27 May 2018

White "crab spiders"

We had a big surprise late yesterday afternoon, and the color white was part of it. No, not the white spiders, but hail! I haven't yet heard reports from other parts of Touraine, but big hailstones fell here in Saint-Aignan for two or three minutes. I'd estimate they were two to three centimeters (½ to 1 inch) in diameter, and they caused a lot of noise but no damage that we've detected so far. The clatter from the hailstones hitting the backyard greenhouse glass was almost deafening. By the time I realized what was happening and grabbed my camera, the hail shower was over. Tout est bien qui finit bien, je suppose.

Meanwhile, here are some macro photos I took a few days ago of the many white "crab spiders" that seem to live all around the hamlet and vineyard. At the end of a morning walk, I was taking photos of some of the flowers in our yard when I noticed the spider on the left, which was lurking in a red rose. The spiders are tiny.

I took a couple of photos of the flower when I noticed that the spider had jumped out to escape my prying eye (or lens). I kept taking pictures. I don't think these spiders, which are tiny, pose any danger to human beings.

Insects beware, however. The white spiders, called thomises in French, or araignées-crabes, hide in or on flowers and ambush pollinating insects that happen to come near.

The Thomisidae family of spiders includes more than 2,000 species, according to Wikipedia. Not all of them are white. And they live on every part of Earth except the north and south poles. A lot of them are able to change colors to more closely match the color of the flower they are living on. 

Right now I'm watching France 24 television to see if there are any reports of damage over to the west of us from yesterday's hailstorms. According to the MétéoCiel weather graphics we were able to see on our computer screens before the power suddenly went off around 7:15 p.m., knocking us off the 'net, the area to the west of Tours — Chinon, Saumur, Bourgueil — took the brunt of the storm locally.

Here in Saint-Aignan, the rumble of distant thunder was constant for 30 or 40 minutes. MétéoCiel has a screen that shows lightning strikes in real time as yellow or red dots lighting up on a map — impacts de foudre en direct — and there were thousands of them all around the Touraine region yesterday evening. On France 24 they just mentioned damage from hail in the Bordeaux and Charente vineyards a few hours southwest of here.

26 May 2018

Pas de voisins ce weekend

There will be almost no one on our end of the hamlet this weekend, it seems — just us, a dog, and two cats. Of course part-time neighbors might show up if the weather stays nice. But for the time being we have five empty houses all around us. Neighbors are "fleeing"  to the east and west, mainly to spend time with relatives. And it's not even a holiday weekend here in France.

Our neighbor across the street asked us if we would take care of her cat while she's away, until next Wednesday or Thursday. She's the neighbor who said back in 2010, when Bertie first came on the scene, that he had scratched her. She's gone to Annecy to spend some time with the cousin who also said Bertie had scratched her back in about 2013 or 2014.

The neighbor's cat, an 11-year-old female called Chana, scratched Walt yesterday when he went over to feed her. It's just a small scratch. Our job is to go feed Chana and let her out for the day each morning. In the evening, we go over again, let her back inside, and feed her again. If she isn't waiting at the back door when we go over there, the neighbor said Tant pis ! — Chana will just have to spend the night outdoors. And by the way, it turns out that the neighbor has been feeding Bertie regularly for the last few months.

The nights are warm and basically dry right now. We did have a short, light shower last night, though. The thermometer reads close to 17ºC this morning — that's 62 or 63 in ºF. I'll go to the market after a while for strawberries and asparagus, and maybe something like saucisses de Toulouse or boudin noir for today's lunch. 

Yesterday's lunch was meatloaf sandwiches using that latest loaf of pain de mie I made, with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. I sautéed some potatoes. Today I plan to check at the Pâtisserie du Château in Saint-Aignan, which is actually a boulangerie nowadays, to see if any of their weekend pain de mie is available. I'd like to taste it and see how it compares to the loaves I've been making.

The photos here are some
close-ups of flowers that I
took a couple of days ago
around the Renaudière
hamlet and vineyard.

25 May 2018

Le jardin potager de 2018

The vegetable garden — le jardin potager in French — is mostly in now. We have had a long spell of fine weather, with just enough rain to keep the ground damp but not make it muddy. In recent years, May has been a very wet month, but not in 2018. We've only recorded about one inch (28 mm) of rainfall this month, so far.

