Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The last day

The tradition in France is to celebrate the eve of the new year with a feast that includes oysters and other shellfish, foie gras, and sparkling wine. Ken and I will be doing our best to uphold tradition, of course.

The local vineyards at the end of December 2013.

The weather is not expected to be spectacular, but it's not going to be bad, either. There will be no ice or snow in our region. Still, we will not be driving during the dark hours. Enjoy your New Year's Eve, wherever you are!

Monday, December 30, 2013

The return of the red cat

A couple of Novembers ago, we found a bottle of Beaujolais nouveau at our local supermarket called Le Chat Rouge (The Red Cat) and thought it was tasty. This year, we found some more and bought three bottles. And it was good this year, too.

Put a cork in it!

These are the corks from the bottles. They're plastic corks. Here's a link to the post I did in 2011 with a photo of the label.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Raindrops on branches

And whiskers on seals. We're having so much rain right now. The ground is saturated and the water doesn't have time to soak in before the next downpour. I've rarely seen so much water running on the ground in the vineyard. Every low spot out there has become a lake or a rushing stream.

The rising sun makes these water droplets sparkle during a brief break in the wet weather.

We had one humungous downpour on Saturday morning that left huge puddles in our gravel driveway out front and in the gravel walkway out back. We're still kind of holding our breath, but the roof over the kitchen is not leaking. I'm hopeful that the guy who worked on it last summer actually fixed the problem and that the roof is draining properly now. It'll take a few more downpours with dry results to convince me, but given the current forecast, I don't think we'll have to wait too long.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

River mist

Here's a view from the vineyard behind our house out across the river to the other side. The house with smoke rising from its chimney is on the north bank of the Cher. We're on the south. Often, at sunrise, mist will form on the surface of the river and slowly fill in the valley.

Those utility poles have been disconnected. One day they'll be gone.

If you look closely, you can see our neatly trimmed hedge in the photo, too. The building with the white door and dark shutters is our garden shed. The stone building among the vines belongs to the grower and is a storage shed (although I don't think it's used much any more).

Friday, December 27, 2013


The starter course for our Christmas dinner was escargots de Bourgogne (Burgundy snails). We had them in the freezer, bought already prepared and ready for the oven. It was an easy way to have a nice starter without too much work.

Snails, bubbling hot, ready for eating! The pincer on the right holds the hot shell while you pull out the snail with a fork.

Unless you're really into raising and purging your own snails the old-fashioned way, frozen is the way to go. They're always available in the supermarkets with the garlic/butter/parsley sauce already incorporated in the little shell. Another way to buy them is canned; we have a can in our cupboard. With those, you make your own sauce and use your own shells (which are washable and re-usable). Of course, you don't need to use shells at all if you don't want to, but you will want a special snail plate.

They were delicious!

I'm sure some people are lucky enough to live near a snail producer and can get them fresh. Snails need to be purged before they're killed to clean out their digestive tracts. They're fed ground grains (like corn meal) for a few days to be made ready for consumption. The snails themselves are pretty bland, but the combination of butter, salt, parsley, and garlic in the sauce makes them quite tasty. And a little bit of french bread is good for soaking up any sauce left behind.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Oh, my stars

This was our dessert after Christmas dinner. I made a blueberry pie with some of the blueberries that I picked and froze back in July. I used a little star-shaped cookie cutter for the "top crust."

Starry starry pie.

The cutter came with a mix for make-your-own cat biscuits, which were made (by me) and eaten (by the cat) a few years ago. I saved the cutter, even though it's a bit small for most uses. I think it worked for this pie.

A closer look. Very festive! It was tasty, too.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Christmas

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate! We did up our little tree and will be enjoying a festive meal. Which is what we basically do every other day of the year, except for the tree part. So Happy Happy and Ho, Ho, Ho! And thanks for visiting my blog. :)

Our 2013 Holiday Tree.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Periodic puppy pics

Merry Christmas Eve! I prepared this post in advance in case we lose power. The storm is supposed to build in over Monday night and we don't really know how strong it will be by Tuesday morning. If my newsiness doesn't get updated, you will know we lost power. By the way, they've named the storm. It's called Dirk. Where do they come up with these things?

Callie's licking her chops. She knows that Puppy Claus is on his way.

