Monday, July 31, 2006

Bleu Blanc Rouge

The final day of July 2006 goes out with a patriotic tricolore of sorts. This was taken back in May at the Château de Chenonceau.

It's hard to believe that July is over. And so is the canicule, at least in our region. I understand it's still very hot down by the Mediterranean. I wore a sweatshirt on my walk this morning - our low temperature was 15,5ºC (not quite 60ºF). The sun is out and it should be warming up to the low 20s today (low to mid 70s).

Now that our houseguests are gone, and none are scheduled for the next few months, we have work to do; namely cleaning of all kinds (including cleaning out the garage), yard work, trips to the dump, wood-cutting in preparation for fall and winter, hedge-trimming in September, not to mention tending the garden and prepping food for freezing. Ken was right about retirement: it's 24/7. Better get busy...

Sunday, July 30, 2006

St. Pierre and Cunault

St. Pierre is the church on the square in Saumur where we had lunch during our recent heat wave. Stopping inside churches to cool down is essential.

The downside of the fact that it's cool inside these massive stone structures is that during the times of the year when it's not summer, it's downright cold in the church. Many of the churches I've visited have installed one or another variation of the heat lamp to help warm worshipers during services. Sometimes the lamps are installed on the columns inside the nave, other times they are hanging from large chandeliers as they are at St. Pierre (above). It's interesting that you never see a fireplace inside a church or cathedral. Maybe the flames would remind the faithful of a bad, bad (albeit warm) place...

Candles in the chapel of St. Antoine de Padoue in the church of St. Pierre.

This is the amazing pipe organ at Cunault. It includes these horizontal pipes that project out into the nave. I was on my back looking up to take this picture.

This variation on the musician's sheet music stand must hold bibles or some other printed stuff during a mass. Or maybe it's just a musician's stand?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Connected !

This past spring, our town extended sewer lines up our road to the small collection of houses in our hamlet. This is part of the final stages of the town's project to expand the water treatment plant and connect as much of the municipality to it as feasible. Until now, our waste water (sinks, shower, washing machine, etc.) ran out into the woods and our toilet was connected to a holding tank that we had to have emptied periodically. Yuck.

We had accepted a bid a couple of months ago and yesterday the guys showed up to connect us to the new line. Here's how it went:

In the photo above, the round thing in the upper right is the sewer connection point at the edge of our property; this is what we need to connect to for our waste water to go into the system. The workers began digging a trench and found three things: first, a root, no problem; second, a rainwater drain pipe that was broken, again no problem (they fixed it), and third, our heating fuel tank which was blocking the way between the house and the street connection (hard to see in this photo, but it's there), big problem.

After calling their boss and much fussing and cussing, they decided to find the end of the tank and run the pipes around it, a small detour of a few feet under two small stone walls that had to be dug by hand - that last part was the reason for the fussing and cussing. Work continued.

Next, they uncovered the holding tank. Actually, they had the holding tank pumped and washed out before uncovering it. It holds three cubic meters of, well, you know what. Once it was uncovered, the task of breaking it up could begin.

The 3 cubic meter concrete holding tank is uncovered. The concrete square at the top is the tank's access lid which never fit very well.

The guy in the backhoe tried to pound the concrete tank with the big machine to no avail. It took another guy with a sledgehammer to actually break apart the concrete by hand. It was amazing to watch.

A worker breaks through the concrete tank with a sledgehammer.

After opening up the tank and cutting through all the re-bar, they started filling in the tank with debris and dirt while digging the remainder of the trenchs.

Trenching is done by backhoe.

A passage is cut in the side of the tank to allow the new pipe to pass through.

The pipes are laid in place: on top, the connection to the toilet; on the bottom, the connection to the grey water outlet.

Two pipes from the house had to be connected to the line and an access point installed (for cleaning every so often). Once that was done all that remained was to fill in the trenches, compact the soil, and re-spread the stones over the work area. Everything except the final sand compaction and stone-spreading was done in one day. The rest was completed the next morning and this is now what it looks like:

Peace and quiet again!

