Monday, December 31, 2012

Painting in the sky

Sunday's sunrise was probably the last we'll see like this in 2012. Today we're under overcast skies, but yesterday the relatively clear sky was painted with bands of low clouds and airline contrails. As the sun reached the horizon, the contrails shone bright white as if someone had drawn a brush across a blue canvas.

The last clear morning of 2012. Let's hope we have plenty like this in 2013.

The undersides of the clouds were tinted orange and red for a few brief minutes. I'll post one of those shots soon.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The thirteenth moon

I mentioned yesterday in my "newsiness" section that we just had the thirteenth full moon of 2012. I read about it on one of my favorite science websites, Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy. He pointed out that every third year we get a thirteenth full moon due to the length of the year (the earth's orbit around the sun) and the length of the moon's cycle (its orbit around the earth).

Full moon setting, 29 December 2012.

On Saturday morning we were surprised with a clear sky and the full moon setting spectacularly in the west. I got the camera out, attached the telephoto lens, and snapped a few shots from the guest room window. I had to work fast because the moon was starting to set behind some low clouds. I was shooting through the linden tree branches; I think they give the picture an eerie quality.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

I heard it through the grapevine

These grapes grow up against a stone building out in the vineyard. The little building is an old cabane du vigneron (grower's cabin) that is locked up, unused. These old buildings sprinkled here and there in the vineyards used to serve as storage buildings and shelters for taking lunch while working in the vineyard. That was back in the day before cars and tractors made it easy to go home for the mid-day meal.

These grapes are on their way to becoming raisins.

Several old vines adorn the sides of this building, and while the grapes are not harvested for wine, the grower still prunes the vines back every year to ensure healthy growth in the spring and summer. The grapes are tasty and available to those of us who walk by on a late summer's day. The rest are for the wildlife.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A burning barrel

This barrel belongs to one of the growers who owns parcels out behind our house. As he prunes the vines, he burns the cut sarments (vine shoots) in this home-made burner. He is already finished with his parcels that are closest to us, so we won't likely be seeing him out there again until spring.

The burn barrel on a frosty morning. Another grower works on his vines across the road.

The grower with the largest parcels out back hasn't started yet. His crew must be working on other parcels. It won't be long, however, until we see them out there every day for a month or two. They don't burn the sarments, but line them up between the rows. Later, they will pull a broyeur (grinder) behind a tractor to mulch the trimmings in place.

I know that I talk about this every year. My blog is getting repetitive. But that's life, isn't it?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Another door

Why are we so attracted to doors when we have cameras in our hands? I suppose a door presents us with an easy shot. It's still and more or less flat. No serious lighting, focus, or depth-of-field issues to make us crazy.

The geometry of doors can be interesting, too.

This door is in the nearby town of Montrichard. I liked the metal parts, especially the spiral handle on the left.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


This cake is made from a recipe that I got from a friend, Susan of Days on the Claise. I'm not sure (so I hope she'll clarify) if the recipe is Australian or English. My memory isn't what it used to be. This is the second time I've made it and I know I'll make it again.

A slice of Christmas pudding. Fruitcake and cream.

It's a very dense cake, but moist and flavorful. This time I used black currents, golden raisins, sultana raisins, dried cranberries, dried apricots, prunes, and candied ginger for the fruit. I think that you can use whatever dried fruits you have available and the cake will be just as good.

As usual, I think this cake is better after several days. And it's good imbibed with a bit of liqueur. Here, I've served it with a dollop of sweetened cream. Yum!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A wet Christmas

It should be a quiet day around the neighborhood. The tradition in France is for families to get together on Christmas Eve for a big meal and the Christmas celebration, called le réveillon, including (for some) midnight mass. I noticed that the lights were on very late (at 3:00 this morning) in one neighbor's house.

A felt nutcracker ornament, made by my mom many years ago.

