30 September 2014

Watching the parade

The two guys who are harvesting a big part of the Renaudière vineyard continued their work yesterday, and that despite the fact that we got 6 mm — about a quarter of an inch — of rain in the early morning hours. They are still harvesting white wine grapes: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc. The red grapes are waiting patiently.

We watch them, or their big harvester and the tractor pulling the trailer filled with grapes, as they move up and down the rows of vines and as they parade by our house hauling loads of grapes back down to the winery.

With these machines and methods, two people can harvest all the grapes that would otherwise require bringing in dozens or scores of human grape-pickers, and probably in less time and for less money. Mechanization of the harvest makes it possible for local growers to stay in business and make a decent living. Not to mention good wines for reasonable prices.

29 September 2014

Monday morning rain

I was surprised to hear rain beating against the roof and windows when I woke up this morning. We haven't had any rain in so long that it had become an unfamiliar sound. The ground and garden really need the moisture at this point. Here, the weather pattern is feast or famine flood or drought.

The photos above are about a week old. It didn't rain that evening — it just threatened. We could see lightning off toward the west and south.

28 September 2014

Late September Sunset

One of the nice things about September is that late summer and early autumn sunsets are so beautiful. These photos show the sunset we had on Friday, 26 September, 2014.

7:45 p.m.

7:47 p.m.

7:59 p.m.

8:00 p.m.

8:01 p.m.

We are lucky enough to be able to see both sunrise and sunset every day from our house. I especially enjoy watching and taking pictures of nice sunsets from the Velux roof windows in our upstairs family room, which overlook the Renaudière vineyard.

27 September 2014

Loches : L'Hôtel de Ville

The Michelin Green Guide « Châteaux de la Loire » says that Loches — like nearby Chinon — is a town where, once you are in it, you won't see any modern buildings at all. The whole place seems to be frozen in time, and that time is the French Renaissance that blossomed 500 years ago. What Michelin says is not far from true, except for the the shops and boutiques at street level.

These photos show the Porte Picois, "the very image of a late Gothic town gate" (Cadogan « Loire » guide), set in ramparts that were built to protect the lower town. Just to the left of the gate, seen from this angle is the Hôtel de Ville or town hall, which occupies a house built in about 1535.

26 September 2014

Loches : La Maison du Centaure

The Centaur House is a 500-year-old building on a pedestrian street near the Hôtel de Ville in Loches, near the city of Tours. "Wandering down through the curving old streets" of the town, as the Cadogan says, "is a real pleasure. The feel is mainly 15th and 16th century." I agree and I'm looking forward to going back to spend more time exploring the neighborhood.

One of the most striking buildings on the rue du Château is definitely the Maison du Centaure. Apparently, it is privately owned and it is not in good repair. The figure holding the bow that you can see in the  photos above is Hercules*, represented by a likeness of François Ier, who was the king of France when the house was built. He has just shot an arrow that you can see sticking through the centaur's torso.

* This site says of the house:

On y voit notamment à l'angle, une colonne engagée à chapiteau finement ciselé, des niches ayant abrité des statues, une belle porte d'entrée donnant sur une courette, surmontée du portrait des propriétaires et surtout un bas-relief ayant donné son nom à la maison: celui-ci qui ornait auparavant le manteau d'une cheminée, a été placé en façade suite au rajout d'un étage au XIX° siècle. Il représente une scène mythologique: Hercule et son épouse Déjanire s'apprêtent à traverser le fleuve Evenos; surgit le centaure Nessus, qui propose à Déjanire de traverser sur son dos. Elle accepte mais, arrivé sur l'autre rive, Nessus essaie d'abuser d'elle et Hercule lui décoche une flèche empoisonnée. La scène est représentée au moment précis où la flèche vient de traverser le torse du centaure, tandis qu'Hercule - sous les traits de François ler - s'apprête à lui en décocher une deuxième.

25 September 2014

God, no less

In May 1978, I was a star — for one evening. My role: Dieu. It was a medieval passion play that a literature professor in the French Department at the U of I in Champaign-Urbana decided we would take to the stage (in a church on campus).

I didn't audition for the role; I was drafted. A sort of deus ex machina on the part of Professor Bowen, I suppose. I think she picked me partly because, at 29, I was the senior member of the cast.

The French Department chairman, a philologist specializing in old French and the history of the language, coached the whole cast (God, Adam, Eve, Satan, Jesus Christ, and the other usual suspects) on pronunciation, to make sure the rhymes were true.

Yes, it was in verse. It was decided that we actors would not actually have to learn the lines, but would read them. So it was more recital than true acting.We played, believe it or not, to a full housechurch, even though there were no subtitles.

The photo isn't great. Working with scans of old snapshots makes me realize now much cameras and photography have improved in the digital age.

24 September 2014

Les vendanges

The two men who work year-round tending the Domaine de la Renaudie's vines have started their vendanges — the grape harvest. Most of the harvesting around here is done by machine. Only a few special parcels of vines are harvested by hand.

