Tuesday 31 July 2012

A Memorial in a Forest Glade

In the summer of 1944 after the D-Day landings in Normandy (Operation Overlord) on 6 June, but before the Allied invasion of southern France on 15 August, the task of disrupting the German forces in Central France was given to the various Resistance groups with SOE and SAS support. Allied forces had been able to make a number of arms drops in the area, but the Germans were jittery and on the verge of pulling out. Heavy fighting ensued, usually hand to hand, field by field. The Resistance used the many forests in the Touraine as places to hide and the spot known as Péchoire in the Foret de Preuilly is a typical example.

Parading from the graves to the memorial.
Two Resistance groups, camped a few kilometres apart operated from this section of the forest. One was Communist, the other FFI, so no doubt the communication between the two groups was not good. Each group would have had a completely different vision of what France after the war should look like and so although both were fighting for the freedom of their country, opinion on what that country should ultimately look like was divided.

Remembering the dead.
The retired para in charge is centre foreground
with his back to the camera.
Nevertheless, the two groups were very effective guerilla fighters, and the Germans, in their amoured vehicles, were too afraid to enter the forest. They simply sat on the fringes, surrounding the forest and laid seige for about a fortnight. Finally the Resistance were betrayed, and the tanks rumbled in on 23 July. The fighting lasted two days and 8 Resistance fighters were killed and buried where they lay. Four of the graves are almost on the side of the road, in a beautiful clearing in the forest and very accessible. The others are a kilometre and a half away, much more hidden and you have to know where they are to find them.

Best dressed man at the service.
This year was the 68th anniversary of the action and looking at our photos, I would say about 200 people turned up for the memorial ceremony on Sunday 22 July. All the local returned services leagues were represented with their banners and the proceedings were directed by a retired paratrooper. By far the most smartly turned out person in attendance was a retired British officer who lives nearby, but everyone was here to remember fallen heroes.

The French approach to these ceremonies is rather nice. There is a plan - it's even on paper - but there is no dress rehearsal. People just turn up when requested and do their bit. We were lucky to find out about it, and have our friends Jill and John to thank. This is also typical of France - these ceremonies take place every year, and everyone is just assumed to know where and when. We would have liked to stay for the whole ceremony and the vin d'honneur afterwards, but we had to leave midway through. This wasn't an issue - people came and left throughout the whole morning. The important thing in these small rural communities is to turn up, no matter how briefly, and no matter if you are in your work overalls.


For a related post on remembering Péchoire see Chez Charnizay, as Niall and Antoinette went to the exhibition in the village that was part of the commemoration this year.

Monday 30 July 2012

Biodiversity in the Vineyards - who needs it?

See my previous post on biodiversity in the vineyards for definitions of terms, some background and details of a specific project in the Loire.

There are two strands to the arguments about why biodiversity is important and why we should preserve it. The first are the economic aspects such as its potential to improve the production of agricultural commodities; its role in the regulation of soil fertility and the physical and chemical cycles of the Earth; and the possibilities for the tourist industry. The second is ethical and cultural - our moral duty to future generations and the need to maintain the potential of living organisms.

Grass between the rows.
Biodiversity is the key to sustainability and to reducing the high input style of farming where artificial fertilizers and phyto-pharmaceuticals are routinely used. The French scientists based at INRA are leading the way on the research into the benefits of biodiversity for farming.

Viticulture is an intensive monoculture resulting in a homogeneous landscape with low levels of biodiversity. If we want to challenge this approach to winemaking the attack must be two pronged. Chemical inputs and landscape homogeneity must be tackled simultaneously.

Vines surround a patch of woodland.
Vineyards and annual crops have the lowest levels of biodiversity in agriculture (pasture has the highest levels and forestry falls between the two). The use of biocontrols is now well established, but best practice today is to manage the landscape for conservation biocontrol so that natural predators and pollinators build up sufficient numbers to be sustainable and have a real beneficial impact. This includes creating a mosaic of habitats to provide shelter and food year round (for example, planting hedges).

A landscape scale approach allows the monitoring of both changes in the landscape such as the creation of hedges and crop margins to shelter predators, and the changes in the pest population. The main insect pests in the vineyards are leafhoppers, who suck leaves dry and spread diseases, and moths, who's caterpillars eat the grape flowers and the forming fruit.

Lots of groundcover, and woodland behind.
Ideally, no parcel of vines should be more than 400m from a patch of woodland. In order to reduce the isolation between semi-natural habitats, low hedges can be planted, which allow the insect meta-populations to flow, but also fit the requirements of a commercial grape growing operation. There is still a lot to learn about managing biodiversity for agriculture though. For instance, it turns out that the moth pests thrive in a monoculture and so landscape changes work well to control them. The leafhoppers, on the other hand, use all the available habitats and are not discouraged by having the vines broken up by hedges or crop margins. It seems the entomologists at INRA will be kept busy for a while yet.


Source: Protection des Paysages Viticoles, a paper by G. Pain et al, 2010, Mission Val de Loire.

Sunday 29 July 2012

A Leather Wall Covering

The dining room and its associated corridor at Cheverny is most famous for its painted decorative panels illustrating the story of Don Quixote, all done by a single artist from Blois, Jean Mosnier, working between 1624 and 1630. Earlier this year we came across an artist refreshing some of the more light damaged panels on the corridor window shutters.

The new Cordovan leather wall covering.
What perhaps many people don't notice (or at least, don't recognise for what it is) is the Cordovan (aka Cordoba) leather wall coverings that are fixed between the ceiling and the painted panels. It too has become torn, fragile and damaged in places and a few weeks ago we encountered one of the house maintenance men putting up a brand new section, and carefully supporting and reapplying some of the old leather.

