31 July 2017

L'autre Saint-Aignan — le nouveau

What's the biggest tourist attraction in the Loire Valley? Or in France's région Centre? You might think it would be a famous château like Chambord, Chenonceau, Cheverny, Azay-le-Rideau, or Chaumont-sur-Loire. But it's not. It's the Beauval zoological park in Saint-Aignan. The zoo is changing our landscape.


Le ZooParc de Beauval, on the south side of town and just two kilometers (1¼ miles) from our house as the corbeau flies, attracts nearly a million visitors a year nowadays. The zoo is by far Saint-Aignan's largest employer, and the owners of the zoo have not only expanded the site by acquiring more and more land, but they are building more and more hotels around the town.


I was surprised a couple of weeks ago to find a new hotel complex going across the road from the town's main supermarket, SuperU, also located on the south side of town. It was the construction cranes that caught my eye. This new hotel complex, the zoo's fourth, will offer another 130 hotel rooms for tourists to rent.


There's already an imposing Chinese-themed hotel out at the zoo, called Les Pagodes de Beauval, and it has about the same number of rooms. There's a Bali-themed hotel, older, just across the street from Les Pagodes. And there's a new vacation apartment complex in town, on the site of Saint-Aignan's old gendarmerie base, that caters to zoo visitors. I just heard on the national news that Beauval's giant pandas, acquired from China a few years ago, are getting ready to have a baby. That will draw even bigger crowds.


So the town is really changing. It's not just the old Saint-Aignan that I did a series of posts about a couple of months ago (starting here, scroll down to the bottom of the post and click the "newer post" link to see more). Traffic is worse. Stores are more crowded. Living out here surrounded by the Renaudière vineyard, we don't feel it on a daily basis, but when we try to cross the river on the town's narrow old stone bridge, we feel the pain. And the changes keep coming. On n'arrête pas le progrès.

30 July 2017

Et les tomates dans tout ça ?

This spell of almost chilly weather we are just coming out of has really slowed down the tomatoes. None are ripe yet, but there are literally hundreds of green tomatoes out there. Walt planted about 30 plants, after all.


Yesterday our high temperature exceeded 80ºF for the first time in 10 days. It was 28.5ºC on the front terrace. It's warm this morning because the sky is overcast. Actually, what got me out of bed was the noise of a hard rain shower at 5 a.m. — I needed to close some windows.




We've had rain but not too much. It hasn't been enough to make the tomatoes start splitting.  When I took these photos yesterday morning, I didn't see any evidence of the blight that's called mildiou.



It's light enough now, at six, that I can see what's going on in the sky. Big dark clouds are blowing over at a good clip from southeast to northwest. Météociel isn't predicting any more rain, though.

29 July 2017

Gratin de courgettes au pain




We're getting a lot of summer squashes out of the garden right now. There are two kinds growing out there this summer — long green zucchini and small, round yellow "lemon squash." Yesterday I used four of the lemon squashes to make a gratin, or, in U.S. parlance, a casserole.




The first step is to cut cubes of stale bread. I used about 2 cups of them. Put them in a bowl and pour a little bit of either olive oil or melted butter over them to moisten them. Also chop a large onion and a couple of cloves of garlic and mix them in with the bread, along with some fresh or dried herbs — I used dried oregano, some fennel powder, and a couple of bay leaves.




Let the bread and aromatics sit for a while so that the flavors blend. Then cut up the squash (zucchini or yellow squash) and add it to the mixture as well — you need two cups of cubed squash or a little more. Add some more oil or melted butter if you think it needs it.


I decided to put sausage meat in my casserole to make it into a one-dish meal. I had some skinny French chipolata sausages in the freezer. I cooked them in a covered pan on low heat until the were completely done and had started to brown. Then I cut them up and mixed them in with the squash and bread. I beat two eggs, poured the egg over all, and stirred it all together again. It occurs to me that cubes of cooked chicken or turkey breast, instead of or with the sausage, would be good in this kind of dish.

All that went into a baking dish and then cooked, covered, in the oven in the oven at 180ºC (350ºF) for 30 to 40 minutes, until the squash was tender and the bread crunchy. Then I took off the lid and put a layer of grated cheese (Emmental, in my case, but U.S. Swiss or Cheddar would be good) over the casserole ingredients and let that continue cooking for another 20 or 30 minutes, until the cheese started to brown. (Sorry I neglected to take a photo of the finished dish, but then it just looked like a dish of melted cheese!)


I thought this casserole was a really good way to prepare some more of our abundant zucchini crop. We've been grilling thick slices of zucchini and we've recently made a zucchini lasagna as well as a dish of rice cooked with zucchini and cheese from a 1970s-era Monique Maine recipe. My casserole with bread, zucchini, and sausage was inspired by this recipe.

