Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Local color

Here's a photo I took just outside Saint-Aignan ten years ago this spring. It was just before I got my first digital camera. I was using Ken's Canon Powershot Pro 90 and we were walking along an old Roman road out near where the zoo is just south of town.

A typical "longère" style house in our region.

I'm not actually sure that's where this photo was taken. I haven't been back to this spot since, but I know that the zoo has done a lot of expansion, and near this area they've built new parking lots to accommodate their increased attendance. I should go out there to see if I can find the spot again and if and how it has changed.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Holy mosses

Moss has covered the surface of the soil inside one of our small planter boxes out on the deck. And now the moss has "flowered" (they're not really flowers but pods of spores on stalks). I'm planning on digging it all up one day; the perennial geraniums in the planter box should go into the ground. There's not enough room for them to grow in the box.

Moss is "mousse" in French, just like the fluffy chocolate stuff.

If you look closely at the moss, you can see the spore stalks sticking up about a centimeter from the moss itself. I think it looks pretty up close, but from a regular distance it's just a box of moss.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

January sun

It's always nice to see the sun and we've had a nice couple of days. It felt almost spring-like on Saturday. Looking back at photos, I remember that we had snow around this time last year. Not a lot, but enough to stick on the ground for a while.

Afternoon sun hitting the yard on the north side of the house.

Talking to the mayor yesterday, I learned that the hunting season ended already for game birds. I thought that today was the last day, but apparently the last day was last week. There will still be organized hunts around the area for roe deer and fox through February. We'll see how many take place in our neck of the woods (UPDATE: They're having one this morning right out back). She also mentioned that a group of about ten sangliers (wild boar) was recently spotted out in the vineyard behind our house. She didn't believe it until she saw photos that someone had taken. I have never seen boar around our house, but I have seen them a time or two out in more forested, less populated places.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Les champignons

I'm already thinking of one of next week's lunches. The second of February is the holiday called la Chandeleur (Candlemas). The traditional food to eat that day in France is crêpes. I make both savory and sweet crêpes for the day. The savory variety is made with buckwheat flour and they are stuffed with ham, cheese, and in our house, mushrooms.

These sautéed mushrooms were part of last year's savory crêpe lunch.

The sweet crêpes can be filled with anything from butter and sugar to fruit compote to chocolate. As usual, I'll probably take pictures of the meal, so stay tuned!

Friday, January 27, 2017

View from the deck

This is the typical winter view around here, seen from our front deck. Bare trees and green grass. We enjoyed a sunny day on Thursday and that helped with the temperature. The wind has pivoted to the south and this morning is the first in many that is above zero.

Our neighbors' property seen from our deck. The vast green lawn dips down into a wooded ravine to the south.

But with the south wind and warm air will come, they predict, clouds and rain. Oh well, you can't have everything.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The daily fire

This time of year I build a fire in the wood stove every day. For the past week I was making an early fire. Our fuel oil tank was low and we were waiting for a scheduled delivery, so I wanted to conserve the remaining oil. Building the fire early meant we didn't have to use the central heating as much.

Tuesday's fire in the wood stove, which is inside the fireplace.

But now we're back on the normal schedule. That means that I make the fire for the afternoon. I go out before lunch and split some logs and bring them in. After lunch I light the fire and keep it going until the evening. Then we let the house cool down over night (neither one of us likes to sleep in a warm room).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Le monde entier est un cactus

The whole world is a cactus. It's impossible to sit down! Yesterday, we got a little reminder that it's winter. As if we needed one. The day broke with freezing fog and little frost crystals covered tree branches and shrubs as far as the eye could see. The needle-like crystals in the photo sprouted on the weeping birch tree in front of our house.

Ice crystals like cactus needles.

Later in the afternoon Callie and I were snowed upon during our walk. It started as sleet but quickly changed to snow. The road was white by the time we got home and I had to brush snow off the dog's back before taking her into the house. The air flow is shifting today to the south; by Friday we should be having a mini heat wave. Well, maybe a mini not-as-cold wave.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The other feeder

This bird feeder hangs from a branch of one of the twin maples in the front yard. Again, once I get the camera, the birds see me and fly away. I can assure you they were out there doing their best to empty the feeder just before I snapped this.

