Friday 30 December 2011

Trying to change

Regular readers will have noticed that the blog design has gone from shades of beige to shades of charcoal grey this week.

This isn't entirely intentional. We were wanting to change the banner photo for a while now but with the weather being so mild we didn't have any really seasonal wintry photos - unlike last year! So we settled on a photo taken earlier this month on a misty morning.

shades of gray at Chenonceau
Changing that led to also trying to change the design template. You know the idea: fresh 'face' for 2012.... What we wanted was a color palette of grey-ish blues and greens. Now Blogger let us change elements to all sorts of colors but would it let us change the background -- would it heck! We either accepted one of a set series of color combinations or selected a different design; and we didn't like the other colorways.

Trying to customise the color palette worked in theory - we tried to 'adapt' each of the offered colorways but for some reason Blogger refused to transfer our choice to the blog page -- it only changed some of the page elements. So after much frustrated messing, and some swearing we were left with changed font colors, post titles and link colors all of which clashed hideously with the ever present beige background.

As an alternative we chose this antracite gray template. It is quite sombre but we think it does set off photos nicely. What do you think? And if anyone knows how we could make Blogger do what we want please let us know!

Thursday 29 December 2011

Chenonceau in winter

approach to Chenonceau, no people...
Last week we had Sarah, my cousin's daughter to stay. Playing tourist with someone who is seeing for the first time what treasures the Loire valley has to offer is always great fun; especially when she is an art history major. 

Sarah looking down the long gallery
We picked her up at Orly airport early in the morning. We had lunch in Amboise and found time to buy some handmade chocolates at a very busy chocolatier before heading to the Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci's residence where he died in 1519. The king of France, Francois I had coaxed him to come to France and he's buried in the chapel of Amboise castle. Sarah wanted to see it and the collection of models of Leonardo's inventions.  It was so quiet we literally parked at the entrance and had the place to ourselves:- an advantage of visiting on a cold grey winter's day. In the summer it is absolutely heaving with visitors.

The next day we had to pick up our pintade from Loches market and this gave us an opportunity to show Sarah the Caravaggios we've mentioned before and pay a quick visit to St Ours to see Agnes Sorel's tomb. There was quite a bit of fallen plaster in St Ours, presumably it had been knocked loose by the recent storm, Joachim.

Sarah, Niall and a christmas tree!
Having got our pintade we drove up to Chenonceau for the main visit for the day. Again it was really quiet. A place like Chenonceau will always have visitors, no matter what day of the year but there were only about 20 cars in the parking lot and not a tourist bus to be seen. In Chenonceau terms that is empty!

It meant that we were able to enjoy the full impact of the allée of plane trees leading up to the chateau.

Catherine de Medici
real log fire in the five queens' bedroom
It was a great visit as, with the christmas trees, floral displays and roaring fires it had a lovely ambiance. You weren't part of some demented rugby scrum trying to see the art treasures hung on the walls such as small Poussin landscape and the portraits of the two most well known owners: Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. Diane was the favourite mistress of King Henry II. Catherine de Medici was Henry's wife and after Henry's death 'appropriated' Chenonceau from her longtime rival Diane. 

It was interesting to re-visit the unusual black painted 'mourning room' of Louise de Lorraine wife of the assinated Henry III although we weren't quite convinced by the white christmas tree with black decorations. 

Soon after we entered a bus load of tourists did come pouring in armed to the teeth with camcorders but they were obviously on a tight schedule as they went from room to room at a rapid pace and soon disappeared over the horizon. We took our time and enjoyed the christmas decorations as much as the chateau.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Christmas Day pintade

As regular readers will know we ordered a pintade [guinea fowl] for Christmas Day dinner. We finally decided on the following menu:
roasted pintade with a sauce a la Normande
pommes dauphinoise and haricots verts

traditional christmas pudding and creme brulé ice cream.

We roasted the pintade in the oven. We put a sliced lemon and a roughly quartered shallot into the bird's cavity. The skin was rubbed with colza oil [in preference to butter] and seasoned with salt and pepper. Then we wrapped the bird in streaky bacon; set it on slices of apple and quartered shallots in the roasting tray and drizzled it with a little more oil. It went into the oven at 180C.

For the Normande sauce we sauteed some shallots, lardons fumé and an apple in butter. We then addded cider and reduced it all down. Next, we warmed and flamed off a generous amount of Calvados and added it to the sauce before letting it reduce again and finishing off with light cream. Finally, we added the apple slices the bird had sat on to the sauce. It went very well with the pintade.

The food was all very yummy so we ate a lot and drank quite a bit, including a very nice sparkling Alsace Rosé.

The photos are of two of the lovely Christmas tree arrangements at the Chateau of Chenonceau which we visited last week.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Christmas Eve

Well we're back home having dropped Sarah, the daughter of Antoinette's cousin, off at Charles de Gaulle airport for her flight back to Greece. She's been studying there this last semester and now she's flying back to Athens to meet up with her sister and father for Christmas before all three fly back to the USA. 