We are prepared. I split a bunch of logs and brought them and some kindling into the garage so we will have dry wood for a fire. The brunt of the storm is predicted for mid-day here. If the power does go, we will have heat from the fire. We also have our gas stove (cooker) so that we can make food and heat water if necessary. We hope it won't come to that.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The waning moon

Now that the clouds have moved back in, we're not seeing the moon much. But just a few days ago we had a nice lunar show. I took this photo without a tripod and was surprised at how clear the moon came out.

The moon sets behind some trees to the west.

We're in full holiday mode, preparing for our Christmas Eve tradition of a cheese fondue, then the full dinner on Christmas Day built around a chapon de pintade (a castrated male guinea fowl; ouch!). Chapon (a chicken capon) is the traditional Christmas bird in France, along with turkey. But the Guinea capon is also well known. I'm predicting there will be photos, but it's anyone's guess as to who will take them.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Another birthday

As most of you know, yesterday was my birthday. I was born on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. That might explain my diminutive stature, although genetics probably has more to do with it. As is our custom, Ken and I celebrated with my traditional birthday dinner of steak au poivre and frites.

A perfectly cooked steak with peppercorn/Armagnac sauce served with french fries.

This year we got slices of rumstek. The butcher sliced them from a rolled roast which was not our preference, but in a crowded butcher shop it's hard to quibble. We asked for thicker slices than he started to cut, so we actually got what we wanted. Once we got them home, I tied them up tighter with a bit of string.

The raw steaks, marinating in crushed black peppercorns.

I marinated the steaks with a generous coating of crushed black pepper (done with the mortar and pestle) before they were sauteed in butter. Ken made a sauce with Armagnac, beef broth, and some more butter. I made a batch of french fries in the fryer.

The steaks, hot off the fire, ready to rest a bit before serving.

Another success! This is my traditional birthday meal. I had it for the first time in 1981 at a restaurant in Nice, France. Every year since then, Ken and I have made it at home for my birthday. And it's always been wonderfully delicious.

We drank a bit of champagne before lunch.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A half-century ago

Fifty years ago, your humble host was a happy four year old playing in the snow in upstate New York. Today he's a happy fifty-four year old playing in the vineyards of central France.

WCS, December 1963.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Valley view

This time of year my photos tend to get a little "samey." That is to say that the dark days and the cold and wet weather are not conducive to going out with the camera and I end up taking a lot of pictures that I've taken a hundred times before around the house, the neighborhood, and the vineyard.

A view of the Cher River valley from up in the vineyards near our house. Looking roughly north.

And since I'm out once a day with Callie, I'm usually not interested in getting in the car and going even a short distance for a new perspective. If I were someone who makes resolutions for the new year, which I'm not, I might resolve to go a little farther afield with the camera in 2014.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A dark and stormy night

Ken says he didn't sleep much, but I only woke up once to hear the gusting winds and rain on the roof. A good-sized front moved through overnight. I don't know how much rain we got, but it wasn't a deluge or anything.

Monday's sunrise. Click to ensolenate.

When I opened the shades on the western side of the house at seven, I saw the big bright moon shining. So the front is gone and the sky is relatively clear. When the sun rises (at 08:37 today), maybe it will look a little like this.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hummingbird don't fly away

There's a blast from the past, eh? Twelve or so years ago, I found these pretty glass hummingbird ornaments. I bought four of them. If I remember correctly, I gave the blue one to our friend Sue (her favorite color is blue), and the red one to our friend Cheryl (she enjoys feeding hummingbirds at her house). I kept the green and yellow ones for myself.

The green glass hummingbird on our holiday tree.

I think of Sue and Cheryl when I put the hummingbirds on the holiday tree. We don't have hummingbirds here in France, but I remember them well from when we lived in California.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Follow that plane

With these clear mornings we've been having, the jet airliner contrails have been particularly striking. Before the sun actually comes up over the horizon, it shines brilliantly in the upper atmosphere, lighting up the contrails across the sky.

Follow that plane!

Most air traffic over us moves north-south from Paris and Britain toward Mediterranean and African destinations. I know this because there's a cool website where you can watch the air traffic in real time and see which airline is flying where. As a transportation nerd, I can spend (and have spent)  way too much time watching the planes on my computer screen.