It only takes a day or two for the birds to almost empty this feeder.

Most of the seeds end up on the ground and the birds walk around eating them.

I suppose I could just pour the seeds directly on the ground, but that wouldn't be any fun.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Feed the birds

The other day I mentioned the two bird feeders out in the yard. This is one of them. It hangs from the decorative structure over the back yard well (the real fake well). You'd think I could have taken a photo with birds on the feeder, but they disappeared when I took out the camera.

The cylindrical feeder has four perches with access to the seeds.

I feed the birds during the winter, especially when it's cold and the ground is frozen and I imagine that the pickin's are slim. With both feeders, the tits will perch and use their beaks to throw most of the seed to the ground. They might be looking for something specific in the seed; I'm not sure. The other birds (robins, chaffinches, blackbirds) will then poke around on the ground and eat what's fallen. I see the robins attempting to perch from time to time, but they don't stay perched for more than a second or two. They prefer to walk around on the ground.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Plenty of nothing

I haven't been taking the camera out much in the past weeks. It's been dark and cold. I go out with Callie either first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon. The sun either isn't up yet or it's going down fast and I'm not motivated to take photos. Happily, the equinox is only two months away.

A frosty flattened plant.

Our cold spell is easing a bit. We got up above freezing on Saturday and this morning's low is only minus three. I keep seeing stories on television about people who like to jump into icy lakes for a swim. Silly sods.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Frosty oak

We're still enjoying frosty temperatures, especially in the morning when it gets down around minus five (celsius, which is 23ºF). It's good to have a freeze in the winter to kill off pests, at least that's what they say when it's not freezing.

A little oak sapling holds on to its frosty leaves. The leaves will drop in the spring when new growth starts.

We had some business to do in Blois on Friday morning so we added a few stops to our trip. First up was the Asian grocery in town to get some frozen shrimp and to stock up on bottled sauces. The store often has fresh okra, so we picked up some of that, too. Then we went to a big market that specializes in produce but also sells meat and cheese and includes a bakery. They carry a wide selection of products that we don't find in our local supermarket, so we go every now and then. Finally, we went to a discount grocery for a few things we like there that they sell at good prices. It was a good morning, and productive. Today we plan on making a shrimp stir-fry with bok choy (another vegetable we can't find in Saint-Aignan).

Friday, January 20, 2017

Keep calm and carry on

When the British faced the threat of a second World War, their government prepared a message: Keep calm and carry on. Although Americans are historically loath to take advice (or anything else) from Britain, we might do well to keep that message in the backs of our minds.

Lamp posts reflected in calm waters.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Throwback Thursday

Here I am on a horse. I think it was the second, and last, time I rode a horse in my life. The year was 1981. I was a twenty-one year old urban cowboy. That fur-lined suede coat was one of my favorites. I also wore boots in those days.

Walt rides a horse. Giddy-up!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Flake news

That's what I've decided we should call the prediction of snow that doesn't materialize. I couldn't resist. Snow has not been predicted for us, so we're not the victims of "flake" news, yet. Temperatures have gone below zero as predicted, and today may be the first day in a string of days that the highs stay below zero where we live.

A frosty grape vine trunk.

Still, the news shows are all in chatter mode about the "worst cold spell in five years." There are parts of France where it is very cold and snowing. They're the parts of France you'd expect to be very cold and snowy in winter. The Alps, the Pyrénées, the Massif Central, Alsace, etc. And, gasp! It's sunny on the Côte d'Azur. In all fairness, they did have a heavy snowfall in Corsica. Above the elevation of 400 meters (about 1,300 feet).

I wonder if some people have got used to the mild winters we've been experiencing lately such that more normal winter weather is jarring. As for where we live, one week of freezing temperatures still adds up to a pretty mild winter over all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Le dernier des Mohicans

Last night, Ken and I watched "The Last of the Mohicans," a 1992 film version of James Fenimore Cooper's novel set during the French and Indian War. I thought I read it in school but hadn't; I've read it since. We've seen the movie before, and I always enjoy it. The story takes place where I grew up, and the movie was filmed in Ken's home state, so there's a personal angle. Back in 2006, Ken and I visited some of the settings of the action, most notably, Fort William Henry on the southern shore of Lake George, about sixty miles north of Albany.

