Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Monday morning in the vineyard

This was a week ago Monday. It was that same frosty morning I've been showing you lately. Callie and I walk out this dirt road to the end and back. This is about halfway out. Our mornings have been very nice lately. Lots of sun, few clouds.

A few morning clouds in an otherwise blue sky over the vineyards.

And the nights are brilliant, too. When it's clear (and cold this time of year), the stars are amazing. Looking in this direction (roughly west) right now from our windows in the evening we can see the waxing crescent moon accompanied by Venus and Jupiter. Later in the night (I'm often up wandering around at some point in the middle of the night), I can see the constellation Orion big and bright in the same direction.

I'm looking forward to summer when I can be outside after dark looking at the stars. If I can stay awake that long; the stars aren't visible until ten o'clock or later in the summer.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


I don't know if this is a grape grower's idea of art or some kids' bit of fun. But there it is. An empty wine bottle stuck on the end of a grape vine. It's been out at the end of the vineyard road now for over a week.

Look! It's a vine bottle! Click to art-enate.

Maybe it could be some sort of scientific experiment? And what does that strip of torn cloth so carefully tied around the bottle and the post signify? As we used to say in high school: it must have some deep, inner meaning.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The first signs of spring

I noticed two purple crocuses out in the yard on Sunday. I also noticed that the primroses are starting to put up flowers, as are the little daisies. Oh, spring is on the way!

Our first crocuses of the season! Yippee!

And it's just four weeks away that we turn the clocks ahead. We gain more daylight each day. It's a good time of year.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Frosty grass

This photo is from earlier in the week when we were still having frosty mornings. Right now our mornings are quite mild, which is nice. The heat doesn't need to run very long to warm up the house and the birds are getting more vocal at sunrise. There is a definite feeling of spring in the air, a feeling that is accentuated from having just come out of a very cold spell.

A tuft of vineyard grass covered by a fine frost. Click to encrystallate.

It's still February and it can still freeze. March usually brings rain squalls as warm and cold air masses do battle over our heads. The squalls are often in the form of rain, but they can just as easily come as sleet or snow. In France these squalls are called les giboulées de mars and correspond roughly to what we Americans call April showers.

"If March winds bring April showers, and April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?"

If you're American, you should know the answer.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Our path through the woods

Just to the north of our house, on the other side of the vineyard, Callie and I often walk on a path that runs down into a ravine cut by a stream that drains the vineyards above. At the bottom of the path, the ravine opens out into the river valley. There are a couple of fields down there; one is cultivated every year, the other is just left wild and is mowed from time to time. We continue our walk along the dirt roads that border the fields until we make our way back to our road, then we climb back up the hill toward home.

Looking back up the hill. I hope I'm not under these trees when they finally fall.

The ravine is wooded and the big storms we've had over the past two years have knocked a good number of trees down. This is one bunch of trees that were blown over, but they're not all the way down. Yet. One day I'm certain that they'll come down. If not by themselves, then someone with a chainsaw will go at them.

I don't know who owns the woods. They could be private or they could belong to the town. Either way, the path is a public right-of-way, so I know we're not trespassing.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Hyper shopping

Where we live, near Saint-Aignan, we have the necessities. In addition to our regular Saturday market in the town square, we have two decent-sized grocery stores and two hardware stores. There's one discount grocery, and a small corner store. Banks, insurance companies, a few hair salons, restaurants, bars, and several bakeries. We can find most of what we need without going too far.

A recent frosty morning. Can you spot Callie sitting beside the dirt road?

But once in a while we venture out to one of the larger hyper-markets in our region. That means a forty minute drive to either Tours (west), Blois (north), Romo (east), or Loches (south). On Thursday we drove down to Loches to the big E. Leclerc store there because they were having a sale on some stuff we wanted (some meats for the freezer, some cleaning products, a windshield wiper for the car's back window, etc.). The bigger stores have more room and therefore have more variety and choices that we don't have in our smaller stores locally, especially in the produce section.

It's a nice drive through the countryside, although on Thursday it was overcast and drizzly. No matter. The store had pretty much everything on our list, so we were happy. And it was nice to get out of the routine for a bit.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A definite warming trend

It won't be long now. A few more weeks. Then spring officially arrives. Yesterday's fire warmed the house up a lot. Soon it'll be warm enough outside to skip the daily fire. In fact, they're predicting 14ºC (upper 50s F) over the weekend. That will feel nice.

A small puddle, still frozen in the early morning.

