30 September 2013

Calm has returned

This is going to be a quiet Monday morning, I think. First, it's supposed to rain, as it did yesterday and the day before. Second, the undergrounding work seems to be finished now.

Last week, this was the scene out at the end of our paved road. Our access to the vineyard road was completely blocked by big engins and véhicules of all types and sizes. Trenches were dug. A transformer as big as a dumpster was dropped in by crane. The weather was downright hot, at least late in the afternoon.

We could still be in for some activity, however, because the vendanges — the grape harvest, plural in French — are supposed to start today. It's the latest harvest in memory, or maybe ever. Let's hope it's a good one.

29 September 2013

Tomato in curries

One way I've been using fresh tomatoes this month is in curries. Thanks go to our English friend Nick, who made us a good tomato-chicken curry for dinner back at the end of August.

Curry of shrimp, cauliflower, zucchini, and tomato, with onions, garlic, and ginger

Tomato wasn't an ingredient I associated with curry, but it really adds freshness and natural sweet flavor to the sauce. The sauce itself I make using curry powders — garam massala from India via England, massalé from the islands of Mauritius and Réunion via France — with some cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, and cayenne added to balance out the flavors.

Chunks of fresh red tomato warming through  in a curry sauce

The sauce can have yogurt, cream, or coconut milk as its base — or broth, or just water. It needs enough curry powder and spices in it to have a pronounced flavor and to thicken the liquid to a creamy consistency. Sautéed onions and garlic are indispensable. Early in the month, I made a curry with Guinea hen instead of chicken.

Curry of pintade (Guinea hen) with green peas and chunks of fresh yellow tomato

And then more recently, I decided to make a shrimp and cauliflower curry. That seemed like an unusual combination to me, but I found several recipes for such curries on the internet. I guess you can find anything you want on the internet. I added sautéed chunks of zucchini and chunks of fresh tomato, and it all went together really well.

28 September 2013


« Décalé » is an interesting word. It's what the seasons are in 2013. Winter was mild. Spring was wintry. Summer was late, and it continues into fall — it's almost 70ºF — 20ºC — outside this morning. Everything is "off" — summer weather when it's almost October doesn't seem right.

The French-English dictionary gives "quirky, off-beat" as one translation for décalé. "Out of sync." It also gives "unconventional, irregular." All that applies, in this case. You can be « décalé par rapport à la réalité » — "out of touch with reality." The seasons have lost touch with the calendar.

27 September 2013

Crimes against tomatokind

I told Walt it was really a crime, or at least a sin, to cut up such beautiful tomatoes to make sauce. They were the gorgeous golden Jubilee tomatoes that he grew in the garden this year. We should have just eaten them fresh in salad, or on sandwiches, or however. But there was no way we could eat all of them right now.

You can be sure that we will enjoy the sauce this coming winter, when the fresh tomatoes will have run out. I've seen recipes for this kind of tomato sauce served with grilled or pan-roasted chicken, or with shrimp. Along with pasta, of course.

By this kind of sauce, I mean tomato-tarragon sauce with onion, garlic, and a little parsley (stems). We have a nice two-year-old tarragon plant in a pot that spent last winter on the glassed-in sun porch and is still growing strong. I used a big bunch of the estragon — more than you can see in the photo below — in the yellow tomato sauce, which is now in the freezer. I ran the sauce through the food mill, thinking I'll add some more fresh tarragon to it at serving time.

Yesterday, the work of undergrounding our electric wires continued outside. Around 10:30 in the morning, the crew arrived and started cutting and digging a trench across the road out back by the pond. I was in the kitchen making a batch of red tomato sauce for our lunch. Walt was out sawing logs. As I got the tomato sauce going on the stove, the inevitable happened. Our water was cut off.

The guys digging the trench had broken a main, and water was going everywhere. The mayor arrived and consulted with the crew. Some men from the water company showed up too. Luckily, Walt and I had a six-pack of mineral water in the cellar, so we were still able to cook our pasta and have the lunch we had planned. The water came back on after about three hours.

26 September 2013

Doing dishes, watching TV

Walt and I have a couple of Android tablets now — a Google Nexus 7 and an Acer Iconia A1-810. Each has its strong points and each has disadvantages compared to the other. I like them both. One of the best things about the smaller tablet, the Nexus, is that it can play live TV over our wifi connection.