I was able to run the rototiller (le motoculteur) over the garden plot three times this spring. That's pretty good, considering that the winter and early spring were so gloomy and rainy. Walt set plants out earlier this week. They are still very small — 25 tomato plants of four or five different varieties — along with flat beans (haricots plats), snow peas (pois gourmands), zucchini (courgettes), chard (blettes), and winter squash (potimarrons). Those curly-cue steel rods you see are tomato stakes.

Here's one of the tomato plants. They look healthy but have a lot of growing to do. In many years, we don't even get the garden planted before June 1, so we are slightly ahead of the game. I have some Tuscan kale seedlings that still need to be planted outside, and Walt plans to sow green beans (haricots verts) in stages over the next few weeks so that they will keep bearing all summer.

Meanwhile, it's time to harvest some grapevine leaves (feuilles de vigne). We have a few vines (pieds de vigne) in our yard, but they almost never produce many grapes — the plants don't get enough sun. We do however get a lot of nice leaves in the spring and we can blanch, stuff, and roll them to make dolmas (stuffed grape leaves). In the photo above, you can see the  grape leaves in the background on the right. Those are sage flowers in the foreground, and the hedge in the back is hazelnut bushes.

24 May 2018

Plantes, ou animaux ?

I started processing yesterday morning's photos today thinking that I would do a post about plants and flowers. After sorting through the photos I took on the walk with Natasha, I realized I was doing a post about some of the animals I saw along the way.

First and foremost, there was Natasha. For about the first time, we walked along the paved Route du Vignoble, which runs along the highest point in the vineyard. Natasha shows signs of wanting to chase cars, so I've been reluctant to go onto roads that carry car traffic. Well, we didn't see a car, but we did see, close to where we were standing when I took the photo above, a roe deer. Tasha chased it, of course, but after I called her for a few minutes she came bounding back, panting with excitement and joy.

On the way back home, the frogs in the pond near our back gate were croaking and chirping like crazy. Usually, as soon as they hear my footsteps, they go quiet. But I know they're still there. Sometimes I hear a plop and one jumps off the edge the pond into water. Yesterday I stood quietly and looked where the croaking had been coming from. I couldn't see any frogs — they're green against a green background — but I took some photos anyway. I got the one above with a frog in it, and a couple of others with frogs in them too. Having a long zoom camera is almost better than having a pair of binoculars.

I was taking photos of flowers along the way as we walked, but I was distracted by arachnids and insects. There are a lot of the local white "crab spiders" everywhere right now. I often see them lurking on white flowers, where they are pretty well camouflaged. I think their plan is to ambush an unsuspecting insect.

I also noticed a lot of brightly colored bugs all around. The one above is called une punaise arlequin in French — a "harlequin bug". I see on English-language Wikipedia that they are known as "minstrel bugs" in English, or "Italian striped bugs". These insects are called "shield bugs" by the British, punaises by the French, and "stink bugs" by me and other Americans. We see a lot of them, of different sizes and colors, and they do stink if you touch them.

I don't know what this last insect is. It looks to be some kind of beetle. Maybe somebody can identify it. As usual, you can click on the photos to enlarge the view, or "pinch" and "unpinch" them to do the same thing on your tablette tactile.

23 May 2018

Five funky feline fotos

Thanks to Walt for the funky title. And to Bertie the black cat for the funky poses and photos. I took these about two weeks ago, as Tasha the sheltie and I were going out for an afternoon walk. I think the cat wanted to go with us.

Tasha, short for Natasha, is the third dog we've had as part of the household since 1992. Bertie, not a nickname or shortened name, is surely the only cat we'll ever have. He came to live here in 2010, when British friends of our who lived just down the road decided to return to the U.K.

For a variety of reasons, they couldn't take the cat back to England with them. He was four years old at the time, and he had been part of a litter born just across the river in Noyers-sur-Cher. He's part Siamese and he's now 12 years old. He's a fixture in the hamlet.
When Bertie was left with us, we were told that we should keep him shut up in the house for a week or two so that he would come to think of chez nous as chez lui too. We ended up keeping him inside for only two or three days. One time he disappeared for three days, and it turned out he had been shut up in our neighbors' garage by accident when they went away for the weekend. Otherwise, he never ran away or even roamed much.

Maybe it helped that the cat had gotten to know us when he was just a little kitten. When he came to live here, he fought with all the other cats in the neighborhood. Sometimes I wondered why in the world I had agreed to take him in, because he caused so much trouble and noise. He even scratched one of our neighbors and, another time, a cousin of hers who was visiting. I've never figured out what those two did to provoke the attacks they described.