This morning's low is well above freezing. But over the past few days we've had frosty mornings with frozen puddles out in the vineyard. The puddles melt with the sunshine and re-freeze over night.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A five year old dog

Today is Callie's fifth birthday. Hard to believe it's been five years already. We met her just a few weeks after she was born, and she came to live with us at ten weeks old or so.

"Hurry up, I'm not getting any younger!"

I don't have a better portrait ready, so this one will have to do. Here she is waiting for me to catch up with her as we climbed the hill back up to the house on Sunday. You can see pictures of Callie over the past five years in the little slide show to the right (you may have to scroll down a little). Which reminds me, I have to add some photos to that...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sunny skies

The past few mornings have been clear and the days have been mostly sunny and bright. It really lifts the spirits. Even though our morning temperatures are around freezing, the days are warming up nicely, tempting us with thoughts of spring.

White puffy clouds drifted across Sunday afternoon's sky.

I'm itching to get outside and start working on the spring cleanup, but it's still a little too chilly and a little too early. March (which starts next week!) and April will be the time to get started. First up: pruning roses and grape vines.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Tikes on bikes

On weekends we will often see guys riding their motos on the dirt roads around where we live. And, true to form, Callie and I encountered three of them on Sunday evening while we were out walking. Luckily, they sped by. Well, of course they did.

The noise scares Callie. She hangs off to the side until the bikers are gone.

Unfortunately, they sound horrible. I will admit to having dragged downed trees across paths to discourage them. Yes, I've become an old fart.

And they're off! With a huge cloud of smelly smoke.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Leftovers again

What do you do with leftover pâte feuilletée (puff pastry)? Make chaussons (popovers) filled with pear compote, of course! Ken had preserved some pears last fall and they were just calling out to be used, so I made a quick compote by cooking them with a little sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon.

Freshly baked pear popovers cooling on a rack.

Then I rolled out my scraps of puff pastry from January (after I thawed them) and cut out small circles of dough. I spooned some of the compote on each circle, closed them over the filling and painted them with egg wash. Into the oven and about twenty minutes later, voilà!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Stormy weather

Well, not really. Now that the Siberian Express has left the station, the North Atlantic systems are starting to move through again. Right now they're kind of weak, bringing us mostly clouds and a few sprinkles here and there.

Some birches and some alders and some other trees.

This is the view north from our front deck. Clouds are moving in from the northwest while the sun shines on the trees from the south. This patch of woods separates us from the vineyard to the north. We can see through it in winter, but in summer it's a wall of green. And I like that.

Friday, February 17, 2012

More dried plants

These are what I used to call "helicopters" when I was a kid. They are the seeds of maple trees that, when they fall, twirl around wildly while slowly descending to the ground. Their fins behave a little like helicopter blades, providing a little lift to the heavy seed so it can fall away from the parent tree, hence the nickname. I would often pick them up and toss them into the air to see them twirl back down to the ground again.

January helicopters.

We have two maple trees on our property. And not a few helicopters. These I saw down by the river, just hanging around. I think the ones in our yard fall in early summer. Yet here it was the middle of winter, and these were still on the tree.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Back to normal

It's kind of anticlimactic, this thaw we've looked forward to. The snow, the bitter cold, it lasted all of two weeks. Now that the bad weather is over, it almost feels as if it never happened. But we know it did.

Dew on a desiccated wild carrot flower.

The woods and the vineyards have reclaimed their winter browns. The grass is still green. The roofs in our neighborhood have shed their white mantles, revealing their more somber colors. The looked-for winter kill has come and gone. The insect and rodent populations have (we hope) died back to normal proportions.

In fact, just yesterday I noticed evidence of Bertie's having caught a mouse, which he hadn't done since the big freeze began.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The snow is mostly gone

But we still have our memories. Much better. And the very cold air is also gone. We're back to the normal cold and humid air that comes in with weather systems from the North Atlantic. It will be interesting to see how the remainder of winter turns out.

I remember this like it was yesterday. Actually, it was last week.

The Great Snowy Mole Mountain Range is now just piles of dirt in the lawn. Which reminds me of all the work that's coming up in the garden. Once they thaw, I will have to remove all those hills. The dirt will likely end up in the vegetable garden. The roses need pruning, and, as it warms up, I've got some larger trees to trim. I want to get the mistletoe out of the big apple tree, so I'll be cutting out some large limbs. And fewer limbs equals fewer apples to pick up in the fall.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Another batch of muffins

I'm enjoying making savory mini-muffins these days. On Sunday I made a batch with goat cheese and grated zucchini. The squash was from last year's garden, grated and frozen. It was perfect for this recipe.

