Friday, September 28, 2012

Autumn Diversion & Exertions

The weather changed dramatically this week. We had our first fires, turned on the heat and enjoyed the first real rainstorm of the new season. The virginia creeper on the house is starting to turn.

I don't know about you, but changing seasons always inspires me to change something in my physical world. Although we still do have clients on weekends, there are many week days when the house is unoccupied, and I have used this quieter time to begin a series of improvements. I have been longing to make some changes to our entry salon. The furniture there is a mixture of antiques. I've grown very tired of their darkness and formality. I wanted something fresh. My first project is to redecorate the whole room.

I started with the Louis XVI chairs. They are genuine antiques, made sometime between 1754 and 1793, just a generation after the house itself was built. I especially wanted to change the upholstery, which was very tired indeed. I also decided to paint the dark wood white.

I finally got hold of some Annie Sloan chalk paint and wax, which I've heard about from my blog friend Janet for the last several years. I found a wonderful source here in France. I've known about the shop for quite awhile, but it's just far enough away that getting there is a bit difficult. It finally dawned on me that I could mail order from them, which is what I did. This product can be purchased almost anywhere nowadays, as it is definitely a la mode, as we say over here.

I wasn't sure our skills would be up to reupholstering, but we decided to give it a go. We went to Paris and were able to find some lovely upholstery fabric right in stock at the famous Marché Saint Pierre, one of the hugest fabric stores in France. When we removed the hundreds of upholstery nails, we discovered how often these chairs have been recovered down through the years! We put some wood filler around the entire frame, to allow for our own nails to grip.

The painting process itself was the easiest part. The chalk paint goes right on, no prep necessary, which is my favorite feature. After it dried, I added clear wax and then some dark wax to bring out the decoration on the arms and legs and to give it that antique look. Once the chair was polished, the result was quite professional looking, and matched some other furniture I already had with this treatment. I used the old fabric to make my patterns and everything went together beautifully. Rick hammered on the fabric, I added the braid and voila.

I was very pleased with the results. So much lighter and more cheerful.

I used the same technique on the entry table, though I left the top natural. They go well together.

We're not sure we are content with the way the table turned out. The top is perhaps still too dark. We like the contrast, but we may whitewash it to bring it down a notch. Annie Sloan has a number of books with explicit directions, which make all these techniques quite easy to accomplish. I used the ideas in this one for my projects.

I haven't stopped there, of course. The Annie Sloan paint gets a bit addictive. What you can't really see from the photos is how nicely it polishes up after you apply the wax. It feels very good to the touch.

I intend to redo all the furniture in the entry. We bought some fabric to recover the dark green couch. That's a much bigger job. It comes last. I'm still a bit nervous about it.

The dining room is another focus of my attention. I did manage to repaint all the breakfast chairs and tables. The Annie Sloan colors are luscious. I used her Old White mixed with a bit of Paris Gray for the chairs and table in the entry and Greek Blue for the dining rooms. Only yesterday I received yet another box with four more small pots of different tints. Oh yes, I do have lots of plans and projects scheduled for the rest of the fall.


While in Paris to purchase our upholstery fabric, we of course visited the family, who we hadn't seen since their summer vacation in Slovenia. Zinnie has really grown. Last time I was with her in early August, she wasn't even sitting up. Now she's eating solid food by herself

and not only crawling, but seriously pulling herself up to standing whenever the opportunity arises. She looks so much like her mother at that age, that I feel as if I'm traveling back in time.

Her favorite things to play with are, of course, Quinn's cars and trains. She's a rolly polly jolly baby.

Quinn is a nice big brother and enjoys playing with her. He's very careful to be sure she doesn't pick up dangerous things with small parts, and when she takes something of his that he wants to play with himself, he offers her something else in exchange.


We had the pleasure of welcoming one of Rick's old friends from high school this week. Dick and his wife Ginger retired from their jobs as a teacher and psychotherapist ten years ago, sold their house outside New York, bought a boat and have been sailing around the world ever since. We have kept track of their adventures here, but Rick hadn't seen Dick for over 40 years. We enjoyed hearing about all their adventures. They are, of course, very skilled sailors by now. I'm mostly a landlubber, so the idea of floating out in the middle of an ocean in a small craft makes me feel a bit queasy. Yet I can certainly appreciate the fun of visiting all those ports of call, and having your own free hotel room everywhere you go. Rick grew up sailing, so he can genuinely enjoy tales of the high seas. Dick and Ginger are dropping anchor in London this winter. They tend to sail for about 7-8 months of the year and stay put for the colder months.

And now, perhaps randomly, a short discussion of salt. 

I grew up never thinking that there was anything remarkable about salt. When it rained, it poured and that was about the extent of my knowledge of it. I did notice that iodine was added to our Leslie salt and that my mother used it every time she cooked. I found out the iodine helped prevent goiter, which had been a problematic condition in the U.S. up until the 20s, when salt became the vehicle to alleviate this deficiency in the American diet. What I didn't know was that salt could come in so many varieties and that shaking it out of a salt shaker is not the only way to use it. In fact, these days we don't use shakers at all.

When we started coming to France we discovered fleur de sel, which is skimmed from the surface of salt evaporating ponds and is largely unprocessed. It comes in large crystals, too large to shake. It was a revelation to me at the time, and we began bringing it back as gifts to our friends, trying to share our enthusiasm for its very superior quality. We provided little crockery dishes in which to put the salt and little wooden spoons to serve it. I'm not sure anyone was nearly as impressed with all this as we were. We did notice that some fancy food stores in California sold Baleine salt at 5 times the price you can find it here in every supermarket. It is the Leslie salt of France and is processed in the same manner. The large gray salt is used here in cooking water for pasta and the like. It is essentially unrefined sea salt.

