Monday 31 December 2012

Last day of the year

In a little under 12 hours it will be 2013. It doesn't really feel like Hogmanay. The sun is out -a nice change - and although a bit breezy, it is mild.
View from my study today
The familiar view from my study is quite benign, green grass and bare trees in the sunshine. What it doesn't show is how squelchy the ground is underfoot. We've had so much rain that the drainage ditches around Charnizay have been working overtime and for quite some time many of the fields have had standing water in them.
You can just see the standing water in Eric's field
However, it is so mild in fact that the fuschias in the window box we planted up in late spring for Niall's study window are stubbonrly refusing to give up the fight and are still flowering! I took a photo of them this morning. If I had the fancy, I could almost sit outside with my coffee as long as i was tucked in a spot sheltered from the wind.
'never say die' fuschias!
This is our third Hogmanay here since we moved in August 2010 but it will be the first we actually spend in our own house.  2010/11 saw us in Edinburgh. We were supposed to visit family at Christmas but very bad weather meant we had to postpone and instead we saw in the New Year there. Last year we celebrated with French friends who had invited us for a traditional Réveillon dinner to see in the new year --we didn't get up from the table until 4am!

So this year will see us celebrating quietly chez nous, feet up in front of the logburner. Niall will raise a wee dram when the clock strikes; I'll have a glass of fizz.

Wishing you and yours a Happy Hogmanay, Réveillon or, as they say in The Netherlands, Een Goede Jaarwisseling!
'Christmas' cactus flowering on my study windowsill

Thursday 27 December 2012

Festive food

We've just given ourselves a metaphorical pat on the back as we are not left with lots of left-over food. In fact, barring half a mince pie we have none.
mince pie
Christmas Eve we really enjoyed a seafood platter - we don't buy the ones you can pre-order, but create our own 'mix'. This is mainly because we are no great fans of bulots [whelks] or other sea-snail like beasties.

Our platter consisted of: cooked crab claws and lobster, tiger prawns and langoustines. The tiger prawns and langoustines needed to be cooked so we very gently poached them in some salted water. They cook very quickly and if you over do it they go rubbery. Overall it made for a nice combination of warm and chilled seafood. We ate it with alumettes [very thin french fries] and a sauce made from mayonaise, garlic, creme fraiche, lemon juice and tarragon.

Unsurprsingly we had a very attentive audience of cats who watched our every move. They were doomed to be disappointed and anyway they had their own 'treat' of luxury cat food - a fishy flavor of course!
On Christmas Day we cooked a duckling with spiced cherry sauce. The duck recipe was an adaptation from one found on the Oprah website. We liked the idea of the spices but felt the roasting time was too long. Also, it called for the duck to be roasted on a bed of vegetables which are later mashed and we didn't want to do that.
To prepare the duck you do the usual--wash it, pat it dry and then score the skin. After you've done that you rub in the spices and olive oil. The spice mix we used followed the Oprah recipe.

Spice mix:
6 star anise ground fine;
4 or 5 cloves also ground to powder
1 tsp of powderd cinnamon

The mix gave a really subtle flavour and the skin was nice and crispy.
In the Oprah recipe it says roast a 1.8 - 2kg [4 - 5lbs] duck for almost 4 1/2 hrs at 180C. We had a 1.6kg [3.5 lbs] caneton and decided to roast it as follows: 20 mins at 200C [conventional oven setting] and then at 180C for about 1.5 hrs. This more or less follows the roast times on the BBC Good Food website. Once roasted we let the bird rest for about 20 mins covered with foil.
Christmas dinner: roast duck with spiced cherries
The sauce for the duck was again adpated from the Oprah recipe:
250 ml of red wine
200ml of port
+/- 400g of defrosted & de-stoned cherries we'd frozen in the summer
2 star anise
3 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 soup spoon of sugar

The spices were wrapped in a little muslin sachet so they were easy to remove at the end. We let the cherries simmer until the liquid was so reduced it was a syrup -- about 40 mins on a very low heat.

With the duck we had green beans, honey glazed parsnips with thyme and rosemary roast potatoes. To glaze the raw parsnips we simply tossed them in a mix of olive oil, runny honey [orange flower as that was what was to hand] and thyme. You just need to make sure they are well coated. As parsnips are already a sweetish vegetable it is up to your personal taste how much honey you want to use. We used a fairly high olive oil to honey ratio. The roast potatoes were parboiled for 5 mins then fluffed by tossing them in a sieve -- it roughens the surface so that they are crispy when cooked. We sprinked them in rosemary and coated them in melted duck fat before putting them in the roasting tin.

We used one roasting pan which had been divided into two using aluninum foil to make two 'trays' which fit into the pan. This way the parsnips and potatoes could roast together without mixing the flavors. They went into the oven on the lower shelf when the duck was turned down to 180C . When we took the duck out to rest we turned up the oven to 200C to allow the veg a final 'roast'.

As the food we cooked on Christmas Day provided 4 portions we had the same meal again for lunch on Boxing day and it was just as nice! And yes, the cats did get the odd tidbit of duck!


Monday 24 December 2012

Christams Eve

The tree has been up a week, the cats have not attacked the baubles and the weather is singularly warm: 15C, but at least it has stopped raining and yesterday we even had sun!

Our tree this year
Tonight we'll be having a plateau of fruits de mer, as we did the first year we were here: crab claws, langoustines, lobster and large prawns. There's a nice Picpoul de pinet chilling in the fridge. This is a very dry white wine from the Montpellier area in the Languedoc. It will go well with the seafood.

