19 August 2017

Heading out at sunrise

If you look closely, or enlarge, the photo below, you can see Walt and Natasha headed out on their morning walk, at sunrise. It was a funny kind of sunrise, because somehow the golden light was shining on the trees out toward the west, but closer to the house the landscape was in shade.


I had a kind of bittersweet experience this week. I ran into an old friend at the supermarket. G is a woman we met 14 years ago, during our first weeks in Saint-Aignan. She now 87 years old. She's had a lot of health problems over the past dozen years. Age has finally caught up with her. We had lost touch with her two or three years ago. She got to be so deaf that it was impossible to talk to her on the phone, and I didn't even know if she was still living in her house or in some kind of maison de retraite. She has lost a lot of her teeth because of gum disease, I learned, and she can no longer drive. That's why she never stops by any more.

However, it was G who saw me first and recognized me in the supermarket. She was with a woman I didn't recognize, but I did recognize G as soon as I looked into her eyes. She looks so different that if she hadn't seen me and spoken I might not have noticed her. The woman with her was her aide à domicile, whose job is to take care of people who need domestic help and health care. We talked for a while, reminiscing — and blocking the aisle in the supermarket. Tant pis for the other shoppers. The woman with G was obviously pleased to see her enjoy meeting up with an old friend and sharing news and memories. She said she takes G grocery shopping on Monday and Thursdays, and sees nearly her every day. I imagine the French social security system pays her for her work.

G in 2005
G is an authentic local character. Her father, a chauffeur, and mother, a governess, were employed by local château owners, so G spent several years living in, for example, the Château de Montpoupon when she was a girl. One of her friends is the woman who owns and lives in the Château de Saint-Aignan.

G used to be an avid gardener, and she kept sheep when we first lived here. We bought lamb from her when she had them slaughtered in the fall. She gave me many plants and seeds over the years. She hosted dinner parties and at least one memorable cookout for 50 or more people at her house back when, and she often invited us. She gave us gardening advice. She was always very interested in the collard greens I grow, and liked them when I cooked them. She asked me about the collards the other day. She wanted to know if I still grow them. It's funny what people remember and are interested in.

I told G about Callie's death, and she was genuinely shocked and saddened, I could tell. She used to have a dog named Reinette ("Queenie"), a golden retriever who had a litter of puppies a dozen years ago. They were adorable, and G gave them all away to friends and neighbors. Then Reinette passed away a few years ago, and the vet gave G got a new dog named Rumba (pronounced room-bah in French). G's face brightened when I asked about the dog, a black labrador, and she said yes, she still is doing fine. I also told G about Natasha and said I would stop by her house soon and introduce them to each other.

Talking to G again was a good experience, but as I drove home from the supermarket a great sadness came over me. Then, back at the house, we saw one of our neighbors (in her 80s now) walk out into the vineyard alone. We'd never seen her do that before, so it was mysterious. She stood and looked off into the distance for a few minutes, and then turned around to walk back to her house. I went out and asked her if everything was okay.

She said her husband had gone out for a walk with their dog, and was overdue back home. Like G, he is 87 years old. She was afraid the dog might have gotten its leash wrapped around her husband's legs and caused him to fall. She said she had asked him not to walk out into the vineyard but to stay on the paved road, close to their house. She's obviously very worried about him. They've been good friends of G's for 40 years. We met her through them, in fact.

I got into the car and drove out into the vineyard to see if I could find the missing neighbor and dog. I parked and walked around where I thought the neighbor said he liked to walk. I didn't find him and had to give up the search. When I got home, Walt said the neighbor had come back over to say she had located her husband. He had been out puttering around in a garage/workshop on their property the whole time. "I've told him so many times that he needs to let me know every half-hour or so where he is and how he's doing," she said, "but he won't listen." Anyway, tout est bien qui finit bien, as we say — at least for the time being.

Did I mention that another neighbor, not quite as old, has to have triple-bypass heart surgery soon? Sigh. Old age is not for sissies.

18 August 2017

Gratin de courgettes, tomates, et fromage

I keep giving summer squashes, both classic zucchinis and the little lemon squash, to our neighbors, but we are still feeling slightly overwhelmed. Yesterday when I offered a neighbor some, she said she take them gladly because they are so delicious. The word she used to described the courgettes was fondantes — "meltingly tender and good" might convey the idea. The dictionary also gives the word "luscious" as an equivalent.


Anyway, the one I cooked the other day was like that. It was only one zucchini, but it had grown large. I cut it up anyway, sliced it thinly, and salted the slices that I had put into a colander to let them release some water. I laid the slices out in a 32 cm (12 inch) diameter baking dish and they were about 4 deep. This is an idea based on a recipe I found on this French cooking site.


Then I sliced up a good number of smallish tomatoes from the garden and arranged them in a layer over the zuke slices. You could add a layer of cooked meat — sliced chicken or turkey, bacon, ham, for example, over the zucchini slices before putting the tomatoes on. I made a custard of milk, cream, and eggs seasoned with salt, pepper, oregano, and thyme. I poured the liquid mixture over the tomatoes and zukes. It was just enough to cover the zucchini slices, leaving the tomato slices visible.


