30 April 2011

Harvesting green things

You might think it's funny that I'm already talking about harvesting good things to eat out in the garden — but that's how nice our April weather has been. In March, we planted cool weather crops like radishes, leeks, salad greens, and "bitter" greens. In this part of France, we don't set out frost-sensitive plants like tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers until after May 15.

Today we'll be eating some of our greens. We've been having radishes for a couple of weeks, and we're waiting for salad greens and leeks. I thought we'd be waiting for the other greens too, and I was planning to transplant at least some of them about now. I've grown collard greens and mustard greens.

Mustard and collard greens growing in the garden

I grew them under a cold frame, planting them in early March, before I left for my trip to North Carolina. When I got back a month ago, the collards and mustard were up. In preparation for transplanting them, I read a little about them in a couple of books and on the Internet. You see, I planted them under a little cold frame, so they are really bunched up.

The greens grew under a cold frame, which I have now removed.

The things I've read say that mustard greens are ready to harvest about 30 to 40 days after the seeds are sown. Well, that would be now. So instead of transplanting them, we'll pull them up, cook them, and eat some. I know from experience that mustard greens often bolt really early and quickly in hot weather, so we might as well take advantage of the tender young greens now.

I have this plot all prepared to receive the collard greens
that I will transplant today.


As for the collard greens, I'll also harvest and cook some, because they really need to be thinnned out. But I'll also transplant some of them in the plot you see in my pictures, which I have weeded and worked by hand over the past few days. I've transplanted collards and chard before with good results, so I'm hoping they'll take. Spread out, the collard plants should grow big and bushy over the next couple of months. I only neeed six or eight plants.

Callie the collie eats her greens nearly every morning and afternoon when we go out to walk. She has certain varieties of grass that she evidently finds appetizing and that must be soothing to her digestive system.

Bertie the cat brought us a present. I've never seen one of
these alive and didn't know they lived around Saint-Aignan.

Now Bertie the black cat has started eating green things too. He's not much of a vegetable-eater, though. The picture above shows the green things he prefers: lizards. This is at least the second one he has brought home this spring. As you can see, this time he didn't actually eat it — he just left it on the floor of the garage for us to admire. Here it is on Wikipedia.

29 April 2011

Grapes

And now for something completely different: it's grayish and coolish this morning. It's chilly in the house. It feels almost like winter again.

It even rained a little yesterday, but not enough to actually get the ground wet.

And there are grapes on the vines. At least I think they are grapes. Maybe they're still flowers. It's very early for either one.

28 April 2011

Tomates confites

The only translation I can come up with for « tomates confites » is "slow-roasted tomatoes." The whole concept described by the terms « confiture, confit, confire » seems to be central to French cooking and hard to translate into English.

The adjective confit can apply to fruits that are candied or stewed in sugar and their own juices. A French word we all learn early on is confiture, which means jam or preserves made with fresh fruit. The verb is confire, which derives from the Latin conficere, meaning "to prepare." Foods that are confits are prepared in a way that preserves them over a long period of time. You can confire meats and vegetables as well as fruit.

Tomates confites

The key to it all is slow cooking, but there are many techniques. Fruits are confits in sugar and their own juices by slow-cooking to make confiture. Fruits confits are cooked in a heavy syrup until they turn into what we might call "candy" — or "candied fruit." Fruits and vegetables can also be confits in vinegar or alcohol.

Meats like duck, goose, or even pork are confits in their own fat, again by slow cooking at low temperatures. Covered in that fat and kept in a cool dark place like a cellar, the meat can keep for an extended period of time because it is protected from contact with the air.

Tomatoes prepared for slow roasting

Anyway, tomates confites are something I made a few days ago (and have made and blogged about before). The impetus came from Susan at Days on the Claise. When she and Simon visited a week or two ago, she brought us some tomatoes that she had slow-roasted in the oven. She said she bought the tomatoes at the supermarket.

It's a good idea. You buy inexpensive tomatoes that might not have that full garden-fresh, vine-ripened flavor you'd like. But you concentrate their flavor by roasting them slowly in the oven until they start to melt down and stew in their own juices. They are vastly improved by being confites.

I bought a kilo of tomatoes from Spain, where they were almost surely grown in hot houses, at a pretty low price. To prepare them for slow roasting, first you cut them into wedges or halves (depending on size) and toss them in some olive oil with salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar. You can add some dried herbs — thyme, for example — or some minced or sliced garlic.

