Sunday, August 29, 2010

Chateau Luynes

Chateau Luynes is a chateau perched over the town of, you guessed it, Luynes. It’s rather small for a chateau, but it’s privately owned. It’s one of the few chateaus that has consistently been lived in for, uh..., a really long time (sorry I forgot).

The family that owns the chateau uses it as a hunting lodge in the winter. Their permanent residence is a chateau three or four times larger located next to Paris! I don’t think I could ever live in a place like this though because it’s like living in a museum. You can't touch anything.

The week I visited the chateau, Tours Langues had just received about 15 new students from Mexico all between the ages of 15 and 17. A bunch of them came on the excursion to chateau Luynes, so it was pretty amusing for me watching them run around rattling off in Spanish. For the professor, it was like herding cats. I think he slept well that night...

Vouvray Cave

Vouvray is a small town just East of Tours and across the Loire River. The area is well known for its white wine. Tours Langues (my language school) organized a trip there a couple weeks ago. We visited the cave of Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau. Apparently, Saint Martin of Tours (who lived from 316-397) planted the first grape vine there.

Most of the wineries store their wine in caves dug out of the limestone (or tuffeau) hills found here in the Loire Valley. The caves were dug to extract the limestone to build all of the houses and chateaus. The caves are also used to grow mushrooms or converted into homes.

The homes built in the rocks are called troglodytes. They were originally inhabited back in the day by peasants who had no money or property. They took up residence in the caves because they were free and for protection from soldiers when they came to collect taxes. It’s easy to hide in the caves as well as ambush anyone that tries to enter. People still live in troglodyte homes today. It’s very posh around here to buy a troglodyte and then build a house outward from the rock. Then you have rooms that can take in a lot of sunlight as well as rooms (usually the kitchen) in the cave, which always remain the same temperature (~13 deg C) and are easy to heat in the winter.

Anyways... the winery we visited in Vouvray stored their wine in a cave. We walked through the cave and tasted the wines in the different rooms of the cave. I thought they were delish, so I bought two bottles. One was a dry 2008 white “Clos de Rougemont” and the other was a brut petillant (sparkling). The bottles cost 7.50 and 6.40 euros, respectively. I considered that to be SUPER cheap for how good they were. All the wines from the domaine are organic too (or bio, as the French say).

We have since drank both bottles. We drank the white wine with lunch and then again with dinner last Sunday. Martine served a savory cake with each meal. The first was with a river fish that tastes like salmon and the second cake was with vegetables . Martine loved the wine and said it was perfect. I thought it was pretty good too. Martine also thought the prices were excellent and plans to take a trip to the cave herself to buy more wine.

That night Ayumi also made a Japanese dessert which has a name I can’t remember or pronounce. We were each given a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, a ball of red bean paste, and three or four little balls of something gooey and very little taste. It sounds odd, but the mixture of everything was wonderful. It was light and mild, yet satisfying.

We drank the brut pettillant a few nights later with a rabbit, potato, and carrot stew. Yum! It was a meal that one would normally make for a Sunday lunch or dinner, but we have a joke that “C’est dimanche tous les jours chez Martine!” (Everyday is Sunday at Martine’s house).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Les Sables Beurre de Cacahuetes

I wandered into the salon this afternoon and saw Ayumi and Martine studying a recipe on her computer. Martine asked me, “Peanut butter cookies, do you know them?”. “Mais oui, bien sur!” was my response. We have half a jar of peanut butter at the house that was purchased due to the grandiose discussion on PB&Js a couple weeks ago. (And did I mention the jar cost 5 Euros?!) I’m not sure who, but either Ayumi or Martine knew what peanut butter cookies were and wanted to make them.

I was intrigued by watching a French woman make an American dessert, so I offered to help. It was sort of a surreal experience. All Americans know what peanut butter cookies are and have at some point made them or watched them be made. Martine said this was the first time she’d ever made them and was asking my advice on the process. When we got to the part of forming the cookies, I showed her and Ayumi how to flatten the cookies with a glass and then make the cross hatch marks with a fork. Martine doesn’t own a cookie pan, so we baked them in her large tart pans.

