Tuesday 30 November 2010

Lightweight Champagne

From this year champagne is lighter. Each new empty bottle now weighs 835g, down 65g from the old standard of 900g. It is one way for the Comité interprofessionel du vin de Champagne to reduce carbon emissions. By 2020, all the bottles will be thinner.

The only bottle of champagne in the house (below).
As loyal Tourangeaux, we prefer the much better value
Vouvray or Crémant de Loire.
The Champagne region isn't the only one taking this step. For several years, individual wine makers have been choosing thinner bottles, but it is certainly easier if an entire AOC does it simultaneously.

It is a response to consumer demand. Customers these days want to know what the environmental footprint of a product is and lighter bottles means less energy and materials consumed in manufacturing and in transportation. Maybe it also means reduced costs which can be passed on to consumers, but this does not always follow.


Monday 29 November 2010

Wolves in the Touraine

Until the last couple of hundred years, the people of the Touraine lived with four great fears - war, epidemic disease, famine and wolves.

Wolves were top of the food chain in the countryside, roaming around farms, snatching dogs and children, attacking people walking through the woods, devouring sheep and shepherds. Today it seems unbelievable, but the parish records abound in accounts of wolf attack in the Touraine.

This enormous wolf (below), about 2m from nose to tail tip, was actually shot in Poland, but now hangs in the dining room in the château de Montrésor.
For example, in 1678, at Saint-Benoît, the body of a 12 year old girl was discovered near la Maison-Rouge. 'She had been taken twenty paces from the aforementioned house and taken away by a ferocious beast who had partially devoured her...'

The following year, in the same parish, a 6 year old boy was seized by a wolf and taken away into the forest. A week later he was found: 'The animal had eaten all of the head and body down to the navel'.

A few days later, again in Saint-Benoît, ' some small bones which were said to be those of Antoine Bezanceau, aged 18' were buried. 'He was recognised thanks to his doublet and hat'.

Saint-Benoît was a community surrounded by woodland, so it seems natural that wolves chose to frequent the area, but even open countryside was dangerous and could have wolves present. For instance, at La Chapelle-sur-Loire, in the middle of the flood plain, Catherine Parfait, aged 17, is recorded as having been 'strangled by a ferocious beast' in 1693.

The same year, at Restigné, two brothers and a child were 'devoured by the beast'. Twelve people perished in the same circumstances at Benais and seven, including a mother and son, at Bourgueil.

There are similar records from 1701 to 1716 for Saint-Nicolas and Restigné. It seems to have been accepted as part of normal life - the priest at Benais wrote in 1713: 'Burial of Noëlle Favereau, aged 12, devoured by one of those ferocious beasts who eat the shepherd boys and girls this year'.

The wolves pressed even as far as the gates of Tours. The records for Fondettes in 1695 reveal: 'This day, we buried the head of François Marionné, aged 7, devoured by wolves in the coppice of Bois-Jésus. The said wolves have devoured many other children in our parish and in that of Saint-Cyr in the last 15 days...'

When a wolf was infected with rabies, the danger was even worse. No vaccine existed, and anyone bitten was condemned to atrocious suffering, after which they died. In the Touraine one of the most famous cases was the she-wolf of Cravant, who, in 1814, bit 21 people before being slaughtered. No one survived.

These days, wolves have disappeared from the Touraine. Between 1815 and 1870 the lieutenants de louveterie were employed to control the wolf population. They organised methodical beats of the countryside, assisted by skilful peasants and local squires, whose passion for hunting was well known. Attracted by a bounty of 18 francs for a she-wolf, 12 francs for a male and 3 for a cub, they were happy to spend long nights on lookout. Wolves were massacred by the hundreds, by the thousands, and disappeared. One of the last succumbed in 1879. A butcher from Cheillé hid every night in a clump of trees and attracted the wolf by calling into his sabot to imitate a she-wolf. The approaching wolf received a volley of buckshot and fell dead amongst the ferns.

