Wednesday 29 February 2012

The Blog Door

Just recently we came across a new art installation in Preuilly which tickled us. The Blog-porte in rue des Pavillons seems to be the work of the same artist who produced the rather splendid downpipe finials we noted earlier. I hope people do occasionally contribute to the blog door and that it doesn't just end up as a replica of the boulangerie window, covered in posters advertising local events. The notice says:
Post Freely:

The Blog-Door: It's the same principle as a blog on the internet. Simply post images, photos, text, that everyone benefits.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Winter Laundry Solutions

The view from the office.
We've never owned a tumble dryer and one of the things we really enjoy about living in France is that for much of the year we can dry the laundry outside on a line. In London we lived in a National Trust house, so we were not allowed to hang washing outside in case the sight of our smalls flapping in the breeze caused a visitor's experience to be ruined. With no room for a dryer inside washing used to hang around for days in my sewing room. And even in France there is that period from November to March where it mostly has to dry inside, because it is either too wet (not just rain, but damp misty days) or too cold to dry outside.

At the top of the stairs.
Until recently we had one of those stupid multi tiered laundry racks, which unless you are the size of a small infant, means that you have to thread your clothes through at least one of the wire grills to hang them full length. Trying to squeeze a pair of jeans through all those wires drives me crazy. Fortunately it started to fall apart, so I felt buying a replacement was fully justified.

Kitchen cloths on the rack in the bathroom.
It proved surprisingly difficult to find a laundry rack in a different, more user friendly style. Finally we managed it, at Babou, a household goods store, in Chateauroux. We've purchased a rack that hangs off the handrail at the top of the stairs and a long rack that stands at the back of the bathroom. Hanging stuff off the staircase rack is still somewhat challenging, but at least I don't have the palaver of threading the clothes through all the wires below.

Washing hung up here at the top of the house benefits from wafts of warm air rising and it mostly dries overnight. This isn't too bad a turn around, but still much slower than the mere couple of hours it needs outdoors in the summer time.


Monday 27 February 2012

The New Mixer

Well, the new mixer has been purchased - and it turned out to be none of the brands we had discussed. It cost €99 at an outlet store called Chronostock in Chateauroux and is an H. Koenig KM-60s. It came with beater, whisk and dough hook, 5 l bowl and bowl cover. It has a power take off for a mincer attachment (I've checked online and they cost about €35 so I guess we will get one in due course). It doesn't have a second power take off for blender / juicer but we weren't looking for that anyway. The motor is 1000W and the body plastic. The accessories are not dishwasher proof. It is made in France.

So far I've made two cakes with it, the first using the recipe for a plain cake supplied in the instruction manual and the second making some adjustments to the quantities because the first cake was too dry. The second cake also got some sultanas and chopped preserved orange peel, to see how the machine coped with lumpy bits in the mix. We have yet to use the dough hook.

The mixer rattles and whines as it mixes, but this is a common criticism of all brands. My suspicion is that plastic bodied machines rattle more than metal. The arm, or head, or whatever you call it is rather stiff to lift up and down, and this is an observation made by other reviewers too. I've found that it is getting smoother with use and practice. Importantly, it seems to mix thoroughly, picking up from the sides and bottom so no stopping to scrape down at half time is necessary. The other thing I like is that the machine is very plain - not very attractive, but no twiddly details that collect grime. The casing is smooth and uniform, so easy to quickly wipe over. I also like the reassurance of the big motor (the small motor on Kitchen Aids has me baffled as I was under the impression that bigger is better).

