Wednesday, April 30, 2008

La Rhubarbe

When we bought this house, we didn't know until after we moved in that there was rhubarb growing along the garden walkway. It had been there a while, I presumed, because it wasn't producing much.

Stalks of freshly picked rhubarb from our garden.

I did a little research and found out that rhubarb needs to be divided when it produces spindly stems, so two years ago I dug it up, separated the roots, and replanted them in another location. This year we're getting nice fat stems and I harvested the first of them on Sunday.

I peeled the stems, then cooked them with some sugar in a bit of water on top of the stove. As they cooled, I boiled the cooking liquid down into a sugar syrup.

A batch of oven-fresh scones.

So what goes with tart and tangy rhubarb? Scones! I whipped up a batch of scones and we at them with the rhubarb and its syrup and a few strawberries. The only thing missing was a dollop of cream, but we had run out.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tête De Veau

I never thought I'd eat something called calf's head, or head cheese as it's also known. But once I understood what it was, I was no longer squeamish about it and have enjoyed it many times.

A slice of tête de veau persillée.

At the butcher shop on Saturday, I asked for a slice of what I thought was jambon persillé. It's a terrine of large chunks of cooked ham in a gelatin, with a layer of chopped parsley in gelatin on top. It's a favorite of mine.

But the butcher corrected me. He said what I was pointing at was not jambon persillée, but tête de veau persillée. He said it was much better than what I had asked for, and that he made it using only jowls and tongue. None of the other bits that are commonly found in fromage de tête.

It was gorgeous, so I just had to buy a small slice! And it was very good. We at two thirds of it as an appetizer on Sunday. I'm going back for more someday soon!

Monday, April 28, 2008


We're moving into the height of asparagus season. The local stuff is starting to drop in price. There's a guy at the Saturday market in Saint-Aignan who sets up a little table and sells what he produces on his land; he sells mostly honey, I think, when it's not asparagus season.

White asparagus ready for the pot.

The first time we got some this year, about three weeks ago, he didn't have any yet. Another stand was selling some spears that came up from les Landes, down in southwestern France. The price was €7,90 a kilo.

Last week our local guy had his and it was €6,95 a kilo, and this week it was down to €5,50. I don't know if we'll see it go down below €4,00 this year (as in years past), but we'll certainly be happy if it does!

Simmering spears.

So Saturday's market haul included a kilo of white asparagus (picked on Friday evening), some lettuce, radishes, and strawberries. Then I stopped into the butcher shop for a couple escalopes de veau (a real good price!). While in there I couldn't resist a couple of saucisses basquaises for the freezer and a slice of tête de veau persillée.

For lunch, Ken sautéed the veal and made a mushroom and cream sauce to go with it. We served that along side the cooked asparagus. Yum!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Photo Du Jour : The Neighbor

Our neighbor across the road, Bernard, was out on Saturday cutting his grass, too. His property is much bigger than ours and he has a fancy-pants riding mower to handle it.

Bernard maneuvers around the birches.
Taken from our kitchen window.

Oh, did I mention he's seventy-eight years old? I swear he's got more energy than I do.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mow.

Friday was a brilliant day and I got most of the grass cut. Most importantly, I got the "north forty" done for the first time this year. That grass was gettin' a bit high.

Part of the north forty seen from our deck.

When the mower digs through the tall grass and wildflowers, it works hard and uses a lot of gasoline. It's not as clean a cut as I'll have next week when I do it all again.

Another view of the north forty.

There are three distinct sections to the yard that are separated by grape vines and the gravel path. Pictured here is what I call the "north forty" because it's on the north side of the house. Out back, the "west forty" is the largest section, full of apple and plum trees and the vegetable garden. That means lots of maneuvering.

A shot of the house from across the road.

Finally there's the "south forty" directly out the back door. It's got a two smaller sections dotted with shrubs and separated by smaller gravel winding paths. That section is a real pain in the butt to mow.

I also have the "supplemental bits," that is, outside the fence and hedge along the road. I save those for last. Yesterday I did the north and west forties. Today I'll finish up with the south forty and the supplemental bits.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Au Ras Des Pâquerettes

La pâquerette, or English daisy (bellis perennis), is common throughout Europe and certainly around where we live. This time of year, when the grass isn't getting cut as often as you'd like, they form a white carpet along roads and in yards and fields.