Mini goat cheese and zucchini muffins cooling in the purple muffin mold.

The muffins are easy to make and they pop right out of these hot purple silicon molds. There's no need to butter or otherwise grease the molds. And they clean up in a snap.

One of the best things about the muffins is that they're great finger food. No fuss, no slicing, just pop 'em in your mouth! We ate these cooled the first day, then had them again on Monday warmed up in the toaster oven.

***** UPDATE: Here's the recipe for those of you who read French:

Cake salé, courgette et chèvre

180 g de farine
1 sachet de levure chimique
3 oeufs
10 cl de lait
5 cl d'huile d'olive
100 g de chèvre
200 g de courgettes
20 g de parmesan
1 cuillère à soupe de moutarde
1 bonne grosse cuillère à soupe d'herbes fraiches(basilic, coriandre, menthe...)

Couper les courgettes en petit dés. Les salés un peu pour leur faire perdre leur eau et le mettre sur un papier absorbant. Couper le chèvre en dés.

Mélanger les oeufs, la farine, la levure et le parmesan. Ajouter le lait, l'huile et la moutarde et bien mélanger. Ajouter finalement les courgettes, le chèvre et le herbes et mélanger à nouveau.

Verser la préparation dans un moule à cake beurré et fariné. Et mettre dans le four préchauffé à 180°C pendant environ 45min.

Astuces : Le cake est encore meilleur le lendemain. Il se conserve plusieurs jours au frigo. Vous pouvez aussi le couper en tranches et le congeler.

Vous pouvez le faire cuire dans des petits moules à cake ou dans des petits moules rond style mini muffins. Dans ce cas il faudra un peu réduire là cuisson.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Another snow shot

As the thaw begins (we hope), here's another shot of our little hamlet in the snow. I can't tell you how unusual it is for us to have the kind of cold we've been having, or for snow to last two weeks on the ground here where we live. This will certainly be a winter to remember, if for nothing else than the contrast between the very mild start and this cold spell.

The snow will be nearly all gone within the next 24 hours. And, I hope, so will the extreme cold.

Bertie has become accustomed to coming into the house in the mornings and the afternoons since the cold spell began two weeks ago. He will spend the warmest part of the day outside and we make him spend the night in the garage (only because the dog will try to eat him if he's in the house overnight). For the time he spends in the house, we block Callie up in the loft. She's content to snooze while Ken watches tv up there. Bertie hangs out by a radiator or the wood stove when he's inside.

When it's not so cold, Bertie is free to go outside during the night. But since the Siberian air arrived, we've been closing him inside to keep his sleeping area as warm as possible. So his outside time is limited to the sunny middle of the day. It will be interesting to see how his behavior evolves as it warms up again.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Prunus interruptus

Our nearly two weeks of sub-zero (celsius) temperatures have put a temporary hold on the grapevine pruning that takes place during the winter. At least it has for the people that work out in the vineyard behind us; we haven't seen them for a while.

One of the local vineyard storage sheds in the snow.

And I don't blame them. But they'll be back this week as the temperatures rise, I'm sure. There is still a lot of pruning to do. It will also be time for me to get out back and prune back our roses and the few grape vines we have in the yard. The roses had actually started to sprout leaves before the cold came.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Snowy decks and great tits

That title might boost this blog's traffic today. I hate to disappoint, but this great tit is a bird. The mésange (great tit) is one of the most common birds that we see around the house in winter. We put bird seed and suet balls out for them when it's very cold or snowy.

Can you see the tit on the left side of the suet hanger? Click to, um, er, make it bigger.

In addition to the great tits, we also see blue tits and crested tits, rouge gorges (European robins), pinsons (chaffinches), and merles (blackbirds) feeding on the deck and at the other feeders. Just the other day a great spotted woodpecker made a brief appearance on the deck. We see them all the time in the trees but rarely on the deck.

Also, since it's been so cold, there is the odd casualty or two. I found a dead grive musicienne (song thrush) out on the back path last week. It has since disappeared, likely picked up and carted off by a hungry animal.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Tired of snow pictures yet?

I'm not, really. But I am tired of the cold. This cold snap is lasting a while and that's unusual. I must say, however, that we are very lucky. We have a good house with a working heating system, a wood stove and a decent supply of wood, functioning electricity, and a full pantry and freezer. And indoor plumbing.

