Thursday 30 June 2011

Cheery Little Devil

This is our first ripe tomato of the year.

If I could work out how to grow chillis this shape my fortune would be made.


Wednesday 29 June 2011

It's Dry

We were at Villandry yesterday, and although the gardens are as amazing as ever you can see we have been having a dry time of it: compare this photo with one taken a year ago.

Luckily it was cooler yesterday - "only" 28 degrees C (82F), compared to 38 degrees (just over 100 in the old money) on Monday. Célestine was a lot happier on the road, especially as on Monday we were driving along the Loire River levee with no shade, whereas yesterday we were cruising along the shady Indre river by Azay le Rideau. By comparison, today's predicted high is a perfectly acceptable 23C (73F)

We were threatened with storms and torrential rain yesterday evening. Regular readers will no doubt not be amazed to hear we had one very light shower accompanied by massive thunder and lightning.


Tuesday 28 June 2011

Clafoutis Bakeoff

It's probably a bit late in the season to be writing about clafoutis - my sour cherries were all picked by 5 June this year. Nevertheless, the latest summer edition of Régal ('Feast') features no less than three clafoutis recipes, on pages 60, 76 and a whole page article on the subject on page 114 (which I have shamelessly cribbed for most of the information in this post).

Unlike the Limousin griottes, Tourangelle sour cherries are
pale fleshed and red skinned, and known locally as guignes.
In the interests of scientific research and Simon's stomach, I decided to make all three recipes and see how they all turned out. They ranged from a family home cooking style classic to one credited to a big name chef. Both the cheffy version and the classic had a bit of butter in the batter, and the cheffy version and the one presumably created by a magazine staffer contained cream (the classic restricted itself to whole milk). Cooking times and temperatures varied from 150 - 180°C and 25 - 40 minutes. Apart from that, the recipes were much the same as my usual one and much the same as each other.

The cheffy version didn't live up to its promise of cherry flavour impact.
Clafoutis is a dialect word from central France, dating to the middle of the 9th century. It's a contraction of the old French claufir (from the Latin clavo figere), which translates as 'to fix with nails'. It's also derived from the word foutre, in the sense of 'to stuff full'.

The original recipe for this cake (in the Limousin, where it comes from, it is referred to as a gâteau) is a type of thick batter poured on the black sour cherries known as griottes noires du Limousin (ie a type of Morello cherry). Once upon a time it was cooked in the bread oven, after the bread was baked. The cherries are not stoned because to do so would result in the loss of a great deal of juice during cooking. The stones also enhance the flavour, by boosting the cherry flavour and adding a woody note. A good clafoutis rises during cooking, but inevitably drops once cool.

The family classic looked a bit stodgy, but was easily the best of them all.
The aim is to contrast the creamy batter and the juicy cherries. These days you can get all creative and make savoury clafoutis, with tomatoes, peas, carrots or fennel. Nevertheless, a cherry flavoured clafoutis remains a must during the French summertime.

The basic ingredients are flour, eggs, sugar, milk, fruit and if you like, a dash of eau-de-vie de cerises. It's quick and easy to prepare, often traditionally using the windfall cherries, and is best eaten warm.

Not sure this recipe went through the Régal
test kitchen before publishing.
Another speciality of the Limousin, the flognarde, is a winter version, with the batter poured over apples, pears, dried fruit or nuts. The tartouillat from Burgundy and the millard from the Auvergne are both dishes made from flour, eggs, sugar, milk and cherries, bearing a remarkable resemblance to clafoutis. An early 20th century food writer from the Périgord, which borders the Limousin, suggested a mixture of grapes, sliced apple, dark plums and sultanas.


Monday 27 June 2011

Cyber Laverie

This has to be one of the best ideas I have seen for a long time!


Sunday 26 June 2011

Moulin Fort

I have spent quite a lot of time at Chenonceau lately, and while Susan is inside the château I usually sit near (or in) Célestine.

In the carpark at Chenonceau.
Célestine always attracts attention
The last couple of visits I have gone off for a wander along the river or through the village, and on one such wander I ended up at the Moulin Fort at Chisseaux. Not the mill itself - according to Google Maps that would appear to have been on an island (not sure how that would work, really, as there doesn't ever appear to have been a bridge to the island) but the northern bank.

I rather suspect that the actual mill was on the southern bank associated with the weir, as the map shows a stream that looks suspiciously like a mill race, and usually a weir is necessary to keep water levels high enough to make a mill usable all the year round.