The first cake - cracked on the top, which is a sign of too dry a mix
- the recipe's fault, not the mixer's.
I was quite shocked at how Kitchen Aid and Kenwood have cornered the market for stand mixers. At Ad'Hauc, a specialist kitchen shop which sells top brand cookware like Staub, they only stocked Kitchen Aid mixers. The supermarket Carrefour (which is well worth checking out if you are searching for kitchen appliances) had Kenwood, its own brand and the smaller Bosch MUMs. Darty, the electrical goods chain, had Kitchen Aid, Kenwood and Proline, another budget French brand. We never saw the Robusta or Clatronic brands we were interested in. It's no wonder everyone buys Kitchen Aid or Kenwood - they are virtually the only ones you see, and certainly the only ones you can easily find reviews of. It is also clear that there is not a big market for stand mixers any more. I guess you have to be a serious cook to want to invest in one. I'm afraid we were very put off by how much of a fashion item Kitchen Aids seem to be. We seriously considered the Kenwood, but in the end the price difference (they were €299 at Darty) meant that the Koenig won as we figured the difference in build quality was not €200 worth.


Sunday 26 February 2012

Broad Bodied Chasers - a photo essay

Clicking on the image will enlarge them in a new window. If you want to know more about Broad Bodied Chasers, see my species account on Loire Valley Nature.


Saturday 25 February 2012

Preserved Orange Peel

It's always irked me that citrus peel is just chucked in the compost once the juice or flesh has been extracted, so periodically I make Roasted Lemon Zest Powder or somesuch attempt at 'nose-to-tail' cuisine. This time it's orange peel cured then preserved in a heavy syrup.

I saved the peel as we consumed the fruit for a couple of weeks. Each time we peeled an orange the peel went into an plastic box containing a mixture of equal quantities of salt and sugar. I used the chunky curing salt that is very easily available here, and cheap. You will need about 1-2 cups of each for a 2 litre icecream container. As each peel is added you stir it around to make sure everything is in contact with the curing mixture. When the box is too full to successfully stir it around anymore leave it in the fridge for a week or more (up to a month).

Orange peel in syrup, with some extra syrup on the side.
At the end of this period, pick out the peel and put it in a saucepan covered in fresh water. Bring to the boil, then drain. Repeat this 3 more times. Rinse the peel in cold water to cool it down after the final boiling and scrape off any remaining white pith. Cut the peel into strips, triangles or dice.

Make up a syrup using equal quantities of sugar and water - about 4 cups of each. Put the sugar and water in a large saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally to make the sugar dissolve. Once boiling add the peel, bring back to the boil then take off the heat and allow to cool. The peel in syrup should keep indefinitely in the fridge or cool cellar.

I am planning to use it covered in chocolate, in cakes, tagines, icecream and anything else that takes my fancy. The syrup will also get used in cakes and icecream.



For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

Friday 24 February 2012

The Climbing Wall

Preuilly's gymnasium was the venue for the recent Foire au Safran and while I was there I took a photo of the climbing wall installed on the end wall. There is no information I can find about how you book to use it (the official council website doesn't even mention the gymnase has a climbing wall) and since I have never been any good at hauling my own weight up sheer cliffs using only my fingertips, I can't be bothered to pop down to the mairie to find out the details. However, if you are interested, that is my advice - pop into the council offices and ask the ladies there what the deal is.

I assume the plant gets moved...
Climbing walls turn up in all sorts of unexpected places these days in France. For one that amused us, see our post on the very pleasant park at Chambray-les-Tours.


Thursday 23 February 2012

A Lucky Chance Sighting

Yesterday we went to Chateauroux for the afternoon. The route takes us through the Brenne for most of the way so the chances for lucky wildlife sightings are relatively high. I once had to stop the car in the bit that goes through the Foret de Preuilly to allow a haughty young red deer stag to stalk across the road.

At this time of year we are waiting for the migrating cranes to come over and announce in their honking voices that spring is here. The reports are just starting to come in that they are on the move through France. Every year we see them flying over in strung out Vs but we've never seen them taking a rest and feeding break on the ground - until yesterday.

As we drove past a farm between Vendoeuvres and Claise we noticed some feeding in a field. We haven't noticed any over Preuilly yet, so these were our first cranes for the year. We did a quick U-turn and drove up the farm track alongside the field. The dozen birds weren't spooked, but did slowly move away from us and were about 50 - 100 m distant. They look so craneish, doing that thing where their tail sticks out behind like a bustle, and they just slowly stride across the grass in that dignified crane way.