Several years ago Jos introduced us to Maldon salt, an English brand, and I was able to find it in Berkeley's gourmet ghetto. The delectable thing about it is its shape. It is a concave flake. For some time now we have used Maldon almost exclusively as our table salt. 

This year, however, we have been introduced to a couple of other varieties of British salt. It has now become a sort of battle of the salts, each new brand vying for our affections. Our friend Monica, who runs a B&B near Limoges, sent us a package of Cornish salt to try out. She swears by it. It does taste different. The only way I can find to describe it is to say it is stronger, or more salty, if such a thing is possible. 

Some Dutch friends stopped by a few weeks ago and we found ourselves again discussing salt.  Their favorite is the Welsh Halen Môn, which they tell us is the brand favored by President Obama. It comes in flavors (e.g smokey or vanilla) and also has that delicate flakey form we like so well. 

We took a taste test with all these varieties and truly they do taste different. It's hard to say what our favorite is though. We have an abundance of choice.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Making Jam & The End of Summer

I've had a forced vacation from blogging due to a hard disk crash and the slow rebuilding of my computer environment and virtual existence. If you've ever been through this, you'll know how maddening it can be. Suffice it to say, I'm glad to be back.

Our summer was glorious beyond all expectations. When it was still raining at the beginning of July, I began to get a little cranky. But the sun did come out and made up for lost time. We've had long warm and sunny days for weeks on end and I have been able to get my fill of summer. Now the weather has turned a little cooler and a hint of autumn is in the air. The beginning of another season I love.

We use a lot of jam in our Bed & Breakfast business. I made some last summer, but not nearly enough to get us through the whole year. This summer I was anxious to increase my production and put away as much as possible. Crates of peaches, apricots, nectarines and strawberries decorated our kitchen counters.

There is no comparison between jam you purchase at the supermarket and that which you can make at home. I learned that last summer when I discovered a marvelous recipe for jams. It's very easy. By cutting down on the amount of sugar and following a few simple steps, you can create an incredibly tasty jam in minutes which brings the taste of the fruit forward and retains its rich, bright color. One morning when we were making breakfast for clients, we heard the sharp sound of porcelain against porcelain and could not imagine what was being eaten in the dining room, as the food had not yet been served up. We discovered that our client had taken the freshly made apricot jam and devoured it as if it were compote! In fact the taste is so delicious and fresh that it is much more like a fruit preserve than a jam. The compliments have kept coming. I highly recommend the following recipe:

Cut any kind of fresh ripe fruit into small pieces and weigh them before placing in a glass or ceramic bowl (no metal) in layers, cover the fruit with 40% sugar (by weight). I use sugar made for jellies and jams which has a bit of pectin added. When the fruit is all cut up and layered with the sugar, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it into the refrigerator at least over night and up to two days.

The next day, strain the juice which has formed out of the fruit, adding as much of the undissolved sugar as possible. Set the fruit aside and put the liquid on the stove in a large pot. Boil very gently watching closely, until the liquid has reached about 230°. The liquid can carmelize or boil away if it gets too hot or goes too fast.  This step usually takes about half an hour. Even if I can't get my candy thermometer to register 230°, I put my fruit in after that amount of time.

Allow the fruit to boil in the liquid until you hear the steady sound of the boiling liquid become a bit more sluggish. It needs to get a bit thick. This also takes about half an hour at a soft boil.

Voila! That's all there is to it. Place the jam in sterilized jars and seal. It will keep for a year or so. Or if you just make a small batch, you can keep it unsealed in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. To some of the peach jam, I added a large vanilla bean. This gives a nice hint of vanilla flavor.


Life in the garden is winding down, but the end of the summer brings some very spectacular blooms. Our multi-colored morning glory came into its own and covered part of the back wall.

The sunflower seeds sent to us by a friend in California developed into large plants each with a different happy face.


Last week our friend Amy and her daughter Arwen came to stay at the Maison Conti for several days. We spent one day in the Loire Valley visiting several sites, including Chenonceau, undoubtedly the most beautiful of the big châteaus. The day was fine, and since we chose to go on a weekday after the kids were back in school, we didn't have a fierce crowd, as is often the case.

The interior of the castle is very attractive. There is a long history of women owning and occupying the château and therefore there is much soft charm and grace to the decoration. The gallery, with its black and white marble floors, which stretches across the river Cher, is a gorgeous room. During the war, it was a hospital for allied troops and more than a 1000 men lay on cots up and down the hallway. It seems like a very nice place to recover from the horror of battles.

Out every window are views of the river as it rolls gently beneath the building.

I have posted many photos of Chenonceau throughout the years I have been writing this blog, so I won't add too many more here. This time, however, I really focused on the flower arrangements which are among the most extravagant and beautiful I have ever seen anywhere. They grace almost every room no matter what the season.

They are not small little bouquets either, but arranged in huge pots, requiring an enormous number of fresh flowers. And of course they would have to be changed regularly to keep them looking good, which they always do.

I notice them every time I go and have often wondered who creates these luscious displays, which constantly change.

And how could they could afford so many flowers? I think there must be dozens of such bouquets throughout the house. Even if the arrangements are simple, their size is breathtaking. This is only the smallest sampling.

This year I got part of my answer. We have never before visited the little farm and garden tucked away to one side as you exit. I highly recommend it to you if you visit Chenonceau.

On the garden grounds thousands upon thousands of flowers grow on about an acre of land.

It is so pleasant to stroll through the grounds and enjoy the blossoms of many colors. In the castle kitchen was a beautiful arrangement of gourds and vegetables. There is a small edible section in the garden as well. It's hard to imagine a more wonderful job than arranging flowers for Chenonceau!