They turned out pretty good, although a bit undercooked. Martine was pleased and said she’d have to make them again sometime for her friends who she thought would be quite impressed! This from the woman who turns out beautiful tarts, cakes, and other decadent desserts I hope to be lucky enough to try.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Salty Water

I picked up a bottle of mineral water the other day called St-Yorre which is bottled in Vichy, France. To my surprise it was salty! When I commented on it to Martine she said Vichy is an area of France where people visit for la bonne sante, and that Vichy water is very French. It is an ancient spa and resort town dating back to the Roman era known for its therapeutic thermal baths. Interesting, but I think I’ll stick to water sans salt...

Chateau Chambord

I visited yet another chateau last weekend. Chateau Chambord is the largest chateau in Europe. It’s huge! It has 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces, and 426 rooms. Judith, Sayumi, and I kept getting lost inside... Construction was initiated by Francois I when he was only 25 and not yet completed by the time of his death at age 53.

The architecture of the chateau was very innovative for its time; the most notable structure being the double helix staircase at the very center of the keep. It’s thought that Leonardo Da Vinci may have helped design it. Two spiral staircases wind independently around a central column so that when climbing one staircase you can see someone on the other but will never meet them.

Top of the double helix staircase

The chateau was intended as a hunting lodge (a very extravagant one). Francois I never lived at the chateau and only spent 72 days there.

Chambord is surrounded by a 5440 hectare national game reserve which is enclosed by a 32km long wall. It is the largest enclosed forest park in Europe. The animals living within the park are completely wild. Hunting in the park is reserved for the highest politicians of France.

The trip to Chambord was a long day, yet really fun. Judith, Sayumi, and I took a 40min train to Blois, waited an hour, and then took a ~30min bus ride to Chambord. Our bus driver was a female who wore a sundress and heels...nice!

Sayumi, Judith, et moi!

Les Sables d’Olonne

Like the rest of the country, Martine has Les Vacances for three weeks in August. France practically comes to a halt during this month as everyone is either at the beach or in another country. In Tours, many of the shops have little hand written signs in the windows stating which weeks they are closed in Augsut. I would like to try some of the best Patisseries in town, but, too bad, they’re closed right now. Martine would also like to clear her upstairs apartment of the insects that have taken over making it uninhabitable, but tant pis, it can’t be done until Les Vacances are over.

Martine began her vacation on Friday. To kick it off, she decided to take Ayumi, her son (Pierre), and I to the coast for a 4 day vacation. She said we would go to Les Sables D’Olonne by train, and we would leave on Sunday. That meant I would miss three days of language school. I actually started thinking, “Oh my goodness, I can’t miss school!”, and then remembered the point of this trip to do whatever I want.

At 7:30am on Sunday (which is now unbelievable early for me) Ayumi, Martine, and I walked the ten minutes to the train station and met Pierre there. This was my fourth time taking the train, and I really like it. It’s not as fast as driving (unless you take the TGV), but it is such an easy way to travel. Once you get the system down for buying your tickets, finding the platform, and making sure you’re on the right train, it’s seems pretty simple. I know, it’s not always simple though; my parents have a few horror stories. In fact, on the return trip to Tours we ended up taking the wrong train which was also going to Tours but by an indirect route, so we were 50min late getting home. Anyways, it took us 5 hours to get to Les Sables d’Olonne. By car it would have been maybe 3, but we would have had to deal with the vacation traffic.

The vacation was fantastic. The town and beach are gorgeous. Before we left, Martine told me the town would be “tres tres petite”, but I think we have different ideas of petite. The beach is lined with large, modern apartment buildings for at least a mile. Once you walk a block from the beach though, you’re surrounded by gorgeous old houses lined up wall to wall on tiny winding streets just large enough for cars to pass through. Many of the streets are even too small for cars, and the town is home to the smallest street in the world. It’s just as wide as my shoulders and called Rue de l’Enfer (Street of Hell).

