Saturday, February 27, 2010


The vineyard is a funny place. There are all kinds of things out there besides grape vines. First of all, the vineyard is not a single vineyard, but a patchwork of land parcels owned by several different growers growing several different varietals interspersed with empty fields, stands of trees, and outright woods.

The insulated bits that hold the electrified wires up. I wonder what they're called?

The vineyard parcels tend to be on the highest land that slopes gently toward the ravines that drain them into little streams which make their way down to the river. Drainage is important in a vineyard. The ravines are wooded and are home to much of the wildlife around here: deer, foxes, badgers, and more.

The deer can become a problem for the growers in that they like to munch on the fresh grape vine shoots in the spring. Hunting during winter keeps the population in check, but certainly does not eliminate the spring feeding of the surviving animals. Some growers have put up electric fences along the woods' edge in high-traffic areas to discourage the deer. They're simple fences with one or two wires and are usually powered by a car battery.

Callie ran into one once. That's all it took. She steers very clear of the fences now. I think Ken touched one once, too, either by accident or to see if it was "live." It was. He said it was a good shock, but nothing that would knock you over.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops

Beyond the rainbow, that is. I saw this one on Tuesday afternoon in the vineyards between Oisly and St.-Romain, over on the right bank of the Cher.

A rainbow outside the town of Oisly.

I had just driven through a rain squall and the sun was in my eyes. Then I thought, oh, there might be a rainbow behind me. So I pulled off the road and saw this. There's a faint twin rainbow just to the right of the bright one.

It was a magical moment. Just after I took the picture, more clouds moved in to block the sun and the rainbow was gone.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Doesn't This Look Like Fun?

On Tuesday afternoon I had an appointment with an anesthetist for my upcoming colonoscopy. I drove up to Blois, about forty-five minutes from here, to the Polyclinique to fill out pre-admission forms and consult with the anesthetist who will be knocking me out for the procedure.

This is the Tour Verte (Green Tower) at the Polyclinique where the anesthetist's office is.

The admissions secretary took all my information (address, telephone, health service number, person to contact in case of emerengy, etc.) and then asked me to select what kind of room I wanted. A private room is fifteen euros a day, a double room is covered 100% by the national health service. But there is a third option, which is what Ken had two years ago. It's called a box in French. It's not a room, but an area that's more like a large office cubicle with no door. There's only one bed, so it's kind of private, but not completely closed off. Ken's was very nice, and since the box is also 100% covered by the national health service, I selected that option.

Next I was given three plastic vials of special anti-bacterial soap and a brochure with instructions for my pre-procedure shower. I have to take two special showers at home. The first the night before and the second the morning of the colonoscopy. The graphics in the brochure just cracked me up, so I thought I'd share it.

The Pre-Op Shower. Translation below.

How to perform the pre-op shower.
  1. Remove all jewelry, peircings, rings... Cut your nails, remove any nail polish and all make-up.
  2. Wet your body and hair (first shower), your body only (second shower).
  3. Apply the soap starting with your hair (body = 1 dose of 10ml, hair = 1 dose of 10ml)
  4. Lather up! Wash yourself using bare hands.
  5. Wash your face and neck paying special attention to the area behind your ears.
  6. Thoroughly wash your armpits, navel, groin, and feet.
  7. Always wash your genital and anal areas last.
  8. Rinse off well going from top to bottom.
  9. Dry off with a fresh clean towel and put on clean clothes.
  10. Brush your teeth well.
That's all there is to it!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Periodic Puppy Pics

This is more pic than puppy. But here is Callie on her birthday, which was Monday. We had walked out to the end of the dirt road through the vineyards via a little detour through the woods. The sun was just rising. Callie was looking out for deer and rabbits.

You can see the pruned clippings lined up between the rows of vines.

In this picture, I'm facing roughly northeast and the intersection of the dirt road and the paved road is just behind me. It won't be long before the tractors are out pulling mulching machines that will grind up the vine clippings. They're probably waiting for some dry weather.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

'Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky

One of the strange things about this time of year is that everything seems to be on hold. Not much is changing out in the vineyard. There are some buds, but they're not fat and ready to burst yet. The grasses and other plants are just barely starting to put up new shoots; you have to look for them to see them.

The sky above the vineyard on Sunday afternoon.