Inexpensive tomatoes from the supermarket

Then spread the tomatoes out on a baking sheet or pan so that they aren't touching each other. Put them in a "slow" oven — at 200ºF/95ºC. Cooking times and temperatures are approximate. If they tomatoes look like they're cooking too fast, turn down the heat. Leave them in the oven until they look the way you want them to look. They should start to shrivel but not dry out. They should start to collapse, but they shouldn't release a lot of liquid.

You'll be surprised how good they are. They'll keep in the refrigerator for several days, if they last that long. Eat them in salads, or as a pasta "sauce." They are confites, which in this context means almost "candied." Slow-cooking concentrates their natural sugars and gives them a nice texture.

27 April 2011

Putting it all back together

We've now spent some time cleaning up after our big painting project and getting some furniture and rugs put back into place. There's still touch-up work to do, and doors to paint, but we can take our time with those.

Yesterday we had Jean and Nick of A Very Grand Pressigny over for lunch. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm. Before lunch, we took a drive over to the Domaine du Chapitre winery in Saint-Romain-sur-Cher, where I bought some rosé in a bag-in-box and J & N bought a couple of dozen bottles of various red and white wines. Then we came back to the house and had our lunch out on the terrace.

Moving things back in, and getting ready to hang pictures

It lasted several hours, with lots of conversation. We started the meal with some duck breast prosciutto on bread, and then we had zucchini balls with a curry sauce that Walt made. The main course was rabbit braised in a white wine sauce with lardons, onions, and prunes. There were cheeses after that: Valençay, Neufchâtel, Tomme Blanche, and Saint-Nectaire. Dessert was a crumble tart that Walt made after harvesting some rhubarb from our patch out back. We had coffee to counteract the effects of the wine that accompanied all that food before J & N drove back down to Le Grand-Pressigny.

One thing we have put back up is this batik
we've had for 10 or 15 years.

The weather remains dry and warm, but with more clouds than we've been having recently. We might get a few more showers. Even so, April will finish very dry. The weather forecasters are comparing 2011 to the very hot and dry year that was 1976.

A reminder of the nice wallpaper we started with

That year, starting in April, there was a serious drought all across France, and especially in the north. Farmers in Normandy had to have hay trucked in from other regions to feed their cattle, because the pastures in that normally damp, cool, and green region were totally parched by the hot sun. The rains finally came back in September 1976.

26 April 2011

Jambon de magret de canard

Salt-cured duck breast, in English. Or, to be fancier, duck breast prosciutto. In French, "ham of breast of duck." It's easy to make, if you can get a boneless duck breast. But it takes nearly a month.

Most of that is just waiting.The meat is not cooked — it's cured. After salting, the duck breast, or magret de canard, cures for three weeks in the refrigerator. You just roll it up, skin side out — or leave it flat, the way I did — and wrap it in a dish towel or cheese cloth. Leave it there for three weeks to cure.

The first step, though, is to salt it down. You cover it in coarse salt and leave it to "marinate" for 48 hours, also in the refrigerator. Then you take it out of the salt, rinse it off, and put a generous amount of black pepper on it. You can also rub some dried herbs — thyme, rosemary, smoked paprika, or whatever — onto the piece of duck with the pepper before you wrap it in the towel and put it away.

Wait three weeks. Take it out of the refrigerator. Unroll it (if you rolled it) and slice it thinly on a slant. Eat on bread or toast, or use slices as an ingredient in a salad or a pasta dish. If you've ever eaten French jambon crujambon de Bayonne, for example — or Italian prosciutto — jambon de Parme — well, you eat the duck breast "ham" the same way. You could even make French-style lardons out of it.

Jambon de magret de canard
Duck breast prosciutto

Recouvrir un magret de gros sel.
Placer le magret 48h au frigo.
Débarasser du gros sel.
Poivrez.

Rouler le magret, peau à l'extérieur.
Oublier 21 jours le magret enveloppé
dans un torchon au frigo.
Le déguster en tranches
à la manière d'un jambon de pays.


Above is the recipe I found on the French cooking site marmiton.org, which I used.

25 April 2011

Géline de Touraine et pommes sautées

Chewy. White. Dense. Smooth. Tender. Tasty.

Those are some of the words that describe the taste and texture of the flesh of a géline de Touraine chicken. Walt ordered one from one of the poultry vendors at the open-air market in Saint-Aignan a week before Easter, and I went and picked it up this past Saturday. We roasted it and made it our Easter dinner.