Fort William Henry in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, 2006.

The French army destroyed the wooden fort once they captured it in 1757 and the site was abandoned. In the 1950s, a replica of the fort was built on the original site and has been a successful tourist attraction since. I've been inside a few times in my life, the last being with Ken in 2006. It's worth a look if you find yourself in the area.

Lake George seen from the ramparts of Fort William Henry, 2006. The Mohican is a tour boat on the lake.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Vague de froid

That's what the weather people are predicting. A cold wave. It's already cold in the east, and down south the Pyrénées are getting a snow dump. It's still mild in the west and center (where we are), but that is changing. We're expecting high temperatures below freezing for the next week.

A little greenery around a small tree stump in the winter woods.

On Saturday I got some of that fabric they sell for wrapping sensitive plants to protect them from the cold. I used it to cover our ten-year old fig tree. The fig should be alright, but I remember a cold spell a number of years back that froze it to the ground. I thought we had lost it, but it re-sprouted from its roots that spring. Still, we went years and years without getting any edible figs. Then, last year and for the first time, the tree actually produced a usable crop. So I'm hoping it has matured to the point of producing every year and I don't want to take any chances of it freezing again. Keep your fingers crossed!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Grease balls

They're called boules de graisse in French, literally balls of fat, what we'd call suet. They're very popular around here in the fall and winter and are sold by the bucket-full in garden centers and supermarkets. The balls are usually always wrapped in a green plastic netting that needs to be retrieved and thrown away once the seed is gone. Songbirds, les passereaux in French, especially like the mix of fat and seed products in the balls.

Un mésange (blue tit) clings to the feeder while pecking at the seed and suet.

I got this feeder many years ago. It's specially designed to hold several boules. As I mentioned yesterday, I hang this from the railing of our front deck during the cold months. It sometimes takes the birds a day or two to realize it's there, but once they do there's no stopping them. It didn't take long to learn which birds liked to feed here and what they're called both in French and in English.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

For the birds

I'm running out of seed for the birds and we're about to go into a cold spell. I'll be off to the garden center this morning to re-stock. I still have a good supply of suet/seed balls, "grease balls" as we call them, boules de graisse in French. I hang those up in a holder on the deck railing.

This is a pinson (chaffinch). I can't tell if it's a male or female; the male's head is usually more blue in color.

The birds enjoy the seed balls. Our most common visitors are le mésange (the great tit, blue tit, and crested tit), le pinson des arbres (the chaffinch), and le rouge-gorge (the European robin). Recently we've seen a mating pair of merle (common blackbird) eating the seeds. I see chardonnerets (European goldfinches) out there from time to time as well. The tits cling to the seed balls and pick at them, throwing a lot of seed down onto the deck. The other species walk around on the deck eating what falls.

The same pinson takes a look at me while I take its picture.

In addition to the seed balls, I have two hanging feeders that I fill with a loose seed mix. One of the feeders hangs from one of the maple trees out front, the other is suspended above the real fake well out back. At the feeders, as with the seed balls, the tits land on the perches and throw seeds down to the ground where the chaffinches, robins, and blackbirds gobble them up.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Auntie Em!

The wind began to switch, the house to pitch, and suddenly the hinges started to... unhitch. Well, not exactly, but the wind really blew a gale during the night. It's calmer this morning but there are still a few gusts. Looking out the window I can see some small branches on the ground and something else that doesn't belong there. I won't know what it is until it gets lighter and I go out with Callie.

A frosty protective sleeve in the vineyard. There's a little grape vine inside.

We weren't at all near the worst of the storm. That was up closer to the Brittany and Normandy coasts, as it usually is. The English Channel is a favorite path for windy weather systems. Now we're expecting much colder temperatures over the weekend and into next week. It certainly is winter!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Poste vingt-deux

I see these little tags placed here and there along the roads that run through the vineyards. I think they have something to do with hunting, organized hunts in particular. From what I observe, these are predetermined stations at which hunters wait for the prey (deer or foxes in our area) that are driven out of the woods.

If you're assigned Poste 22, you stand here.