28 July 2017

Shades of red

Walt went over to the vets' yesterday and bought a product called Nexgard for Natasha. It's a Frontline replacement that protects the dog from fleas and ticks. This morning, I can tell that Natasha is doing better. She's not scratching now. That's a relief.


Here are some photos of red flowers I've taken recently — a geranium, a rose, and some poppies.


I like the different shades and hues of red in these flowers.


We are supposed to finally get some warm weather again this weekend. The tomato plants in our garden really need heat and sun at this point. It's been eight days since our high temperature last hit 80ºF (27ºC). We want summer back, with sunshine and open doors and windows. This past week has been more like October than July.

27 July 2017

Elephant bush — Portulacaria afra

Natasha woke me up at 4:30 this morning. I was definitely not ready to get out of my comfortable bed, but I was afraid Nature might be calling. Calling the dog, I mean. I had no choice but to get up and stumble around in the dark to dress for a trip outdoors.

So I'm pretty tired this morning, and I don't have a lot to blog about right now. The weather has been gray and damp for days now. Anyway, that's just one problem. The other is that Natasha seems to have fleas. She gets Frontline monthly, but it seems to have lost at least part of its effectiveness against dog fleas.

Oh, yesterday we were talking about rooting plant cuttings. The photos here show some that I've rooted over the past month or two. They are cuttings from my elephant bush plant, or dwarf jade, that CHM gave me many years ago. It grew nicely in San Francisco, outdoors. When I left California to come live in France, I had to leave it behind. I left it with CHM. In 2004 he brought me a cutting.

In 2017, I've taken some more cuttings and started a bunch of new plants. Portulacaria afra is easy to root, or clone. You take cuttings, let them dry for a day or two, and then stick them in soil. They grow, as you can see above. To the right is a 2012 photo I took of the plant that I took the cuttings from this spring. It started from a single small sprig of CHM's plant. It was already eight years old then.

By the way, I was thinking about the word route that we discussed yesterday, and its pronunciation. It's probably complicated because it's a French word that has not yet been entirely assimilated into English. Thus the two common pronunciations, rowt and root.

26 July 2017

Hortensias ? Or hydrangeas?

Walt took cuttings from a big hydrangea bush in our yard a few years ago. He rooted them in water. Then he grew them in pots for a while, until he thought they were ready to be planted in the ground. Now they are growing in beds in front of our garage.


Another name for the plant is "hortensia" — and that's the name in French. Ce sont des hortensias. Hydrangeas are native to eastern Asia (many species) and North America (a few species).


Hortensia is not a botanical or scientific name for the plant. That name is hydrangea. Hortensia is a horticultural term that describes the hydrangea hybrids that we plant in our yards.


Above are some hortensias as depicted by the French réaliste/intimiste painter Henri Fantin-Latour  (1836-1904).

25 July 2017

Followup

Everything went smoothly yesterday. The Peugeot was a pleasure to drive, and I made the trip to Montrichard and back with no trouble — not that it's very far. I have made a wager that spending about a thousand euros on repairs for the old Peugeot will be a good investment. They say that keeping an old car running is cheaper than buying a new one (or even a used one), and I'm hope that "they" are right. I wouldn't buy a new car, and buying a used car would be time-consuming (have to find one like I want) and I might just be buying somebody else's headaches.

One of the most plentiful wildflowers that grows in the vineyard here is Queen Anne's lace.

Over in Montrichard, the dentist, Dr. Klotz (pronounced more or less like "klutz"), quickly re-repaired the filling that he had first repaired a couple of weeks ago but had broken (partially) again. It only took him about 20 minutes, and he didn't charge me for the visit. The original visit, by the way had cost 90 euros (compared to the standard 30 euro fee for a cleaning and exam).

Here's a flower going, I think, to seed. When I took the photo I noticed red-and-black insects hiding inside.

Of course, I get 65% of those costs back from the national health plan, so the filling repair cost me only about 30 euros. Remember, the standard fee for seeing a doctor here is 25 euros, and it had been only 23 euros until July 1, when it went up. And we get 65% or 70% of that back from insurance too. So there's no reason not to go see a dentist or doctor when you feel the need.

What we call "Queen Anne's lace" is actually the wild form of the carrotla carotte sauvage in French.

I mentioned "green mayonnaise" — mayonnaise verte — yesterday. It's a regular mayonnaise except that it's made with vegetable (olive, canola, sunflower) oil that you've poured over fresh herbs (just the leaves) like parsley, tarragon, basil, or dill and then blitzed in a blender or with a stick blender. 

La mayonnaise verte made with pureed basil and parsley leaves

I've posted about home-made mayonnaise several times over the years. It's really good with poached fish, asparagus, steamed potatoes, cold meats like chicken or pork, etc. I learned how to make it in the 1970s when I was spending a lot of time with a French family. It's different (less sweet) and much better than commercially made mayo.

