20 January 2018

Que d'eau !

So much rain! That's what my title says in French. It's raining again this morning. We've been in a very wet and windy period since early in December. The rivers are high. Fields are flooded down the road, along the Cher. Rivers to the east of us are also overflowing, and the Seine around Paris is one of them. The ground in the vineyard is squishy.

The Renaudière vineyard, 9 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2018

The rains came a little late this year. I remember that I was dreading them on my blog back in October and November. A month later, we started getting dowsed. If we didn't each have a walk to take with the dog every day, I guess it wouldn't matter so much. Still, all these gray skies when we are living through the shortest days of the year are fairly depressing.

Winter sunrise

The news reported last week that people up in Lille, in the north of France near the Belgian border, had not seen the sun in two months. More rain has fallen in the eastern part of the country than here in the Loire Valley. So we're not the ones suffering the most.

Tasha waiting and watching while I snap a shot

Then, yesterday morning we had sunlight for about two hours. It was amazing. That's when I took these photos. Now that Tasha is well behaved on our walks, and we don't feel like we have to keep her on a leash, my hands are free to hold a camera. It's like we are back to the good old days when we still had Callie.

On the road home after a morning walk

It clouded over yesterday like most days, but it didn't rain. This time of year, we either have warm (for winter), windy, and wet weather. Or we have colder, still, foggy weather. I'm not sure which is worse. Gloomy days, oras the weather forecasters say — "perturbed" days — you don't get to choose. At least it's not cold. We've had very little, if any, freezing weather so far this winter.

19 January 2018

The Maxenceul reliquary at Cunault, part 2

Here's the second batch of photos of the châsse or reliquary chest at the Eglise Notre-Dame de Cunault. I've muted the colors, especially the red and yellows, on these, and I went back and did the same on the photos I posted yesterday.

One photo I didn't take back in 2006 was a full view of the chest itself. You can see it here however. What I'd like to know is its actual dimensions, but I can't find that information and my memory is vague.

On that blog I just linked to for a photo of the chest I read that primitivement the chest, in the form of a church, was covered in thin silver "leaf" with black markings to make it resemble the work of a goldsmith. It was later painted as we see it now.

Here's a link to a site that has a lot more photos of the interiors and artwork at Cunault. In it I read that because there are no representations of St. Maxenceul on the chest, it is assumed that it was named after him long after it was placed in the church, and it may well hold relics of another saint or of the Virgin Mary.

I was happy to find these photos in my archives and I've enjoyed working on them and reading about the châsse at Cunault. P.S. This blog has an even better photo of the reliquary chest.

18 January 2018

Cunault : la châsse de saint Maxenceul

One of the key figures in the history of Christianity in Europe — especially here in the Loire Valley — is the man called saint Martin de Tours. Martin was a Roman soldier born in the early part of the 4th century (316 or 336, depending on who you believe) and deceased at the end of that century. He converted to Christianity in mid-life and then converted a lot of other people in the Loire Valley. One of his disciples was a man named Maxenceul, also a saint, who evangelized the area west of Tours, near Saumur on the Loire, where the Eglise Notre-Dame de Cunault now stands.

Without doubt, one of the most amazing things there is to see at Cunault is a reliquary chest — une châsse in French — that is said to have been carved from a massive piece of walnut wood in the 13th century. The word châsse is etymologically related to "case", "cassette", and French caisse, meaning "trunk" or "crate". One source I read says that the poly-chrome painting is not original but a later "improvement" (no date specified).

Maxenceul lived nearly a thousand years earlier than the 13th century. He founded a monastery in the Cunault area, on the model of Martin's in Tours. Five hundred years after its founding the Normans (Norsemen, Vikings) invaded central France, pushing up the Loire River. The religious community at Cunault had to retreat eastward.

The monks ended up in Burgundy, carrying the "relics" or remains of Maxenceul with them. A few decades later, when calm returned to the Saumur area, a few of the monks from Cunault returned. With the support of the dukes of Anjou, including Foulques Nerra, they founded a new monastery and built the Cunault church, which was built between the 11th and the 13th centuries. Sometime around the time the church was being completed, some artist or group of artists carved a chest to keep the revered "relics" of Maxenceul in.

I read in another account that one of the miracles cited at the time of Maxenceul's beatification was something that happened in the 16th or 17th century, during the wars of religion. The reliquary chest that supposedly contains Maxenceul's relics (there is some doubt about what is actually inside the chest) was thrown into waters of the Loire by Huguenots. Instead of sinking and being lost, it miraculously floated a few miles downstream and washed up on the banks of the river. Wood floating — imagine!

