Friday, February 25, 2011

Whine, Whine, Whine

So you recall that yummy bottle of whine that I thought was mine? It wasn't mine. It was a gift someone brought me. It turns out that my oenological efforts produced 24 bottles of vinegar. Thin, sour, barely any alcohol--vinegar.

Nothing to do but start over.

The fatal flaw was that I didn't add any sugar. I know, I know, the yeast need sugar to do their thing. But I thought there would have been enough sugar in the grape juice itself. Turns out that was incorrect.

After more thought, I decided that my fermenting setup may have let too much oxygen in, yet another fairly fatal weakness in the process (fermenting in the presence of oxygen is how you make vinegar on purpose). So I constructed a new fermenting container out of a 20-liter Coleman cooler, some rubber tubing, and of course duct tape.

High tech. The only reason it is on the bucket is so I don't have to bend down so far to pick it up.

This time I added 6 cups of white sugar and 2 cups of brown sugar to 12 liters of red grape juice. And I used a different brand of grape juice, one that was recommended to me by several successful vintners here on camp.

Why brown sugar? I have no idea what prompted me to do that. It was a whim. The brown sugar was sitting next to the white sugar in the cabinet. I like brown sugar--I thought, why not? It's all sugar, right?

After letting the yeast run to the end (about 10-14 days depending on which threshold is reached first, lack of sugar or too much alcohol; you aim for the latter, not the former), I decanted the whine off into another container. Before I capped it off, I added a pint of fresh, crushed blackberries.

And what prompted me to do that? Yet another whim. I've talked to vintners who say they add herbs, fruit, and sometimes even preserves and jam to the whine at this stage. Since we don't ferment directly from the grapes themselves, we don't get the complex flavors that come from the mold on the grapes, the skins of the grapes, etc. All of our contortions are attempts to add fruity complexity to our whine. (You should be laughing now.) So I decided those fresh, juicy blackberries might be just the thing.

I let the whine and the blackberries sit for about 3 weeks. Then I decanted off into bottles.

Some folks on camp say you can't drink whine until it sits for months and months. But when I asked a vintner that I know who makes awesome red whines when he first drinks his whines after bottling, he told me "immediately."

So after filling the bottles and cleaning up all of my equipment, I took a deep breath and poured out a glass of my latest effort.

The result? I made port. That's right, port. Deep, hearty, fortified whine with a hint of fruit. The stuff has so much alcohol in it that your nose hairs will singe if you sniff too deep. But the flavor is fantastic. Well, fantastic for whine. It's all relative, of course.

In light of my apparent success, I've decided that I should create a label for my bottles. And the choice of a name for my whinery was obvious: Bonjour, Gendarmerie!

This guy will make a lovely label.
I mixed up a new batch last night (using 2 liters of sour cherry juice along with the grape juice) so I have a few weeks to get my labels printed and ready.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

It Burns! It Burns!

 The dogs have to be on lead whenever they are out of the house (an Aramco rule) so I recycled the red harnesses that I used for DogzRule! flyball (sniff, sniff, I miss you guys!!) to be their primary steppin' out gear.

And because I don't have a yard, the dogs get taken for walks in their harnesses several times a day. I have a procedure to get us ready, of course. I gather all the gear--hat, sunglasses, shoes, socks, leashes, harnesses, into a pile. First I put on all of my stuff, then I turn to the dogs. Harry, always compliant about these sorts of things, steps right up to me so I can put his harness on. 

But Mimi...she's another story altogether. For a solid year, I've been trying to get her to come to me so I can put her harness on. She wants to go for a walk and excitedly flits around as I make the gear pile. But as soon as I pick up her harness, she hides behind furniture, she goes upstairs, she feigns exhaustion--and when she does at last start moving towards me, she takes one slow step after another, pausing sometimes for seconds between each, one foot lifted trembling in the air, dragging it out as long as she possibly can. I tried clicker and treats, I tried changing the recall word, I tried praise and petting, I tried every training trick in the book, and nothing altered this behavior. You'd think after a year that she would have given up because the outcome is always the same: she always ends up with her harness on.