The géline de Touraine chicken ready for the oven

I just wanted to cook it simply — no sauce, no braising, no extra ingredients — to see what it would taste like. I'm glad I did, even though I now understand how good a géline prepared and served the way Ladybird described — in a Chinon red sauce with mushrooms — would be.

I've often bought and cooked farm-raised chickens here in France. They come from Brittany, or the Sarthe (around Le Mans), or other regions, and they carry the Label Rouge stamp of quality. But once in a while, I've found the meat kind of stringy. Sometimes the white meat will be really good, and the dark meat too tough — or vice-versa. That was definitely not the case with the géline. All the meat was tender though chewy, and none of it was dried out or stringy.

The géline as it came out of the oven

The géline meat was not mushy the way the flesh of the standard supermarket chickens can be. Those chickens, raised in cages, don't get enough exercise to give their muscles the workout they need to develop character and good texture and taste.

The géline de Touraine chicken is also called La Dame Noire because of its black plumage. This web site shows some photos of gélines, gives some recipes, and lists breeders who will take you for a guided tour of their operations. The breeders are near towns including Nouans-la-Fontaine, Chemillé-sur-Indrois, La Celle-Guenand, Cussay, Betz-le-Château, and Dierre — all south and east of Tours.

Pommes de terre sautées

To go with the roasted géline, we just made some sautéed potatoes and a green salad dressed with vinaigrette. That's a French café classic and standard: Poulet rôti - frites.

I ended up roasting the géline on a rack in a pyrex dish instead of on the rotisserie. It just seemed easier to do. I rubbed softened butter onto the skin of the breast and drumsticks, sprinkled on some salt, pepper, and sweet paprika. I cut a big cloved of garlic in half and put it inside the bird. And then I poured some white wine in the bottom of the pan, threw in a couple of bay leaves, and set it in a hot oven. As it cooked, we basted it with the wine and drippings, and we gradually lowered the oven temperature so that the bird would be well-cooked but not too browned.

Meat and potatoes, and salad after

For a special treat, the géline is worth the price. Ours weighed 1.65 kg, or just over 3½ lbs., and cost €19.52 from the vendor at the Saturday market in Saint-Aignan. On one blog I found, the author says that gélines go for 25 to 30 euros, so I think we got a good price from our vendor.

24 April 2011

Market day in Saint-Aignan

I didn't take my camera. Walt wanted to stay home and roll some more paint on the walls, so he sent me off to the market. It being the day before Easter, we knew that the market would be crowded and busy. We also knew that the supermarket would be a zoo, and I needed to go there to get bags of kibble for the cat and for the dog.

And a zoo it was. Inside the store it wasn't too bad, actually, but the parking lot was a minefield of hazards. I had the impression that a lot of people who don't drive very confidently and who aren't used to navigating a crowded parking lot were out and about. The weather was of course beautiful (but it rained later in the day — hooray for that).

At the supermarket I got, for us, a big bag of prunes — nice pruneaux d'Agen — to go into a stewed rabbit dish we're planning to cook this week. I got raisins, purple and gold. I got red wine and white wine. Neufchâtel and Valençay cheeses. Des oignons et de l'ail. Lettuce. It was all very appetizing.

Then I drove down into the center of town to pick up a couple of things at the open-air market. The main thing was a special chicken Walt had ordered from our favorite poultry vendor a week ago for pick-up this weekend. It's called a « géline de Touraine » and it's an heirloom breed of chickens that has been rescued and revived after nearly going extinct.

I'd seen a French TV show about these birds a year or two ago and have been wanting to cook and taste a géline ever since. Wikipedia says about the géline : « C’est une volaille de type fermier, rustique et vive, à la chair compacte, blanche, très délicate et fine. À rechercher le type ample et allongé et le squelette plutôt fin, pattes légèrement emplumées. » — "It's a farm-raised fowl, hardy and active, with dense white flesh that's very delicate and fine. Look for a long plump bird with thin bones and sparsely feathered feet."

You always have to special-order a géline in advance. Nobody seems to sell them right off the shelf (or out of the market stall). There are a couple of breeders in the area that specialize in raising gélines, but I haven't visited them yet. If you're coming to Saint-Aignan to see us and are interested, let me know and I'll try to set something up.

