Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Closer Than It Seems

Maps are deceiving. When I look at the route maps for the local and regional buses, it appears that the larger outlying villages are miles and miles away, because there are so many other little communes between them, and the maze of streets makes the scale of the map artificially intimidating. I remember that from London, when I'd look at a map and think that a half-hour walk was ahead of me, judging by the number of cross streets, only to arrive at my destination five minutes later. When the "blocks" formed by the cross streets are barely large enough to swing a cat in, they go by pretty quickly. So it wasn't until yesterday, when I went on another walk with Martine from OVS, this time along the Loire headed east, that I realized I could in fact reach Rochecorbon, or Vouvray, or even Montlouis-sur-Loire if I were feeling particularly energetic, on foot. A bicycle would be better, perhaps, and some sunny Sunday I'll rent one, and maybe go as far as Amboise and back along the river, covering a tiny fraction of the Loire à Vélo trail. Yesterday, though, we only went as far as the edge of La Ville-aux-Dames, then turned back towards town, ending up in the old Quartier Blanqui, once a workman's suburb and now apparently a chic place to live, if you have the money to purchase and refurbish one of the 17th-century buildings there.

With the returning light comes energy and enthusiasm, a nice change after my aimless hibernation of the last few months. I have big plans for the month of March.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

D.U. Fromage et Patrimoine: Week 1

The Diplôme d'Université "Fromage et Patrimoine" (a certification in cheese studies), while abbreviated from its original scope that included a professional license and additional scientific credits, still will provide a fairly comprehensive overview of all things cheese, I think. The three days of classes in February were conducted by a well-known French affineur/fromager, Rodolphe Le Meunier, who lives and tends cheeses not far from Tours, in the small town of La Croix en Touraine, at Les Fromages du Moulin. He's also got a permanent space in downtown Tours at Les Halles, and sells at several of the local weekly markets. He started out in the family business of goat cheese production and aging - the Loire Valley is known for its excellent goat cheeses - but later he and his sister Caroline decided to drop the cheesemaking and concentrate on the aging and sales of all types of cheeses. Much of his business involves facilitating cheese sales, starting with the selection of the cheeses and maintaining relationships with the producers, moving to assembling and aging (affinage) in his storerooms, then shipping or delivering to restaurants, boutique stores, or large supermarkets locally and around France, or out to places in the United States or Japan. He's been awarded the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF), and is one of France's "best craftsmen" as determined by a juried competition that's been held every four years since 1929. He was named the 2007 World Champion Cheese Affineur and continues to travel for presentations, take part in conferences and trade shows, and assist at classes such as ours. Selecting, evaluating, presenting, and selling cheese would be the focus of these sessions.

We started off by talking about cheese in general, and about the role of the affineur. A few years ago there was a fair bit of press devoted to affinage and arguments from cheese professionals on both sides of the debate, with opinions running from "it's all hype" to "proper aging is essential." A lot of the problem depends on when you define the start of the aging process; technically, a cheese starts aging as soon as it's out of the form that shapes it. Since it's unlikely that a cheese will be turned over by the producer to the affineur immediately, the producer also needs to know how to treat the cheese, where to store it, and in what environment. M. Le Meunier said that local and regional affineurs can often get the cheese within five days of when it's made, and that many of these local people specialize in the cheeses of their region ("monoproduit" operations, as opposed to the multiple types and styles of cheese that he deals with).

And there are many types and styles of cheese, especially in France, though they can be broadly classified into five or six categories: croûte fleurie, a soft or semisoft paste covered in a "flowery crust" (or "bloomy rind") formed by the action of Penicillium camembertii or other white mold; croûte lavée, or "washed rind," similar in texture but much stronger in odor due to the bacteria that develop on the rind; pâte pressée, with either cooked or uncooked curd; a somewhat fluid categorization either labeled chèvre or croûte naturelle; and persillée (blue cheese). Fromage à pâte fraîche (fresh cheese) is another category that includes cottage cheese (though not in France), Corsican Brocciu, and mascarpone. It's a little difficult for me to keep some of these categories straight, especially when one cheese can appear in several, such as the Sainte-Maure de Touraine, which can be classified as a chèvre, a bloomy rind, or a fresh cheese.

