Saturday, 31 March 2012

Lait ribot

Periodically I have a conversation with someone - usually American - about what one can use as a substitute for buttermilk. Generally we agree that we have never, or very rarely, seen buttermilk available on the supermarket shelves, yet it is an ingredient that certain recipes traditionally contain and our mothers or grandmothers seem to have used reasonably regularly. We agree that the easiest substitute is natural yoghurt thinned with milk, but we occasionally use milk that has gone sour or faiselle (like cottage cheese) that is past its best, just like our mothers and grandmothers would have. We suppose that the other possibility is using drinking yoghurt, but since none of us ever buy the stuff, we've never tried it. I've also used the whey saved from mozzarella cheese as a substitute for buttermilk in cakes.

Just recently I wanted to make soda bread and it suddenly dawned on me that I had read a post on Clotilde Dusoulier's excellent food blog Chocolate and Zucchini, yonks ago, about a Breton product called lait ribot. I see it in the supermarket as a regular item, in the refrigerated section along with the fresh milk, and my memory of Clotilde's description was that if it wasn't buttermilk, it was a very reasonable substitute.

Using the other half of the lait ribot to make cornpone.
It turns out that lait ribot is indeed a type of buttermilk. In the old days it was the traditional product, which was the creamy but low fat liquid left in the churn after you have made butter, deliberately fermented to increase its keeping qualities. (Lait is the French word for milk and ribot from the Breton word for a churn). These days the by-products of industrial scale butter making go into industrial scale 'not butter' spread making, along with various vegetable oils. Cultured buttermilk, or lait ribot, is now manufactured in its own right by adding a lactobacillus to milk to lightly ferment it, making it go slightly sour and curdled ie essentially, drinking yoghurt. Many French people would dry retch at the thought of drinking a glass of milk, but they adore a glass of lait ribot, especially if they are holidaying in Brittany.


Friday, 30 March 2012

A Little Piece of Australia

Many moons ago (28, to be more or less precise) we were in Australia, bought an extendable Hills clothesline and brought it back to France in our largest suitcase. There were a couple of reasons for this - the main one being how flimsy European clotheslines are by comparison.

Once the clothesline was home we discovered that the wall we intended to attach it to wasn't up to the job, so we had Alex build a frame to tie the wall back to. Once that was done Simon realised he had to dig a 3' (about 1 metre) deep hole, fill it with concrete and stick a post in it. Having done some digging in the garden previously he knew what he was in for and the metal post became somewhat of an elephant in the room.

At the end of last year we remembered that Niall and Antoinette had given us their builder - Ken Blomeley's - contact number and that he might have a post-hole digger, so we rang on the off chance. He said it wasn't worth doing by machine and duly dug the hole by hand (more or less). He also solved the problem that had been niggling us, of how to set the pole so it was good and stable but still be easily removed.

Ken and his petrol powered destroyer
Making sure it's all square
First task for me (once the concrete had set, the weather had improved, and I actually left winter's torpor behind) was fixing the cabinet to the wall. Drilling the holes through the brick was easy, as was the placement of the wooden block behind the bricks to receive the screws. Unfortunately I tried to overtighten the second of the screws, resulting in tearing out the hole so the screw wouldn't fasten. I got around this problem by applying method 2, one of the hammer in screws that we bought to fit the back door. This is holding admirably, but next time I am in a hardware store I will buy a very long and quite thick screw so I can put it through the brick and into the frame, rather than relying on what was previously an unreliable wall.

The next worry was whether our drill would cope with drilling through the metal pole to fix the receiving bracket, but that all went off without a hitch. It all worked perfectly and so now we have the summer drying solution installed as well as recently having solved the winter laundry problem.

The post is in, the cabinet is attached to the wall
... and it works!!

Susan & Simon

Thursday, 29 March 2012

'They said Cheverny!'

As French language learners we love the Tintin animated cartoons and we've enjoyed one of the 1960s French films based on the characters created by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. We have a nice connection here in the Loire area, because Captain Haddock's home is based on the central block of the chateau of Cheverny, and they have housed a Tintin museum in the back of the stables for some years. Now with the new Spielberg movie released, Cheverny is hoping to get lots of new Tintin enthusiasts through the gates.

