Monday, April 30, 2012

Raindrops in the pond

When it's raining lightly like it has been over the past several days, Callie doesn't mind it at all. After all, her breed originates from southern Scotland, and I expect it's quite wet up there. So we're used to walking in the rain, around (and through) the puddles, and through the tall, wet grass around the vineyards.

The pond outside our back gate. If you look closely, you can see the little raindrops.

When it's really wet, I tend to stick to the dirt (mud) road and let Callie romp around through the grass and the low spots. She's been getting more confident about running around the edges of the vineyard on her own, meeting up with me on the other side. She usually knows where I am and I can see her moving through the vines. After the vines leaf out fully I won't be able to see her any more, but she will still know I'm there.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A backyard iris

It's hard to take pictures right now. The days are mainly overcast and often rainy. We're hoping for a respite on Tuesday and Wednesday. At least that's what the weather forecast is right now. I do need to get out and cut the grass before it gets too tall.

Raindrops on an iris.

April has been chilly, but normally so. The growth spurt we got in March, when it was unseasonably warm, slowed way down with the cool April days. But with all the rain we've had, it will only take a couple of warm days for the growth to pick back up again. I can't wait.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Back to wine tasting

With our friends Jean and Nick we visited one of the Baudry-Dutour tasting rooms outside of Chinon after lunch that day about two weeks ago. Their wines were quite tasty and Jean bought a bunch, but since we had already filled up before lunch, we resisted the temptation.

Some of the wines we tried at Baudry Dutour.

Chinon is known mostly for its red wines made from cabernet franc grapes. They're hearty and full-bodied and very different from the lighter gamays that we're used to in our part of the Touraine region.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Thirty-five years ago today

I've only done it once. I wish I had done it more. It was 1977, thirty-five years ago, and I haven't done it since. Want to know what it is? I saw a Broadway show on Broadway. I saw "The King and I" with Yul Brynner and Constance Towers in the 1977 revival of the 1951 show. I will never forget it.

Of course I kept my ticket stub. All these years.

I was a senior in high school and I took an English elective called "American Musical Theater." If Kurt Hummel from "Glee" had been in my school, he would have been in that class. Our teacher, Mr. Feldman, taught us all about musicals and what made them great. We studied "Oklahoma." We talked about "Annie Get Your Gun." We watched "West Side Story" on some newfangled contraption called a video tape machine. We read the reviews of a new show called "Annie," based on the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip (The sun will come out, tomorrow!). I remember Mr. Feldman telling us that New York audiences would eat up any song about New York City, and "Annie" had one: "NYC." He was right.

For my final class paper, I wrote a biography of Barbra Streisand. Yes, I did.

The biggest thing we did that semester was to go on a field trip to New York City to see "The King and I." Yul Brynner reprised his role as the King of Siam on Broadway and Mr. Feldman got us all tickets. If our parents would pay, of course. Mine agreed. The ticket cost eight dollars.

What a trip! We were in the nosebleed seats of the Uris Theater, now called the Gershwin Theater, on Broadway at West 51st Street. We took a school bus down from Albany (a three hour drive) and, once in mid-town Manhattan, we were allowed to walk around a bit before the 2:00 p.m. matinee. I remember going to Nathan's on Times Square for a hot dog.

As for the show, I was thunderstruck. The production was amazing. Beyond anything I had ever seen before. Of course, as a seventeen year old kid, I had not seen much. But I had seen a lot of the movie versions of Broadway musicals on television, including this one. It was so much more amazing live.

I saw "The King and I" once again, many years later, in San Francisco. Rudolph Nureyev played the King and I dragged Ken to see it. A great show it was, but it was nothing compared to that first time, with Yul Brynner. That show is, and will always be, one of my most cherished memories.

Thank you, Mr. Feldman.

The abbey where Mr. Brynner is buried.

An interesting side note: Yul Brynner, who died in 1985, is buried in Luzé, France, about eighty-five kilometers (roughly fifty miles) from where I live now. You can't walk in to see the grave without paying for and going on a two-hour tour of the abbey. Too bad.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wine tasting

I just remembered some photos from a couple of weeks ago. We drove down to the Vienne Valley, near Chinon, to buy some wine and meet some friends for lunch. Our first wine stop was a place we've known for many years, but we hadn't been in a while.

Our car parked outside the tasting room; the château is outside the photo to the left.

