Saturday, December 31, 2011

A little pruning here, a little pruning there

And pretty soon, it's all done! Well, it won't be done for a few months yet. But I'm seeing the growers and their employees out there getting started. It's not a fun job. They're out there in the cold and rain and fog and snow. Bundled up. Clipping away. All of it is done by hand.

The vines are pruned and the clippings are lined up between the rows. They'll be mulched later on.

But thankfully, they are out there. Without them, we wouldn't have glorious new vine sprouts in the spring. No new little grapes, no wonderful bunches for the fall harvest. Which of course means no wine!

So we celebrate the heroic (for lack of a better word) efforts of the pruners.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Again with the sun

This is still a view of Monday's sunset. We didn't see the sun again until Wednesday morning. But soon after we were in the fog again. That's because we drove down to Le Grand Pressigny (about an hour south of us) at the invitation of Jean and Nick who have a house there. We spent a wonderful afternoon and evening eating, drinking, and laughing. We even played Monopoly.

The sun setting in the southwest seen from one of the loft windows.

Ken won the game pretty handily. I went bankrupt, and I even owned Park Place for a while. Oh well. We spent the night so that we didn't have to drive home full and tipsy in the dark. On Thursday morning Nick made up a batch of oat cakes served with British bacon and black pudding. We also had cream cheese, bagels, and smoked salmon. A very nice time all around.

We stopped briefly to say hello to Susan and Simon in Preuilly-sur-Claise and got home in the early afternoon. Since we had turned our heat off before we left, the house was quite cold and it took a couple of hours to warm it back up.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A foggy sunset

The sun managed to poke through the fog and clouds a few times on Monday. Just before sunset, I saw this out one of the back windows and ran for the camera. It was eerie and beautiful; my photo doesn't do it justice.

Looking southwest toward the setting sun. Click to solify.

Our recent mornings have been chilly, but still above freezing. Not that I'm anxious for a freeze, but I know people around here will start complaining if it doesn't get colder soon. They'll say that we need the freezes to kill off the excess bugs and fungi and molds. They'll say that a warm winter will ensure a cold summer. Old wives tales die hard.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The hamlet on Christmas Eve

I took this photo of our little hamlet on Saturday morning. The vineyard is brown these days and the pruning has begun, albeit tentatively. It'll get under way in earnest come January. The ground is almost spongy owing to all the rain we've had this month. To date we've measured over 145 millimeters, nearly six inches.

Green grass and milky skies. Christmas Eve 2011. Looking northeast toward our house.

For now the rain pattern has stopped and higher pressure has built in. And you know what that means. Fog. The air is still and the fog hangs all around, erasing any views farther than a few hundred meters.

We heard on a recent newscast that 2011 is officially the warmest year on record in France, and they've been keeping records since the late nineteenth century. We certainly haven't had a freeze yet this season, and the couple of frosts we had were very light and scattered.

I wonder what 2012 will bring?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A canal barge in Champagne

This barge, moored near the center of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ in Champagne's Marne Valley, is actually a gîtes de France rental property. I think it would be interesting to spend a few days on the boat. I'll have to look it up to see what the details are.

Looks like a nice place to stay. The boat's name is "Of Clay and Water."

Yesterday, Monday, Boxing Day (what we Americans call the Day After Christmas), started out with a beautiful sunrise. I tried to take a few pictures of it, but I don't like the way they turned out. Still, I was looking forward to going out in the vineyard with the dog. Just as it got light enough to head out, they came. The trucks and cars. The drove out into the vineyard and parked, spacing themselves along the road.

That can only mean one thing: une battue (an organized hunt). The guys station themselves along the road with rifles in hand waiting for the prey to be driven up from the stream bed in the woods. Callie and I had to modify our walk and stay very close to the house. I could hear the horns and the hunting dogs barking over on the next road. We scurried around the edges of our neighbors' property and headed back into the safety of the house.

I worry about a stray deer jumping out in front of us and Callie chasing it into the hunt. So far we've been lucky.

Monday, December 26, 2011


Back in October, when we were in Champagne for four days, I collected all the corks from our bottles of bubbly and lined them up on top of the refrigerator. I may have missed one or two.