But no matter which cheese you start with, the role of the affineur is to provide it with the correct environment to reach its full potential. Although, as M. Le Meunier said, the cheese ages by itself, and the most important thing is to make sure you're starting out with a good cheese. "Faut avoir un bon fromage; sinon, rien à faire." When you have a good product in the beginning, then it's time to look at the three requirements of an aging facility, each of which need to be adjustable depending on the type of cheese you're dealing with: temperature, humidity, and ventilation. At the Les Fromages du Moulin facility, there's a separate walk-in storage area for each type of cheese.

Clockwise from top left: Couronnes de Touraine (goat); long-term storage of pressed-curd cheeses; whole wheels of Emmental de Savoie; storing precut wheels

Several of the cheeses looked, to my sanitized American eyes, somewhat less than edible. Wildly sprouting molds of various lengths and hues, these cheeses would horrify customers scanning the cheese case at your average Whole Foods, and they'd sweep the lot into the garbage. I remember hours spent patting down the mold on bloomy-rind cheeses at Rivers Edge and scraping away red or yellow or black spots from the wheels of ripening tomme. Here, by contrast, molds are allowed to run rampant, resulting in goat cheeses so covered with fuzz that their original shape is hard to make out, or blobby hairy objects like the racked Gaperon cheeses below, flavored with garlic and black pepper, and quite delicious once you get past the fact that they look like things a giant cat might hork up in the middle of the night.

Go ahead, eat it. No, really.

It's not illegal to sell raw-milk cheeses in France, though as more cheese production becomes industrial, milk that has been pasteurized or thermisé (like pasteurization, but heated to a lower temperature) is becoming more widely used. However, M. Le Meunier tends to stay with the nonindustrial sources, and said that only about 30% of his cheeses are made with pasteurized milk. For cheeses that have been granted the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) label, there are rules about what type of milk you can use. In fact, for some cheeses the rules are very specific, and include things like what breed of animals the milk must come from, what they eat and where, when in the season the cheeses are produced, and how long the cheese must be aged. In this case "aging" might have to be done on site where the cheese is made, as is the case for Roquefort, which depends on the natural moisture, ventilation, and molds present in the rocky caves where the cheese is stored. The cheese called Langres (below) can only be sold under the AOC designation if it has been produced in one of three départements (Vosges, Côte-d’Or, Marne), with milk that's at least 50% from one of three breeds of cows (Montbéliarde, Simmental or Brune) which get at least 6 months of free-range grazing and whose feed year-round is composed of at least 80% grasses or other fodder from the defined production zone. And those are only a few of the rules governing the creation of this cheese. I asked if the affineur had to worry about any of these rules, and M. Le Meunier said not, and that even with all the rules that need to be followed, "rien n'est exact dans le fromage et l'affinage."

The goat's-milk Sainte-Maure de Touraine is a regional specialty here, with hundreds of producers making the ash-dusted log and sticking a straw through the middle, though only the AOC producers use the official straws that are laser-printed with the AOC designation. At the Saturday farmer's market here in Tours, there are three or four people selling the cheese, and the butcher's truck that comes by the apartment every Friday afternoon always has a line of a dozen in various stages of ripeness. I'm not sure how much importance people - normal everyday people wanting normal everyday cheese, that is - place on the AOC designation when it comes to a cheese that's a simple and ubiquitous as the Sainte-Maure. If it tastes good, eat it. As
long as the producer uses good milk and has the right storage conditions, it'll probably be just fine.

And then came the dangerous part: the dégustation. M. Le Meunier kept pulling out more and more cheeses from the aging rooms, muttering "oh, you've got to try this" and "here, let's use three different Comtés to see the difference" and things like that. With a huge pile of cheeses on the cart, he passed out paper plates and started slicing, starting us off with the a mild fresh unsalted chèvre, milky and sweet. We tasted a Couronne de Touraine (goat) in three different stages, a slippery 4-day-old, a firmer week-old, and a solid 3-week-old round. The Sainte-Maure (goat) was about 3 months old, and was dry and crumbly; it's usually sold younger, but M. Le Meunier said that some of the older generation liked to wait until these cheeses are hard and eye-wateringly strong before eating them. We tasted a slice of a small goat cheese called bouyguette that is shaped like a kayak with a sprig of rosemary or thyme down the middle, and a wedge of the ash-coated pyramid of a perfectly-ripe 6-week-old Pouligny (also goat) with its lemony aftertaste.

