Saturday, 20 September 2014

Wickham's Grevillea

Wickham's Grevillea Grevillea wickhamii.
A lovely Australian desert shrub with scarlet spidery flowers and grey-green holly-like leaves.

Friday, 19 September 2014

What Do You Call These?

Where we are, these go by the name of pains au chocolat, but I have been reminded that this isn't always the case in France. In the Touraine we use the northern term for these chocolate filled pastries, but just across the border, in Poitou-Charentes, to our south-west, which we have visited rather a lot in the last few weeks, I try to remember to ask for une chocolatine in the hospital cafe. They use the southern name for the pastries there.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Some Late Summer Nature in the Garden

See the dry grass poking out from some of the holes in the bee hotel? That's been put there by the Grass-carrying Wasp Isodontia mexicana. It's a medium-large entirely black wasp which stocks its nest holes with paralysed caterpillars for its young to eat when they hatch, then seals them with wisps of dry grass. The wasp is an introduced, but not invasive, species. This is the bee hotel made for me by Kath, by the way.
A friend tells me that she realised she had Grass-carrying Wasps in residence when she started finding paralysed grasshoppers on her windowsills. At first she thought the grasshoppers were dead, but they were always flexible, like they had only just died. Eventually she realised that it was the wasp, who was nesting in some metal tubing above two of the windows. The grasshoppers must have either been too big to cram into the available hole, too heavy and she dropped them, or inserting them in the hole required her to put them down temporarily for some reason.

A Eurasian Swallowtail Papilio machaon caterpillar on Wild Carrot Daucus carotta.

Young Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica gather on the wires prior to migrating to Africa. It won't be long before they've all gone. A lot of 'ours' have gone already and the ones we are still seeing are on their way through from further north.
And beyond the garden, on a couple of my butterfly transects...

 A female Machimus sp robber fly lays her eggs in a sedge seedhead. She is one of a small group of related robber flies who do this, so it is helpful with identification if you see the behaviour -- it narrows it down to one of only 3 genera. Mind you, within those genera they are not easy to separate into species, especially the black legged Machimus spp. (Thanks to Reinoud for pointing me in the right direction with the ID.)

A Giant Tachinid Fly Tachina grossa sips nectar from Hemp-agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum flowers. These quite large and distinctive flies are so ugly you have to love them! And don't worry -- they don't carry diseases or come into your house.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Dog by the Chapel

The archaeologists are halfway through their second dig of the remains of the private chapel associated with the medieval royal apartments in Loches. The discovery of the grave of a dog is perhaps the thing that has engaged the local journalists the most.

 A newly exposed arch in the chapel.
Right next to the 14th century Chapel of Saint Louis, a fairly large dog was buried either just before or just after the construction of the chapel. A brooch was also recovered from the grave, possibly indicating that the dog was wrapped in some sort of shroud. If buried after the chapel was built it is a very curious find, since one would not normally expect a dog to be buried in the vicinity of a religious building. However, the local newspaper reminds us that Anne of Brittany, whose 15th century oratory is only a short distance from the chapel, owned a number of much loved greyhounds who accompanied her everywhere.  I've also read that her father in law Louis XI, although famously a tremendous miser, shelled out for a pearl and ruby encrusted collar for at least one of his greyhounds, named Mistodin. The dog was apparently also provided with a warm coat at night, as it felt the cold. It is clear that the Vallois royal family were serious dog lovers.

A young archaeologist looks down at the 11th century fortress wall.
The archaeologists are of course more cautious, and will possibly have the dog bones examined by a specialist to see if they can glean any further information. As far as the archaeologists are concerned, the focus is no longer the chapel, nor the dog, but the remains of a very early medieval wall, 2 m thick and close to the bell casting pit, between the chapel and the Logis Royal. Typical of walls from this period the stones are big and square. It is part of an 11th century fortress, indicating that the old curtain wall followed a different trajectory than today.
A la cuisine hier: Poires Belle Helene, the easiest imaginable pear dessert. Poach whole pears. Melt chocolate, cream and poire williams together. Serve the pears with vanilla icecream with the chocolate sauce generously poured over.

I didn't make icecream, but instead whipped up a batch of pear cream -- beat together cream cheese, icing sugar and poire williams, fold in beaten egg white. The chocolate sauce was made using a very simple and failsafe method of melting the ingredients -- take a large heavy cast iron frying pan, set on a very low heat and half fill with water; put the chocolate, cream and poire williams in a bowl and set it inside the frying pan; stir periodically until it is all melted and blended. I used frozen cream so it melted along with the chocolate (I've taken to keeping a pot of my local unpasturised cream in the freezer for just such 'emergencies').

Leave out the poire williams if you are serving it to anyone like Simon, whose tastebuds tell him that anything with liquor in it tastes unpleasantly like petrol.