This poster was hanging in the entry hall.
Captain Haddock, Tintin and Milou (Snowy) are walking towards Moulinsart (Marlinspike Hall). 'What's this?!' exclaims Captain Haddock. 'Billions of blistering blue barnacles! What bashi-bazouk has added two wings to my chateau?' 'Ah yes, Captain', says Tintin, 'So you didn't know that the chateau of Cheverny served as Hergé's model for your ancestral chateau?' Off to the side a smugly superior Snowy mutters 'What an ignoramus the captain is. Even I knew that!' and over on the right the detectives Dupont et Dupond (Thomson and Thompson) are saying 'They said Cheverny', 'Not only that: they said Moulinsart.'

It's all very silly, but the cartoons are a fun way to improve your French comprehension, and Cheverny is a great day out whether you are a Tintin fan or not.


Wednesday, 28 March 2012

They Call Me the Hunter

Even those with only a passing interest in what's going on above their heads will recognise Orion's belt: the three stars almost in a line that seem to jump out of the night sky at you.

When I was taking photos of Venus and Jupiter I also aimed my camera at other parts of the sky. Most of the photos weren't what you would call obvious, but this was:

Playing around in Photoshop (in this case that means upping the contrast) you get all sorts of photo noise, but you also get a lot more stars. You can also see the track of an aircraft as it flies over.

I have drawn in the lines that makes this a hunter. All I can think is that 5,000 years ago it was all more obvious.

And as we're talking about The Hunter you can have this, free.


Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Variable Burnet Moth - a photo series

To learn more about this lovely day flying moth, go to the Burnet moths page on Loire Valley Nature.


Monday, 26 March 2012

The End of the Line?

The railway line from Port-de-Piles to Tournon-Saint-Martin was opened to traffic in 1885-1886, reaching Preuilly sur Claise on 16 May 1886, and closing to passenger traffic on 27 June 1940. In 2005, just after the line was refurbished, it was closed to freight traffic as well. Prior to that it had been used to transport kaolin from le Blanc to Descartes, with two trains a day using the line in 1992.

The station in Preuilly was recently for sale, but whether it sold or the online advert has just been withdrawn (which is quite common) I don't know. We have heard rumours that the line has been delisted recently, which would explain why at Humeau and along the road between Humeau and Chaumussay the Stop signs at the level crossings have been removed, and the railway line bitumened over when the road was resurfaced.

This will come as a great disappointment to CFTST - Le Chemin de Fer Touristique Sud Touraine, who were hoping to open at least a part of the line for a tourist train. It also comes as a disappointment to me, because I would love a tourist train in the area - especially as the line between Le Grand Pressigny and Tournon is particularly scenic, following the Claise river for quite some distance before diving off through forest between Bossay sur Claise and Tournan.

I wonder what will happen to the classy
cast iron signage along the route
I hope this doesn't mean the end of the railway, but I fear it might.


Sunday, 25 March 2012

A Very Special Spring Wildflower

Yesterday I published a post on spring wild flowers, but quite by chance, on Friday, we happened across a species that is possibly the most special of all for this time of year. My friend Jean (botanist, male, French, not blogger, female, English) emailed me to say that les fritillaires ont commencé leur floraison dans la Vienne. I was delighted to be able to respond that oui, et au bord de l'Indre.

Snakeshead Fritillary Fritillaris meleagris, known as la fritillaire pintade in French, survives in a few dozen places along the Loire and its tributaries, and another dozen in the Brenne. It is a plant of old fashioned water meadows, that is to say, rich pasture along riverbanks which flood annually in the winter. This is a very rare habitat nowadays, and so the plant is also very rare in the wild.

The distinctive chequerboard patterned petals look as if they have been folded into some sort of origami box. If you see one there is no mistaking it for anything else. Our chance discovery of them on the islands in the river at Pont de Ruan is our first sighting of them in the wild. They are available as a garden plant and I have grown them, but sadly lily beetles are very partial to them and they have not survived in our garden.