The wild carrot is often considered to be a noxious weed. Some people feel that way about all carrots.

Our weather is pretty chilly right now. We've again gone from blazing heat back to temperatures that feel autumnal. We've had some rainfall too, which we needed. I think summertime weather will return someday soon, but you never know. Often August is our hottest month, and September is often very pleasant too. This year, we may have had all our hot weather in June and July.

24 July 2017

Teeth and clutches and green mayonnaise

Today I have an 8:30 dentist's appointment over in Montrichard, which is 10 or 12 miles downriver from us. I broke a filling a while back. I had an appointment a couple of weeks ago and the dentist repaired the filling, but it broke again. I'm hoping the second time will be the charm. But as they say, jamais deux sans trois...


I'll be driving the Peugeot over to Montrichard, because it now has a new clutch. We picked it up from the mechanic's on Friday. Yesterday morning I took it out for a test drive — pleasure jaunt, really, just because I enjoy driving it. I went to places like Châteauvieux, Faverolles-en-Berry, and Lye (where I bought some good bread at the bakery) — about 25 miles of driving in all.


I'm hoping we'll be able to keep the little Peugeot in running order for many more years. I realized recently that we have driven it only 5,000 kilometers, or 3,000 miles, since I had the timing belt replaced in February 2015. The car is nearly 17 years old.


The pictures here are ones I took on Saturday morning, when we had such a spectacular rainbow out over the vineyard. Yesterday, by the way, was Natasha the Shetland sheepdog's five-month-iversary. She's becoming less a puppy and more a dog. In other words, she's settling in and calming down.


We made fish and chips for lunch yesterday. To accompany the fish, I made what is called une mayonnaise verte. I read different recipes for it in books and on the internet. Some called for blanching fresh herbs — we had basil and parsley, but dill or tarragon would be good too — in boiling salted water and then pureeing the leaves. I decided to go the simple route and just puree the raw, fresh leaves in the blender with vegetable oil, and then make the mayonnaise with that oil. It was good with the fish.

23 July 2017

Au bon endroit, au bon moment

We were surprised by a few hours of rain yesterday morning. And I was even more surprised because it was my morning to walk with Natasha into the vineyard. When I stepped out the back door, it was already raining very lightly. Here's what I saw.


The rainbow formed a full arc across the western sky, from north to south. I couldn't take it all in with my camera, though, from my viewpoint. Some photos from our upstairs windows might have shown it all, but then the big trees in our back yard would have probably been in the way.

The light kept changing from minute to minute. The rainbow itself would go faint and then the sun, behind me, would peek out between passing clouds and the rainbow's colors would really glow. The clouds kept changing colors too.

Natasha and I tried to keep walking but rain started falling harder. At one point, we veered off the gravel road down along a row of vines. A sudden downpour caught us, and heavy raindrops were slapping and tapping on the grape leaves. The sound was impressive.

The dog and I turned tail and headed back toward the house. This is the view we saw as we looked toward the east and into the sunrise. By the time we got back to the house, the rain had stopped. Isn't that always the way? But it started up again and lasted for a few hours.


I decided to go out the front gate and take a picture from out on the road as the rain started up again. The rainbow was soon just a memory... and a few photos. Events like this often last more no than 5 or 10 minutes. It's good that the time for our walks is at sunrise.

22 July 2017

Flan pâtissier au lait de coco

Yesterday I made what is called a flan pâtissier (a kind of custard tart or cream pie) using coconut milk instead of cream. It's a recipe you can find here, on La Cuisine de Jackie, in French. I've adapted the recipe for American cooks, substituting vanilla extract for the vanilla bean in Jackie's recipe and converting the measurements to U.S. cups.

Flan pâtissier au lait de coco

1 pie crust
1 liter of coconut milk
150 g sugar (⅔ cup)
100 g cornstarch (1 scant cup)
3 eggs
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. dried grated coconut
1 Tbsp. rum (optional)

Mix the cornstarch into ¾ cup of cold coconut milk, stirring well.

Bring the rest of the coconut milk to a simmer. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Separately, beat the eggs with the sugar. Add in the cold coconut and cornstarch mixture. Then gradually pour in the hot coconut milk, stirring constantly. Add the grated coconut and the rum (optional).

Pour the mixture into a saucepan and set on low heat, stirring constantly with a whisk until well thickened.

Line a pie pan with the crust. Pour in the coconut milk mixture. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes at 325ºF (160ºC). Keep an eye on the flan for the last 15 minutes of cooking to make sure it doesn't get too browned. Serve cold.

The coconut custard tart is delicious, even if I do say so myself. Thanks to Jackie for the idea and recipe. (The term "custard tart" always makes me think of Lionel Hardcastle on the British comedy series As Time Goes By.)

