31 December 2005

The Market on New Year's Eve

It's New Year's Eve in Saint-Aignan. The weather has gone from downright cold to almost warm. Yesterday we had snow, then sleet, then freezing rain, and then just rain. All that in the space of eight hours.

When I got up, the temperature was about 25ºF. When I went to bed last night, it was about 45. Overnight, it hit 50. All the snow is gone. The grass is green. Our collard greens and parsley survived the freeze, even though temperatures went down to about 21. That's -6ºC.

This morning we went to the outdoor market on the main square in Saint-Aignan to buy oysters and other holiday foods. The big parking lot down on the river was far from full -- it is often completely parked up on big market days -- and the market was busy but not jammed with people. The only stands that had long lines and big crowds were the cheese and seafood sellers'. Here are the people gathered in front of the seafood stand.

We headed for the oyster section. The loose oysters, where you can buy as many as you want of each kind, and pay by the kilo, were here.

I ended up buying 18 Papillons, which are smaller oysters that come from Brittany, for €3.70, and 12 Fines de Claires for €3.80. When it comes to oysters, smaller is better, in my opinion -- though many people love the really gigantic ones that are called Pieds de Cheval (horses' hooves). Fines de Claires are oysters that are brought into small salt ponds along the Atlantic coast to be fattened up for a few weeks or months before they are taken to market. "Fines" means they are fine oysters, and the "claires" are the basins of clear water where they are raised. They're not as salty as oysters that are taken straight out of the sea.

The seafood vendor was also selling oysters by the basket-full. You could get various sizes of Fines de Claires in quantities of 50 or 100. Oysters, along with lobsters and other seafood delicacies, are a favorite food for New Year's Eve in France.

The market was not as big today as it sometimes is; some of the merchants must have taken the holidays off. But there a lot of vendors, including several pork butchers (charcutiers) selling meats, pâtés, sausages, and other specialties.

I took other pictures at my favorite charcuterie stand, Chez Doudouille, but I'm saving them for another topic. I'll post it in a day or two.

Here's the mushroom lady. She grows them herself, I've been told. They are fresh, appetizing, and inexpensive.

I've made coq au vin many times in my life, but I've always made it using regular chicken. One day soon I plan to buy one of these from the poultry vendor at the Saint-Aignan market and make the real thing.

The poultry stand also sells goat cheese (everybody here sells goat cheese -- it's a local product) and eggs.

And the cheese ladies are right next door. It was hard to take a picture because so many people were crowded around their stand. This is the selection of hard cheeses -- Gruyère, Comté, Beaufort, and Emmenthal. We bought cheese here on Christmas Eve to make a fondue.

On the way back to the car after doing our shopping, we passed by this butcher shop, which is nicely decorated for the season.

And there was a little Santa Claus trying to climb into a window of an apartment along the street.

The oysters we bought are for this evening's meal. When we got home, Walt arranged them all on a tray with a towel under them so that they are right-side up and the oysters are bathing in their own liquid inside the shells (on an oyster, the flatter shell is the top shell). That makes them happy, we think, and they will be better to eat if they are happy oysters.

We'll eat them raw, on the half shell. We'll make a mignonette sauce -- that's vinegar, chopped shallot, and black pepper -- to eat with them. We'll also have fresh lemon so we can squeeze lemon juice on some of them instead of the mignonette, just for variety's sake. The other accompaniments are rye bread (pain de seigle) and sweet Normandy butter, along with a bottle of good champagne that a friend gave us as a gift (merci, Marie) last September.

We bought 30 oysters. That's a lot for two people. We won't open or eat them all tonight. Next week we plan to make fish and chips, because that's something we haven't had in a long time. I'm going to save out at least 6 of the oysters so that I can make fried oysters (with cornmeal breading) to dress up the fish and chips. Along with home-made tartar sauce. It will be an Anglo-American feast. Do you think they eat fried oysters in England, the way we do in North Carolina? I know they don't cook such things in France. Or didn't before I got here...