Nowadays, you no longer hear the cry which in the olden days would send the people into a panic: Au loup ! Au loup !


Sunday 28 November 2010

Preuilly, 1933 Style

At the moment there is a huge project underway to find, catalogue and digitise family movies from the Centre region in France. This is not only highly important in terms of social history, but the results are amazingly interesting and fun.

The following film was shot in Preuilly and the Brenne in 1933. Anyone who knows the town will instantly recognise the setting.

The rest of the archive can be found here. Not all the films are from Centre, but all are interesting, some are significant, and some just plain fascinating.

Just don't spend the whole day watching them!


ps. it snowed yesterday, but not enough to be worth photographing. We had to find inside the house things to do.

Saturday 27 November 2010

La Banque Alimentaire

Yesterday when I went to the supermarket I was waylaid at the door and asked if I wanted to contribute to la Banque Alimentaire (the Food Bank). I was happy to have an opportunity to do so and took one of their shopping bags. The way it works is that you get a bag as you go in to do your regular shopping. As you go around you can add items to the bag, which you pay for at the check out with your own stuff and then give to the Banque Alimentaire volunteers on your way out. They ask that you mainly give preserved foods, oil, pasta, rice, sugar, coffee or chocolate and thank you for your support.

This is what they collected in the time I was in the supermarket (below). Almost every customer gave a couple of items. The poster says 'A small portion of your shopping can save a family'.

La Banque Alimentaire was set up in 1984 and acts as a hub for the collection of food aid for the those on low incomes in France. They do not get involved in the distribution, which is done by other well-known organisations like the Red Cross, but they do try to ensure a balanced and nutritious diet for those in need. Most (70%) of the recipients are trying to survive on less than €1000 a month.

They were collecting yesterday and today in 120 points of sale across the Touraine. A recent enquiry has shown that they are helping more and more people. This year they have collected and passed on 800 tonnes of food. One third of their funding is provided by the EU and French government (€150 000), a quarter by the agrifood industry, a quarter by large and medium sized shops and the rest comes from public collection days such as these. The Banque Alimentaire redistributes the produce to 60 local organisations, who in turn, give it to 8000 beneficiaries. Another collection will be held at the beginning of April, because by then their stocks will be down to almost nothing.

This year they have had quite a lot of publicity, as in the summer they moved in to new premises, twice the size of their old ones. As the paper noted - new location, new president, new refrigerated vehicles (donated by Gaz de France), new efficient methods of distribution and, alas, new needs. The number of retired people they help has remained stable, but there is a significant increase in the number of working poor who need assistance. Their unemployed beneficiaries have doubled in the last four years. These people report they are really struggling to pay their rent and energy bills. The Banque also notes an increase in family breakdowns, meaning that people are living alone and thus in a more economically precarious state.

The collection bags were interesting. The top says 'I'm aiming to be invisible. Thanks to eliminating white pigment I use less materials and energy when I'm manufactured.' The bottom says 'I am practical and tough: reuse me! Don't throw me on the ground.'


Friday 26 November 2010

Work Starts on the Kitchen (sort of...)

This is the moment Susan and I have been waiting for: the moment when we start work on the kitchen.

Of course, being this house, there are one or two issues to be sorted first, the first of which was a problem we encountered when working on the office: the window had no lintel. Five metres of brickwork resting on a badly designed wooden window frame was a problem that had to be addressed, so it was our first task yesterday to put a lintel in.

Luckily, this time we had a piece of wood that was as thick as a brick, so it was just a case of removing five bricks and cutting the wood to length, the judicious use of cement to hold it in place, and Bob's your uncle. Today we will be screwing the window frame up into the lintel, thus ensuring the window doesn't just drop out (something that was possible, if not likely).

Cutting out the bricks to make room for a lintel
More dust, as usual.
In the afternoon we started work on building the frame for the new wall. This will hide huge amounts of insulation, and the calcaire filter we have had fitted to where the town water comes into the house. We are losing about 15 inches of space on one end of the wall, but as this was unusable anyway it isn't a problem - except visually at the moment, because we can see all that space behind where the wall will be.