Unfortunately the earliest TGV train would not have given her enough time to get to the gate for her flight so we drove up last night and stayed at a cheap & cheerful airport hotel [Premiere Classe] before waving 'au revoir' this morning. Predictably after days of murk and misty rain the weather turned glorious and we were treated to a beautiful sunrise as we drove away from the airport.

It has been a hugely enjoyable but busy few days visiting Amboise, Chenonceau, Chinon, Fontevraud Abbey and the Abbey of St Savin. We'll write more about our visits soon. 

For now, on Christmas Eve we'd like to send our best wishes at Christmas to everyone and leave you with some seasonally appropriate images. We have presents to wrap and cooking to do!

Nativity, Charnizay village, perched in a lime[linden] tree

Nativity, Chenonceau chapel

Nativity, Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

Friday 16 December 2011

Breezin' through

flooded Aigronne river
Well "tempete Joachim" came storming in in the early hours of Thursday to Friday morning. In preparation we'd shut the shutters and anchored down things outside. We're on a ridge, and although to some extent sheltered by the neighbour's house from S/SW winds, it was very very blowy! That wasn't the worst of it, however. 

It was the accompanying rain. It came out of the black sky in huge bucketloads. The result this morning was over flowing ditches along the chemin, unexpected rivulets and extremely waterlogged ground everywhere; so saturated in fact that in places we have ponds!  The ground is clay on top of the calcaire and the water takes its time working through this claggy clay top layer. Ultimately it will all drain away of course, but in the meantime it makes for a very squelchy messy situation. If we're lucky we'll get a few days in which the ground can recover and all that water will drain away to fill the acquifers. The Aigronne river, normally a shallow little trout stream, has swollen out of all recognition and we have an impromtu lake in the valley below Charnizay.

collapsed gable
We had some large branches down, but the tarpaulins weren't blown off the woodpiles and no tiles came off the roof. The only casualty we found was the gable end of one of the ruined houses, which had collapsed. Happily it sits far enough back from the chemin that all the stone and rubble have strewn across the ground and it's nowhere near the roadway. The building sits on the parcel of land which belongs to a whole horde of heirs who can't decide what to do with it so it will continue to crumble into the woods.

A small hurrah! We are back on track with Christmas preparations. The last of the cards were sent off on Wednesday and parcels with small gifts for family and friends were handed in to Madame La Poste for dispatch on Monday.

Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days in Loches so the day before yesterday we went up to do some foodie shopping and get a Christmas tree. There's a good free range poulty farm at St Senoch [a village not far from us]. The farmer who runs it has a stand on the market selling all manner of fowl. We wanted to order a bird for Christmas and have been deliberating for some time as to what to go for: goose, duck or pintade [guinea fowl]. 

detail of rubble
We both are intruigued by goose but as the smallest one we could order was for 6 to 8 people we gave it a miss. We'd be eating it until kingdom come! Sadly monsieur was all out of duck, be it tame or semi-wild, so a pintade it will be. We had a detailed discussion as to how we planned to cook it and whether or not we wished for a ' pintade caponée' or 'normale'. A 'pintade caponée', at twice the price [€18.50 per kg] is a male bird which has been castrated and then milk fed to make its flesh even more delicate and soft. We went for a regular bird, not a milksop and will be picking it up at next Wednesday's market. 
Christmas Eve we'll have a seafood platter and be treating ourselves to oysters. Purists maintain one should eat them raw, and indeed we have done so; but, at the risk of being philistines we prefer having them cooked on the 1/2 shell.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Icarus & Daedelus

There's not been much of a peep out of us this week in blogland. Our apologies for that but things over-took us to a degree.

fair bit of this
Niall was struck down by a nasty version of the seasonal lurgy but with the added bonus of a cough that would gain him instant admission into any family of gouls! 
and a fair bit of that too!
Meanwhile I have been dealing with a nasty jaw infection. The jury is out whether or not it is the result of something dental or an infected gland. Either way, it  proceded to run riot in the right side of my jaw. Suffice to say that my face swelled up to interesting proportions - as did the pain - and I too could have easily auditioned for a: "scare your local kiddies competition". Pity it wasn't Halloween time. All of the which necessitated visits to A&E for medication -- which didn't work -- and to the local doctor, at a more civilised time, for alternative antibiotics which now are doing the trick. Things are on the mend with both of us.

can you spot Icarus?
However, all this means that we have stayed at home rarely venturing out. Not that the weather has offered us much inducement, it has been uniformly grey and dank out there. Today it is, yet again, misty and the sky is covered with an unrelenting blanket of cloud. 

So we have watched far more TV than normal. While the news headlines have been dominated by the Climate Change Conference in S. Africa and Cameron's bluff being called at the EU summit; we have eaten mush food [in Antoinette's case], taken our respective meds and watched "fluffy" TV. 

Icarus & Daedelus
It reminded us a little bit of Breughel's painting 'Fall of Icarus', which so accurately captures life carrying on while Icarus falls from the heavens. We got on with our own little things while elsewhere bigger things happened. 
We are lucky enough to have our own Icarus & Daedelus. A friend and former teaching colleague, Eppe de Haan sculpted them from driftwood and lead. We bought the statuettes at one of his 1st sculpture exhibitions in the 1990's and they have pride of place on our dower chest. We love his work and are lucky enough to have one or two more pieces; do have a look at his website.