Remember, there were three of us.

There's one cork up there that was from still wine, not bubbly. But there's also another cork up there that's from a bubbly, but not a Champagne. I don't remember how that happened.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The fondue

This year-end season is one filled with traditions. There are traditions that you inherit and there are traditions that you make. This is one we made. Many years ago we decided it would be fun to have a fondue savoyarde (a cheese fondue) on Christmas Eve. We enjoyed it so much we've been carrying it on as a tradition ever since. It's been at least fifteen years, maybe more.

I don't know why it looks so yellow in this photo. But it was delicious nonetheless!

This year was no different. We did the standard recipe, a mix of comté, gruyère, and emmental cheeses with white wine, a little nutmeg, and some kirsch. I will say that it's probably not the best recipe since we have mixed results with the consitency from year to year. But still, it's always tasty and we enjoy it. This year, along with bread cubes, we also dunked cubes of apple and pear into the melted cheese. It's not the first year we've done that, but it's delicious when we do.

Here's wishing you and yours a very merry holiday season, whatever holiday and tradition you celebrate!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

For my friend, m.

You see, Mark? There's your blog being looked at in France. Merry Christmas. As you can see, the new monitor is here and installed. I needed a new graphics card in the computer to make it work the way it should, and that is now installed and working, too.

The new monitor in its new home.

Interestingly, when I first installed the new card, the computer wouldn't start. I took it out, and the computer started up just fine. So I put the card back in and once again the computer wouldn't start. I was very disappointed, thinking that the new card just wasn't compatible with my seven year old computer. But, according to the specs, it should be.

After I pulled it out the second time, and ate some lunch, I had an idea. I took a little squeeze bulb and blew air into the slot where the card went. I must have dislodged a bit of dust, because after I put the card back in, the computer started up and everything worked just fine. The dust was mucking up the electronic connections. This is an example of why it's very important to open up your computer once a year and vacuum out the dust.

What a relief! I was dreading having to send the card back and thinking about buying a new computer. My "old" machine still has some life in it. And that's a comforting thought.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Typical French signs

I saw these in Champagne, but I would see these signs anywhere in France. They are on every main street in every town in the country. More than once. And in every Parisian neighborhood. If you've been here, you've seen them.

The sign on top is for the French national lottery. The agency that runs the lottery is called Française des jeux. I think it's short for La Sociéte Française des Jeux (The French Gaming Corporation), but I can't find anything on the internet to confirm that. The next sign is one that means you can buy newspapers and magazines at this shop. La presse.

Below that is a sign for a local newspaper, l'union. It's the newspaper of the Champagne-Ardennes region. I don't think we got a copy while we were there. And I don't think it has anything to do with that satirical newspaper, The Onion. LOL.

On the bottom is the tabac sign, meaning you can buy cigarettes at this shop. I think this sign, ubiquitous in France, might be an endangered species, as smoking regulations get tighter all the time.

There's another sign, just visible behind the presse sign, that tells people that this shop is a branch of the post office. It's not a full-service post office, but the shop contracts with the national Poste to offer some limited services.

So there you have it. Typical signs on every main street in France.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Apples to apples

Yesterday we had one of my favorite meals: a steak au poivre (pepper steak) with a cream sauce made with calvados (apple brandy) and served with french fries. We followed that with a green salad. Dessert was an apple tart. I started out with these beautiful reinette apples.

Beautiful apples called reinettes.

Lunch was scrumptious as it usually is. Then we had the tarte. Yum! I also got the news that my new monitor will be delivered today (Thursday). Here's the tarte before we cut into it.

An apple tarte made with a custard filling. Yum!

So if the monitor is indeed delivered today, I'm planning to clean out the space where it will go before I hook it up, which means doing some organizing on and around the desk. I also plan to open up the computer to dust it out, a job that should be done every year. It'll be a busy day.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The shortest day

Here we are on or very near the winter solstice. Yay! It's a great day because from now on the days will start to get longer. It's almost imperceptible, but it happens. This year hasn't (so far) felt as cold and dark as previous years have. Of course, we have all of January and February to go yet, so we'll see.

