Thursday, December 31, 2009

Beam Me Up

I don't know about you, but I find the skies fascinating. They're always different, yet always the same, and full of color. And no, I'm not smokin' anything. Being up above the river valley gives us a wide view, an impression of a big sky not contained by anything.

A little hole in the clouds allows a beam of sunlight to pass.

This is a view looking toward the southwest, near to where the sun sets on the horizon right now. It's out close to the end of our dirt road, where Callie and I turn around to head back home. Ken tells me it's about 1.5 kilometers (just under a mile) from the house. He measured it once in the car.

From this point, the vineyards continue on for a couple of kilometers then give way to fields of colza (rapeseed), corn, sunflowers, and other crops in between the small towns and forests. It's a beautiful and gentle country out there beyond our little river valley.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December Sky

Short days, a sun that hangs close to the horizon, and quick-moving weather systems combine to make some very pretty afternoon skies at this time of year. On Tuesday, we got some little breaks in the swift clouds that caused the light to constantly change.

What's that I see? Blue sky?

This is a noyer (walnut tree) out in the vineyard. It's along the walk that I take daily with Callie and I've put pictures of it on the blog many times. The temperature on Tuesday got up to about 14ºC (upper 50sF) and I enjoyed wearing my baseball cap instead of a knit hat and not needing gloves.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Periodic Puppy Pics

Don't you just love holiday weekends? Callie does. Especially when it involves napping on my bed.

Notice the tongue sticking out.

Of course, pretty much every day is a holiday for dogs.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sky On Fire

A gratuitous view of our Saturday evening sunset. The sun rose on Saturday morning at 8:41 and set at 5:09 that afternoon. That's eight and a half hours.

Click on the picture for the full effect.

It feels like even less when the sky is overcast. But Saturday was brilliantly clear and it felt good. A few wispy clouds late in the day were responsible for this view from the bedroom window. Today, Sunday, we'll enjoy one additional minute of daylight.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Four Stages Of Sprouts

Brussels sprouts. Chou de Bruxelles in French. In England, they are apparently a traditional Christmas dish. Infamous, actually. But I like sprouts, so Ken and I decided that we should have some along side our Christmas goose this year.

Stage 1: Fresh from the store, just before trimming.

It had been a while since we last had sprouts. Probably since last winter. Ken was busy making stuffing and cooking the goose all morning long so I took charge of the sprouts. First I trimmed them up, meaning that I cut the stems and took the outer leaves off.

Stage 2: Steamed/simmered in goose broth until just tender.

Then I rinsed them and put them into a pot with some of the poaching liquid from the goose. A very flavorful broth, that was, and the sprouts were steamed/simmered in it until they were just about done.

Stage 3: Sautéed in goose fat, then sprinkled with a little flour.

Just before serving, I sautéed the sprouts in a bit of goose fat and sprinkled them with flour so they'd take on some color. Then, voilà, a bowl full of green goodness. And they were so tasty with the Christmas goose.

Stage 4: Ready to serve!

I realized that I missed having sprouts, so we'll likely get some more before too long. Do you like Brussels sprouts? If so, how do you eat them?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve Fondue

Those of you who know me know that I have a Christmas Eve tradition of making une fondue savoyarde, a cheese fondue, to celebrate the day. It's been going on now since sometime in the 1990s when we lived in San Francisco.

Our old stainless fondue put, bubbling hot.

We often use three cheeses. This year it was a cantal, a comté, and an emmental. There's also garlic, white wine, and kirsch mixed with a little cornstarch. And nutmeg.

Ken dips a cube of bread into the melted goodness.

We cut up cubes of french bread and an apple to dip into the melted cheese. What fun, and it's delicious. We love to share this dish, so if you're ever in the Loire Valley on Christmas Eve, look us up!

And today we're roasting a goose. Happy Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cornmeal Crust

I've been wanting to try making a pizza with a cornmeal crust. I remember a place in San Francisco, near where we lived early on, whose trademark was cornmeal pizza crust. I think it was called Vicolo. We went there for their pizzas many times back then.