We moved on to cow's-milk cheeses then, with soft thin wedges of Camembert and a silky brie fermier. M. Le Meunier mentioned that for people in the region where Camembert is produced, there's a wide range of customer tastes to satisfy, and clients want the cheese in every stage from young and firm to old and runny. Outside the production area, most people either want a barely-ripened cheese, or one that puddles on the plate as soon as you cut into it. I found the brie to be somewhat gummy and sticky. The texture of these cheeses will depend, we were told, on whether you age the cheese unwrapped or in the paper and box it comes in. In the pressed-curd category, we were given bits of Comté at 18 months, 30 months, and 40 months of maturation. The oldest cheese was crunchy with casien crystals and deeply nutty in flavor. And we tried a wedge of Reblochon, a raw-milk washed-rind cheese that's aged on pine boards, giving the rind a slightly resinous tang.

I'd taken the precaution of popping a probiotic pill, but by this time my nose had started running and I could feel the flush on my cheeks from an allergic reaction, so I also took one of the handy antiallergy pills I'd picked up in the UK a few months ago, Piriton (chlorphenamine maleate, which I think is what Chlor-Trimeton is, which I remember taking as a kid, but not for dairy). But I kept tasting the cheeses as they were presented.

Etivaz was next, and I wish I'd tasted it at the source in Switzerland back in 2007, because it's a lovely cheese, moistly firm and a bit crumbly with a well-rounded flavor.

And we tasted 24-month-old Parmesan that was really, really good. And the slumpy orange washed-rind Langres, and Tomme Rabelais with its dusty brown rind (which wasn't as good as the Tomme de Savoie we'd tried earlier). Then there was the sheep's-milk Ossau-Iraty from the Basque region, firm and spicy, followed by another pressed sheep's-milk cheese, the round Le Puits d'Astier with its patches of yellow mold. We finished with the cow's-milk high-mountain Salers, a tightly-regulated cheese that can only be made in the summer, milking cows that graze on the rich volcanic slopes and processing the milk in a large wooden vat, pressing the curd and cheeses several times, then aging the cheeses for three months to a year. It's a strong and slightly crumbly cheese with a herby flavor that would go well with a Côtes d'Auvergne from the same region.

Part of the cheesemonger's task is to figure out how to add value to the cheese he or she sells. We spent a good bit of time talking about how to present cheeses on plates or in cases, but we also talked about making things with cheese to sell, like cheese tarts in pastry, or spreads with soft fresh cheese, or whole cheeses marinated or coated in something flavorful that would complement or enhance the flavor of the cheese. As an example of this last concept, M. Le Meunier showed us how to make two "improved" versions of Camembert, one drenched in Calvados (apple brandy) and then rolled in spicebread crumbs, and the other coated in dried sage. We took the cheeses out of their boxes and wrappers, dunked and rolled as directed, then wrapped them back up in plastic and stuck them back in the boxes to develop in flavor for a few days before they went to the store to be sold.

I had to learn new words to be able to discuss cheese, like présure (rennet) and souche (strain, as in bacterial strain) and saumure (brine). I never paid much attention to the storage cases where Pat keeps her cheeses while they're ripening, or bothered to ask the exact temperature and humidity that Robin kept his blue cheeses at in Totnes, but now I know that cheese likes to ripen best between 8°C and 14°C, and that you have to make sure that you don't have too many cheeses in a small place because it will get too humid. Humidity throws the bacteria/culture balance out of whack and attracts the bad molds, something that you need to pay particular attention to with the soft and semisoft cheeses. In general the hard cheeses have already developed tougher rinds that keep the uninvited molds out. The affineur's goal is to have no wasted cheese, so obviously carelessly allowing cheeses to spoil in the aging rooms is not on. Like much of the rest of the job, it's a matter of practice, as you get to learn how much cheese to order, and what client demand is likely to be, and who you can sell cheeses to at each point of ripeness, and how to factor in shipping time - M. Le Meunier ships cheeses by boat to the States sometimes, and they leave his facility still young but arrive just at the right point to sell immediately. And if some of your cheeses get really ripe, you'll need to know who likes to eat them at that stage ... or develop a taste for them yourself.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Le Thouet Inondé

Monday was the last day in Saumur, this past week, and the last big midday meal from the talented hands of Armelle. It was choucroute garnie with duck confit (meltingly tender dark-brown savory), sausage (spicy), giblets (dense and rich), rillons (Loire-style cubed roast pork belly), and bacon (be still my congested heart!). Fortunately it was another lovely afternoon, so I was able to head out ponderously into the sunshine and strike out in what ended up being the right direction, even though it was the wrong direction. I'd planned on going by the École nationale d'équitation to see if I could get a few pictures of the horses there for Leah; it's the national school of horsemanship, and also where the mounted cavalry trains. They have exhibitions throughout the year, and I might try to get to one of them later this summer. A bit like the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, only the horses are all dark brown instead of white. Anyway, I thought that I needed to go back up to the main street and turn right, but instead of leading me past the stables that route took me to the edge of the Thouet, a tributary of the Loire. There was an inviting pathway along the banks, and the voie inondée (flooded walkway) sign had been pulled back, so I decided to see where it went.