The organized hunts are few and far between. I think they happen when the hunting officials determine that the population of either deer or fox has gotten too high in a particular area. The individual hunters that we see out back every Sunday are there for game birds and wild hare. From what I see on the internet, the hunting season for hare closed in November, and the pheasant season will close at the end of January. The season for deer, foxes, and wild boar closes at the end of February.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Winter sights

This is a wild carrot flower, Queen Anne's Lace, leftover from summer and covered in frosty crystals. I see a lot of these over the winter. Come spring, they'll wither away and decompose to make way for new growth.

It looks like it's huddling to keep warm, but I think it's actually dead.

The weather people are predicting some snow toward the weekend for us. If anything, it looks like we could get some minor snow showers mixed with rain, not much more.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Don't lick this

Did you ever, when you were a kid, stick your tongue onto something metallic in the deep freeze of winter? If so, you know the painful result and have probably never done that again. I remember my tongue once getting stuck to the metal steering parts of a sled. Ouch!

Frosty metal. I'm not tempted.

Remember the old Flexible Flyer? I had one of those. Wooden slats on steel rails, with metal parts on the steering mechanism, which was on the front, very close to where your mouth was when you rode the sled on your stomach. They seemed indestructible. But they didn't work in powdery snow.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Warm week

Now, when I say "warm," I mean "not freezing." The frost is gone, but the fog remains. Gray skies and periods of mist and drizzle will be our norm for the next week, with a little rain thrown in for fun.

Trees in our yard covered with a layer of frost last week.

And speaking of change, our new baker in town has made some changes. We're losing another day of bread delivery, specifically Friday. From now on we will have bread delivered on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays only. It's not a hardship for us, especially since we can get more than one baguette and freeze it if we want. The new schedule also gives us a chance to get bread from different bakeries if we're out and about, and there are several good ones around that we like.

The other change is that the price of our tradi (baguette tradition, a kind of "old fashioned" loaf that was officially recognized in the 1990s) is going up from one euro to one euro and ten centimes. Still a bargain. Looking on the bright side, we will be able to get rid of some of the small change we collect.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Periodic puppy pics

Just a quick snap of Callie hanging out. She's sitting on the bed in the guest room, a favorite place where she can hear what's going on in the house and see out the back window. The yellow bed cover is just for her. It protects the bed from the sand and dirt that she tracks in from outside, not to mention the hair that she constantly sheds.

I disturbed her nap with the camera. She needs a good brushing.

We see that the US is getting some lousy weather, both in the west and in the east. We're entering a mild period with some rain forecast off and on through the week. Oh, and here's a link to Ken's blog where he posted a photo of our galette des rois, the traditional pastry that French people eat this time of year to celebrate the Epiphany.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

String theory

The blue string was tied to this post several years ago. The other end was attached to a second post nearby. The string spanned a spot where cars can cut a corner to go from a paved road to the dirt road that runs through the vineyards (or vice-versa). The spot is meant to give tractors access to the vines. No normal cars ever use the shortcut, but certain reckless drivers have as evidenced by ruts made by wildly spinning tires in the short space between the two roads. In an effort to discourage them, the grower who owns this parcel put up the string.

The ties that bind.

I don't know how well it works. Sometimes the string is broken or is seriously sagging, often it's put back up. Right now I think it's down. But I haven't seen any fresh ruts out there recently.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Losted frosted glove

Somebody dropped a glove along the vineyard road and it got covered in frost. I didn't move it, thinking that whoever dropped it might come back looking for it. It was probably one of the people who works pruning the vines. I haven't noticed if it's still there (the photo is from last week).

Talk about having a cool hand...

Today is the epiphany, or twelfth night, on the Catholic calendar. It's not a day off for France, but there is the tradition of eating une galette des rois (cake of the kings) to commemorate the day. In reality, the cake is available in bakeries right after New Year's Day and they continue to make them through the month of January. We don't buy them much any more. For one thing, good ones are expensive. And for another thing, I've learned to make my own. Which is what I'll be doing this morning.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Potting bench

I gave myself a little holiday present and it arrived earlier this week: a potting bench for the new greenhouse. The greenhouse itself was a big holiday present. For years I've been using saw horses to set up a temporary potting bench on the deck in spring, with an old window shutter or piece of plywood as the table top. Now, with the new bench, I'll be able to plant and transplant the spring seedlings right inside the greenhouse.