Les pâquerettes bloom along our little road.

Of course, even when you do cut the grass, you only slice off about a third of the flower heads, and the plants themselves are unaffected, so they continue to put up flowers. But only the most suburbanized chemical lawn junkie could have a problem with that.

A close-up of les pâquerettes.

French singer Alain Souchon recorded a song in 1999 called "Au ras des pâquerettes" which means "at the level of daisies." The song says that hearts without love stay close to the ground, where the daisies grow, as opposed to love-filled hearts which soar.

Our neighbor's yard, covered in white daisies.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Periodic Puppy Pics

I love to catch Callie napping, since she's often in a cute or funny pose. But she usually hears me and changes position before I can snap the photo.

This time she slowly opened her eyes as if to say, "There he goes again." Then she went back to sleep. I think she's getting used the weird humans and their cameras.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pizzoccheri Della Valtellina

So what's a dish with an Italian name doing on my blog from France? It's just another example of the international cuisine that we enjoy experimenting with. And experiment we did. We warned our house guest, Chris, what she was in for.

Our version of Pizzoccheri della Valtellina.
Maybe we should come up with a French name for it?

My friend Andy, who lives with his wife Christa in Vienna, Austria, blogged about this hearty mountain dish that is popular in Switzerland, and he published his recipe. The dish originated in northern Italy, where buckwheat flour was introduced during the crusades in the middle ages.

Andy hints that, like many regional specialties, this dish is not so much a recipe, but a concept, and that variations abound. Since buckwheat noodles are not easy to find in our corner of rural France, I made my own. And while I've made my own pasta before, I've never ventured into flavored pasta, let alone buckwheat noodles.

I found a recipe for buckwheat noodles on the internet and set to. Buckwheat, or sarrasin, flour is common in France because it's used to make Breton crêpes, and we had some on hand. The noodles are made with two parts sarrasin, one part standard flour (to provide the gluten that buckwheat lacks), eggs and milk. A few turns of the pasta machine and voilà!

We used frozen spinach, again because it's what we had in the house, agata potatoes, smoked lardons, and comté cheese (from the mountains on the Franco-Swiss border). We also mixed the final dish into a lasagna pan and sprinkled cheese on the top and popped it into the oven for a bit to warm through and melt the cheese.

Boy, was it delicious - each of the three of us had seconds, and Ken had thirds. Thanks, Andy!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Green Tulips

The first year we were in this house, I planted bulbs out front. The tulips were billed as "green," but they're more whitish-yellow with streaks of green. I really like them.

The side view.

They've done pretty well every year, but the winter of 2006-2007 was pretty mild and last year the tulips didn't put up any flowers. I thought maybe they were done for, but this spring the flowers are back.

The close-up.

My plans this spring are to dig up some other tulips and daffodils around the yard and bring them up front to plant near these. As soon as this year's bloom is done and the greens start to die back, I'll start moving them. Next spring we should have a new look out front.

The top view.

Friday, April 18, 2008

My Desk

In case you were wondering, and even if you weren't, this is where it all happens.

Or, at least, where some of it happens. Callie is my wallpaper. The Washington, DC, Metro Subway map is my mouse pad. How nerdy is that?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Tarte Aux Pommes

Here's one of the first apple tarts I've made since the holidays. It was good, too!

A home-made crust, a few apples, a quick custard, and a fruit jelly glaze are all it takes to make. I still can't get the apples in the center form a neat ring like the ones on the outside. But it makes no difference to the taste. Yum!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Boucherie Chevaline

In Saint-Aignan, just off the main square, there is a small shop adorned with the shiny red head of a horse. I've never been inside.

Many French towns have at least one butcher shop
that specializes in horse meat.

It's not that I have anything against eating horse meat, but it's never really attracted me. I thought the red sign against the backdrop of Saint-Aignan's church on a bright sunny day was eye-catching.

This photo is from April 2006.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Cheverny : Release The Hounds!

As I've been hinting, one of the highlights of our visit to the Château de Cheverny was the daily feeding of the hunting dogs, called la soupe des chiens.

A sign on the fence around the grassy dog run.
"Please don't come any closer."

These are big dogs, a mix of English and French hunting hounds. They're kept in special kennels near the château's kitchen garden and other out-buildings. They have a large grassy yard to run around in that is, naturally, fenced off and marked with the signs pictured above.