Saturday, 24 March 2012

Spring Wild Flowers

For those of you who found our previous photograph of the first cowslips all a bit unsatisfactory, here is a selection of wildflowers photographed over the last week or so to make up for it.

These wild Grape Hyacinth Muscari neglecta were photographed on a roadside bank on the way out of Preuilly on the Chaumussay road. We've also got a couple of little patches in our orchard, and they are native to this area, not garden escapees. The newly emerged Violet Carpenter Bees have been foraging enthusiastically at them for several days.

Cowslip Primula veris, in flower and in focus, on a roadside bank near Chaumussay.

All of a sudden the Sweet Violets Viola odorata are everywhere. The purple form were out first, but a few days ago the white form appeared in the orchard all through the grass. The leaves are tiny and hardly visible - they will get bigger as the season progresses. Many of the white flowered violets have a lovely lavender wash this year, like this one. These too are native to the area and not necessarily garden escapees.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Trams in Tours

For the past two years driving in Tours has been made more difficult by the construction of the tramway. Tours had trams from 1877, but these had gone by 1949 to be replaced by trolleybuses. Fifty years later it was decided that getting rid of trams may have been a mistake, and planning started on a new tram line which for much of its length followed the old route.

All this means that the main road leading into the city from the south and through the city and across the main non-autoroute bridge has been a virtual no-go area whilst the road was dug up and the tracks laid.

The new tram line is due to open after September 2013, with rolling stock (i.e the trams) to be delivered in July 2012 for testing. However, yesterday morning we followed a couple of trams through Tours, and we're hoping this means they are ahead of schedule.


Thursday, 22 March 2012

Red Squirrel - a photo essay

For maximum cuteness, click on the photos. They will enlarge into a new window. To learn more about Red Squirrels go to the species account in Loire Valley Nature.


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Taille tôt, taille tard:

Rien ne vaut la taille de mars !

The saying here is 'Prune early, prune late: nothing beats pruning in March'. Strictly speaking it refers to the all important vines, but home gardeners will quote it at every opportunity at this time of year.

Tree pruning in particular is in full swing in Preuilly and the other day I spotted the father of one of our neighbour's up a ladder with loppers and a hatchet. And yes, he is climbing a tree whilst wearing rubber boots!

This particular tree is a Common Lime (Linden) Tilia x europaea. It is pruned like this every two years, keeping it just the right size to provide shade over the small terrace it stands next to. Non-Europeans are usually horrified at this type of highly interventionist style of gardening. They don't like to see nature so rigidly controlled and find the pollarded branches ugly.

The prunings are neatly bundled
and saved for next year's kindling.
The counter to this is that this tree remains manageable because it is regularly pruned. It is healthy too, because it never develops a huge head to be buffetted by the wind and drain all the moisture the roots can suck up. It will live maybe three times as long as an unpollarded tree, and in the summer its green lollipop shape is ideal for the smaller garden.


If you are interested, I wrote more extensively on the practice of pollarding trees a couple of years ago here.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Annual Coucou VI

This was taken yesterday on the Loches bypass as we whizzed past in Célestine. Trust me, there's a coucou in there, and what's more, it's the very first of the season for us.

For other, clearer shots you can check here, here, here, here, and here. We like a good tradition in these parts, we do.


Monday, 19 March 2012

Jiggity Jig


When we arrived at Jean-Louis' on Saturday afternoon, things didn't look good. When Célestine's restoration was done there were one or two corners cut: nothing serious, but things like nuts and bolts not being greased, and old and almost dead wires being reused instead of being replaced. This meant that the process of putting everything together again was taking longer than it should have.

We hadn't reckoned, however, with the powers of a man on a mission. By 7.30 we were on the road, and the everything was feeling tight and precise.

First thing to do was to give some love
That always makes her smile
I don't recommend you ever break a gearbox in your Traction Avant, but if you do, we know the right man.


Sunday, 18 March 2012


...or what to do if the cabbage situation in the next valley gets out of hand, as it did recently.