There were birds twittering in the trees above, and cormorants and egrets flying by occasionally, but I had to stop when I heard a chicken clucking. I saw several dark orange-beaked fat fowl nosing (beaking?) through the piles of swampy sedge and while they were obviously not chickens, I couldn't identify them. However, I just typed in "swamp chicken" and what do you know? that's exactly what they are. Or rather, Eurasian Common Moorhens.

A dozen or so other people were out that afternoon, in couples or by themselves, with dogs or without, walking or on motor scooters. I stopped one couple to ask them where I would end up if I kept following the path, and whether it was flooded farther along. They said that if I continued to the footbridge (passerelle - new vocabulary word!) I could either turn left and go back into town along la voie verte (greenway), or cross the footbridge over to the neighborhood of Bagneux where, they said, there's an old château I could visit. To get back to Saumur, they said, I could return the same way (never my first choice) or walk along the road back to the main bridge, assuring me that it wasn't a busy noisy road, but a nice walk.

I didn't find the château, though I did find a long high stone wall with something château-y lurking behind it, enclosing a large orchard and fields. But there was no sign with the symbol for a historical monument that is usual for sites one can visit, so after wandering around a bit I headed back down the road. However, now that I'm looking at the Google map of the area, it appears that there is an ancient dolmen several blocks in the direction opposite the one I was told to go, so either I misunderstood descriptions and directions (not impossible) or I just wasn't able to locate the château. So I didn't see either landmark, but the next time I'm in Saumur I know what to set for my walking goal, as long as it isn't a Wednesday.

A glimpse of what may or may not be an outbuilding of the theoretical château.

I didn't cross back over the footbridge, but stayed on the east bank of the Thouet, passing through newer housing developments back towards the older areas across the bridge from Saumur and the fairy-tale château on the bluffs. When I got to the bridge, I wasn't tired, and there were still several hours before sunset, and I saw a sign for "The Mushroom Museum" and so obviously I had to keep going, into the old town of Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent. Turns out the museum is quite a bit farther down the Thouet, almost where it joins the Loire, and I wouldn't have made it there on foot, or at least not before it closed. I started getting footsore just as I neared the middle of the town, and the autoroute bridge back over the Thouet.

There is a 120km bike path along the Thouet that includes the route I walked, and among the many things I would be interested in doing with the rest of my time in France, however long that may be, a three- or four-day bike trip through this valley is one of the more attractive options. The "Loire à Vélo" path joins up to form the last 30km of the Thouet route, so it's even conceivable that I could bike all the way back to Tours. But I wouldn't do that, probably; it would take more days than I think I have the energy for, and I don't think I could cycle 80km in a day.

Just as I got to the roundabout heading down to the river, I glanced to my left and saw a gorgeous building a few blocks up the hill. The Château Bouvet-Ladubay was built in the mid-19th century for Étienne-François Bouvet, amateur inventor and architect and eventual founder of the Bouvet-Ladubay vineyards and wine cellars, where several varieties of quite tasty sparkling wines are made from Chenin grapes. The operation was bought out by the Taittinger label in the 1970s, and the château is now an upscale bed-and-breakfast with half a dozen sumptuously-decorated rooms, a swimming pool in the back garden, and the restored glass-walled conservatory, which would make a beautiful place to sit with a flute of the eponymous wine before dinner. Hmm ... and a very nice way to end a four-day bike trip, now that I come to think of it. I'd better start putting some money aside for that.

A two-hour walk on either side of the Thouet, the sun washing out my photographs but warming my face, the smell of waterlogged vegetation and mud and fish near the water, the quiet streets and noisy highway, and the end of the loop taking me back to the Chevriers' house, where I took off my shoes and propped up my feet and knitted and chatted and thoroughly enjoyed being in France. Spring is coming.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Australia Next, Perhaps?