The price came as a surprise. The bird cost twenty euros! That's nearly thirty US dollars at this point. Eleven euros a kilo. And I got the géline from the vendor who in my opinion not only sells the best poultry but who also has the lowest prices I've found.

I'm going to cook the géline today. I'll just roast it on the rotisserie in our little oven. Plain. Just to see what a géline really tastes like and what the texture and consistency of the meat is. From the poultry vendor I also bought a rabbit. That's for later in the week. I got a kilo of white asparagus spears too, from a local grower.

Then I started running into people I knew. First it was a French woman who lives in Austria and whose mother lives in Saint-Aignan. Then it was an English friend, a woman who has lived in France for 25 or 30 years. She and I went to sit at a table at the Lapin Blanc — the White Rabbit — café to have a glass of wine. Soon another English friend, a man who has also lived in France for 25 or 30 years, stopped by and joined us.

Then an Englishman of my friends' acquaintance, a man who has a house in a village five or six miles down the road, stopped by to chat for a minute. A Dutch friend I hadn't seen in a year or more stopped to say hello too — she spends summers in Saint-Aignan and winters in the Netherlands. The sister of a French friend who passed away a couple of years ago also came by — we hadn't seen her in a year or two. The French wife of my English friend also joined us for a glass of wine.

And so it went. We stayed there talking with all these friends and acquaintances, who were out to buy food for their Easter dinners, for about an hour. It was very pleasant, and I'm sorry Walt missed it. But when I finally got home, he was just finishing up the latest stage of the painting project, and it's looking really good.

Late in the afternoon, we started hearing rumbles of thunder off to the north and west. Then it rained for a while, a nice gentle shower without much wind. I never saw any lightning, but the thunder kept rumbling off in the distance. We were on the southeast edge of whatever storm it was that went over.

Walt just got back from walking Callie and says we got half a millimeter of water in the rain gauge from yesterday's shower. That's hardly a trace. Maybe we'll get another shower or two today.

23 April 2011

How we got here

I've written about this before, but not in a long time. Now is a good moment, because tomorrow will be the 8th anniversary of our purchase of this house near Saint-Aignan. The closing — les signatures, it's called — happened on April 24, 2003.

We weren't even here for the meeting between the seller and the buyers. We had it all done by giving our French notaire, the contracts lawyer, a power of attorney. The French consulate in San Francisco arranged all that for us. At the time, we were waiting for our long-stay visas so that we could come and live in France. That's another whole story, but it all worked out.

Our house is the one with the brown roof —
the "modern" one in this recent photo.


How did we get here? In October 2002, I quit my job. At age 54, I had enough of commuting on crowded California freeways — not to mention office politics. I told Walt I was at the end of my rope and I needed a big change. What would I do? I didn't know. But I quit work, and I felt free again. Walt said he too was feeling restless, and also ready for a change. Later, he would call it "a new adventure."

My natural inclinations pulled me back toward France, where I had worked for 7 or 8 years in the 1970s and early 1980s, and where Walt and I had first met each other. We had been spending all our vacations in France for nearly 15 years, while living and working in California. We both spoke French.

So in 2002, there I was at home in San Francisco, with no work responsibilities and a high-speed internet connection. I started spending many hours a day looking at French real estate sites. What were the possibilities? I knew enough about Paris — the high cost of real estate, the high cost of living, the crowds, the noise, the temptation to spend, spend, spend — that I realized the idea of living there was a pipe dream. But we had been on vacation in 2000 and 2001 in the Loire Valley, at Vouvray, and had loved it.

Seeing the house for the first time in December 2002

That's where I started looking. Amboise seemed like the ideal location at that point. I sent e-mails to a couple of real estate agents there when I saw many interesting and affordable properties for sale on their web sites. One of them wrote back to me. He said he'd be glad to help us find the right house in the region.

Then I told Walt that we needed to go to France, to see if all the attractive houses I was seeing for sale on the internet really would turn out to be places we could envision buying. We decided to take a week-long trip in early December 2002 then. Walt was still working at the time. I got everything set up with the agent in Amboise, who also had an office in Montrichard (10 miles downriver from Saint-Aignan).

We reserved a gîte rural, a furnished vacation property, near Amboise for the week's stay. We bought our plane tickets. The agent set up an appointment for us at his Montrichard office on a Monday. We landed in Paris on a Saturday, picked up a rental car, and drove the three hours to the Loire Valley. On Sunday we went to the big open-air market in Amboise, bought some good food and wine, and settled in. The people who owned and operated the vacation rental were welcoming and accommodating, and it was a comfortable place.