It's the Château de Ligré and they make a variety of Chinon AOC wines along with some vins de pays (varietals that are not covered by the AOC label). One thing we like about Ligré is that they sell wine en vrac (in bulk). One of the employees takes us down into the cellar (on the freight elevator!) to taste from the barrels, then fills up our ten-liter containers for us. Ten liters is just over thirteen bottles worth.

On this visit we got ten liters of Chinon red (cabernet franc) and ten liters of vin de pays blanc (sauvignon blanc). The sauvignon is not an AOC grape in Chinon as it is where we live. But I like sauvignon blanc and wanted to try theirs. It's not bad, but there's a producer across the river from us that makes a sauvignon that I like much better.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A very local pizza

Local, but not from a pizzeria. A different kind of local. I made the crust, of course. The tomato sauce is from our home-grown tomatoes from last summer. The mushrooms were grown in a cave not far from here by a lady who sells them at the Saturday market. The sausage is from Montlouis on the Loire, made with herbs and the local chenin blanc wine. And the goat cheese is from Selles-sur-Cher, just up the road.

My home-made goat cheese, sausage, and mushroom pizza.

It's hard to get more local than that. And it made a delicious Tuesday lunch.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

White asparagus

I got some asperges blanches (white asparagus) at the market on Saturday. The price isn't as low as I'd like yet, but the season is young. Still, the price wasn't has high as it was on Easter weekend.

Spears of fresh white asparagus ready to be trimmed.

For the past five years, we've been making ham and asparagus tarts during the spring season. We saw the recipe on television in 2007 and thought it looked good. And it was. I've modified it a bit to make it more economical (mainly by using regular ham in the place of raw cured ham) and a bit easier; the original recipe was for individual tartelettes and I make one large tarte.

Asparagus are typically sold in 1 kilo bundles at our market.

The thing to remember about white asparagus versus green asparagus is that the white stuff needs to be peeled. If you don't peel it, the spears will be tough like straw and nearly inedible. To me, this is counter-intuitive. I would think that the white spears, grown under the soil so they can't photosynthesize, would be more tender than the green ones that have seen the light of day. They are exactly the same plant.

The finished ham and asparagus tarte.

So always remember to peel your white asparagus with a vegetable peeler and you won't have any problems. You can see my recipe for the tarte here. Have any of you tried it?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Strawberries and rhubarb

I found some wonderful gariguettes at the market on Saturday. A bit pricey, but they were totally worth it. I harvested some rhubarb stems from my patch out back and set to making a strawberry-rhubarb pie. First, I made the standard pâte brisée crust.

 Fresh local gariguette strawberries from the market.

The next step was to trim, chop, and macerate the rhubarb. I had a good mix of very thin stems and some thick ones. All of them got cut down to the right size before being sprinkled with sugar and left to sit for a couple of hours.

 Chopped rhubarb from the garden, macerating with sugar.

I mixed up an egg and some flour with the rhubarb, then baked it in the crust until it was cooked. Once it cooled a little, I sliced the strawberries and arranged them on top. Then I painted them with a glaze of strawberry jam and some of the sweet juice from the marinated rhubarb.

The finished pie with a rustic crust.

The pie was not overly sweet. I could have added more sugar to the rhubarb, but it really didn't need it. Too sweet is too sweet. This was just right.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Funky Feline Fotos

Here's Bert sitting in the window boxes outside the kitchen window on Saturday. I was in the kitchen making a pie and Bert wanted to come in. Normally he sits on the deck outside the doors looking in, but now he's figured out how to jump over the railing to the window boxes.

Hey! What's going on in there?

I didn't let him in. This time.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Wild orchids

The wild orchids are making their appearance out in the spaces between vineyards. These purple ones are easy to spot from a distance. Later we'll see some white ones pop up.

Wild orchids in the vineyard.

Today is market day and I'm planning to get down there and buy some white asparagus. I'm hopeful that the prices have come down to a more reasonable level. I'll also be on the lookout for some local strawberries. I'm hungry already.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Views from the back yard

I think we've reached the point where we feel like we're back in control of the yard. It's always so discouraging to look out at the end of winter on mole hills, downed branches and twigs, overgrowth from last year, and mostly bare trees and shrubs. A few weeks of nice weather and some diligent work takes care of most of that.