Happy 2006!

28 December 2005

Wintery weather in Saint-Aignan

We didn't have a white Christmas but it snowed yesterday afternoon and evening. It was just a dusting. The back yard looks nice. Click on the pictures to see a larger view.

More snow is predicted for today and tomorrow. Then a warm front is supposed to come through on Saturday and raise temperatures into the 50s.

It's been cold for a few weeks now and it will be nice to have a good thaw. The temperature this morning was 22ºF (-5.5ºC). This is the neighbors' yard, across the street from ours.

The neighbors' yard is so big that it's almost like living across the street from a park.

This afternoon it started snowing again.

Happy New Year, everybody.

24 December 2005

The Christmas display

When you drive into Saint-Aignan from the north, across the bridge over the Cher river, this is what greets you. Two snowmen, and le Père Noël with a reindeer. You can see the church tower in the distance. A series of pictures of all the figures follows.

Saint-Aignan at Christmastime

Click on the picture to see an enlargement

The restaurant called Chez Constant is on the main square in Saint-Aignan. It is all decked out for the holidays. Notice the wine-bottle chalkboard on which the daily specials are written. In the summer, Chez Constant has a wooden terrace out on the square so you can dine outdoors.

Click on the picture to see an enlargement

On the other side of the square is this old house. Somebody thoughtfully parked a Christmas red Citroën 2CV (a Deux Chevaux) right in front of it. Maybe it was parked there by Le Père Noël himself! The house has just been restored as a private dwelling.

Click on the picture to see an enlargement

Near the old house is this second-hand furnture store. If it weren't so cold outside these days, you'd be tempted to take a seat and watch the people go by. Temperatures are in the high 20s to mid-30s this Christmas season. We haven't had any snow yet this year.

Click on the picture to see an enlargement

Around the corner in a narrow street are this little grocery store and a café-tabac. The café, called Le Lapin Blanc (The White Rabbit) is one of the busiest in Saint-Aignan, but in this cold weather there aren't any tables outside, so you can't see the customers.

Click on the picture to see an enlargement

Here's a close-up of the grocery store. It sells high-end and imported products (hence the name) that are hard to find elsewhere in Saint-Aignan. It is a licensed Hédiard outlet.

Click on the picture to see an enlargement

When you're standing in the narrow street in front of Marco Polo's grocery store and the White Rabbit café-tabac, look up. This is what you see. It's Saint-Aignan's impressive (and slightly forbidding) collegiate church and the surrounding rooftops. The wires you see are strings of Christmas lights.

Click on the picture to see an enlargement

A short walk away is the town's main pedestrian shopping street. The Côté Sud store (where I bought foie gras and a special wine to drink with it on Christmas day) sells gifts of all kinds, food products from southwest France, and wines. The wines are kept in a 15th-century cave (cellar) that is in the store's basement. Next door is a bric-a-brac and furniture shop called L'Atelier de Patine, which is run by a young woman named Véronique. We have bought several pieces of furniture from her. The shop with the yellow awning sells shoes.

Click on the picture to see an enlargement

This is a typical old house in Saint-Aignan (pop. 4,000). The town was founded in about the year 1000 A.D., when the first church and the medieval château were built. The old fortified château is in ruins now, but there is a Renaissance château that was built 500 years ago and is still privately owned. The family lives in it.

Click on the picture to see an enlargement

All French towns have a horse butcher shop (une boucherie chevaline). The horse's head is not a Christmas decoration; it is there year-round. The writing on the window says Chèvre (goat) -- they must be running an end-of-year special on goat meat.

23 December 2005

Hectic week

It's been a hectic week. Our friends arrived last Sunday. On Monday I went with them to the notaire's office in a little town 15 miles south of here for the "signing ceremony" (les signatures in French) to close the deal on their house. I've been helping them by consulting on legal vocabulary and serving as an intermediary between my friends, on one side, and the seller, real-estate agent, and notaire on the other side. We toasted the closing and the new house with a good bottle of Vouvray bubbly that evening.