The windows in my bedroom are steaming up from the almost-dry laundry I've just hung on the folding rack, but I can see that the clouds are starting to cover the sun, and the wind has picked up. Actually, the wind has been quite sharp all day, even in the morning's bright sunshine, and I nearly froze my toes off waiting for the rest of the On Va Sortir group to arrive for the scheduled river walk at 10am. I was there early because that's when the bus dropped me off, and I had 20 minutes to peer down the streets of the Saint-Symphorian neighborhood of Tours, just across the Loire from the downtown central area. An old section of the city, its narrow passages abut the cliffs above the river, with a few of the houses dug into the earth in the troglodyte style. Maybe next time I'll plan to be even earlier, to give me time to explore the area, or have an espresso at the café whose tables are in the sun at that time of the morning, facing the medieval spires and squat turrets of the cathedral and château on the south bank.

We walked across the suspended bridge and then turned right to head downstream for a few miles, and ended up at the Jardin Botanique on Boulevard Tonnellé. Jean and I visited there in September, but I hadn't been back since. I don't remember there being wallabies last time.

The walk went quickly, partly because we were all walking quickly to stay warm - it's hovering around freezing, and that's not counting the wind chill factor - and partly because I fell into conversation with another woman who lives here in Tours, but has only been here for two years, and who dreams of going to the United States. Many people in France do, she said, but perhaps (she said) they're all enchanted with a mythical version of the country that they only see on television and in the movies. We talked about the fact that France is the dream of many non-French people, and I offered to exchange passports if she'd like to go, since I wanted to stay. She didn't understand why Americans felt it necessary to carry guns, and pointed out that simple disagreements that might otherwise end up in a slap or even a punch in the face are now resulting in fatalities. "It's just too easy to pull a gun if you have it," she remarked. But she wants to visit Texas, that haven of guns, for the wide-open spaces and the ranges and ranches and horses and cowboys. "If there are still ranches and cowboys ..." I assured her there were, and even in my home state of Oregon. Which, frankly, I'd recommend over Texas. We ended up talking about political structures, and I tried to explain how it is that people who would like to impose their fundamental religious beliefs on everyone else manage to end up in Congress making laws that affect the entire country, and how the power is simultaneously held at state and even local levels, where people can make decisions and set up laws that would seem complete nonsense to someone in another part of the country. But when I illustrated that with the example of the Texas Board of Education trying to get creationism included in the science textbooks along with - or even replacing - evolution, she was horrified. "You mean ordinary people, like you and me, get to decide what's taught in schools? That's crazy!" A bit of the shine was coming off the Lone Star at that point, I think.

We talked about travelling, and she told me of a cousin of hers who moved to Australia, where (at least for French citizens) it appears to be fairly easy to find work. I told her I'd like to see India some day, and was eyeing a work-for-room-and-board situation on a dairy farm in Russia. "You're lucky that you speak English," she commented. "You can travel anywhere and not worry too much about the language." I wasn't so sure about that, considering the number of people I've met here in France who don't speak any English at all, but I suppose in general English is the new lingua franca. "I wish I spoke English better," she sighed. "Right now I speak English comme une vache espagnole ['like a Spanish cow,' a French expression used when someone's mangling the language]." The cows in Texas wouldn't mind, though.

A clash of cultures, but not in any negative way. Should I stay or should I go? Other places appeal, but so does another year here. Time to organize my "saint" cheese plan and e-mail the school to try and find someone to sponsor me as a student on an independent research/book project.

Time to turn the radiator up and make a cup of hot tea - it's bloody cold here today.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sainte-Élisabeth nous montre quel bonhomme l'hiver sera.

Clear skies after a foggy Saturday drive over to Saumur this past weekend drew me out to explore again, and this time I headed upstream along the Loire to the 17th-century Église Notre-Dame-des-Ardilliers, which Armelle had told me was very beautiful. And I needed to walk off some of the generous meals she'd been serving. The water remains high and the riverside path is submerged, but there's a wide pedestrian walkway along the road. The sun was warm, but a cold wind made the flags outside the town hall fly straight, and whipped the end of my scarf around my face.

What will the weather be like in May, when Mom and John and I are on the barge, wrestling with the locks on the Marne canals? The old saying is that on the Feast of Saint Elizabeth (November 17) the weather will show you what the winter will be like. If the weather on February 17 was an indicator of what the summer will be like, we'll be in good shape. It's a sunny day today in Tours, and after I finish this post I'm going to go for a walk along this stretch of the Loire, before my physical therapy appointment.

