28 February 2013

Bottling wine, and a visit

We have company. Mike and Gustav (and Munson the malamute) have been living on a farm down in southwestern France for a couple of year. Now they are headed to Australia, where they will take up residence in Sydney. Here's a link to Mike's blog.

Here's Walt bottling up some rosé wine from the local cooperative the other day.
We buy wine by having our plastic jugs filled, and then we put it in bottles and
cork them ourselves for storage in the cellar. The wine costs about 1.50 euros
per bottle this way. We were also getting ready to make split-pea soup.

We are glad they could stop off for a night in Saint-Aignan on their way to Paris and points beyond. They brought us beef from the farm (in the area called the Gers), some candied ginger, and a bottle of 35-year-old Armagnac (think Cognac).

27 February 2013

Osso buco de dinde

Not really mystery meat...

When I went shopping at Intermarché last week, I saw a product in the butcher counter that I had never noticed before. It's not something totally new, because I've now found a lot of French-language recipes on the internet for cooking with it. Looking at the picture above, is osso buco de dinde something you would recognize?

The meat looks like pork, doesn't it? It's not — it really is dinde. That's turkey. The little steaks with a bone in the middle are the equivalent of what we call jarret, or shank, when it's a cut of beef, veal, or lamb. The butcher has taken a big turkey thigh and sliced it, through the bone, into rouelles or "rounds." They're like thick slices of ham.

The Italian name « osso buco » means "bone with a hole (in it)". Buco is the same word as bouche, or mouth, in French. The bone has been sawed through, exposing the marrow inside. The dish called osso buco comes from Milan, from what I've read, and it's usually made with veal shanks and is often cooked and served nowadays with a tomato sauce and polenta.

Turkey stands in for veal in a lot of recipes in France. I remember being invited to dinner more than 30 years ago by a French professeur d'anglais who served us what appeared to be escalopes de veau (veal scalloppini). She was very pleased with herself as she announced to her American guests that they were eating not veal but turkey (it was delicious). At the supermarket nowadays, you can also buy turkey wings labeled as blanquette de dinde, replacing the traditional blanquette de veau or "white" stew.

I didn't know how good osso buco made with turkey would be, but for the price of the meat it was worth a try. And it turned out to be excellent. As you can see from the pictures here, you first sear or at least brown the slices of turkey in olive oil in a frying pan and then you cook them for a while in or on top of a tomato sauce containing a lot of mixed vegetables until the meat is tender and almost starting to fall apart.

The vegetables I used to make the sauce were diced onion, turnip, rutabega, and carrot. The first day, we ate the turkey and sauce with some brown rice. A couple of days later, we had some more of it with polenta (yellow "grits"). Since there were six slices of turkey in the package, and each one makes a good portion for one person, we still have two left, making for a third lunch. (The tomato sauce, from the freezer, was a product of last summer's vegetable garden).

Luckily, this kind of dish is something that is good eaten as leftovers.
The flavor actually improves with time — within reason, of course. It would be easy to freeze and probably wouldn't suffer from freezing and thawing.

I wonder if you could get an American butcher to slice up a turkey thigh this way.

Osso buco de dinde — "turkey shanks" — cooked in a tomato-vegetable sauce

Don't forget the grated parmesan cheese, the bread, the red wine, and the green salad.

26 February 2013

Poulet façon « crapaudine »

Three languages, and at least three ways of naming this method of preparing a chicken for grilling or roasting. In American, we usually call this "butterflying" a chicken. In British, they say that the chicken has been "spatchcocked" or "spattlecocked." And last but not least, in French it can be called « poulet en crapaudine » (or « à la crapaudine », or, as in my title, « façon crapaudine ».

Un poulet préparé et cuit façon crapaudine

Of the three choices, somehow the "butterfly" makes the whole thing seem more appetizing or attractive. I'm not sure what "spatchcock" means in any other context, but you can't call it a pretty word. It's the same with « crapaudine » — a crapaud is a toad, and there's the image: a flattened toad. Chicken prepared this way is also called a « poulet aplati » — a splayed-out chicken. Here's a Canadian video, in French.

The Larousse Gastronomique food dictionary says crapaudine was also some kind of punishment technique practiced in the French military in centuries past. I'm not sure I find that helpful.