Our satellite provider, CanalSat, makes that possible. All I have to do is put in my username and password and I can receive, live, the dozens of channels that we get in our satellite TV bouquet, or package. So now have a portable, battery-powered, wireless TV that I tune to TéléMatin for news, weather, interviews, and feature stories when I'm puttering in the kitchen in the morning.

25 September 2013

Tomates séchées au four

I had almost talked myself out of making any oven-dried tomatoes this year, but the tomatoes keep coming. We already have 12 pints of tomato sauce in the freezer, and I made more yesterday.

Blame (or thank) the great weather we're having for the bumper crop of tomates. The mornings are cool and slightly damp, with gray skies and fog. Before noon, the sun breaks through and temperatures rise to the mid-20s C, mid-70s F. The sun feels hot.

To dry tomatoes in the oven, I just cut them in half or into wedges and arrange them on oven trays lined with silicone baking pads or parchment paper. Yesterday I had three pans full and I put them into the oven at 85ºC (185ºF). It's a convection oven so the heat is evenly distributed and the air movement helps take the moisture out of the tomato pieces.

The important thing, I think, about drying tomatoes is to keep the oven temperature below the boiling point. You want the tomatoes to dry but not cook, so you don't want the liquid in them to boil.

I put the tomatoes in around 10 a.m. and finally turned the oven off at about 8 p.m. I left the tomatoes in the oven overnight to continue drying in a warm place. It seems to have worked. Now I'll put them in jars and reheat the jars to close to 100ºC (210ºF) before putting the lids on. That should seal them and protect the tomatoes from mold and mildew.

Oven-dried tomatoes are good added to salads, sauces, soups, and pasta dishes all winter long. The dried tomatoes take up minimal storage space. I suppose another way to store them would be to put them in plastic bags or containers and put them in the freezer.

24 September 2013

Gelée de pommes

These last few days, apples have nearly taken over our lives again. I say "again" because only last year, 2012, out of the 11 summers we've spent here, didn't find us out raking up tons of fallen apples several times during the season, preparing for lawn mowing. There were no apples to speak of on the trees last year because a mid-April freeze killed the blossoms.

We — Walt especially — spent a few hours Sunday and again yesterday raking up and piling apples in a wheelbarrow. Walt  hauled many loads of them to the compost pile. I threw a lot of apples over the fence into the wooded land that bounds our property on the north side.

Also, I gathered a big bucket load of the best looking apples and brought them into the house. Jelly was on my mind. I washed all the apples and cut them into chunks, excising any rotten spots. Into a big pot the chunks went — skins, cores, seeds and all. That's where a lot of the pectin is.

After an hour or two of boiling, the apples had rendered all their juice. A first straining through a colander caught the seeds and skins. Then a second straining through a cloth removed all the pulp — applesauce, basically. Let it drip for a while to collect all the clear juice. The remaining liquid was pretty tart. Maybe that's because I squeezed the juice of a lemon into it, for extra flavor.

The proportions for making jelly out of apple juice are 900 grams of sugar for every liter (1000 grams) of liquid. I had nearly five liters of juice. Mix in the sugar and bring the jelly-to-be to a boil. Skim off the foam that rises to the top, for clarity.

Meanwhile, sterilize a lot of jars. Spoon the boiling jelly into a sterile jar, screw on a sterilized lid — use a towel so you don't burn yourself — and turn the jar upside-down on another towel to cool. Cover the jars with a towel as they cool to keep drafts away. We got 19 jars. That should last for a few years.

23 September 2013

Rosé wine in a “beeb”

I've written a few posts about the local Touraine-Amboise wines, but I don't think I've mentioned how we buy most of the wine that we consume and enjoy here in the Loire Valley. We don't buy wine in bottles, except for special occasions or because we want to try a particular wine that you can only buy in bottles. We have our own plastic jugs, for example, that we take to the wineries and have filled straight out of the vat.

Drawing Touraine-Amboise rosé from the Limeray wine co-op into a pichet

Also, we often buy wine in what is called a "beeb" — that's how the term is pronounced — or, more technically, a "Bag-In-Box", which is actually a brand name. A BIB is also sometimes called a « fontaine à vin » or "wine fountain." It's a plastic bag, either transparent or opaque, full of wine inside a cardboard box, equipped with a spigot. Wine you buy in your own jugs has to be bottled when you start using it, and that's a lot of work. Wine in a BIB can stay in the BIB until you finish it.