It was the yard and the setting as much as
the house itself that we liked.


On Monday, we drove down to Montrichard (12 or 15 miles) for a late-morning meeting with the real estate agent. He talked to us for half an hour or so to figure out what we were looking for and what our budget was. Then he pulled out a binder in which he had descriptions and photos of some 400 houses for sale withing 20 miles of Montrichard. He started drawing up a list, and he showed us a couple of houses in Montrichard that very afternoon. Then he said that, considering our budget, we ought to look at some properties in the Saint-Aignan area. We'd get more for our money in Saint-Aignan than in Amboise.

We'd never even heard of Saint-Aignan. So on the Tuesday morning, we drove over here from Amboise to have a look around. It looked pretty good. It was the kind of town we had in mind — kind of like Amboise, but smaller and less touristy. We had lunch in a little hotel-restaurant near the bridge. It felt homey and it certainly wasn't expensive. Things were looking up.

Our next appointment with the real estate agent in Montrichard was set for 2:00 p.m. that day. We drove over there and then drove right back toward Saint-Aignan with the agent, in his car. The first house he showed us, in Thésée, seemed like a good possibility. The second one, in Seigy, did as well. But neither of those inspired love at first sight. The third house we saw that day, however, was the one we ended up buying. We saw one more house that day but, looking back, I realize that we had already made our decision.

The next day we saw two or three more houses — two in Montrichard, and three in Amboise itself. Our heart wasn't in it any more. In all, we inspected and considered 15 houses in just those three or four days. We asked the agent if we could come back to Saint-Aignan and spend a couple of hours looking at this house, the one we've lived in for nearly eight years now, in the afternoon. Could we take pictures? Of course, he said.

The real estate agent surveying the scene
from an upstairs window


While we were here getting a better feel for the place and convincing ourselves that buying it was a good idea, the agent told us he had asked his staff to draw up all the papers so that we could sign a contract that very day. My first reaction was shock. No, I protested, we didn't come here with the intention to buy a house so fast. We were just looking around.

If you don't sign the contract today, the realtor said, when will you sign it? You'll be back in California in a day or two. Sign them today. Then, when you get back to California, you can either send me a letter saying you've changed your mind, or you'll send some money as a down payment. You have nothing to lose, he said. It made sense.

So we ended up buying a house on the fourth day. It was not expensive by California standards, though it was smaller than our house in San Francisco. We didn't know when the closing would take place, or whether we would actually come live in France any time soon.

The house from the north side in December 2002

On Saturday morning we drove to Paris to spend 24 hours in the city before flying back to San Francisco. We talked about the house, the plan, and the possibilities that day during the 11-hour plane ride. At home in California, we decided to go ahead and send the money. As for what came next, we'd have to figure that out.

Would I look for another job? Would we actually move to France? Walt was still employed, and he hadn't yet made the decision to move on. But then we decided to put our house in San Francisco on the market. It sold very quickly, and there we were. Or here we are.

22 April 2011

Day after day...

...of fine weather. Today again the high temperature is supposed to be close to 80ºF, with bright sunshine. It's abnormal, but very pleasant. People are sunbathing on the beaches of France.

Here in Saint-Aignan, we aren't sunbathing, but the people who work in the vineyards are out there in shorts and tee-shirts. It's good painting weather, because we can open windows to ventilate the house and we don't have to wear bulky clothes.

Yesterday's sunset

Meanwhile, I'm keeping an eye on the little pond out back. It's full of tadpoles. I don't know if they are frog tadpoles or toad tadpoles. Tadpoles in French are called têtards, which derives from the word tête, meaning head. In other words, tadpoles are big-headed things.

The pond, called une mare in French

If these are têtards de grenouilles, we'll probably hear the frogs before we see them. If they are têtards de crapauds, we'll see the toads all over the place in a few days. Toads are good — they feed on insects and slugs.

The tadpoles, also known as "polliwogs" in America

A few years ago, we had a pond full of little green frogs that chirped day and night for a while. Frogs are good too, because they eat mosquitoes, among other insects. And no, nobody came to catch some for dinner, at least as far as I know.