Curry spices applied

All that notwithstanding, butterflying a chicken is a great way to prepare it for roasting or grilling. The chicken is flattened and spread out so that it cooks evenly. Here's a video.The first step is to cut the bird's backbone out with a pair of kitchen shears or a very sharp knife. Then you can turn the bird over and, with just one cut through a piece of cartilage, you can easily pull the breastbone out. If you want to, you can cut the wing tips off.

All that's left to do is season the chicken — however you want — and cook it, either in the oven or on a grill. Or even in a pan on top of the stove. The butterflied chicken I made a few days ago was rubbed down with Indian-style spices and roasted on a grill in the oven.

I browned it under the broiler on the cut side first, and then turned it over and finished roasting it skin-side up.

24 February 2013

Snowdrops, and snow drops

The flowers below are called "snowdrops" — I'm posting the photos because they are growing in our back yard. And also because that's what we've had overnight, but in two words. A snow drop. A light snowfall. I think it's supposed to snow some more during the day.

In French, this plant is called a « perce-neige » — they flower in February, and they can pierce, or poke up through, a thin layer of snow. That's what they are having to do this morning.

Brrrrr. The snowdrops are in the picture below, sort of behind the well and near the barbecue grill. Of course, you can't really see them on the whitish background.

Notice that I "photoshopped" a utility pole right out of the picture to make for a more unspoiled scene.

23 February 2013

Spaghetti à la carbonara

Carbonara is a classic of the comfort food category. It's good food for a cold winter day. Melted cheese, bacon, eggs, and pasta. What could be better?

Spaghetti à la carbonara made with French lardons and French fromages

The first step in making spaghetti à la carbonara like this is to brown some lardons or bacon or ham. Walt and I like French smoked pork lardons, but you could also use pancetta, which is Italian salt-cured pork. Then, separately, cook the pasta in a big pot of boiling water, and grate up some cheese.

When the pasta is cooked, spoon it out of the pot (using a pasta dipper) rather than draining it into a colander, so that you don't lose the hot cooking water. Drop the cooked pasta into the pan with the bacon (first remove some of the fat if you think it's too much) and gradually spoon in some of the cooking liquid to loosen up the pasta, moisten the meat, and deglaze the pan.

While it's all still very hot — keep the pan on low heat — put in a cup or so of grated cheese. Parmesan is the classic, with maybe some Perorino Romano added. For my French version, I used a mixture of Comté (a Swiss-style cheese) and Cantal (more like white Cheddar) and we served grated Parmesan at the table.

Stir in the cheese, adding more of the boiling liquid to make a smooth cheese sauce. Then, off the heat, drop in two raw eggs (or just egg yolks if you prefer) and stir everything together so that the egg cooks in the hot pasta and sauce but, if you're lucky, without scrambling. That's the delicate part of the operation, and it can take some practice.

Even if the egg scrambles slightly, it's no big deal and the carbonara is still delicious. Don't forget the fresh-ground black pepper.

Walt was keeping Callie busy in the living room while all this was going on. Then we enjoyed the spaghetti à la carbonara with good bread, red wine, and a green salad.

22 February 2013

Coppicing, pruning, taillis, or élagage

The yellow splotches in my banner photo above are willow whips that have been laid out on the ground to, I assume, dry. The trees are cut back ("coppiced" or « élagués ») every year in late winter. The senior Monsieur Denis, now in his 80s, does the élagage or taillis (pruning). He must enjoy doing it, because he rarely does any other physical work around the vineyard these days.

These willows must be the tree called le saule doré or the golden willow. One site I've just read says they can become very big trees (height 20 meters) if they aren't coppiced annually. It says to beware of planting them close to your house because they have "far-reaching adventurous roots" that can damage septic systems and drainage pipes. It also calls them "highly ornamental."

The willow whips — or "rods" — can be used to make baskets. The local vignerons sometimes use them to tie up bundles of vine clippings (called sarments) that will be burned later in fireplaces or barbecue grills. The yellow whips are a nice touch of bright color in the winter landscape.

Another tree that adds color to winter scenes here is the oak. Its leaves turn a nutty brown in autumn but they don't fall until new growth replaces them in springtime.