We will not miss the ugly access point to the holding tank whose lid didn't fit all that well and which I had to uncover periodically to check the level of the waste (a stinky job). We aslo had to keep a tarp over it to prevent rainwater from filling it up and we needed bricks on top of the tarp to keep the wind from blowing it away, and that was truly unsightly!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Couscous Party

Tuesday we hosted a couscous party for 7 in our back yard. On what was arguably the hottest day of the year (turns out that Wednesday was the hottest), we made a huge pot of stewed lamb and chicken and all the attendant vegetables, cooked merguez sausages in the oven, and steamed the semoule on top of the stove. What were we thinking?

On the left: potatoes peeled and waiting to be added. On the right, the semoule after its first steaming.

Couscous is a dish that I think originated in North Africa - Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria - and came to France with returning colonists and the immigrants from those parts. It's essentally a stew of vegetables (carrots, onions, potates, leeks, beans, turnips, squash, tomato, etc.) with lamb and chicken that is browned and stewed to make a savory broth. There are lots of spices and herbs, the main spice being raz-el-hanout, a blend of cumin, turmeric, ginger, nutmeg, coriander, and cardamom. You pump up the volume with cayenne, hot paprika, saffron, and anything else that strikes you.

Two pots of stew simmering on the stove.

The stew is served over a bed of pasta grain, commonly called la semoule, a fine round pasta that is prepared in a process that includes humidifying then steaming over the simmering broth of the stew. This is accompanied by merguez (a spicy lamb sausage), chick peas that have been heated in the hot broth, and golden raisins.

The couscous is served!

The kicker and absolutely essential component of a good couscous is the harissa, a red pepper and vegetable paste that gets mixed with some broth and poured over your serving, to taste, just before you dig in.

Harriet puts some broth in a pitcher to mix with the harissa while we all watch intently.

There are as many varieties of couscous as there are people who make it, and we've been using our friend Harriet's recipe as the base of ours for close to twenty years. Harriet spent time in North Africa as a student and learned from a practiced cook.

Everybody's happy!

We set up the party table out back under the big apple tree next to our vegetable garden. Everybody lent a hand to get the food and utensils out to the table from the kitchen; with 7 people it took no time at all. We sat down to eat a little after 2 p.m. Bon appétit !

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Word Of The Week


This is an appropriate word of the week in that we are experiencing a heat wave here in France. In fact, it’s one of the longest stretches of high temperatures on record, according to what I’ve heard on La Chaine Météo.

La canicule is, of course, a heat wave. I’ve known this word since 2003 when I moved to France at the start of the famous heat wave of that year. What I didn’t know, however, was why a heat wave is called a canicule.

Thanks to our current houseguest, Charles-Henry, I learned that the word has its origins in the latin name for the primary star in the constellation called Canis Majoris, or Big Dog. That star is called Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. According to Wikipedia, the name comes from the Greek Seirios which means “glowing” or “scorcher.” The latin name for the star is canicula, or little dog. Supposedly, this is also the origin for the expression “the dog days of summer.” (image from Wikipedia)

This particular constellation rises and sets with the sun from July 22 through August 22, the period of hottest temperatures around the Mediterranean basin. Hence, the time that corresponds to this movement of canicula across the sky has come to be known, as least in France, as la canicule.

P.S. - Word Of The Week apologizes for not showing up for work on Wednesday. He has been suffering from the extreme heat of la canicule and lost track of time.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


The romanesque church at Cunault dates from the 11th Century. We visited it after our lunch in Saumur last week. Although we had been there many years ago, I didn't quite remember it the way I saw it last week. And now I have pictures.

Wooden pews on the stone floor of the church.

A group of columns rises to the ceiling.

Light plays among the columns.

A stack of hymnals ready for use.

Curiously, I didn't take any photos of the outside of the church. It's your basic - I might even say plain - romanesque structure. The bell tower is on the north side in the center and is very interesting, but it was completely silhoueted by the sun.

The days continue to be hot and a bit humid (not humid by east coast USA standards). The French call this kind of weather lourd or heavy. The air just kind of presses down on you. Storms are predicted for this afternoon and cooler weather is anticipated once the front moves through. Sleeping has been difficult.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Georgia O'Keeffe I'm Not

But still, aren't these interesting? Kind of a bee's-eye view.

They are, in order of appearance: hibiscus, orchid, impatiens, mussels. All were taken on my deck this past Saturday. The mussels were for lunch, of course, with french fries. We didn't eat the flowers...