Consequently, people tend to sleep in on Christmas morning. Ken and I did our traditional cheese fondue yesterday (and neither of us took a single picture of it) and went to bed at the normal time. So we're up at the normal time. And it's raining outside.

While many French families eat leftovers today, we will prepare our Christmas dinner (for lunch) around the special local chicken that the butcher delivered yesterday. We're making a chestnut stuffing and will bake a squash from the garden and serve some green beans that we grew last summer. Maybe we'll remember to take some pictures this time.

Monday, December 24, 2012

This way to the donjon

It's the eve. Ken and I will be making our traditional cheese fondue. Then we're likely to watch "The Homecoming, a Christmas Story," which is the 1971 made-for-television movie that launched the "Waltons" series in the US. Call me sentimental, but that movie always makes me cry. Patricia Neal was wonderful.

This sign leads visitors up to the ruins of the old château in Montrichard.

So that, and maybe "A Charlie Brown Christmas" will be our evening before retiring to visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads. What the heck is a sugar plum, anyway?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tarte aux pommes

Apple pie is probably my favorite dessert, followed closely by a perfect strawberry tart. I made this apple tart on Friday to serve as my birthday cake. The filling is a compote of apples made with cognac, ground cinnamon and cloves. Over that I arranged the apple slices. The top is painted with an apricot glaze.

My favorite apple pie. The apples are Galas, I believe.

The crust is my standard pâte brisée (short crust) made with butter. We served it with a bit of sweetened cream. Yum!

Saturday, December 22, 2012


My birthday was yesterday. It wasn't what they call a "milestone" birthday, but I think that any birthday over 50 is a milestone. At any rate, I celebrated as I usually do. Starting off with a nice bottle of Champagne.

A premier cru blanc de blancs. Blanc de blancs means that it's pure chardonnay. Yum.

This bottle is one we got just over a year ago when we went up to Champagne for a week with our friend Cheryl. We had a good time tasting (that's a euphemism for drinking) many different Champagnes. This winery turned out to be one of my favorites. It's not as pricey as some Champagnes can be, and it's mighty good.

We're thinking of going back to get some more, or at least ordering some from the winery. We're on their mailing list now.

Friday, December 21, 2012

O tannenbaum

Our christmas tree this year. I finally gave in and got us an artificial tree. My reasoning: I'm old. This tree looks as good, if not better, than the real trees we've been getting lately. And as the price of real trees continues to increase, this one will pay for itself in two or three years.

Our new real fake tree. Happy Holidays!

And, I don't have to deal with falling needles. Or tree disposal (we usually burned the tree in the garden in the spring). We got it from Ikea, so it's a Swedish tree. From up north. Ho, ho, ho!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Oak leaves

I saw these leaves on one of the small oaks out in the vineyard last week when we had a frosty morning.

A frost-tinged oak tree.

The oak trees' leaves turn brown in the fall, but they don't fall from the tree until spring, when the new growth pushes them off.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Frosty berries

With apologies to my cyber-friend Olivier at Ruralité, who takes magnificent photos of, well, everything. He did a series recently featuring the berries of the fusain (spindle, in English). His pictures showed the berries opened up, with the orange seeds visible.

The orange seeds look more red in my picture, but you can see a little of the orange color on the extreme left.

I had never seen that, so I went back to look at the one place near us where I know this plant grows. And, sure enough, the berries had opened to reveal the orange seeds. That morning was a cold one, and the frost on the berries was pretty.

Thanks to Olivier for inspiring this post.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I can't help it. The pattern in this frozen puddle reminds me of, well, you know.

The ice-testine. There. I said it.

The ice is long gone. We're having a mild spell. Better for the, um, digestion.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Almond biscotti

This is one of my favorite recipes and I usually make it several times during the end-of-the-year holiday season. Of course, they are delicious any time. I like to dunk them into wine, coffee, or tea. They can even be dipped in melted chocolate then allowed to cool for a special touch. And, although these are made with almonds, they're just as good with walnuts or hazelnuts.