21 February 2013

À l'abandon

Neglected. Untended. Abandoned. Nearly overgrown. That's what à l'abandon means. There are a couple of parcels out in the vineyard that have been neglected for years. I can say that with certainty now because I've been walking out there for years.

One of the neglected parcels of vines has been taken over by the spindly trees that they call acacia here. In the U.S., they're locust trees. Black locust, I believe. They produce big bunches of fragrant white flowers in spring. People dip the bunches of flowers in crêpe batter, fry them, and eat them.

You can see how green the ground is here, even in February. Of course, it has been rainy for months. One month from today, it will be spring. Vivement le printemps !

And the old vines are now covered in greenish-yellow lichens. I don't think they produce any grapes any more. Or if they do, the bunches are stunted and the grapes are tiny. They've reverted to their wild state, I guess.

20 February 2013

Crime scene?

No, no crimes committed that I know of. Unless a deer nibbling on tender new vine growth is considered to be a criminal.

The red and white strips of plastic tape go up around the vineyard in places where hungry chevreuils, called "roe" deer, might be tempted to feed. The plastic strips are supposed to scare them off. The tape does flutter, flap, and shimmer in the breeze in a way that might make a deer nervous. I wonder if deer, like dogs, are color-blind.

Callie chased a deer near this spot yesterday morning. She was pretty excited, and she got some good exercise. She never really got close to the deer, however. It was in the woods along a ravine, and Callie seems always to want to be able to see me, so she doesn't go far.

19 February 2013


We were getting used to the early morning fog — le brouillard — and then yesterday dawn was bright and clear. That's a sure sign that temperatures are falling.

Gray skies over the vines

Callie's not sure where the house went.

Can you see the houses?

These are some photos from the Sunday morning walk. It's time for me to go out there again, right now, into the freezing cold.

18 February 2013

The dog shower

The dog shower is both a place and an event. Probably 95% of the time, when we come back from a walk in the vineyard (two times a day), Callie needs a shower. Only when the weather is very dry, or when everything outdoors is frozen solid, can she do without.

Waiting patiently

When we moved into this house 10 years ago, the only shower was a tiled stall downstairs in the utility room. Walt and I took our showers down there in that unheated room for two years. Then in 2005 we finally decided to have a new shower installed in the bathroom upstairs, where there was only a tub before.

Hair enough to catch a lot of mud

Now the utility room shower is the dog shower. That's the place for the twice-daily bathing event. It's not a full bath, but just an under-body rinse. Callie doesn't mind — she used to it after six years of walks in the vineyard — as long as the water is warm. And it is.

17 February 2013

Pain aux céréales

This is a multi-grain bread called pain aux céréales.

It's made with two-thirds wheat flour plus some rye flour, groats (oatmeal)
sunflower seeds, and flax seeds. It's cooked on a stone.

Other grains like millet, quinoa, or coarse cornmeal would be good in it too.

I hope you have good bread with your Sunday dinner.

16 February 2013


Here's a picture to give you an idea of how muddy it is out on the dirt road and around the edges of the vineyard. This is what my jeans look like when I get back from the morning walk.

I'm wearing my dog-walking jeans but not my hiking boots — too muddy! — when I come back into the house after a 30- to 40-minute walk with Callie. Those are my house slippers. It wasn't raining when I went out for the walk yesterday morning, but it had rained hard the previous afternoon.

15 February 2013

Beef vegetable soup

It rained all day yesterday, and it rained really hard in the afternoon. We have started having what they call giboulées — sudden downpours of cold rain, with gusts of wind and sometimes sleet or ice pellets mixed in. Usually giboulées are associated with the month of March, and March isn't far off now. That will be the beginning of spring. Or at least the end of winter.

So what do you do when the weather outside turns (or stays) "soupy" for days on end? Well, you make soup in the kitchen. That's what I did yesterday morning. We had two big sweet potatoes in the cellar. Walt said "Why not put sweet potato in soup?" I was skeptical, but I searched around on the web and found some recipes for vegetable soups containing diced sweet potato. Here, for example.

