Monday, February 28, 2011

The first thunderstorm of 2011

Late Saturday afternoon, while I was out walking with Callie, the sky darkened from the northwest as a thunderstorm rolled over our town. The lightning was brilliant and the thunder was loud. Callie and I turned tail and headed home as the front overtook us. We made it into the house seconds before a shower of small hail started to fall.

A near-by birch wood still lit by the sun as the storm approaches from the northwest. Click to ennebulate.

The front went through rather quickly and the hail turned into a hard rain for a while then gently tapered off over the next hour or so. By then the sun was setting and it was staying dark outside. Just as the sun dipped below the horizon, the western sky opened up and lit the last of the storm clouds from below.

Looking westward as the sun sets after the storm.

It was a year ago today that we were dealing with the aftermath of the storm Xynthia. Hurricane force winds blew over us all through that night. We shuttered ourselves in the house and tried to sleep through it. The storm took a number of roof tiles off our house and we were without power to run the heat and lights for four days after. This little storm was like a day at the beach compared to that.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

When the bread lady's away...

...the bread eaters will play. And by "play," I mean try other bakeries. On Friday, Ken and I took a ride over to Valençay (about a half-hour away) to get some wine at their local cooperative. We got ten liters each of red, white, and rosé. We also did some grocery shopping.

Whole grain on the left, sesame seed on the right. Click to englutenate.

On the way back, we stopped at the bakery in the little town of Meusnes on the Cher River. In addition to the traditional baguettes they had several specialty breads, like most bakeries do. We chose a pain complet (whole grain) and another loaf encrusted with sesame seeds. They were both very tasty and a nice change from our regular bread.

The bread lady resumes her rounds this coming Tuesday.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Snowdrops on a mole hill

I mentioned a week or so ago that the moles in our back yard had dug up some of the snowdrops that I planted last fall. Well, the moles may have dug the snowdrops up, but they didn't dig them out. Does that make sense? At any rate, the bulbs are blooming on top of the mole hills. Amazing!

Snowdrops blooming on the slopes of Mole Mountain.

Once they stop blooming I will get out there and re-insert them below ground. Spring is when I level the mole hills so that I can cut the grass. It will be an opportune time to get the bulbs back below ground where they can continue to live and be ready for next year.

A pair of twins.

The snowdrops are nice to see in the late winter. They are a harbinger of spring. I was disappointed when the moles dug them up, but now that they've bloomed in spite of being transplanted and disturbed, I'm feeling much better.

More snowdrops. They're called perce-neige in French.

Moles are carnivores. They eat larvae and worms and don't have any appetite for roots or bulbs. They also aerate the soil, so they're good for the garden. They just have this nasty habit of throwing up big dirt piles all around.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The San Francisco treat

I lived in San Francisco for over seventeen years. I never noticed anyone there who had any more interest in Rice-A-Roni than anyone else I'd encountered before. After doing a little internet research, I discovered that the famous boxed rice and pasta dish was developed by a family-owned pasta company located in San Francisco's Mission District. In the late 1950's, they adapted their family's favorite pilaf recipe and marketed it with the slogan and jingle that became so familiar to people across the entire United States. That's all there is to the San Francisco connection.

The ingredients, clockwise from top left: vermicelles, chicken broth, round rice, minced onion, dried herbs.

Now, I've eaten Rice-A-Roni before. It's not bad. But it's not particularly good for you given that it's an industrial product full of sodium, sugar, MSG, and other things that I don't necessarily want to eat in my rice and pasta dish (salt and sugar are the fourth and fifth most plentiful of a long list of ingredients* on a box of Chicken Rice-A-Roni).

The finished rice and 'roni dish. I like a lot of 'roni so I added more than the recipe called for.

So I decided, after finding a package of vermicelli pasta in the supermarket for 37 cents a pound, to make my own rice and 'roni dish at home. I used the internet again (it's hard to imagine that we once did not have the internet) to find some recipes. They are legion. I picked one from Martha Stewart's web site that seemed simple enough.

The ingredients are rice, vermicelli (or cut up spaghetti in a pinch), olive oil, onion, salt and pepper, chicken broth, and parsley. You make the dish as if you're making a risotto by sauteing the rice and pasta and chopped onions in oil, then adding the broth to finish cooking the rice. Home-made chicken broth is best, but you can use a canned broth or a bullion cube (but watch those ingredients and make adjustments for salt content!). You can also use a vegetable broth if you want a vegetarian version.