Delicious almond biscotti, ready to dunk!

Almond biscotti
  • 1/4 cup whole almonds, shelled and skinned (you can buy them like that)
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. almond extract
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • a dash of salt
Place the almonds in a shallow pan and bake in a preheated 180ºC (350ºF) oven for 10 minutes, or until golden brown.

When the almonds are roasted, take them out of the oven and let them cool. Meanwhile, combine and beat together the eggs, vanilla extract, and almond extract.

In a separate bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), combine the flour, sugar, soda, and salt and mix until well blended.

Add the egg mixture and mix for about a minute until well blended. Roughly chop the almonds into halves or thirds (it doesn't matter if some stay whole) and mix them in.

Divide the dough in half and form each half into a log about 1.25 cm (1/2 inch) thick, 4 cm (1 1/2 inches) wide, and 30 cm (12 inches) long. Precision is not necessary here. Put the logs on a greased and floured baking sheet (or use a silicon baking mat) at least 5 cm (2 inches) apart and bake them in the middle of a 150ºC (300ºF) oven about 50 minutes or until golden brown.

Transfer the two logs to a wire rack and let cool for about 5 minutes. Then put them on a cutting board and slice them at a 45º angle with a serrated knife. The slices should be about 1.25 cm (1/2 inch) thick.

Put the slices back on the baking sheet and return them to a 135ºC (275ºF) oven for about 20 minutes to toast them. After they cool, store them in a tightly closed tin.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Another frosty sunrise

In reality it's the same sunrise I posted a few days ago, just taken from a different spot in the vineyard. This one's a few minutes earlier than the last one as the sun is still below the horizon. But the huge cloud formation was dramatically lit.

A December sunrise over the vines.

I made a batch of almond biscotti yesterday as I do from time to time during the holiday season. Maybe I'll get it together to take a picture of them before we eat them all. I'm also planning to make a fruitcake for Christmas next weekend. More about that later.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Bloomin' broom

This is a plant similar to scotch broom. I think it's called gorse or ulex, or ajonc d'Europe in French. I'm not at all sure. It looks right when I compare it to photos on the internet, but it's flowering right now out in the vineyard and Wikipedia says that it normally flowers from February to June.

There's a bit of frost visible on the top flowers toward the end of the branch. Click to ulexinate.

It's got the spines that differentiate gorse from true broom. At any rate, I was surprised to see these bright yellow flowers out there one recent morning. Everything else was covered in frost.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Patterns in the ice

I thought the way the ice froze on this mud puddle was cool. Ha! Pun intended. The ice on half the puddle was smooth and then there was this on the other half. Very geometric.

I don't know what caused the ice to form this way on only part of the puddle.

The temperatures have warmed up again and we're expecting around 9ºC (high 40s F) today, so there's no more ice. We had an uneventful but successful shopping trip to Tours on Thursday after dropping the Peugeot off for some pre-inspection work. We stopped at Ikea for a quick in-and-out (which is not easy to do) for just a couple of things we wanted, then stopped at the Asian grocery in North Tours and bought a cart-full of Asian ingredients for our pantry.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wednesday's sunrise

Wednesday was the coldest day we've had so far this season. We measured -3.1ºC at the house, and we usually read a bit warmer than the official temperature because of where our thermometer is located. The high didn't get much above 1ºC, but at least the sun was out and there wasn't much wind.

The sun peeks above the horizon on Wednesday morning over a frosty vineyard.

The forecast is calling for a weather system to move in, bringing warmer temperatures from the south and rain, but also wind. I hate wind. So, we'll batten down the hatches and hibernate indoors for a day or two until this system passes us by. It shouldn't be bad, just enough to frazzle my nerves.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Je fais le douze.

In the old days, until about six years ago, to get telephone information in France one would dial 12. That was called faire le douze (not to be confused with faire un douze, which I gather means to make an error or to say something stupid). Now everything is changed. A smattering of private companies provide directory assistance with six-digit numbers that start with 118-xxx. I can only remember one of them because they advertise with a little jingle that is easy to remember.