The rosé from the co-op in Limeray, sold in a BIB, is an AOC or premium wine — not vin ordinaire.

With the BIB packaging, there's a perforated cut-out on one end of the box that you remove to expose the spigot. When you extract wine through the spigot, the bag inside the box gradually collapses and no air gets inside. It's air that makes wine oxidize or spoil, turning it into vinaigre — sour wine. BIBs come in three-, five-, and 10-liter sizes, and you can buy wine from all the different French regions in BIBs in the supermarkets.

Here's the BIB's spigot. You pull it out of the box, close the cardboard tab, and then remove the red plastic band.

You can keep a bag in box of wine for about three months after you open it, they say. After that, the wine might start to turn. We buy the local reds and rosés in BIBs, but not so many white wines. The local Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc white wines are the premium products of the region, so they go into bottles almost automatically. Different wineries and caves cooperatives sell all the different red-grape wines — Côt/Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Gamay — in BIBs.

The Limery wine co-op, in the Touraine-Amboise wine district, is called the Cellier Léonard de Vinci.

Some people keep BIBs of wine right in the refrigerator and serve it in carafes or directly into glasses right out of the fridge. Others keep them in their cellar, as we do, and fill bottles to bring up to the kitchen and dining room. In fact, wine in France is not a luxury product overall, even though there are luxury wines.

The advantage of a BIB over buying bottles is that it's a lot easier to recycle the left-over packaging when the container is empty. It's also less expensive, because you don't have to pay for a bottle, a label, a cork, and a foil cap with every 75 cl of wine you buy and consume.

22 September 2013

Delivered and stacked

It all happened according to plan. Jean-Claude, a man we've known for at least eight years, arrived with his son-in-law, two grandsons, and a tractor pulling a trailer-load of oak logs yesterday morning. After a slight accident — the trailer bumped up against our front gate and broke the top off one of the slats — they got the tractor and trailer into the driveway and dumped officially 5 but about 6 stères (cubic meters) of firewood in front of our garage door. That's about 1½ cords.

So there it was. We paid cash (250 euros as agreed) and thanked J-C and family. Then we started stacking the wood. Much to my surprise and relief, it only took us an hour or so to get the job done. This will be one winter's wood, with some left over unless winter drags on into May the way it did last year.

Now each of those meter-long logs has to be sawed into three 33 cm pieces that will fit into our wood-burning stove. Then the wood has to be stacked again. It sure is a lot of work. But it's a big event, because we depend on the wood burner to keep our heating costs down. Fuel oil is just too expensive to be our sole source of heat.

P.S. If you look at Walt's blog today, you'll realize that we really don't coordinate our posts and topics.

21 September 2013

Now the wood work begins

That means paying for, moving, stacking, sawing, and then splitting nearly 1½ cords, 5 cubic meters, of meter-long oak logs, to get them ready for burning. Like everything else this year, it's late to be starting such a series of outdoor tasks. Lucky for us, the weather is supposed to be warm and sunny for the next week or so. Walt does the sawing and splitting, so he's the one who has to work the hardest, while I fix lunch.

Here's Callie contemplating her morning walk.

Out in the vineyard, one big parcel of Sauvignon Blanc vines has been ripped out this season. The vine trunks were attacked by some kind of wood-rotting fungus, and one of our neighbors told me that the arsenic that used to be sprayed on the vines to control the rot has now been banned.

The red slugs get to be six or eight inches long.

On the edge of that bare vineyard plot, there seems to have been an explosion in the red slug population. We noticed the red slugs (orange really) when we first came to live here 10 years ago, but there didn't seem to be very many of them, at least not where we walked. That was a hot dry summer. This year, I see a lot of slugs every morning when I go walking with Callie, dozens of them, especially in that one particular spot.

Raisins on the vine

At least the red slugs haven't invaded our vegetable garden. Yet. I think their cousins the snails have already staked out that territory.