New Lintel (and half the wall frame) in place
Yesterday evening I spent some time using expansive mousse (the squirty can insulation stuff) to fill in cracks between the bricks, the window frame, and holes which have been drilled in the past to take pipes and cables. Today we finish the wall frame and insulate before moving on to the main kitchen wall.

This means we will be demolishing the last remnants of the previous kitchen - the sink unit has to go!


Thursday 25 November 2010

A New Walk

We haven't written about any of our countryside walks lately, the main reason being that we haven't been on any. Work on the house has taken over our lives (and I have a million other excuses as well, if you have time...)

As I suggested on Tuesday's blog, we were expecting a couple of nice days weather. As this could be our last chance of a dry walk in the country, we went out after lunch to explore some of the rural roads that aren't really marked on any map. (The walk is marked here, in green)

We started at the bibliothèque (where we saw the baby orchids) and followed the back road to le Petit Pressigny until we reached the Carroir au Loup (crossroads of the wolf!), then turned on to the rural roads that lead back to the escarpment above Preuilly.

We are really pleased we went out for a walk when we had the opportunity, as yesterday was so-so at best, and today we are forecast rain and/or snow.

The colours are really good, which surprises us. After last week's rain and wind we though that all the leaves would have been blown off the trees, but as you can see from the photos, that isn't the case.

I am not sure it will be quite so pretty tomorrow...


Wednesday 24 November 2010

Remember to Look Down

Wild Thyme Thymus serpyllum aggr (Serpolet in French).
Next to the library in Preuilly is a small area of 'lawn' on a south facing slope. It's always a delight to check it out in detail. There's not much grass there. Most of the permanent green is provided by wild thyme, still flowering even in November, and giving up its savoury scent when stepped on.

Lizard Orchid Himantoglossum hircinum (Orchis bouc in French).
Dotted amongst the thyme, clover and other low growing greenery are about 50 young Lizard Orchid leaf rosettes. They are recognisable from the other wild orchids that emerge at this time by their very broad leaves (more than 2cm across), in rosettes with more than 4 leaves. They've come up, as they do year after year, in the hopes of being able to reproduce by seed in the summer. No chance. Year after year, the council will mow them off before they flower. Can't have 40cm high weeds in the lawn, after all. I think I may have to have a word with the mayor's adjoint, and see if I can get special dispensation for them.

Club Fungi - no idea what species or what the French name is.
Joining them in this damp (and unusually mild) weather are some rather striking Club Fungi, velvety black and looking like little rabbit ears coming out of the ground. Just as we were photographing these two of our elderly women neighbours passed by on their way to the cemetery. We were promptly informed that they were no good to eat, which amused me (presumably the only reason to be interested in fungi is to establish whether it is good to eat or not...)


Tuesday 23 November 2010

Some Days are Grey

Yesterday was just one of those days that never looked like it really got going: it started misty and grey, at lunchtime it was misty and grey, and at sunset (about 6.00pm) it was... well, no different really.

It's at times like these that it is worth remembering that in a month's time the days will start getting longer, and we will be on the long path to spring again. To help remind us of this we have plants like Camelia bushes, which develop their buds late in summer, and hold the promise of next years colour all through the grey days.

And anyway - today looks like will have some sunshine.

Maybe I am a cup half full kind of guy after all.


Monday 22 November 2010

So What is a Château Then?

A good question, and one I am glad you asked.

Because the word looks sort of like "castle" (and originates from the same Latin root - castellum - via the old french chastel as castle), it would be easy to think that a château and a castle are the same thing.

Not so.

The nearest English equivalent would be a "hall", "manor house" or "country house" - somewhere where a member of the ruling classes has either their power base or what we would think of as a second home in the country. This is not to be confused with the English "stately home", which is a house which has a suite of state rooms: rooms which are set aside for use by the head of state (i.e. the King or queen).