I used dried herbs (mostly oregano) and a bay leaf (from our back yard tree) since we're not in the season for fresh garden herbs. The finished rice was delicious and was the perfect accompaniment to our main dish, which was a spicy turkey stir-fry.

*Information from the company's web site:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Clouds, rain, clouds, rain, etc.

This is one of those weeks. Successive weather systems are keeping us mostly gray and wet. The weather is not severe, just alternating rain and drizzle. Oh well. This, too, shall pass. I'm anxious to get the lettuces and radishes planted but will have to wait for the ground to dry out a little.

The rolling slopes of the vineyard provide the drainage that is important to vine health.

Here's another picture from the vineyard. That yellow shrub in the middle is an osier. It's a variety of willow that has many uses. The withies, or canes, are harvested and used in the vineyard to tie up bundles of vine prunings. Osier is more commonly used in basket weaving (think wicker), but there are other varieties of the plant and I don't know if the one in the picture is one that would be used for that purpose.

So, while the weather sorts itself out, it's housework, cooking, and trudging through the mud with Callie. On Wednesday we made a delicious dish of fish and chips for lunch. We didn't batter the fish, but coated it lightly with flour, egg, and cornmeal. Ken made a tarter sauce that was very good. He took some pictures that may or may not show up on his blog.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sardines for lunch

I really like sardines. They are a recent discovery for me. And French supermarkets have almost as many varieties of canned fish (mainly sardines and mackerel) as they do yogurt. They're good right out of the can on a slice of bread. On Monday we ate canned sardines for lunch with boiled potatoes and steamed broccoli.

Three varieties of canned sardine fillets from the supermarket.

I opened two tins, one with sardines packed in olive oil and the other flavored with lemon and basil. Both were good. I added a little tabasco sauce to the plainer ones for a little additional kick. Very tasty. These were sardine fillets, but you can also get them canned whole (without heads or tails). They're just as good, but you have to take out the back bone. I'm sure there are people that just eat the bone since it's pretty soft, but I like to remove it.

When I was in Madrid in 2006, I ate one of the most memorable sandwiches I've ever had. The sandwich was simply sardines on a thick, crusty piece of bread; it was dripping with delicious olive oil and the fish was fresh and good. I tried cooking fresh sardines at home once but was not happy with the result. Canned sardines are very good and much easier.

France has a big sardine canning industry based mostly in Brittany. From what I've read, the French perfected the method of preserving sardines in cans very soon after the process for metal canning was invented. The method spread around the world and is practiced in many countries in Europe and North Africa. Unfortunately, the US sardine industry has declined, like much of US industry, with the last canning factory closing last year.

That information comes from Wikipedia, so I cannot guarantee total accuracy. To wit: Reason #159 for not relying on Wikipedia for your serious research: "Sardines were named after the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, where they once lived in abundance." Yeah, until the humans showed up and forced them into the Mediterranean Sea.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

This dog's birthday

Today is Callie's birthday. She's four years old today. Hard to believe. And to celebrate, she's having a lie-in on one of her three beds. She's the only dog I know that has the luxury of a king size, a full, and a twin bed. And that doesn't even include the couch.

Mademoiselle Chose (Miss Thing) enjoying a rest on one of her beds.

My plan was to get her professionally groomed for her birthday. I didn't get the appointment arranged in time, but it will still happen in the next week or so.

Happy birthday, Callie!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Planting soon

It's almost time to plant some stuff. The next time we have a stretch of dry days, I'm going to plant lettuces, radishes, and leeks. The ground has been tilled. It just needs a good raking and I can put in the seeds. Then I'll cover the plot with my fabric tunnel to keep the bed warm.

The packet of radish seeds. And, yes, the radishes we get look exactly like this!

I'm looking forward to the first radishes of the season. As you can see, the packet says they can be planted as early as January. I'll plant seeds successively through the spring to ensure a continuous harvest. They'll be up quickly and ready to eat before any of the lettuces. The leeks will take the longest.

This is the first time we're trying some pre-spring crops. Wish us luck!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The weather is crappy right now

But it's not bad. I mean, the temperature is above freezing and there is no snow, sleet, or ice. There is always a bright side. But it's not particularly warm, which is normal for February. And we're having a succession of weather systems bringing clouds and drizzle and rain. The vineyard is a muddy mess. Can't do much outdoor work.

A line of trees between vineyard parcels.