We only had my camera with me, but even so, we are fairly happy with the pictures. Simon decided not to take his camera with us because we were just on a shopping trip. He is kicking himself for missing an opportunity to use his much more powerful zoom. If ever he decides he can't be bothered to take his camera on an outing I am to say 'Cranes!' from now on.

Curiously, this is not the first time we have stopped at this particular farm to photograph something. Last year they were one of a number of farms in the area to grow tobacco and we photographed the crop. It was only a small field, but once again they had provided the unexpected.

Once we got to Chateauroux we called in on Jean-Louis to see if he'd made any progress with Célestine's gearbox, but as we expected, it's been too cold to work in the garage. He said he'd seen a flock of about 60 cranes, just lifting off near Déol this morning, the first of the season for him too.

Cranes are one of those birds that everyone is happy to see, all over the world and in all cultures. Non-birdwatchers and birders alike will stop to watch them. I guess it's partly because they are large and elegant both on land and in the air, and because they herald the changing seasons. The long migration of many species is widely known and considered heroic, and their balletic mating rituals draw crowds in some countries.


Wednesday 22 February 2012

A View of Preuilly

This view across the valley formed by the ruisseau de miloneau was taken by standing in the driveway of the local nursing service (which goes by the not entirely reassuring name of Cactus!). I am looking across our friend Gérard's backyard, with its charming classical garden shed. I don't know if it was once a rather posh dunny or whether it is a vine hut - I should ask him I suppose. It is oddly and abruptly cut off at the back - did it once join on to something bigger behind?

Beyond that, in the middle of the picture is a huge upright old pear tree that produces quantities of sizeable fruit that are just left to drop into the ruisseau and bob downstream in the autumn. At the summit of the hill, seemingly poised on the tips of the pear tree's branches, are the ruins of the Chapelle de Saint Mélaine. Rumour has it that the owners have applied to have it reconsecrated (and here was me thinking it was their garage!).


Tuesday 21 February 2012

Fat Tuesday

Or as it is known in our house - PANCAKE DAY!!

To tell the truth, most years it's known in our house as "yesterday was pancake day" because we don't really pay much attention to dates during winter, most days being "Sunday the something" for all intents and purposes.

However, as Susan bought a crêpe pan last week pancakes have being weighing heavy on my mind. We might just christen that baby today.


Monday 20 February 2012

More Ice

After a couple days away from the subject, more ice.

In March 2010 I wrote about finding paint brushes which had been sitting in white spirit in the garage all winter, and said "It is a lesson I hope to learn though - clean up before it starts snowing!"

Like most "I will know better next time" events, the only thing that taught me was to recognise I had got it wrong again when I emptied a lump of ice out of a 10 litre bucket.

I can be happy in the knowledge that this year it was only one brush - that is two less that two years ago, a statistic not improved by being one more than last year.

I also notice that the blog post in March 2010 I referred to was posted the day that Leon and Sue visited. Time flies, eh...


Sunday 19 February 2012

Swallowtails - a photo essay

Click on the photos to enlarge. If you want to know more about Swallowtails see my species account on Loire Valley Nature.


Saturday 18 February 2012

Healthy Hash

Just out of the oven, made in one of those big paté dishes that
the charcutiers give away once the contents have been sold.
Hachis parmentier is a French family favourite, the equivalent of the anglophone Shepherds Pie. The main differences are that there are often multiples of both the mashed potato and the meat layers. In my version I've made a savoury mince filled mashed potato sandwich, with top and bottom being thick layers of mash, with a thin layer of meat in between. And that's another difference with hachis parmentier - the proportion of meat to potato is often that the potato is far more substantial than the meat. My version uses 1.5 kg of potatoes and only 500 g of meat (with lots of diced and puréed vegetables added) and serves 6.