The weir and lock at Moulin Fort
Also associated is a lock, dating from when the river was used for transport. These days the only transport on the river is the occasional canoe, and tourist sightseeing boats which run a very short course down under the chateau and back.

I have tried to discover more about this mill, but the only references on the internet are about a pair of camping sites - either side of the river - which share its name.

It's a nice place for a wander though.


Saturday 25 June 2011


These wonderfully characterful statues of hunting dogs line the entrance to the Logis Royal in Loches.

They are representations of 15th century hunting dogs of the sort used to chase or bring game down and stand as a testiment to the Valois kings love of hunting.

We visit so often during the season that we now have Cartes Ambassadeurs for the Historic Monuments owned by the département of Indre et Loire (like the Cité Royale de Loches). These cards are an annual fee of €10 and let you in for free or a discount to all 5 sites.


Friday 24 June 2011

A New Project

Yeah - I know... it isn't as if I don't already have enough to fill the days...

This project is going to be a very casual one: I am going to start photographing adverts painted on the walls of buildings. I don't intend causing road accidents by standing on the brakes every time I see an ad, but if I have the camera in hand and an ad presents itself, I will take a shot or two.

This is the first advert I took a photo of,
in Poitiers back in May 2005.
It isn't the first advert I have posted on the blog, though. That was probably this one


Thursday 23 June 2011

Black-crowned Night Heron in the Brenne

Perched in a dead tree.
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax are reasonably common in the Brenne. Not being a terribly dedicated birder, I'm not sure how lucky we were to see one at the Etang de la Mer Rouge, but it was certainly very nice to get the close up views that we did.

Studiously ignoring the birdwatchers.
On our recent post-lunch stroll in the Brenne with Ken and CHM we encountered two French birdwatchers, a young man and his grandmother, who were clearly absorbed in watching and photographing something interesting. As we came up to them we asked what they were looking at, and they pointed out the bihoreau, sitting in a dead tree on the other side of a small étang and offered us a look through their telescope. After a few minutes it flapped across the étang to our side and waded nonchalantly through the shallows and vegetation, right under our noses. It must have been perfectly aware that we were there.

Here you can see its lovely fine breast feathers.
The Brenne is heron heaven, with about 10 species of egrets, herons, night herons and bitterns living and breeding. There is a very large heronry in the secret submarine communications base that you can't see for miles around - it's an ideal location, undisturbed and totally protected.

Later, our night heron flew off over the Mer Rouge.


Wednesday 22 June 2011

You're Barred!

Ever since we started visiting Preuilly the pigeons have been nesting in the attics of the houses surrounding Place des Halles.

Well - from now on they have less choice, because the owner of this building has done something about it.

Last year we had pigeons nesting in the blanked window over our front door, but so far this year they have stayed away. If they come back, I guess I have to put "Operation Chook Wire" into effect.

Talking of bird's nests, the Redstarts have a second brood in the same nest they were using earlier this year. I first noticed them on Sunday evening by the amount of increased bird traffic and then on Monday evening by the cheeping of the chicks.


Tuesday 21 June 2011

Plants of Damp Places Outing

On Sunday I participated in my second outing with the Association de Botanique et de Mycologie de Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine (the local field naturalists group). It was to the Fôret de Preuilly to look at plants that like wet boggy places. I wrote about the first outing I attended here.

The meeting place was the Etang de Ribaloche, which was nearly dry due to the lack of rain (compare with this photo, taken in March 2008). This suited us quite well, as we could walk over the draw down area of mud and get a really good look at a quite surprising number of rarities and interesting plants.

These two old guys were determinedly fishing in what little water remained. They were using worms as bait and said they fished no matter what the level was. I doubt they ever catch anything. A group of field nats can be seen in the background.

One of the special plants we saw - the rare and protected Common Bladderwort Utricularia vulgaris (l'Utriculaire commune). Although called 'Common' this carnivorous aquatic plant is now very rare in the wild.

One of the field nats sweeping for ticks, using a piece of an old monogrammed linen sheet. He caught quite a few in the grass and identified them, but they were very small.

Another of the special plants, Yellow Foxglove Digitalis lutea (la Digitale jaune) also now rare in the wild, growing in a ditch by the side of a track in the forest.

Several people brought flies or photos of flies for me to identify, and I am now apparently la petite australienne (with Marc Fleury requesting others to 'move aside so the little Australian can get a photograph').

I had no idea the Fôret de Preuilly was quite so rich in rarities, but we saw a good dozen rare or unusual plants just in the boggy habitat of the edge of the étangs. There were also some nice butterflies, dragonflies and flies as well as the plants which were the primary focus of the outing.