Monday, July 24, 2006


Last week we were invited to our friend Harriet's house for a mid-day barbecue. Alfred (Harriet's husband) fired up his new grill and laid on brochettes (kabobs) of duck, chicken, and pork. We contributed some squash from our garden, and Harriet added roasted peppers and some salads to the mix.

Brochettes and squash on the grill.

Left to right: Harriet, our current houseguest Charles-Henry, Alfred, and Ken.

It was hot, but not unpleasant in the shade of the tree out front. Sunday's high only reached 27,9ºC, far from the 33,4ºC we had when these pictures were taken.

Alfred was kind enough to take a picture with my camera so I could be in it! Here it is:

Sunday, July 23, 2006


We ate lunch in central Saumur at l'Auberge St. Pierre on the main square. I had a terrine of salmon in a tomato coulis, followed by grilled rouget fillets served with a sauerkraut - very original and very good. Ken had oysters and tête de veau; CHM had the salmon terrine and bœuf bourguignon. All was washed down with a Saumur Champigny. Yum.

Saumur's main bridge over the Loire River.

The lazy Loire at Saumur.

Looking up-river from Saumur, toward Tours. There's not a lot of water in the river during summer months and huge exposed sand bars are common.

Le Château de Saumur.

As you can see it was a spectacular day. Thank goodness for the air-conditioned car. Toward the end of our day we visited two wine producers outside of town and bought 20 liters of Saumur white and 20 liters of Saumur red. Cela va nous changer du vin local... mais pas trop.

Saumur's white wine is chenin, where ours on this end of the Touraine region is sauvignon blanc. Their red is cabernet franc; ours is gamay.

In other news, one of my favorite bloggers, Hank Fox, has pulled the plug (and I've deleted my link to his site). I will miss his wit, his insight, and his photos. He's moving on to new things and I hope that one day he will return to the blogosphere with bigger and better stuff to share. Good luck, Hank.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Papillon À Tavant

On our day trip to Saumur, we stopped in a small village called Tavant to see its church. The building was closed, but we enjoyed the little garden out in front.

Many different insects bustled about the flowers, including several of these swallowtail butterflies. In the next few posts I will show some photos of Saumur and the church at Cunault, a little down river from there.

We had another storm last night (Friday). It was nowhere near as violent as the one on Wednesday, but it lasted several hours and the lightning was spectacular. As it came in, we turned off and unplugged computers and the new modem (learned a lesson, there), and sat out on the deck to watch the storm go by. It's nice to go to sleep to the rhythm of rain and low rumbling thunder.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Vegetable Porn (Can You Stand It?)

I'm like a new parent. I can't stop sharing pictures of my precious, er, fruits and vegetables. Don't worry, I can't go on like this for too long.

This tomato is just starting to turn red. Juicy!

The yellow squash are quite abundant now. We're cooking and freezing.

A bell pepper that, along with its siblings, will turn red in the coming weeks and be ready for roasting.

A small eggplant. There's moussaka in our future.

In other news, the moles are cooperating, but their unsightly hills continue to appear :

Tuesday's temperature topped out at 34,6ºC (94.3ºC), Wednesday's high was 33.4ºC. Storms are predicted for today. Some rain would be nice.

PS - Sorry for the interruption, but a pretty good-sized storm on Wednesday night fried our DSL modem and we were off line for a day. Now, new modem up and running, we're back online. A lightning bolt hit very close and we lost power (the main breaker tripped) but we think a power surge, possibly through the phone line, killed the modem. Nothing else in the house was affected.

After the storm, the temperatures fell, but the humidity increased. Thursday's high was 31,3ºC, but it was very muggy. We got about 17mm of rain in the storm - a little more than half an inch. Every little bit helps.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Word Of The Week


A noun (masculine) meaning a jewelry case or a box that a ring or other jewelry is kept in. It can also mean the box where silverware is arranged and stored. And, the meaning as I learned the word : the setting or grounds around a château or other building (think of the building as the jewel, and its grounds and surroundings as the box or case). Also, a museum can be said to be un écrin for the works it contains - a showcase.