It was even worse, though, because she would flinch whenever the harness touched her. It was exactly the scene from Lord of the Rings (Two Towers, I believe) where Sam and Frodo bind Gollum up in the elven ropes and he starts shrieking, "It burns! It burns!" I even started whispering that under my breath as I put her harness on. She acted like I was beating her with the stupid thing.

Then came the miracle of the Halti head halter. I have quite a few dogs in my classes whose owners need some safe way to control their dogs so they can get them into a learning space and decided that Haltis were the best solution. Like most animal supplies, they are not available here so I've been shipping them over from the US. In the first shipment, I got a small one to fit Mimi. If I was going to recommend them to students, I needed to understand how they worked, how they fit, and how to use them effectively. Harry hardly needs that sort of thing so Mimi was the perfect guinea pig.

Of course, the first few times I used it, she did the same long, drawn out walk of fear towards me as before. Then one morning I looked up from Harry to see Mimi standing just a couple of feet away! I could barely get out the recall (her recall is in French now: Mimi, venez!) before she was almost standing on my feet, pushing her head up so I could slide the Halti on! And that has repeated over and over again, every day, for almost a month. No more delay tactics, no more chasing my dog down in my shitty apartment, no more stress when we are getting ready for a walk.

Truly, it's a miracle. I have no explanation. The only change is the switch from the harness to the head halter. Maybe she likes having opportunities to wear her spiffy new collars outside the house (I had some super cool collars made for me by Kyra at moddog.com) since the Halti has an extra safety clip that attaches to a regular collar.

To be honest, it's a bit frustrating that I wasn't able to solve the problem with training. But no matter what, walk times are far more enjoyable for all.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Adventures Part 11: Paris


Ta da! The final set of vignettes from my French adventures.

After four days of rain and chateaus, I said goodbye to Brice and Patricia and headed to Paris. As I mentioned above, it quickly became a particularly horrible day combining all of the worst aspects of traveling, and it is best left as a story told over some good wine and food.

But I finally made it to my hotel located in a normal, working class neighborhood in the heart of Paris. The place has a one-star rating, but keep in mind that it is all relative. The towels were so old and stiff (resembling flat loofahs, basically) that I wouldn't even have used them to clean the floor (which wasn't all that clean anyway). And my room was on the third floor up a tortuously winding staircase that was so narrow that I had to turn my suitcase to the side to get it around the corners.

Standing on my landing looking straight down the staircase in the hotel.
But the bathroom was at least free of obvious signs of previous occupants, the water was hot, and the radiator worked. And I was just a 30-minute walk from the Louvre, my goal for these last few days. All in all, considering the central location, a good value for the money.

I.M. Pei's glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre.
I spent two full days in the Louvre. By the end of the second day, the ice that had encased Paris had mostly melted and I was utterly done with museums and artifacts and art.

I took very few pictures in the Louvre even though it was allowed. This marble caught my eye.
Odd detail from a 16th century tapestry! Somebody had better check what that poor dog's been eating!
The Louvre is an amazing place. The galleries and hallways just go on and on, every corner, wall, and ceiling crammed and encrusted with things too look at.
I spent my last two days walking around window shopping and people watching. I didn't take any pictures. And I didn't buy a single trinket. Instead, I practiced my French on the Parisians every chance I could. Either I was just really lucky or they needed the trade because it was the off season, but just like the French people in the boonies to the south, the Parisians were relatively tolerant of my mangling their language.

View of Ile de la Cite and the Seine. The sky was grey and it was cold and windy...but at least it wasn't snowing or raining.
I completely forgot which bridge this is but the fences on both sides had hundreds of padlocks of various kinds attached to them. Many of the padlocks had messages engraved on them: AB loves MN, that sort of thing. I heard some French guy tell some tourists that the locks are cut off daily. I don't think that's true because some of them had been there long enough to become rusty, but you get the basic idea.