But one thing that is in constant change and motion is the sky. Swift weather systems move through one after the other bringing a parade of clouds in all shapes, sizes, and colors. The colors part depends on the time of day and where the sun is. I know you were thinking it was something else. Maybe because of the title of today's post?

Monday morning's sunrise.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Failed Experiment

I've been having a little trouble taking photos lately. I'm not happy with the results when I get the pictures uploaded to the computer. I think I know why, so I decided to do a little experiment.

Evergreen ivy on a tree, taken in macro mode with the lens hood on. Not as crisp an image as I'd like.

For about a year now I've been keeping the lens hood attached to the camera all the time. The hood is for use in high light conditions to avoid glare. It also acts as additional lens protection since the lens is always inside the hood, even when extended to full zoom mode. That's the primary reason I leave it on all the time.

The problem is that most of my low light photos and many of my regular light photos fail. It dawned on me that it might be the lens hood that's keeping the light out of my pictures in these normal conditions.

My experiment was this: I took a walk on Sunday evening with the lens hood on and took pictures, and on Monday morning's walk I removed the lens hood. I took a combination of long shots and macro shots on each walk.

I realized on my way back to the house this morning that I took a whole series of long shots while the camera was in macro mode. I forgot to turn the dial. D'oh! So I botched the experiment. I'll have to do it again.

Of course, it could just be that I need to use my tripod. But I'm hoping not.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

One More Frosty Foto

Here's another view from earlier in the week when we had a good freeze. There are many oak trees in the woods around the vineyard and their acorns are spread around enough that I see lots of small trees colonizing the emptier fields.

The vineyard road passes several fields full of grasses and small trees.

The dead leaves stay on the oaks until spring when the new growth forces them to fall. On this day the leaves were covered in a layer of frost which glinted as the sun rose.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Another Gasp

Winter may be dying, but it's a lingering death. No merciful coup de grâce for this season. Not this year. Saturday morning brought a heavy snow squall. But the temperatures are hovering above freezing and are expected to climb through the day. And the weather forecasters tell us that we should be seeing days above ten degrees (over fifty fahrenheit) through the coming week.

Not today, but earlier this week when we were at 7º below zero.

The photo above is of a small weed in the dirt road out in the vineyard. There was very little snow on the ground (and none on the road), but the overnight low of -7ºC caused a lot of ice crystals to form on the plants.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Winter's Dying Days

Since we've passed the halfway point, that is the point in the year that is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the days are noticeably longer and winter's grip is loosening. I can see it in the budding out of trees and the poking up of bulbs. I can hear it in the tap-taps of woodpeckers and the songs of the morning birds. I can feel it when the sun shines on my back.

A recent sunrise in the vineyard.

The vineyard is filled with anticipation. The vines are nearly all pruned and the buds have formed. This year's ice and snow, more tenacious than in recent memory, are now melting away. Soon I'll be able to start working in the yard and garden to prepare for spring.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Here's your word of the month: dépistage. It's the noun form of the verb dépister, which means "to detect." It's what I'm going to be undergoing in two weeks' time. Since I've turned fifty, I'm eligible for free colon cancer testing by the French National Health Service.

They sent me a letter on my birthday with a pretty brochure about early detection. They use the hemoccult (fecal occult blood) test for most people these days. I was instructed to see my doctor and get the required prescription for the test kit. But for me it's not that easy. I recently learned that my grandfather died from colon cancer when I was very young. I remember that he died, but never really knew why -- I grew up thinking it was from lung cancer. But my family confirmed it for me in November after I mentioned that it was time for "the test."

At this news my doctor said that I should skip the hemoccult and proceed directly to coloscopie (colonoscopy). People with family histories of colon cancer should get the full visual inspection. That way, polyps can be detected earlier than they might be with the less "invasive" test. So he wrote me a referral to a gastro-entérologue and I saw him on Monday. Our consultation was brief; he asked me some questions about my general health and history, what medications I took, and he did some feeling around of my abdomen (looking for tumors I suppose). Then he described the procedure and scheduled it.

Next, I had to make an appointment with an anesthésiste since the procedure is done under general anesthetic. I'll be going up to Blois next Tuesday for that. She (I think it's a she) will talk to me about the anesthesia and get any information she needs to have prior to the actual colonoscopy. Also, I have to have a blood test. I guess they need to know what my blood type is and what the clotting rate is and other things like that.