Garbure is a classic French peasant dish from the south west. There are as many recipes as there are households. Traditionally it was made in a big pot suspended over an open fire on a crémaillere*. The pot just stays on the fire all winter, being topped up as the tide lowers periodically. Root vegetables and cabbage were combined with beans and meats to produce a thick nourishing stewp (as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would call it). It is impossible to make in small quantities. I made it in a 10 litre boiler and only just got it all in. The quantity will serve 16.

Bringing it to the boil on Big Berta before transfering to the wood stove.
To start ours I first 'confitted' some duck legs. These are lightly cured by rubbing a mixture of salt, herbs and spices into the meat and leaving over night or even over 2 nights. Then they were put into a pan of melted duck fat and cooked extremely slowly (poached in the fat, not fried) for 4 hours on our wood stove. After cooking they were taken out of the fat and put aside to cool. It's easiest to cook them the day before you want to cook and eat the garbure.

See! You'd never know it's got 10 tonne of cabbage in it...
Then diced cured belly pork was fried in the boiler, joined by diced onion and crushed garlic. Once they are soft, add diced root vegetables such as celeriac (celeri rave), carrots (carottes), potatoes (pommes de terre), turnip (navets), swede (rutabaga) and leek (poireau) along with copious quantities of cabbage, a large can of white beans and pieces of meat such as lumps of confit de canard, shredded chicken meat and roughly chopped gizzards (gésiers) . Tuck in a bouquet garni and cover with stock. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for an hour.



*a house-warming party in France is called la pendaison de crémaillere (='hanging the chimney hook', indicating that you are settled in and ready to cook and receive guests).

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Clavichords and Harpsichords

While we were in Paris in February we took the opportunity to visit the Cité de la Musique, with its museum dedicated to music making.

The first gallery is early keyboards and these are just some of the instruments that caught our eye. These ones are all clavichords and harpsichords I think, but I don't really understand the technicalities - for a quick lesson see here.

The museum catalogue is online here if you are interested and can read French.

A pair of folding harpsichords by Jean Marius.
Wikipedia has a very comprehensive entry on folding harpsichords, featuring these very examples. Apparently making them portable meant compromising the sound quality and musicians are generally rude about them. They are called clavecin brisé in French.

Italian harpsichord from Bologne.
Made in 1677 and decorated with ivory and engraved mother of pearl it was ideal for accompanying a singer. The exterior is a trompe l'oeil, painted to fool you into thinking it is pietra dura (inlaid semi precious stones).

A table top harpsichord by Domenico da Pesaro.
Small, neat and not nearly as ostentatious as most of the others, this instrument was made in Venice in 1543.

The Lépante clavichord.
Although this instrument is called the Lépante clavichord, not much is known for sure about it. It is probably 16th century and probably Italian - although it might be German. The somewhat unusual choice of lid underside decoration is possibly a depiction of the naval battle of Lepanto, fought between a coalition of European Catholic states and the Ottoman Empire, off the coast of Greece in 1571. The outcome of the battle prevented the Ottomans invading Italy and dominating the Mediterranean. It was also the last major battle fought using galleys and caught the popular imagination of the time.

Do you reckon Hans Ruckers made this one?
The Ruckers family were based in Antwerp and made harpsichords for several centuries. Their instruments are highly regarded for their beautiful resonant tone and the family's methods of construction are still used today by instrument makers and restorers.


Friday, 16 March 2012

Out of my Orbit

Every now and then I point my camera to the sky and click. Sometimes I do it with more deliberation that at other times, and Wednesday evening was one of those deliberate times.

For a couple of weeks now we have been watching this spectacular show, one obviously a planet the other something else, maybe. I guessed wrongly that it was Mercury and a star, but eventually curiousity got the better of me and I looked it up. The program I use for these things is Stellarium, which is quite frankly brilliant - and free. All you need to do is download and install the program, then set the coordinates for where you are (getting these from Google Maps or wikipedia is easiest). For Preuilly the co-ordinates are 46°51′20″N 0°55′46″E.