In France, this would be a château. Thorndon Hall, Essex
This is why sometimes you see Château de Versailles (in French) as Versailles Palace (in English): the French word château covers so many things. It is also why it seems that just about everyone who owns a detached home of any sort of size in the country claims it to be a château, even though it obviously isn't a castle.

The urban equivalent is a hôtel particulier , the English equivalent being the original "town house" (a word which has since broadened its scope). Buckingham House was an example of this.

A hôtel particulier, in this case the Hôtel de Sens in Paris.


Sunday 21 November 2010

Subterranean Refuges

The Touraine is riddled with underground passages. The limestone is quarried out for building, and many houses are built literally with the contents of their cellars. That is to say, the stone is excavated on site and the remaining cavity becomes the cellar. Or if the stone was being taken from the side of a cliff, a troglodyte dwelling, where a house façade one room deep might be tacked on to the front of the galleries, which became bedrooms and storage rooms.

Some underground passage systems were constructed for a somewhat more uncomfortable reason though. In many places there is also a network of much narrower tunnels, and where the quality of the stone for building is not the criteria for digging. The past residents of the Touraine have been subjected to many violent intrusions to their daily lives - feudal disputes, the rivalry between the English and French kings, the Wars of Religion.

Looking in to a side chamber off the main tunnel
at La Celle Guenand.
If you lived in a medieval town, you were protected by big strong walls with watchtowers and ditches, controlled by drawbridges, portcullis and postgates. Only a prolonged siege and sustained attack could deliver you into the hands of the enemy. If you lived in the countryside though, you couldn't defend your humble home, and had to resort to hiding in the woods or caves. Over time, many families or small communities dug tunnels specifically designed to protect people in times of trouble.

No one really knows when these tunnel systems first appeared, but they are mentioned in Roman accounts and it is possible they began in the Iron Age and were certainly used all through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. During the Revolution they came into use again, becoming cachette du prêtre and sheltering refactory priests who refused to give up their religion. In modern times, I suppose the nearest equivalents are the trenches of the 1914-18 war or the bomb shelters of the Second World War.

The entrances are almost always difficult to find. It can be either a vertical shaft which you descend by hand / foot holds in the rock, or by a very narrow sloping gallery. The entrance itself was hidden under flat rocks and brush. The underground galleries have sudden right angle corners in order to make them easy to defend. You find deep slots which held the ends of great beams that could be inserted as barriers and almost always one or two 'cat flaps'. These were about 40cm in diameter, designed to entice an assaillant to stick his head through, only to find that he couldn't go any further and was stuck in a very dangerously undefended position.

A side chamber in the Celle Guenand system - I don't
think even a short medieval Frenchman would
have been able to stand up in here.
The most sophisticated tunnels had niches de vedettes (openings in the walls allowing the beseiged to disappear sideways) and arrow slots in the walls which divided off 'rooms' from the main access. Through them you could watch the passageway and even pick off enemies who got too close.

The rooms were generally modest in size, about 4m x 5m, supported by massive pillars and aerated by 'ducts' through the 'vaulted' roof. There would also be benches out of rock, niches for oil lamps and storage pits for provisions. If you visit one you will be struck by the atmosphere of close humidity and shadow which pervades. They must have been horrible places to spend any time, but better than being slaughtered, raped or tortured on the surface.

Each family would have a place which they had prepared. As soon as the lookouts raised the alarm, church bells rang out to let the surrounding populace know they must come in from the fields and woods, and pack enough supplies for living underground for about 8-10 days. After that the danger should have passed, and everyone would go back to their cottages. If they were lucky, the marauding knights would not have pillaged all their remaining supplies, leaving them able to subsist for the rest of the year.These galleries were not totally impregnable though and there are a number of stories of 'total war' when women and children were deliberately asphixiated by smoke directed down the tunnels.

Except for a very few examples, furniture, weapons or utensils have not been found in these subterranean refuges. It is assumed they were kept in readiness as boltholes, but that no one was well off enough to leave weapons or household goods 'just in case', and after each use they were given a thorough clean out, ready for the next time.

