Saturday, 31 July 2010

Small Pincertail

Pincertailed dragonflies are so called because of the very obvious pincer on the end of the male's abdomen. This species, the Small Pincertail Onychogomphus forcipatus is by far the most common and widespread in Europe. It's French name is le Gomphe à pinces.

Males can often be seen posing on stones by the waterside, raising their tails to make sure their 'gear' is noticed. The species varies a bit in colouration, with eyes that can be blue or green and with yellow markings that can range from dull to bright. Their favoured habitat is sunny streams with gravelly or rocky edges, but I have seen them patrolling the streets of Preuilly on a number of occasions.

A male Small Pincertail, photographed on a mill stream in the Aigronne Valley.
Although still common in France, this species is classed as vulnerable on the international Red List of endangered species. The main threats are 'improvements' to watercourses which control banks and flow, commercial usages such as gravel extraction and pollution.

A newly emerged female can be seen here, photographed on the Creuse river.

Susan

Friday, 30 July 2010

Nails

The hardware on the graineterie steps isn't the only hand forged metal we have in the house.

This month we have been working in the attic of the house, in preparation to installing a bathroom. We had previously contemplated having a door on the stairs to stop all the heat escaping during winter, but in the end we decided to amenage the attic. This has meant installing a new floor (and supporting frame) because although the basic structure was sound, there was a springiness in the joists and a flexing of the floorboards which was disconcerting (to say the least), and would have caused problems when we came to tile the floor.

While we were up there we realised that there was a surplus of nails sticking out of the hand hewn beams, just waiting to tear lumps off scalps the first time anyone stood up quickly. These we removed carefully, because they are really quite attractive, in a brutish way.

The nails have been made by cutting lengths of iron rod, hammering and grinding a point onto them, before bending the top over to create a head.

I may have to frame them and hang it somewhere - it seems a shame not to preserve them in some way.

Simon

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Who Loves Lavender?

Well, just about every long tongued flying insect around in mid-summer.

Painted Lady butterfly
Vanessa cardui
La Belle-Dame

Hummingbird Hawkmoth
Macroglossum stellatarum
Le Moro sphinx

White Tailed or Buff Tailed Bumblebee
Bombus lucorum / terrestris
Le Bourdon des bois ou terrestre

Broad Bordered Bee Hawkmoth
Hemaris fuciformis
Le Sphinx gazé

A Wool Carder Bee
Anthidium sp
Un anthidie

Scarce Swallowtail butterfly
Iphiclides podalirius
Le Flambé

Susan

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A Hemp Oven

Yesterday we visited La Corroirie with Ken and CHM (read Ken's account of a visit a few years ago here). A medieval fortified monastic farm complex near Loches, owned by Jeff de Mareuil, the place is fascinating. Originally part of the Chartreuse of Liget, or Charterhouse of Liget, it was where the lay brothers attached to the monastry set about taming the wilderness. The marshy valley it is set in was considered an uninhabitable malarial swamp in those days. For the religious community it was ideal. It would be their equivalent of going out into the desert, away from the wickedness and temptations of secular life. Life would consist of hard work and prayer. The lay brothers drained the land and planted hemp.

Henry II (Henry Plantagenet, who had established the monastry) encouraged the cultivation of hemp, because its fibres were used to make sails for his navy. Much of the hemp fibre went to making rope for use within the monastry and also for textiles to make clothes. Once the clothes were worn out they were recycled to make high quality paper for the illuminators and copyists making religious books.

The four à chanvre (hemp oven) at La Corroirie, a rare survival.
Apparently it also served as a prison.
Hemp is a bast fibre, like linen, so is not easy to work with. Once harvested in the autumn it must be soaked in running water for several days and 'retted', so that unwanted soft plant material falls away and you are left with the long tough fibres that can be spun. In medieval times the hemp would have been left in the nearby stream, but this practice releases pollutants and is now illegal. The next stage is for the stalks to be dried in the hemp oven (four à chanvre), then milled (or 'beetled') to break up and soften the fibres somewhat, then spun into thread to be woven into cloth or twisted into cord.

Susan

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Harvest Time

For those farmers who have grown wheat this year it is harvest time, and they are very busy. Wherever you are in the area you can't escape the sound of harvesters at work or the occasional slow moving tractor towing a trailer full of grain.

Fields of wheat that a week ago rippled
as the wind blew now have very natty stripes

Saturday afternoon and the silo at the grain
co-op has a line of waiting customers

Even in the middle of town you could get stuck
behind a tractor. This is the view on Saturday evening
from the terasse at the hotel restaurant l'Image

At the moment all the farmers with grain are hoping the rain will stay away until the harvest is in, while those with sunflowers and maize are hoping for rain - and soon. I wonder if many farmers have both crops in?