You can see the fire in the wood stove through the windows behind the lights.

One of my readers asked for a photo of the holiday lights on the house (or was that on Facebook?), so here it is. As you can see, I don't do much. I'm nervous about climbing up two stories on a ladder, so I just string lights along the railing on the deck.

And, since the recent storm and power failure, I've decided we're not doing a tree this year. Maybe next year. We can see the lights from the living room and that's festive enough!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A big bottle

I remember the first time that I saw one of these roadside wine bottles in France. It was 1989 and Ken and I were driving through Saint-Emilion down near Bordeaux. There they were, these huge bottles advertising the local wine. Of course I just had to take a picture of that!

That bottle might last me a while... but it wouldn't fit in the car.

Now I know they're not rare things, these roadside bottles. The one pictured above is in Champagne just as you enter the town of Cramant. And, of course, we had to stop to take some pictures!

I can't think of any large bottles in our immediate vicinity here in the Cher Valley, but I think there is one in Vouvray up on the Loire, and I have seen giant sculptures of grape bunches here and there along the roads.

And you thought France was all snooty and tasteful.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Only one casualty

After the storm and power failure, and after the power was restored, we took an inventory of our electronics to be sure everything was working properly. Ken had taken the precaution of unplugging the refrigerator and the chest freezer after the failure, and he had unplugged the modem/router the night before (they can really be sensitive to power failures). All of them came back without a problem once the power was restored.

The oldest monitor that still works. I think I bought it in 1998. It's an antique flat panel.

When I turned on my computer, however, I noticed that the screen didn't come back. No power. We figured out that there must have been a surge when the power failed that managed to blow out the monitor's power supply/transformer. I do remember that when we saw the flash outside and the power went off, it tried to come back on twice in the seconds following. Maybe those surges fried my monitor's power supply.

At any rate, the monitor (which is probably still ok) won't work without a power supply. I went online Sunday morning and found a Dell monitor, state of the art, with better resolution than my more than ten-year-old monitor. It's on sale with free shipping, so I ordered it. Later, Ken found some power supplies online that might work, so he may get one just so we have a backup.

Speaking of backups, I'm using the old ViewSonic monitor (pictured above) that I had in San Francisco for now. It's working fine, even though the resolution leaves a lot to be desired. But I'm glad that we wrapped it up and saved it because it's coming in handy right now.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

No power is a pain

A royal pain. We were lucky, however. Lucky that no tiles blew off our roof. Lucky that no trees blew down onto the house. I slept with earplugs because the sound of the howling wind stressed me out too much. Still, with earplugs the sounds of my beating heart and breathing were amplified and that was weird, but I drifted in and out of sleep just the same.

A feather from a pheasant (I think) in a puddle out on the vineyard road.

One thing made me very angry as Friday evening came and we still had no power: I could see lights on all around us, but our little hamlet was still dark. Not enough customers to warrant emergency service, I suppose.

Then, on Saturday around 11:30 am, five trucks from the electric company pulled up and they spent an hour replacing the transformer that blew out. The power was restored. We checked everything out, plugged the fridge and the freezer back in, and went to a lunch party we were invited to.

We had a wonderful time, all the better for knowing that we wouldn't be returning to a dark house. Thanks for all your supportive comments. They're greatly appreciated.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The vineyard shed

Little buildings like this one are common sights around the local vineyards. Le cabanon du vigneron (the grape grower's shed). They once served as storage sheds for tools and places to take a little bit of lunch in the days before motorized vehicles made it easy to shuttle between home and the vines. Nowadays, they mostly sit empty or crumbling from neglect.

The grower's shed sits next to the dirt road through the vineyard behind our house.

This one is not far from our house, in fact we can see it from the guest room window. It's locked up tight and there's a small pile of debris blocking the door. Vines are planted against the walls on three sides, and every year the workers prune them back.