21 April 2011

Ongoing projects

Here's an update and a preliminary view of our painting project. The picture on the left, below, was taken about a year ago, after the staircase had been put in. You can see the lovely wallpaper and an old light fixture that we have moved upstairs. I stripped off the wallpaper in March, before my trip to North Carolina.

The picture on the right shows what the same part of the house looks like today. It is a preliminary view because the painting is not yet finished. And we of course haven't put anything up on the walls yet to break up the large expanse of white. We have a light fixture but aren't ready to put it up yet either. We also have to get sheer curtains for the glass block windows.

Walt posted a close up of the flowers on the lilac bush out back a few days ago. Here are a couple of other shots — one looking through the bush out to the street and the neighbors' house, and another showing the full lilac bush. It's not very big — maybe four feet high at the most.

20 April 2011

Little blue flowers

The ground all around is covered in little blue flowers — that is, in the places where it's not covered with little yellow flowers or little white flowers. I like the blue ones the best.

They are called « la véronique petit-chène » in French, it appears — "little-oak veronnica." That's Veronica chamaedrys in scientific terms and French Wikipedia says it's are a common perennial all across Europe, except near the Mediterranean. The plant can be used medically, but ingesting it can cause diarrhea.

Little blue flowers

In English, it's called Germander Speedwell or Bird's-eye Speedwell. It forms wide carpets of blue flowers on the ground in many places around the vineyard.

The big news in France right now is how high gas prices have gone up and will go up. The head of the French oil company Total says it's inevitable that the price of unleaded gasoline — essence sans plomb — will soon go up to two euros a liter. That's the equivalent of about $11.00 — eleven U.S. dollars — per U.S. gallon.

Veronica, called véronique petit-chêne in French

Well, I guess we all know that the price of gas can only go up, at least long-term. According to the news, one station in Paris has already put it's price for premium gasoline up to 1.89 € a liter. Diesel fuel — gazole or gasoil in French — is going for 1.37 € per liter right now, they say — that's about $7.50/gallon in U.S. terms. I will probably have to buy some this week. The last time we filled up the Peugeot was around March 10.

In English, this plant is called Speedwell. Wonder why?

The other news is how unusually warm and dry it is in France right now. Farmers are starting to talk about drought again. All the vegetation is far ahead of where it should be at this time of year. Still, local people around Saint-Aignan like to talk about the year — sometime in the 1980s, I think — when there was a significant snowfall around May 10.

I guess that's not going to happen, but we are planning to respect the timeless folk wisdom that says you shouldn't plant your vegetable garden until about May 15, just to be sure. Yesterday I tilled up two plots of ground for the 2011 garden.

19 April 2011

Plums and cherries

One thing is certain — a warm, sunny April means a great year for fruit here in the Loire Valley. On my walk yesterday afternoon, I went out and inspected the plum trees I planted a couple of years ago. They have quite a few plums on them. There weren't any last year.

I grew the trees from the pits of plums that came from a tree in our neighbors' yard. There are two of them, and they are about 12 feet tall now. I hope the plums are as good as the ones that provided the pits. I know that's not a sure thing.

Little red plums

These are small red plums that ripen early — in June. They are great for making jam, preserves, spicy plum sauce, clafoutis, tarts, or pies. I wasn't sure the trees grown from pits would ever bear fruit, but the signs are good. At this point, you might mistake them for cherries.

Cherries

But wait, there are cherries too. They are still pretty small, and they're still green. But I know they are cherries. I've picked tons of them off the tree in you see in the pictures above and below.

Cherries

This tree is out on the edge of the vineyard. In past years, nobody has come to harvest the cherries. They're sour cherries, good for jams, pies, and sauces. Maybe we'll be lucky enough to get some again this year.

18 April 2011

Irises

The big purple irises are blooming out back by the garden shed. In this kind of weather, they do very well and the flowers last for a while. These are irises that were growing here when we moved in eight years ago, so they are well established.

It's another painting day. I have touch-up work to do on the area I've been working on — putting another coat on woodwork and on some places that need better coverage. I'm seeing light at the end of the tunnel, but there's still plenty to do.

On another subject: North Carolina really got slammed on Saturday when more than 60 tornadoes tore through the eastern part of the state. I talked to my mother yesterday and she said they were lucky in Morehead City. They had some strong winds but no tornadoes. The areas that had the greatest damage and the most deaths were counties to the west (Bladen Co.) and the north (Bertie Co.) by 100 miles or more, as well as the Raleigh area (140 miles NW).