A view in the vineyard on a recent frosty morning.

Still, I never use directory assistance. With the internet and online yellow and white pages, the computer serves the purpose.

Today is 12 December 2012, 0r 12/12/12. Faisons le douze !

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Les feuilles mortes

The leaves in the vineyard got a good dose of frost recently. Soon the repeated freezing and thawing will reduce autumn's leaves to mulch.

A dead grape leaf touched by frost in the vineyard.

I wonder if we'll have any snow this year. We did last year, but not every year brings snow to our region. They've already had a bunch in the mountains, of course, and to the north and east of us. We'll see. Not that I'm anxious for snow. Just curious. We've got the whole season still to go.

Monday, December 10, 2012

No stockings this year

In the past I've hung our Christmas stockings from the ledge of the fireplace. But not this year. Instead I found these neat candle glasses or votives. I don't really know what they're called in English, but in French they're called photophores. I like the colors. And, while they look round in this photo, they're actually square.

Two metal reindeer and a fat Santa. We're decorated.

So there will be no stockings for us this year. No matter. Santa can't squeeze down the stove pipe that goes up the chimney and our stockings never get filled up. At any rate, he's got better things to do than to visit us. We will, however, be waiting for Puppy Claus. He likes to visit all the houses where good dogs live and he leaves little treats for them. I tell Callie every year that Puppy Claus is coming to town. She couldn't care less.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Out the window

I've been experimenting with the camera again. I'm not all that satisfied with my pictures these days. It might be that I'm taking pictures in low light; it's that time of year. But I'm still trying to get a better feel for how this camera works.

One good gust of wind and these last seed pods will spin to the ground.

This shot is from the den window. These are the remaining seeds on the linden tree (tilleul) just outside the window. I like how the background colors came out. I'm not at all happy with the clarity of the image, however. I want my photos to be crisper and sharper, and I just can't figure out how to get there.

I know it's possible. I see great images on other photo blogs and wish I could get similar results. I keep experimenting with my tripod, aperture settings, shutter speed settings, ISO, and focus points. I don't know why I'm not getting the sharpness that I want. It might be the lens, but I don't think so. It's probably just that I haven't found my groove yet and I need more practice.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Time flies

It seems to me as if the growers have got a head start this year with their vine pruning. One guy in particular has been working since early November and nearly all his parcels out behind our house are done.

These vines have been pruned back to one cane each. The sun is glinting off the guide wires.

There are still many parcels out there owned by other growers that have yet to be pruned. They'll get done between now and February. All the pruning is done by hand, in the cold and wet conditions typical of a Loire Valley winter.

Friday, December 07, 2012


This is another of my favorite holiday ornaments. It's a little glass corncob, part of a small set of food-themed ornaments that were a gift from our friend Sue in California sometime back in the '90s, I think. I have the date written on the box, but the box is put away and I don't feel like digging it out until it's time to put the tree away.

The corn almost looks good enough to eat.

The star garland came from Crate & Barrel back in the mid-'90s. That store had a huge batch of holiday decorations each year (they still do). I got these and strands of wooden cranberries from their downtown San Francisco location. Before I found the wooden cranberries, I would make popcorn and string it along with real cranberries for the tree; where did I find the time to do that? It wouldn't even occur to me now to string popcorn. And if by some miracle I could find fresh cranberries in central France, I wouldn't waste them on the tree!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Bert in a box

A window box, that is. Here's a shot of our house on Tuesday. You can see that Bertie has just jumped from the deck onto the flower box outside the kitchen window. When he can't see us in the living room, he'll check to see what's going on in the kitchen. He knows where we hang out.

Nearly all the leaves are gone now. The grass will stay brilliant green all winter. Click to Bertinate.

Now that the flowers are gone from the boxes, we sometimes find Bert stretched out in one of them, napping in the dirt. Silly kitty.