Autumn skies over the Cher River Valley

Madame Barbier's hair salon has re-opened down in the village, but it no longer belongs to Madame Barbier. We will miss her. I really need a haircut — it's been three months — so I have to make a call or stop by the salon de coiffure soon for a rendez-vous. I'll find out the name of the new owner/operator. And I'll see what "improvements" have been made in the salon. The interior was completely gutted the last time I was down there and work was under way.

Autumn leaves in the vineyard

Bertie the black cat just brought me a mouse. I let him in before I saw that he had something in his mouth (it's still dark). The poor mouse was dead, I was happy to see. I had to pick it up with a paper towel and put it outside on the deck. Bertie followed me. I closed him out. Life goes on.

20 September 2013

Seven vineyard pictures

On his blog, Jim Budd says that he recently talked to one of the wine producers in our village, Catherine Roussel at Clos Roche Blanche, and that she told him the grape harvest won't start around here until the first of October. That's really late.

In 2003, the first year we lived here near Saint-Aignan, the harvest started around the 25th of August. That was the year of the great canicule or heat wave, with hot weather from June through August and into September. Many days in August saw the high temperature hit 40ºC, over 100ºF.

Ten years later, we had a very wet and cool spring, with unseasonably low temperatures lasting until the end of June. July and August turned out dry and sunny, and overall pretty warm, but without record-breaking high temperatures. Now we seem to be about to emerge from a two-week rainy spell. Next week the weather is supposed to turn beau et chaud again.

The grapes aren't really ripe yet, apparently. They will now have plumped up from all the moisture the soil has absorbed — 46 mm of rainfall here at our house since September 6. That means about a gallon of water has fallen on each square meter of ground in 14 days.

We have scads of apples on the ground. They need to be raked up and picked up before Walt can mow the grass one more time. We are still harvesting tomatoes, and the upcoming warm spell will be perfect for them. We have a dozen or more winter squashes growing, and they will benefit also from warm, dry conditions before we bring them in. My greens are growing nicely and the moisture has been good for them.

This is life in the country and these are our current preoccupations. Oh, these and some administrative hassles and tax issues. Plus, it seems that Madame Barbier, who's been cutting our hair for 10 years, has gone into retirement. Our dentist also retired a while back, and we haven't found another dentist we really like. Our doctor is out on medical leave, and we don't know when he'll be back, if ever. Oh, and the car's speedometer has stopped working.

I guess the good news is that the roof hasn't shown any signs of leaking during the recent rains. Of course, we haven't had any violent downpours like the ones we had back in April and May. The kitchen ceiling still needs repairing, but we have to wait until we feel sure that the leak is fixed before we get the job done. Oh, and we are waiting for firewood. The man said he would call this week and deliver several cords before the end of the month. I'll have to call and remind him today.

It's good to be ready for winter, but psychologically I am not ready. The days are already a lot shorter than they were. Leaves are falling. According to the calendar, today is the last day of summer. Sigh. Here are some grape pictures that can remind us of the beauty of the season, despite the coming autumn. By the way, it'll be gratin de chou-fleur for lunch...

19 September 2013

Touraine-Amboise, one of the local « villages » wines

I'd heard of Touraine-Amboise, but not so much of Limeray. Amboise is of course one of the most popular tourist destinations in this part of the Loire Valley. Actually, it was where Walt and I thought we might like to live when we decided to study the possibility of relocating to the area more than 10 years ago. For budget reasons and because we found a house we liked here, we ended up in Saint-Aignan, 20 miles southeast. No regrets.

Some of my wine books describe the local denominations as Touraine and Touraine-Villages, just as in Beaujolais some of the vineyards have earned the name Beaujolais-Villages because the wines they produce are distinctive and of high quality. The « Touraine-Villages » are Azay-le-Rideau on the west side of Tours; Amboise on the east side; Mesland just west of Blois; and now Chenonceau, along the Cher River from Bléré to Saint-Aignan and Meusnes.

One of the actual villages in the Touraine-Amboise AOC area is Limeray, on the north bank of the Loire River across from Amboise and its château, and pretty much half way between Tours and Blois. It's a pretty village backed up against the limestone bluff that defines the boundary between the alluvial plain and the coteaux or hillsides that rise up on its northern edge.