The four days I was in Paris I made like a Parisian and carried my plastic shopping bag with me so each afternoon on the way back to the hotel I would stop in at the charcuterie for sausage, at the fromagerie for cheese, at the marche for fruit, at the boulangerie for bread, and of course I'd pick up a bottle of wine somewhere along the way.

Dinner!
At last I got in the taxi, headed to the airport, and flew home so I could rest up for a couple of days from my fabulous month of adventures.

Adventures Part 10: The Loire Valley


I still had eight days of my holiday remaining when I dropped DSL off at Charles de Gaulle (that was an adventure unto itself, that early morning drive from Chartres across Paris). I had already planned to spend the last four days of my trip in Paris and had booked a hotel months before. When it became clear that the hovel was not worth returning to, I made a quick decision to spend four days in the Loire Valley. 

Between my guidebook and the internet and the bad weather threatening to continue for days, I decided to stay in east end of the valley so that I was no more than a couple of hours from Paris. (However, the day I returned to Paris was the day the really monstrous snow storm hit so it took me over 6 hours to return the car and another 5 hours to get from the airport to my downtown hotel. The best laid plans blah blah blah.)

I chose a highly recommended BandB in Cour Cheverny, Le Beguinage. This place lived up to my expectations and more. The owners, Brice and Patricia Deloison, were charming and politely patient with my French (Brice pretty much refused to speak English with me so I had to work hard with him but Patricia and I chatted in a gnarly Franglish mess--as I had only two marginally functional verb tenses, it got a bit silly at times.)

Le Beguinage. Looking up towards the buildings from the rear of the garden.
 Le Beguinage is charming, quiet, clean, and my room was large and warm (two radiators in the room and one in the bathroom--decadence!). And it turns out that the village of Cour Cheverny was the perfect base for touring the chateaus in the valley.

Fixer-upper in Cour Cheverny. I do plan to buy property in France. I don't intend to buy anything like this!

Vin produced by the local Cour Cheverny cooperative. It reminded me too much of the plonk we make here so I didn't buy any.
Always seeking to challenge and expand my vocabulary, I bought a wonderful guide book in French titled "Les Chateaux de la Loire." Full of short write-ups and fabulous photos plus web addresses for each site, I was easily able to shortlist the places I wanted to see and make sure they were open. Then I checked with Patricia or Brice each morning to see what they recommended. I visited more places than I'll mention here. These are just the standouts.

I started off easy with Chateau de Cheverny, a 20-minute walk down the road from Le Beguinage. Despite the icy roads and falling sleet, it was an agreeable trek. This chateau has been restored and is full of beautiful furniture and other decorations from its heyday in the 17th century. It was even heated, sort of. My photos in no way do it justice so I recommend that you check out the website.

Not a view of Chateau de Cheverny that is usually included in guide books: grounds covered with snow.

The bed is only about 4 feet long. Surely they couldn't have been that short 400 years ago? It turns out that rich people (who had beds) slept sitting upright. Thus the bed only needed to be that long.
One neat thing I discovered at Cheverny was the fox hound kennels. Annual, formal hunts are held on the grounds and in the surrounding forest.

Foxhounds at Chateau de Cheverny.
I also visited Chateau de Chenonceau. This castle, build in the earliest 16th century, spans the River Cher. It was pouring down rain all day with temps near freezing so unfortunately I spent no time in the gardens, which are magnificent even by chateau standards.

Chateau de Chenonceau.

View of the River Cher and the rest of the chateau out of a window. It was raining heavily the entire time I was there.
This chateau has been structurally restored but it doesn't have as many furnishings as Cheverny and it was most decidedly not heated. Despite the horrible weather, I still had to wade through busloads of Japanese tourists. Bizarre.

Kitchen in Chenonceau. There are electric spot lights in the ceiling--the place would have never been this well-lit.
I also visted L'Abbaye de Fontevraud, a monastery that had some buildings in place as early as 1101. Many of the rooms had large vaulted openings directly to the outside and were terribly cold and drafty--I could easily imagine myself back in the 12th century as it was another day of continuous freezing rain. The kitchen gardens are supposed to be a real showpiece--but I only gave them a quick glance on my way to the toilet.

