31 May 2007

Scènes de la vie quotidienne

This blog is supposed to be about living life in Saint-Aignan. I'm an American, so my life isn't much like most of the local residents' lives, I guess. Here are some things that have been going on with me this month.

I went to see the dentist yesterday. I had chipped a tooth and it needed to be repaired. The waiting time for an appointment was about two weeks, but I wasn't in pain so that was OK. When I arrived at the dentist's office, there were four or five cars parked in the little parking lot at the side of the building, and a big Mercedes was parked out front on the sidewalk.

I parked my little Peugeot behind the Mercedes on the sidewalk (don't you love France?) and went in, figuring the waiting room was going to be full of people. I was wrong — there was absolutely nobody there. I don't know who all those cars belonged to.

My dentist is Monsieur Christian Bigot (I'm not making that up). He is in joint practice with his wife (I assume — maybe it's his sister), whose name is Madame Christiane Bigot. Again, I'm not kidding. Christian and Christiane. Their practice is called Le Cabinet Dentaire des Docteurs Bigot — The Dental Office of the Bigot Doctors.

The waiting room at the dentist's is much like the waiting room at our doctor's office. It's a plain little room with a vinyl tile floor that is furnished in late salon de jardin style. In other words, the chairs in the room are vinyl patio furniture. There's a little low table with a couple of stacks of magazines on it; most of the ones I saw yesterday were Paris Match, but then I didn't have to wait more than five minutes so I didn't get a chance to dig in and find the car magazines (AutoJournal and the like) or the two-year-old newsmagazines (L'Express, Le Point, etc.).

Dr. Bigot (pronounce that [bee-GO]) came to the waiting room, as he always does, and invited me into his office next door. He shook my hand and greeted me with bonjour and a smile. Once we were inside, I sat down in a chair (didn't notice what kind it was) in front of his desk and he looked me up on his computer. He asked me what the reason for my visit was. I told him.

OK, let's take a look, he said. Less than half an hour later, the damage I had done to my tooth was repaired. I didn't feel a thing, with the exception of the initial sting of the needle as he gave me a shot of novocaine. It turned out that some enamel had chipped off my tooth next to an old filling. To repair it, Dr. Bigot ended up removing the old ciment and replacing it with a new, larger one.

He told me to be careful and avoid biting down on anything hard in the future. Vos dents sont usées — your teeth are worn down — he said. I guess I use them too much. I told him that friends had warned me not to get old, but I hadn't listened to their advice.

Once the tooth was repaired, he went back to his desk and looked something else up on the computer. I returned to my seat in front of the desk. After he studied the computer screen for a minute, I handed him my new French medical insurance card. Ah, vous avez une carte Vitale maintenant, he remarked. He took the card out to his receptionist and she ran it through a card reader and punched some numbers into her computer.

A minute or two later, she brought the card back in and handed it to Dr. Bigot. He in turn handed it to me and said the charge for the visit would be €46.29. I asked him whether he knew how much my insurance was paying. Was it 50%? He said he didn't really know, that it depends on what plan I am on. I told him I don't know that. He said the coverage is usually more like 70%. I wrote him a check, since he doesn't take ATM or credit cards.

I'll find out how much was covered in a few days when the Social Security office sends me a statement of my benefits. They seem to send statements fairly frequently, but not very regularly. I can't figure out what triggers them.


I had been waiting to go see the dentist for two weeks, then. And I had been waiting for three weeks for my latest currency exchange operation to be completed. I ordered a certain amount of money in euros on May 8. To buy them, I sent an American check to a financial-services company that has offices in London, New York, and San Francisco (among other cities in the anglophone world).

The London office has to send my check to New York City, where it is cleared through the bank in North Carolina where I have an account. The check cleared on May 15, according to my on-line banking site. I called London on about May 17 and was told that the euros would be sent out electronically to my bank in France on Tuesday, May 22.

Last week I just waited, figuring the money would show up on my French account any day. By Friday, I lost patience and called London again. It was nearly 6:00 p.m. in England, and when the woman answered the phone on the other end I could distinctly hear that there was a party going on behind her. She took my call though, and put me on hold for a couple of minutes to find out why my payment hadn't gone out.

When she came back on the line, she said the payment order to my bank in France had somehow never been entered into their system. The payment had not yet been processed. I was unhappy but polite. I asked her to please do everything possible to expedite the transaction. Since Monday was a holiday in England, she said, it was unlikely the money would go out before Tuesday, May 29.

On that day, I called England again. Once more, I was told the payment had not yet gone out but would go out very soon. They said it might take as long as four days for my bank in France to credit my account, however. I asked them why a week had gone by since the date they had initially said they would send my French bank the money. They didn't know. They would look into it.

When I got back from the dentist's and a shopping excursion to SuperU at noon yesterday, Walt said he had checked on-line and, sure enough, the money from England had been posted to our account. So in this case the French bank worked much more quickly and efficiently than the international financial-services company. Score: England 0, France 1.


I also ordered myself a new computer last week, a Dell (dude). The computer I'm using now is one that I bought in California in about 2001. I've upgraded it along the way — wireless networking, new hard disks, a new monitor — but it has done its time. It made the trip to France without a hitch, and it has given me good service.

