31 July 2015

Raindrops, and a party

I noticed a big moon out back over the vineyard when I got up this morning. The moon was above or behind some haze in the sky so it was fuzzy-looking, but round and bright. Is it full again already? Summer is flying by and July is over today. August will bring us another heat wave, according to forecasts.

Yesterday afternoon our neighbor from across the street came over and invited us to go over and take part in her 80th birthday party this evening. I think it is otherwise a family event, but we'll see. She and her husband (who's 85) have 7 children, countless grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren. The weather is supposed to be clear and warm (24ºC, mid-70's F) this afternoon and evening.

30 July 2015

Drippy... or droppy

Yesterday I wrote about how much our weather has changed over the past week or so. And then I went out for a walk with Callie. I took a lot of watery photos.

Grape leaves, for example.
And grapes.

Little pink flowers.

Dead leaves.
And living ones.

29 July 2015

Les 100 lieux qu'il faut voir

It's amazing how our weather has changed so radically. It now rains every day, and the high temperature is in the high 60s or low 70s F. I'm sleeping under a blanket again. I'm wearing sweatpants around the house instead of bermuda shorts. All the windows in the house are shut. The electric fans have been put away.

The two big rain barrels on the north side of the house are full again. Walks with the dog in the rain are now common, and the dog needs her paws washed after every sortie. The sun rises later and later, and sets earlier and earlier, and since it's cloudy most of the time it's dark in the house when I get up. I'm sleeping later, because by my nature I get up when the sun does.

It just reminds me how you have to take full advantage of every day of nice weather in this French climate. Sometimes you don't get any summer weather at all. This year, we were lucky to have nearly four months of sunshine, from April to July. Maybe we'll get some more in August and September, but it's not something you can count on.

Back to my title: « Les 100 lieux qu'il faut voir » is another French television series that I've found on YouTube. It's a travel series with, because this is France, some food segments too. Mostly it's about the geography and history of different French regions. It's in French, with no subtitles, since it's made for French TV. Here's an episode about our region, La Touraine, featuring Azay-le-Rideau, Chinon, and Amboise, among other subjects.

There are several dozen full 50-minute episodes of "The 100 Places You Must See" here on YouTube. I'm glad people are uploading them. If you are learning French, or trying to keep your French language skills current.... well, you know what I think. Prenez le temps. Faites l'effort. And enjoy.

28 July 2015

Tajine de poulet aux pruneaux et aux pois chiches

A tajine is a Moroccan dish that combines meat or vegetables or both with a spice blend that can include cinnamon, cumin, fenugreek, allspice, cayenne pepper, ground coriander seeds, and even curry leaves. Tajine vegetables are good when they are on the sweet side — sweet potatoes, winter squashes, parsnips, or carrots, for example. Another way to bring sweet flavors to the mix is to use dried fruit in the tajine, including prunes, dried apricots, or almonds. The Moroccan spice blend is called ras el hanout, and it's good if you can find it. Here's a recipe for it.

I made a tajine of chicken with prunes and chickpeas in early July. The process was to cut the chicken in half, sprinkle the halves with the Moroccan spice mix and salt and black pepper, and then brown them in a hot oven. Meanwhile sauté some sliced onions and garlic in vegetable or olive oil in a pan on top of the stove until they are translucent. Add a cup or two of chicken broth and two dozen prunes to the pan and let it come to a simmer.

When the chicken is browned but not yet cooked through, pour the flavored broth and prunes into the roasting pan in the oven and let everything continue cooking for 30 minutes or so at 180ºC (350ºF), until the chicken is pretty much done and the prunes are tender. Add a cup or more of cooked chickpeas and let it cook 10 more minutes longer. As a final touch, sprinkle the dish with toasted sesame seeds and garnish it with some fresh coriander (also called cilantro or chinese parsely) leaves, or another herb like basil or parsley. The chickpeas are starchy so you don't need rice, couscous, or potatoes with this kind of tajine.

27 July 2015

Le nouveau frigo

We got our new fridge about 10 days ago, and Walt has mentioned it on his blog but neither of us has posted any photos. Here are some.

We were lucky, again, to find just what we wanted in a refrigerator-freezer, and at a good price. It's a Beko model and it was manufactured in Turkey.