On the other hand, we know that spring is close. The days are brighter, longer. We're not having to build a fire every day. Buds are fattening and bulbs are up. Life ain't half bad. In fact, it's pretty good. So we enjoy our days, our meals, our walks, and our internet. Hot water, electricity, and satellite tv.

Except for rhythm, who could ask for anything more?

Saturday, February 19, 2011


These are the remnants of a wall out by the vineyard cabin. I think it must have been a short wall and I don't know why it was there. The vines in this picture are not yet pruned, but it won't be long before they're cut back to a single cane.

At sunrise in the vineyard behind our house.

If you look closely (or click on the picture to enlarge it), you can see that the trees in the woods behind the vines are budding out. The normally drab bare branches are becoming tinted with the red and green of new buds. Leaves can't be far behind, right?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sunset with planes

I took this on the eleventh. One week ago today. The sky was mostly clear in the afternoon with a few clouds on the horizons. As the sun went down, it glinted off the clouds in the west. Two jets were making their way northward at the time.

A February sunset.

Thursday's lunch was very tasty. We had bought a pair of chickens a couple of weeks ago. They were on sale, two birds for €2.10/kilo. We cut them apart and made chicken adobo with the thighs and drumsticks. The wings went into the freezer for the next time we make wings. We kept the breasts on the carcasses and froze those separately.

So, on Thursday we thawed one of the carcasses with the breasts on, seasoned and roasted it in the oven. Along side the roasted chicken breasts were some collard greens from our freezer and a pot of polenta. Everything was amazingly good and it all went together very well. The little bits of chicken that are left on the carcass will be picked off for Callie. We didn't take any pictures at all.

The thing is that this is the kind of impromptu cooking that we (and when I say "we" I mean mostly Ken) do all the time. When the pantry and the freezer are well-stocked, we don't need a lot of advance preparation to come up with a great lunch.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

No bread today, the bread lady's away

Every once in a while the woman who delivers our bread gives us a little note to remind us that she'll not be delivering during a vacation period. Here's the note we got just a few days ago.

Here's a translation:

Vacation of the Bread Delivery Woman
No delivery starting Tuesday 22 February
until Monday 28 February
Delivery will start again on Tuesday 1 March

The bakery will be closed.
Bread will be available at the Proxi Market.

France is having its normal winter school vacations now, when people go skiing or to warmer climates. There's been a lot of reshuffling due to events in Tunisia and Egypt; they are both prime vacation spots for the French.

When the bakery is closed, the little convenience store across the street, called Proxi Market, sells bread that they get in from another bakery. We make do with what we've got in the freezer. Otherwise, we check out the other local bakeries. The change is good.

Extra points if you guess what song I'm mimicking in the title.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


These are last year's geraniums. We brought them in for the winter and keep them down in the glassed-in entry porch where they're protected from the hard cold and they get a little morning sun (when there is some). Last week I trimmed off some of the dead leaves and flower heads and gave them some geranium food with their water.

Three planter boxes filled with red geraniums. Very French!

They aren't officially, but geraniums could be the French national flowering plant. They are ubiquitous, decorating window sills and planters all over the country. You can't go anywhere from spring to fall without seeing bright red geraniums. They come in many colors, but bright red is the most common.

These are looking pretty good and I can't wait until it's warm enough to put them back out on the deck in a couple more months. In the meantime, they're brightening up the entry porch.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sunrise over the vines

Another gratuitous shot of the vineyard from last week. Our streak of good weather seems to be over, although the daily highs are still mild. A series of weather systems is moving through all week bringing us wind gusts and rain squalls. You might say that the giboulées de mars (March squalls) have begun a bit early. Since winter started early last fall, that's not so surprising.

These vines have been pruned; you can see the clippings piled between every other pair of rows.

Maybe we'll have an early spring? Things can start slowing down, then. I'm putting my order in for a long hot summer.

Monday, February 14, 2011

First crocuses of the year

On one of last week's sunny days, I noticed these out in the back yard. It seems early, but I'm not complaining. There are three of them out there among the cyclamen. One yellow, two purple.

A purple crocus.

There are also snowdrops. We have a small bunch of them that started coming up one year out by the garden path. Last year, Ken and I "appropriated" a few more from a place out in the woods where they were coming up. I planted them in our yard last fall. The moles dug them up this winter.

A yellow crocus.