17 April 2011

It's getting scary

The weather, I mean. It's been so warm and dry for so long that it's making me nervous. We will pay for all these sunny days. I'm not a pessimist — just a realist. Of course, there is a precedent for long spells of warm, or hot, dry weather in northern France: 2003 and the Grande Canicule — the Great Heat Wave.

A swarm of gnats out back in the warm afternoon sun

We had 6 millimeters of rain about two weeks ago. That was our only precipitation so far this month. Normally, we would get about 60 millimeters of moisture in a month. So you can see the kind of deficit we are facing. At least there's plenty of time to get the vegetable garden tilled up, and the ground is certainly dry enough to be worked now.

The wisteria we planted a few years ago
is looking pretty happy.


In April 2007 we had weather like this. It was sunny and unnaturally warm for days, even weeks, on end. And then May, June, July, and even August turned wet and chilly. Weeds took over the vegetable garden, and there wasn't much we could do about it. The leaves on the tomato plants turned black from some kind of fungus or blight, and the crop was ruined.

Out in the vineyard, looking across the Cher River valley

Sorry to be so negative. The important thing, I guess, is to enjoy the good weather while we have it. Walks with the dog are pleasant, dry affairs these days. There's no mud. Little wind. Few clouds. Just bright sun. I enjoyed the same kind of weather when I was in North Carolina in March. Maybe that's why this dry spell seems so long and bizarre to me.

16 April 2011

From asparagus to spackle to zebrina

Walt's off to explore the market in Saint-Aignan this morning to see if the local asparagus crop has come in. By "come in," I mean "come down," as in prices. The early asparagus can be pretty pricey, but as the weeks tick by the price goes down and down, to four euros a kilo or less. At about five euros, we start buying.

Asparagus is a springtime treat here. We don't get it year-round, but only in April through June. Locally and in France in general, what we get is white asparagus, not green. The white and green varieties are the same plant, evidently, but the white ones have been blanched by having soil mounded up around the spears as they grow, so that they never see the light of day. Green asparagus are much rarer here. We enjoy both kinds.

Speaking of seasonal, I noticed yesterday that a zebrina plant
that I "rescued" last year, and potted up as a
houseplant, is now flowering.


Speaking of white, I'll be at home painting while Walt does the shopping. I didn't actually go any painting yesterday. Instead, I did some patching. You know how it is when you get started: you suddenly become the world's worst perfectionist. There's a strip of molding that runs all the way up the wooden staircase, against the wall. I noticed yesterday that there was the slightest gap — a hairline crack, really — between molding and wall, and I couldn't stand it.

This is a common and easy-to-grow plant — the kind I like.

Before I could paint, I had to patch. And I found a tube of ready-mixed "spackle" — enduit de lissage, it's called: "smoothing paste" — down in the garage. Putting on spackle (did you know that that is a brand name?) means doing a little sanding before you can paint. And of course you have to wait for it to dry before you can sand it. That takes 12 hours. So I've ended up delaying the job by 24 hours.

Anyway, I'll get back to it this morning. But there's also lunch to prepare. A full day, and a full weekend, in other words.

15 April 2011

Painting again

Despite sore necks and arms, we are painting again. Our goal now, I think, is to finish painting and decorating the stairwell and hallway before the beginning of June, which is when we started our painting projects last year. That's when the contractors left after the conversion of the old attic to living space.

Painting the walls up the stairs and down the hall

It's frustrating to paint white on white. The walls are bare plaster, or they were yesterday. We put a coat of white primer on several of them. Today, I'll be up on the wooden stair putting a coat of white paint on the wall you see in the picture above.

That wall doesn't even look like it needs painting, right? But it does. Putting white paint on it will mean trying to be very methodical so that I don't miss any patches. But it's like the tree falling in the woods, right? If I miss a patch with the paint, and nobody sees it, have I really missed it?

14 April 2011

Le Pont-Canal de Berry

The Canal de Berry runs more or less parallel to the Cher River for about 300 km/200 mi., from the town of Montluçon in the Allier department (Auvergne region), southeast of Saint-Aignan, through the city of Bourges, past the towns of Vierzon and Selles-sur-Cher, and ending at Noyers-sur-Cher, just across the river from here. It was built between 1808 and 1840, and it was in service until 1945.