You are seeing this post because it was written on Thursday morning, prior to the big storm. We may lose power during the night because of high winds. That will mean no internet and no central heating. We have the wood stove; I'm going out this morning to split a few logs just to be prepared for the morning. And three of the burners on our kitchen stove (cooker) are gas burners, so we can boil water and heat food.

I'm hopeful that we won't lose power, and if we do, that it's not for a week like last year.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Here comes the sun

Just as visible sunsets have been rare sights recently, so have visible sunrises. I saw this one just a few days ago during my morning walk with Callie.

The sun rises slowly in the southeast. It doesn't get very high in the sky this time of year.

So far this season has been very mild. I haven't had to build a fire every day, and that's good because it means the wood supply will last a little longer. Who knows whether we're in for a mild winter or if the temperatures will suddenly drop? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I'm getting sick of the wind. Where we live, up on the heights above the river, we don't have to worry about flooding. But the southwest wind can really blow up here. I'm hopeful that we won't have a repeat of February 2010 any time soon (although a new storm is coming in off the Atlantic today).

There won't be a sunrise like this one on Friday morning, if the weather prediction holds.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One man's trash... more often than not just trash. I saw this crumpled cigarette pack by the side of the vineyard road the other day. Someone just lobbed it out of a car window, I suspect. Classy.

"Fumer nuit gravement à votre santé et à celle de votre entourage."
"Smoking is extremely harmful to your heath and to the health of those around you."

Ken and I finished our bagels in record time, they were that good. So I'm going to do another batch very soon. I want to implement my changes and see if they come out as good or better. Bagels freeze very well, so in case we get tired of them before we finish them, into the freezer they'll go.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Making bagels

I love bagels and we can't find them where we live in the French countryside. I know where to buy them in Paris, but not around here. So I've learned how to make my own. I've been making bagels now for several years, but this weekend I tried a new method that I saw while watching our DVD of Baking with Julia (Child). The guest was Lauren Groveman, and she and Julia made bagels together.

Starting to shape the bagels.

I used my standard bagel dough recipe, but decided to try Groveman's techniques. The only change I made in the dough is that I added about a tablespoon of black treacle (Groveman uses barley malt) to the yeast mixture instead of white sugar or honey. This gave the yeast the sugar that it needs to feed on, but it darkened the dough a little. Otherwise, my recipe was the same as usual.

Shaped bagels to be covered with another towel for a twenty minute rise.

Groveman makes her dough the day before, gives it a quick rise, then refrigerates it overnight for a good slow rise, so I did the same. The dough had doubled in size when I took it out of the refrigerator the next day. I punched it down and formed the bagels by cutting the dough into ten pieces and forming each piece into a perfect ball. I used my thumb to press a hole in the center of each ball and then widened the hole, making a bagel shape. At this point the hole is larger than you think it should be, but it becomes a normal size after the dough rises and cooks.

Bagels simmering in water, two minutes on a side.

After the bagels were shaped and laid out on a towel, I covered them and let them rise again for about twenty minutes. The next step is to pre-cook the bagels in boiling water, about two minutes on each side. I do this in batches because my pan only has room for about three or four bagels at a time, depending on their size. I add a tablespoon of honey to the water go give the bagels a nice sheen.

Boiled bagels on a cooling rack.

Once the bagels are cooked and cooled, the toppings go on. I used sesame and poppy seeds and some course sea salt. The next step is baking. I used to just put the bagels on a cookie sheet lined with a silicone baking mat, but Groveman recommends using a pizza stone and, since I have one, this time I tried it. A little cornmeal or semolina on the peel helps the bagels to slide off onto the stone, and the preheated stone (in a hot oven) really cooks the bagels well. Another of Groveman's techniques is to toss a few ice cubes into the bottom of the oven when the bagels go in, for steam. I did that, too.

Bagels on the peel, topped with seeds and ready for the oven.

The bagels baked for about fifteen or twenty minutes then sat with the oven turned off for about five minutes. I baked two batches of five bagels each. The process worked well and the bagels were delicious, but I'm going to make some further adjustments for the next time. Groveman recommends doing one batch at a time, but I didn't follow her advice. I made and boiled all ten bagels at once before baking. This meant that five bagels stayed on the rack for half an hour while the first five baked and I think they deflated a bit. Next time, I will not boil the second batch until the first batch is in the oven. Lesson learned.