I was not happy, but on Sunday morning I noticed that the moles missed a patch and they've come up. They're very small, this being their first year after transplant, but I'm hopeful that they will survive the moles and flourish.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The rhythms of the vineyard

I hope you're not tired of vineyard photos. The vineyard is a prominent feature in our daily lives. We see it out the windows. We walk through it nearly every day. We smell it in every season, whether the ground is parched or soaked with rain. The vineyard always looks different and it always looks the same.

Newly pruned vines stand on the banks of the Cher.

And yet, because neither of us is a grower or a winemaker, our understanding of the vineyard is superficial. We can't identify the varietals by the shapes of their leaves. We don't know when a vine is healthy or sick. We don't know how to prune in winter. We don't know when the harvest should begin.

But, for our part, we do know how to work a corkscrew.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Periodic Puppy Pics

Here's Callie on her Friday morning walk. The sun was just up and the temperature was close to eight degrees (upper 40s F). We didn't see any vineyard workers during the whole walk. It was either too early or they were off working in other vineyards.

"Stop messing with that camera thing and let's go!"

Ken and I just figured out, with the help of an internet calculator, that as of Friday we have lived in this house 2,802 days, just over seven and a half years. That's the longest time I've lived in any one house or apartment in my life. The second longest was our house in San Francisco at 2,777 days.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Cold morning mists

This week has been a contrast in weather. The nights and mornings are cold. The days warm up if there's sun, but stay damp and cold if there's fog. Some days start foggy and clear up by noon. Some days the fog thickens and settles down on us like a cold blanket.

Looking northeasterly from the vineyards toward our house and the foggy river valley below. Click to viniferate.

We've had a few clear mornings. Clear mornings are cold mornings. There's been frost, but the light is amazing. Just seeing the sun rise through the bare trees is enough to make us feel a bit warmer.

I know that winter is still on for a while. We could go back to below freezing days any time. Snow is not out of the question. And one year ago this month we had that terrifying wind storm, Xynthia, that knocked tiles off our roof and deprived us of power for the better part of a week. Thankfully we had the wood stove for heat and the gas cooker for making hot meals.

Remembering that, I am happy with the cold nights, foggy days, and the lack of wind, snow, and sub-zero temperatures. And I am glad to have electricity.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Outside the garden gate

Just outside our back gate, behind the hedges (which I didn't trim last fall), the vineyards begin. Our road ends and becomes a series of tractor paths among the vine parcels. At that point is a small pond, artificial, but alive with plants, frogs, and fish. When the weather's very cold, the pond ices over.

Airline contrails reflected in the still pond water outside our back gate.

The pond is fed by runoff from the vineyard and it drains down into the woods just north of us (the woods you can see in the photo). The water makes its way into a gully that ends in the Cher River about a mile away. The pond is there, ostensibly, as a reservoir to fight fires. It hasn't been put to that use since we've been here and I hope we never need it. We see neighborhood people, mostly kids, fishing from it from time to time. I've never seen anyone swim in it; I don't think anyone would want to, let alone be allowed to.

Early on in our time here we were in the midst of a heat wave and drought. The water level in the pond got very low and the town trucked water up from the river to replenish it. These days, especially this year, we've been getting a lot of rain and the pond overflows down the path toward the woods. That makes our walks in that direction with the dog very squishy.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Piquets givrés (frosty posts)

I can tell that spring is coming. Not because of the weather, but because the vineyard is getting all cleaned up. The scruffy old growth is being pruned away and the rows of vines are looking all neat and tidy. Old posts are being pulled and replaced with brand new ones. The spent posts are piled up at the ends of the rows to be picked up later.

Monday's frost settled on the grass and the vineyard posts.

I imagine that the posts, along with dead vine trunks, will be burned in one of the vineyard workers' fireplace before long. It's one of the fringe benefits of working in a vineyard. We get some of the dead vine trunks because Callie likes to carry them home from her walks. We also got permission one year to gather some when they're piled out there, so we have a bunch out behind the garden shed. They burn well in the barbecue.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Pruning at sunrise

I'm glad this isn't my job. On Monday morning the temperature was just above freezing. But the sky was clear and as the sun came up I could already feel the day warming. The people who prune the vines every winter are out there in rain, snow, and freezing temperatures all season long from sun-up until dusk.

Two workers from the Domaine de la Renaudie winery with their battery-powered shears.