I thought the maneuver in the above picture was pretty neat as I watched one plane make a sharp right turn and join a line of about four airliners heading south the other morning. Of course, I was out in the vineyard at the time so I don't know where they were all going.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tired of frost yet?

I have more frosty photos to foist upon share with you. Our days are much more mild than they have been. Today, the gardening guys are coming by to trim the tall hedge along the road. Last year, they cut two sections of the hedge down low and I trimmed those earlier this fall. But I won't climb up on the ladder to do the taller sections any more, so we hire that part out now.

These are little plants, about six inches high. They looked like tiny Christmas trees with the frost.

Since they're professionals, they have better tools for the job. For example, they use a moveable scaffolding instead of a ladder. That way, the guy trimming the top of the hedge can walk normally the length of the scaffold and not have to teeter on a ladder. Also, his trimmer is attached to a long pole, so reaching is minimized.

One day, we may have more of the hedge cut down to size. But I still like the privacy that the tall hedge provides, especially between the road and the yard.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

More frosty fotos

The frost is pretty much over for now, given that the low temperatures are back above freezing. I'm sure it won't be long before the cold comes back. At least we're not getting snow like they are in the Northeastern US right now.

Frosty leaves, still hanging on.

We do get snow during the winter, but it's not much and it doesn't last very long. Still, unusual cold spells and snowfalls do happen from time to time. People tell stories about those years around here. We'd be shut in for a while, not wanting to take the car down the hill if we had heavy snow or ice. But we would be ok for a while with our stocked pantry and freezer. Even if we lost power (no!), we have the wood stove for heat and the gas cook-top for heating water and cooking.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Une étoile givrée

From the same plant as yesterday's rose, this is what's left when the petals drop. And when it's tinged with frost, it looks even more like a star.

A frosted star.

As promised, the temperatures have warmed up a bit. We had rain on Friday evening and Callie and I had to walk entre les gouttes (between the drops). Needless to say, we weren't terribly successful and got wet. This morning it will likely be a bit muddy out there.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A frosted rose

Our mornings are still below freezing, but that's supposed to change this weekend with a rain front that's coming in off the ocean. We've been enjoying the frost, only because the sun has been out and there's been relatively little wind to make it feel colder. The wood stove is getting its daily workout, and that will continue into March.

Jack Frost nipping at your rose...

I'm getting my hair cut today, and then its pizza for lunch. We just had pizza with leeks and bacon on Wednesday. My crust recipe makes four individual pizzas, so we have two on one day and then another two a few days later. Today we'll have tomato sauce, ham, and cheese pizzas.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Frosty mornings

For the past week, our morning low temperatures have been just below freezing. With each passing day, the ground gets colder and the morning frost cover gets thicker. It's quite beautiful, but difficult to capture with the camera. The light is very low when we go out for our walks and as the sun rises, the frost melts.

Just a light coating of frost in this photo taken two weeks ago on Thanksgiving morning.

Most of it melts, anyway. There are shadowy spots where the frost remains all day. It's interesting to go out as the sun is setting in the afternoon and still see frosty patches here and there. I wonder when (and if) we'll have our first snow of the season?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Pinces à linge

One of our neighbors keeps her clothespins in this little teapot-shaped basket. I only recently noticed it while walking around her yard with Callie. It obviously hangs outside year-round and I have no idea how long it's been there.

Clothespins in a teapot. No room for tempests.

Our own clothespins hang off the line in a plastic basket that's found in most supermarkets. Ken brings the basket inside during the winter months because he uses the clothespins to hang laundry on our indoor line. They probably last longer for not being exposed to the frost and snow.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cold clear nights

We're under a high pressure system right now and the weather is quite clear. Often in this situation we get stuck under heavy fog, but for the past few days what fog there is is quite light and burns off quickly. That leaves us with clear skies and cold temperatures.

A recent sunrise without fog, just a few low clouds.