This is what Stellarium showed me for 19.47 Wednesday evening.And this is my photo, taken at 19.47 Wednesday evening.
The photo is a 13 second exposure at 100ASA, taken with my Minolta Dimage 7i, tripod mounted and manually focussed to infinity. I suppose I could have driven out to where there are no street lights and we would have got the background stars, but then we would have missed out on the atmospheric buildings.


Thursday, 15 March 2012

That Was Quick!!

A couple of days ago Susan and I were at the "do we need the fire lit" stage, and deciding yes. A week ago there was no choice to be made, and we were heating the house all day.

On Tuesday evening we let the fire go out, and haven't even thought about lighting it again. Even more startling, yesterday we had all of the windows open airing the house. The temperature was 21ºC : compare that with -20ºC but five weeks ago (for our North American cousins that is 74ºF difference). As I sit here typing the first blowfly of the season is trying to beat itself to death on the window, and the collared doves on the rooftop opposite are getting frisky.

The garden furniture may still be under wraps,
but it was even warm enough to sit in the shade
It is predicted to be this warm for a few days yet, before settling down to a more normal March weather pattern (i.e. rainy). In the meantime we have caught up with the laundry because drying it outside is so much quicker, thoughts have turned to painting because I can do it outside if necessary, and sitting in the garden isn't the act of a masochist.

Spring? I'm ready for it.


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Gardening on the Ocean Floor

With this spell of warm dry weather we've been having I am madly digging to prepare our vegetable garden. The soil here is full of degraded chalk and limestone. Mostly it's just rocks made out of little sea creatures or bits of creatures too small to identify. Every now and then though, whole chunks of fossilised coral sponge emerge from the earth.

The coral sponges in our garden are easily recognisable.
In the distant past this area was under a warm shallow ocean. It advanced and retreated several times until finally, millions of years ago, it retreated never to return and leaving us with what geologists call the Paris Basin. Some of the Paris Basin is still under water - for instance the English Channel (aka la Manche). Other parts, such as south-east England and northern and central France are now high and dry.

The soil here is chalky and the rocks limestone because of this marine legacy. The sea left behind the coral sponges in our potager and the stone our house is made from. Here in Preuilly we are about 90 m above sea level, on the southern edge of the Paris Basin. To our south and beyond the Brenne to the east the land starts to rise towards the Massif Central.


Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Medical Desert

Apparently we are very lucky in Preuilly - we have un médicin généraliste (a GP) with a surgery in town. He does house calls in the morning and surgery in the afternoon. You used to be able to just turn up in the afternoon between 14.00 and 16.00 or make an appointment if you wanted to see him after 4pm, but now you have to make an appointment whenever you want to see him. The surgery used to be closed on Thursdays but now he has a female locum who runs the surgery on his day off.

Reserved parking spot for the GP in Preuilly, opposite the surgery.
According to the local newspaper, the Renaissance Lochoise of Wednesday 7 to Tuesday 13 March 2012, GPs are getting older (43% of GPs in France are 55 years old or over), and young practitioners fewer and anyway they want to work in the big cities and prefer to be salaried rather than self-employed. The paper says that if you are going to get sick, try to do it in the Ile de France (the Paris region) or PACA (Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azure region) and definitely not in Picardie or Centre (that's where we are). PACA has 370 GPs per hundred thousand of population compared to Centre's 242 GPs. The national average is 306 GPs per hundred thousand people.

The Conseil général d'Indre et Loire is worried. We are a very rural département and this exacerbates the problem, especially in the Touraine du Sud (that's where we are!) It's all very well promising universal healthcare to all regardless of financial circumstances, but we have to be able to provide it geographically as well, says the remarkably aptly named president of the Conseil général, Marisol Touraine.

The solution the Conseil is working on is to establish a number of new multi-disciplinary health centres in Saint-Flovier, Descartes, Villeloin-Coulangé, Genillé and Ligueil. The doctors who come to work in these new centres will be employed by the local communes (municipalities). One of the possible models, at Le Véron / Avoine, cost 2.24 million euros to set up (funded by the government at national, regional, departmental and municipal levels) and employs 22 medical professionals, including 6 GPs, 3 dentists, 6 nurses and 2 physiotherapists.