The finished bagels. Yum!

Another thing is that Groveman's recipe uses more flour than mine, so I had less dough and my bagels were a little smaller than I want them. Next time, I will only make eight bagels instead of ten. It's much easier to work with batches of four as opposed to five, and the bagels will be a little larger.

Ken took these photos while I was in baking mode. Wasn't that nice?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cherry jubilee

Two years ago, in 2009, we had a good cherry crop. The trees around us were bursting with cherries and they were there for the picking. There are several trees nearby that no one really picks, and if the fruit stays on the trees too long, the birds get it all. That year, Ken picked a bunch of cherries and we ate clafoutis and made preserves.

A little cherry cordial in a tiny glass.

One other thing we did with cherries was to put them in a jar with sugar and alcohol and set them in the pantry. After a few months of maceration, the cherries flavor the alcohol and you have a nice little cordial.

Well, we forgot it and left that jar in the cellar for two years. I opened it last week and drained out the cherries. The fruit was not good to eat any more; the flesh had gotten tough and had no flavor. But the alcohol has a beautiful pink color and a rich cherry flavor. Yum! I put it in a bottle for holiday sipping.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A December sunset

During the past few weeks, sunsets have been rare. Well, let me rephrase that: visible sunsets have been rare. We've been having a series of weather systems that keep the sky overcast most of the time. Before that, high pressure inversions kept us under a blanket of fog.

The view from our guest room window on December 2, 2011. Click to pinkify.

But once in a while, the fog dissipates or the clouds break and we're treated to a nice show at sunset. And these days, as we approach the winter solstice, the sun is setting earlier and earlier. Tonight, or should I say this afternoon, it will set at 17h04 (5:04 pm).

Saturday, December 10, 2011


That's what I call it. There were several inches of it in the bottom of our water heater's tank. And the heating element was caked with it. Before he got to the gunk, however, the plumber had to fix our shower stall. It was really easy (for him) to get the stall unbolted from the wall, disconnected from the drain, and pulled away from the corner where it stands.

The gunk from the bottom of the water heater, some on the ground, most in the bucket.

He disconnected the flexible cold water pipe in minutes. Then he had to drive to the hardware store to get a replacement. I don't know why a plumber doesn't have that stuff on his truck, but there's probably some very good technical reason (like: I can charge more if I have to take the time to go to the hardware store). The shower was back up and ready to go in less than two hours.

A close-up of the gunk. I knew you'd want to see.

Next up was the issue of the water heater. Before he started on the shower stall, the plumber opened the drain on the water tank. It was still draining, very slowly, when he finished upstairs. Since it was close to lunch time, he said he'd just let it finish draining over lunch and come back after.

When he got back, the tank had stopped draining. When he opened it up, however, there was still a good six inches of hot water in the bottom. The drain is about six inches above the floor of the tank. I'm not sure why. So, the plumber got in his truck and went back to the shop to get his wet/dry vac to suck all the water out. That worked pretty well. The rest of what was in the tank was the gunk you see in the pictures. This is the stuff that's been clogging the filters in our faucets, toilet tank, and washing machine intake for the last year and a half.

The new pressure regulator. The white-ish pipe on the right will be replaced Monday.

It's not really gunk and it's actually pretty clean. It feels like sand, but is actually tiny crystals. I suppose it's crystallized calcium from the hard water. The plumber said it had to have been there when we got the tank; that much gunk could not have accumulated since we've had the tank. And, he said, the plumber who installed the tank should have noticed it was full of gunk when he moved it. Oh well.

He got most of it out of the tank and cleaned off the heating element. After doing that he installed a new pressure regulator. The previous one was obviously not working. This new one is adjustable so that we can change the pressure if necessary. It's supposed to protect the water heater from too much pressure and also is supposed to keep the pressure even throughout the house so that opening a faucet or flushing the toilet won't result in a sudden drop in pressure elsewhere (like in the shower). We never had that problem until that other pressure regulator went in about a year and a half ago.