Monday 20 June 2011

The New Doormat

I know I'm a saddo, but I really like my new doormat. It is generously sized and set neatly into the newly laid terracotta tiles in its own little slot. You can buy rubber backed coir matting like this by the metre in the hardware store here and just cut it to fit. I think it looks terribly smart, and is way better than a mat laid on the surface to slip and slide all over the floor as people walk in and out. This is our most used entry, and a lot of dirt and grit comes in this way. Not any more I hope!


Sunday 19 June 2011


Our friends Tim and Gaynor very kindly said we should pick the redcurrants at their place in Le Petit Pressigny while they were away if we could make use of them and rather than let them go to waste.

Soft fruit like redcurrants are always so much nicer if you can get them fresh and not transport or refrigerate them. Also our own redcurrant is going to have about a dozen berries in total, so it was a welcome opportunity to supplement our frozen fruit stocks.

About a week ago I went over and picked about 2kg of top quality redcurrants. I made half into compote with the last of my strawberries and some of my cherries which I had frozen earlier. The other half was pureed, pressed through a seive and mixed with a commercial raspberry puree, some icing sugar and a dash of 2009 homemade cherry liqueur. After churning in the icecream machine, this is a fairly sensational sorbet.

I've frozen a little plastic box of each for Tim and Gaynor to enjoy when they are back in Le Petit Pressigny.


Saturday 18 June 2011

Tomette Trois

On Tuesday Patrick arrived to joint (grout) the tomettes.

Although they were laid leaving 8mm gaps using modern glue, the joints were quite traditional: chaux blanche (hydraulic white lime) and sand, mixed at a ratio of 1:3.

When Susan and I jointed the tomettes that are under the staircase we used the mothod that is usual with modern tiles: we spread the grout using a rubber spreader and then sponged off the excess. In contast, Patrick made a drier mixture and applied the grout to the gaps using a trowel, forcing the mixture well into the joints before wiping off the excess.

This is a slightly slower process in application (we just poured it on from a bucket) but quicker and cleaner taking off the excess.

After the joints were dry we applied hydrofuge (a water repellant) and the job was done. In just over a week's time Patrick arrives to tile our small dining area - that's only 3 square metres.

After that we will have a bit of a pause while we sort out the kitchen. Then we will start on tiling the laundry and downstairs toilet, before doing the entry hall. This means that we will have the same terracotta tiles for the whole ground floor of the house excepting the salon.


Friday 17 June 2011


Yesterday we got the boxes for the kitchen mounted. Niall and Antoinette recommended Chris Line, who did their kitchen, so we organised him to fit our units. He arrived at 8.30, and by 2.00 the units were all levelled and screwed in place.

The sink unit is fitted
He didn't put the doors or drawers in, that will wait until after the worktop is fitted. Even so, you can now see what it is going to be and how it will be used, and I am pleased to say I think it will work!

This section is where we anticipate lots of
yummy things will be prepped.
We have ordered the worktop (more details will follow, in the fullness of time) and hope that process will start next week.


Thursday 16 June 2011

Gnarled Beauty

All these photos feature the same oak tree.
As any of our readers who also read Ken's blog will know, we had lunch on Tuesday in the Brenne with Ken and CHM. After lunch we went for a stroll along the digue (dam wall) of the Etang de la Mer Rouge.
One of the nicest things about this particular walk is the ancient oak trees that line the path. Their feet are in the water and they are old enough to have twisted and heaved themselves into all sorts of picturesque shapes.

A Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus cruises by in this photo.
They are called le Grèbe huppé in French ('Crested Grebe').


Wednesday 15 June 2011

Buying a Kitchen from IKEA

After thinking long and hard about what we wanted we eventually settled on IKEA to supply our kitchen cabinets. After looking online at the range available, we went in to see what they looked like 'in the flesh'. I like oak to be a sort of warm tawny yellow colour, and the IKEA kitchen cabinets turned out to be just the right colour. We also tested all the handles we liked for feel and practicality. Then we went away and thought about it some more and refined the arrangement of the cabinets on the plan.

Some days later we returned and spoke to someone in the kitchen department. He went through our list with us and answered some of the questions we had about what combinations were possible. We looked at the range of feet and decided the taller stainless steel ones were for us. We still weren't totally confident that we had thought of everything, nor were we sure we understood exactly what the logistics of purchasing were. In IKEA you have to work out how many hinges, handles and shelves you need, which door design you want and what range of cabinet carcasses. Some items are self service, some are prepared by the staff ready for you to pick up after the checkout. This is a lot to get sorted out when you are buying a whole kitchen. Once again we went away and thought about it. I was actually dreading the day we went to hand over our money and commit, but equally, I wanted it over and done with.