All that is behind us now. Bertie gets along with the other neighborhood cats and with the neighbor who said he scratched her. Better yet, he gets along with Tasha just fine. He spends a lot more time in the house than ever before, but he still sleeps on his bed down in the garage, with a window open so that he can come and go as he pleases.

22 May 2018

Lapin au vinaigre et à la moutarde

I ordered six "saddles" of rabbit from the poultry vendor in Saint-Aignan at Easter and when I got them home, I realized they were much bigger than I had thought they would be. That meant, I'm pretty sure, that the rabbits were older than what I was used to — I've been cooking and eating rabbit for at least 40 years. These pieces of rabbit needed longer cooking than would young rabbit. That called for the slow-cooker, and making braises or stews.

Here's what the Larousse Gastronomique (1967 edition) says about rabbit:
« La chair du lapin est assez blanche et un peu moins grasse que celle des volailles. Sa saveur dépend beaucoup de la nourriture qu'a eue l'animal. Elle est plus filandreuse, moins fine que celles des volailles blanches, mais a sensiblement la même digestibilité.  »

“Rabbit meat is fairly white and contains a little less fat than the meat of fowl. Its flavor depends greatly on what food the rabbit was raised on. Rabbit is stringier and less delicate than poultry, but it is just as easy to digest.”

The six saddles of rabbit (râbles de lapin) made three stews, and each time we had at least four servings, if not six, out of the stews. The râbles, raw or cooked, freeze well, and I still have some of this last rabbit stew in the freezer. I made it by adapting a recipe for chicken called Poulet au vinaigre et à la moutarde. Not a lot of adaptation was required, actually, because rabbit meat is so similar to chicken, and because two of the râbles weighed about as much as a whole chicken.

You might not think so from the title of the recipe, which mentions vinegar and mustard, that this is dish of poultry or rabbit in a cream sauce. The sauce contains onion or shallot, carrot, smoked pork lardons, mushrooms, and, in my version, oven-dried tomatoes and fresh tarragon. Since rabbit is slightly bland, it needs strong seasonings to add flavor — wine, vinegar, mustard, pork, and herbs.

For "meatiness", smoked pork is perfect. White wine balances the tartness of the vinegar, and mustard is a standard ingredient in rabbit dishes in France. I mean Dijon mustard, of course. Finally, cream added to the cooking liquid toward the end balances it all out. Tomato, in the form of tomato paste or, in this case, oven-dried tomatoes cooked along with the rabbit, also adds flavor and richness. Don't forget the mushrooms.

Here's a post with a recipe for Poulet au vinaigre that I made in 2010. The recipe is good with either chicken or rabbit. Or turkey, for example.

21 May 2018

Aujourd'hui, un pain de viande

Yesterday I mentioned that my whole series of experiments in baking sandwich bread started because I wanted nice toasted slices to have with the mousse de foie de lapin that I had made. Well, that was part of the story. The other part is that our village baker decided a few months ago to end door-to-door bread deliveries in the area.

When we first came here to live here 15 years ago, the bread lady — la porteuse de pain, in French — would drive by five days a week, honk the horn, and wait for us to come out and buy a loaf of bread, or a few croissants, or even some butter, cheese, or milk, which she also carried in the van. A few years later, a new baker arrived and cut the service to just four days a week. Then again another new baker took over the boulangerie, and he cut the service to three days. Now it's been done away with entirely, except for people with "mobility issues" — a disability, old age, or no car — who can order by phone in advance and receive deliveries.

One day, years ago, I asked the porteuse de pain at the time if our baker made and sold pain de mie. She said no. She got out of the van and went around to the back. She opened the doors and handed me a loaf of factory-made sandwich bread in a plastic bag. She said that was what people bought when they wanted pain de mie. I tried it, and I didn't think it was good at all. The slices were tiny, and the bread was dry and crumbly. I could get better loaf bread at the supermarket.

When our bread deliveries ended, I started looking around in local bakeries to see what new breads I could find — handed lemons, I was trying to make lemonade. There are half a dozen boulangeries withing five miles of our house. One day, back at the beginning of April, I made the rabbit-liver pâté. I happened to go to a good bakery in Saint-Aignan around that time and I noticed, in a glass display case, a beautiful, very long loaf of pain de mie. I made a mental note to go back there are buy one of those one day soon.