Main chapel in Fontevraud. All of the light is natural. On a sunny day, I imagine the white stone is blinding.
For centuries, the Bourbons shuffled spinster aunts and extra daughters off to the convent at Fontevraud. Each of the nuns in the paintings represents one of these women; their portraits were gradually added over time to the original paintings.
I spent four cold, wet days driving up and down the valley looking at piles of stone and ornate furniture.

A moldering pile of stones, a former chateau, above the village of Montrichard.
A view of Chateau de Chinon. This drive-by was as close as I got. I was worn out with the weather and driving and looking at chateaus.

The famous Chateau de Chambord. Another drive-by.

I saw more than a dozen of these signs in the forest around Chambord on the day that I passed through. A hunt was taking place and I saw the hunters. I don't know if they were using dogs or even what they were hunting. Boar is a good guess but it could be any number of animals.
 Despite that somewhat grim experience, I plan to return to the Loire Valley in a more friendly time of year. It is gorgeous countryside and there are plenty of sights that I wasn't able to see.

There Really Is An App For That

Dhahran is basically a small town. Viruses and certain kinds of news, gossip, and even fads of one form or another spread quickly. The latest thing making the rounds is the iPhone/iPad app called iPray.

It uses GPS to determine your exact location and you can also program in additional cities of your choice. Then it will tell you to the minute when the next muslim prayer begins. You can even set alarms (which are the call to prayer chants, not regular alarm clock sounds).

And why, you ask, would we all be downloading this app? Not because we care about Islam in any meaningful way. In fact, it is the opposite of that. We all have this app now because planning our shopping trips around the prayer times, when all the stores close, is a fine art. Prayer times in KSA are a terrible inconvenience. If you want to have dinner in town, you want to be in the restaurant and seated before the next prayer time. All the wait staff leave during the prayer (even if they aren't muslim), but at least you are allowed to stay, and even continue eating. You usually have to leave stores but if you are in the mall, you can wander around the mall itself. You want to know, is this the short evening prayer or the long one? Can I make it to a particular store and complete my shopping before prayer? How soon do I need to start heading for a checkout line so that I don't get trapped inside Ikea for the long prayer? If I catch the 9am shopping bus instead of the 8:30am shopping bus, will I have enough time to complete my shopping before prayer time?

Wondrously, all these questions are answered by iPray.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Adventures Part 9: France--Seeing the Sights

Freezing my ass off in Chartres.

At last, I'm putting up another blog post from DSL's and my grand adventure in France in November/December. I still have one more to go to share all of the adventures I had after DSL went back home. Of course, it is now only a few weeks away from my next trip to France! No more lame excuses!

I have no intention of giving a day-by-day listing of our doings in France. That's boring! Instead, I'm going to highlight the places that were most memorable to me.

I have to start this post about the "seeing the sights" with the Roman Antiquities museum in Trier where DSL and I spent an afternoon. Of course, the Germans call it something completely incomprehensible (Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier) but that doesn't alter the fact that it's a jaw-dropping collection of Roman items that are for the most part from that area of Germany. Trier was one of the most northern Roman outposts--I'm amazed they made it this far north at all, much less established such a major trade, religious, and political/civic center. With no central heat.

Me and a giant Roman marble foot outside the museum in Trier. 

The museum is huge--we spent hours wandering around looking at antiquities large and small (they even have parts of buildings in the museum and some incredible tile mosaics). I highly recommend it.

I mentioned in the first "adventure" post that our hotel in Trier was just a few yards from the Porta Nigra.
The Porta Nigra in Trier, Germany lit at night.

Originally a very large gate in the original wall surrounding Trier, built at the end of the 2nd century BC, the structure was repurposed repeatedly through the centuries, even to the point that later construction almost entirely obscured the original structure (all of that has been removed now). The Porta Nigra is a magnificent remnant of the former glory of Treverorum, the original name for Trier based on the name of the local Celtic tribes who lived there before being subsumed by the Romans.