The new computer will have twice as much disk space (lots of photos!) and six times (yes, 6x) as much memory. It will have USB 2.0. And it will be French in many ways — French-language software and documentation, a French keyboard, and a French power supply and plug. Did you know that the French keyboard has a different layout compared to the U.S. keyboard?

I ordered the computer over the Internet. Because we incorporated ourselves to buy our house here (long story), we qualify as a small business and I can order computers from Dell that are configured for small-business use and sold at good prices. I don't need a monitor or a lot of other features that are included in the typical home-user computer packages. So my new computer cost just 300 euros.

Well, that's 300 euros before taxes and shipping. The tax (VAT, which means value-added tax and is TVA in French) is about 75 euros, and shipping costs a similar amount. So altogether the computer will cost 450 euros. In U.S. dollars, that about $600 these days, and I'm paying for it with an American credit card.

So there's what happens nowadays when you order something that you think costs 300 euros. It ends up costing 600 U.S. dollars.

Since I placed my order last Friday, May 25, I've been checking Dell's order-tracking web site at least twice a day to see if the computer has shipped. Nothing. Votre commande n'a pas été retrouvée ; attendez encore 24 heures — your order is not showing up; try again in 24 hours.

Learning patience again. And again. I guess I'll never really learn.

Yesterday (Wednesday) morning, Callie woke me up at 4:30 or so. I figured she needed to go outside, so I went ahead and got up. I took her out. She did need to go outside. Then I got ready and went to the dentist's, etc.

In the afternoon, I was pretty tired, so I took a nap. At about 4:30, the phone rang. It woke me up, but I didn't answer it. Walt didn't answer it either; he never does. It's not because the person calling will probably be speaking French — he wouldn't answer the phone in San Francisco either. He is phone-averse.

Two minutes later, the phone rang again. I figured I'd better answer it if it was so important the the person called back so soon. It was a Dell customer service representative.

I'm calling about your computer order, she said in French. Oui, I answered. Can you confirm the delivery address for me, she asked. I said oui again and recited our address. I think I passed that test. Then she asked me, I think, if I actually had the credit card I had used when I placed the order. Half groggy, I said well of course I have it.

I started to tell her to hold the line while I went to get the card, thinking I would need to read out the card number for her. But before I could say anything, she said good, your computer will be shipped out ASAP. Then she said merci and hung up.

Now what was that all about? Did she hear my American accent and figure it wasn't surprising that I had used an American credit card to pay for the computer? Was my word that I actually possessed the card in question good enough for her? I'll never know.

The computer order shows up in the Dell tracking system this morning and Dell assures me that it will be delivered to my address in Saint-Aignan by next Tuesday.


Hope this wasn't too boring. If you've read this far, you are a faithful reader for sure.

Notice how everything happens at once. Dentist, financial transaction, and computer order, initiated at various points over the past three weeks or more, all come to a head in the space of a few hours on the same day. Time needs fixing. When you want it to go slow, it goes fast. And when you want it to go fast, it goes slow. Sigh...

30 May 2007

Un mois de mai pourri

A rotten month of May, that is, weather-wise. It's raining again this Wednesday morning. Yesterday was sunny and breezy, but chilly — the low temperature was just above 40ºF/5ºC, and the afternoon high was about 60ºF/15ºC. Monday was rainy, and so was Sunday.

What I'm hoping is that it won't turn out that we had both the beginning and end of our summer weather in April. That was when it got unseasonably hot and dry this year. We had only 3 mm of rain during the whole month of April; we've had 42 mm of rain in May, and as it said it is raining again today. May has been the polar (appropriate word...) opposite of April.

Callie sits on the steps listening to Walt talk to her while I
take her picture. She's been spending a lot more time
indoors this month than we would prefer. Tomorrow
will make four weeks that she's been living here in Saint-Aignan.

The weather and news people on the radio and television aren't yet saying this has been the worst May in recorded weather history, but it wouldn't surprise me to hear them start talking in those terms. On last night's news they ran a story about all the snow in the Alps right now and the unusually cold weather around. Farmers in the Alps are still waiting for the ground to warm up, and cattle-breeders haven't yet been able to put their animals out in the pastures yet. The poor cows have had to spend May in the barns.

Remember those cherries I picked a couple
of days ago? Walt made a cherry tart.

What I'm afraid of is that we might have a cool, damp summer. We didn't really have a winter this year, so maybe we won't have a summer worthy of the name either. It's happened in the past, in years I can remember. Last summer we had the coolest, dampest month of August in a long, long time.

I remember one particular summer in Paris, back 25 years, ago where it was chilly and rainy for months. Women were wearing boots instead of sandals. Umbrellas didn't get put away. It was gray and dismal, a little like some summers in San Francisco that I remember. In France, that chilly summer followed the especially hot and dry summer of 1976 by about four years. And we had a record hot summer in 2003. Plus ça change...

There were about two kilos of cherries, or 4½ lbs.
Half went into the pie. With the other kilo I made
preserves by putting them in a pan along with a
good amount of sugar and letting them boil down
until they made a thick syrup. The result is jellied,
full of fruit, and still pretty tart-tasting.

But let's be optimistic. It's only May 30. By this time next week, the rain and clouds might only be a dull memory. The sun will warm the earth and the tomato, eggplant, and bell pepper seedlings will start growing like weeds. The pumpkin, zucchini, okra, and bean seeds will sprout too — they certainly don't lack for moisture.