I wonder if the chest was painted after that incident. Anyway, it's a beautiful piece of work. I was lucky to have good light conditions back in July 2006 when I took these pictures. I wasn't using a tripod, and my camera then was vintage 1999. Maybe these photos are another miracle! I have some more that I will post tomorrow.

17 January 2018

Cunault : mère et enfant

Two of the most striking pieces of statuary in the Église Notre-Dame de Cunault are respectively 900 and 500 years old. And one of its most impressive artifacts, a reliquary chest, is 800 years old. The church itself was built over a period of 200 years from the 11th to the 13th centuries.

This Virgin and Child, carved in wood, is from the 12th century. One page I read said it came from or is at least in the style of works done in the Auvergne region of central France.

The work above, also in wood but painted, is from the 13th century. More about it tomorrow.

Finally for today, this Pietà goes back to the French Renaissance of the 16th century, according to what I've read.

Here's a close-up of the Vierge de Pitié, the French term for this kind of statue, or Mater dolorosa (Latin). I assume it was the work of an artist, or artists, in the Loire Valley, but I haven't found much firm information about it.

16 January 2018

More Cunault images

Sometimes it's just photos and I don't have a lot to say about them. That describes today.

The author of the Cadogan Loire guidebook says that it has been claimed that there are more than 200 carved capitals like this in the church at Cunault. Somewhere I read that most of them are perched so high up that you need binoculars to get a good look at them. I wonder if my longest zoom camera might let me get more photos.

This is a shot I took in the year 2000 with the Kodak camera I was using back then.

The church at Cunault seems alive and well-cared for nowadays compared to many I've seen in rural France. It's not dark and dank but bright and full of light.

A tile floor in the church

Many of the old churches around here have rows of chairs instead of pews, so this shot surprised me when I saw it again. The poster in this shot is announcing that a concert is being given in another local church on this day.

15 January 2018

Cunault : peintures murales

The Michelin Guide Vert mentions that there are a few 15th century wall paintings remaining in the church at Cunault. Here are some I took photos of on my last visit there.

I don't really know anything about these paintings, but there must have been many more of them decorating the walls and columns of the church all those centuries ago.

In the mid-19th century the church was classified as a monument historique by the French government. A report from that time describes the church as privately owned and in pitiful condition.

A famously miserly and wealthy man named Mr. Dupuis-Charlemagne, who lived in nearby Saumur, owned the church building, which he used as a warehouse to store wood and other stuff. He had two "doors" — crude openings, really — cut through the north and south walls of the church for the convenience of his workers.

It's amazing that any of these paintings survived the neglect and mistreatment the church suffered over the centuries. The so-called "restorations" of the nineteenth-century often did much damage to churches like Notre-Dame de Cunault as well.

14 January 2018

L'Église de Cunault : ampleur et hauteur

Of the Église priorale de Notre-Dame de Cunault, the Michelin Guide Vert says that from the outside, the church offers the eye nothing noticeably extraordinary (« n'offre rien qui retienne véritablement l'attention »). It goes on to mention the "massive" bell tower with its stone steeple and the church's "wide and flat" façade.

So what you see once you go inside is almost astonishing. You might be amazed by the breadth and height of the columns holding up the vaulted ceiling and roof. Quoting the Guide Vert, « on reste saisi par l'ampleur et la hauteur des piliers... » Cunault is "one of the largest Romanesque edifices in western France," according to the Cadogan Loire guidebook.

Monks fleeing the 9th-century Norsemen who invaded their island, Noirmoutier, off France's Atlantic coast, founded the abbey at Cunault further inland in the year 847 of our era. Only 15 years later, the invading Norsemen forced the religious community to move much farther east, all the way to Burgundy.

Decades later, the monks returned to Cunault and built an abbey church in the style of the Benedictine churches of Burgundy. It was designed to accommodate large crowds and processions of the faithful on annual pilgrimages to the site. Of the monastery, only the church built in the 11th to 13th centuries survives.

In medieval times, Cunault was  a prosperous river port on the Loire. It's not far from the town of Saumur, and the city of Angers less than an hour away by car. The author of the Cadogan guidebook describes the surrounding area along the south bank of the river as "a string of utterly charming Loire-side old villages" with several beautiful churches and the ruins of an old fortress set in "delightfully wooded" countryside with nice river views.

All these photos date back to July 2006. I took them with a Canon Pro90 IS digital camera that I'd been using since the year 2000.