Simon

Monday, 26 July 2010

Azay le Rideau - the Exterior

We have posted photos of the outside of Azay le Rideau Chateau before: we visited in winter and didn't manage to get inside because the staff were on strike. Last week we visited again, and as you can see from the photos posted a couple of days ago, this time it was a proper visit.

According to the website

Situated in the heart of Touraine, in the Loire Valley, Azay-le-Rideau was built during the reign of François I by a rich financier wishing to establish his brand-new title of nobility. A small gem of the first stirrings of the French Renaissance, decorated with carved stone lacework, the château was embellished over the centuries by succeeding generations, with an entrance inspired by that of Vaux-le-Vicomte and an English-style landscaped garden. Yet it never lost its harmony. Still today, Azay “bathes in the Indre River like a princely creature” (Honoré de Balzac).

Which descibes it rather well, really. Form the outside it looks like the owner picked up the "Bumper Book of Chateau Cliches" (or maybe "Chateaux pour les Nuls"), couldn't decide what to have so went for the lot.

There is no doubting though - it is very pretty, and is well worth at least half a day of anyone's time. Being so close to Villandry they would make perfect partners if you only had one day to spend in the Loire Valley and wanted to see a pair of "proper" chateaux. Lucky Pat and Geoff even managed to travel to Azay le Rideau in Célestine, which made the day even more stylish.

You will notice I haven't abbreviated the name to just "Azay". This is to distinguish it from Azay-le-Ferron, which is about 10km from us in Preuilly sur Claise (and many other Azays as well). We have been told that Azay is Old French for "Assay" (although online all the dictionaries seem to say old French is "assai"), and thus indicates that mining or the assaying of metals took place in the area.

Simon

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Special Issue Party Post (with lots of pics)

Friday was Simon's fiftieth birthday, so we had a party in the orchard with about 25 people attending.

The menu was:

Chilli Prawns

***

Curry Goat with Rice'n'Peas
Australian Truckstop Style Hamburgers
Herb Sausages
A selection of salads - carottes rapées, salade piemontaise, pickled beetroot, potato salad, lettuce, cucumber

***

Cheeses - Coulommiers, Cheddar

***

Build Your Own Pavlova

To our surprise, everyone had helpings of Chilli Prawns and Curry Goat, and most people had a hamburger with sliced pickled beetroot, fried onion, lettuce and cucumber in a bun. The sausages, which I had bought in case we had French guests who didn't like strong food, were hardly touched. The build your own pavlova, with meringues from one of Preuilly's boulangeries / pâtisseries was a great hit too, as was the cheddar. I think the novelty of the very un-French food appealed to everyone.

Much of the conversation during the evening revolved around food, and so we learned that:

  • crême crue is different to crême fraîche not just because it is not pasturised, but because it has a higher fat content.
  • goat is not widely eaten in France, but is popular in some places at Easter time, when mild flavoured kid meat is prepared with sorrel (oseille) and wild garlic (ail vert).
  • Duck à l'Orange is considered by French people to be an Italian dish, made with sweet oranges. The traditional French accompaniment for duck is bigarades, bitter oranges.*
Laurent, beetroot wrangling. Behind him, from front to back, left to right, Nicole C, Anne, Marie-Dominique, John, Jill, Nicole G.
Alex, with Anneloes and Amélie attached like limpets.
Jean-Pierre adding the final touches to his masterpiece. In the background (left to right), Sylvie, Pierre-Yves, Valérie and Stéphane.
Jean-Pierre gives a botany and entomology lesson to Isabella (out of picture to left), explaining how some insects bite into the 'throat' of a honeysuckle flower to get at the nectar, thus bypassing the pollen on the anthers at the 'mouth' so that the flower does not get pollinated and so does not set seed. In the background (left to right), Simon, Sylvie, Pierre-Yves.
Left to right, Geoff, Jill, Simon.
Pat.
Left to right, Simon, Sylvie, Pierre-Yves.
Left to right, Isabella, Amélie, Anneloes, Sylvie.
Left to right, Isabella, Anneloes.
Left to right, Valérie, Stéphane, Simon, Laurent, Nicole G, Marie-Dominique, Anne.
Left to right, Marie-Dominique, John, Anne, Nicole G, Martine, Jill, Jean-Michel, Simon.
The best thing was that Simon really enjoyed himself and relaxed and had fun with some wonderful friends. We are very lucky.