The line of kibble and raw, quartered chickens.

As feeding time approaches, a crowd gathers around the concrete pen just outside the kennel. The dog keepers have lined up an impressive pile of kibble mixed with quartered chickens. At this point the dogs are milling around on the roof of the kennel, watching, waiting.

Dogs cast shadows on the pen wall as they wait for feeding time.

A clock somewhere on the property rings five bells, and the dogs are ready. The keeper releases them into the pen, but the dogs don't pounce on the food yet. They hang back, their bodies tense with anticipation, letting out a yelp here, a howl there.

Waiting for the signal.

The keeper gives a signal and all hell breaks loose. It's every dog for himself (they all males) and they dive in, each grabbing a chicken carcass and moving off to the side to devour it. For a while all you can see are the backs of dogs with tails wagging skyward as they eat up the kibble. Some of the dogs come up with bloody snouts (from the raw chicken) and other dogs will lick them clean.

Chow time!

The whole spectacle takes about five minutes and then the crowd disperses. It's at this point that you can get in close to the pen and see the dogs unobstructed. Each one has a shaved "V" on its flank to identify it as belonging to the château owner.

The aftermath.

John got some really good photos of the dogs, but you'll have to make do with mine until he starts a blog of his own!

John snapping a few more photos.
The sign says, "Please don't excite the dogs."

Shortly after the feeding, two helicopters swooped down and landed on the lawn not too far from the kennel. Some of the dogs were fascinated by this and stood up to watch, as you can see in the picture above.

I gawked a little, too, along with the rest of the proletariat, to see if I could recognize any famous faces. No Johnny, no Carla, no Depardieu. Just a bunch of horsey-looking tourists who have way too much money. We moved on.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cheverny : Le Parc

Once outside the château, our tour became much less structured. We roamed around the vast grounds of the park. The style of the park is English. Great lawns, sweeping curves, big trees, all planted to evoke a natural look - although it's anything but natural. It takes a lot of maintenance to keep it up.

The Apprentice Garden and its iron canopy.

The newest addition to Cheverny is the Apprentice Garden between the château and the orangerie. This garden was built within the last five years by gardening students. It's a modern take on a more formal French garden, with a central allée, a fountain, and geometric parterres. There was a television program about the creation and construction of this garden in the past year that we watched, so it was cool to see it in person.

A field of daffodils in one the parterres.

We wandered around on the manicured paths down to the water course and pond, then made our way back to the front of the château. The front yard, as it were, is a series of huge empty spaces. Some are covered in gravel, others in great swaths of closely cropped lawn. Every so often we'd see a sign reminding us to keep off the grass.

Keep Off The Grass. Or a helicopter might land on you.
Apparently the rules don't apply to everyone...

Like most gardens this old, there are many huge trees including linden, sequoia, and cedars of many varieties. There are even cedars like the one we have in our own, more modest, yard.

Big old trees adorn the park.
The sign says to please keep off the branches.

Here and there were patches of flowers under the trees. We saw a large patch of deep blue muscari, or grape hyacinth. Daffodils abounded. And the beautiful sky and perfect weather made our stroll that much more enjoyable.

A pond was created along the water course and dotted with lily pads.

We made our way toward the dog kennels (chenils) where the feeding of the hounds was to take place at five o'clock. There was already a small crowd gathered around the fences as we approached. We had to jostle for a good viewing spot in the twenty minutes or so that remained before the dogs were fed.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Cheverny : Interior, Interrupted

We made it into the château ahead of the group. The tour is self-guided with a handy brochure that describes each room and its significance. We started in the formal dining room.

The mantel above the fireplace in the main dining room.
The gilded frames surround a bust of king Henri IV.

As we began to get our bearings and learn about the various pieces of furniture, tapestries, and paintings, the tour group entered. We quickly decided to go upstairs to escape. The first room we saw upstairs was the arms room. It's directly above the dining room and is the largest room in the château.

The fireplace in the dining room with its andirons.

The walls of the arms room are adorned with a collection of weapons from the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, and not a few suits of armor. As we were busy snapping photos a docent came up to us to tell us that taking pictures was not allowed inside the château. So these few photos are all I have from inside; maybe that's a good thing.

Detail on a door between rooms.
I could almost see through the keyhole.