It has the freezer on the bottom, and it's no-frost throughout — what they call froid ventilé in French. I guess that would be fan-assisted cooling, or something like that. It seems to be the same principle as convection (fan-assisted) ovens. Because the air is moved around inside the appliance by an electric fan, there aren't really any cold spots (fridge) or hot spots (oven) inside to worry about. The temperature stays pretty constant in all parts of the thing.

We got the fridge from the Darty home appliances (électro-ménager) and electronics store up in Blois. It was delivered free of charge and the delivery guys took away the old fridge, which Darty said it would donate to a charity organization.

In Europe, or in France anyway, freezers are fitted with deep drawers instead of just racks and shelves. Our old fridge, a Samsung model that we bought in 2003 when we arrived here, had the freezer on the top, without drawers. It was a good fridge, but at age 12 it was showing signs of wear, so we went ahead and replaced it. We figured if it gave out on us, it would be an emergency. We'd have to scramble and maybe settle for a model that didn't have all the features we wanted. This way, we are set, in theory, for a few more trouble-free years.

The first thing we put in the new fridge, as you can see, was a bottle of sparkling wine for a celebration.

We've been taking advantage of a relatively strong U.S. dollar this year to renew some of our systems and appliances, including buying a second car, the fridge, and soon a new boiler (furnace). There are plenty of other home-improvement projects ahead of us — a new shower in the bathroom, a new back door and a new back gate, new shutters on the garden shed, and on and on. What else is new? Home-ownership is like this. This is the first time in our adult lives that we have lived in one house or apartment for more than 10 years.

At 70 cm wide, the Beko fridge is a little bit narrower than the old Samsung (74 cm). It's a lot taller too, but not too tall at 192 cm. As you can see from my photos here and in earlier posts, space is at a premium in our little kitchen. We've kept it the way it was when we bought the house, except for a new paint job and the appliances. The white tile is very clean-looking and plain, which we like. Maybe one day we'll have the whole room redone, but not right away.

It's only been 10 days, but we are pretty happy with the new fridge and its features so far.

26 July 2015

Pessimism, and some kisses

A lot of French farmers are feeling pretty pessimistic these days. They say they can't make a decent living in the current economic situation. They say also that intermediaries ("middle men") and those who own and run what's known as la grande distribution — the major supermarket chains, basically — are the ones making all the money. And they refuse to pay farmers enough for their products so that the farmers can stay in business.

This hot dry summer hasn't helped any, apparently. Big demonstrations by farmers have been all the news for a week or two, especially up in Normandy and Brittany, but also in the Loire Valley. I know just one farmer — he's a man who works out in the vineyard. I talk to periodically — he's very talkative, and fairly interesting. Sometimes his wife is out there working with him. They trim the vines, repair the vineyard support posts and wires, and do whatever it takes. Their main business is céréales — grains, including corn, they've told me. The vineyard work must be just a way to make ends meet.

Yesterday morning when I went out walking with Callie, somebody on a tractor/trimmer was working in a plot of vines up near the top of the vineyard, clipping off the tall top vines that don't bear any grapes. I couldn't see who was in the cab of the little tractor, and Callie gets nervous around farm machinery. We were just walking on by, but I waved my hand toward the tractor, in case the driver was somebody I knew and who knows me.

Well, it was the moonlighting grain farmer. As the tractor got closer to me and the dog, I recognized him and his big smile. At the end of a row of vines that he was trimming, he turned off the motor and got out to come shake hands with me and say bonjour. I suspect he wanted to greet Callie as much as me, because he used to have a border collie, he's told me, and since that dog passed on he's always missed him. Callie, who's not always the boldest dog, does love this man.

The conversation turned serious. The man told me the grapes this year are far smaller than they should be at the end of July. There won't be much wine, and the grape-growers won't have much to sell in 2016. At the same time, I should report I saw a recent report about the Bordeaux vineyards on the national news saying that even if the harvest is small, the quality of the wine produced will probably be exceptionally good. That's often the way it works. What it means is that wine prices will go up — again.

The man — I believe his name is Thierry — told me too that his cereal crops are suffering mightily. He said two large fields of corn he has, which he can't irrigate for some technical reason, have failed completely. He wnt on to say that he has recently handed off part of his land to one of his sons, who's pretty discouraged about being able to make a living as a farmer. Meanwhile, Thierry squatted down to pet Callie, smiled, talked easily about all this bad news, and enjoyed getting a lot of cheek and ear kisses.

By the way, it's supposed to rain today. I hope it helps. In France, grape-growers are not allowed to irrigate their vines.