A healthy dollop of classic comfort food,
and more for the freezer.
Apparently hachis parmentier entered the French culinary lexicon in the 18th century, and is named in honour of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who championed the use of potatoes as cheap, nutritious and filling back in the days when they were still considered unsafe for human consumption in France. Like Shepherds Pie, it is traditionally made from leftover meat (usually a beef stew in the case of parmentier). Any leftover vegetables and gravy are gladly added for colour and flavour. These days it's probably more often made from scratch with purchased raw minced meat. This is certainly what I did, using chair a farci (pork mince, literally 'flesh for stuffing').


Friday 17 February 2012

Where the Water Comes From

Town water arrived in Preuilly in the 1960s and marked the end of outdoor pit toilets such as at the back of our graineterie (now considerably more salubrious as our coin d'apéro). It also marked the end of the public lavoirs on the rivers. The women of the town gained home laundries, but also a certain amount of isolation now that they didn't meet regularly on washdays.

The commune of Preuilly-sur-Claise maintains the town water supply itself rather than contract it out to a big water company. The water is pumped from two bores situated at either end of the plan d'eau (recreation ground). From there it is lifted to a huge double tank three-quarters buried into the outer earth ramparts of the chateau. This is the highest point in town and the water is gravity fed into the réseau (network).

Preuilly's water reservoir.
The tanks on the ramparts form a great earth mound. If you are feeling moderately athletic you can haul yourself up the steep side aided by a chain and check out the view and, in the right season, the colony of orchids that has established itself there.

I've only ever seen inside the control shed once, when I happened past and two guys from the council were in there with huge wrenches, heaving valves open and closed. They were busy flushing out the system by strategically opening certain fire hydrants down in the town. With the drought last year the town water went through a spell of being very discoloured. There was a fine yellow silt which settled out in our water jugs and in the bath. It had obviously been settling all through the distribution pipes too, and the council was doing a bit of 'spring' cleaning.

Directing the flow.
The water pressure from the reservoir tank is such that we had to have a pressure reducer installed when our plumbing was renewed and we wanted to install an inline filter. Prior to this, when we first lived in the house, the water whizzed through the instant hot water heater a little too instantly so showers were no better than lukewarm. Down in the kitchen, when we turned on the tap at the sink the whole fawcet could be blasted off the pipes.

Our Level 3 water restrictions were rescinded late last year, after reasonable rain brought us up to 80% of our yearly average. This year, as in the last few years at least, farmers are banned from extracting water for irrigation from the Claise and its tributaries upstream from le Grand Pressigny. A great swathe up through the département to our west and north has been declared a drought disaster area for 2011, which means that farmers will have guaranteed payouts on insurance claims for crop failures and be eligble for assistance, grants and compensation. The graziers union has been offering grants of up to €6000 to purchase fodder since the middle of last year, since many graziers and dairy farmers were supplementary feeding much earlier than normal due to lack of grass and many ran out of homegrown hay and silage before the end of the year. Purchasing fodder is not an expense many farmers expect here - they pride themselves on being self-sufficient in this regard.


Thursday 16 February 2012

The Ice Machine

On Monday I wrote about our dauphin and how the ice had split it. At that stage the downpipe was full of ice, a slightly worrying situation as the forecast was for rain and anything that fell on the roof would have to find its own way down.

The downpipe on Sunday afternoon
By Monday afternoon the rain hadn't arrived, and the warmer temperatures meant that the downpipe was no longer welded to the wall by ice. This gave me an opportunity to see if I could shift some of the ice out of the pipe.

First move was to shove a screwdriver into the outlet and wriggle, to see if I could shift the lump sitting there. This I managed successfully, but I was rather surprised (and alarmed) when a 9cm (3.5inch) plug of ice then whistled past my unprotected hand. When I looked at where it had come from I could see another lump of ice, which I wriggled with my screwdriver - with the same result.

Realising that this could take all afternoon, I then undid the screws holding the cast iron dauphin to the wall and gently slid it out from the rest of the downpipe, releasing almost 5 metres of ice which shattered as it hit the ground.

So now we have a clear downpipe for when the rain arrives. It hasn't yet, but one day the forecast has to be right!