The plumber is coming back on Monday because he wants to replace two short lengths of old cast iron pipe that he says are most certainly clogged with rust and calcium. He'll put in copper pipe, like the rest of the house has.

One of the nice things about having the utility room below the living space is that all of the systems are accessible. Nothing's hidden in a cramped closet or crawlspace or under a stairwell. It makes maintenance and repairs a little easier.

So, did it work? The shower is back in commission, so that's good. And the pressure is good, back to where it was before all this started. Ken opened a faucet while I was showering and I did notice a little change in pressure, but nothing like it was last week. So I think we're in good shape. The plumber said that now that the gunk is gone, the heater should be a little more energy efficient. And he turned the temperature down a bit; it was set too high.

I can't wait to see the bill for all this. Well, maybe I can.

Friday, December 09, 2011

A fungus among us

I saw these little mushrooms on a path in Champagne. If I've identified them correctly, they are called coprins chevelus (coprinus comatus). This according to my Larousse pocket mushroom guide. They are supposedly edible when young, although I will never know.

Champignons en Champagne.

There are all manner of mushrooms sprouting in our back yard right now. We've had some rain, but even before that the mushrooms have been coming up. They're all different varieties (although I haven't attempted to identify them) depending on where they're growing. Some grow in shady spots, others in less shady spots. Some grow under conifers, others near fruit trees. Some, according to friends and neighbors who know, are even edible. Although, once again, I will never eat them.

I'm just not going to take any chances. I'll buy my mushrooms commercially.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Like the circles that you find

These may not be the windmills of your mind, but they are becoming a common sight all around France. Between the Loire Valley and Paris there is a wind farm that you can see from the autoroute or the train in the vast flatness of the Beauce region. These éoliennes are in Champagne just east of the Côte des blancs vineyards.

You can get an idea of the scale if you look at the tractor in the center left of the photo.

Today our plumber is coming to fix a mess I made last Sunday. I've been noticing a gradual drop in water pressure in the shower over the last few months. When this happens in the kitchen and bathroom sinks, I remove the aerators from the faucets and clean them in hot vinegar to dissolve the calcium deposits blocking the water flow (we have moderately hard water). I thought maybe the filters on the shower faucet needed to be cleaned, so I removed the faucet control.

I turned the water supply off and removed the faucet connections with a wrench. The hot water connector came off fine, but when I turned the cold water connector, I noticed that the pipe itself was turning. Eventually the nut came off and I was able to clean the filters (they weren't very clogged at all -- I'll get to that later) and re-install the faucet unit. When I turned the water back on, there was only hot water. No cold.

Without going into all the detective work I did, I finally wondered if when the pipe was turning, it was twisting the flexible water hose behind the shower wall. I got a ladder and climbed up to the top of the shower stall and looked back behind it with a flashlight, pressing my face up against the wall so I could peer down into the narrow space between the wall and the shower with one eye. Sure enough, the hose was kinked. No cold water could get through.

I tried, with Ken's help, to twist it back with no success. The only solution is to unbolt the shower stall from the wall and move it away from the wall. Since I had no idea how to deal with the drain connection, we decided to call the plumber who originally installed the shower. He came by on Monday afternoon and we told him what happened. He said it's not a big deal (we shall see) and he would come on Thursday morning (today) to disconnect the drain, move the shower stall, and replace the kinked water hose.

We also talked about the pressure issue and the fact that about once a month when I clean the calcium deposits from the aerators, there is a bunch of what look like sand grains in the faucet filters. He asked me if, when I turn on the water, there is good pressure for a second or two then it dwindles. Bingo! That's exactly what happens. He thinks that the sand grains and the pressure issue means that the water heater needs to be cleaned out, so he's doing that, too. He's familiar with the make of our heater and says it's not a big deal to do.

We didn't get the heater new, it was given to us by friends who remodeled a nearby house. The unit was relatively new, but sat unused for some time before our friends bought the house. The plumber who installed it for us a bit less than two years ago added a pressure regulator right after our water meter, before the heating tank. For some reason, that is supposed to prevent harm to the heater. Our regular plumber said the regulator is an Italian model and it's not adjustable. He wants to put a French model on so that we can adjust the pressure to where we want it. I think he's going to do that today, too, but I'm not sure.