It's good to have a direction. I'm not usually into simply meandering around when I walk - I need a goal, a reason, and a way to return that isn't the same as the way I got there, because retracing my steps is boring. This last requirement is what frequently causes me to lose my way. I'm sure there's something significant about that which could be applied to my life. I'll have to think about that.

In the middle of the 15th century, a farmer digging in a field of clay discovered a small statue of the Virgin Mary near a spring that was already famous for its healing properties. He took it home, but it disappeared from the house and reappeared in its original location. This proved the virtues of the healing waters and a chapel was built on the site, which became a goal for pilgrims around the country. A hundred years later, a larger church replaced the small chapel, and the dome was completed after another hundred years. A community of Oratorians, a secular order of priests focused on teaching, like the Jesuits, was established under the patronage of Louis XIII in 1614, but today the Sisters of Jeanne Delanoue live there. Morning mass was long over by the time I got there, and the sound of the heavy wooden door closing behind me echoed around the empty rotunda. I glimpsed someone up at the altar as I entered, but he left by a side door and I was alone in the chilly marble-paved space, completely silent except for my footsteps and the whir of the camera.

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary is the patron saint of the homeless, and of lace-makers, and bakers. Armelle and Henri (my roommate Seb's parents) are lovely people, and I felt part of the family, just as I did at Christmas. I have a home here in France, temporary though it may be, but I am starting to feel like it may be time to move on. I still haven't talked to the head of the history department about trying to find a way to stay as a student without actually enrolling in any program, but as I watch the level of my bank account go down, and the number of places in Europe and elsewhere I want to see go up, I begin to think that if it's a choice between remaining in France for another year, or seeing more of the world, the world will win. Désolée, chère France.

I didn't make lace last weekend, but I did rip up the socks I'd almost finished knitting, and started a scarf instead. Armelle gifted me with one of the hundred or so pairs of knitting needles she has in her stash, so that I wouldn't have to fuss with doing a long row on four short double-pointed needles. I thought about doing some sort of lacy pattern but decided that it would be more relaxing to not have to think about what I was doing, so it's a 49-stitch-wide plain moss stitch in two shades of dark green. I'd bought six skeins of yarn in Norway, and while three of them are a forest green I realized when I put them together that the other three are more of an olive green. So I'm making random stripes with the two colors. It's a soothing occupation, and was a good thing to be doing while sitting in the living room with various Chevrier relatives who'd come over to see Floriane's new baby girl Aria (Seb's new niece); I could follow the conversations but not be stuck there staring at my hands, but not be rude by doing something like reading a book, and it was easy to chime in or respond to questions.

I'd taken several gluten-free baguettes for the weekend which, after my long time getting used to non-wheat bread, taste pretty good, especially when heated up. Armelle was not particularly impressed, and though they were too bland. Well, yes. But they soak up vinaigrette and the sauce from the artichauts à la barigoule and the lemony pan juices from roast chicken and the last mustard-smeared bits of confit de canard that Armelle adds to her choucroute garnie.

The stretch of buildings between the church and the center of town is one of the older areas of Saumur, a neighborhood called Fenêt that runs along the riverbank under the shadow the fortified walls of the château. In the Middle Ages, when the pilgrimages to the holy healing fountain were at their height, Fenêt did a brisk business in religious articles, and was home to many patenôtriers who made rosaries. Religious pilgrims have been replaced by tourists, and the neighborhood now caters to people on the château circuit, or doing the "Loire à Velo" bicycle route.

You have to watch where you walk in France, whether that's in the street or on the sidewalk or through the woods on a rutted path. Like cigarettes, dogs are ubiquitous, and many people are generally less than polite about cleaning up after their pets. Some must, of course, otherwise we'd be knee-high in dog shit here, but even threats of 35-euro fines don't ensure compliance with the rule. The Saumur town council would like to remind people that "like owner, like pet" is not a compliment.

Although there was no one around when I started out my walk at 2pm or so, by the time I got back to the center of town near 4pm there were many people walking around enjoying the sunshine. I took advantage of a sheltered table at a small restaurant near the river and sipped a glass of Crémant de Loire from one of the many local vineyards while listening to snatches of passing conversations. Sunday in the sun in Saumur.