29 May 2007

Pizza maison

Tom in Illinois asked for more details about the pizza I showed a picture of a couple of days ago. I took pictures of it because Walt was too busy making it to worry with his camera.

Tom, BTW, is a fantastic cook, and one of the great things he makes is pizza. He has a wood-fired pizza oven in his house. He made pizzas for dinner one evening when we were in Illinois last November. His pizza oven reaches a temperature of something like 900ºF (about 500ºC), so pizzas cook in a flash.

And Tom's bread skills are not limited to pizza crust — he made a batch of southern-style biscuits for breakfast one morning that were the best I'd had in many years.

Back to Saint-Aignan: Walt also makes his own dough for pizza crust. He's been making it for years. The only thing I know about the dough he made this time is that it has a little bit of honey in it, in addition to flour, water, yeast, and salt. He made it Saturday morning early, and we had pizza for lunch at 1:00 the same day.

In the refrigerator we had some sliced ham (called jambon de Paris or jambon blanc in French), some Comté cheese (made in eastern France in the area called Franche-Comté), and some mushrooms (champignons de Paris) from the supermarket. All of it was from the supermarket, actually, though the Comté cheese is AOC — appellation d'origine contrôlée — which means it's the real thing and very good stuff. I think I like Comté better than Gruyère or Emmental, at least in the versions of these Alpine (so-called Swiss) cheeses that we get here in the Loire Valley.

To cook the pizza after letting the dough rise, rolling it out, and adding the toppings, Walt put two pizza stones in the oven, one to cook the pizza on and the other on a rack above it to radiate heat down on the top of the pizza. This was Tom's idea; we had asked him last November how he would turn a home electric oven into a good pizza oven.

Walt turned our oven up to 300ºC (approximately 575ºF) and let the oven and the two stones heat up for 30 minutes or more before cooking the first pizza (he made two plate-sized pizzas, one for each of us, for lunch).

Cooking time was pretty short at that high temperature, though not as short as in Tom's pizza oven. The crust got nice and brown around the edges and was crunchy but not burned. I thought it was excellent. We had a green salad (oak-leaf lettuce with vinaigrette) after the pizza. The other indispensible component of the meal: a bottle of good Gamay red wine from the co-op up the road in Saint-Romain-sur-Cher.

28 May 2007

Sour cherries for the taking

Yesterday morning I persuaded Callie to go for a walk with me outside our yard. She really doesn't like leaving the yard yet; I'm sure that will change as she gets older. But yesterday morning at about 6:30 I coaxed her to come down the tractor path outside the back gate with me. Then we walked along a foot path that separates a vineyard from a stand of trees along the north side of our property.

A tree covered in cherries

In the overgrown jungle on that strip of land, I noticed a good-size tree that was absolutely covered in bright red cherries. Since nobody tends that land, I figured the cherries could be mine for the picking if I could get back out there between rain showers. The rain will probably ruin the cherries by making them burst open and rot. And then it rained all day yesterday.

I picked a good basketful. The clouds looked threatening
so I worked as fast as I could, picking branches, leaves, and all.

This morning a hard rainshower woke me up at about 5:15. I went back to sleep. At about 6:15, Callie started making noises and sending signals that she needed to go outside. It had stopped raining, so she and I went for a walk inside the yard.

Back in the house, I had to strip the cherries off the branches.

A little later, my friend Cheryl in California mentioned cherries when we were chatting on Yahoo IM — she's cooking duck with cherry sauce today — and I remembered that cherry tree. It still wasn't raining at about 8:30, so out I went. I picked enough to fill a big basket, as you can see from the pictures here.

Here's the haul — enough for several pies or other uses.

The cherries are very sour. Sour cherries are what are called cerises acides or cerises surettes in French, as opposed to cerises douces, or sweet cherries. They are usually cooked — in pies, jams, or sauces.

Callie watched intently as I worked on the cherries. She only ate one.

These cherries are pretty sour, but they seem to be ripe — if you pull on the cherry stem, it and the pit pull right out. Walt is going to make a tart this afternoon with some of them. Maybe I'll freeze the rest, or cook them down with sugar to make jam or preserves. They won't go to waste.

Hmmm. Duck with cherry sauce. Not a bad idea. . .

27 May 2007

Blog connections

I've been blogging here for about 18 months now, or a little more. I started the blog with an American audience in mind. In fact, the people I thought would read it were my friends and former colleagues in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, plus my family and some friends in the eastern part of the U.S. And those people are often the ones who leave me comments on the blog (you know who you are).

Recently, I've been getting comments and e-mails from local people here in the Loire Valley as well. Just today, Jeff7 left a comment on a topic I did last summer on the place called La Corroirie du Liget — here's a link to the post — which is an old fortified farm complex about 20 miles southwest of Saint-Aignan. In his comment, he says the rooster I photographed for my topic went mad and started attacking visitors, so he is no more. I hope he was turned into a delicous coq au vin, but Jeff7 didn't say.

Callie came to us as a result of a web search too.
The kennel where she was born has a web site.
I think her back legs are growing faster than the front ones.