It's not easy to estimate how many there were in the Touraine – many are now buried, destroyed, too well disguised or never recorded and therefore unknown now. One of the best preserved and most interesting is at la Celle Guenand, and includes three storage pits. A few, such as the one at La Roche-Clermault, have graffiti, with drawings or dates (although these have been badly damaged by exposure to the air after the tunnel was opened up). The one at Pont-de-Ruan still has it's chatière ('cat-flap'). There are others at Saint-Epain, Villaines, Cheillé and La Tour-Saint-Gelin.


Saturday 20 November 2010

Cutting the Mustard

A week or so ago we came across these two deer in a field of agricultural mustard. In this case, we are told, the crop is intended as a green manure and will be ploughed in. Broadly speaking, the traditional crop rotation in the Touraine is to plant one third of the land with winter wheat in the autumn, to be harvested for bread flour early in the following summer; one third would be planted in the spring with animal feed, to be harvested in the late summer; and one third would be left fallow. I'm not sure how much the modern farms vary from these traditional practices in terms of the timing and speed of the rotations, but certainly crop rotation is taken very seriously as a means of controlling pests and diseases. Green manures are also clearly popular, and help particularly with erosion (many Tourangelle fields are sloping or undulating and therefore at risk of soil washing away).

Apparently deer are madly fond of canola and mustard flowers. This pair were wary, but unwilling to move on, even when we stopped the car to take photos out the window. They were perhaps 20m away, and continued to graze whilst keeping one eye on us. Although it is hunting season here, they were surprisingly unbothered by our presence. Who would have thought mustard flowers were worth risking your life for?


Friday 19 November 2010

Les Grues Partent

We were excited when the cranes arrived as they signal the end of winter.

Yesterday we were no less excited to see the cranes again, but this time flying south. Even though we suspect that it means that winter weather is about to arrive, it is always exciting to see large flocks of enormous birds flying in formation. Seeing the cranes here in November is quite rare, as the usual migration route just bypasses us. Maybe if you feel a real need to see cranes then Lac du Der in the Champagne-Ardenne is the place to be - a record 74 500 cranes were counted there on Sunday and yesterday the movement of over 40 000 birds flying made national TV.

Here is the report, but I'm not sure how long it will work for.


Thursday 18 November 2010

Visiting Montrésor

We have visited the village of Montrésor a number of times, but until last week had never been inside the château itself.

We will write about the château at a later date, but until then, the reverse angle of one of our favorite views in the Loire Valley.


Wednesday 17 November 2010

A Strange Item

Susan and I have been to Beaulieu les Loches a number of times, and every time we visit we are with different people. This means we have been in to the Abbey Church about 6 times in the past year alone.

The church is interesting, but a lot smaller than it once was: half of the church was demolished and a new western end built half way down the nave. The north wall still stands and shows the extent of the original nave, and the column bases are marked out on what is now an open square. The tomb of Foulkes Nerra is here, built on the southern wall of the transept (although currently replaced by a wooden board and a notice).

The most interesting and mystifying part (to my eyes, anyway) is on the north wall of the transept. What is this - and who is it?

As I prepared the photos for this post I realised it looks like there is a piece of paper on the end of the glass case. We did return to the church on last Saturday to have a look in case we could tell you all about it, but the church was locked. We will call in within the next week or so and hope to be able to check it out.


Tuesday 16 November 2010

Three Carved Bits

The Church at Chauvigny
Bacchus? Or some other gourmande?
On the staircase at Cheverny.

I assume it's a dog.
On the new chateau at Chinon


Monday 15 November 2010

Our "New" Stone Wall

When I last mentioned the office project we were knee deep in dust. Since then, the wall has been "chaux'd" and looks really good.

The process itself is very simple, but physically hard and very time consuming.