Putting Ikea cabinets together is easy if you're organised
Last Thursday, after dropping our clients off at their hotel in Tours, we called in at IKEA with the intention of ordering the cabinets so that they would be ready to pick up the next day. After being issued with a number by the kitchen reception desk and being told there were three other couples in front of us, we were finally joined by a sales consultant. We were incredibly lucky, as Juliette turned out to be utterly contientious and professional. Although she didn't speak English, she made sure we understood everything by speaking slowly in French, and where necessary, taking us over to see examples in the display area. She went through our list with a fine tooth comb, ensuring we had everything and suggesting one or two things that we should add or change. She ran through the process of how we should make the purchase the following day, and I left feeling almost confident that it would go smoothly (Simon arrived with a migraine and left with an even worse one, but that wasn't Juliette's fault!)

The next day, after deciding that trusting to luck to get an IKEA van, which you can't reserve, was too risky, we hired the SuperU van and appeared, as instructed, at the kitchen department reception desk with our list. Olivier, who was manning the desk, asked us if we had any changes to make to the list. We said 'no', and he said 'excellent - ah I see your sales consultant was Juliette'. I think he must have been her boss, and he clearly recognised that she is a real treasure. He processed our list and gave it back to us, re-ordered so that the items in the self-service section were in order of aisle and shelf position. He showed us which items were currently out of stock. Two would simply come in the next week as a matter of course and we could pick them up from self service. The third we needed to order and we would be contacted once it arrived. He made sure I knew where to find the handles (just by the exit to plantes vertes) and a bag to put them in. After that, he said to pick up a trolley and find our self service items.

A pile of kitchen unit carcases ready to be fitted out
There were several other couples in self service loading up with kitchen cabinets, so manoeuvering the long flat trolleys was somewhat awkward. We carefully worked through the list in order, checking items off as we put them on the trolley. In the time it took us to get from the kitchen department to the self service, another item on our list had run out. We should be able to pick it up today with the other items that were out of stock.

Then it was off to the checkout, where we paid and got a number for the despatch department. Once through, we parked the trolleys near the despatch gates and while I waited for our number to come up on the display screen to say our non-self-service items were ready to collect I checked the items on our list against the cash register receipt to make sure we had picked up all the right items.

Meanwhile, Simon went off to bring the van up to the loading bay. By the time our cupboard doors were ready to collect, Simon had already loaded the rest of our purchases. As she passed over our items, the young woman on the desk asked if I had collected my €200 gift. I hadn't, so she made sure I knew which desk to go to, while Simon loaded the last of our kitchen items.

The €200 gift is a voucher card redeemable on our next purchase. We were eligible because we spent more than €2000 on a kitchen. Quite handily, it will cover the one item we have on order.

At the end of it we have a pile of cardboard boxes
we can use to protect the kitchen floor
Off we drove, kitchen neatly stacked in the back of the hire van. We couldn't believe how smoothly it had all gone. Once home, we unloaded into the garage. Célestine is being agisted for a week or so, until the kitchen cabinets are installed. With her enjoying the comforts of a modern garage in a nearby village, Simon has had the space to unpack everything and put the cabinets together in preparation for the fitter's arrival tomorrow. It took him a day to put the carcasses for 5 units together and Alex came over and they completed the remaining (bigger) three on Sunday morning. Today we are off to Tours to exchange a couple of items that are damaged, and to pick up the previously out of stock items.


Tuesday 14 June 2011

Porker Heaven

As we were driving to Chenonceau yesterday morning (with Australian clients Margaret and Reuben) I commented to Susan that it was odd - we hadn't seen any car club rally this long weekend.

When I arrived back at Célestine after the visit I found that was no longer the case.


Monday 13 June 2011

Ancient History

We have been busy the last week, and no doubt some of you may have noticed. The great thing is that we are busy this week as well: so busy, in fact, that we don't actually have time to blog about it.


Some of you might know that Célestine has a facebook account (there's a link just to the right).

If you're one of Célestine's friends you may have seen these photos. If you aren't one of Célestine's friends you may find the photos interesting.

NOT amusing - I said interesting.

You can all stop laughing now.


Sunday 12 June 2011


As mentioned yesterday, on Friday we bought our kitchen.