Monday, 12 March 2012

Pine Processionary

The big white balls of silk you see decorating the sunny side of pine trees, from the south of France to Paris, are not leftover Christmas baubles. They are the communal 'nests' of caterpillars who nightly devour the pine needles, following each other in single file along a silk track. You need to be careful of them and observe from afar, as they are very irritant. The older caterpillars are capable of releasing their irritant hairs into the air around them, and the hairs persist a long time in abandoned nests.

Each hair is a tiny harpoon which contains an extremely irritant protein called thaumetopoeine. If you scratch or rub the hairs into your skin they release the substance. Often the effect is mild and passes quickly (especially if you take a hot shower) but it can be serious if you get the hairs in your eye, breath them in, are allergic or are repeatedly exposed. For serious exposure you should consult a doctor. Horses and dogs are particularly sensitive to thaumetopoeine and you need to be on the alert for any signs of distress in your pets. Also be careful handling your pets, as they can collect the caterpillar hairs in their own coats, bringing them inside and transferring them to your hands and arms if you pick the animals up or pat them.

Certain fellow bloggers may recognise this
tree with its silk nests...
Pine Processionaries Thaumetopoea pityocampa (or les Processionnaires du pin) owe their English and French names to the remarkable behaviour of the caterpillars. The adult moths are good flyers, but only live a short time, as they do not eat at this stage. Everywhere they occur they are kept under surveillance and control of their numbers is attempted, as they can cause considerable damage to commercial forestry. A single colony can eat 2kg of needles, and it only takes 4 or 5 colonies for a 20 year old tree to be denuded. The consequence is that the tree can't photosynthesise, so it doesn't grow, and repeated defoliations therefore have an economic impact. The trees also become more likely to succumb to other stresses, such as drought or wood boring beetle larvae.

They have been present for a long time in the south of France (except for higher altitude locations such as Ventoux) but for some decades now they have been moving north and gaining height. Now they can be found in the south of Brittany and the north of Burgundy, although there is a mysterious lacuna around Orléans. The progression has been rapid - about 50 km every decade - seemingly associated with climate change and the practice of preferentially planting pine trees along autoroutes. In this way, it is predicted that Belgium and England could be reached, up to a latitude where the days are too short to allow the caterpillar to develop.

A file of over 70 Pine Processionary caterpillars
crossing a farm track in April last year.
The caterpillars eat all types of conifers, including cedars, Douglas fir and larch. The female lays her eggs on the trees which get the most light. If the plantation is mixed, she will target Black Austrian Pine over cedars. The adult moths emerge in July and August and can fly as far as 25 km away. They are very dull grey night flying creatures.

The newly hatched caterpillars immediately spin themselves a lightweight little silk 'pre-nest'. They leave this shelter every night (unless it is very cold) and feast until the early morning. Fabre describes them following their silken trail, and we now know that they impregnate the trail with a pheromone which tells them and their brethren how old the trail is, how often it is used and so on.

Well nose to tail here, but even if they get
separated they can follow the pheromone trail.
At the beginning of winter each group of a hundred or so caterpillars construct a big nest on a twig well exposed to the sun. This nest is a double layer of silk strands, without an opening. To come and go the caterpillars work their way through the matrix of strands without cutting a hole in the structure. The nest acts as a sun trap and the interior can reach over 20°C more than the outside. The caterpillars spend all day huddled together in the top of the nest, whilst their droppings accumulate in the lower part.

From February to May they start coming down from the trees and forming the processions they are known for. A caterpillar destined to become a female moth will descend, followed by all her brothers and sisters, nose to tail, to search the ground for a suitable spot to pupate. At the end of an expedition, which can take 5 days, she will stop, the troop will regroup around her and they will all dig themselves into the earth 5-20 cm deep. Underground, each caterpillar spins its cocoon and goes into diapause. This state of suspended animation can last from anywhere between a few days and 5 years.