On Tuesday we moved a carload of things, including a dining room table and chairs that Walt and I had in storage in our garage, over to the new house. We loaned our friends things like a tea kettle and teapot, kitchen and bath towels, a comforter and pillows for their bed, a radio, and a broom! As a housewarming gift we gave them a set of dishes (porcelaine blanche), a set of flatware, and six drinking glasses. The woman who sold them the house left behind a few pieces of furniture, including a couple of beds and day beds, the cooktop and oven in the kitchen, a telephone, and a microwave oven. The heat and lights were left on.

So our friends of course wanted to sleep in their own house and experience what it will be like to live in it, way out there in the country where the closest neighbors are 3 miles distant, when they move over permanently in a few years. They enjoyed closing the shutters in the evening and opening them in the morning. They marveled at the silence. They couldn't marvel at the stars, because the weather has been cold and foggy since Monday. They dreamed and schemed and imagined what color schemes would work in what rooms and what kind of furniture and appliances they would want to buy.

We've only been out to eat once during the whole week, and yours truly has been doing most of the cooking. That keeps me busy, but our friends are easy when it comes to food. They are not big eaters, and they seem to like everything. He has had a cold, so we've been eating a lot of soup, and she is careful about her diet but loves salads and all kinds of vegetables. Walt and I like everything.

Another exceptional event this week was Walt's birthday on Wednesday. He and I have a traditional birthday dinner -- this was the 24th time that we've celebrated his birthday together -- and we didn't break the tradtion this year. The menu is French, of course -- steak au poivre and frites and salade. It's simple but good. The origins of the tradition are a story for another day.

So Tuesday night we went to one of the two butcher shops in Saint-Aignan and bought a big piece of rumsteak for four. We bought frozen frites (much easier and just as good) at the supermarket. This year, we have a new electric fryer thanks to one of our very best and oldest friends (don't take that the wrong way, C.) in the U.S., who ordered it from darty.fr and had it shipped to us as a birthday/Christmas present. The steak au poivre is served in a cream sauce that you make after using cognac to deglaze the pan that the steak cooked in. We bought a bottle of armagnac, a brandy similar to cognac that is made in far southwestern France, for the occasion. And I bought a big scarole (escarole) at the market to have as salad.

The steak was perfect (medium rare), the sauce was creamy and peppery and tasty because of the armagnac, and the salad was crisp, crunchy, and refreshing with a good mustardy vinaigrette. We had excellent bread from the boulangerie that cooks its breads in wood-fired ovens and that is located out in the vineyards a mile from our house. It was pretty much a perfect birthday dinner.

We have spent many hours this week meeting with an insurance agent, including have her come inspect the new house. She is the agent who has arranged car and homeowner's insurance for me and Walt, and I like her a lot. Her office is in Saint-Aignan, and she is an agent for Axa, one of the bigger insurance companies. We have always found her pleasant, competent, and easy to talk to.

Just yesterday, after presenting our friends with a proposal to insure their house (replacement value, liability, and full coverage except for earthquakes, which are exceedingly rare here) at a very reasonable price (you wouldn't believe it -- €275 per year!), the insurance agent said she wanted to talk not about business but about "personal" matters. She pulled out an envelope and spread out on her desk a few years' worth of Christmas cards and family "newsletters" that she wanted to show us. It turns out that her sister-in-law has lived in the U.S. for many years and has children and grandchildren who are American. And they live in San Mateo, CA, just a few miles from where Walt and I lived in San Francisco and from where our friends live. Le monde est petit, as they say.

We have also been out doing a lot of shopping with our friends, buying little household items and groceries, looking at appliances, and just helping them get the lay of the land when it comes to the practical side of living near Saint-Aignan. And now it is going to be Christmas. We plan to make a fondue savoyarde (that's a cheese fondue) on Christmas eve, and we will probably cook and enjoy eating it out at the new house. We'll go see the cheese ladies at the Saint-Aignan market tomorrow morning to buy the gruyère, emmenthal, and comté cheese we use in the fondue.