I'll let you know how it all goes. In the meantime, we've been using the small shower stall in the utility room. That's what we call the dog's shower since it's where she gets rinsed off after her daily walks.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Did you say boozy?

No. I said Bouzy. It's pronounced basically the same,* by the way. But Bouzy is the name of the town where our rental house was located. You can see it below, from up on the slopes of the vineyards. The church steeple you see is the one with all the bells.

The town of Bouzy in Champagne, on the southeastern flank of the Montagne de Reims.

The town felt kind of sleepy, but it wasn't really. Each morning we'd hear trucks and tractors as they made their way from garages to the vineyards, or transporting bottles (probably empty) to winemakers, or even transporting wine to market. The bakery bustled and there was some light traffic in town during the morning and evening commute periods.

The town's only grocery was closed for remodeling, so we had to go to the next town over to buy groceries. That town was a little bigger and it felt like it had a little more going on.

* Except that the stress is on the second syllable: [boo-ZEE].

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The house we rented

The gîte we rented in Champagne was in the middle of the town of Bouzy, but the property was large enough to have a good courtyard and green space. It had a gate that closed us off from the street and Callie could be out in the yard with no worries. We didn't feel cramped at all. I noticed that wherever we were in the house or on the property, we had complete privacy; there were no windows facing us at all.

Our home away from home in Champagne, along with the car we rented for the trip.

The people who own the house live right across the street. They are winemakers and have their own label. Their son, who lives next door to them, was really nice and took Ken and me on a tour of their cellar and property, and gave us a wine tasting. His wine is good and we bought some. He told us that they don't make their own wine any more, so all that we were seeing was actually no longer in service. He delivers their grapes to a cooperative where the wine is made and labelled for them.

The house was nice and comfortable enough. The only weird thing was that the town's church, whose steeple we could see out the windows, was equipped with a carillon. Every quarter hour, from seven in the morning until ten at night, the bells would ring. The tune at the top of the hour sounded like the nursery rhyme "Three Blind Mice." The tune was followed by one chime for each hour (ten at ten p.m.!). After that, a single chime for the quarter, two for the half, and three for the three-quarter hour.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Vineyard views in Champagne

It was October and the vines still had leaves. The harvesting was done, but I still saw a lot of people working in the vineyards. What were they doing? I'm not sure, but probably some kind of vineyard maintenance. I think it was too early to be pruning.

A pinot noir patchwork. Looking roughly west, toward Paris.

The vineyards in the first photo are pinot noir grapes on the south-facing slopes of the Montagne de Reims, just outside the town where our rental house was.

Looking northward. I like the grass under the vines.

The vines in the second photo are also pinot noir grapes, but this time on the north-facing slopes of the mountain near Verzenay.

Le Pressoir d'Oger, Château Malakoff.

The third photo was taken looking roughly east from the slopes of the Côtes des blancs, where the grapes are chardonnay. That's a cemetery in the foreground and a grape pressing facility at the top.

More chardonnay. These grapes face the morning sun.

And finally, another look at the chardonnay vineyards on the Côtes des blancs, this time looking up the hill toward the forest at the top. I like the way the vines are planted at different angles to optimize drainage.

I started to think about the differences between the Champagne vineyards and those around where we live in the Touraine. The feel is certainly different. Our local vineyards tend to be smaller parcels surrounded by woods. The Champagne vineyards seem to be vast, mostly uninterrupted seas of vines. The Touraine wine industry feels smaller, more individualized, with small growers making their own wine (there are many cooperatives around, too). Champagne felt much more corporate, with outposts of big wine houses (with familiar names) for pressing and fermenting mingled in with the smaller producers.