I added sautéed mushrooms and ground chicken sausage to top the pizza.

So I modified my current pizza crust recipe by substituting half the flour with cornmeal. I was afraid at first that I had gone too far, but the crust rose well. It even rolled out more or less nicely.

One of the two pizza crusts, after rising overnight in the fridge.

The only problem was that when I rolled it out, the edges cracked. That meant there were many little crevices for liquid to flow off the edge of the pizza. Normally, the edge puffs up a bit and holds the sauce and cheese on the interior of the pie. I think the cracking was caused by the lack of gluten in the cornmeal; less gluten equals less elasticity in the dough.

You can see the cracked edges on the finished pizza.

Some of the sauce and cheese took advantage of the crevices in my cornmeal crust to flow out off the pie and onto the stone. No matter, the pizza still cooked allright and I didn't have any stuck crust in the oven. And it tasted pretty good, although the crust was a lot denser than the traditional all white flour crust.

I'm not rushing to do it again, but it was a fun experiment.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Birthday Dinner

So the traditional birthday dinner was great, as always. We got a couple of steaks from the butcher in Saint-Aignan. He specializes in Limousin beef, and it was as beautiful as it was tasty.

The steaks, covered with black pepper, before cooking.

As is the custom, we covered it with cracked pepper and let it sit for two hours before cooking. Then it went into a hot pan just to sear the sides. Next, we put it into a warm oven to rest while the French fries cooked.

A little apéritif of sparkling Vouvray. The glass is from when we lived in Sunnyvale, CA, fifteen years ago.

The sauce was made with brandy and cream, some white wine and some mustard. Then we served it with a 2006 Bordeaux that friends of ours had given us last summer. It was all very tasty. After the main course, we ate a green salad followed by some cheese.

Dinner is served!

For dessert, I made a pumpkin bread. Ken made a sour cream glaze and it was amazingly good. Yum! Another birthday success!

Birthday cake!

Monday, December 21, 2009


Today is the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. The first day of winter. And my fiftieth birthday.

Nothing says Holidays in France like clémentines from Spain or Morocco.

Not a big deal, but interesting. We'll be doing the usual birthday dinner of steak au poivre with a cognac cream sauce and french fries. I've had this birthday meal every year since 1981, well over half my life now.

This year the cognac will be replaced by a local gnôle, also called marc, a brandy distilled from the leavings of the grape pressing process (seeds, skins, stems). One of our neighbor wine makers, whose father still has one of the dwindling number of licenses to make the stuff, gave us a bottle this fall. We've been saving it for today.

Some will go into the sauce, some will go into us.

In other birthday news, I got "the letter" from the national health service. It's colonoscopy time!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vineyard Snow Views

A few more views of the snow, taken on Friday. We're feeling a little boxed in by the season. The days are dark and short, the nights darker and long. We're catching up on watching some of our favorite tv series on DVD and things we've recorded on the PVR.

The point where the dirt road (right) meets the paved (left).

Otherwise, there's not much to do but cook and eat, deal with laundry, tend the fire, and clean the house. I suppose the highlight of the day for each of us, aside from lunch, is our regular walk with the dog. One of us goes in the morning, and the the other in the evening. We switch on and off so that we both get morning and evening duty.

Pruned vines in the snow.

The walk gets us out into the air, gives us good exercise, and of course Callie loves it. We also get to take photos, depending on the weather and light conditions.

The little pond behind our house is frozen.

The solstice is near and soon we'll start to feel the days lengthening. But we've got the darkest and coldest days of the year to get through first. Now where did I put that remote?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thursday Was Pizza Day

We got the hankerin' for a pizza this week, so I made a couple for lunch on Thursday. I'm loving the new dough recipe (thanks Tom) and I can either make the dough the day before and refrigerate it overnight, or I can do it early in the morning on pizza day. I made this dough in the morning.

The first of two delicious pizzas.

We had some smoked lardons (bacon) and a few mushrooms in the fridge, so I sautéed those along with an onion. Ken grated the cheese -- in this case it was comté from eastern France. We thawed some of our home-made tomato sauce and fired up the oven.