The gastro is going to be sending a packet of materials for me to read along with prescriptions for the blood test and the stuff I'll need to prepare my insides for inspection: the dreaded liquid purging drinks!

The actual coloscopie is scheduled for the afternoon of March 4. Since I'll be under anesthesia during the test, I will not be tempted to live-blog it. You are relieved, I can tell.

Except for my co-pay for the doctors' fees and the blood test and the prep materials, which is minimal, the actual procedure is covered 100% by the national health service. They believe that early detection and treatment is not only good from a humane standpoint, but also much more cost-effective than treating people after they have become seriously ill. I'm all for that.

If this weren't such a serious thing, and not just a little bit scary, it would be an adventure. After all, I'm having to do all of this in French. I'm learning all kinds of new vocabulary.

Above you can see the cover of the brochure the health service sent about early detection of colon cancer. The words on the cover are in the form of a little poem. It even rhymes. It says:

In most cases,
Detected early,
Colon cancer
Is not a pain in the ass!

Okay, I made the last part up. Méchant means "dangerous" in this case, but I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Pretty Cold Morning

Tuesday's morning low was minus seven celsius, which is around twenty degrees farenheit. It's pretty cold for where we live, although certainly lower temperatures are not unheard of. I just don't want to hear about them.

Last summer's Queen Anne's Lace, frozen in the cold morning air.

The sun was coming up and there was absolutely no wind, so Callie and I had a pretty pleasant walk through the vineyard. We saw airliners cruising overhead leaving short contrails behind, heard the occasional woodpecker, and otherwise had a pretty normal walk.

I kept stopping to snap pictures and Callie had to wait for me to catch up. She's patient like that.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Makings Of Pizza Dough

Monday was pizza day at la Renaudière. I made the dough on Sunday evening and let it rest in the cold pantry overnight to rise. Here are the ingredients:

335 g all purpose flour
150 ml water
20 ml olive oil
1/2 tsp active dry yeast

The dough rises at room temperature (which in February at our house is inside a barely warmed oven) for about two hours. Then it gets divided in two and wrapped in plastic for the cold rise overnight. The full recipe is here.

We topped the pies with our own sauce made from yellow tomatoes (last summer's crop), spicy chicken that Ken cooked up Monday morning, and some mozzarella cheese.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Isn't This Inviting?

Here's a gratuitous shot from one of our vacations in the early 2000's. It's the terrace of the house we rented in Vouvray, near Tours. This was one of two trips to the Loire Valley that convinced us that we wanted to live here.

French lawn furniture.

It was early June of 2001. I spent a lot of time sitting here watching the French Open on television. I remember that it was hot. I'm hoping for a hot summer this year. I'm ready for winter to end now.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


I love hazelnuts. So I was quite pleased when friends Susan and Simon brought us a bag of them from their trees in Preuilly-sur-Claise last month. They're easily shelled with a proper nut cracker, and then, once roasted lightly in the oven, are ready for all manner of recipes. They're also good just to much on.

Freshly shelled hazelnuts from Susan's and Simon's trees.

If you've been a long-time reader of this blog, you might remember that there are about twelve hazelnut trees in our own back yard. Our problem with them is that we have little weevils that bore into the young nuts to lay their eggs. The hatching larvae then consume the nut before it can grow. We get beautiful, but hollow, hazelnuts in late summer.

And the few nuts that the weevils miss are taken by our local red squirrels. I've done a little research into dealing with the weevils, but I don't want to spray the trees with insecticides. One solution is to encircle the trunks with sticky tape to prevent the females (who spend winter in the ground at the base of the trees) from climbing up to bore into the fruit in spring. Most of our trees have multiple trunks, so this is not a very practical, much less economical, solution.

Consequently, I've done nothing to deal with the problem and we don't have many edible hazelnuts as a result. Susan and Simon just bought their property with the nut trees on it last year. I don't think they've done anything in particular to them, or if the previous owner did. But they seem to have had a good crop.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Broth Blocks

Part of home cooking is learning how to use everything to minimize waste and unnecessary expenses. This means making good use of leftovers, to be sure. But beyond that, it also means treating scraps and broths as precious ingredients for a future meal.

Blocks of frozen broth in the shapes of their containers start to thaw in a soup pot.