The villages of Aixe-sur-Vienne, Sereilhac, St-Laurent-sur-Gorre, and La Cote formed the nucleus of our little world in the wilds of south-central France. Even though it was just a few miles from the hovel to the Carre Foure market in Aixe-sur-Vienne, it felt like mounting an expedition for every trip there.

Here is another map zooming in on St-Laurent-sur-Gorre showing the route to the hovel in La Cote. Sigh. If only the owner had provided us with something like this...Bonjour, Gendarmerie!

One cold, grey afternoon, we drove into Limoges to visit the Porcelain Museum. They were doing some major renovations and it was our horrible luck that the entire place was unheated. But they were nice enough to let us in free of charge. The museum was packed to the rafters with glazed, painted, molded, encrusted, and gilded fired clay objects. But even more memorable was the utter hell we went through to find the damned place, and the outdoor port-a-potty-like toilet--that in addition to a flush toilet had a sink, a mirror, towels and toilet paper, and was heated. I peed in it three times during the afternoon just because it was so warm in there. We got home just before it started snowing.
 
Aubusson. I have no pictures of Limoges so this will have to substitute. The tapestry museum in Aubusson is a big yawn. The Louvre in Paris had many more, and more magnificent, tapestries on display.

The next day, despite the light rain and temps hovering near freezing, we made our way to the Marche Noel in Aixe-sur-Vienne. I had some very entertaining conversations in my fractured, idiot French with some of the vendors. They seemed fairly bemused by both of us. And I discovered that the phrase "J'habite en Arabie Saoudite" had a lot of mileage in it. One of the fun things we did while at the market was indulge in some hot wine (vin chaud)--nothing like the super sweet "glowein" we had in Germany--and grilled sausages tucked into crusty rolls. We continued the foodie theme by dropping in on the Salon Gourmand in Sereilhac. I continued to practice my French on the surprisingly patient vendors while we tasted and nibbled and bought yummy food and wine (in fact, that's where I purchased the free range pork that I made for our dinner that evening). The French don't have a reputation for being patient with tourists, so I like to think that it was my enthusiastic attempts at French that helped us along.

 
Window shopping in Aubusson. It was bitter cold but we needed to walk around after the long drive up from the hovel.

 
DSL and a stream somewhere in south-central France.

Out of all of the cool places we visited during our time in France, I was by far most impressed by our road trip to the Perigeaux region, located in the Dordogne departement to the southwest of Limoges. Remote, hilly, thick trees, and deep, steep-sided rivers and streams, all made more mystical by the grey weather we encountered on our way there. Magically, we were treated to an hour or two of sunshine in the middle of the day.
Looking up at the Prehistory Museum in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac.

Our main destination was not the town of Perigeaux but Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. Here in the valley of the Vezere river are more than a dozen paleolithic archeological sites, both neanderthal and early human, some of which date back more than 500,000 years.

Of course the big draw in this area is Lascaux. But I had done research on the paleolithic sites before I left and learned that the original Lascaux caves have been closed to view for decades. What people visit now are reproductions of the drawings in another nearby cave. That was simply not acceptable to me so I decided that we should visit two sites where we could see things up close: Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume. We managed to find the ticket office (despite the heavy tourist traffic this area must get in the spring and summer, it isn't Disneyland) and purchase tickets for back-to-back tours of the two sites, which were along the same road about 1/2 mile apart. We headed back into Les Eyzies for a leisurely lunch. The three-star place recommended by my guide book was shut for winter so we ate in the no-star cafe in the center of town.
Yes, the Hotel Cro-Magnon is located in Les Eyzies! It was closed for the winter. I took this photo; all other France photos are from DSL's flickr stream.

Our first tour was for Font-de-Gaume. The cave contains over 200 polychrome drawings, mostly of animals. Some are located high on the walls, some are visible only if the light is angled a certain direction. I am left in awe when I realize that the artists scrambled into this cave with only torches or perhaps small oil (animal fat) lamps (basically small dishes with wicks hanging out). Was it for a religious ceremony? To celebrate or pray for a successful hunt? A rite associated with becoming an adult? Did women and men both make the drawings? 

