25 February 2018

De la vraie pho soupe

I've lost track of how many days I've been suffering with this lousy cold and cough. Too many. I'm taking everybody's advice and continuing to eat as much hot soup as I can.

The title of this post is a play on words using a cute French expression I hear often. Somebody describing the material covering the seats in your car or the armchairs in your study might say it's « du vrai faux cuir » — "genuine imitation leather" we might say in America. "Real fake leather."

Pho is a Vietnamese soup that's usually made with beef broth. The broth is flavored with onions and spices, and the soup is served with thinly sliced beef, rice noodles, bean sprouts, and fresh herbs including coriander, basil, mint, etc. Here's a list of ingredients from a recipe I found on the web:

2 large onions
1 "hand" of ginger
4 liters of beef bouillon
1 tablespoon of sugar
2 tablespoons of fish sauce (nuoc mâm)
3 star anise "seed pods"
1 stick of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
3 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon of black peppercorns
2 cloves

The idea is to boil or simmer the broth, whether freshly made, frozen, or store-bought, with all those spices and aromatics for an hour or two (or longer) until it's highly flavored. Optionally, you could put a couple of dried cayenne or other peppers in the pot to "hot up" the broth a little bit. Also, you can cut the onions in half and grill or broil them until they are slightly charred to add that smoky, caramel flavor to the pho.

To serve the pho, first have the hot broth boiling and ready to go. Scoop out all the spices using a slotted spoon or a strainer. Then, separately, cook some Asian rice or other noodles (wheat, soybean, buckwheat) in water according to the directions on the package. Slice some tender, fresh, lean raw beef into very thin strips. Put a serving of hot noodles in a pre-heated bowl and lay some strips of beef over them. Immediately ladle enough steaming hot pho broth over the noodles and beef to cover.

The beef will cook slightly, as you can see in the photos above, and stay nice and tender. Top the soup with some bean sprouts and fresh herbs. Stir and eat, adding fresh-squeezed lime juice, soy sauce, sesame oil, more fish sauce, and, optionally, some thinly sliced fresh red chili peppers.

As with most "classic" dishes, there are probably as many recipes for pho as there are cooks who make it. Here's one that looks good. There's a recipe for a quick chicken pho on Simply Recipes.

24 February 2018

Couleurs hivernales

Winter colors. Muted, but striking. I took these photos on my walk three mornings ago. I think I was just realizing then that I had caught a cold.

Oaks, like these saplings, don't lose their leaves in winter. Instead the foliage turns bright orange and hangs on until spring, when new growth pushes off the old.

Walt posted a photo of this maison de vigneron — vine workers' shed — a couple of days ago. As he said, we've never seen the doors open a single time since we moved here in 2003. They're padlocked. There must not be anything usable or of any kind of value inside.

Willows grow around the vineyard. Usually, somebody trims off all the yellow "whips" so that new ones will grow on the stumps. The whips can be used to make baskets. Old Monsieur Denis used to trim them, but he never makes vineyard appearances any more. He's in his 80s now and can't walk much.

I walked the dog yesterday morning. The weather was dry, but not the ground. The temperature was below freezing, but just barely, and the ground was not frozen solid. I'm glad I don't have to go out there this morning. Last night, I went to bed at seven and I got at my usual time these days, five a.m. I slept for 10 hours, then. The cold is no better.

23 February 2018

Bon anniversaire

Yesterday was Callie's birthday. She would have turned 11 if she had made it this far. Today, meanwhile, is Natasha's birthday — her first. Here are three photos of one-year-old Tasha taken during recent walks in the vineyard. They weren't intentionally posed, and are blurrier than I might like.




Tasha's health is good. Mine is crummy right now. The cold is in my nose and in my chest. The soup we had for lunch yesterday didn't cure me.

22 February 2018

Water views

I seem to have come down with a cold. Great. I guess it's not surprising. My body is fundamentally tired after all it's been through over the past four or five weeks. And now the weather is turning much colder, with snow in the forecast for next week. This week, the rain has stopped but the landscape is water, water everywhere.

We expected to see our part-time neighbor this week, but her house has remained empty and shuttered. In fact, two other houses we can see from our windows stand empty right now. This neighbor is a retired teacher but still active in education projects and volunteer work. She lives in the Paris suburbs and travels a lot. Since the winter vacation for French schools has now started, we thought she might come spend time in what was her late husband's family home. Maybe she's in India or Africa... or somewhere else exotic... instead.

The soil in the vineyard and in our yard is made up mostly of clay and limestone. It's fairly impermeable, so water runs off as much as it soaks in. Anyway, the ground is completely saturated right now, after several months of frequent rain. Puddles like the one to the right are all around. You have to be careful where you step. You might end up ankle deep in muck. And expect your pants legs to be spattered with mud.

Even where there are no puddles, the ground is slippery the way clay is when it's water-saturated. Slippin' and a-slidin' is how we make our way up and down rows of vines. I took these photos at sunrise yesterday morning. The sky was foggy and the sun was an orange ball coming up behind a stand of trees.

There are five or six water holes of various sizes around the vineyard, and all of them are pretty full right now. This coming week, they will be frozen over, and maybe snow-covered. In spite of the cold and my cold, we have to go out today to take the car to our mechanic for some brake work. I hope bad weather doesn't end up scuttling our planned road trip to the Allier river valley.

21 February 2018

Projets et explications

Something I haven't done since my mother passed away nearly three weeks ago is thank all of you who left sympathy and condolence messages in comments on this blog at the time. Thank you. I thought for a while I would try to answer your comments individually, but I can tell that is not going to happen right away. Know that I appreciate all the comments you left.

We are now gearing up for a short road trip in March. That means getting the Citroën car serviced and planning the food and belongings we'll take to the gîte rural that we've reserved. The trip has been planned for a while. We'll leave Saint-Aignan on my birthday and drive to the Allier area, north of Vichy, for four or five days.

As you can see in these photos, we've been having a lot of rain (alert the media!) around here. I went out yesterday and was surprised to see that the river is again overflowing. There don't seem to be any houses under water, but the garden allotments and the fields along the river are really flooded. All the little ponds and water holes out in the vineyard are full to overflowing. The ground is sloppy wet, and the jeans I wear for walks with Natasha are splattered with mud.

A lot of bulbs in the yard and vineyard have sent up leaves, and some are even starting to flower. I noticed a few primroses flowering out in the yard yesterday, and ones that haven't yet sent up flowers are like little bushes of leaves (above) already. Unfortunately, it's supposed to turn cold next week, with low temperatures down around –6ºC (as low as 20ºF). I'm sure a lot of the new growth around the area will be killed.
We'll be able to cover some of the beds where bulbs have come up, and we can wrap our little fig tree to try to protect it from frost. But my plum tree, which Walt says is covered in buds, will probably once again fall victim to cold weather. Oh well... I'd like warmer weather for our road trip, but a thaw might mean the rains will return. If it's cold, it'll be clear and we'll be able to do more sightseeing and take more photos. Let's hope the last month of winter won't be too brutal.