Rue de l'Enfer
Rue de l'Enfer

Martine found us the coolest hotel called Maison Richet. It’s in one of the old French houses and has a typical facade of white plaster and pale blue shutters. There is a courtyard in the middle with palms, a fountain, and lots of patio furniture which makes a tranquil setting for breakfast and lounging around.

Pierre & Martine

We spent each day at the beach. We arrived a little late in the afternoon the first day, and the wind had already picked up. Not to be discouraged though, we marched out to the beach to commence le bronze. Martine, ever elegant, stretched herself out on the sand in her zebra print maillot de bain. Meanwhile, Ayumi and I already had goose bumps from the wind. I decided I would try to grin and bear it, but eventually ended up wearing my cardigan over my bikini. Pierre wore his uniform to the beach – slacks, dress shirt, loafers, dress socks, and a silk scarf, which did not prove to be that practical for trudging through the sand. He did strip down for tanning though. Evidemment, there were a plethora of speedos and even some monokinis (topless women).

The second and third days were warmer. The third day was even warm enough to swim, although I was the only one who thought so. Everyone else thought it was too cold to get in farther than waist deep. Ayumi said I was “super mega cool” for swimming in the ocean. Personally, I’ve always thought so. It was nice to finally have someone agree.

We ate all our meals out, except for breakfast which was provided by the hotel. The most exciting meal for me was tartare de boeuf, which I tried for the first time the second night! Pierre ordered it the first night, which I later found out was the first time he had ever tried it. The raw beef was served with an egg yolk on top and three condiments to the side – shallots, capers, and something else I can’t remember. Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, and mustard were also provided. Martine said it was “obligatory” to mix it all into the beef. I followed her advice, and it was surprisingly delicious! Frites were also provided on the side.

The other fun thing about the meals was watching Martine and Pierre choose the wine for dinner. We typically bought a bottle to share, and much discussion went into what’s chosen. I’m impressed by how well they know the wines from each region in France.
And that’s it! The fourth day, we packed up and took the train home. Upon returning, I felt rejuvenated and ready to continue my vacation in Tours!

Martine, Pierre, & Ayumi

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


During dinner on Tuesday night, Martine, Ayumi, and I were discussing food that is traditional in our countries. We somehow got on the subject of PB&Js. Ayumi said she thought it was the strangest thing that Americans like peanut butter and jam together. She said she had never tried it but saw it in a movie. She said all Japanese think the same thing. Sure enough, when we asked the class the next day, all the Japanese said the same thing.

I also described to Ayumi the other things Americans like with their peanut butter like honey, bananas, or nutella. Am I missing anything? Martine said I can buy peanut butter here, so I may get some and make an assortment of peanut butter sandwiches for the class to try. I never thought peanut butter could be such a novelty.

I have read and heard that a lot of French (and other cultures) don't like peanut butter. Both Martine and Ayumi said they like it though - Martine especially. She ate a lot of it when she lived in Quebec, Canada.

Martine also likes peanut butter in crepes along with jam, honey, nutella, or bananas. She has invited a friend and her daughter to come over tomorrow night for a crepe soiree so we can try all the fixings. Martine also said ice cream is great in crepes. I've never tried it, but I hope to tomorrow night. Unfortunately, I forgot to tell Martine that I signed up for a cooking class for tomorrow night. I'm going to see if I can get someone else to take my spot, so that I can join in on the soiree.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Did I mention I love the food here? As if that's a surprise... Everything I've tasted here has been delicious, even the food from the supermarches. Martine made boudin blanc the other night (also delicious) with canned vegetables. I was skeptical, but even they tasted better than those in the states.

There are open air markets somewhere in the city almost every day of the week. Tours also has its own Les Halles, where I often go for lunch.

Berries from one of the markets.

Une Pizza - my lunch from Les Halles.

It's all I can do to keep myself from walking into every Boulangerie and Patisserie...

Sables "Sourire": "Smiling" Cookie

Martine really spoils Ayumi and I as well. She wants us to try everything! She went shopping Saturday and bought us a treat at one of the Patisseries: 1 gigantic raspberry macaron, 1 gigantic double-decker chocolat macaron, and a chocolat mousse cake. I've been walking a lot since that night...