25 July 2015

Rillettes de lapin, or "potted" rabbit — the method

I've made rillettes de lapin — rabbit as potted meat enriched with duck fat — before. Here is a post from 2011, and another from 2009. The standard French supermarket rillettes are made with shredded pork, but you can also find duck, goose, or chicken prepared in similar ways. We can buy jars of duck or goose fat at the supermarket here in France, but you could also use pork fat (lard). Rillettes are a French version of "pulled" pork or other meat, like rabbit or duck.

 The first step here is to cook some rabbit. In this case, I had bought two rabbits last spring and cut them up into pieces. I used the "saddle" — le râble in French — and the back legs (thighs) for our dinner back then, because those have the biggest and most delicious chunks of meat on them.

I froze and saved the front legs, the rib cages, and other trimmings to cook into rillettes — a shredded meat spread. To cook these pieces, simmer them in water and white wine with salt, pepper, and bay leaves for about 90 minutes.

After the simmered rabbit pieces have cooled slightly, it's easy to pull the meat off the bones. You don't have to be too meticulous about getting all the meat, but you do need to be careful not to let any little bones (like ribs) get into the mixture.

Rillettes are sort of like pâté but also very different. They're made with lean meat (pork, duck, goose, chicken, turkey, or rabbit, for example) that has congealed pork or duck fat as a binder, along with some of the gelatin produced when the meat and bones cook in water and wine. There's no liver or egg or other thickener in rillettes. You usually serve the rillettes cold, right out of the refrigerator, spread on bread, toast, or crackers, along with pickles (cornichons) or olives. It's like pâté in that way.

After being simmered, drained, and shredded, the meat browns lightly in some duck fat. Then you pour in a splash of white wine or a little of the cooking liquid and whatever seasonings you want — one or more herbs, whether fresh or dried, and some onion or garlic, some red pepper flakes, and especially a good amount of salt.

Don't throw the simmering liquid out — cook rice in it to make risotto, for example, or make soup. It's a rich and tasty broth.

I added some finely chopped onion and quite a bit of dried tarragon to the mixture this time and let everything cook with the shredded rabbit meat and duck fat for a while. The onion kind of melted into the mixture.

You need to salt the rillettes well because they will be eaten cold. Cold foods taste bland unless they are slightly over-salted.

After the bowls of shredded meat have chilled in the refrigerator, you can briefly set the bowls in a larger bowl of hot water and then turn the rillettes out onto a small plate or platter for serving.

A mound of rillettes like the one above can serve 6 or 8 people as an hors-d'œuvre or appetizer. Walt and I will eat some of ours for lunch today with a green bean salad and some steamed potatoes with a little vinaigrette. We'll take the rillettes out of the fridge and let the meat warm nearly to room temperature so that we can spread it on slices of crusty fresh or toasted bread.

24 July 2015

Etampes : « Notre-Dame-du-Fort »

There are three impressive churches in the big town of Etampes, just south of Paris. One is Saint-Martin with the leaning tower, which I posted about yesterday. Another, in the center of the old town, is the Eglise Collégiale de Notre-Dame. Here's a view from up the road that runs past the church.

In Etampes, Notre-Dame has a nickname. It's called Notre-Dame-du-Fort because the church, built from the 1130s to the 1150s, was fortified in the 1300s, to protect it, I assume, from English forces during the 100 Years War. The church has what the Michelin guide calls a « fin clocher roman » (a fine Romanesque bell tower) that soars high above massive stone fortifications.

Some of the church's doorways — seen above and below — could be compared the the Royal Entrance at the Cathédrale de Chartres, the Michelin guide says. Unfortunately, they were badly "mutilated" during the Wars of Religion in the 1560s.

Here's a close view of the panel of carved figures just above the church door. Because of the damage inflicted during the religious wars — Etampes was occupied by Huguenot troops — it's hard to interpret the meaning of the scenes depicted.

Finally, here's a shot of the lower part of the church's bell tower that I took from pretty far away. The Michelin guide describes the tower's stone steeple as « cantonnée de clochetons ajourés » — "surrounded by openwork pinnacles."

I didn't get to go into the church. I enjoyed a quick walk around the town and took these photos with my then-new Canon digital camera.

23 July 2015

The Leaning Tower of...

...Etampes. Maybe you've been there — it's the terminus of an RER line. The small city of Etampes (pop. 25,000) is just about 50 kilometers (an hour) south of Paris, right on the border between the urban sprawl to the north and the open countryside to the south. I was there on June 1, and had a nice lunch with CHM, P, and M in a restaurant in the middle of town.