By the numbers, if my conversions and calculations are correct, Champagne's vines cover nearly 82,000 acres compared with Touraine's more modest 14,000 acres. And Champagne produces about 352 million bottles a year, whereas Touraine's annual production is only about 37 million bottles. While these numbers may not be completely accurate due to my less-than-rigorous research, they do reflect the huge difference in scale between the two wine regions.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Pintade à la broche

This is une pintade (a guinea hen) that we recently roasted in the oven. One of the features of many French ovens is a built in rotisserie. It's a very nice option to have when roasting, especially a bird, because of the self-basting.

Roasted guinea hen still on the spit.

If I remember correctly, Ken put a dish of peeled potatoes under the bird to roast in the drippings. Nothing is wasted. And it was delicious, to boot!

We're starting to think about what kind of bird we want to roast for Christmas dinner. I think we've narrowed it down to either a turkey, a guinea fowl capon, or a local black-feathered chicken called a géline de Touraine. The géline is an older breed of farm chicken that died out, but it's been "reconstituted" through the crossing of the black Croad Langshan and the Bress Gauloise Noir breeds. The poultry vendor at our local farmers' market has them, but you have to order them in advance. They cost more than a standard chicken or guinea hen, but the gélines are arguably the best chickens I have ever tasted; worth the price for a special occasion.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

They've gone too phare

There is a phare (lighthouse) on the flanks of the Montagne de Reims. The closest serious body of water, the English Channel, is about 225 kilometers (140 miles) away. So what's the deal? From what I read, the lighthouse was built as a publicity stunt back in 1909 by a certain avant-garde champagne merchant named Joseph Goulet.

Le Phare de Verzenay and its museum, with the town down below.

The lighthouse was quite an attraction in its day, but fell into disrepair after the first world war. It was rehabilitated in the late 1990s and is now home to a wine museum. We didn't visit, but we did drive by.

Friday, December 02, 2011

And now, Champagne

While our friend Cheryl was here in October, we drove up to Champagne for four days just to check it out. We rented a gîte in a small town called Bouzy, on the southeastern flank of the Montagne de Reims, not far from the city of Epernay. Our goal was to see what Champagne felt like and to taste a variety of wines.

Part of the town of Verzenay on the northern slopes of the Montagne de Reims.

All three of us had been to Champagne before, mostly the city of Reims, but also to Epernay. Those visits were quick overnights or drive-throughs over the years. This time we wanted to explore a little more. We arrived on a Monday afternoon and after checking in and doing a little food shopping, we made dinner accompanied by a bottle or two of the local bubbly.

The next day, we planned to drive around the base of the mountain. Well, it's not really a mountain, but a large bulge in the otherwise flat countryside of that part of the Champagne region. It's on the flanks of that mountain that you find many of the pinot noir vineyards.

This windmill was built in 1818 on a promontory above the town of Verzenay.

Pinot noir is one of the three grapes that go into a typical Champagne. The other principal grape is chardonnay, mostly grown on the hillsides south of Epernay which are called les Côtes des Blancs (the slopes of white grapes). The third grape in Champagne is pinot meunier, grown mostly in the Marne River valley west of Epernay.

Unless the label on the bottle says otherwise, Champagne is a blend of these three grapes. Also, typically, a Champagne will be blended with wine from the previous year. Winemakers do this so that the finished wine will be more or less consistent from year to year.

Some wines will be pure chardonnay; they are the blanc de blancs. Others will be made from just the red, or black, grapes; they are the blanc de noirs. Other wines will reflect an exceptional year and not be blended with last year's vintage; these are the vintage wines labelled millésime.

We tried some of each. We also tried the red still wine they make in Bouzy. We left no bottle uncorked. Ok, we did because we brought a bunch home with us. We're working on those.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Space, the final frontier

These are our voyages to a wine-making enterprise. Our continuing mission: to explore strange new reds. To seek out new whites, new sparkling sensations. To boldly drink where none of us has drunk before.

If you look into Space you can see the stars.

This is Ken and his friend from grad-school days, Bob, entering the tasting room of a local wine cooperative. The tasting room is called l'Espace. Space. The entrance is this rather dramatic opening in the cliff face.

Bob, Norma, Ken, and I had a great time tasting a variety of their wines, including some sparklers. We even took some of them home with us.

Hailing frequencies are open. Beam me up, Scotty!