. Yesterday she got a good look at a deer, and she ran after it for a ways through the vines. Then she came back to me when I called her. That was a real test. Walt says he thinks it was Callie the collie who showed Tasha how to behave on walks.

Our kitchen window and the terrace are both festooned with bright red geraniums this summer. They're plants that spent the winter in the new greenhouse and did very well in there.

18 July 2017

Said the spider to the ’fly...

It's hot here again. Yesterday the temperature up in the loft got up to nearly 90ºF. What a summer we are having. This morning at 5:45 a.m. it's 77ºF — 25ºC — in the house, with all the windows and doors open as wide as possible. There's not a breath of air stirring. I just turned on two electric fans.

Sunday morning I took my camera out on the walk with Natasha. I took a bunch of macro photos, and here are four of them. I was taking a photo of a Queen Anne's lace (wild carrot) flower when I noticed there was a white "crab spider" sitting on it, camouflaged.

Crab spiders are fierce hunters, apparently, but the butterfly below had nothing to fear from the spider above — it was too far away.

It was not very close to me either, but I was able to get these two photos using the zoom lens on my camera. I tried to get closer to the butterfly, but it fluttered away each time I approached.

I didn't even know whether I had managed to get a photo of the butterfly until I got home and displayed these on the computer screen. The butterfly has some wing damage from an encounter of some kind. As usual, you can enlarge the images by clicking or tapping...

17 July 2017

Glad to be in the back yard

Tasha always seems happy to get back home after one of our walks around the vineyard. She stands at the back gate and waits impatiently to be let back in.

Here's a view of the vegetable garden as I saw it yesterday morning.

It won't be long before we start getting ripe tomatoes. Walt picked some green beans day before yesterday, and we've been getting zucchini (courgettes) for a week or two now.

Yesterday I mentioned that we have grape vines in our back yard. Here they are. They're white table grapes of some kind, but the vines are shaded by two big apple trees, so they don't produce many bunches of grapes.

We do enjoy the leaves, though, at this time of year. It's unusual for us to make stuffed grapevine leaves twice in the same year, but that's what happened in 2017.

16 July 2017

More dolmas

I realized a few days ago that the leaves on the half-dozen grape vines that grow in our yard (they're table grapes) were still bright green and perfect-looking. On Friday I went out and cut four dozen of the best ones and blanched them in a steamer pot.

Then I made a rice filling for them to make grape-leaf dolmasfeuilles de vigne farcies in French. The filling is based on this recipe, but I adapted it by using crushed pistachios instead of pine nuts, chopped raisins rather than currants, and dill instead of mint. I put in less cinnamon than called for, and I added some spices including ground fennel seed and cayenne pepper. I also added two beaten eggs to the stuffing to make it "stickier" and easier to work with.

Rice stuffing for Dolmas

1¼ cups (150 g) raw rice
1 onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups chicken broth (or water)
½ cup toasted pine nuts
¼ cup dried currants (tiny raisins)
¼ cup (or more) chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup (or more) chopped fresh mint
1½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. allspice
3 Tbsp. white wine
salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon (for the juice and the rind)

Cook the onion in olive oil until it softens. Add the rice and cook it in the olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add the broth and cook on low heat until the liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally. The rice doesn't need to be completely cooked at this point, because it will cook later for quite a while inside the grape leaves.

Toast the pine nuts and add them to the warm rice along with with the currants (raisins), herbs, and spices. Mix well and and add the juice of a lemon and a little white wine — save the lemon rind to cook with the stuffed leaves. Season the rice mixture with salt and pepper, stir well, and let cool before filling and folding the grape leaves.

The stuffed leaves cooked for about an hour in a 160ºC / 320ºF oven, covered with some olive oil, chicken broth, and lemon juice. Vegetable broth or just water would be a good cooking liquid too, but don't leave out the olive oil and lemon juice. And don't let them boil too hard. We ate the dolmas warm but not hot, after they came out of the oven and cooled down. They're good with a yogurt-cucumber sauce like Greek tzatziki. See this post from 2010.

15 July 2017


That's enough about dogs and cats. Bertie came up to the sliding glass doors a few minutes ago, but without a mouse. I gave him his food. Then he came inside and Tasha pounced on him. Bert headed downstairs to the safety of the garage, where his kibble bowl is.

I still have photos of the Château de Chambord that I took in June and haven't yet posted. Here are a few of them. That visit seems like it happened an age ago. It was four weeks ago today.

Since then, Callie the collie died suddenly and unexpectedly. Tasha the new puppy learned how to walk down all the stairs in the house as well as to walk up them, so she's independent now and has the run of the house. She's really growing up. We had Callie's body cremated and now we have received the ashes from the vet's. We are trying to plan a time to go out and scatter them in Callie's favorite wooded area on the edge of the vineyard.

Then the clutch went out on the Peugeot. We almost decided to sell the car, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. It's the car we bought in 2003, the year we came to live here. I guess the car has too much sentimental value for me to be willing to part with it. Sometimes the pace of change gets to be too fast and you have to try to slow it down.

Finally, the weather has become bearable again. It was blazing hot for much of June. Then it turned uncomfortably chilly for a week or so. In early July, it turned hot again. Right now the mornings are slightly brisk, but the afternoons are warm and sunny. High temperatures are in the mid-70s to 80 in ºF (mid-20s in ºC). It's the way it's supposed to be.

July 4 and July 14 — our 15th of each in France — are now history for another year. Summer is on cruise control. The garden is growing. I'll get the Peugeot back from the mechanic's in three or four days and we'll put the Citroën back in the garage, taking it out only for longer drives. We'll putt-putt around the area in the old Peugeot, from supermarket to bakery and back, the way we've been putt-putting around for the last 14 summers. Vive la France !