The rash caused on a moderately sensitive person after she picked
up a cat which was carrying the caterpillar hairs in its fur.
Where there are large plantations a biological control is now being used. A bacteria* is being aerially sprayed onto the trees to kill the caterpillars. For isolated trees, mechanically cutting the nests out and burning them is the most effective. Although not really recommended (or strictly legal) some people deal with the problem by shooting the nests with buckshot. If they don't succeed in bringing the nest down it doesn't matter because the wounded caterpillars become infected and transmit the infection to the others. Once they are down on the ground, pouring boiling water over the caterpillars will kill them, but there will still be hairs floating down from nests and in the surroundings. No method of control is guaranteed however, because of the long diapause.

At the moment there is a lot of research going on to develop survey methods, improve control and find out more about less problematic biological controls such as the role certain birds can play (e.g. tits).


*The bacteria is Bacillus thuringiensis. To be affected the caterpillar must eat the bacteria, which produces a poison on exposure to the gut fluids. This bacteria can kill many types of caterpillar, not just the target species, so must be used in an informed and careful manner.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Vanille Réunion

I love vanilla, but to buy the pods in the supermarket is barely affordable - they work out at nearly €2 each for the cheapest brand. So naturally I was very interested to see a stall with vanilla products at extremely affordable prices at the Foire au Safran in Preuilly this February.

The pods looked good - rather like oiled leather- and they smelled good, but it seemed difficult to believe that they were less than a euro each. I quizzed the stallholder, who said that he dealt directly with the producer on Réunion and because the vanilla was not going through multiple hands and getting fancy packaging, he could price very keenly compared to les grandes surfaces. The vanilla on display was the harvest of 2010 he told me, and should keep till 2014. I complained to him that very often the keeping quality of supermarket vanilla pods is poor and they go mouldy in the packaging before I've even opened it. He said the best solution was to individually wrap the pods and freeze them. Half an hour on the kitchen bench and they have thawed ready for use, according to him. Somewhat to my surprise, this turns out to be true and they freeze and thaw quickly and conveniently, with no appreciable loss of quality. (Much of the advice I have found online says you must never freeze vanilla, but no one is going into any real detail about why and I can't help wondering if they are all just mindlessly regurgitating the standard advice. I've also discovered that the mould I've seen so often on vanilla beans might actually be crystalised flavour compounds and not something that will ruin my vanilla.)

Pimento and vanilla on a map of Réunion.
He had a number of different vanilla products - powder, essences and paste as well as the pods. In the end I settled on a conservative purchase of a pack of 6 pods for €5, after considering getting 25 for €20 and/or some paste. I also bought a €2 little packet of pimento (allspice) berries, poivre de jamaique in French, which I have found impossible to source elsewhere in France.

The vanilla seller is called Dany Blot and he is based at Montlivault in 41. His mobile number is 06 85 90 86 59. I recommend keeping an eye out for him at the specialist markets in the area.

The island of Réunion is a Dom-Tom. That is to say, it is a French overseas administrative region, a Département d'Outre-Mer - Territoire d'Outre-Mer, and as such, part of France politically, sending representatives to sit in the National Assembly and the Senate, with the same status as Centre and Indre et Loire, the région and département we live in. It is situated in the Indian Ocean, between Mauritius and Madagascar and is the farthest outpost of the Eurozone. Quite a few local people here have strong connections to the island, having grown up there or visited regularly for holidays . I think at least one of our readers grew up on the island too.

Vanilla orchids have been successfully cultivated there since 1841, when a slave boy on the island called Edmond Albius developed a method of hand pollinating the flowers so they could be grown commercially outside their native Mexico and away from the single species of stingless bee that pollinates them in the wild. As a result, the variety of vanilla grown most in the world is known as Bourbon, after the island's pre-Revolutionary name, and Madagascar, Réunion and the Comoros are the world's major producers. The labour intensive need for hand pollination continues to this day and is one of the the reasons the spice is so expensive. Vanilla pods are often called vanilla beans, and in French they are gousses de vanille.