We will often have cooking liquids, soaking liquids, and broths left after cooking vegetables, reconstituting dried tomatoes, or poaching poultry or other meats. Each time we do, we pour the leftover liquids into a container and freeze them. We try our best to label them, but are not as vigilant as we should be about that. We are, however, getting better at avoiding the dreaded UFOs (unidentified frozen objects).

On Friday we decided that we should make a pot of soup over the weekend, so Ken and I rummaged through the freezer to find broths. We found a couple containers of Swiss chard broth, celery broth, pork and collard green broth, spinach broth, lentil broth and lentils, liquid from soaking dried tomatoes, and carrot and turnip trimmings (from making "turned vegetables") that had been blanched and frozen.

All the broths went into a pot to thaw and cook as a base for soup. We'll see what else gets added later. We got a lot of little things out of the freezer. Of course, there will be leftovers of the new soup to go back into the freezer, but not so much.

Friday, February 12, 2010

To Every Thing, Burn, Burn, Burn

Just in case you were wondering, this is what an egg carton looks like after a couple of minutes in our wood stove.

The carton is totally burned, this is the ash in the shape of the carton just before it collapsed.

The egg cartons we get from the supermarket are pressed cardboard, so they're burnable. We buy our eggs in cartons of ten, not twelve. It's just the way it's done here. Another way to buy eggs is from the poultry or cheese vendors at the Saturday market. Those eggs don't come in cartons; they're sold individually. Most people take their own cartons to the market and ask the vendor to fill them. And usually they're are the small, six egg sized cartons.

We've done that some, but the eggs at the market are usually a bit more expensive than the supermarket eggs. We easily go through ten eggs a week, either as ingredients in cooking or baking or just plain eating.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Thai Shrimp Curry

We've been working on using our Asian ingredients this winter. As you may know, we make periodic runs up to Blois to an Asian grocer called Paris Store to stock up on noodles, spices, frozen shrimp, and other goodies from the Orient.

Thai shrimp curry with bamboo shoots and straw mushrooms.

This past week we made a shrimp curry with bamboo shoots, straw mushrooms, and coconut milk. We prepared a red Thai curry paste to spice it up and served it with soy noodles. I can't tell you how good it was. There were no leftovers.

We just found out that there is another Paris Store in Tours, and that it may be larger than the one in Blois. We'll be checking it out later this year, for sure!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Le Dépanneur

Our boiler has been acting up recently. We started smelling a strong odor of heating fuel in the utility room a few days ago. And then suddenly, the boiler starting cutting itself off automatically when it's not supposed to. This is a safety feature, so at least we know that's working. Then, when it does cut off, the burner kind of diesels a little, making a shuddering noise. That's not good.

The heating technician's truck outside our house. And he does wear that blue uniform.

So we called the people who maintain our boiler. We bought a service contract with them several years ago. They come once a year to clean and check the boiler and replace the fuel injector. And they provide service calls at no cost. You can read about our last encounter with them here.

We called a guy out on Saturday to look at things. He did some adjusting and said it should work all right. It was better, but then it starting cutting out again on Monday. So we called again. Another technician came by on Tuesday morning and said that it looked as though the fuel pump was dying. He heard the dieseling noise when the boiler cut off and that confirmed it for him.

Now we're waiting for an estimate on the replacement of the fuel pump assembly. The technician said we were looking at between €150 and €300. We only pay for the part, the labor is included in our service contract. Still, it's not cheap, but it's much better than the cost of buying and installing a brand new boiler. It's a German unit that's only eighteen years old, so it should last longer. The guy told me that with a new pump it should continue on just fine for some time.

I hope he's right.

Monday, February 08, 2010

More Columns

These are in Valençay, quite a way east of Chinon. Valençay is a much newer château than the one at Chinon. The current building dates from the sixteenth century, is well maintained and includes furnishings from the time of its most famous inhabitant, Talleyrand. The columns pictured here are not part of the château itself, but on some out-buildings that currently house the ticket office, museum store, rest rooms, and a small café.

A small café on the grounds of the Château de Valençay.

Valençay is another of the big châteaux in the Loire Valley region that attracts a large number of tourists each year. It's a great place to visit and even spend a day, what with the the castle itself, the gardens, and the little population of deer, peacocks, and a collection of various types of domesticated fowl, not to mention the little town of Valençay right next door.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Candles And Columns At Fontevraud

I've posted many images from the abbey at Fontevraud in past years. If you haven't seen them, just type "Fontevraud" in the search box at the top and they'll come up. This photo is one I rejected early on because I didn't like how the candles are out of focus. But what the heck, here it is anyway.