The pizzas were excellent with some of our local red wine and a green salad after. Perfect for a snowy day!

Friday, December 18, 2009

It Snowed

Thursday was our day. They weather people predicted snow and darned if they weren't right. It started with light flurries mid-morning. I made pizza for lunch and I was working with crust and preparing the toppings.

Looking out the kitchen window, across the road to our neighbors' house.

As time went on the snowfall got heavier. It was really beautiful and put me in a winter mood. We started a fire just before we put the pizzas into the oven and enjoyed our lunch while the snow fell.

Cyclamens in the cold frame on the deck.

It snowed off and on most of the day. When I took Callie out for her walk just after four o'clock the snow had pretty much tapered off, but we had between two and three centimeters on the ground (about an inch). Not much by most winter standards, but a good snowfall for around here.

Part of the back yard and the vineyard, and a neighbor driving out.

Callie and I made the first prints in the new fallen snow out in the vineyard, aside from the occasional bird. I watched football on tv and decorated our christmas tree while it snowed. All in all, a very pretty day.

I just noticed that Ken posted similar photos on his blog today. There are only so many views from our windows!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Periodic Puppy Pics

It's a little out of focus. And a little ferocious. But that sums up Callie perfectly. Except for the ferocious part.

Callie's pearly whites.

We had a little photo session the other day. Most of the photos came out blurry. A combination of her moving around too much and the low light. But I kind of liked this one. So there you are.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Out With The Old, In With The New

Our local refuse district, le Syndicat Mixte Intercommunal d'Enlèvement et d'Elimination des Ordures Ménagères du Val de Cher (the Combined Intercommunal Association for the Removal and Elimination of Household Waste of the Cher Valley), known by its very catchy acronym SMIEEOM, distributed new poubelles (garbage cans) to all of its customers this fall.

Our old green can and the new red and gray can.

Last summer, the SMIEEOM sent agents door-to-door to interview us about our garbage collection needs. Thier goal is to increase recycling and reduce household waste. They are issuing new garbage cans that are sized to fit the needs of each household. The cans have bar codes on them that, I presume, will be scanned by the garbage collectors each time they're emptied. This will give the SMIEEOM some data about the amount of garbage being collected from every household and business in the district.

I believe the plan is to eventually start charging customers based on the amount of garbage they produce. Right now we all pay the same rate and it's incorporated into our property tax bills. But the plan, as I understand it, will remove the tax and replace it with the new use-based fee.

Ken and I already recycle and compost most of our waste. We put out one thirty-liter (7.9 gallon) bag of garbage per week, and it's often not full. We have two recycle containers in the garage: one for glass and another for cans, plastic, and other food packaging. We keep a basket in the den for recyclable paper, magazines, and junk mail. We have to take our recycling to the special collection points around town; the SMIEEOM doesn't pick it up at the house. But it's easy because the collection bins are very conveniently located and it hasn't been a problem for us.

So when the agent interviewed me last summer, I told her that there were only two people living in the house, how much garbage we produced, and we agreed that all we needed was the smallest garbage can. So when the SMIEEOM delivered the new cans this fall, la loi de l'emmerdement maximum (Murphy's law) kicked in and they naturally gave us the biggest one.

I called the SMIEEOM offices last month to let them know that we didn't need the big can, and the woman who answered the phone was incredibly polite and knowledgeable. She took all my information and said that sometime before the end of the year, someone would come out to the house and exchange our garbage cans.

They showed up on Monday, took the huge can, and left us with a new little one. Once again I'm amazed at how efficient some of these agencies can be. Eventually. So we have our new can, which we'll start using right away. We also get to keep our old green can, which is slightly larger. Ken and I decided that the green can will come in handy for collecting yard waste and wheeling it around to the compost piles next summer and fall.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like...

Cactus. The christmas cacti are doing their annual thing right now. It's pretty cool, since these plants came from one we actually found in the house when we moved in. It was just barely hanging on; the house had been unoccupied for a while. But Ken divided and encouraged them and they have grown and bloomed faithfully for the last few years.

The bathroom cactus.