Day before yesterday one of the first vineyard parcels harvested consisted of several long rows of Chardonnay grapes that grow just down the hill from our house, on the north side. Then the harvest of the more extensive parcels of Sauvignon Blanc grapes all around the Renaudière vineyard got under way. The weather remains pretty dry, and the red grapes will stay on the vines a while longer.

23 September 2014

C'est le soleil

This morning the sky is all pink, but yesterday it was gray — almost white. You might think the heavenly body in the photos below is the moon, but it isn't.

Late in the morning, the fog and haze mostly burned off, but temperatures remained chilly. Welcome to autumn.

22 September 2014

Looking up

When we arrived in Loches, we parked on a main street that carries a lot of traffic into and out of the town. We were lucky to find a free parking space. We walked up this little street and it turned out that the restauarant where we were to have lunch was right across the street from the house with the blue door, with its outdoor seating area under that canopy of green you can see overflowing the walls on the left.

The old town, la cité médiévale, is on the high promontory you can see here. I was looking up toward it, admiring the rooftops and the tower of the Eglise Saint-Ours. The "new" or lower town was our destination this day. We'd never before had a meal in the restaurant called La Gerbe d'Or but had heard good reports. We were a few minutes early and it wasn't raining in Loches as it had rained between Orbigny and Genillé a few minutes earlier. We had time to walk around for a few minutes before meeting our friends.

21 September 2014

Good to go

As you can see, the cafés and restaurants on this pedestrian street in central Loches — la Grande Rue — were all ready for the lunch crowd. Outdoor and indoor tables were set up and waiting.

Click or tap on the image to see it at a larger size.

Problem was, skies were gray, thunder grumbled in the distance, and rain threatened. Maybe there were diners inside, but there weren't many outside. Of course, it was just before noon, which is a little early for lunch. For those who don't have to work in the afternoon, it's just the right time for an apéritif to get the appetite going.

20 September 2014

Driving to Loches for lunch

Yesterday we drove 40 minutes over to Loches, a town of some 7,000 people, to have lunch with friends and acquaintances in a nice restaurant. Before meeting up with the others, Walt and I walked through some of the pedestrian streets and took pictures. Loches (sounds like "lush" if you speak American English) is a picturesque place.

On the way to Loches, we drove through quite an impressive thunderstorm, with a deluge of rain, several impressive lightning bolts very close to the road we were on, and even a few hailstones. Weather patterns are changing now that we are in the second half of September.

19 September 2014

Bœuf braisé aux carottes dans la mijoteuse

We've used the new "slow cooker" or « mijoteuse » three times since it was delivered on Tuesday. Wednesday morning, I got up early and prepared about 4 lbs. (1.75 kilos) of beef to be slowly stewed with carrots and onions for 4 or 5 hours.

First, I have to say that the Kenwood slow cooker I finally chose is an enormous machine. I didn't imagine that it would be so huge when I ordered it from amazon.fr. Be that as it may, I'll admit that we have filled the 6-quart cooking dish full all three times we've cooked in it. I think it's going to work for us.

Back to the beef — I bought two slabs of what is called « basse-côte » in French. It looks and cooks like a chuck roast to me, and I like it. Walt and I grew up eating oven-roasted and pot-stewed beef chuck with vegetables.

I cut the meat into big cubes and browned it in the oven. I thought that would be less messy than browning it in a skillet on the stovetop. I put it on a tray under the broiler, and I didn't even turn the pieces of meat over. Browning them on one side was enough.

All the other ingredients — chopped carrots and onions, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and about 10 oz. (300 grams) of smoked bacon — went in raw, with 3 cups dry white wine and 1½ cups of water. At 7:00 a.m. I put it on to cook at the cooker's high setting.

Late in the cooking process, around 11 a.m., I added 1 lb. of mushrooms and a dozen small new potatoes to the pot. The stew was simmering slowly — the liquid was bubbling around the edges but not actually boiling in the middle. I guess that's the way it should work.

We turned off the cooker at about 12:30 and had lunch. As you can see, it was delicious. The beef was tender and juicy, and the pieces of smoked pork were starting to fall apart. The carrots were cooked through but not disintegrating into the liquid. Success...

The other two times we used the cooker was to make more tomato sauce using about the last of the tomatoes from the garden. Walt trimmed them all up and filled the 6-qt. cooking dish, seasoning the tomatoes with salt only. That batch cooked on high for 4 hours. Then he filled up the cooker again and let it cook on low temperature overnight — for at least eight hours. Both batches of sauce (11 pints in all) were perfect.

18 September 2014

Throwback Thursday — May 1979

Yes, this was me in May 1979. I was 30 years old, and I was living in Urbana, Illinois, where I was a teaching and research assistant in the French Department at the University of Illinois. In September of that year, I would leave for a year in France, which would turn into three years. In 1981, I would meet Walt there, and the rest is history.