A U.S. cup, by the way, is 8 fluid ounces (240 ml, or less than half a pint in British terms). You can use less sugar than my recipe specifies, but don't use less cornstarch. You can also try using two whole eggs and one yolk rather than the three whole eggs I put in. Oh, and I bought a crust — pâte sablée — at the supermarket. You could easily make the flan with a different crust or no crust at all.

21 July 2017

Fleurs bleues


The Renaudière vineyard is just full of these blue flowers right now. The hot dry weather we had for a couple of months must have been ideal conditions for them. The flowers are one of several that are commonly known as cornflowers.

The plant that flowers this way is actually wild chicory. It's closely related to the salad greens that we call "curly endive" and "Belgian endive" in the U.S. Bitter salad greens like radicchio and escarole are also closely related to it. Wild chicory is native to Europe, but has been naturalized in North America, China, and Australia.

By the way, I'm throwing in this photo of yesterday morning's sky over the vineyard because of how blue it is too. I mentioned hot weather up above, but we're in a cool snap right now. It feels almost chilly outside this morning, and yesterday I had to put on jeans and a long-sleeved shirt before I went out walking with Natasha.

 Back to the flowers — why are they called "cornflowers"? It's because they grow on the edges of fields of grain, and the British word "corn" just means grain. In America, "corn" is maize, which is also called "Indian corn." In France, the wild chicory plant is called — surprise! — chicorée sauvage. It's also called chicorée amère — bitter chicory — because its leaves have a bitter taste.

In the middle ages, the wild chicory plant was considered to have magical qualities. It was used to blunt or quell the human libido. In other words, it was understood to be an antiaphrodisiac. The French wikipedia article lists 13 varieties and subspecies of wild chicory. One variety gives the chicory that is added to or substituted for coffee.

20 July 2017

Flowering hens




Sempervivum tectorum, commonly known as "house leeks" or "hens and chicks", just keep spreading in our back yard. Right now, they are flowering. Sempervivum means "always living". They're called joubarbes in French, or Barbe de Jupiter. Some people refer to them as petits artichauts.


I have them planted in pots, planter boxes, and  concrete blocks all around. Some are growing directly in the sand and gravel that surrounds the house as a kind of patio.



Sempervivum plants are the kind of plants I like. They are hardy. Drought doesn't bother them. Freezing weather doesn't hurt them either. They seem to love heat and full sun. They survive and spread gradually without being invasive.



This species is native to southern Europe and North Africa, apparently. They obviously also thrive in the Loire Valley climate. They grow on rooftops and were thought in ancient times to protect houses from lightning strikes.




The first ones I had were given to me by a woman who lives on the other side of the village. G. is nearly 90 years old now, and she doesn't get out and about as much as she used to. I thank her for these plants, which I've been growing for a dozen or so years now.

19 July 2017

Behavior

It was 90º up in the loft space yesterday afternoon, and 95º on the front terrace. Fans couldn't do us much good because it was hotter outside than it was in the house. It's a dry heat, however, so sleeping conditions weren't too bad. Predictions say to expect a thunderstorm today, with a high temperature in the mid-80s (all temps in ºF). Maybe the house will cool off a little.


The little sheltie puppy Natasha continues to be impeccably well-behaved on our walks in the vineyard. She runs up and down the rows of vines but comes to me whenever I call her. Yesterday she got a good look at a deer, and she ran after it for a ways through the vines. Then she came back to me when I called her. That was a real test. Walt says he thinks it was Callie the collie who showed Tasha how to behave on walks.


Our kitchen window and the terrace are both festooned with bright red geraniums this summer. They're plants that spent the winter in the new greenhouse and did very well in there.

18 July 2017

Said the spider to the ’fly...

It's hot here again. Yesterday the temperature up in the loft got up to nearly 90ºF. What a summer we are having. This morning at 5:45 a.m. it's 77ºF — 25ºC — in the house, with all the windows and doors open as wide as possible. There's not a breath of air stirring. I just turned on two electric fans.


Sunday morning I took my camera out on the walk with Natasha. I took a bunch of macro photos, and here are four of them. I was taking a photo of a Queen Anne's lace (wild carrot) flower when I noticed there was a white "crab spider" sitting on it, camouflaged.


Crab spiders are fierce hunters, apparently, but the butterfly below had nothing to fear from the spider above — it was too far away.


It was not very close to me either, but I was able to get these two photos using the zoom lens on my camera. I tried to get closer to the butterfly, but it fluttered away each time I approached.


I didn't even know whether I had managed to get a photo of the butterfly until I got home and displayed these on the computer screen. The butterfly has some wing damage from an encounter of some kind. As usual, you can enlarge the images by clicking or tapping...