Whenever a segment or section breaks off, it gets rooted in water and planted again. In French, these plants are called schlumbergera or cactus de noël. This one is in the bathroom of our house, in a northwestern corner. No direct sun, but plenty of light, and it gets the humidity from our daily showers.

Another blossom.

We have another one, much bigger, on the staircase. It, too, gets good light without getting any direct sun. It's in the same flowery state right now.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Not Your Mother's Fruitcake

As an American, I get a very specific image in my head when I hear the word fruitcake. It's an image of a very dense and dry yellow cake with big chunks of candied fruit in radioactive shades of red, green, and orange among the more familiar dark raisins. Like this:

I remember fruitcakes that looked like this.
Image from:

As a kid, I never new what those colors were about. I figured the red was maraschino cherries (we always had them in the house because my dad drank Manhattans), but I had no idea what those other bizarre fruits were. As it happens, the recipe for the cake I've shown above calls for dried apricots and jars of red and green maraschino cherries. Mystery solved. Still, the cakes I ate didn't taste all that good. The fruit was too chewy or something and it never really tasted like fruit.

My array of fruits and nuts for fruitcake.

But last year, an Australian friend of ours gave us a fruitcake she had made from an old family recipe. The cake was moist and dark brown. It smelled delicately of spice. There were no odd colors at all. After tasting the cake, I felt bad about having told our friend the old fruitcake-as-doorstop joke.

After we devoured the cake, I asked her for her recipe and she gladly shared it. So this year I've made my version of (Susan's) Daisy's Best Boiled Fruit Cake. It's not quite as good as Susan's was, but it's close. I suppose it all comes down to the ingredients you have on hand; there are many options in the cake recipe.

The delicious resulting fruitcake.

I used toasted pecans for the nuts. I was prepared to use walnuts but realized too late that our nutcracker had broken last year (it's on the shopping list now). I also had dried apricots and raisins, both very traditional.

My twist on the recipe was to add chopped prunes, candied ginger, and dried cranberries to the mix. I used maple syrup instead of English golden syrup (it's only a tablespoon's worth). A tawny port was my wine of choice.

C'mon and have a slice!

I got two loaves from the recipe. We cut into one right away, once they had cooled. I've not imbibed it, but we may begin sprinkling a little kirsch on top as we go. The second loaf went into the freezer for later.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Lights In St.-Aignan

So here are a few more views of the holiday decorations in St.-Aignan. Every year the town drapes these sheets of twinkling lights over many of the main streets in town. It's pretty cool.

Rue Constant Ragot with the church on the right.

And down by the bridge, there's a funky display of wooden cut-outs of Santa, elves, and reindeer that's also lit up. It's pretty kitschy, but there it is. Along the river, the street lampposts have bunches of lights on them.

Rue Rouget de l'Isle.

Up in the upper Place Wilson, some of the plane trees are adorned with vertical strings of lights, very much like the trees along the Champs-Elysées in Paris. I've seen this a lot in France, so I think it's a very common thing for municipalities to do.

Down by the bridge.

I don't know if you noticed, but in one of the photos you can see that the stained glass windows in the church are visible, lit from the inside. I don't know if this is normal or if it was because of something going on in the church; I'm seldom in town at night!

Rue Paul Boncourt.

Friday, December 11, 2009

St.-Aignan By Night

On Wednesday evening, Ken and I went into town for pizza and wine with our friend S. She recently moved back into town after leaving the house that she and her partner had rented. Since J.-L. died, S. has done an amazing job of dealing with the former house and its contents.

The church in St.-Aignan.

We parked on the main square in town and I started taking pictures. I brought my tripod along to make it easier to keep the camera steady in the low light. Then we met at S.'s house for drinks and pizza. The pizzeria is right across the place from her house.

Ken, S., and D. in the living room enjoying a glass.

She and J.-L. worked on restoring the house and they planned to sell it. But since the market is a bit soft, they had been renting it as a vacation house. Now she'll live in it for a while.

Holiday lights in St.-Aignan.