In contrast to the EU summit where Cameron just refused to agree and that was effectively that; they kept talking at the UN Climate Change conference.  Let's hope that the compromise agreed upon helps... even if only a tiny tiny bit. 

Of course now's there's a minor panic chez nous. We are behind on all things Christmassy and at the end of the coming week we're having Antoinette's cousin's daughter to stay. Sarah, a junior at Bryn Mawr, has just finished a semester at Athens University in Greece and visiting us before flying back home to Florida. We're looking forward to showing her the sights of the Loire Valley - she's an Art History major.

Sunday 4 December 2011

A window a day

The Cloisters as an Advent calendar
Another grey murky day here today. However boring and gloomy the grey rain clouds are, fact is we do need the rain. It has been one of the driest and warmest autumns on record. 

So not a weekend for going out and doing things, but for staying in and slowly preparing for Christmas, which is coming up fast in the inside lane. We've got the Christmas card list out and bought the right stamps for various parts of the globe. Even though December has hardly begun, today is already the second Sunday in Advent. It's just the way the calendar crumbles, Christmas is not a moveable feast.

Yesterday we ran down to the village to pick up a parcel that La Poste had tried to deliver on Friday while we were out. In the Netherlands the docket telling you about the missed delivery informed you where the parcel had come from; here in France it doesn't so it remains a mystery until you actually turn up to collect it.

4 windows open
Our parcel turned out to be from a very dear friend in Massachusetts.  She has sent us a most magnificent Advent Calendar -- one from the New York Metropolitain Museum of Art. In 3D, it depicts The Cloisters, a medieval treasure house of a museum [and part of the Met] which we know well.  Each window hides an illustration of one of the museum's medieval treasures. An absolutely brilliant gift! Especially as, for the last couple of years, we've been disappointed by what's out there on offer. This is the first new one we've had for a while.

We've always had an advent calendar; it signals the start of the Christmas season. Some years we bought a new one, others times we re-used an especially beautiful one we'd saved. So now we have a small selection from which to choose; including one from Antoinette's childhood. It's still in relatively good order although it can be a bit tricky to keep the wee windows closed so that you can [re-]open one each day!

wild boar hunt
An advantage of the poor weather is that there aren't too many hunters out and about today. It seems it's too rainy and windy. As this is being typed the Aigronne valley has vanished in a white haze which means another burst of rain is about to roll up to the house. 

Don't think they were that fussed about whether or not the weather was good when hunting in the 14th C when was it more of an imperative as a means of replenishing the larder. Although, then as now, rain would drown out any scent of the wild boar or deer, leaving them little to show for their efforts. 

The December illumination by the Brothers Limbourg in the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry shows the successful end of a wild boar hunt. If you look closely you can see that the hunt servant on the left looks exhausted, as well he might having had to run to keep up with the dogs; one of whom he's already leashed. The one on the right is blowing the call to signal the death of the boar and the third servant is putting the collar/leash back on a mastiff type dog, who is far more intent on sinking his teeth into his share of the boar. In the background is the chateau of Vincennes. The forest surrounding the chateau was a favoured hunting ground of the French royal house.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Scottish links

last morning of November
Yesterday, we had some business to attend to in Loches, and as it was also market day we went up in the morning. As we drove along the mist began to thin and there was the promise of sun later on. The small camera now mostly lives in the car so we took a few photos. 

30 November is the feast of St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. Before devolution it was a day when official buildings in Scotland would fly the Saltire Cross -- the Scottish flag, instead of the Union Jack. Now of course the Scottish flag is flown everywhere.

welcome to Loches
Often in expat communities more is made of events such as St Andrew's day than would be the case in the home country. We can remember, when living in Wassenaar, being enthusiastically cornered by a lady very keen on signing anyone, with even the most tenuous connection to Scotland, up for a St Andrew's Day ball. It took some dexterity on our part to manoeuvre elegantly out of that one. We were informed that kilts were mandatory and that counted Niall out. He has a clan tartan but having worn a kilt once to a highland wedding swore never again. Not even at our own wedding.

Loches is alliée, associated with, the University town of St Andrews in Fife. It's nice that a town close to us has this link with not only Scotland, but a place we know well as we have good friends who live there. And... yes,  it is the place where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met, as well as the historic home of golf. A couple of months ago Loches held a 'Scotland Week' and along with holding events festooned the central streets with Scottish bunting; Saltire Crosses to the fore!

St Andrew with Saltire Cross
Legend has it that Rule, "an obscure Scottish saint" [Oxford Dictionary of Saints]; brought the relics, or at least some of them, to Scotland. He landed in Fife and built a church on the site of what is now the town of St Andrews. It became a center of pilgrimage and hence led to the selection of St Andrew as the patron saint of Scotland.

In early depictions St Andrew is shown with a normal cross. The X, or Saltire Cross, now associated with him first appears in the 10thC in Autun [SW of Dijon] and becomes common by the 14thC.