The whole process started years ago with lots of thinking, but we didn't seriously get underway until March, when we started visiting kitchen shops and getting devis (estimates). After a number of disappontments and a shark attack (you must sign today, indeed...) we decided to seriously look at Ikea. As far as we can tell their kitchens are just as sturdy as anyone else's, but at a lot lower price. There isn't the range of sizes of cabinets or twizzly whirly things that the specialist shops have, but we decided not to compromise quality for gadgets.

The layout has changed many times (this is one our our first efforts), and until about a month ago our plan was still for red lacquer. We then changed tack and went for basic, solid, and real wood fascias, and have settled on oak doors. The range of base units is called Faktum, and the finish is Tidaholm. with Tyda handles and stainless steel legs.

This is what our kitchen should look like,
according to Ikea. Note the lack of worktops
I used the online Ikea kitchen planner tool. It has some drawbacks, the most notable one being that you can only have walls of 90 or 45 degrees, which makes visualisation a bit difficult if you have a wall angled at 11 degrees. Or it would if I wasn't so all encompassingly brilliant...

The layour of the kitchen. It may even look something like this
We will be having the cheapest of cheap (€9.50 for two metres) white melamine worktops to start with. Hopefully these will only be in place for a couple of weeks, when our super duper worktops arrive.

But more on that later...


Saturday 11 June 2011

What to look out for

... when driving in France.

After Thursday's mammoth effort of 16 hours, yesterday we went back to Tours, this time in a hired van. SuperU is willing hire out vans of enormous length and width* (and height, but that is less of an issue) to anyone who turns up with a driving licence.

Yup, it even rained a little last night
My experience yesterday causes me to recommend you give wide berth to any SuperU van you see: even a driver as ace and all encompasingly brilliant as me clipped a couple of gutters yesterday. Imaging what a mess that bloke in the "hot" Pug 206 could make of it all...

Like our previous SuperU hires it was extremely painless (and remarkably inexpensive) process, and the van worked well. It sucked up a whole IKEA kitchen like it just wasn't there!


*2 metres (6') longer and 60cm(2') wider than Célestine

Friday 10 June 2011

Tometting Deux

We arrived home yesterday (after a 16 hour day with Célestine) to find our new kitchen floor fully laid and looking good. Patrick has achieved more in a day and a half than we would have managed in a week, and with a lot less mess (there isn't a drop of glue on any of the tiles).

The "bridge" isn't strictly nescessary,
but acts as a visual cue as to where we
can't step for the next 24 hours
There is no doubt that these are a natural, artisan product, even if machine made. They are all of slightly different thickness and size, and the colour varies subtly. The main difference between these and the old (vieillis) fully handmade tile is that these have a definite "good" face, whereas as the old tiles you can choose which side up to lay them, and they also have less variation in colour than the old tiles. They are also slightly stripey - where they have been through the machine you can see where they have been wiped. With the old tiles this adds a real handmade feel, whereas on the new tiles it is slightly too even.

Having said all that, they are still amazing and will look ace once we have finished them and done the joints.


Thursday 9 June 2011


Yesterday was a big day for us - we started work on the carrelages de terres cuites on the kitchen floor.

The delivery arrives. Our neighbour Ghiselaine sent
her son Antoine to help because he is young and strong.
The tiles were actually delivered a couple of weeks ago and have sat in the courtyard, covered by a tarp. As mentioned before, they were bought from the same company from whom we bought the first lot of tiles, but the new tiles are machine made and not cooked quite so hard. This means they are a delicate salmon colour and squarer than the "old" tiles - no bad thing when you have so many to lay.

The first tile is laid.
We decoded that rather than take a week to lay the tiles and end up hating each other we would ask Patrick to lay them. We had seen his work at Sylvie and Pierre-Yves house and were impressed by the finished product. At our house we were impressed how fast and neat he was.

Patrick marked the tiles and I cut them with my
new angle grinder. I have all the tools, me...
He says the tiles are a pleasure to work with, and good quality, but there are quite a few stones in the clay, and the stones are larger than he expected. This means that cutting the tiles can be a little difficult: hit a stone and the grinder throws off a shower of sparks. It also means that if the stone was near the surface of the tile when it was being cooked the suface tends to delaminate.

By the end of the day over half of the kitchen floor had tiles.
This morning he returns to lay the rest of the tiles in the kitchen. So far we have used about one-third of the tiles we bought, but hopefully we can get the dining area laid within the next few weeks as well. If we didn't have so much else to do (like buy and build the kitchen and finish the bathroom) we could even be ambitious and try to get the entry hall tiled too.

Maybe not...