Then on Sunday I'm going to poach and then roast a duck with turnips, potatoes, and carrots, as I described in an earlier topic. That will be our Christmas dinner.

20 December 2005

Old friends, new neighbors

Old friends of ours from California arrived on Sunday. They are buying a house about 10 miles south of ours. Yesterday we went to the notaire's office down that way for the closing. So our friends are now officially property owners in France. They'll be here the rest of the week, and then they'll be back in July. The house is a big place way out in the country. It's 150 to 200 years old -- different parts were built at different times.

More as things develop. Busy week. Don't know how much blogging I will do before Dec. 28 or so.

17 December 2005

Vouvray wine

Last Monday we made the trip over to the village of Vouvray to buy some special wines for the holidays. Vouvray is about an hour's drive from Saint-Aignan, but it's worth it — even with all the winemakers selling wine much closer by.

One of the wine experts whose books I've read says Vouvrays are arguably the finest white wines made in France. Hugh Johnson calls them "potentially superb" in his Modern Encyclopedia of Wine. All the wines made in the Vouvray area that carry the village's AOC label are made from Chenin Blanc grapes. Over here in the Touraine appelation, 30 miles southeast of Vouvray, most of the white wines are made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

In the Vouvray production area, they make a wide range of wines from that single Chenin grape variety (which is also called Pineau de la Loire). There are sparkling Vouvrays that range from very dry (brut) to a little sweeter (demi-sec). Most are made by the Champagne methode, which is called méthode traditionnelle.

And then there are the still wines (vins naturels), which range from very dry (sec) and semi-sweet (demi-sec) to sweet (moelleux). The Chenin Blanc is an amazingly versatile grape.

The Vouvray wines we prefer are the two extremes. Walt likes the sparkling brut — a very dry, Champagne-style wine. I have developed a taste for the still moelleux — sweet whites that are very clean in taste. Walt says the Vouvray brut sparkling wines are not quite in the same category as the best Champagnes, but they are very good in their own right. I say the moelleux wines are out of this world. A lot of people might turn up their noses at such sweet wines, but they have a lot to learn, in my humble opinion.

The place where we buy our Vouvray wines is a far cry from the type of winery you'd find in Napa Valley in California. We went there for the first time in October 2000, when we were staying in a vacation rental (a gîte rural) in Vouvray. It's a working winery run by the Aubert family and located in the Vallée Coquette, a kilometer or two west of the village. Just off the road, there's a small courtyard where you can park your car. The winery itself is built right into a cliff. My pictures will give you a better idea what it's like.

Here's Aubert's brochure/price list. Click your mouse on the pictures to see an enlargement.

15 December 2005

Raking leaves

It's very zen, really, raking up leaves. But they can sure pile up.



Luckily, our predecessors in the house left us a neat lawn-sweeping device that makes picking up leaves a lot easier than it would be with an old-fashioned rake.

Lawn sweeper

Some of the leaves go to good uses. They become mulch that protects flower beds from freezing weather, allowing dahlias and other plants to survive until spring and grow again.

Pretty good pile

Others get burned and become fertilizer for the vegetable garden.

Burning them
The smoke all went right toward the house, of course. But it's December, and all the windows are closed. No snow though.

Chez nous

There are moles living in the garden plots. We'll have to deal with that in the spring. Somebody said if we put moth balls down the holes the moles will go away. I hope that works.

Santa Claus (le Père Noël)

Here he is climbing up to somebody's window to deliver Christmas gifts (I hope). I took this picture a year ago in the little town of Mennetou-

14 December 2005

Part Deux of the mutton story

I called Gisèle yesterday morning, Tuesday, to get a status update on the lamb. She said she was busy working for us ("Je travaille pour vous"). I told her we could come over in an hour or so, after we ran a few errands. "If you want to come help me, I'd be glad to have you," she said. She was sorting, bagging, and labeling all the pieces of lamb.