When I did go back and ask about that kind of bread, I learned that the owner-operator of that bakery made a loaf or two of pain de mie on Saturday mornings only. That's market day in the town. The clerk at the bakery said I would need to come in early on a Saturday morning if I wanted some, because it normally sold out almost immediately. She didn't mention ordering in advance, and I neglected to ask.

That week, I drove "the boulangerie circuit" and looked for pain de mie in different nearby boulangeries. Only one of the four establishments where I stopped actually had pain de mie available, but I didn't like the look of it. The slices were cut far too thin and they were huge — almost the size of dinner plates. That was over in Thésée, which is a fairly long drive for us. In our village, the clerk at the boulangerie confirmed that the baker still does not make pain de mie. Over in Noyers, the baker whose shop is fairly close to the Intermarché supermarket — where I go frequently — told me that pain de mie was available only if ordered in advance.

So there you go. It occurred to me that I had always wanted to have one of those metal loaf pans with a slide-on lid. The time had come. I ordered one from Amazon France, and it arrived a few days later. I started experimenting. Now I've made
the fourth in a series of loaves in it. I made it yesterday, using about five cups (600 grams) of all-purpose flour, 400 milliliters of warm water, two packets (11 grams) of yeast, a tablespoon of honey, a teaspoon of salt, and about two tablespoons of softened butter in the process. The dough rose nicely, doubling in volume on its first rise, and on its second rise in the pain de mie pan with the lid on it, it actually overflowed slightly. The result was the loaf you see in these photos.

Besides mousse de foie, we've enjoyed eating American-style "pimento cheese" on slices of pain de mie. I made the pimento cheese using aged Gouda and Edam cheeses, both Dutch-made and available at the supermarket. The cheese is grated, mixed with mayonnaise and/or softened cream cheese (fromage à tartiner), and garnished with diced roasted red bell peppers along with salt, pepper, and a little powdered cayenne pepper. Today I'm making a meatloaf (un pain de viande — remember, pain means "loaf") with beef, veal, and pork, and this week, we're bound to enjoy lunching on more than a few sandwiches made with leftover meatloaf.

20 May 2018

Mousse de foie de lapin

So there were those six big rabbit livers, and the 12 kidneys, attached to the râbles de lapin I had ordered from the poultry vendor at the market in Saint-Aignan. I already knew that both the liver and the kidneys were good to eat, because I've often cooked them with the meat of the rabbit in stews and braised dishes. Usually I buy a whole rabbit so I have just one liver and two kidneys — not enough to do anything elaborate with.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that lately I've been figuring out how to make good pain de mie (sandwich bread) because few local bakers have it on offer with any regularity. The reason for my sudden interest in sliced loaf bread was what I did with the rabbit's liver and kidneys. I made a kind of potted meat or pâté called a mousse with them, using a recipe that would normally be made with chicken livers.

I carefully cleaned and trimmed the huge rabbit livers to make sure there were no veins or green spots on them. The green would be bile, which tastes bitter. I also trimmed up the plump, round kidneys, removing some of the fat that surrounded them.

Then all I had to do was sauté the livers and kidneys lightly. I wanted them basically cooked but not over-done and dried out. I used duck fat as the cooking medium, because I thought the taste would be good. You can use butter instead. I first sautéed a chopped shallot or two, and I seasoned the pâté mixture with salt, pepper, thyme, lemon juice, and armagnac (cognac).

Then I put the lightly cooked livers and kidneys in a deep pitcher and I pureed the mixture with a stick blender. When the puree cooled down in the refrigerator, it thickened into a smooth, flavorful, and spreadable paste. I put it in small glass or plastic containers at that point, and I covered each portion of "chopped liver" with a shallow layer of melted duck fat. When the fat hardened, it would keep the pâté fresh. I froze some containers of the mousse for later.

Cold mousse de foie de volaillefoies de lapins in this case — is delicious spread on slices of breads like toasted pain de mie, pain de campagne, or the flax seed loaf I found at one local bakery. Cornichons (pickled gherkins) and a glass of good wine are fine accompaniments. Mousse de foie de lapin is a kind of poor man's foie gras... Here's a link to a Jacques Pépin recipe for chicken liver pâté.

19 May 2018

Du lapin au petit déj...