13 January 2018

Notre-Dame de Cunault, near Saumur

There's a church called Notre-Dame de Cunault near the banks of the Loire River just west of the town of Saumur, a couple of hours from Saint-Aignan by car. I've visited it at least twice, once in the year 2000 when Walt and I were here from California on vacation, staying in a gîte rural in Vouvray with a friend, and again in 2006 with CHM, who was visiting from Paris.

July 2006

I want to thank CHM for telling me about Cunault and about so many other places of interest and beauty in France that I've been able to visit over the past 25 years. He and I have done a lot of touring around together since I moved to France 15 years ago. He's a Parisian d'un certain âge who divides his time between Washington DC and Paris. Knowing him and his sharing of so much information and advice has greatly enhanced my experience of France. We've been friends for more than 30 years.

Oct. 2000

For some reason, I don't think I've ever posted on this blog any of the photos I took at Cunault in 2000 or 2006. I found them a few days ago when I was looking for photos of other sights and monuments I've visited in France, and I was pleasantly surprised how beautiful Cunault is. This is the first installment of another multi-post photo tour.

July 2006

The first Christian edifice built at Cunault was a monastery founded in the 4th century by a disciple of saint Martin de Tours who evangelized the region back then. In the 9th century, the monks of Cunault were forced to decamp when Vikings invaded the region. Monks returned a century or so later and benefited from the support of the local ducs d'Anjou, including the fierce Foulques Nerra...

12 January 2018

Turkey... façon coq au vin (5)

Here's a recipe. The Larousse Gastronomique food and cooking encyclopedia explains that the French term coq (rooster or cockerel) is synonymous with poulet (chicken) in culinary terminology. You can make Coq au vin with a young chicken, but the original idea behind the dish is to make it with an old rooster or roasting chicken that would be tough unless slowly cooked for a long time. I think turkey is the right kind of bird for this use. Coq au vin would be a good slow-cooker or crock pot dish. This is my adaptation of a fairly sketchy French recipe described as traditionnel that I found on the internet. There's also a good recipe in the American Joy of Cooking book.

Coq au vin
(Chicken — or turkey — braised in red wine)

1 large roasting chicken or small turkey, 6 to 8 lbs.
2 onions, sliced or diced
4 carrots, sliced
1 bottle red wine
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves
salt and pepper
3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 or 3 fl. oz. cognac
2 Tbsp. flour
1¾ cups (14 fl. oz.) chicken broth
2 or 3 Tbsp. tomato paste or sauce
½ lb. (or more) smoked pork lardons (or bacon)
½ lb. button mushrooms

The day before cooking the coq au vin, cut the chicken or turkey into serving-size pieces (disjoint it) and put the pieces in a large bowl with the onions, carrots, red wine, garlic, herbs, and salt and pepper. (You could also use about 5 lbs. pre-cut chicken or turkey parts.) Let it marinate for 24 hours or longer.

Pour the marinade through a strainer, saving all the ingredients. Heat up some oil in a big pot and brown the lardons or bacon. Take the bacon out of the pot and brown the chicken or turkey pieces in the fat, in a couple of batches as necessary.

With all the pieces of poultry in the pot, pour on the cognac and (optionally) flame it or just let it boil away. Take the poultry pieces out of the pot and reserve.

Put in all the vegetables from the marinade into the pot and brown them lightly. Add the flour and stir the vegetables to completely moisten the flour. Add the herbs, the marinating liquid, and the the broth and bring it to the boil to thicken it. 

Put the chicken or turkey pieces back in the pot and set it on medium heat, or put it all into a baking dish and set in in a medium oven. Let it simmer for 2½ to 4 hours, lowering the heat as necessary.

Toward the end of the cooking time, slice the mushrooms and sauté them in a skillet. Add them to the pot with the chicken and vegetables and let them cook in the liquid for 20 to 30 minutes.

Cooking time will vary depending on the age, the size, and the type of bird you're cooking. Don't hesitate to stop the cooking, let the dish cool down, and reheat it before serving. Coq au vin can benefit from being reheated.

Here's what the Joy of Cooking says about the color of Coq au vin sauce:

"We are often asked why this recipe turns out a rich medium brown rather that the very dark brown sometimes served in restaurants. Abroad, in country places where chickens are locally butchered,the blood is often kept and added to the gravy at the last minute as a thickener... After this addition, it is not allowed to boil. Here in America, this effect is often imitated by adding caramel coloring."

I remember being served Coq au vin that had a sauce that was almost black in Paris restaurants. My home-cooked version has the more medium brown color — no blood or caramel coloring added.