An old farm compound on the way over to Gisèle's place

I had driven over to her house on the previous Saturday afternoon to give her the money to pay for the lamb for Brassia (€130) and the 10 liters of that white rosé wine (€20) she thought was so good. She wasn't there when I arrived, but the door to her little glassed-in front porch, which is full of beautiful plants, was not locked. And the next door was open too, leading into the small kitchen. I stuck my head in and yelled. "Coucou! Il y a quelqu'un?" Anybody home? No answer.

On the way to Gisèle's, I stopped at the bank to get the cash. I parked in front of
St-Aignan's town hall, which has Christmas decorations out front now.

I had an envelope in the car, so I put the €150 in it and wrote a note on the back detailing what it was for. I stuck it in a book that I was returning to Gisèle before she had time to forget that she had lent it to us, and I put the book on the table in the kitchen. I felt better about being able to leave the cash inside the house -- the butcher man had insisted on cash -- even though the doors were not locked. It was safer than leaving it outside. A lot of the transactions around here are cash only. I assume people are trying to avoid taxes, but I don't really know if that's why they want cash.

Vines and fields near Gisèle's

Gisèle called a few minutes after I got back home. She had found the book and the cash, and said everything was set then. She said we wouldn't actually get the meat until later in the week, because the butcher wouldn't cut up the lambs until the carcasses had cooled for a couple of days. Slaughtering was scheduled for Monday. I told her I'd stop by early in the week to bring her some freezer bags. She said I didn't have to do that -- she had already bought some. But she had said so many times that she was working really hard to accommodate our request for a whole lamb for our friends that I certainly didn't want her to go out of pocket for things like freezer bags and labels.

On Monday Walt and I drove over to Amboise (20 miles) to buy a Christmas tree. We got one at a garden supply store called Le Baobab for €8, a very good price. It's perfect, and we are happy. We drove on to Vouvray (15 more miles) to buy some wine for the holidays. We love the sparkling méthode traditionnelle Vouvray -- more about that later. And then we went to a grocery store (or two, actually -- Atac in Vouvray, where we couldn't find what we were looking for, and Leclerc in Amboise) to pick up a few things, including some freezer bags large enough to hold a leg of lamb. Even if Gisèle had already bought bags, I wanted to give her some. I knew she wouldn't let me give her money to pay for the ones she had already bought.

When I called Gisèle on Tuesday morning, then, I told her I was going to bring some bags and told her I realized I needed to pay her for our side of lamb. She said we would worry about that part later. For the time being, she was working on the lamb for Brassia (she kept calling her Graciella). The Thursday before, Gisèle had said she would like it if we could get rid of the lamb carcass (les déchets) for her, and I had told her Tuesday was garbage day for us so that wouldn't be a problem.

When we finally arrived at Gisèle's just before noon, she had all the lamb pieces bagged and labeled -- including our half-a-lamb. We were surprised that our lamb was ready. I told Gisèle we needed to pay her, and she waved her hands and shook her head no, saying we'll worry about that later. The lambs cuts were in ziploc bags that were spread out on two big trays.

"Come out back with me and let me show you how much waste there is when you butcher an animal," she insisted. We didn't particularly want to know, but she had her coat on by then and we had no choice but to go look. She took us to a room in an outbuilding where were were two freezers and where we saw another tray full of ziploc bags containing pieces of meat. That was her half of the lamb we were also getting half of. She picked up a little square dish holding pieces of hard lamb fat and said "Look at all this. This is all waste -- unless you want it for your dog." It was such a small amount, and it was so clean and fresh looking that I was puzzled. I said no, Collette can't eat fat any more, it makes her sick, and Gisèle said oui, I guess you're right.

So we though we were getting off easy. Then she said, "Come over here," as we stepped outside the little room. Set up in a open carport there was a big long table -- a rough board on trestles, actually. "Ça s'est passé ici hier matin. Vous auriez vu ça..." This is where the act was perpetrated yesterday morning, she said. You should have seen the mess...