Saturday Night Dessert

As if the macarons from "Mario's Big World" weren't enough, Martine made us baked apples Sunday night. She put the apples on a piece of bread sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. She cored the apples and stuffed them with salted butter and probably more cinnamon sugar. While those were baking in the oven, she made caramel on the stove top and then drizzled it over the apples. C'etais incroyable!

Sunday Night Dessert

Chateau Chenonceau

Did I mention there are a lot of chateaus in The Loire Valley? There are tons! The Loire Valley used to be where all the kings governed France from. I saw Chateau Chenonceau last Friday. It's a hotspot for the tourists. It was crowded but, of course, gorgeous.

The chateau and some of the girls from school

The chateau is built on the River Cher.

It was originally built by a super rich guy and his wife (Thomas Bohier and Katherine Briconnet) and then confiscated by King Henri II apparently just because he didn't like that Thomas was so rich. King Henri II gave the chateau to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. After he died, the king's wife, Catherine de' Medici took the chateau for herself and forced Diane to move into a less glamorous chateau. Choquant!

Diane de Poitiers' Garden

There is also Catherine de' Medici's garden as well as a vegetable garden, a maze, forests, stables, a farm, an orangerie...beaucoup.

Judith (Mexican), Davide (Italian), moi (the lone American), Sayumi (Japanese)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Le Brasserie Bure

Martine didn't feel like cooking one of the nights earlier this week. She also wanted to thank Ayumi and I for helping her mother move, so she took us out to the restaurant that is literally under my bedroom window. Throughout the day I can listen and watch the cycle of the restaurant. In the morning as I'm getting ready for school, they set up the tables outside. The conversations gradually increase from lunch to dinner. As I prepare for bed, the activity begins to die down, and finally the waiters begin to close everything up as I fall asleep.

It was fun getting to be a part of the restaurant I'm always looking at. Their specialty is seafood which was made apparent to Ayumi and I when, from my bedroom window, we could see huge multi-tiered platers brought out to the tables with crab, mussels, oysters, clams, and shrimp.
The view of the resaurant from my bedroom window.

Martine, Ayumi, and I all ordered the same mussel dish but each prepared slightly differently. All of the mussels were steamed in a butter, wine sauce but mine with parsley, Ayumi's with curry, and Martine's with Roquefort. All were delicious. Our mussels were served in large black pots with the word moules on the side. For utensils, we were only each given a gigantic spoon. Martine noticing my look of confusion explained how to eat the mussels. You take one mussel with your fingers, open it slightly and eat the meat. Then you use that mussel sort of like chopsticks to pick the meat out of the rest of the mussels.

Once we made our way through the majority of the mussels, Martine explained that the gigantic spoon was for the leftover sauce on the bottom of the pot (basically just butter). Then she took some of her frites, dropped them in the butter sauce, and ladled them up with her spoon. "For the Gourmandes", she said.

Demenagement (Moving Day)

I haven't had many opportunities to write this week, so I'm just now having a chance to recount the events of last Sunday. Martine had to help her mother move apartments, so Ayumi and I offered to help.

Martine's mother is 75. She needed to move apartments because she lived on a busy street, Rue Marceau, and couldn't get any sleep. There may have been some other reasons as well that didn't make it through the translation section of my brain. Anyways, Ayumi and I walked over to the apartment at 9am, which was just around the corner from ours. We saw Martine there in front of the building with a big white truck she had rented and two men. The men were from her workplace who both do maintenace there. Martine said she begged them to help out. She normally would have asked her friends, but because it's August, they are all on vacation. The two men were Marc and Jeany (don't know the spelling, but it sort of sounds like Johnny with a French accent). Marc is in his 30s, I think, and had a huge beer belly (or a beautiful brioche as the French say). Jeany was an average sized Frenchman, i.e. petit, who looked as though he had just come from an afternoon picnic. He wore a striped shirt, jeans, and those boating shoes with the cords on the side.