Candles and columns in the abbey church.

Fontevraud is not very far from Chinon and it is well worth a visit if you are in the area. The government has done some spectacular renovation work and the place is breathtaking.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Most Famous Of French Cars

I'm not sure it's true, but in my experience most everybody recognizes the Citroën 2CV, which stands for deux-cheveaux (two horses), as a classic French car. Produced between 1948 and 1990, the "deuche," as it is lovingly called, is collected, restored, shown, and driven in rallies all over France. And many people still own theirs and drive it daily.

A two-toned 2CV on the streets of Chinon.

This one was parked on a street in Chinon, in the old city just below the château. The image just screams France to me.

Friday, February 05, 2010

A Little Side Trip To Chinon

Chinon is one of my favorite places in the Loire Valley. The city is built on the Vienne River very close to where it joins the Loire. It's the site of an impressive medieval fortress and castle dripping with history. From the Plantagenets to Joan of Arc to Rabelais, there is much to learn about Chinon. And the countryside around Chinon is famous for its delicious wines made almost exclusively from the cabernet franc grape.

La tour de l'Horloge in Chinon, a very narrow building at only 5 meters wide.

The castle, now mostly in ruins, dates from the twelfth century, the time of Henry II Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine. One of the more recognizable features of the château still standing is the Tour de l'Horloge (The Clock Tower), built in the fourteenth century. Its bell has been ringing the hours continuously since 1399.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Not Really A Wardrobe Malfunction

This is a famous painting by Jean Fouquet which dates from about 1453. It's yet another version of the virgin and child, but this time the model for the virgin is assumed to be one Agnès Sorel, the favorite mistress of King Charles VII. The original painting hangs in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. This copy is in the Renaissance château at Loches.

La Vièrge et l'Enfant, part of the Diptyque de Melun, by Jean Fouquet.

Sorel died suddenly in 1450 at the age of twenty-eight. Her body lies in the church of St.-Ours in Loches, while her heart is entombed at Jumièges in Normandy. Apparently her remains were exhumed in 2004 for an autopsy, which revealed a large dose of mercury in her system. This discovery all but confirmed the historical suspicion that Agnès was intentionally poisoned, but there is still much doubt as to who her murderer was.

I took this photo of the painting in Loches. I cropped out some shadows around the edges of the image, so there is a little bit of the painting missing.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Column Art

This little bit of sculpture adorns one of the columns inside the church of St.-Ours in the medieval fortress city of Loches. This is the church you've been seeing in the previous exterior shots with the four pointed towers. It's a design I haven't seen a lot of around here.

A grotesque, or chimera, carved into this column capital.

I suppose that most of the interior of the church was painted at one time. If you look closely at the image, you might be able to see traces of color on the sculpture. Most medieval churches, and many renaissance ones, were elaborately painted when they were new.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Medieval Microsoft

Windows. What did you expect? Macs weren't discovered by Europeans until the nineteenth century. In Ontario, Canada. By John MacIntosh, for whom they are named.

The view down below has changed since the 15th century.

But seriously, folks, these are openings in the wall of the medieval castle at Loches. Much more of the castle survives than just the donjon tower. The Round Tower is more intact and contains exhibits and a model of the what the entire castle is thought to have looked like. And there are only 102 steps up to the terrace level.

This may have been the first appearance of the "blue screen of death."

At ground level there are more exhibits as well as a cool medieval style vegetable and herb garden inside the walls. The ramparts themselves are explorable as they're riddled with passageways that lead to strategic military posts from which defenders could shoot arrows.

And don't forget the gift shop on your way out.
Today is la Chandeleur, or Candlemas, and we will be making and eating the traditional crêpes for lunch.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Views From The Donjon

Climbing up to the top of the donjon in Loches is a lot of fun. The building is essentially an empty shell, all the floors are missing inside the tower. But the walls are still standing and there's a modern metal staircase built inside that you can take up to the top. From bottom to top is 37 meters.

Looking north, the lower city on the left, the roofs of St.-Ours in the medieval city on the right.

From the top you get terrific views of the river valley and the forest of Loches just outside of town. You also see the whole of the medieval town with the "modern" city hugging the ramparts below it.

A close-up of the towers of St.-Ours and the Indre Valley beyond.