The apple trees are leafing out, but there seem to be many fewer blossoms than last year.

There is still a lot to do, including getting the vegetable garden prepped, and it will all get done in the fullness of time. Or not. Our current chilly and rainy spell has slowed us down, but that rain is badly needed, so we're not complaining. We'll be back out there soon enough, digging, tilling, planting, and weeding.

The shrubbery section of the yard.

The chilly weather has also slowed down the trees. Last April the leaves seemed to appear overnight as a result of the unusually warm spring we had. This year the leaves are on a more normal time schedule. I'm hopeful that after this rainy spell we'll get some nice, warm and sunny days. Hopeful.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Time to harvest some rhubarb

We're getting close. Do you remember when I showed you the shoots just coming up a few weeks ago? The recent rain should give this patch a good growth spurt and then I can pull off some of the stems. I may check out the market on Saturday for some strawberries and make a strawberry/rhubarb pie.

The rhubarb's doing well. I still haven't burned the mistletoe.

If I keep the patch watered, it should produce for a while. I may have enough to be able to freeze some, which I've never done.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Colza season

The colza fields are blooming. Colza is the French term for canola (rape) grown for it seeds which are processed into cooking oil. Canoloa is the acronym for CANadian Oil Low Acid. "Rape" is obviously not a good marketing name for these vegetable oils.

A field of flowering colza brightens an overcast day in the Vienne Valley near Chinon.

Every spring, all around us, fields turn a vibrant yellow as the colza comes into flower. Soon the flowers will fade as they set seed. Later, after the plants and seeds dry out, the harvesters will ply the fields to collect their prize. We use colza frequently in the kitchen, along with sunflower (also grown locally), olive, and peanut oils.

Rape is a member of the cabbage/mustard family. The yellow flowers are certainly similar to mustard and remind me of the mustard fields we used to see in California's Napa Valley.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


The season has begun, but our locally produced white asparagus is still too pricey to consider. In another week or so the price should be coming down and then we can indulge. In the meantime, I've been harvesting the green spears that grow wild out in the vineyard.

A new asparagus shoot pops up among the grape vines.

These aren't "wild asparagus" but regular domesticated spears that grow randomly out between the grape vines. I figure that seeds have been dispersed by wind or birds and plants have grown up from them over the years. There are several regular spots where I look for asparagus spears each year, and others pop up from time to time.

We had a nice salad of steamed asparagus a few days ago. All gathered by me during my walks with Callie.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Transept door

This is the door on the south end of the church's transept in Saint-Aignan. I've never seen it open or even used; the main entrance on the church's eastern end is always open. This romanesque/early gothic building was built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries over the foundations of a much older church.

The south entrance to Saint-Aignan's church.

The building's arches are all rounded as opposed to pointed, a characteristic of romanesque construction. But there are flying buttresses on either side of the nave and they are indicators of the emerging gothic style. Visitors can climb down into the crypt of the church and view frescoes that survive from the earlier building. And it's free!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ivy nine

Back when I was a kid, many people still referred to telephone numbers prefixed with letters representing the numbers on the dial. The letters were the first two letters of the old telephone "exchange" system, still in use in many parts of the country in the 1960s and 70s. For example, in my home town, HObart 3 (or HO-3) would be dialed 4-6-3, plus the last four digits of the number. My grandmother's number (which is the only phone number I can still remember by heart) was IVanhoe 9 (IV or "ivy" 9), dialed 4-8-9. The word "ivy" always reminds me of that.

Ivy, as opposed to IVanhoe, growing on the side of a tree in the vineyard.

So that's your tidbit of useless information for the day! Remember PEnnsylvania 6-5000? Me neither. There are still some things I'm too young to remember.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Just another pretty morning

We've moved into a period of falling temperatures and low pressure and that's allowing weather systems to move successively across the country. We need rain, but we're not getting much. Just clouds and a few showers. So, I thought a reminder of the good weather we had a week or so ago was in order.

Sunrise over the vineyard on Easter morning.

The summery week we had in March really spoiled me. I want that weather back. But it's not normal for this time of year. We could still have a freeze before we get into May.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Compare and contrast

As spring progresses, I'm enjoying watching all the new leaves pop out and grow. Where the browns and greys of winter were, there are now shades of light green among the white and pink of early fruit blossoms. This particular blackberry bramble rose grows along the road I walk daily with Callie.