Vegetable soup with diced sweet potato

We had beef broth left from the boiled beef dinner, the pot-au-feu, that we made earlier in the week. I started by cooking some dried red kidney beans. I found a bag of last summer's green beans in the freezer. I had a stray boiled potato, some frozen tomato trimmings and disks of yellow summer squash, and a cooked carrot, along with other odds and ends. I sauteed a chopped onion to start with. All the chopped or diced vegetables in broth made a rich soup. It wasn't hard to dice up some peeled sweet potato and a little of the boiled beef left over from the pot-au-feu. The sweet potato cooked quickly.

Terrine de lapin from the drive-up butcher truck

We're still enjoying the things we buy from the drive-up butcher. On Tuesday, a nice rabbit terrine caught my eye. I bought a slice. It's beautiful and delicious. It made a good first course, with some cornichons, to go with the main course of beef-vegetable soup.

Now we are supposed to have a dry weekend, with some sun. Maybe we'll start to dry out. Maybe we'll be able to get started in the garden. Maybe, maybe, maybe... Walt just yelled out from his office: "Wow, there's no rain in the forecast for a whole week!"

14 February 2013

One and a half million in car repairs!

Our friends in Blois had us over for lunch yesterday. They are officially elderly — in their late 70s and early 80s. In some ways, it was like going back thirty or forty years in time, I thought. And in other ways, it was just like being here in Saint-Aignan in 2013.

For example, M. and B. still talk about large sums of money in French francs rather than in euros. And they don't give amounts in what were known as "new francs" but in "ancient" francs — old francs, or anciens francs. M. said that they have spent « un million cinq cent mille » on car repairs since Christmas. That's 1,500,000. "Old francs" is understood.

These kinds of linguistic idiosyncrasies make even the most mundane everyday conversations in a language which is not your native language difficult to keep up with. It takes many years of familiarity with the language (vocabulary, grammar, idioms, pronunciations), as well as with the history and culture of the country, to get it all worked out in your mind.

At the same time, as an American you also have to learn to convert temperatures expressed in degrees Celsius back into Fahrenheit, weights in grams and kilograms into pounds and ounces, and lengths and distances in centimeters, meters, and kilometers back into inches, feet, yards, and miles. It really makes your head spin.

Who thought old and new francs would still be an issue more than 10 years after the adoption of the euro currency? Hearing prices quoted in old francs reminds me that I already found it complicated to deal with old and new francs back in the 1970s, and now there's an added layer, the euro. And of course, I still need to translate to dollars in my head at certain points to judge the values and sums being discussed.

What were anciens francs and how did new francs come into being? The old franc was the French currency of the 1950s and earlier. What happened was that after the 1940-45 war, France experienced a decade or more of economic and political instability during which inflation roared along. The value of the franc declined precipitously, to the point where a million old francs was an amount people had to deal with in everyday life.

When General de Gaulle was pressed into service to try to rescue France from turmoil in the late 1950s, one of the reforms he instituted was the new franc. It was pretty simple. The government declared that 100 old francs would henceforth be called one franc. The old franc suddenly had the value of a centime, or a penny. Even in the 1970s, when a beggar or panhandler on the street in Paris asked you if you could spare a (new) franc, he would say: « T'as pas cent balles ? » Balles was a slang word for francs.

It was as if somebody in America was asking you for 100 pennies instead of saying a dollar. (The American panhandler's expressions were "Got any spare change?" or, older still, "Buddy, can you spare a dime?") Back in the 1970s, first I had to learn what balle meant, and then I had figure out why somebody was asking me for a hundred of them. As a starving student, I didn't have that kind of money, I thought.

But I did, really, because 100 (old) francs had become 1 (new) franc in the 1960s. Everybody I knew in Paris still talked in terms of old francs, but prices were posted everywhere in new francs, which was the official currency. French friends my age or younger would say that some little item they'd bought had cost them mille balles or deux mille balles or cinq mille balles, meaning 10, 20, or 50 francs.

The new franc was worth about 20 cents in U.S. dollar terms. One dollar was worth five francs, or 500 balles. So cent balles (a hundred) was less than a U.S. quarter. Mille balles (a thousand) was two dollars. Five thousand balles represented 10 dollars. People my age used the slang word balle instead of the word franc to make it clear they were talking in old instead of new francs. In magazine and newspaper articles, you would see large amounts written as, for example, un million de centimes, meaning "a million pennies" or 10,000 new francs. In U.S. terms, un million d'anciens francs was two thousand dollars.