Bertie perched on the window sill above the flower box. A nice view from up there.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Golden bear ornament

I've had this little golden bear for nearly thirty years. Ken gave it to me as part of a box of little glass ornaments back in nineteen eighty-something. There's also a circus bear, a polar bear, a dog, and a fish. This little golden bear is my favorite of the bunch.

I wonder if this Golden Bear went to Cal? Go Bears!

That's a miniature wine bottle ornament in the background. We've collected several of those over the years. This one actually has wine-colored liquid inside. The label says "Pinot Grigio. Once opened never to return." I have no idea what that's supposed to mean.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Cornbread muffins

On Sunday we planned a lunch of soup. It was basically a beef-based stock with tomato and vegetables, including okra, that we had in the freezer. Ken mixed a small amount of another similar soup into it and hotted it up a bit with a spicy pepper paste. We thought that cornbread would be a great accompaniment.

You can see the bits of corn inside the muffins. Tasty!

The cornbread we make is US southern style, not the sweetened cornbread that I was familiar with up north. There is no sugar in this recipe. The only changes I made were to substitute plain yogurt for the buttermilk and to add corn kernels to the batter. I also baked it in a muffin tin instead of a pan.

Savory corn muffins
  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 10 oz (300 g) canned or frozen corn kernels
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 tbsp melted butter (bacon fat would work great)
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 2 eggs, well beaten
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
Preheat the oven to 425ºF (I used 210ºC, slightly cooler).

Put the cornmeal into a large bowl. If using canned or frozen corn kernels, cook them for about five minutes in the 1 cup of boiling water. Drain the cooking liquid into the cornmeal along with the melted butter. Stir well. If you have a stick blender, process half of the corn so its broken up, otherwise coarsely chop half with a knife or leave it all whole; your choice. Set the corn aside.

Stir the yogurt, cold water, beaten eggs, soda, and salt into the cornmeal mixture. Now add the broken and whole corn and beat in thoroughly. Pour the batter into buttered muffin tins. You can fill them pretty full. If there is batter left, save it for a second batch.

Bake in a preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes until a wooden skewer inserted into one of the muffins comes out clean. Cool and serve.

They're really good spread with butter!

A side note: I have a convection oven, which means that a fan blows inside the oven to maintain an even temperature. Whenever I make muffins, the convection fan tends to blow the soft batter to one side as it rises, making the muffins look lop-sided (you can kind of see the effect on the cut muffin in the photo). If I remember (which I didn't for this batch), I use the non-convection setting on the oven so the fan doesn't blow and the muffins come out looking symmetrical.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Sunday sunset

Sunday turned out to be a pretty day with big puffy clouds and nice sunny intervals. Late in the afternoon, as the sun went down, a new weather system started to move in and the sunset was pretty.

Looking southwest through the vineyard. See the airliner's contrail at the top?

Today we're going to have rain most of the day with the heaviest precipitation later this afternoon. The good part is that the system is bringing mild temperatures back, albeit temporarily.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

I got nothing

I haven't taken many photos lately and I'm running out! I'll have to get out with the camera again soon, weather permitting. Here's a blast from the past: it's an Eiffel Tower Christmas tree ornament that I've had for ten years or so, found in the Museum Shop at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor before we moved to France.

This photo is from 2006.

This year's tree is up and the ornament is there. I'll take some pictures of it soon.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

La Loire vue de Chaumont

The Loire River, seen from the castle at Chaumont, looking downriver toward the west. There's not much water in the river in this shot and it looks rather benign. But let it rain for a while upstream or in the mountains where the river begins, and it can fill up and become rather treacherous.

The Loire is France's longest river at over 1,000 kilometers.

I had always heard that the Loire is a wild river because it is not dammed and is only contained by earthen levees on either side. However, I did see a tv program not long ago that showed at least two dams, Grangent (built in the mid 1950s) and Villerest (built in 1978), with reservoirs up near the river's source, so I'm confused about that.