It's good weather for comfort food. We're having fish soup again for lunch today and if there are any more leftovers, they'll go into the freezer for another time. I'm planning on making leek and bacon pizzas for Wednesday's lunch. Pizza is one of my basic food groups.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Soupe de poissons

On Sunday, I made a version of the classic fish soup from southern France. Ken and I researched our provençal cook books and a few sites online to find the basics for the recipe. Then we adapted them to what we have on hand. Our supermarket didn't have the typical Mediterranean fish used for the soup -- the small, boney, flavorful species like rascasse (lionfish) and rouget (red mullet) -- so I improvised.

My fish soup, garnished and served with a very dry Touraine rosé.

With the standard fish, you cook them whole, with heads and bones, to make a rich, fishy soup base. But you then have to be very careful to get all the bones out of the broth. That involves straining and sieving and straining again, and it sounded like a lot of work. Since we already had a liter of home-made fish stock in our freezer, we figured that we could just use boned fillets for the soup. I found cabillaud (cod), colin d'Alaska (Alaskan pollock), églefin (haddock), and merlan (whiting). All together, I had about 850 grams of fish.

About 850g (almost 2 lbs.) of fish fillets, cut into chunks.

I chopped a leek, onions, and a fennel bulb and sauteed them in a bit of olive oil (here's a question for you francophones out there: quand on fait revenir des légumes dans une cocotte, d'où reviennent-ils ?). I added some celery (branches and leaves), our own oven-dried tomatoes, tomato paste, chili paste, whole garlic cloves, bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns, allspice berries, a bit of fresh orange peel, and salt. Then the stock went in with an equivalent amount of water (to make two liters of liquid).

The soup simmers gently. That chain hanging from the pot is attached to a little ball that holds the peppercorns, bay, and orange peel.

Once the soup came to the boil, the fish went in and I turned it down to simmer, covered, for about an hour. The vegetables needed to tenderize and the fish needed to cook to the point where it was falling apart in the broth. Once it was done, I used a stick blender to reduce it all to a relatively smooth and thick soup. Not having to deal with bones was nice, but I wouldn't shy away from doing it if necessary.

This soup is typically served with toasted baguette slices topped with a rouille sauce (a spicy mayonnaise made with garlic and hot red pepper) and grated parmesan or other cheese. Our improvised version was delicious (if I do say so myself). And, we have leftovers for another meal.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Haste makes waste

Just after sunset the other day, I noticed the clouds clearing away as they so often do this time of year. Clear nights means cold mornings, but once the sun comes up the fog and clouds form and the days, or at least the mornings, are often gray. At any rate, the crescent moon was hanging among the wires and the sky was a nice color, so I rushed for the camera.

The blurry crescent moon descended quickly toward the horizon while I fumbled with the camera.

Of course, I had to change the lens. Then I had to attach the tripod base and put the camera on the tripod. Then I had to get the memory card out of the computer and put it into the camera. And finally, I had to take the camera to the guest room and set up the shot, adjusting the aperture and shutter speed. When I opened the window for the photo, very cold air rushed in, so I rushed to get a few shots before closing the window again.

That's where I forgot to set the shutter timer to two seconds. I just pressed the shutter button for my pictures, forgetting that with long shots and slow shutter speeds, pressing the button moves the camera enough to cause blur, even on the tripod. Oops. So all the pictures of the moon that evening came out blurry. This is the best of them, with a lot of help from Photoshop.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Birches and fish soup

We have quite a few birch trees around the neighborhood. In fact, the name of our property on the town's maps is les Bouleaux (the Birches). This row of birches is on our neighbor's land across the road. At one time, the line of trees marked a property line. Twenty or thirty years ago (I think) Bernard bought the land next door, so he's owned it all for a while.

The sun rises in the southeast over our neighbor's yard.

There's not much new and exciting to report. As long the weather is relatively mild and dry, I get outside and do little things here and there, but nothing major. We're planning our meals for the holiday season based on what's on sale, seasonal specialties, and what's in our freezer. For example, we have some fish stock in the freezer and there's a sale on certain types of fish at the supermarket this week. I'm going to make a provençale specialty: soupe de poissons à la Marseillaise (fish soup). It's not bouillabaisse, but a thick, smooth soup served with a sauce called rouille (rust) made from garlic, olive oil, and hot chili peppers, and with toasted baguette slices and grated cheese. Yummy.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The browning of the vineyards

The leaves have all fallen from the grape vines now, even more so than in this photo, taken last week. Most of the leaves from the trees in our yard are also down and I got the driveway cleared of them yesterday. It won't take much to get the rest of them up now.