Look at that hair! It was the end of the 1970s, after all. This was the look of people like James Taylor and Francis Cabrel, two of my favorite singers in those days. Long hair was partly a political statement back then, and it was partly a budget issue — I told myself I couldn't really afford frequent haircuts. I do remember going to get my hair cut in the spring of 1980 or '81 near where I was living at Les Halles (rue Montorgueil) in Paris and deciding, on the spur of the moment, to get it all cut off. That was the end of that period in my life.

17 September 2014

Stuffed, cooked cucumbers

I can't imagine that anybody who doesn't grow cucumbers in a vegetable garden, and who doesn't have the benefit of a bumper crop, would ever make this. Nevertheless, it's surprisingly good. Okay, the skins were a little tough, but they were easy to peel off of each little piece of cucumber as you ate. The cooked cucumber flesh itself was sweet and delicious.

The stuffing I made was cooked rice, onions, garlic, and minced pork. The little extras were some some hot red pepper flakes and fennel seeds cooked with the rice, and, cooked with the meat, about a quarter cup of Ricard, the anise-flavored drink that people in the south of France love to sip when the weather turns hot. That gave the stuffing a summery, Mediterranean flavor.

The hollowed-out cucumbers get parboiled for ten minutes and then left to drain and cool on a rack. Then they get the stuffing put in. Everything is already cooked, so the cuke boats just need to be reheated and slightly browned in the oven.

We had a basketful of cherry tomatoes from the garden. I quickly braised some sliced onion and garlic in olive oil and then tossed in the tomatoes, which I had cut in half. Don't cook them; just heat them up slightly in the oil to release their juice and flavor. Salt and pepper them to your taste.

Slice up a few fresh basil leaves and put them in to infuse with the warm tomatoes for a couple of minutes.

Spoon a little of the juice from the tomatoes over the stuffed cucumbers. The tomatoes make a kind of warm salsa to have with the cucumber and stuffing.

Cooked, stuffed cucumbers like these are based on an old French recipe. I blogged about them back in 2007.

16 September 2014

Quick oven-browned zucchini with parmesan cheese

A few weeks back, I posted a recipe for zucchini spears roasted in the oven with olive oil, herbs, and parmesan cheese. Yesterday, I had a couple of zucchinis to cook — they are still coming — but I was in a hurry and decided to do something more rustic and less fussy with them, on the same theme.

Just out of the oven and ready to serve

First I cut the zukes into spears. Then I just cut the spears into chunks — you could do slices — and tossed them in a big bowl with enough olive oil to coat them, and then with some salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and dried thyme.

Ready for the oven

I spooned them out on a rack in a baking pan, so that they would cook on all sides and not be bathing in oil. I sprinkled a liberal amount — probably half a cup — of grated parmesan cheese over the zucchini chunks and set the pan in a hot oven. (Note to self: this would be good with a grated, very dry, hard goat cheese.)

After 20 to 30 minutes, the zucchini was cooked to a golden brown color. I was glad to see that the pieces didn't stick to the baking rack. They were delicious alongside half a small chicken grilled with a dry chili-powder rub. I served the roasted zucchini pieces in the same bowl in which I had tossed them with the oil before cooking them.

15 September 2014

An invasion of irises

A couple of days ago, Walt posted a photo of the path that had become completely overgrown with irises out by the garden shed. He had dug them all out. He did a lot of sweaty work to pry them out of the gravelly ground. Now we have the path back. Here is a link to Walt's photo.

And here are some photos that show what those irises looked like before he dug them out. I took this photo on the left last spring when the irises were in bloom.

If it's hard to tell that there is a path under the irises, well... that was the point. To the right, in a photo from June, the irises are in the lower left corner, and there's the yard and the just-planted vegetable garden in the distance.

In the photo on the right, it looks like the irises are trying to sneak up on Walt, who has his back turned to them.

After all the invading irises were pulled out, I sorted through them all, cut off the long leaves, and replanted them in a small plot of soil behind the garden shed, next to my plum tree. "Replanted" is kind of an exaggeration, since the iris rhizomes like to be right on the surface of the soil, and they spread by "creeping."

We hope the irises will take root in that new spot and fill in against the wire fence. Only time will tell. Right now, I think they look appropriately creepy.

14 September 2014

September scenes for a Sunday

Since the first of September, we've had the longest unbroken string of beautiful days of 2014. It has been fantastic, after all the rain we had in July and especially August.

This kind of weather reminds me of summers in northern California, where we lived for 18 years before relocating to the Loire Valley. It hardly ever rains there at all in summertime.

Right now, our Loire Valley mornings are crisp. The afternoons are pleasantly warm. There's very little humidity in the air. This month will be remembered as 2014's summer.

We haven't had a drop of rain in September. That is supposed to change this coming week, when temperatures will rise and storms are supposed to develop. Right now, we could actually use some rain.