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from Olivier regarding this topic about the old Aiguevives abbey (link) located about 10 miles west of Saint-Aignan. He wanted to tell me that the two horses I photographed for that topic are named Kilk Lady and Cochise. Kilk Lady is a Connemara pony, Olivier says, and he also says there is a gîte at Aiguevives and lists a web site. Click on the Union Jack icon to see the English-language version of the site.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from a Dutch woman who says she and her husband have a house in Saint-Aignan where they spend most of their vacations. She invited Walt, Callie, and me to come by for a drink one day soon. We plan to do so.

I also got an e-mail a few months ago from a man in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) who said he spent a nice week at the Château de Villentrois 25 years ago. He found my blog by doing a Google search on that château, which is located about 10 miles east of Saint-Aignan. In April he wrote back to say he and his kids would be coming to spend a few days in Saint-Aignan in July. I told him we should get together while he is here, and we've made that a plan.

A British friend that we met through British friends who live in Saint-Aignan told me she had Googled Saint-Aignan before coming over here from Bristol to spend a week. My blog came up as one of the first search results, she said. "Yours is the blog with the black background, right?" she asked me. Yep, that's the one.

Callie in the vegetable garden —
she's probably deciding where she'll dig her next hole.

An old friend that I had lost touch with, a guy I knew in Paris back in 1975-82, found my blog too and sent me an e-mail to say he was glad to see I was enjoying life in the French countryside. I hadn't heard from Philippe in almost 25 years. He now lives near Fontainebleau, outside Paris.

For me, one of the most amazing blog finds ever, however, was Claude's. Claude is a Parisienne who writes two blogs, in fact: Blogging in Paris in English, and Vieux, c'est mieux in French. It was my friend Chris (she comments as Chrissoup) in California who first sent me a link to Claude's blogs, telling me that this woman in Paris was posting gorgeous photos. That was more than a year ago.

Fantastic ham, mushroom, and cheese pizza that Walt made yesterday

I looked Claude's blogs in January 2006 and agreed with Chris that the photos were fantastic and the blogs were interesting. I bookmarked Claude's blogs. A few weeks later, I looked at them again and suddenly Claude's name came into focus. "Well I know her," I said to myself, "or at least I know her by reputation. She is a dear friend of friends of mine back in Urbana, Illinois."

I sent a link to Claude's blog to a friend in Urbana and asked her if this was indeed the same Claude. It was. Claude was a name I had been hearing and a person I had known about since the mid-1970s but had never actually met.

The rains of recent days, continuing today,
have turned everything nice and green.

In late March 2006 Walt and I went to Paris to spend a week walking the streets of the city. I called Claude and we got together one afternoon in a café in the Marais. Now Claude is planning to come spend a few days in Saint-Aignan next week.

When I told my friend Marie from Normandie (she comments on my blog too) about Claude, she was surprised. "You know Claude Covo too?" she said. Marie knows her because of Claude's work as an English teacher and webmaster. Le monde est petit, n'est-ce pas ?

25 May 2007

« Vous » — making a comeback?

There's been a lot of talk on the news lately about vouvoiement vs. tutoiement — the formal French pronoun vous vs. the more familiar tu, either of which can be used to say "you" to someone. Roughly, you say vous to strangers and people of greater age or authority compared to you, and you say tu to friends, family, children, and animals.

The new minister of education under President Sarkozy is known to favor a return to the use of vous by teachers to address their students starting in the equivalent of the first grade. In nursery school, according to a May 20 article in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, it is normal for teachers to address their pupils as tu, because there is a certain amount of affection between teacher and pupil. But most students learn to say vous to their teachers while they are in primary school and make the transition from pupil to student.

Some teachers continue to say tu to their students into high school, however. Those like the minister of education who would prefer that teachers always address their students as vous say it's a question of respect. But those who disagree say that's a smokescreen — there's nothing disrespectful about a teacher addressing a student as tu, says the national secretary of one of the big teacher's unions.

One sociologist, Jean-Pierre Le Goff, proposes banishing tu from the schools starting in first grade. He says the pronouns of address should be used "symmetrically" — students should say vous to their teacher, and teachers should say vous to the student.

The article cites the case of a private school in the Lot-et-Garonne department (southwestern France) which teaches 6th grade through graduation. Students and teachers are required to address each other as vous, and the students wear uniforms. If a student addresses a teacher as tu, he or she is punished. The student might have to sweep the classroom, for example.

An article in the next day's Le Figaro newspaper says that the new education minister believes that vouvoiement of teachers by students is indispensable, but he has no plan to make it compulsory for the time being. He says he would prefer that teachers say vous to students as well.

I don't know what percentage of teachers make a habit of saying tu to their students. Maybe you know...

Cueillez (cueille ?) dès aujourd'hui les roses de la vie...
In other words, stop and smell the roses... today.

On another front, the Figaro reports that the new president's first cabinet meeting broke ground in a couple of interesting ways. Nicolas Sarkozy announced that an "informal debate" on a current issue would take place at each week's cabinet meeting.

For as long as anyone can remember, Le Figaro says, cabinet meetings have been divided into three parts: (A) a review of proposed laws and executive decrees; (B) nominations and personnel matters; and (C) announcements by the different ministers. Now there will be a part (D) — D for debate or discussion on a topic chosen by the president.