A sunny Easter morning in April.

And here is the same bramble rose stem back in late January when we had some snow. The snow is pretty, but I'm liking the weather a lot better now.

A wintry January morning with snow. Brrrrr.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Church tower

The church in Saint-Aignan is impressive when seen from a distance as it rises up above the town's rooftops. Only the château is taller on the "skyline." But in town, the church is almost hidden from view, except for glimpses here and there depending on where you are.

One of the towers of the collegiale church in Saint-Aignan, seen from below.

This view is from very close in a pedestrian passageway on the south side of the building, just off the town's main street. We were enjoying a beautifully clear and crisp market morning last Saturday.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Like a shot

Somebody out in the vineyard has a sense of humor. Remember the wine bottle turned upside down over a grape vine? Well, it's gone now. But I noticed this very close to where that bottle was. It's an empty shotgun shell stuck onto a broken tree branch. Very clever.

It's not uncommon to find spent shotgun shells in the vineyard after hunting season.

I know (by sight) several people who walk out there regularly. But none of them seem to be the kind of people who would make spontaneous "art" from found objects. I could be wrong.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A bed of purple

I'm having trouble identifying this flower. I think it may be a member of lamiacée family, but am not sure. This patch grows under a stand of acacia trees between vineyards where it gets partial sun and partial shade, depending on the time of day. It's growing among a large patch of orties (stinging nettles), but I don't think these are the flowers of the nettle.

A bed of pretty spring wildflowers at woods' edge.

My close-ups of the flowers didn't come out well enough to post. I'll try again another time. It's hard to get too close because I don't want to get tangled up with the nettles.

Monday, April 09, 2012

New pipes

It looks like this building recently got a new roof and new downspouts. The building is attached to the church in Saint-Aignan. I ducked into this passage that winds around the church and took a few lazy shots on Saturday morning.

Textures, shapes, and lines.

I call them lazy shots because I really just pointed and shot en vitesse with no regard to much of anything. Still, they seem to have worked out. The round stained glass window is on the side of the church and is nearly hidden from view by the roof of the building that's attached. The whole town is on a slope, so the building (with the roof) actually fronts on the town's main street while the church rises high above it.

Sunday, April 08, 2012


There was a sale on turbot. So we bought some. Turned out it was a whole fish, not even gutted. So we had to do the deed. Actually, Ken did it. I helped. Turbot is a flat fish, similar to sole and flounder. The flavor is not as delicate as sole, but it's darned close.

Our little turbot. See how beautifully clear the eye is? A good indicator of freshness.

A number of years ago, we saw a show on tv about how most, if not all, French turbot are farm-raised (note: I looked at the supermarket circular and found that this turbot was farmed in Portugal). It was a very interesting show and we still talk about it. So, when turbot went on sale, we decided we should give it a try.

Here he is before we started the filleting.

Filleting it was not all that hard. There are not really any scales on a turbot, so that wasn't an issue. Once the fillets were off, we cleaned up the carcass and boiled it to make fish stock. We'll pick the bones for bits of flesh as a treat for Bertie. I'm sure he'll like that.

Four fillets and a few extra bits. Ready for cooking.

I lightly floured the fillets and Ken sauteed them. We served them with a beurre blanc sauce made with fresh lemon and had some okra on the side. I also made a batch of rice-a-roni (home-made). We ate the whole fish. It would have served four for a real meal with appetizers and a cheese course and all, but the two of us decided it was best to eat it all. Yum.

Turbot in the pan. It was delicate, nutty, and delicious.

As for wine, we drank a Chablis that Ken got on a trip last year with our friend CHM. We've been saving it and we figured it was time to drink it and this fish dish seemed like the perfect thing to drink it with. And it was. Delicious.

Our wine selection. Chablis is made from chardonnay grapes.

We don't eat fish often, given that it's become very expensive, and we miss it. It's so good when it's good, if you know what I mean. So this turbot was a real treat. We'll look for it again. When it's on sale.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Friday was pizza day

It was a good Friday and we passed over other lunch choices to make pizza. I made my standard crust (leavened bread), Ken made a bolognese topping with ground turkey and our home made tomato sauce, and we had a salad after (not bitter greens). There was even a chair for Elijah, but he didn't show up. I drank his wine. So let it be written, so let it be done.

Pizza made with a turkey bolognese sauce and mozzarella cheese.