What once was a sea of green, then yellow and gold, is now brown.

The barbecue grill and the deck table and chairs have all been put away for the winter. Most of the potted plants are now indoors or under cold frames. I think we're ready for winter.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Believe it or not

There are still a few grape bunches out there. These are not wine grapes, I think, but grapes that are meant for eating. They grow on the side of the stone storage building in the vineyard and are not harvested, except by people who walk past and by wildlife.

One of the last of this season's grape bunches.

Most of the grapes on these vines are dried up or rotten, but this bunch escaped an early demise. Still, with the freezing temperatures we're having now, I'm sure it's not long for this world.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Propagating hydrangea: an experiment

For a while now, I've wanted to change the planting bed along the front of our house. At present, there are two small camellias and two old rose bushes. These plants have seen better days. I want to dig them out, fix the soil, and plant something new along the wall.

Five of eight new hydrangeas. I sure hope they survive.

I thought that hydrangeas would be nice. We have one on the north side of the house that does pretty well and I figure that putting a row of them along the front (which faces east) would be good. Instead of going to a nursery to buy plants, I wondered if I could make my own by propagating from the plant we have. Sounds like a job for the internet!

My research revealed that it is, indeed, possible to propagate hydrangeas from cuttings. I followed the instructions to cut short stems from new growth, to trim the leaves back a bit, and to plant the cuttings in a sterile medium (I used sterile potting soil). I didn't have any growth hormone to dip the stems in, so I skipped that step. Then the seed-pots with the cuttings went into a mini-greenhouse (actually a plastic box with a lid that some produce came in) and I set it in a well-lit location (but not in direct sunlight). I did this about three months ago and I watered the pots maybe twice since then.

You can see all eight plants here; three are on the floor to the right.

Last week I checked the cuttings by gently tugging on one. The internet said that, if roots had grown, the cutting would resist being pulled out of the soil. Success! So I gathered up some larger pots and transplanted each cutting into new soil. There were lots of roots visible on each cutting. So now they have room to grow more roots. I can even see new leaves budding out in the center of each cutting. If I'm lucky, I'll have eight new healthy hydrangeas to plant outdoors next spring.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

There is still some color

Almost all of the grape vines have lost their leaves now. The vines are bare and brown and the growers have started the pruning process. That'll go on through the winter. I still see some yellow in the trees, but there's not a lot left. We're down to freezing again this morning and the cold certainly speeds things along.

Blackberry leaves turn yellow and brown.

We still have the maple leaves to rake up out front. Today might be a good day to get started on that. Or maybe tomorrow. After that, the tilleul (linden) tree will finish dropping its leaves and they will need to be gathered up, too. We'll spread the leaves over the garden plots for the winter to help keep weeds down. In the spring, they'll get tilled into the soil.

Monday, December 02, 2013


The woods around us contain many kinds of trees. Oak, birch, and pines are the most common, I think. Here and there are stands of acacia* as well, particularly along the banks of the streams that drain the vineyards. Often, in the rows of vines adjacent to a stand of trees, seedlings will sprout in between the vine trunks where the mowers, plows, or even the herbicides don't reach.

Thorns protect a young acacia from something or other, maybe from browsing deer.

The saplings can grow as high as the vines themselves before the growers pull them out. This is one of the thorns on a young acacia that's grown up higher than its neighboring grapes. I'm sure it will be yanked out as the vines are pruned this winter.

*From what I can find on the internet, what grows here is false acacia, called black locust (robinia pseudoacacia) in the U.S.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The end of the road

The dirt road that runs from our house out through the vineyards ends at this intersection. Here, two more or less parallel paved roads head down toward the river. Behind me in this photo, one of the paved roads continues on out through the vines to meet another road that runs between Saint-Aignan and the town of Céré-la-Ronde to the west.

Looking roughly northeast. These roads head down into the river valley beyond. The speed limit to the right is 70 kph (about 40 mph).

This intersection is usually the turn-around point of my walks with Callie. But every once in a while we head out a little farther to her utter delight. Her favorite thing to do is to get off the roads and walk around the vineyard parcels, darting into and out of the woods all around.