St.-Aignan is decorated for the holidays and I'll show you some of starting tomorrow. But for now these few photos will have to do.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What, Leftovers Again?

I had some pâte feuilletée (puff pastry) left over in the freezer. I made the pastry last January and used it a couple of times to make galettes des rois (frangipan tarts) back then. What was left in the freezer were the scraps of dough, neatly wrapped in zip-top bags.

Salmon and goat cheese puffs ready to eat!

There was also a bit of goat cheese in the refrigerator along with some remaining smoked salmon that we had as part of an appetizer on Thanksgiving. Hmmmmm...

View from the top.

So I rolled the dough and cut it into small circles, dotted each one with a small chunk of cheese and a slice or two of the smoked fish. A quick egg wash on the dough and into the oven they went.

Another plate full.

This was our appetizer for lunch on Monday. Very tasty. Now I'm out of puff pastry in the freezer, so I'll have to start thinking about making some more. January's right around the corner!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Familiar View

This is the view I see on my daily walks with Callie. It's on the way back toward the house about halfway from the point at which we turn around. Not only can you see our house from there, but you can also see the right bank of the Cher River rising up in the distance.

Click on the image to see it full size.

Beyond the horizon lies the valley of the Loire River near the city of Blois. The area between the two rivers contains many vineyards and other agricultural lands, some large forests, a good number of châteaux, and several small towns.

It's a pretty place up there. I should get out and take some pictures one of these days.

Monday, December 07, 2009

On The Ground

While the big plants and trees (except for the evergreens) in and around the vineyard are moving into winter mode, there are still plenty of little plants all around that thrive this time of year.


The mosses, lichens, and other little green plants continue to grow and provide color all through our temperate winter season. They often survive the short bursts of freezing weather we have, and our infrequent snow doesn't seem to bother them when it comes.


These rather warm fall days have made it easier to photograph these little guys. Normally I'm wearing gloves during our walks and that makes it difficult to manipulate the camera. And when it's cold, I don't really like to stop moving to take close ups.


But sometimes I will brave all manner of meteorological stuff just to bring you the most exciting views of our little world. Sometimes. Not all that often, actually.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Believe it or not, there are still some grapes hanging on out in the vineyard. They're not wine grapes, or at least they're not grapes that are harvested for wine. They are on more or less decorative vines up against the old cabane du vingeron (a stone storage shed).

Grapes becoming raisins in the sun.

They'll eventually be pruned by the guy who owns the shed, but not until much later in the pruning season when all the other vines have been taken care of. When we have our first hard freeze, the last grapes will rot and fall away.

During late summer and early fall, people who walk or bike out in the vineyard will stop to pick and eat a few of these grapes.

Yes, I have.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Leaves On The Dirt Road

We live on sort of a dead-end road. It's not technically a dead-end because the road continues from our house out through the vineyards. But the pavement ends after our house and the road becomes dirt and gravel for a little over a kilometer. Most drivers who aren't familiar with the area turn around at the sight of the dirt road and head back.

The dirt part of the road is mostly used by the growers who work in the vines during the year. But there are a number of cars that use the road regularly. We used to use it, too, but after bottoming out a few times on the uneven roadbed, we've pretty much stopped taking the Peugeot that way. It's also a great place to walk since most of the "traffic" out there moves very slowly.

The dirt road meets up with another paved road after a little more than a kilometer and that's the point at which Callie and I normally turn around to head back towards home. The little intersection is out among the vines and is marked by a small stand of oak trees. We don't walk Callie on a leash and I don't like taking her out on the paved road with the faster moving cars.

I've noticed for the past few weeks that, with all the rain we've been having, some of the fallen oak leaves have become "plastered" to the road surface. The town repairs potholes in the dirt road each spring with a limestone gravel that breaks down under the tractor tires to a fine powder. This powder tends to fill in cracks and "cement" the road surface, at least for the length of a season.

So what's a guy with a camera to do other than to take pictures of the leaves? Of course, they're not all oak leaves, but they're all the same brown color. I particularly like the one that looks a little like a christmas tree.

Nature provides so much entertainment. And it's all free. Maybe I need another glass of wine...