Ayumi, Martine, and I carried all the small boxes down the stairs. Luckily, Martine's mom only lived on the 2nd floor. I added some new vocab words to my repertoire like, trop lourd, for too heavy and fait attention, for pay attention (with the fragile boxes). Marc and Jeany swiftly carried all the heavy things which included a fridge (frigo), a couch, and a beautiful gigantic old buffet. Martine's mom said the buffet was from the 18th century! Martine had painted still lifes on the front and cute statements on the top and sides about her children, Alice and Pierre, like the types of jam they prefer.

We finished loading up the truck around lunch time. I was starving and was hoping we would take a lunch break before driving over to the new apartment. Martine asked if I was hungry. I said un peu, although I was starving. She gave me a piece of gum called Hollywood Gum and said something about when we would eat, but I didn't really understand.

We drove over to the new apartment and began unloading the truck. Luckily, again, the new apartment was only on the 2nd floor. We carried everything up the stairs...up and down, up and down. So many stairs... The "new" apartment is gorgeous! It's on a quiet street, so Martine's mom can finally sleep, and it's in an ancient building. I don't know how old but the front door to the apartment is the coolest thing ever. It's probably twice as tall as I am and is arched at the top with beautiful carvings in the wood. The building has a really old narrow wooden spiral staircase. The first thing I thought when I saw it was, "How on Earth are we going to get that buffet up the stairs!?" The apartment is obviously old as well, but had been freshly painted. The living room and bedroom both have fireplaces. The kitchen is small, but average for the apartments I've seen. There is also a nice garden behind the building for the tenants, which is rare.

After we carried most of the easy stuff up, we took a break. We all had some beer and a cookie in the tiny kitchen. By this time I was beyond starving. Martine's mom passed on the beer and instead downed a healthy glass of single malt whiskey. She was dissapointed she couldn't find the proper snifter glass for the whiskey in the kitchen boxes and had to settle for an average juice glass.

After the break, Marc and Jeanny tackled the heavy stuff. When the buffet came up the stairs, we all crowded around the balcony to watch. I was impressed to say the least. The guys got it up the stairs with very little trouble.

Finally we were finished after maybe 6 hours of work. Marc had to head home, but the rest of us headed over to Martine's for lunch/dinner which consisted of salamis, rillets, bread, salad, and fruit. I could barely keep my eyes open afterward and took a 2 hour nap. I woke up around 8:30, took a bath, and went back to bed for almost 11 hours!

Martine's mom is still in the process of unpacking, but she is very happy in the new appartment. She is sleeping well at night and likes her neighbors. She wants to make Ayumi and I dinner one night for helping, which I'm really excited about. She is apparently a fabulous cook. I will try to take some photos when I return.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Clos Luce & Chateau D'Amboise

Last Saturday I continued my chateau viewing by visiting the village of Amboise with Ayumi. We took the train from Tours to Amboise. It couldn't have been easier. Around noon, we walked to the train station in Tours. We bought tickets for the next train leaving for Amboise, which departed about 20 minutes later. The train was already waiting in the station. It took maybe 20 minutes to get to Amboise (2 or 3 stops inbetween). We bought "open" tickets so that we could return to Tours anytime we wanted in the afternoon. C'est facile!
In addition to a chateau, Amboise is home to Clos Luce - the last home of Leonardo Da Vinci. He was invited to live in France by the king, Francois I. Leonardo and a few of his students traveled from Italy to France by mule. Leonardo brought with him three of his favorite paintings, one of them being the Mona Lisa. He lived at Clos Luce from 1516 until his death in 1519.
Clos Luce
After Clos Luce and some lunch at the local creperie, we headed to the chateadu. Along the walk from Clos Luce to the chateau, one can see ancient homes that are built into the side of the hill that the chateau is perched on.

Chateau d'Amboise

The chateau is known for being a mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. The first wing and chapel were built in the Gothic style. The second wing, shown here, was built in the Renaissance style. Both wings are similar except for the architecture around the dormer windows.

The St. Hubert Chapel (Gothic style) was completed under Charles VIII and dedicated to the patron saint of hunting. It was built for the royal family's private use and is also where Leonardo Da Vinci was buried.


Ayumi and I atop the Minimes Tower at the chateau