We've been living here for eight years, and we've walked along the canal at various points — Noyers, Selles, Vierzon, and the medieval fortified town called Mennetou-sur-Cher. I've posted about Mennetou many times on this blog (two series of posts, in February and April/May 2008). Here's a link to a post that shows the Canal de Berry there.

The Canal de Berry between Selles-sur-Cher and Châtillon-sur-Cher

By the way, it seems that the real name of the canal, according to the locals (les Berrichons) is the Canal de Berry and not du Berry. It was originally called the Canal du Cher, apparently, and then for a while was known as the Canal du Duc de Berry. Now, it's supposed to be the Canal de Berry.

Recently, we've been exploring the area east of Saint-Aignan and on the opposite bank of the Cher, where the canal runs, between Noyers and Selles. We've bought wine in a hamlet called Les Martinières at a winery with a view out over the canal and the river. Many times we've driven over the bridges that cross over the canal and the Cher between Châtillon-sur-Cher on the north bank and Meusnes on the south bank of the river.

The Canal de Berry with the "canal-bridge" in the distance

That said, something I discovered purely by accident six or eight months ago was a feature called the Canal-Pont de Berry. I was buying wine — I seem to do that a lot — from a vignernon/neighbor in our village when another local vigneron stopped in. We were introduced because we had never really met before, although we had often seen each other from a distance many times when I was out walking the dog in the Renaudière vineyard and he was busy tending the vines he owns out there.

The canal crosses the Sauldre River on this bridge

"Thierry" — that's his name — "lives over on the other side of Châtillon-sur-Cher, where the canal crosses over a river on a bridge," our wine-producer/neighbor told me. "You know where that is, right?" I said yes, but I was mistaken. I thought he was talking about the place where the road crosses the canal over a little bridge.

Here's Google's satellite view of the area, showing the Sauldre
flowing into the Cher just downstream from the canal bridge


But no, he really was saying that the canal itself crosses over the river on its own bridge. Back at home, I pulled up some Google maps and satellite views and found the spot. The canal, running parallel to the Cher, crosses over a tributary, the Sauldre River, on a bridge, just where it flows into the Cher between Selles and Châtillon.

Le Pont-Canal de Berry

Several times last winter I thought about going over there to look around, but each time the day was rainy or snowy or just too cold and gray. And then yesterday, for the first time, I made an opportunity to go see the pont-canal. I had to drive over to Selles-sur-Cher in the afternoon, and it was only a short detour off the main road.

I took some pictures. It's amazing how you can live in a place for eight years and still not have discovered one of its most unusual landmarks. I guess the pont-canal would qualify as an aqueduct. It's one that works, with water flowing over it, even though the canal is not longer used by river traffic hauling freight.

13 April 2011

An afternoon among the orchids

The native wild orchids are in bloom at different places around the vineyard. They seem to have bloomed earlier than usual, which I guess is because our weather has been so mild for a month or more now.

The local wild ground orchids known as « pentecôtes »
or Orchis bouffon — "clown orchids"

Until this morning, actually. It's chilly outside. On the news, they are saying people shouldn't forget to pull on une petite laine — a sweater — if they are going out. The sun is shining brightly, but yesterday, for the first time we can remember, the vineyard owner set out a large number of bougies anti-gel — little smoke pots to prevent the tender new leaves on the vines from freezing.

Green-winged orchids growing around the vineyard

Yesterday afternoon it was a different story. I had told Susan and Simon that the orchids were in full bloom so they came up to Saint-Aignan to take photographs. We walked out into the vineyard at about five o'clock with Callie — it was the dog's regular afternoon stroll. The weather was very pleasant, as you can see.

Susan taking pictures and Callie sneaking up on her

All the purple flower stalks we were seeing, according to Susan, were on little "green-winged orchids" that are one of several orchid species called « pentecôtes » locally — they bloom around the Pentecostal holiday (Whit Sunday or Whitsun in England). The wild orchids are early on two counts this year — early in April, and much earlier than the actual Pentecôte, which because Easter is so late doesn't fall until nearly mid-June.

Callie with her toy among the wild orchids

Callie enjoyed the walk and the flower photography, especially when Susan was down at ground level with her camera. The dog was very curious about that kind of play. When she realized that her human companions were not in a big hurry, she entertained herself by finding sticks to play with. Simon joined in the game at different points.

It was a very pleasant little excursion, with bright sun and just a little northerly breeze. No need for a jacket, actually. In the picture of Callie above, you can get an idea of the size of the wild orchids we were admiring.