The water spigot and hose are right there next to the potting bench. What a concept!

The table top is a galvanized metal surface and there's a handy storage shelf below for pots and tools, or whatever. I won't have to schlep stuff (including soil and water) up to the deck any more like I used to. I'll be able to do the planting in the shelter of the greenhouse. No big set-up process, no big clean-up process. I'm really looking forward to spring this year!

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Winter as we know it

This seems like a normal winter, so far. Fall was mostly mild, but dry. We're still on the dry side, but our low temperatures are flirting with freezing, and the highs stay in the low single digits. That seems normal. January and February are the coldest months, and there could be some snow over the coming weeks, but none is predicted at this point. We often have a little snow once or twice during the season.

Frosted leaves litter the ground.

Our winters are mild compared to many other places (like Scandinavia or Canada). I haven't lived in a real "winter" climate for over thirty years now. I'm not sure how well I'd deal with it, and I'm not really interested in finding out. I enjoy these mild winters. Nature gives us just enough to know it's winter without our having to shovel or deal with a lot of ice.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Oh what a frosty web we weave

Or recent spell of brouillard givrant (freezing fog) made us feel like we lived in a winter wonderland, all without any snow. The spell is over for now and we're back to cold and damp, our temperatures hovering just above zero. One thing I noticed with the fog was that even the most delicate things, like spiders' webs, got covered in little frosty crystals.

A partially frosted web.

This one is not particularly spectacular, but it gives you the idea. It was easy to photograph since it was on the deck. But out in the vineyard the webs were amazing.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Funky feline fotos

Bert, like most pets, has his habitudes (habits). Nearly every morning, just before lunch time, he will wake up from his nap in the garage or the utility room and make his way outside to climb up onto the deck. Then he waits out there for me to notice and bring him some treats. After eating his treats he'll either hang out for a while or head back down to go prowling around the neighborhood.

What's going on in there?

Often in winter, when there are no potted plants out on the living room window sill, he'll climb up and watch us, hoping (against hope) that we'll let him into the house. We can't let him in because Callie doesn't leave him alone. After nearly seven years together, the dog will still not tolerate the cat. Lest you think us heartless, Bert does get to come inside every morning for a couple of hours to hang out while Callie snoozes upstairs in the loft.

Oooo, shiny objects! Actually, Bert has never shown any interest in the tree or the ornaments.

While he's outside, Bert will move between the living room window and the deck doors, watching, waiting, before he finally gives up and heads out again. He does this almost every day. I know he's looking forward to summer when one of us will sit outside and he can climb up on a lap to snooze.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

New Year's Eve lunch

I bundled up and drove to the market early Saturday morning. It wasn't crowded yet, but there were plenty of people about. I went directly to the fish monger's stand and asked if I could pay with my bank card. Nope, the young woman said, they didn't have the machine this morning. I told her I'd go to the ATM and get some cash and would be back.

Two dozen oysters, just barely roasted in the oven and ready to open and eat.

When I got back, the young woman said, "Bonjour"!" Then she recognized me as having been there a few minutes earlier and said, "Re." As in re-bonjour, something French people say when they've already said "bonjour" but you see them again a few minutes later. It's normally said with a smile, as if it's not "real" French, but they're saying it anyway.

Six crab claws, steamed.

I asked for six crab claws and two dozen oysters. The oysters were inexpensive, but the crab claws were much more pricey than I would have guessed. Oh well, I told myself, it's a holiday, and we wanted to try them. I noticed a little sign that said "live lobsters." There was one lobster on display, and he didn't look very alive to me. I passed.

Our collection of torture instruments, ready to crack crab shells with.

Everything was good. Ken put the oysters into a hot oven so they'd open. They're partially, but not fully, cooked that way, and you don't need to risk injury trying to open raw oysters. Raw oysters are best when somebody else opens them, that's for sure. We ate them with several sauces, including the traditional mignonette (minced shallot and black pepper in white wine vinegar) and some American-style cocktail sauce. We also had some home-made rye bread with butter, another traditional accompaniment. The crab was good served with garlicky mayonnaise and some roasted vegetables, but we both thought it was not worth the price. Live and learn.