1: Mix 2 parts sand to 1 part chaux, and add
water until it becomes "like the shit of a cow"
2: Wet down wall with water and apply mixture to the wall,
pushing it hard into the gaps between the stones
3: Wait at least 30 minutes, then brush back
the excess chaux with a stiff bristled brush4: Allow to dry for weeks. The chaux will take
longer to dry the thicker it is applied.
We now have to wait about 6 weeks before the chaux cures properly, but you can see from the bottom photo that the colour lightens amazingly as it dries. We used red sand in our mix, and at first I was worried by how brown it made the wall, but it will eventually dry to a subtle shade of peach. The very dark patch in the bottom photo is where the mixture was applied into the holes which were excavated for the plumbing when this space was the bathroom.


Sunday 14 November 2010

Winter Damsels

Even though we have had some frosts back in October, there is still one species of dragonfly on the wing. Sympecma fusca is not called the Common Winter Damsel for nothing. In fact, they can be seen in any month of the year, and unusually for dragonflies, overwinter as adults.

Like all dragonflies, they have a face only
an entomologist could love.
At this time of year they are particularly lovely (in their discreet and subtle way). The young damsels are various shades of beige and brown, with coppery backs. By the time winter is finished the copper will have faded to a dark matt brown. Curiously, hard winters suit them and the following spring breeding season is more successful than after a mild winter.

The Common Winter Damsel is called
le Leste brun
in French.
They are very common around here, as they are a lowland species which breeds in still water, such as étangs (fish ponds). In the autumn they are found far from their breeding sites, which is why they appear in our orchard, as they hunt and seek protected spots to shelter themselves over winter.

The shadow shows this male's claspers very well.
They are not threatened in France, but in other countries their numbers have dropped dramatically due to the accumulation of agricultural chemicals in lake water, over exploitation of fish farming (reducing breeding success), winter cutting of reeds, too dense a growth of trees at the waters edge and the clearing of forest undergrowth (destroying winter shelter).

They are one of the easiest dragonflies to photograph, as they are clearly confident that their camouflage is effective. You can get very close while they just sit there. If you do get close enough to make them move they just drift off gently, so as not to make it too obvious.


Saturday 13 November 2010

An Ambition

You know how it is: sometimes you want something just because.

This coffee maker is one of those things. It won't fit into our planned new kitchen, it's extremely noisy, but what a piece of work!The photo was taken at l'Estaminet, Beaulieu lès Loches. I can't believe we haven't posted a photo of the restaurant on this blog, but if we have I can't find it.

We have eaten here a couple of times, most recently with Ken and chm, and before that with Jocelyn and Andrew, and Pat and Geoff before that. The food is inexpensive, unpretentious and tasty, and the ambience is slightly upmarket country café.


Friday 12 November 2010

Remembrance Day 2010

Yesterday's Remembrance Day service in Preuilly sur Claise was cut short, due to a combination of circumstances. We met at the Mairie at 10.45 (although we arrived at 10.30, and left again for coffee at l'Image), walked to the War Memorial (down the Grande Rue and across the bridge) to attend to the wreath laying and the official presidential speech (here, for those who missed it), then walked back to the Mairie.

At that point we were invited back to the Salle des Fetes for a reception, whereas normally on Remembrance Day we would have walked on to the cemetery. The main reason for this was the weather - it was foul. Very wet, windy and cold. There was, however, another, more human reason.

For some reason the public address system (battery powered) hadn't been recharged, making speechifying and playing the music (various bugle calls, La Marseillaise) difficult. This was overcome by using a car battery, but I think the draw on the system was such that even that battery was starting to flag.

It wasn't the biggest turn out we have seen at a memorial service in Preuilly, but it was good to see that parents are bringing their children, and the children are behaving.

It's just a pity that some motorists can't behave as well. As usual there were impatient drivers who needed to be somewhere so urgently that the felt obliged to try force their way through a group of people walking behind a flag at 11.00 on 11 November.

Yesterday I mentioned the bleuet (cornflower) badge. This is Susan's from yesterday.


