06 July 2015


I think I might be on vacation. It's that time of year. Now that the weather is much nicer — not so hot but still pretty — I have a lot of yard work I'd like to get done. Does that sound like a vacation to you? It does to me, because I will feel rejuvenated if I get the outdoor work done. By the way, the photos in this post are some that I took more than a month ago, when CHM and I visited friends of his just south of Paris. They have an amazing flower garden.

Our weather is supposed to be warming up again already, but not drastically. It almost feels chilly this morning, though temperatures are supposed to be back up in the mid-80s (30ºC) this afternoon. We've had some rain, so everything feels fresher, less dusty, and less parched. As always with the weather, you just have to take it one day at a time. And take advantage of the good spells of weather to get things done and to just enjoy living.

There is so much going on in the world. The U.S. Supreme Court rescued the federal health care system and then ruled in favor of marriage equality in all the U.S. states. My head is spinning. Now the Greeks have voted to thumb their noses at Europe and its austerity policies. What that will do to exchange rates remains to be seen. It would seem logical for the euro to go down in value — it has been too strong for too long. After years of scrimping because of a weak dollar, things are now looking up for people like us, who live between two currencies — all income in U.S. dollars, and nearly all outgo in European euros.

Here at home in Saint-Aignan, there have been many changes too. A few months ago we bought a second car, which has changed our outlook on life out here in the country if not our actual lives all that much. We don't drive more, but we've gained in independence. We had some needed work done on the 15-year-old Peugeot to keep it running smoothly. Then we went through the woodstove research process and finally decided, for a multitude of reasons, to keep our old stove for another few years. Walt will not longer have to be a lumberjack, since we've finally found a source for wood already cut to fit our old stove.

Instead, we will probably get a new boiler installed this fall, greatly improving our central heating system. Our old boiler is 23 years old. It's inefficient and fragile, not to say decrepit. It's not easy to work with, and the danger is that it could easily break down at the worst moment, plunging us into the cold when we need heat the most. Stay tuned.

And of course there has been the refurbishment of the den. It was the last room in the house that still had some 20- or 30-year-old wall paper in it. There was a nasty crack in the ceiling. Now it's repaired, and the ceiling and walls have been patched, sealed, and repainted. I think we can say that we have finally made the house completely ours, with new windows all around, new paint everywhere, and a whole new upstairs, where we spend a lot of time. This summer has reminded us how much we enjoy living here.

I also think it's time to get a new refrigerator. The way we live here, doing all our own cooking, mostly from scratch, and not going to restaurants much or buying much prepared food, having a good, clean, reliable refrigerator is also crucial to our well-being — on the same level with having a freezer, a good kitchen stove, and bread deliveries. We are lucky that 12 years after acquiring our first set of home appliances we are able to start replacing and renewing them. This is what passes for excitement around here.

By the way, all these macro shots of flowers are ones I took with my Canon SX700HS camera, for those who are interested in such things. I'm regularly using it at well as the Panasonic Lumix camera I got back in June. With two cameras, I'm drowning in photos, both from my travels in early June and from my daily walks in the vineyard. I can't blog enough to even start to catch up with them all.

05 July 2015

Well that was fun

Of course the hot weather might not be over for good, but there has definitely been a change. Today is the first time in a while that we've seen a low temperature is below 20ºC. Yesterday, and overnight, we got some thunder and some rain, and yesterday's high temperature didn't even hit 30ºC. It was fun while it lasted.

We are used to seeing a lot of blue wild chicory flowers all around the vineyard at this time of year. They're also called cornflowers in some places and by some people. Wild chicory is a European plant that has become naturalized in large parts of the U.S.

It's hard to resist taking photos of the bright blue chicory flowers. There have been more of them than usual this year, probably because of the hot dry weather we've had for a few weeks.


There are fewer flowers now, since the village sent out a man on a tractor hauling a mower to cut down all the tall plants along the gravel road through the vineyard a couple of days ago. Last weekend, Walt came back from his walk with the dog and reported he had seen white cornflowers growing out at the very end of the gravel road.

The next day, I walked out there and looked for them. I'd only ever seen blue flowers before, but I just read in the Wikipedia article about chicory that the plant can have not only blue or white but also pink blooms.The plants with white chicory blossoms are gone now — mowed down.

04 July 2015

Le Chavignol, a goat cheese

They seem to be trying to change the name of the goat cheeses made in the village of Chavignol and all around the Sancerre area. Everybody calls them crottins, but the word has bad or at least funny connotations. Crottins are what we call might call "droppings" or, in French, déjections. Manure, autrement dit, or dung. Now I see the cheeses referred to simply as Chavignols.

Apparently, the name crottin for the cheese comes from an old dialect word, crot, which meant a hole along the clay banks of a river or stream. Such holes filled with water and people did laundry in them. And that clay was used to make a container that curdled milk was poured into to form little goat cheeses, which then got the name crottin. You can read about it here, in French. It's a good theory.

The web site I've linked to says that nobody really knows when the little goat cheeses of Chavignol got the namec crottin. It might have been as late as the 19th century, even though goats have been raised in the area since at least the 16th century. When phylloxera wiped out the Sancerre vineyards in the late 19th century, making goat cheeses became the area's main industry. Nowadays, the wine-making and cheese-making industries thrive side by side, as in much of the Loire Valley.

One of the requirements for making Chavignol cheese is that the goat's milk be cru — unpasteurized. That's what the cahier des charges, or specification, for the Chavignol cheese AOC (granted in 1976) or AOP (1996) says. Other goat cheeses, including those of Selles-sur-Cher and Valençay near Saint-Aignan, can be made with frozen or even powdered goat's milk, which means that they are available not just seasonally but year-round. Maybe the same is true of Chavignol cheeses, at least the frozen milk part — what I've read isn't clear on that point.

There are only four affineurs, or companies that specialize in aging cheeses, in the Sancerre area. They buy cheeses from local farmers and mature or age them under controlled temperature and humidity conditions. The cheeses CHM and I bought back in early June were affinés by a company called Dubois Boulay, in Chavignol itself. As you can see from my photo above, it's a modern facility.

How we actually found the cheeses we bought is a whole story unto itself. We had driven toward Chavignol from the north, stopping on that high ridge to take panoramic photos of the village and of Sancerre. Then we drove down toward Chavignol on a narrow, winding paved road, which it turned out was closed by construction work. We had to turn around and drive back up the hill to where we had come from.

Then we drove all around the area to find a different route into Chavignol, but with no luck. We ended up stopping in a supermarket on the edge of Sancerre and buying goat cheeses there, along with a few bottles of the local wine. We drove up into the town of Sancerre to have a look around. Finally, as we were deciding to leave the area without actually seeing "downtown" Chavignol from close up, we found the way in. We drove past the Dubois Boulay cheese facility and through the village. There was no place to park, so we kept going.

The cheeses we bought at the supermarket were really delicious. In fact, they still are, a month later. I have two left. They are very dry and very hard. On the left is a map of the Chavignol cheese production zone that I found on the crottindechavignol.fr web site. Click or tap on it to see it at a larger size.