The pizza was terrific and we enjoyed it. We're planning our standard Easter feast of rabbit for Sunday. Yes, we eat the Easter Bunny. We'll head out to the market this morning to buy one. In the meantime, Ken got us a turbot for Saturday's lunch. Yum. Maybe there will be pictures...

Friday, April 06, 2012

Coconut yogurt cake

This cake is fast and easy to make and is one that Ken and I do all the time. It's a flexible recipe that accommodates all manner of additions and changes without a problem. For example, I added a chopped up apple to the batter this time to use an apple that might have gone bad otherwise.

A coconut yogurt cake with chopped apple.

Last time, I omitted the coconut and used almond flour in its place and added a bunch of black currents. Raisins or other fresh or dried fruits work just as well. Ken made the frosting by mixing powdered sugar with crème fraiche and a little vanilla. I just poured the frosting on and it did its own thing before thickening in place.

Another view before we cut the cake.

Sometimes we make the cake in a loaf shape. This time I made it in a round cake pan. I'm sure Ken has posted the recipe before, but since it's pretty easy, here it is again:
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup grated coconut (unsweetened)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
Mix all the ingredients until well blended. Pour into a buttered pan and bake for 30 minutes in a pre-heated 180º C (350º F) oven until done. Cool on a rack. Frost or eat plain.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

In with the new

A dried old daisy from last year gives way to this year's fresh new cowslips. These are among the flowering plants of spring called primevères in France. This variety has its flower heads bunched on top of long stalks. Another variety called common primrose, which is mostly what we have in our yard, has larger flower heads very close to the ground.

The cowslips seem very concerned with the dead daisy.

While it's officially spring now, we're having a little taste of winter. Nothing serious, just some cooler weather from the north accompanied by a little (very little) rain. We could use more rain. So, we're in a holding pattern for getting a lot done outdoors. Still, I'd like to plant some radish seeds and lettuces under a cold frame, and I suppose I could do that in this weather.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The state of the yard

We're slowly getting cleaned up from winter. Pruning, digging, cutting, and burning. The St. John's Wort that grows along the road on either side of the driveway froze during our February cold spell, so that all had to be cut back to the ground. It's already begun to sprout fresh from the roots.

A section of the back garden. You can see the mistletoe (those orange clumps on the ground) and the burn pile (covered with sheet metal to stay dry) to the left.

The mistletoe I cut out of the big apple tree is still in a pile in one of the garden plots. As soon as we have a still day we'll get out there and burn it, along with another two large piles of yard waste. In the snapshot above you can see three of our four apple trees. There's the stump of the fifth apple tree in the foreground and the main trunk of that tree lying in the walkway on the right. I cut it down last year as it was not a very healthy tree. I've also now got two thirds of the lawn (such as it is) cut for the first time this season.

It's very nice to be working in the yard again and watching the spring take hold.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Reflections of...

Ok, that's a stretch. Remember the Supremes' song? Through the windshield of my mind... LOL.

Our red maple trees reflected in the windshield and roof of the car. They're flowering now.

I got some grass cut on Monday. I tried to sharpen the mower blade with my new bench grinder. I'm not sure how well I did, but I put it all back together and ran the mower over a portion of our yard. It is always satisfying to do a little bit of maintenance. Everything looks better when it looks like someone is taking care of it.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Burger buns

I finally made hamburger buns the other day using that recipe that Ken found on the internet. If you remember, I first made hot dog buns, then a loaf of sandwich bread. Both of those were terrific and so were the burger buns.

Freshly baked hamburger buns, about 13 cm across (about 5 inches).

I painted an egg wash on the tops of the buns so that the sesame seeds would stick. That's why they look two-toned. We grilled turkey burgers last week to eat with two of the buns. Yesterday we made turkey sloppy joes and ate the remaining two. International cuisine, n'est-ce pas?

Sunday, April 01, 2012

A cabin in the woods

I had a hard time with this picture. I took a few photos one morning. The sun was streaming through the woods and the colors were beautiful. But when I got the pictures home, they didn't seem to show what I had seen. Is it the camera? Is it me? Who knows.

A little cabin in the woods just next to the vineyards behind our house.

At any rate, I messed with the pictures in Photoshop and tried to make a picture that looked like what I saw that morning. I'm not sure if I succeeded, but this picture isn't too far off the mark.