One of the landmarks (a curiosity, really) in the town, which is very ancient, is the bell tower at the church called Saint-Martin-d'Etampes. Etampes and the former village of Saint-Martin, now a neighborhood in the town, existed in the Gallo-Roman period, as long as 2000 years ago. The remains of a Roman villa have been found in Saint-Martin by archeologists.

There has been a church on the site of the current Eglise de Saint-Martin-d'Etampes since the time of Clovis, the first Frankish king to become a Christian. That puts it about 1500 years ago. The current church was built "only" in the 1100s, after the village was destroyed during the Viking invasions of the tenth century and subsequently rebuilt.

This church was built between 1142 and 1170, but the tall, leaning bell tower in front of it dates back only to the year 1537. It was under construction at the time when the big Loire Valley châteaux, including Chambord and Chenonceau, were being built, during the French Renaissance.

Construction of the tower, which is about 50 meters (165 feet) tall, was briefly interrupted when the ground it was being built on settled or "subsided", leaving the partially built structure leaning to the west, away from the older church building. Construction continued, and it appears that the tower was given a slight curve to compensate for and counter-balance the one-meter lean.

Imagine someone stepping out of the local café ("The Leaning Tower", of course) after enjoying a drink or two. If he hadn't looked closely at the church tower before going in, he might not believe his eyes.

22 July 2015

Tiny flowers

The weather reports and sites we look at said we might get some rain overnight. We didn't. Twenty-four hours ago they were predicting 14 mm — more than half an inch. Then they scaled it back to 5 mm during the day. As it turns out, they could have scaled it back to zero. And it's still hot, outside and inside.

One of the great things about today's digital cameras is the way they let you see and examine very small things, like flowers, that you could never really see so clearly before. Look at the flower above. How big do you think it is in reality?

Well, here it is
with the toe of my shoe
in the picture
to show you
how small
the flower
actually is.

Click or tap on the images to display them at full size, for a better view. And remember I've downsized them by half to be able to import them into the blog.
 Here is another example. When I stop to take photos like these, Callie gets a chance to do some serious sniffing around during our walks around the vineyard.

I took these photos with my Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ60 pocket-size camera. (It's called the ZS40 in North America.)

21 July 2015

Langres, a cheese — and a TV show

I discovered a new cheese the other day. New to me, I mean. It comes from a region that is in northern Burgundy called Langres, and the cheese is of course called by the same name. It's a cow's milk cheese that is fairly mild and creamy. I ate some for the first time yesterday.

Langres is not far north of Dijon. It's now on my list of places I haven't yet visited that I'd really like to see.

It was a nice coincidence to find Langres cheese when I did. A few days earlier, I had watched a French TV show called Les Carnets de Julie, hosted by a young woman named Julie Andrieu. The episode was about Langres and featured the cheese baked into a tart.

Walt and I have been watching different shows of Julie Andieu's on different TV channels here for years, but now the channel we watched more than any other, Cuisine +, has gone off the air. I found Les Carnets de Julie on YouTube a couple of weeks ago, and I've downloaded dozens of them (see below).

I found the Langres cheese at SuperU. I'd never noticed it there before.

As you can see from the photo above, Langres has been designated as an AOP cheese. AOP is a European appellation that is replacing the older French AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlee) and means appellation d'origine protégée. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, I guess.

If you are interested in France, its regions, regional foods and specialties, and the French language, I really recommend Julie Andrieu's shows. The one about Langres is just below, for your viewing pleasure.

Here's one more photo of the fromage de Langres as I enjoyed at lunch yesterday. You can see how creamy it looks. It's not strong-tasting or strong-smelling at all, and I will definitely buy it again, if I can find it again.

Here's a link to a YouTube screen where you'll find many of the Carnets de Julie shows. They aren't cooking shows, exactly, but they aren't exactly travelogues either. The format has Andrieu going to one French region or another — there are good shows about Paris and about the Touraine region too, among dozens of others — and going to see people in their homes or workplaces. People cook regional specialties and she assists them, and then she gives the recipe. The shows run about 45 minutes, with some longer than others.

At the end of each show, Andrieu hosts a big potluck meal where all the people featured in that episode are invited to bring their particular dish and share it with the others. You really feel like you are taking part in the banquet — you can almost smell and taste the food. If you are learning French and interested in France, food, and cooking, it's a real treat.