The informal debate at last week's cabinet meeting concerned the whole question of overtime work and pay, which is important and controversial since the French government imposed the 35-hour work week a few years ago. Some of the new ministers and sub-ministers said they were thrilled to be able to express their opinions for the first time. "For the first time, there is a real dialog" which is "dynamic" and "energetic," and there's a spirit of teamwork, some of them said.

Sarkozy and his staff apparently cautioned the members of the cabinet to be careful to make sure they have something intelligent to say during these informal debates, and the president asked them not to use the time simply to ask for more resources and leeway for their ministries and departments. "What is interesting," said one of Sarkozy's spokespeople, "is to have an exchange of views on the fundamentals and the principles of an issue, so that each minister won't just be taking positions on matters that concern her or him most directly."

Meanwhile, Sarkozy plans to further relax government protocol. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, had taken the step of no longer requiring that the prime minister accompany him to the airport each time he starts an official trip and meet him at the airport when he flies back to Paris.

Sarkozy decided to continue this direction and set the example by actually calling some of the new ministers by their first name during their meeting. But, the Figaro article points out, he refrained from addressing any of them with the familiar tu, and all of them said vous to him and addressed him as Monsieur le Président.

Millepertuis or Saint John's Wort grows wild along our side fence

On radio and TV shows this week, I heard commentators and satirists remark several times on the fact that former President Chirac and his wife Bernadette have always addressed each other as vous, at least in public. One commentator wondered out loud if they really resisted calling each other tu in the boudoir.

Callie prefers to be called tu and toi, despite her pedigree

Another radio chronicler talked about a Figaro article that I can't find and that told the story of a man, a "commoner," who had married a woman of the old nobility, a countess. He opined that he himself thought it was better for parents to say vous to their children because it would teach them respect and responsibility.

The radio personality said he figured those were the kind of parents who kissed their children once on the cheek when they were newborns and once again when they succeeded in getting their master's degree at the university. They wouldn't waste affection on kids. "You'd think that man was of the nobility himself," the commentator said, "because intelligence like his is usually the result of centuries of inbreeding."

The Callie series

Walt et Callie : la sieste

Yesterday, after working in the garden and then taking Callie for a walk, Walt stretched out on a chaise longue for a little nap. Callie got under the chair and took her nap at the same time. Except that I wouldn't leave her alone. She ended up posing for a long series of pictures. Here are some of them.

Callie, 24 May 2007 — if only she could talk.

Now Walt is much more parsimonious with his pictures than I am. He doesn't take as many, for one thing. He started doing photography back in the days of film and slides, so he plans and composes his pictures carefully. On his blog today he posted a single picture of the dog.

Keeping an eye — literally — on the shutterbug

I, on the other hand, was never much of a photographer until digital cameras came along. It's hard to believe that I got my first digital camera at Christmas in 1998 — that it has been almost nine years already. Freed of the cost and processing-time constraints of film, I started snapping away.

I'd better keep both eyes open with this guy around.

I learned a lot from looking at Walt's pictures. Before digital, I did have a film camera and took some pictures, but after waiting days for them to be developed I was always disappointed in the result. I guess I like immediate gratification. So I take pictures with abandon nowadays. And I blog that way too.

I'm wide awake now.

This morning Walt was out planting the garden and I was keeping watch over the dog. She can't stand to just observe the gardening process — she wants to participate. If you dig a hole, she digs one too. She also wants to play with your gardening gloves and bark at the gardening tools. So I was dogsitting her, in the house.

My computer is downstairs in our entryway, but Callie wanted to go upstairs to the living room. I was hoping she might finish her kibble up there, so I let her go. After a few minutes, I noticed how quiet she was, so I went to see what she was up to.

OK, this is getting old.

Callie used to have a toy that we call the squeaky rope. It's a rope on one end and other other end there was a big fuzzy sausage-shaped toy that had a plastic squeaker in it. Callie learned how to make it squeak and within a few days she had torn the toy open and extracted the squeaker. It's made of clear plastic, and now she plays with that, loving to make it squeak. It's always somewhere on the floor.

Maybe if I make a silly face he'll go away.

So I went upstairs to see where Callie was and couldn't find her. I was walking around the sitting/dining room, looking in every one of her usual hiding places, wondering where in the world she could be, when I stepped on something and it let out a loud squeal! I jumped sky high, thinking I had stepped on the poor dog's foot. My heart skipped a beat!

I had of course stepped on the plastic squeaker toy. And then Callie emerged from the bedroom — we had neglected to close that door this morning — to see what all the fuss was about. She was all innocent, of course. What's the fuss about? I still don't know what she might have been chewing on in there. Probably a shoe.

I'll just ignore him and go back to sleep.

Yesterday afternoon, after the photo session, we drove the four miles over to see our friend Gisèle. Walt drove, and I held Callie on my lap in the front seat. We had to take a long detour because our usual road was closed for construction. The road we ended up on wound through the vineyards, with lots of curves, and of course Callie threw up. I was lucky enough to be able to aim her head away from me and she puked on the rubber floor mat between my feet, so no great damage was done.

24 May 2007

Finally getting the garden in

The weather has decided to start cooperating with the gardeners of Saint-Aignan. We are late planting this year. We probably should have planted in April, when the weather was warm. I can say that now, because we know that we didn't have a cold snap in May, as often happens. According to local custom, we aren't supposed to set plants out before mid-May.