There were two buckets sitting there on the floor with a inch or two of blood in the bottom. And there was a big plasticized bag (made out of the kind of material they make tarps out of) full of the real waste from the butchering process. It smelled vaguely like the odor in a French butcher shop. "Ça sent mauvais" -- it stinks, she warned us. "I need you to put it in my car so that we can go dump it tonight. I can't lift it." The bag was very heavy.

I told her we could take it home and put it in our garbage can. The garbage would be picked up in an hour or two. But you don't want to put that in your car, she said. It smells and it'll make a mess. What she said next confused me. "Je vais l'apporter aux chairs ce soir," she said -- she was going to take it [somewhere] in the evening. "Aux chairs" might mean to some meat processing or disposal facility, I thought, since chair means "flesh". It's the same word as carne in Spanish.

What do you mean when you say aux chairs? I asked. "A la rivière," she said, off-handedly. To the river. Oh, it was "au Cher," the name of our river, not "aux chairs" -- which would be pronounced the same way. Yuck. She was just going to dump the bones, organs, skin, and leftover flesh and fat right into the river. I thought about all that stuff washing up downstream in Montrichard or at Chenonceaux. I guess that was the way things were done in times past -- and sometimes still are, obviously.

I'm sorry I didn't take pictures. You might not be, though.

I have what we need, I said, and I ran back to my car to get out a big plastic tub I had brought along, just in case. Walt held the tub and I was able to pick up the bag of déchets and set it inside. The bag's bottom seam was bursting and vile things were threatening to fall out on the ground. Gisèle was starting her car to move it out of the driveway so that we could back our car up closer to the tub -- "Vous ne pouvez pas le soulever," she kept saying. You can't possibly lift it. But the tub has handles on it, and with Walt on one side and me on the other, we had no trouble carrying it to the car. Gisèle shrugged and turned off her motor.

We went back in the house. Gisèle wanted to know if we were interested in specific lamb organs she had saved. The liver, for instance. I said, yes, we'll try it. She kept a couple of pieces for Jean-Luc, saying she didn't like it much herself but offering suggestions on preparing it for the table. Or the kidneys and heart. I told her Collette could eat the heart -- that's muscle. And I like the kidneys. (I used to buy them from the supermarket back in the '70's when I lived in Champaign-Urbana, in Illinois. I had to order them a few days in advance, and the guy at the butcher counter never failed to remark to me, when I picked them up, that my cat would surely be eating well that evening. I never told him I didn't have a cat.) Gisèle had kidneys cooking with mushrooms in a pan on the stove, in fact. They're good that way, with lots of black pepper and a good quantity of cream to make a sauce.

She said here, take the tongues. They're good boiled with vegetables. Peel off the skin after you cook them. I figured Collette could eat them -- they're muscle, too -- if we couldn't. And before she could offer, I told her I wouldn't take the brains. I wouldn't know what to do with them. She said she had eaten one the night before, lightly sauteed in butter. Delicious. I'll take her word for it. I do have my limits.

We made it home with the two trays of edible lamb and the tub full of lamb débris. It didn't really smell that bad. We managed to lift the tub out of the car and the bag out of the tub and into the garbage can. I washed the tub out with the hose outdoors, and then again the laundry sink with hot soapy water. I washed my hands well, and then I went and washed the steering wheel and gearshift knob in the car, just in case.

An hour or so later, I heard the garbage truck pull up. The man on the back of the truck hooked our rolling garbage can up to the apparatus that lifts the can and empties it. I saw that big bag plop out into the bin, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The deed was done. Ah, the joys of life in the country!

A tray of lamb in ziploc bags, aging

Now the lamb has to "age" for at least three days in the cellar before we can cook or freeze it. "Ne fermez pas les sacs," Gisèle said three or four times, to make sure we understood and convince us she was serious. Don't seal the bags for at least three days. We will follow her instructions. And we are happy to know that we have lamb curries, seven-hour leg of lamb, and other rustic dishes in our near future.