Susan

Thanks are due to Pat, who did all the washing up and tidying away as well as manning the barbie; Geoff, who helped set up and take down; Alex & Nicole, who lent us the barbecue; Tim and Pauline, who lent us a coolbox; Huub and Ingrid, who lent us some chairs; John, who came down the next morning to jump start our car because the battery went flat after being used to power the sound system for 6 hours.

Also everyone who gave Simon wine, cheese, saucisson, beer, books and gift vouchers and their excellent company at the party.

*see Ken's comment below

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Azay-le-Rideau - the interior

Last time we were at Azay-le-Rideau, museum staff called a wildcat strike and the château, which is a national monument in the care of the national museum service, was closed. Still, I was delighted by the detail on the stable roof and took lots of photos.

This time, I was just as delighted by the wealth of architectural and interior detail.





Susan

Friday, 23 July 2010

A Foxy Lady

Yesterday, as we returned home from a lovely day out visiting the château at Azay-le-Rideau with Uncle Geoff and Auntie Pat, we stopped off at le Louroux. As we crossed the road from the carpark to the fortified monastry a group of horse riders came ambling down the main street. The lead rider, on a big mooching Appaloosa, had a friend riding up front with her.

Apparently the fox enjoys going riding and it's all a lot of fun.

This wasn't the only horsey encounter we had at le Louroux either. Once we got into the monastry we met the Compagnie de l'Amarante, a local travelling theatre group, who were preparing to put on a show called De l'Eau Pour les Chevaux ('Water for the Horses'). One of the women introduced me to their horse, a 4 year old grey Percheron called Saline. She was out by the dovecoat grazing on the lush grass there. I was told that she pulls the small trailer they had, but the bigger traditional wooden caravan was too heavy for her.

Susan

PS Today is Simon's birthday. He's the big five oh. We are having a party this evening.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Architectural Styles

The small towns of le Grand Pressigny and Chauvigny are only about 50km apart, but one is in the Touraine and one in Poitou-Charentes.

Both have picturesque ruins of a 12th century château at the highest point in town. Stylistically the two châteaux are very similar.

Le Grand Pressigny

Chauvigny
Most of the houses in town are roofed with terracotta tiles in both places, but in le Grand Pressigny, all the tiles are flat (tuiles plates), and in Chauvigny, all the tiles are curved (tuiles canal).

Le Grand Pressigny

Chauvigny

Susan

PS Simon wrote a piece on the different styles of roof tile some time ago which you may like to refer to for further details.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Wheat

Wheat for as far as the eye can see.
The wheat harvest is in full swing here. For the past few days the background noise at our house, somewhere between a hum and a roar, has been combine harvesters all around Preuilly. They start at a quite civilised hour around 9am, but work into the night until midnight. The weather has been fine for a week, and the farmers and contract harvesters are working like fury while it lasts, so that the wheat is in the best possible condition and they can get the best price. All day long the dust they create hangs in clouds over the fields they are working in, and the sunset is red tinged. Drive anywhere and you will meet a tractor towing a huge trailer full of grain, heading towards the co-operative silo at the old railway station. A trailer load of grain is extremely heavy, so if you get stuck behind one, especially going up a hill, progress is slow. They drive right through town to get to the silo - down the main street, across the bridge. Sometimes the tractor drivers look unfeasibly young - teenagers on school holidays, helping out with the harvest (which is why school holidays are when they are).

This morning at 5am there was a thunderstorm and some good rain. Good, that is, for me and my vegetable garden, but I imagine not so good for any wheat farmer who hasn't quite got his crop in yet.

Susan

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Ceiling of St Savin

The first time we visited St Savin the ceiling was scaffolded and the painting was being restored. On subsequent visits the scaffolding was up, but in different places, until last year, where the painting was revealed in all its glory.

Last Saturday we visited and I took a couple of photos which I have stitched together, so here it is, fully resstored. Warning though - it's a biggie! (click on the picture below, then click on the picture when it opens in a new window, and it will appear bigger than fullscreen)


Simon

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Chateau at Boussay, Part II

I wrote part one over 17 months ago, but I said I would be back with better photos, and here I am!




We were at Boussay with my brother and his wife; JB and Rosie. The grounds of the chateau are open to the public, so we wandered in and took some photos. As far as I know the chateau itself is never open to the public which is a pity as it looks a really interesting building. Most of the building is 18th century, except for the round tower and the gatehouse to the left of it, which are 15th century.

The moat is fed by springs (something I found out only yesterday) and is permanently full.

Simon

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Agnes Sorel

No - not the person, but the restaurant.