The herb garden in front, and behind it the three
vegetable garden plots all tilled up and ready to go

The piece of equipment that makes all this possible is the rototiller. It's gas powered and makes fairly short work of a project that would require many hours of back-breaking labor if we tried to do it with a shovel and a hoe.

The Staub rototiller that we bought in 2004

This year we'll have tomatoes (Walt set out 15 plants yesterday) of all kinds: big yellow tomatoes (thanks to Harriett and Tom in Urbana, Illinois, for the seeds), plum tomatoes, two kinds of beefsteak tomatoes, and tomatillos. I see salsa and salads and tomato sauce in our future.

Another view of the garden, framed by two apple trees

We'll also have zucchini, yellow squash, okra (if the seeds germinate), green beans, eggplants, and red bell peppers. Oh, and some blettes (aka bettes) or chard, because our friend Gisèle is going to give us some seedlings this afternoon.

The tomato plants are all staked out. The pumpkin patch is
in the far corner, backed by a piece of corrugated sheet metal.

And a couple of days ago, I tilled up a new plot out in the far corner of the yard, where the previous owners had their compost pile. That should be very rich soil. Walt went out and planted two kinds of pumpkins and some butternut squash back there. We'll just let those take over our new pumpkin patch.

Gardening tools leaning up against the trunk of an apple tree

The gendarmes (firebugs) under the linden tree seem to have produced a new generation this month. There are millions of them. They are harmless and even beneficial, since they live on plant detritus and process it into the soil as poop.

Baby firebugs (called gendarmes in French) devouring a rose petal.
Notice the adult firebug on the right. Guarding the babies?

After all the gardening work, I like to stretch out on a chaise longue in the shade, read newspaper articles printed off the 'net, and listen to my favorite afternoon radio program (Les Grosses Têtes on Radio Luxembourg). Callie likes to sit nearby and chew on things — grass, a rawhide bone, a cleaning rag... whatever.

Callie's latest toy: a cleaning rag.

23 May 2007

Rillettes — potted meat

Another traditional Loire Valley food product is called rillettes, or potted meat. The English term "potted" is kind of unfortunate, don't you think? We Anglo-Americans have a way of making good food sound unappetizing without meaning to, I guess. I think it's because we are so squeamish about food in general.

The French word rillettes sounds a lot better. Pronounce it [ree-YET]. If you want an American equivalent, think Deviled Ham. But that product is so full of spices and chemicals that you'd never even know it is made with meat! Again, it's "deviled" — that can't be good, can it? It's evil.

I got these rillettes from a vendor at the market in Saint-Aignan.
His shop is in Angé, a village about 5 miles west on the Cher river.

Rillettes are usually made from pork here in the Loire, but you can also buy or make rillettes of duck, goose, rabbit, or chicken. I bought some rillettes de porc to serve to our friends from California last weekend, because I was trying to serve mostly local foods.

According to the web site of a major producer of this kind of potted pork, rillettes were first made in the Touraine. But the best known rillettes today are made in Le Mans, the city famous for car races that is an hour or two north of Tours in the area called the Sarthe.

On the back of the container, some pigs are having a pro-rillettes
"Up with rillettes", their sign says. "Oh, to be
made into
rillettes by traditional and artisanal methods," says the pig.

In fact, there is a local rivalry, and some people enjoy the debate over the relative merits of rillettes du Mans and rillettes de Tours. Our neighbor Bernard says he and his hunting buddies have such a debate every year, since they hunt in the forests and fields between the two cities and the hunters come together from the two areas. They bring rillettes for their mid-day picnic (and bread and wine too, I'm sure).

Bernard says that the Tours-style rillettes are meatier, less fatty, and not cooked quite as long. He prefers that texture, in which the chunks of meat are left more nearly intact.

The best way to understand what rillettes are like, if you've never had them, is to realize that American-style tuna salad is called, in French, rillettes de thon. The tuna in tuna salad, like the pork or other meat in rillettes, is cooked until it starts to fall apart. It's shredded.

Here are the ingredients in the locally made rillettes:
lean and fat of pork; seasonings.

Then it's put up in fat — mayonnaise in the case of tuna (mayonnaise is an emulsion of vegetable oil and eggs or egg yolks), and pork, duck, or goose fat in the case of potted meat. Rillettes, like tuna salad, are easy to eat because they are spreadable, and they're good eaten on bread or toast or in sandwiches.

In the old days, before modern refrigeration, rillettes were made in the fall when hogs were slaughtered on the farm. Smoking the meat was one way of preserving the meat so that it would last over the winter. Making sausages, which could also be smoked, was another method of preserving the meat. Another was to pack it in salt. And another, in France, was making rillettes, which were packed in crocks and covered with a layer of fat that protected the meat from air and mold.

I bought these duck rillettes at the supermarket.
They aren't local, but they are good. They're 70% duck.