After the gratin — that's the French term — cooked in the oven at 180ºC / 350ºF for 30 or 40 minutes, I turned off the oven and let it sit there for another hour or so, hoping that the zucchini slices would be cooked through. I was glad to see that the tomatoes kept their shape and didn't just turn into sauce. (I didn't decide to take photos until after the first cooking.)


Finally, I spread a layer of grated cheese over the whole dish, drizzled some olive oil over it, and put the dish back in the oven at low temperature, say 150ºF (300ºF) just to let the cheese melt. You could make a case for putting the dish under the broiler to brown the cheese, but I didn't do that. I wanted it luscious, not crispy. Maybe crispy is how I'll prepare the leftovers that we'll have for lunch today. The courgette slices are cooked, by the way, but not over-cooked, so they have a nice texture.

17 August 2017

Winterizing

The annual winterization process has begun. Summer — real summer, with hot weather and sunny skies — ended a month or so ago. Summer was early this year. Late July and this first half of August have been autumn-like. We're still hoping for a warm and sunny September, but we have to be prepared.


So yesterday we got our annual delivery of firewood. This is the third or fourth time we've ordered wood from a man in the village of Vallières-les-Grandes, which is about 30 minutes from here, near Amboise and Chaumont-sur-Loire. We are so glad to have found him, because he's professional, prompt, and reliable. The prices are reasonable. Bertie  happened to be out from when the wood was dumped on the driveway and, being a cat, he was curious about it.


The delivery was four stères of oak logs cut to fit our small wood-burning stove. That's four cubic meters, which is how wood is measured here. It's the equivalent of just more than a cord, and cut and delivered it cost us 264 euros, or about $300 U.S. It will get us through the winter as a supplement to our oil-fired central heating system. We recently had 1,500 liters (400 U.S. gallons) of fuel oil delivered too, so we are ready for winter. Fuel oil is much more expensive than firewood, but our wood-burner won't heat the whole house.


The truck carrying the wood, a flat-bed dump truck, just barely fit through our front gate, and the driver had to be careful not to run into the edge of our second-floor terrace, which overhangs the driveway. The driver yesterday made it look easy. Now all we have to do is stack the wood on the north side of the house, under the terrace overhang where it will be protected from rain. We'll start working on it this morning.

16 August 2017

I don't know beans about beans...

...I guess. I don't know where the beans I buy are grown. I don't know how old they are. All I know is that I like to eat them.


Maybe I should just buy them in cans (or tins, if that's what you say). Those can be good. I've tried different brands and found some that I like better than others.

Some of the best black-eyed peas I've found here were in cans imported from Portugal. I can't find them any more. But as I've said, I cook dried black-eyed peas (which are not peas but beans) with great success. For example...  And these, more recently. I think black-eyed peas are the tastiest of beans.

I also like these haricots beurre that I get here, also imported from Portugal. Problem is, the last time I cooked some the skins were tough.

I think in America, these would be called "pink beans" because "butter beans" are something entirely different. Even in America, "butter beans" means one thing in certain regions and something different in other regions. I think butter beans might be something else entirely in Great Britain.

Packages of dried beans in France do have sell-by or use-by dates on them. These white lingot beans say they are good until 06 12 2018. That means 06 December 2018, because we Americans write dates in a different order from Europeans... mais passons.

According to an expert, Steve at Rancho Gordo beans in California, dried beans are good for about two years. Then their quality starts to decline.

15 August 2017

A question about beans

Do you like to cook dried beans? And eat them? I do, and I always have. I grew up eating them at home, cooked by my mother. Pinto beans, black-eyed peas, navy beans, great northerns, big white lima beans... among others. When I was in college, I lived on baked beans and frankfurters for a couple of years, because there wasn't much else in the cafeteria that tempted me. Now, in France, Walt and I eat a lot of beans — in cassoulet, for example, with duck, or with sausages.


The problem is that the beans don't always cook up as tender as I want them to be. The skins stay tough. CHM has the same problem in Paris. We've decided it must be the tap water in France. CHM actually brought some red kidney beans from the U.S. this summer. He had cooked some of them over there, and they were perfectly tender. He cooked the same beans in Paris tap water, and they came out with tough skins. The water in France as here in the Loire Valley is very calcaire. In English, that means it's "hard" water.


Some cookbook authors and friends suggest putting a pinch or two of baking soda (bicarbonate alimentaire) into the water you soak or cook beans in. I don't do that, and some of the beans I cook — black-eyed peas, for example — turn out very tender. Others don't. Some say to put some vinegar in the soaking or cooking water. There is wide agreement that the beans should not be salted until the very end of the cooking, because salt toughens the skins.


Yesterday, I did an experiment — I cooked a pound of white lingot beans (a.k.a. cannellini) in what I'd call distilled water. It's sold as eau déminéralisée at the supermarket here in Saint-Aignan. I didn't even bother soaking them first. I just cooked them for about 3 hours. I think the result is very good. Maybe that's the answer. Have you ever cooked dried beans in mineral water? Would that give the same result? That will be my next experiment.