We have often driven past the restaurant, which is in Genillé, and commented that Célestine would look good parked outside. Last Thursday we decided to actually stop (rather than driving past then reminding ourselves that next time...) and take a photo.

While we were there, Nicolas (the owner) came out and chatted to Susan. He and his wife have only quite recently taken over the restaurant, after working in England for 10 months, and although we have not yet eaten there we are hearing very good things about them.

Simon

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Sunflower Season

At the moment as you drive around the Touraine (and I suspect many other French regions as well) you will see a lot of sunflowers. This year it appears that sunflowers are the crop of choice: even the field above Preuilly (which is usually planted with wheat) has sunflowers this year.

On Thursday we visited Montpoupon with Elizabeth and Vic and spent quite a bit of time driving through field after field of sunflower. This isn't a hardship, as they have such a sunny disposition.

Simon

Friday, 16 July 2010

Spicy Plum Sauce

Just about now the first plums start ripening on the trees. The earliest are the 'wild' plums, hardly bigger than cherries. They are freely available along many Tourangelle walking tracks. The track that passes our orchard, for instance, has a purple leafed plum growing on the edge of the ditch just up from our gate. The plums on this tree are a lovely pinky red, with very little powdery bloom. They stay fairly hard even when ripe, and never seem to be attacked by wasps like the cultivated plums in the orchard. They make great spicy plum sauce.

Ingredients

2kg plums
16 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped or crushed
A thick piece of ginger root 6-10cm long, peeled and finely chopped or grated
¾ tsp chilli powder or a medium hot red or green chilli, finely shredded
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
1 onion, finely chopped
½ cup cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
Juice and finely shredded rind of a lime

Method

  1. Wash plums.
  2. Cut out damaged and brown bits. Cut open any you suspect of having wasp damage. If there is too much wasp grub poo around the stone, discard the plum. If the damage is minimal, just scrap out the centre.
  3. Put the plums in a large saucepan with a splash of water and bring slowly to the boil.
  4. Reduce heat a little and cook for 10 minutes until the skins burst.
  5. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little before pressing through a chinois / conical sieve into a bowl.
  6. Cook the garlic, ginger and onion in half the cider vinegar for a couple of minutes until the liquid has more or less evaporated.
  7. Add the plum pulp, chilli, soy, sugar, salt and the rest of the vinegar and bring slowly to a simmer.
  8. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent sticking.
  9. Add the lime juice and rind and simmer for a further 5 minutes.
  10. Bottle and store in the refrigerator or a very cool pantry.
  11. Leave to mature at least overnight before using on pork chops, in oriental dishes or as a dipping sauce.

Makes 1.5 - 2 litres of sauce.

You can use any mixture of wild or cultivated plums. In this case, I used ¼ wild plums, ¼ plums I bought from the market and ½ windfall plums from our orchard.

Don't substitute lemon for the lime, although you could use finely shredded lemon grass instead.

For a more barbeque-y flavour, add ½ - 1 tsp allspice; for a more oriental flavour add ½ - 1 tsp five spice powder.

Susan

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Walnut Witches Brew

This year I won't be making any walnut witches brew, because none of my young walnut trees will have nuts this year. They got caught by the late frost. Two of them didn't even come in to leaf until this month! Even the big old walnut just outside the orchard does not have any nuts forming.

At this time of year I should be thinking about picking the green walnuts for pickling and making into liqueur de noix. Traditionally they are harvested in mid- to late July. You have to catch the fruit before the nutshell inside has got woody. The green fruits are fairly tough all the same, and you have to hack them to bits with a cleaver.

Green walnuts.
Liqueur de noix is an infusion of chopped up green walnuts in vodka with sugar, spices and lemon zest. Walnuts contain a strong dye which reacts with the air to stain yellow and then progressively darker and darker until it is a very dark brown. Most instructions for making liqueur de noix carry on alarmingly about how the walnut juice will permanently stain everything it touches, but my experience is that if you just wash everything immediately after making the concoction, there isn't a problem. Cherries are much worse in my opinion, in terms of staining your fingers, clothing and spraying the wall with juice that doesn't come off paintwork.

Chopped green walnuts.

At first, a pleasant enough looking brew...

...but after 24 hours the chemical reaction causing the dark colour is well under way.
After three days it looks like you are habouring some sort of nuclear waste product, with the green walnut skins glowing lime green through the British racing green of the liquid.

By Christmas time it can be filtered and put in bottles ready for consumption. The longer you let it mature the smoother it becomes. Depending on your walnuts it will be more or less nutty, often with a touch of bitterness. It goes well on vanilla icecream and I often use it in any recipe I think is robust enough to take it, where the original recipe calls for amaretto.

Susan