Wild rose thorns under the snow.

I have seen a lot of stories on the news these past nights about people all over the country who live on the margins. People who sleep out there in tents or live in their cars. People with children who huddle in their apartments because they can't afford the heating bill. The shelters are open and volunteers work with the police to look for people who are in danger of exposure and try to get them to a shelter. They take blankets, food, and hot drinks to the people on the streets who refuse to go to a shelter. They try to find people living in sub-standard housing to offer help. And then, I think, what happens after the cold? It's back to living on the margins for most, I suspect.

When I see these stories on the news, my toes don't feel so cold after all.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

It's still cold

I know, I know. It's February. It's supposed to be cold. But we live in a climate zone that is normally tempered by the Atlantic Ocean (even this far inland) and harsh winters are not normal. In fact, this winter, until now, has been quite the opposite: very mild. Then suddenly, at the end of January, the winds shifted to the northeast and the Siberian frigid air started pouring in to France.

Out at the end of the vineyard road (right) where it joins the paved road (left).

The warm and wet Atlantic weather systems are blocked by the icy air. When one actually manages to push inland, the combination of the humid air from the west and the cold air from the east creates snow. And that's what's been happening this past week. The battle of the air masses!

The top story on the nightly news for a over a week now has been the weather. Cold and snow, traffic problems and school closings, and the homeless and hungry. The nuclear plants are running à plein régime (full steam, as it were) to keep up with the power demands; a lot of French households are heated by electricity. France's electricity prices are among the lowest in Europe because over 80% of it is produced by local nuclear plants.

Two regions, Brittany and Provence/Riviera, are on high alert because their power distribution networks were not built to handle such high demand. It's not normally this cold in those places.

After a few more days, we should be moving back into more seasonable temperatures. For us, that's days hovering around freezing (0ºC) and usually higher than that. Anything above freezing right now will feel downright balmy!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Froid, moi ? Jamais !

Thank goodness for long johns. Shortly after we moved here from California I discovered that my legs got very, very cold during winter walks with the dog in the vineyard. On one cold November day I couldn't face the cold, so I put a pair of cotton lounge pants for sleeping (like pajama bottoms) on under my jeans. What an improvement. I realized then, because I had spent close to twenty years not living in a winter climate, that I had forgotten how to deal with the cold.

Looking south at sunrise through the snowy vineyard.

When I told Ken what I was doing (I think he was on a trip to North Carolina at the time), he decided to buy a couple of pairs of thermal underwear for our winter walks. They are great and we use them every year (we now have two pairs each). Whenever the outside temperature goes below 5ºC (about 40ºF), I put on the long johns for my walk and I'm very comfortable.

This week, with temperatures dipping to -10ºC, it's hard to imagine not having the long johns at all. And the two shirts, sweatshirt, coat, scarf, hat, and thick gloves. Not to mention the hiking boots. Brrrrr.

* The title of this post translates to "Cold, me? Never!" and was/is the advertising tag line for a famous line of French thermal underwear. I remember seeing their ads all over the Paris subway back in 1981.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Walking in the snow

Walking in the snow last week was a breeze. The ground hadn't yet frozen, so the snow didn't accumulate on the paved roads or in the dirt tracks through the vineyard. But the ground has since frozen (we haven't been above zero for about a week now) and Sunday's snow covered everything.

Looking west through the vineyards. Callie's looking east toward me.

Trudging through even a few inches of freshly fallen snow is more work than a leisurely walk. Still, it's good for me. Callie and I went out to the end of the vineyard road (the road in this picture) and back. When we got out to the end on Monday afternoon, a tractor with a plow passed us on the way to clear our road. He didn't plow the dirt road, but I was able to walk in his tire tracks back to the house.

After the road got plowed, another tractor came by with a sand spreader and gave the road a good coating of sand.

Monday, February 06, 2012

A white Super Bowl

Since it snowed on Sunday, I thought I'd show you some snow. I took this picture last week after our first snowfall of the season. We got much more than this yesterday. Callie doesn't mind the snow at all unless the wind is driving it into her eyes.

Our house seen from the vineyard road. Looking north-east toward the river.

So the Super Bowl happened, but I don't yet know the result. It's on live here but overnight (started at midnight on Sunday) and, as many of you know, the games are re-broadcast the next day. The re-broadcast is on this morning at ten, so I'll be watching then. In the meantime, as usual, I've gone into media blackout so that I won't know who won before I watch.