We went on, of course, to view the private apartments, the king's bedroom, the family dining room, the library, the tapestry room, and the large and small drawing rooms. Each is furnished with a collection of period pieces in various styles, and there is a sprinkling of paintings and photographs of the owners from the beginning to the present day.

A suit of armor in the arms room.
After this we were told not to take pictures.

The rooms are interesting and, in my opinion, there's just the right amount. It's not overwhelming at all. However (and it's a big however), I can imagine that at the height of tourist season (summer), there would be just too many people crowded inside making the interior tour a very unpleasant experience.

We exited the château at the rear door and headed for a walk around the gardens until five pm, when the feeding of the hunting hounds was scheduled to take place. We were anxious to see that.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cheverny : Exterior

We arrived at the château a little after three pm. There were no crowds and we parked very close to the entrance. A group tour was entering when we were, but they moved through very quickly because they didn't need to stop at the ticket booth.

The front façade and main entrance.

Cheverny was built in the seventeenth century by the same family whose descendants live there now. They've restored the ground floor and part of the first floor and opened them to the public. The owners lived in these restored parts until 1985.

The side of the building.

I think that their private living space is up on the second floor (American third), where they likely have all the modern conveniences, including a modern kitchen. The old kitchens would be in the basement and they are not open to the public.

As you can see in the photo above, the château is only two rooms deep, making it a very narrow building, and it's perfectly symmetrical in its design.

The rear façade seen from the formal garden.

The rear garden is relatively new. It was built just a few years ago by a group of apprentice gardeners and a television show was made about the process. It was cool to see it in person.

We made a quick bee-line for the château's entrance to get inside before the group did.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Cheverny : Avant Goût

On Monday we visited the Château de Cheverny. Here's an preview of coming attractions:

Part of the château's roof.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Friends And Food

When John and Candy arrived, we immediately spread out the food and opened a bottle of sparkling Vouvray. They didn't even have time to unpack before we were toasting and tasting.

John and Candy, with Ken peeking in from behind.

I had made a grated carrot salad, and we bought some pâté, rillettes, jambon persillé, cucumber salad, and four little quiches. It was delicious.

Friday's lunch. The little quiches are still wrapped in paper.

On Saturday we had a fougasse and a pâté de pacques from a nearby bakery.

The special Easter pâté, with sausage, hard cooked egg, wrapped in a puff pastry.

Since then we've been tasting the various specialty breads from that same bakery. Among them are rillons/cabernet and walnut breads. Not to mention the wine.

Beautiful wood-fired breads from a bakery near our house.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Periodic Puppy Pics

John and Candy brought Callie some really nifty gifts from California. Among them is the Tricky Treat Ball - an amazing ball that you fill with little treats. As the dog pushes the ball around, a treat falls out of a hole onto the floor, and she enthusiastically eats it up and tries for another.

Callie and the Tricky Treat Ball.

It took Callie a little less than twenty-four hours to figure out how to manipulate the ball so that she got treats. This is her new best toy.

She also loves her new gummy and Galileo nylabones. Not to mention her new friends, John and Candy!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Photo Du Jour : Pilaster

Still at Valençay, this is a little bit of the building's detail.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Fauna At Valençay

Earlier I mentioned that there were animals on the grounds at the Château de Valençay and I thought I'd show you some. There's a rather large pen of daims (fallow deer) that are very tame, some goats, and then all kinds of fowl.

A daim, or fallow deer, with the larger herd in back.

When we visited Valençay in 2004 with our friends Andy and Christa, we spent some time wandering around the pens looking at the animals. That's when these photos were taken.

A stately peacock with feathers neatly folded.

The peacocks and hens are loose, of course, and wander the grounds freely. I was really surprised when we heard one above our heads and saw it perched high up in a tree. It flew down a bit later and I realized that I had never seen a peacock fly. I'm not sure I knew that they even could.

An old tom turkey.

The turkeys were funny. Turkeys are native to the Americas but have been imported and bred in Europe, at least in France anyway, for centuries. Because Columbus thought he had found India on his historic voyages, when he brought these birds back to Europe he called them "hens from India." In French, that's poules d'Inde, now just shortened to dinde. France is currently the second largest producer of turkeys in the world. Oh, là là, which, of course, is French for "gobble gobble."

A pintade, or guinea hen. These are good to eat!
(actually, I'm not sure if it's a hen...)