Making rillettes requires long, slow cooking the pork or other meat in fat and liquid. Six hours or more of cooking is not too much. Here's a well-known chef's recipe that I found on the web and a link to the French site:

Jacques Thorel's recipe for rillettes
  • 4½ lbs. of pork breast
  • 4½ lbs. of lean raw ham
  • 1¼ lbs. of lard
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 cup of white wine
  • 1 Tbs. salt
  • 1 Tbs. black pepper
  1. Cut all the pork into 1-inch cubes.
  2. In a thick-bottomed pot, bring the water to a boil. Add the lard and the cubed pork.
  3. Cover the pot and put in in a water bath in a 220ºF oven for six hours. Stir the pot frequently with a wooden spatula.
  4. When the meat starts to fall apart, it's done. Pour on the white wine and let the meat cook for another hour.
  5. Take the pot out of the oven and stir and shred the meat.
  6. Put the meat into ramekins or jars while it is still hot. Store in the refrigerator.
Here's what rillettes look like in the container.

If you are in the U.S., you need to find fresh pork that has a sufficient quantity of fat to make good rillettes. I remember when I needed pork fat to make sausages in San Francisco. I had a hard time finding any. Finally, at Tower Market, I talked to one of the butchers. He brought out a big pan of fat that had been trimmed off the meat they were selling. I said that was exactly what I needed. He gave it to me free and wouldn't let me pay him when I tried. For him, it was something to discard. Ah là là !

The "industrially made" rillettes have a longer list of ingredients:
duck (70%) including lean meat, fat, and connective tissue*;
pork, including lean meat, fat, and connective tissue*;
sea salt, salt, pepper, and E250 (a preservative).

How do you eat rillettes? Cold, spread on bread or toast. Or in a sandwich. The traditional accompaniment is the little sour gherkins called cornichons in French. Any sour or even dill pickle, or pickled onions, would also be good.

* I assume that "connective tissue," aka "conjunctive tissue" (conjonctif de canard, conjonctif de porc) is listed as an ingredient because of European regulations. The local rillettes surely contain it too, even if it is not listed. Again, it's not very appetizing, but here's a definition I found on the web: the tissue found in nearly all parts of most animals. It yields gelatin on boiling, and consists of variously arranged fibers which are imbedded protoplasmic cells, or corpuscles; - called also cellular tissue and connective tissue. Adipose or fatty tissue is one of its many forms, and cartilage and bone are sometimes included by the phrase.

22 May 2007

Goat cheese and roasted red peppers

Bell peppers grow really well here at La Renaudière.

I mentioned that we ate roasted red peppers Saturday night. Those came out of our freezer; if you don't already know, you should be aware that they freeze really well. And you can thaw them on a low setting in the microwave, because they have already been cooked in the roasting process.

We grew these peppers in our garden last season, roasted and peeled them, and packed them for freezing. I did a blog topic about it, with pictures, here: Picking and packing peppers.

Peppers roasted, waiting to be peeled

Roasted red peppers are not a Loire Valley specialty, but the fact is that they are very good eaten on a slice of toasted bread with a smear of fresh goat cheese. They're good the same way with Philadelphia-style cream cheese as well. Our roasted red peppers are a local product because we grew, roasted, and peeled them ourselves.

Now goat cheese, that is a real Loire Valley product. There are several well-known goat cheeses (fromages de chèvre) produced in our area and named after the towns where they are made: Selles-sur-Cher, Valençay, and Pouligny-Saint-Pierre are three of them. The best-known Loire Valley goat cheese is produced in Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, about 40 miles west of Saint-Aignan.

The goat cheeses I buy are made by Monsieur and Madame Bouland, who own and operate a farm inn (ferme-auberge) called La Lionnière up in the vineyards about a mile from our house. Monsieur Bouland sells the cheeses at the Saint-Aignan farmers' market on Saturday mornings. You can also go directly to the farm to buy them. The ferme-auberge runs a restaurant where meats, vegetables, and cheeses produced on the farm — lamb, goat, chicken, guinea fowl, goat cheeses, vegetables, and fruit — are served.

Goat cheeses for sale at the big Thursday farmers' market
in Selles-sur-Cher, ten miles upriver from Saint-Aignan

Monsieur Bouland makes his cheeses in various shapes:
  • round disks (ronds) about three inches across, in the style of Selles-sur-Cher
  • similar-sized heart shapes (coeurs)
  • logs (bûches) about six inches long, in the style of Sainte-Maure
  • truncated pyramids (pyramides) , in the style of Valençay and Pouligny
All the cheeses he makes, and many goat cheeses from different regions, are dipped in black wood ash when they are fresh. The ash forms a crust and gives flavor as the cheese ages.

The cheeses are aged under specific conditions of temperature and humidity, and they are sold at different stages of maturity. The freshest cheese — fromage frais de chevre — has a yogurt-like consistency but tastes like goat cheese. You can make good dips with them.

Cheeses that have been formed — the French word fromage,and the Italian formaggio derive from the word form, or mold) but are still pretty fresh are very spreadable and are good with herbs and garlic, for example, or with roasted peppers and other vegetables. They have the consistency of cream cheese.

I've already posted this picture several times. It was taken by
my friend Cheryl at the Bouland's restaurant when she was here
a couple of years ago. I'm going to have to start paying her royalties.

Semi-dry (demi-sec) or medium-hard goat cheeses are still soft enough to spread but have a more pronounced flavor than the really soft fresh ones. Dry (sec) or hard goat cheeses can be sliced. They can be crumbly, and the flavor is even more pronounced and delicate, you might say. The stages of maturity are not strictly defined; it's a continuum. You can buy cheeses that are more or less soft or hard, and more or less fresh or aged.