Wednesday 15 February 2012

A Bit of Heat

The weather has been on the perishing side of chilly lately, so when we were in Paris I bought some makings for Asian soups from the Paris Store. One of my favorite soups is Tom Yum, the spicy Thai soup, which I first encountered in the early 80s, when Thai food first became trendy (yes, I know, even I was a trend follower once, rather than the trendsetter I am now).

I bought a jar of Tom Yum paste, on which the instructions are a little ambiguous.

1. Put 2 spoonfuls of paste in 3 cups of boiling water.
2.Add shrimp and mushroom as required, boiled till cook.

After a discussion with Susan (who thought it must have meant 2 dessertspoons) and sniffing the jar, I decided to start cautiously. I added 1 teaspoon of paste to 2 cups of boiling water, then added rice noodles and some shredded cooked chicken and boiled until the noodles were cooked. This I decanted into a bowl so I could enjoy some yummy warming food.

I am no wimp, but after one mouthful I put the mixture back in the saucepan, added more chicken and two more cups of water and simmered for 5 minutes, adding some extra chicken stock powder.

This made an extremely hot but very tasty soup, and the best part is that I have lunch for today already sorted out and enough soup paste to last me a couple of years!


Monday 13 February 2012

And Now the Weather...

Or not, because yesterday afternoon when I went to check the Météo de France web site it wasn't working. It continued not to work all evening and into the night.

I suspect that it's a case of too much traffic, because it was sunny and almost warm yesterday afternoon (-4°C) but rain is forecast. This means that by midday today we should finally have made it above freezing point for the first time this month, but a weather warning for icy roads will have been issued.

You can tell just how cold the last 10 days have been by the fact that our cast iron dauphin (first seen here) has split. It has obviously filled up with melted snow which froze again the instant it hit the cold metal, expanding and splitting the notoriously inflexible cast iron. I have been keeping a wary eye on the pipe for the past couple of days for just this reason, and am fairly sure that the pipe split at about 4.00pm yesterday afternoon.

Not just a split - look at how thick the ice is.
The other downpipe has survived, mainly because the roof it services has seen very little sun and consequently the snow hasn't yet melted. What little melt that has happened has grown a solid icicle.

Inside the house we are more or less warm, and considerably warmer than some unfortunate people whose heat pumps have given up the ghost. Low tech has its advantages sometimes.


Meteo de France is back this morning with really
cheering news - it will be warmer, but wetter. And yukky.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Simon's Retromobile Post

Enough of the cold already!!

Last week we were in Paris at Retromobile, where there were lots of very yummy things to look at. The three cars that really caught my eye were a couple of touring convertibles and an open Bugatti road racing car.

Of those, the one that just transfixed me was the Bugatti. Of course, I took plenty of photos of it, but none that the whole car, which is why I have included a link to someone else's photo. I did take photos of some of the details, including the stopwatches in front of the co-pilot (it would be un-generous to call him anything else). This is a proper le Mans car.

I particularly like the worn away section where
the back seat passenger has been hanging on.

Delahaye 135m from 1938, with bodywork by Henri Chapron.
In the words of whispering Bob: mmmmm nice...

Delage D6 Cabriolet by Guilloré of Paris 1947.
This car is still for sale, with extra pics here
The show was (as usual) really good, but - again, as usual - too long a day. We were contemplating not going this year, but we weakened. Next year we may travel up to Paris in the morning, visit the show in the afternoon, and spend just one night up in the big smoke.

I have loaded more pics onto our facebook page, and will be adding others over the next couple of days. If you want serious car pics (with commentary in French) look here.


*-14°C this morning, since you're asking

Saturday 11 February 2012

Arty Snow Pics

After yesterdays views, some close-ups of cold stuff:

This is what's stopping our downpipes from
working. I hope it doesn't cause problems
Not our place, another 18.
A close up of yesterday's tree

I went out last night at 10.00 to check the thermometer, came in and said to Susan "it's only -8°". I wasn't being ironic or anything - after this last week, -8 feels positively mild.