14 July 2017

A mouse in the house

This thing about the cat having free access to the house has major drawbacks. Bertie just brought a live mouse in through the terrace doors. The mouse of course ran to hide under the furniture with both Bertie and Natasha chasing him. I don't know how we'll get him out of here if Bertie doesn't catch him again.

I guess the little rodent is Bertie's Bastille Day present to us. Now I've had to close Tasha out of the room, because I don't want her playing with an injured or dead mouse. Cats! They really are wild animals in a way that dogs are not.

Our friend Evelyn says she keeps a butterfly net handy to deal with such situations. I wish I had one right now. E. and L. can catch the live prey that the cat drags in and then release it back outdoors.

Right now I'm thinking we are going to have to take the room apart by moving the rug, coffee table, and sofa, as well as maybe the cabinet that has the TV and stereo system on it, so that we can try to get the rodent out of here. Sigh...

P.S. We can see the mouse running around when we move pieces of furniture, but we can't catch him. Now I won't be able to leave any doors open in the morning when Bertie goes out hunting. The cat will just have to stay outside. I don't know what ever possessed me to bring a cat into the household anyway. Phooey.

Walt has now set two baited mousetraps under the sofa. Maybe they will be effective.

13 July 2017

« Tradition » ou « classique » ?

Do you know what the difference between a French baguette classique (also called normale and even more commonly ordinaire) and a French baguette tradition is? We're talking about French bread. More than six billion (6,000,000,000) baguettes are sold in France every year, according to one article I just read. Some 75% of the bread sold in France is of the ordinaire variety. Taste in bread is a very subjective matter. I imagine you can tell which kind is which in the photos below.

Our village baker makes both styles of bread. In fact, the baguette called tradition or tradi has existed officially only since 1993. Back then, nearly all the bread consumed in France was pain ordinaire — actually, the name doesn't do it justice. It could be very good, but it varied a lot from bakery to bakery. Legally, a lot of chemical additives could go into it. Sometimes it was (and still is) made with dough that was "fabricated" in industrial bakeries, frozen, and then delivered to retail bakeries to be cooked on site. Sometimes it was made by the retail baker in his or her own shop, but that was becoming less and less common.

Twenty-five years ago, bread sales in France were plunging. People were eating less and less of it. It was bland and went stale very fast. The government intervened to create the so-called baguette de tradition, a bread made exclusively by artisan bakers. No frozen dough is allowed, and all chemical additives are banned. "Traditional" bread contains only flour, salt, yeast, and water. To qualify, the dough must be left to rise and rest twice the amount of time needed to make "ordinary" bread dough.

Recently, we've been buying both tradition and ordinaire baguettes, just to remember the difference. Paradoxically, the "non-traditional" bread is what I remember from the 1970s and 1980s, when I lived in Paris, Rouen, Grenoble, and Metz at different points in time. Here in the Saint-Aignan area, our village baker makes both. The tradi baguette costs 1.10 euros, and the ordinaire baguette goes for 0.90 euros. Anecdote: a year or two ago, a baker opened a new shop in the village (Pouillé) about five miles east of us and refused to make or sell baguettes ordinaires. He went out of business recently, because his customers weren't ready to give up their daily baguette ordinaire.

P.S. The baguette on the left is a baguette de tradition and the one on the right is a baguette ordinaire.

12 July 2017

Notre monde a changé de peau

It's a new world around here. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, you might be thinking. Well, both statements are true. (Le Monde change de peau is the title of an Alain Souchon song from the 1970s. I learned a lot of French listening to his songs.)

Natasha is a much more confident and self-assured dog than Callie the border collie ever was. She learned a lot from Callie about how to fit into this household, but has applied the lessons in her own special way. Callie died suddenly about three weeks ago, after 10 years with us.

The biggest difference so far is the dog's relationship with Bertie the black cat (age 11). Actually, I'm not sure how much of the difference is a function of Bertie's attitude or the dog's. Natasha seems to treat Bert the same way Callie did, nipping at him and teasing him, but Callie was a much bigger animal and the cat might just have been afraid of her. He's not afraid of Natasha.

For us it means living differently. We no longer have to separate the two animals by closing doors and arranging schedules so that one animal or the other can be in the house. Bertie and Natasha co-exist, more or less peacefully, though the cat often seems to "run screaming from the room" when the puppy gets too rambunctious.

11 July 2017

Petites prunes rouges

Last Saturday our neighbor came over from across the street and rang the bell. She's the neighbor who lives most of the year in Blois, 25 miles north of Saint-Aignan. She and her husband are here for the summer season.

"There are millions of those little red plums over here, on and under the tree," she said. "They are ripe and sweet. If you want some, come and get them."

She didn't have to ask twice. We've enjoyed these early-ripening summertime plums for years now. They're about the size of large cherries, and they are a "freestone" vareity so they are easy to work with.

I went over there Sunday morning and picked — well, gathered — about three pounds of the plums. I say "gathered" because I picked them all up off the ground, and didn't take any off the tree.

Walt and I pitted them all. You can see they are red-skinned but yellow-fleshed. Pits from these plums are the ones I planted years ago, and now my plum tree is about as big as the one in the neighbors' yard. Problem is, the plums are not the same. These are better.

Walt made a simple tart with one batch of the plums. He rolled out a crust (pâte brisée, or short crust), sprinkled almond powder in the bottom, and arranged pitted plums in the shell to bake. I neglected to take a photo before we had eaten part of the tart.

I cooked the rest of the pitted plums with some sugar and vanilla to make a compote. It's not very sweet, and the tartness of the plums means that we can eat it as a sweet compote, with cream or yogurt and more sugar —  or we can add vinegar and some spices to some it to make a plum sauce to serve with veal, chicken, rabbit, or turkey.