All the goat cheeses are pure white inside. They are lower in cholesterol than cow's milk cheeses, I understand, and they are a staple in the Loire and Cher river valleys, where raising goat, not cattle, is a big business and an old tradition.

21 May 2007

Loire Valley food specialties

This weekend we had friends here from California. Since we can't go to restaurants right now, we planned, purchased, and prepared food for Saturday night and Sunday afternoon meals with our visitors.

Why can't we go to restaurants? It's the puppy — we don't want to leave her unsupervised in the house, we don't want to lock her in her kennel for hours while we are out, and we aren't sure she has sufficiently polished restaurant manners at this stage. Well-behaved dogs are admitted in most French restaurants, as you might know.

We thought we'd go with local specialties for the weekend's dinners, and seasonal ones as possible in the case of vegetables and fruits. In the Saint-Aignan area, that means asparagus and strawberries (in season now), along with goat cheeses and rillettes (potted meats), all available year-round.

Peeling white asparagus from the Sologne

The local asparagus, grown in the neighboring region of sandy soil, small lakes, and pine and birch forests that is called La Sologne, are of the white variety. In fact, the white and green asparagus varieties are really the same plant. It's just the way they are grown than differentiates them.

Green asparagus are allowed to grow up out of the soil and be exposed to sunlight. That makes them green. White asparagus are grown under mounded-up soil and sand so that the spears never see the light of day. They stay white. I bought a kilo (2.2 lbs) of white asparagus spears from a farmer's stand at the Saint-Aignan market Saturday morning for four euros ($5.50 at today's rates). That was the best price I found at the farmers' market that morning.

Cooked white asparagus, ready to be seasoned and sauced

I think green and white asparagus are equally good to eat, if they are prepared and cooked appropriately. The main difference is that the white ones need to be peeled before you cook them, and they need to be cooked a little longer than the green ones. If you cook the green ones just a minute or two too long, they turn mushy and strong-tasting; the white ones are less fragile and stand up better in the cooking process. I cook them in a wide, shallow pan of boiling water.

Wrap bundles of cooked asparagus spears in slices of ham.
Place the bundles in a pre-baked pie shell and pour an egg custard
mixture around them. Cook the pie in a hot oven for 20 minutes.

Asparagus are good served hot with melted butter or cold with mayonnaise or vinaigrette. They can be cut into pieces and incorporated into a soup or a risotto. Or they can be cooked in a pie the way Walt does them. Again, cooked properly, they are delicious.

The other plant that grows well in the sandy soil of the Sologne and in the sandy bottom land along the Loire and Cher rivers is the strawberry (la fraise). The season runs from April through June. On Saturday, I bought strawberries from a farmer who sells them at the Saint-Aignan market, along with asparagus and honey. He didn't have any asparagus this week, but the strawberries he was selling looked and smelled delicious.

Loire Valley strawberries

I asked him if he grew the fraises himself and he said he did. I didn't recognize the variety, which was spelled cigualine on his sign but can also spelled cigaline. I have found references to it and other strawberry cultivars on the web (in French). This particular farmer grows cigaline and cireine strawberries, he told me. The varieties I find more often are called gariguette and marat des bois. I like those, but was more than willing to try others.

On the local markets and in the local supermarkets, I also see strawberries that are imported from Spain. They are plump, bright red, generally attractive, and pleasing to the nose. But they are usually spongy in texture and bland on the tongue. I avoid them. They are the same variety that is grown in California, according to what I have read. They have been bred to withstand transcontinental shipping and to last a long time on the shelf. Taste and texture are lower priorities.

The local varieties I've mentioned have a very short shelf-life but they are luscious and sweet. The cigaline strawberries the farmer at Saint-Aignan had grown were a pale red color, verging on pink. They were smaller than Spanish strawberries, and they smelled great. I took the farmer's word for it that they were sweet and juicy, and he didn't lie. He said the other variety he grows, les fraises cireine, are a darker red color but otherwise similar to the fraises cigualine.

I asked the farmer if he was local, and he said not really, His farm, he said, is up near the town of Contres, about 12 miles north of Saint-Aignan! I told him that that qualified as local to my way of thinking. Contres (pop. 3,000) is considered to be in Sologne, while Saint-Aignan is in the Cher River valley and on the edges of three old provinces (La Sologne, La Touraine, and Le Berry) as well as at the point where three "modern" administrative départements meet (Loir-et-Cher, Indre, and Indre-et-Loire).

I paid eight euros for a kilo of fraises cigaline. That would come out to a little less that $5.00 U.S. for a pound (454 grams). I had to throw one strawberry away because it was kind of smushed and had started to grow mold. And I ate two or three while I was rinsing and de-stemming them, because they were a little over-ripe. All the others were pretty much perfect.

Gariguette strawberries from Chouzé-sur-Loire

I didn't take any pictures of the food I was preparing yesterday. All the pictures in this topic are ones that I took back in April but didn't post back then for some reason or other. Above are pictures of some strawberries I bought back then. They were grown in fields along the river at Chouzé-sur-Loire, not far from the wine towns of Bourgueil and Chinon. I guess that could qualify as local; it's about 50 miles west of Saint-Aignan, on the other side of the city of Tours.

I plan to talk about other local foods — goat cheese, roasted peppers, and local potted meats — tomorrow.