***** UPDATE: Media blackout is over. I enjoyed the game!

Sunday, February 05, 2012

One more black and white

Another shot of the river in the fog taken a little over a week ago. On this one I used a warming filter to give it a brownish/sepia-like tone. I like the result.

If I can remember, I'd like to take this same picture in the spring with leaves on the trees.

The weather people predicted some snow for us on Sunday. As usual, the prediction several days ago was for a good amount of snow, but as the day got closer they ratcheted that down. The main thing is that the ground is frozen now when it wasn't for the last snow. Whatever we get will stick immediately.

We're experiencing a cold, dry northeasterly wind that they call la bise. Sounds like a kiss on the cheek!

*** UPDATE: The snow started falling early this morning. We have a light layer of snow just before sunrise and it's expected to continue through mid-day. We will stay snug in the house today (except for snowy walks with Callie).

And speaking of Callie, she is doing great. Her medicine turned things around incredibly quickly and she's back to her old self again. The coughing and drooling all but stopped within 18 hours! Thanks to everyone for your kind words and well-wishes.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Scary tree

This is a big old tree that is seriously covered in moss. Again, I removed the color and got a much cooler image (in my opinion). The tree is much more sinister looking this way, don't you think?

A moss-covered tree down by the river. The dark patches on the tree are the moss plants.

We took Callie to vet on Friday. She's been coughing recently, a dry, hacking cough. And she's been drooling (yuck). Her eating habits have also changed slightly, so we knew something was up. My first thought was that it was kennel cough. But Callie doesn't interact with many dogs, just a few every now and then in the vineyard. Maybe one of them passed on a viral or bacterial infection?

The vet examined Callie and everything seems to be ok. She's running a slight fever. The vet said it looks like she ate something that irritated her throat; she saw some inflammation in the throat and Callie coughed when the vet massaged her throat from the outside. When we told the vet that Callie didn't finish her kibble in the morning, she said it was likely that her throat hurts when she swallows the hard kibble. Which is why she has no trouble eating soft meat or cheese.

Or it could be some kind of virus. Either way, there are no serious symptoms other than her coughing and drooling. So we got some cortisone pills for the throat inflammation and pain and some antibiotics to prevent any infections (or to stop any current infection). Callie should be back to normal in about six days time. We'll keep our fingers crossed.

Friday, February 03, 2012

As you like it

I talked about making black and white images from color photos a couple of days ago. Here's an example of the differences between the two. I really like both the color and b/w versions of this picture. But the original, right out of the camera, was not at all to my liking. It didn't look like what I saw at all.

This retouched image looks closer to what I saw in person.

The problem with the original is that the colors are not quite right. There's probably an adjustment on the camera that I can make to correct that, so I'll do a little research (it might have to do with the light metering mode). For this picture, I used Photoshop to see if I could make the colors match the reality a little better. After some fiddling around I think I got it. That's what you see in the top photo.

Taking out the color gives the picture an eerie quality and highlights the tree trunks.

The second photo is the black and white version. Again, I used Photoshop to remove the color and then adjusted the contrast a bit. I notice the details on the tree trunks a lot more in the b/w version than I do in the color one. And just for fun, here's the raw image that came out of the camera:

The original picture. The moss is too lime-green and the tree trunks are too faded.

See what I mean? Well, you might not since you weren't there when I took the picture, but you can certainly see the difference between the original on the bottom and the retouched photo on the top.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Making our way through the woods

I'd really like to spend more time walking along the river, especially in better weather. Like I said, the only problem is getting the dog down there; there's a road with fast-moving vehicles to cross. It's just a lot easier to walk out the back yard and into the calm of the vineyards. I could put the dog in the car and drive down to the river, but that just seems wasteful, and she hates the car.

This is one of the paths that run through the woods along the river bank.

But you never know. She did really well crossing the road last week, so maybe we'll try it again in the spring. There looks to be a nice dirt road along the opposite bank of the river, but that would definitely entail taking the car as we'd have to go into Saint-Aignan to cross the bridge. We should probably just stick to exploring our side for now.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

It snowed on Monday

So naturally I took the camera out with me on Tuesday morning's walk. Here's a preview. I'm going to finish up the fog photos and then come back to the snow.

Rose hips under fresh snow.

The temperature hovered around freezing while it snowed in the afternoon and evening then dipped just slightly below freezing overnight. I noticed that the only the smaller puddles were actually frozen solid. The pond had no ice at all on it.

But the forecast is for us to have a cold snap as the week progresses.