When we asked our 78-year-old host yesterday about her quoting of prices in old francs, she said that amounts in euros still don't have any real meaning for her. Prices in the supermarkets are still displayed in (new) francs as well as in euros, by the way. M. translates those prices into old francs in her head, she says, so that the amounts have meaning for her. When she said she and B. had spent "a million and a half" (anciens francs) on car repairs since Christmas, she was talking about more than two thousand euros, or nearly three thousand dollars. Well, it is a BMW...

I did the math with a calculator last night and found that the old million d'anciens francs is still worth pretty much exactly two thousand dollars, at today's exchange rate. Nothing's changed, really.

For lunch, M. and B. served a pot au feu. That's a boiled beef dinner with winter vegetables including carrots, leeks, turnips, and potatoes. Coincidentally, Walt and I had made a pot au feu on Monday, and we've been eating leftovers for a few days now. We are having a beefy week. M.'s pot au feu was excellent. The meat she used was joues de bœuf — beef cheeks.

Coincidentally again, on Tuesday, I bought a kilogram (2¼ lbs.) of beef cheeks from the drive-up butcher. My plan is to make a beef stew — bœuf bourguignon or bœuf aux carottes — with the cheeks. Not right away though. I've put the joues de bœuf in the freezer for now. We wouldn't want to start mooing around here.

13 February 2013

Cabin fever

Today we're driving up to Blois to have lunch with friends. It'll be good to get out of the house and ride the roads for a little while. The weather today is supposed to be similar to the conditions you see in the pictures in this post. After four days of mostly rain, some snow, and much gloom, we'll be glad to see the sun again. (The pictures here are from February 8th, and now it's the 13th.)

The rain is supposed to return tomorrow afternoon. I for one am officially sick and tired of this gray and damp winter. If March comes in like a lion, I'll be disappointed. It would be nice to get out and work in the garden, but the ground is just too squishy even when the sun is shining. I'm sick and tired too of sloppy, slippery and slidey walks with the dog.

Mary in Oregon asked in a comment about the cost of undergrounding the electric lines around our hamlet. Well, the cost is being picked up by the town or by the electric company, ERDF — those two entities are probably sharing it. We residents don't have to pay anything extra. I think we lucked out.

One of the nicest things about the vineyard is that there are no utility poles or electric or phone lines running through it at all, except right here around our little hamlet of nine houses. Our phone lines run up alongside the paved road on low poles. They've never been pulled down by a falling tree — at least not over the 10 years we've been living here — so phone service (including broadband internet) is not a problem.

On the way to Blois, we're stopping to pick up an 83-year-old friend who recently had foot surgery. She told me on the phone a couple of days ago that three weeks after the operation she's able to walk again. The people who have invited us (our summertime neighbors) are also in their late 70s and early 80s. It will be a fairly sedate afternoon. I'm sure the food will be, as usual, excellent old-style French cuisine.

12 February 2013

Buried, and good riddance

I think I've mentioned that the wires that bring electricity up from the river valley to our hamlet are going to be buried. Enterrés. We don't know exactly when the work will be done, but we've signed a set of papers giving our authorization, and a surveyor has been out here several times doing whatever it is that surveyors do.

There are five utility poles in this picture, all around our house.
At least four of them are not long for this world.

We'll benefit from the "undergrounding" in at least two ways. First of all, we should have fewer power outages. Three years ago we went without electricity for four or five days because a tall spindly tree fell on and pulled down the wires, which run up through some woods. A storm had caused power outages all around the region at the time and repairing our wires was given low priority because only nine houses were affected.

This concrete pole on the northwest corner of our property will be taken out.

Then two years ago lightning struck the transformer on the utility pole out behind our house. That time, the electricity was off for only about 36 hours, because it was an isolated incident and the repair crew got here pretty fast.

The pole by the pond, on the right side of the road, will be no more. Bon débarras, as we say.

We'll also benefit from having the wires put underground instead of on poles because at least four ugly utility poles near our house will be removed. You can see some of them in the pictures here.