Thursday 11 November 2010


In Britain the poppy, but in France the bluet (cornflower). The flowers are used as symbols of remembering the dead of the First World War, and raising much needed funds for the support of ex-servicemen and their families.

In the UK there is huge pressure placed on people to wear a poppy, and the date on which they appear is getting earlier. When we arrived in the UK 12 years ago, poppies came on sale the week of Remembrance Day. Five years ago they arrived on the 1st of November, and this year they arrived on the 26th of October. Anyone appearing on TV in the UK not wearing a poppy gets accused of dishonouring the dead, and there are letters to the newspapers (I would guess from people who can't be bothered actually going to a Remembrance Day ceremony) in incandescent outrage.

In France, little stickers with cornflowers on them are sold at the start of Remembrance Day ceremonies, and in Preuilly sur Claise half the town seems to attend.

The difference between the two countries is greater than simply that of language.


Wednesday 10 November 2010


I mentioned on Monday that Stéphane had promised us some dust.

He wasn't wrong.

We had arranged to visit Ken and Walt on Monday to have lunch (which was very nice, thank you). Before we left home we had hung some baches (tarpaulins) to try and contain the dust. This was quite successful, because parts of the house remained usable.

Where the dust was created, it landed in huge drifts.
When we first bought the house one of our plans was to occasionally stay in a hotel so we could bathe, be warm, and feel human, but until Monday night we hadn't really felt the need. We had booked ourselves into l'Image because Stéphane had warned us he would be making a very early start on applying the chaux as he needed to complete the whole wall in one day. This turned out to be a really sensible move, because he arrived at yesterday at 6.00am, and left at 20.30, job done.

Having put dust sheets up doesn't mean that the house was totally comfortable. We couldn't light the fire until this morning (the chaux would have dried too quickly), and although we had closed the bedroom door and stuffed all the gaps under the doors and holes in the wall, last night at 11:00pm we were still vacuum cleaning and dusting before we could go to bed.


Tuesday 9 November 2010

The Poissonnière

We have lived in Preuilly sur Claise for over 18 months, and before that visited regularly - at least once a month, sometimes for three or four weeks at a time - for three years.

In that time we have been told that in addition to the laitière (milk lady), the boulangère (baker) and the fishmonger (poissonnière) do home delivery services.

A couple of Fridays ago, for the first time ever, we saw the poissonnière. He doesn't drive down our street (nor does the boulanger), but he has now been removed from the panaply of Preuilly sur Claise myths.

If we haven't taken a photo of it, it can't be said to exist.


Monday 8 November 2010

Wattle and Daub

I mentioned a while ago that one of the old walls of the new office is made of stuff. This stuff is wattle and daub of indeterminate age, covered with more modern (but still of indeterminate age) layers of concrete and chaux.

Wattle and daub. The wattles are the thin straps of
wood, into which daub is pressed. Our daub is a mixture
of mud, straw, and animal hair, all of which could just be
stable scrapings.
This week we will start the process of rendering the old wattle and daub as well as the internal stone walls. We are starting with one of the walls of the office and the one wall of the staircase to make them pierres vues. Today we have to scrape out a lot of the gunk (mainly mud) in between the stones and then clean the existing stonework, which we have been warned will create dust the like of which we have not seen before. Tomorrow Stéphane will be filling the resulting spaces with a mixture of chaux and coloured sand so only the faces of the larger stones are visible. The chaux is CAEB90, an aerated slaked (hydrated) lime, which is traditionally used to render solid stone walls which need to breathe.

This wall is to become pierres vues.
More dust than we have seen before. We can hardly wait.


Sunday 7 November 2010

Pêche de l'étang du Louroux

Every November some of the local fish ponds (étang) are emptied. This is done on a rotational basis, so that individual ponds are emptied on a cycle that may be as short as two years, but could be as long as seven. Members of the public are invited to attend, and the resulting catch can be purchased in bulk very cheaply.