11 January 2018

Turkey... façon coq au vin (4)

Here again is the basis for the Coq au vin-style turkey I've been blogging about. It's browned chunks of smoked pork bacon and browned turkey legs, thighs, wings, and breast halves. They're in the baking dish, ready to have the slightly cooked vegetables and red-wine marinade poured over them.

And yes, all the meat is under there. The vegetables are carrots, onions, and garlic. They've been lightly cooked or "sweated" and then simmered for a short time in the marinating liquid  — mainly to bring the liquid up to the boil so it would thicken and then go into the oven hot.

There's also an herb "bouquet" in there. I just used sprigs of thyme and a few bay leaves (both from the back yard) that had marinated with the poultry, pork, and vegetables. I also put in a couple of little habanero peppers that Walt grew last summer.

So here it is. This is not the prettiest photo because I had already taken some of the turkey out of the dish. Call it blogging-vérité. Toward the end of the cooking time, I had sauteed half a pound of button mushrooms and added them to the stew.

As a side dish, we peeled, sliced, steamed and then sauteed some Jerusalem artichokes (topinambours) and a couple of potatoes. The Coq au vin would also be good with mashed potatoes, pasta, or even rice.

10 January 2018

Turkey... façon coq au vin (3)

With the turkey or chicken marinated and drained, and the bacon or smoked pork lardons sauteed, the next step in making Coq au vin is to brown the poultry pieces. You can brown them in bacon or pork fat, in vegetable or olive oil, or in butter. I like to do this in a big pot with high sides, because it's less messy. The splattering is contained and not all over the stove and walls! Another option is to put the poultry pieces on a baking pan and set the pan in a hot oven long enough to do the browning. I did the browning in two batches in a big pot.

One advantage of browning the poultry in a pot is that you can flame it with cognac. The flaming is absolutely optional. You can put the cognac in without flaming it, or leave it out entirely.

Reserve the browned turkey or chicken pieces while you strain the wine marinade. Don't throw anything away. Next, "sweat" (lightly cook) the carrots, onions, and garlic in the same pan or pot you browned the pork and/or poultry in (if that's how you did it).

When the extra liquid from the marinated vegetables has mostly evaporated, sprinkle a quarter-cup of flour over the vegetables and stir everything around well. Don't overdo the thickening — better thin than gloppy. After two or three minutes, pour the marinade liquid into the pot and drop in the herbs (thyme, bay leaves) that you had also put into the marinade. The liquid will start to thicken slightly. Add 1½ cups of turkey or chicken broth, plus, optionally, a tablespoon or two or tomato sauce or paste (for color as much as flavor). Salt and pepper to taste.

Now you have two cooking choices. You can put the browned poultry parts and the bacon or lardons into the pot with the vegetables and liquid, or you can arrange them in a baking dish or pan and pour the vegetables and liquid over them. I chose the baking method.

Part 2Part 4

09 January 2018

Turkey... façon coq au vin (2)

First, there are two things I want to say about coq au vin. Most of the time if you order it in a restaurant in France, it will be a standard chicken that you are served cooked in red wine. A chicken doesn't need such long slow cooking. Also, coq au vin is a kind of fricassée and can be made with either red wine or white wine. I've made the white wine version before, and I've made it with a guinea fowl (une pintade) instead of with chicken. Look through these old posts from my blog to see examples of poultry stewed in wine.

Since I don't know if you can get a turkey as small as the one I had, I'll say you can always use a big chicken. The first thing you have to do is cut it up into serving pieces — thighs, drumsticks, wings, and breast meat (or buy pre-cut parts). You can cut the white breast meat into either two or four pieces. Here are a couple of photos of the turkey pieces after they marinated in the red wine and aromatics.

Make some broth with the back and the wing tips while the fowl in in its marinade, because the cooking liquid should be a combination of wine and broth. And don't throw out the onions, garlic, herbs, and carrots when you take the pieces of turkey out of the marinade. You'll cook them in the stew. (Actually, marinating the poultry is optional. Skip it if you don't have time.)

Another important flavor ingredient in coq au vin is what is called poitrine fumée — smoked pork belly, bacon, or "side meat" in the U.S. — in the form of lardons (sliced or diced). I cut up a slab of smoked pork because I wanted big pieces in the stew. If you can get slab bacon, you can do this, or you can use thick-sliced American bacon.

I put in a good amount of pork partly because the turkey I was cooking was smaller than the one called for by the recipe I was following. I wanted enough meat for the amount of wine I was putting in (a whole bottle, which is three-fourths of a liter). The first step in the cooking is to brown the pork in a pan or pot. Then you can take the smoked pork out of the pan and brown the poultry in the pork (bacon) fat.