...mais pas pour moi. Bertie the black cat had rabbit for breakfast this morning. He seems to find rabbit particularly delicious. Tasha the sheltie pup tried to nose in and get some of Bertie's food, but I chased her away. I really like rabbit too — but mine doesn't come out of a foil cat food packet. It's sold fresh in French supermarkets or open-air markets and is considered to be a member of the poultry family. Out here in the country, some people raise them for food in outdoor cages.

Walt and I have cooked rabbit (du lapin in French) for lunch or dinner at Easter every year since 1984. We were living in a flat on Capitol Hill in Washington DC back then. Easter rolled around, and we talked about what we would have as a special meal. Thoughts of the Easter Bunny made rabbit jump (get it?) into my mind. We hadn't been back to France in about two years at that point, and I missed having rabbit as a regular choice on restaurant menus, the way you do in Paris and all of France.

I don't know where I found a rabbit in DC, but I did. Maybe it was at Eastern Market, a market hall located close to where we lived. I'm talking about farm-raised, domestic rabbit, not the wild beast. I probably cooked it « en gibelotte », which is a stew made with a cut-up rabbit, some onions, garlic, herbs, mushrooms, bacon lardons, and white wine. As I've said, that was the first of some 35 Easter rabbits we've enjoyed feasting on over the years, prepared in many different ways. One classic is rabbit in a Dijon mustard sauce.
This year, instead of a whole rabbit, I decided to buy just the choicest cut in all rabbitdom, the "saddle" or râble. I ordered six pieces, not knowing how much each would weigh, and figuring we could put extras in the freezer for later. The râble is the piece that runs from the shoulder to the back legs (which are the second-best pieces to eat), and includes the two plump strips of white meat that run along each side of the animal's spine. It also includes two thin "wings" of meat that are the abdominal muscles, as you can see in the photos above. You might decide to cut those off and dice them up to add to the stew.

The râble also comes with the rabbit's liver and kidneys, and all those morsels are very good to eat too. They can be cooked in a stew or braise with the rest of the rabbit pieces, or they can be made into a separate dish. And using those flaps of abdominal muscle folded and pinned around it, one option is to fill the râble with stuffing and roast it. The liver and kidneys can go into the stuffing, along with sausage meat, onions, herbs, and bread crumbs. But that's not what I did...

18 May 2018

Spilosoma lubricipeda or Diaphora mendica ?

Those are the names of two lepidopterans — moths in this case. One of them sat for a few hours on the glass of our sliding deck doors earlier this month. I took photos.

If it's Spilosoma lubricipeda, it's commonly known as l'écaille de la menthe in French. Spilosoma evidently means "body with spots." Lubricipeda means "slippery feet" and describes the feet of the fast-crawling caterpillar, not the adult moth. This one was doing a pretty good job of clinging onto a slick plate of glass.

From what I've read, Spilosoma lubricipeda caterpillars can also feed on ortie (stinging nettle) leaves and the leaves of several other plants, including dandelions and broom. Another name I found for the moth is l'écaille tigrée — but don't tigers have stripes?

And then again, it might be a female Diaphora mendica, called l'écaille mendiante in French. The male of this species is brown, while the female is white.

I don't pretend to be an expert, so take what I say with a grain of salt. I just take pictures. You can look the two moths up on Wikipedia in English or in French.

17 May 2018

Fleurs d'acacia

They say you can eat the flowers commonly called fleurs d'acacia, which grow on trees all around the edges of the vineyard. The trees are covered in white blossoms right now. They certainly are fragrant.

I've never tried making the beignets with acacia flowers that people at least talk about making here. Our neighbor across the street used to make them, she says, but she and her husband are not often here in the spring these days. That's when the trees are in bloom.

There's a Julie Andrieu video here showing how the beignets are prepared. I wish she'd come to Saint-Aignan and make some so I could try them. The dictionary gives "fritter" as the translation of the French term beignet. The flower bunches are dipped in what is basically a crepe batter and then deep-fried. There's a recipe on this blog.

The acacia flowers grow on trees that were brought to France 400 years ago from the eastern part of North America — the Appalachians and the U.S. Midwest. They resembled a native tree called l'acacia and that name was applied to the imported plant.

So it's actually a false acacia. I knew these as locust or black locust trees when I lived in Illinois back in the 1970s. Nobody knows what the locust tree's native range was originally, because it has been so widely planted and naturalized all over North America and on other continents, including Europe. Sometimes I wonder what our European ancestors did for food before their "discovery" of America brought them tomatoes, potatoes, squashes, peppers, and all.