Since we've had a very cold winter so far, I'm sure the pruners are not going to mind a few sunny and relatively warm days. A few years back we had some warm days in January and I said something about how nice it was. The pruners harrumphed and told me that it was too warm. The vines need the cold of winter, they said, and warm temperatures don't kill the bugs. So there.

I've learned to wait until we've had enough cold to mention the nice weather to the vineyard people.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Yesterday, Sunday, lived up to its name. It started out normal. That is gray and overcast. But then something spectacular happened: the sun came out. And I will tell you that it was a welcome sight. Even though the temperature was already mild, the sun added a little something extra. All right, a lot of something extra.

The view of our neighbors' property from our front terrace, 06 Feb 2011.

I haven't seen the results of the Super Bowl yet. I'm trying not to find out until I watch the re-run later this evening. I'm afraid it's going to be difficult, especially once I start looking at blogs and facebook. I could just stay off the internet for a few hours. Bwahahahaha!

Ken already saw the result on the French morning news. The miracle of modern technology.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Prune, prune, prune

It's not what you think. It's the vineyard. The workers are out there daily in the cold and rain methodically pruning last year's growth off the bare vines. They typically leave one bare cane on each trunk that will later be attached horizontally to the support wire before the leaves appear.

Pruned vines and support wires on a frosty February morning.

Most of the vines out back are owned by one grower and this year he has three employees out cutting. The work seems to moving right along. Another grower out there, who cuts his own vines by himself, got the work on his parcels done in the fall. He's moved on to other of his parcels elsewhere, if he's not done altogether.

There are a few other growers out there in various stages of pruning and one we haven't seen yet. He's consistently the last to prune his parcels.

Friday, February 04, 2011

More of these, please

We haven't seen a lot of the sun lately. It's either been raining or we've had that winter high pressure keeping the low clouds and fog stuck to the ground. A new weather system started moving in yesterday, however, that may bring us a little more sunshine.

Orange clouds reflect the rising sun one clear day last month.

The trouble is, as it blows over us with a southwesterly wind, it's wreaking havoc with Ken's allergies. Something on the southwest coast, be it cypress trees or scotch broom (or both), is sending nasty pollen up this way. The bright side is that the clouds are parting and warmer southern air is moving in.

We may even see a few sunrises this weekend.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

A new profile picture

I thought I'd do a new photo for my profile. The previous one of me in a field of colza (rape seed) with my arms outstretched is nearly five years old now (and boy are my arms tired). It was taken by my friend Sue back in 2006.

Well, the hair keeps getting grayer.

So there it is. Me on February 2, 2011. Just over fifty-one years old. Please be kind. Thank you.

I changed the online profile photo yesterday.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A lunch of Swedish meatballs

Ken and I made a batch of Swedish meatballs on Monday. My contribution was mostly mechanical: I ground the meat and formed the meatballs. Ken did all the creative work, which included the sauce they were served in.

About a hundred little meatballs ready to be browned.

I did make the pommes dauphines (tater tots) that we had along side. You might remember, I made them at Christmas time and froze the leftover dough. All I had to do was thaw the dough, form the tots, and fry them up.

Lunch is served!

The meatballs were made with pork and beef, onion, bread crumbs, eggs, and seasonings. The sauce is a béchamel combined with the pan drippings (from browning the meatballs), beef broth, and cream. It was a great lunch. We included a small helping of leftover collard greens so there'd be some color on the plate.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The valley's filling up

This is a row of houses down in the valley below our house. We can't see them from our property because of the woods. In fact, there are a lot of houses, old and new, down the hill from us. But we feel pretty disconnected from all that up here by the vines.

Some new and newer houses in our town. Click to suburbanate.

It's nice not feeling like we're surrounded by other houses. At the same time, it's nice knowing that there are other people around and that we're not isolated out in the countryside. On one level, I like the idea of having a house out in the middle of nowhere with no neighbors. But there is something reassuring about having some neighbors. We keep an eye on each other's property. We're close to town for services, like doctor, pharmacy, groceries, and things like that. And we have high-speed internet, something a lot of the countryside isn't wired up for yet.

Still, we notice more and more people walking (or driving) up the hill to walk their dogs in the vineyard, more kids on bikes and motorbikes and quads barreling through the woods in summer, and more lost people driving up our road and turning around when they realize it turns into a dirt path. And we just heard from one of our neighbors that a McDonald's might be built across the river near one of the supermarkets. Gasp!

I guess you can't stop progress, if you can call it that.