Last week, while watching a program on TV about the Château de Fontainebleau, the narrator used the word écrin to describe the gardens and grounds of the palace. I knew I had heard the word before, but I couldn't think of what it meant. Ken filled me in, then it was off to the dictionaries.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

More From The Garden

Le potager, our vegetable garden, is producing more each day. Right now it's mainly zucchini (courgettes) and yellow squash (courgettes jaunes?) along with herbs like basil (basilic) and chives (ciboulette), but I can almost watch the eggplants (aubergines) and cucumbers (concombres) growing, not to mention the tomatoes (tomates) and peppers (poivrons).

Yellow tomatoes, just beginning their transformation from green to yellow, cling to the vine.

A zucchini blossom advertises pollen to the bees.

Nasturtiums cling to the feet of the tomato plants; behind them, eggplants set their fruit; further back, a row of mustard greens; finally, one of two banks of British runner beans.

Basil growing in the herb garden.

The moles are still with us; the poison gas didn't really work. I might try flooding again. I hesitate to use too much poison in the soil directly under the vegetables we will be eating. I may just have to live with the moles and hope they don't uproot the plants. I suppose that's the green thing to do.

Yesterday's high was 33,8ºC (92.8ºF) here at the house. Today one weather site is predicting 34ºC (93.2ºF) and Météo France is predicting 37ºC - that's 98.6ºF ! On the left is today's carte de vigilance (map of weather alert levels) for France. We are in the orange part in the upper central section of the map. We're going to go for a ride in the car today to stay cool, perhaps visit a château (think thick stone walls and cool air) and eat in an air conditioned restaurant.

Monday, July 17, 2006

It's Hot

The temperature has been really high this past week, and there are no signs that it's going to let up any time soon. Saturday's high at our house was 32,5ºC (90.5ºF) and Sunday's was 33,5ºC (92.3ºF). The weather people are predicting more of the same through the week.

Météo France issued a heat wave (canicule) warning last evening that includes our area that's in effect until Wednesday. We are at warning level orange on a scale that goes from green (no problem), to yellow (be careful), to orange (be VERY careful), to red (oh shit !).

It's pretty dry; no thunderstorms, no rain, no high humidity. Thank goodness for the lack of humidity, but we could really use some rain.

We leave all the windows open during the night so that the house cools off, then in the morning, once the outside temperature equals the inside, we close up again. The outside shades are down so there's no sun shining into the house. It's warm inside, but it is often 5ºC (almost 10ºF) lower than outside at the peak temperature of the day. Whew !

As it is, the vegetable garden gets watered every morning, which is why the moles are finding refuge there, I think. Speaking of the garden, here are some images :

Zucchini in the foreground.

Bell peppers with tomatoes in the background.

Tomatoes waiting to turn red.

The only reason the grass is green in these pictures is because I water with a sprinkler and the grass shares in the moisture. Otherwise, away from the garden, the lawn is brown. It reminds me more of California than of France. Our current houseguest lives part of the year in the southern California desert and he reminds us that it's not really hot until the temperature gets over 105ºF. He's chilly when it's in the 80s.

The upside is that the plants are loving it. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, squash, cucumbers ; they're all thriving in the sun and the heat. I wish I could say the same about us.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Salade De Gésiers

On Friday, we had salads for lunch. We had purchased a container of gésiers (chicken gizzards) at the market and wanted to have them in a salad along with lardons, tomatoes and hard-cooked eggs. This is a typical French salad that we've enjoyed in many a café and restaurant. Here's the result:

It was good, except that the gizzards were a bit tough. Ken thinks they need to be confits rather than just sautés. Next time!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

First Squash Harvest Of The Year

After planting seeds, watering, weeding, and thinning, here are our first results:

Yellow squash and green zucchini. Yum! Ken sliced them up, blanched them, then made a kind of vegetable lasagne with some left-over bolognese sauce that he made with tomatoes frozen from last year's garden and some mozarella. It was tasty!

Bastille Day was uneventful. Ken went to bed early since he had to get up early today to drive up to Etampes. I stayed up until 23h30 to watch and listen to all the fireworks going off around us. St. Aignan has the biggest show, and I could see the flashes of light and hear the booms - not to mention the big sound system playing music. Noyers was also audible, but I could actually see some of the bursts in Mareuil through the trees from our balcony.

This morning I cut up a chicken and am marinating it in pesto sauce. I think I'll make a cucumber salad, too.