This weekend it is Le Louroux's turn, and since Le Louroux is one of our favourite places we went along yesterday to take a look. We'd noticed some weeks ago that the lake level was dropping, as they progressively dropped the water level in preparation for the big event this weekend. If you are in the area, they are still rounding up the fish and finishing the drainage of the lake today. It's an excuse for a fête, and a most interesting day out. If you miss Le Louroux, then the Grand Etang at Martizay is being drained next weekend.

Water rushing out into the Echandon River from the étang
through the sluice system (with flow directed by the clever
and judicious use of haybales).
The emptying of the étang is necessary to manage and harvest the fish, but also allows work to be done to improve the quality of the water and to preserve and augment biodiversity. A traditional fish netting was organised to capture the pike (brochets), zander (sandres), perch (perches), carp (carpes), tench (tanches) and roach (gardons) living in the lake. It's very important for ongoing water quality that the base of the lake is aerated periodically, so the sediment is exposed from time to time in a managed way. It is drained every year or two, and about 10 tonne of fish recovered each time.

The fishermen use dragnets (sennes) of different gauges to catch different types or sizes of fish. Big carp and pike come out first, then the more fragile zanders. The remaining little ones are chased around inside the main net with hand nets. They are taken over to sorting tables, weighed and delivered to the sales tent or put into tanks ready to restock other nearby étangs. This year's little roach and some big carp and pike are put aside to restock Le Louroux itself.

Netting the last of the fish.
The étang at Le Louroux is the biggest fish pond in Indre-et-Loire and one of 10 'Espaces naturels sensible' (Sensitive Natural Spaces) owned and administered by the département since 1990. Its flora and fauna is exceptionally rich, with 200 species of birds recorded and it is a favoured site for passage migrants. The money raised by the sale of fish goes towards the management and development of the site.

The sludgy lake bottom.
The nature reserve covers 110ha, of which 60ha is the fish pond itself. Historically, the étang was part of the fortified priory at Le Louroux. As an ensemble, the village, dyke, mill, lake and priory present a rather fairytale aspect today, but the étang is the result of some hard working Benedictine monks (or more probably, their lay brothers...). The River Echandon was dammed, and the pond profile dug by the 11th century Benedictines. They would have managed the étang they created in an almost identical way to what we saw yesterday.


Saturday 6 November 2010

Funnel Caps

With the mild misty weather there is some good fungi foraging to be had. Hedgehog mushrooms, for instance. These large funnel caps too are apparently considered by some to be pleasant eating, but I just picked one to bring home and identify. They are quite elegant, standing tall on robust stems, with wonderful rich buff tops the texture of soft kid leather.

With a diameter of 10-20 cm, this Clitocybe spp isn't the biggest of the funnel cap mushrooms, but it certainly isn't one of the many small ones. There is a Giant Funnel Cap mushroom with a diameter that can reach twice this size. There are many species of funnel caps, and many of them, especially the small ones, contain the same poison as the well-known Fly Agaric, to which they are related.
Personally I find mushroom identification to species level fairly hopeless, since no specimen ever meets every single element in the field guide or online guide description, nor do the photographs ever match absolutely perfectly. I am always suspicious that guides do not include every possible species, and they frequently contradict one another about issues such as edibility. Edibility often depends on the individual consumer and the individual mushroom, with some people being more susceptible to gastric upset than others, and mushrooms at some stages of development or season being more prone to set off a reaction. Alcohol can trigger a reaction and raw mushrooms can behave differently to cooked or dried. Even the much loved Boletus edulis (Cep) causes stomach upsets occasionally.

You can certainly never confidently identify an unfamiliar species on the basis of a picture and description in a single field guide. Mushrooms change appearance rapidly as they age and after they are picked, so usually the description in a field guide is more important than the picture. It seems to me that unless you are prepared to make spore prints, examine under a microscope and test for chemical reactions, most mushroom identification using published guides is little more than guesswork.

I love the way the shape of the mushroom is
moulded by the surrounding vegetation.
My guess is that this is C. geotropa.