Yesterday we gave the oven a clean, or rather set it on its self-cleaning mode and let it do its thing. We have never had a self-cleaning oven before and we were quite impressed with the result, especially as it saves an enromous amount of hassle. Apart from a few tiny areas by the door it was sparkling clean and all ready to go for Christmas Day cooking.
Favorite ornament: a glass dove
Tomorrow we'll be roasting a caneton [duckling] spiced with star anise, cinnamon, cloves, thyme and bay leaves. To go with this will be cherries in a wine/port sauce which is also flavored with the star anise, cinnamon and cloves. It's a recipe I found on the internet which sounded very nice and it will be interesting to see how it turns out:- we will let you know. We wanted to try something a little different from the usual caneton a l'orange, lovely though that is. Veg is kept simple, honey glazed roast parsnips, haricots verts and for Niall some roast potatoes. We'll have a Saumur-Champigny, Les Loups Noirs, from the Domaine Nerleux which we wrote about here to drink with the meal.

I've already baked a large mince pie, somehting I always do rather than make lots of little ones. It's nice to have a proper slice with some creme fraiche. I use an ancient 8" pie dish which is older than I am--my mother used to use it.

So we are pretty much prepped for Christmas.

Here's wishing you and yours wherever you are Happy Holidays!

Naturally Katinka has to have the last say.....
Setting up the tree last week

Saturday 22 December 2012

The Solstice & Sister ma

Yesterday was the winter solstice and there was also a bit of kerfuffle on the news about the day being the possible end of the world. It certainly was the end of a major cycle in the 5,125-year-old Mayan Long Count calendar known as the 13th Baktun. This event convinced some that it was the signal for the Apocalyse to begin.
setting solstice sun between St Flovier and St Senoch
We, on the other hand, being made of more phlegmatic stuff, went down to our local village cafe/bar, the Relais du Dolmen for lunch in the company of friends Simon and Susan and Tim and Pauline. We were there to 'road test' the €12.00 menu du jour. The cafe/bar recently came under new management, you can read about it here. The food was fine but we all felt that the lass who manages the Relais could do with an assistant as she was running things completely single-handed.

I'm sure you're wondering about 'Sister ma' part of the title. No, it is nothing to do with a nunnery! Those of you who read Simon & Susan's blog will know that they recently spent a month in Australia visiting family. They stopped over in China on their way back and very kindly brought us a seriously large pack of Chinese sweeties called 'Sister ma'.
Chinese candy
We tried them yesterday when we came back from our weekly food shop and they are extremely nice: very thin outer hard candy shell wrapped round a sort of nut brittle. Yummy! We love the product description and the bright orange packaging. Just the right warm sunshine-y color to brighten up yet another driech rainy day like the one we're having today.
candy description [click to enlage]
Yesterday, it mostly rained as well. We caught a very brief glimpse of the sun when it was setting and mist was beginning to curl over the fields, but that was our lot! We managed to get a few pictures on the phone camera before it disappeared. Sadly, the weather gods' dial seems to be fixed on 'soggy' for Christmas.

Friday 14 December 2012

Souped up CV

Yesterday we were at the Super U in Loches doing our weekly shop and getting gas when this car drove up next to us at the pump. Now you see all kinds of cars here in rural France, from the expensive to the downright rickety held together more with scotch tape than anything else. The car below however, would standout wherever it went!

Guilded double horse-head on the hood, cow horns on the roof, cream period jerry cans strapped to the sides, lovely teak woodwork and immaculate cream and chocolate paintwork. It even sported a matching chocolate-painted shovel strapped to the back of the cab!
We asked the gentleman if we could take a photo of his car. Sporting cowboy boots and a baseball cap with the Confederate flag on the front he was obviously a devotee of all things 'western'. He beamed and said sure before carrying on filling his tank. When he left he gave us a cheery wave and we were left contemplating the very grubby state of our car. He certainly put us in the shade!

Sunday 9 December 2012

Poitiers prepares for Christmas

Later than the UK or the US, but still well in advance of Christmas, the towns and villages in our area are ramping up for Christmas. The first sign is often the enormous displays of chocolate in the supermarkets. On entering you are often confronted with rank upon rank of snazzy boxes.

In our village the decorations were going up on Friday. These consist of frameworks of lights which are clamped to alternate lamposts. During the day they look hideous, but in the dark they are actually quite nice. In previous years lights have been strung along the doorway and facade of the church. So far these haven't gone up yet. We hope they do, because they make the church look very pretty after dark, framing the Renaissance features.
Poitiers' Hotel de Ville
In Poitiers, we saw they were setting up the Christmas Market on the Place du Maréchal Philippe Le Clerc. The facade of the Hotel de Ville, a very imposing typically French ediface, is now somewhat obscured by the most amazing Belle Epoque [1903] double tiered merry-go-round. We've always had a soft spot for these things. As children we both loved riding on them and the time spent - in Antoinette's case - selecting just the right horse took ages and was probably more than 1/2 the fun. Sadly we didn't see it in action!
Belle Epoque Carousel
In our house the Advent calendar, which we wrote about last year, is back on the dower chest. We've begun to assemble the odd Christmas decoration or two and made sure that Christmas cards for the US, which still go by snail mail, were sent out in time. This week we'll buy a tree.
Prepping a Christmas market stall--is it the wares or the man that caught her interest?
They say some distinctly cold weather is in the offing. Up 'til now it has, barring the odd frosty morning, been mild. In fact, the fuschia in the window box of Niall's study is still flowering! Admittedly it is south facing, but even so it feels a little 'odd' when it has been officially winter for a while.