Here, the vines that give Touraine-Amboise wines are planted above the town, on a flat plateau. Limeray's wineries have cellars or caves that are carved into the limestone cliffs and hillsides just below the vineyards. The grapes are the expected Loire wine varieties: Gamay, Cabernet Franc, and Côt (or Malbec) for reds and rosés, and Chenin Blanc (known locally as Pineau de la Loire) for whites, which can be dry or sweet as in Vouvray.

Often in the area around Saint-Aignan, we find rosés made from Gamay or Cabernet Franc grapes, or a blend of juices from both. In Touraine-Amboise, we were told, the rosés are made from an assemblage of three grape juices: Gamay, Cabernet Franc, and Côt. In fact, Brigitte Péquin of Domaine des Bessons, who hosted a tasting for us, said that the Touraine-Amboise wines are fundamentally based on Côt (known elsewhere and internationally now as Malbec), not Gamay as in other parts of Touraine.

As in nearby Vouvray, on the north side of the Loire west of Limeray and Amboise, the white wines are made from Chenin Blanc, which can give dry, semi-dry, and sweet dessert wines depending on weather conditions in any given year. In the part of Touraine surrounding Saint-Aignan, the primary white wine grape is Sauvignon Blanc, which gives very dry, grassy-tasting white wines.

In Touraine-Amboise, the special red wine is made from an assemblage of Côt, Cabernet Franc, and Gamay juices and is called the Cuvée François Ier, after the popular Renaissance-era king. In the Touraine-Chenonceau wine district, that's also a common blend, and it's called Tradition. The Domaine des Bessons in Limeray makes a Prestige red wine using just Côt and Cabernet that is aged briefly in oak barrels, a fairly unusual practice in the area.

At the Domaine des Bessons winery, the wines sell for between five and seven euros per bottle. Right now, the 2010, 2011, and 2012 vintages are featured. We found them all to be very good. Walt and I plan to go back to Limeray this winter to take some more photos and sample and buy some more wines.

18 September 2013

A trencher and a spider

Yesterday the work crew came and dug a trench up the side of our road. It's probably 500 meters/yards long, or maybe more. Ditch-digging isn't what it once was, however.

Pictured is the engin or machine the crew used to dig the trench. There's no on-board driver. The man walking behind it with some kind of tablet or remote control is "driving" it.

There aren't many of us in the hamlet these days — seven people live here now, compared to at least twice as many a couple of years ago — but three of our four households had representatives out on the road yesterday afternoon watching the trench being dug. It was free entertainment.

The electrical cables have already been laid down in the trench. The crew carefully filled in the trench where it cut across our driveways so that we were stranded for only an hour or so. Now they have to come back to fill in the rest. I wonder what machine will be put to work doing that job.

As Walt stood and watched the machine and the man out of the our kitchen window, he suddenly called me to come see a spider like none we had ever seen before. Can anyone identify it? The creature's "legspan" must have been 15 cm (6 inches), but the body was not much bigger than the head of a small nail.

17 September 2013


’maters. Tommy-toes. I've heard them called all those things. ‘Tomaytoes’ or ‘tomahtoes’. Tomates [to-MAHT] in French. And in 2013, we could call them « mieux vaut tard que jamais » — "better late than never." Despite the sudden September change in the weather, dragging us kicking and screaming into autumn, the crop is coming in.

Walt did all the work. He planted seeds. He nurtured seedlings. He repotted them, one in a pot, after they came up several at a time in the first pots. He planted them outdoors when the weather finally allowed in June, digging holes that he filled with compost before putting the seedlings in.

He pinched off suckers. He put stakes in the ground and tied the vines to them. He watered them by hand through the two-month spell of hot, dry weather we had in July and August. Then when the rains came back in September, he started picking the lowest-hanging fruit and bringing tomatoes in so they could ripen on the front terrace rather than just rot on the ground.

It all worked. Yesterday we chopped up most of the tomatoes you see in these photos and made a gallon or two of tomato sauce for the freezer and our winter enjoyment.

Meanwhile, the undergrounding project got, well, off the ground yesterday. Big trucks and back hoes appeared on our little road. Holes were dug. A big load of dirt was dumped out back by the pond (beautiful dirt, by the way — no rocks in it). It looks like a gigantic mole hill.

Today I have to take the car out, so I'll see what's going on down the hill, on the other side of the woods. Soon the wires that bring electricity to our hamlet and house will be buried and the poles will come down.