On the tour there were two French women besides DSL and I. And the tour guide was French...so the tour was in French. I did a pretty good job of keeping up for a while but I began to get overwhelmed with the entire thing and sort of lost the thread of what he was saying. That's okay, because just being able to see those drawings was enough of an experience.

We shook ourselves out a bit then headed for Les Combarelles. In this very narrow cave are hundreds of engraved figures, again mostly animals but with quite a few large human figures, nearly all female. This time it was just DSL and I. The guide spoke fairly good English but you could tell she would have preferred not to. It was another overwhelming experience. Stepping from the warm, moist cave out into the cold, grey, wet field at the entrance was a big shock. 

We finished our day of paleolithic adventures with a trip to the Musee National de Prehistoire in Les Eyzies. Perched high above the town on a ledge eroded into a limestone cliff, the museum is quite an architectural piece. It is crammed with all sorts of artifacts spanning hundreds of thousands of years. DSL and I were tired after our long day, and we arrived with barely an hour to spare, but we made the most of our time.

I would highly recommend these sites and would definitely visit them again if given the chance. If you do a bit of research, you'll quickly find notes about the necessity to reserve tickets in advance. Well, DSL and I found the solution to that: go in the off season. Just make sure your hotel has heat!

As for tourist goods, I spent very little money on items like that. Most of my money went to food and wine, and in some ways, that made me happier than lugging some trinket home would have.

But when DSL and I were in the Marche Noel in Aixe-sur-Vienne, we ran into this enamel artist whose work was incredible. Her shop was in the town--we wanted to see all of her available work, not just the bits she carted to her stall in the christmas market, so we told her we'd come to her shop. We passed through Aixe nearly every day, hoping to find her shop open (it was on the main drag and easy to find). At last, on a day when we had planned something else, we drove by and saw all the lights on! We jammed the Renault up on to the sidewalk around the corner (a very French way of parking) and hurried to her shop.

As it turned out, Madame Pradeau's shop was also her workshop. It was almost a museum itself. She had dozens of pieces of all sizes beautifully lit and displayed. She specializes in birds and nature and many of her pieces are tiny enamel paintings on square or rectangular pieces of copper which are then mounted on another material: wood, stone, etc.

It was here that DSL and I spent some serious money indeed. I purchased four of her bird panels mounted on slate (would have purchased all five but DSL wanted one). Madame Pradeau lovingly wrapped each piece up in paper, tied with ribbon, and tucked them into bags. She actually teared up a bit when she realized that we were going to clear entire sections of the walls of her shop. I'd put a link to her shop here in this post if she had one. You'll just have to content yourself with pictures of my bird panels.

When we finally decided to abandon the hovel, my plan was to drive close to Paris, say, within an hour or so of the airport, sightsee, get a hotel, then the next morning drive DSL to the airport in time to catch her flight (it didn't work out quite that neatly but she did make her flight). I selected Chartres as our destination. (The iPad was invaluable in helping me find a hotel and reserve rooms for us without having to navigate French over the telephone.) We had some rather bad weather on our drive up but finally made it to Chartres and headed straight for the cathedral (after driving in circles trying to figure out where to park; we did this no matter where we were so it wasn't like it was a surprise or anything.)

View of Chartres cathedral from the river. It literally looms over the town.

Unfortunately, the stained glass windows were not at their most magnificent because we arrived too late in the day and the winter sun, already pretty weak and low, gave it up behind more clouds.
Inside Chartres cathedral. This is one of the famous round stained glass windows. 

Pretty gloomy in the wintertime. We did see some ... interesting... relics and shrines scattered around the periphery.

Apparently overwhelmed by the prospect of a clean, warm bathroom and a clean, warm bed with clean, fluffy sheets in a toasty warm room, DSL took this picture of her hotel room in Chartres.