The old leather rolled up for storage.
Cordoba leather wall covering was the height of fashion in the days before wallpaper and even before the fashion for silk damask. It has the advantage of being quite robust, and the embossed and painted Cordoba style is easily as decorative as any textile wall treatment. Later, in the 19th century, the early wallpapers like anaglypta would try to emulate the richly textured medieval and renaissance Spanish leather.

Cordoba leather is crimped, modelled or embossed by pressing the wet leather on to a hot bronze or wooden plate with the pattern engraved into it, or by working the leather from both the back and the front with a punch or spatula. Then the piece is gilded or silvered, painted and the background usually stained red or red-brown. I read something that indicated that the leather used for walls comes from horse skin, but I haven't been able to confirm it. The Cordovan origin of the technique led to the distinction between cordwainers (shoemakers using fine new materials) and cobblers (repairers of humbler footwear, reusing materials).

I bet not many people will even notice there is a new piece.
I asked the man installing it where the reproduction piece had been made. He told me it was not Spanish but had come from Normandy. Apparently, after the expulsion of the Moors from Spain (which ultimately led to the expulsion of anyone not of Spanish Christian background), Normandy and Flanders absorbed many refugees and became one of the centres of the artform, and there are still a few highly skilled workshops operating there today, as well as in Spain and in North Africa. This atelier has a rather good blog with fabulous pictures. This company has done work for Cheverny in the past, but they are based in Paris.

The realisation that Cordoba leather was not just made in Spain and north Africa, and is much more of a generic name for a style of leatherworking than an indication of geographic origin has made me wonder now whether the original leather wall covering at Cheverny was made in France or Spain. I will have to ask the head house steward next time we are there - he knows everything there is to know about the house.


Saturday 28 July 2012

International Rescue

When I were a lad...

But that's enough of faux Yorkshire-isms. This is about international co-operation, and the way the internet has shrunk the world.

On Wednesday Susan and I climbed into Célestine to drive to Amboise to do some work. On our way we came across a diversion (re-sealing the road to Charnizay), so we followed the diversion signs until Ferriere Larçon, at which stage I decided it might save us time if I found a route that didn't just return us to the road we originally intended to be on.

So I pulled into the parking in front of the church, and pulled out a map. Unfortunately I was a bit sharpish with putting the gear lever into neutral, and this caused the mechanism to lock up. No way could I make the gear lever move. We rang Jean-Louis, but he was attending to family business and couldn't come to perform what he described as "30 seconds work", and although he described the process to Susan over the phone I was unable to make it work.

This was a serious problem, requiring some serious teamwork. While I tried to unblock everything Susan rang Tim to ask if he could (a) come and rescue us and (b) find the phone number of where our client was staying.

Once Tim had arrived we tried together to fathom the instructions we had received, but eventually he and Susan went off to try find a mechanic who could see to the car immediately (without luck). Susan then came to collect me with our other car.

We spent the afternoon visiting various garagistes, all of who were working like fury trying to clear the backlog before they close for holidays on Monday. We also called in on Nicole and Alex, who suggested we contact "rétro-mécanique", Le Grand Pressigny's old car and machinery club. This paid dividends. We rang the president of the club (who was out harvesting) but when we finally made contact he suggested we speak to the people at Ligueil-Auto. So on Thursday afternoon we went to Ligueil, and spoke to the mechanic there.

He said he didn't really "know" tractions, but he rang the bodyshop next door who happened to have a Traction Avant in being rebuilt. This gave him a point of reference and access to the man who had disassembled the car in the shop. We agreed he would collect Célestine and repair the selector.

In the meantime, I emailed a couple of Australian Tractionista friends - Gerry Freed, who lives near Bordeaux, and Leon who is a bloggyfriend. Leon passed my email on his friend Ted (president of the Citroen Classic Owners Club of Australia), who responded immediately (or so it seemed) with the same instructions Jean-Louis had given, but in a language I understand completely. Gerry also responded with helpful hints, all of which I passed on to the mechanic in auto-translated French, along with the relevant section of the revue technique (the manual in French).

Yesterday after lunch, the phone rang. All that international co-operation had paid off, and the mechanic told us we could come and collect Célestine. He reminded us about treating "grand-mere" gently on the gear changes, and off we tootled, like nothing had happened.

Of course, it was really disappointing to have to ring our clients and cancel their day tour of the Loire Valley. It was the first time in 3 years we have had to do that, and it really reinforces the fact that our search for a friend for Célestine needs to take priority. We have saved about 50% of what we need, but the rest will have to come from our emergency money. That will reduce our emergency funds somewhat, but we can justify spending part of our emergency funds to avoid a situation that has the potential to seriously reduce our income.

Anyway then - when I was a kid, Thunderbirds was my absolute favorite TV show. International Rescue has done it again!


Friday 27 July 2012

Look Up

Generally, birdwatching in Europe is a waste of time. Generally, the birds are too small, too brown, too hidden in the foliage or too far away.

But every now and then, usually when I am in the company of a proper birdwatcher, I get to see something worthwhile.

Crested Tit.
I think Crested Tits are actually fairly common here, but I'd never seen one before. My impression is that they like conifers, especially cedars. This one is in a Cedar of Lebanon in the park at the Chateau of Chenonceau and was pointed out to me by a birdwatching client in late May.

Until recently I could not distinguish between the call of a nightingale and a robin, but thanks to a tutorial by Pauline I am now identifying nightingales left, right and centre. They truly are in every bush and tree here, giving it some wellie. I still don't see them very often - no one does - but I know they are there and can tell it's them. To be honest though, I am not sure what the fuss is about. The song is loud, but not that musical. Nevertheless, their iconic status is less surprising than the skylark and its scratchy old gramophone sound. This one was photographed by me in the Brenne in late May while I was showing my sister and brother-in-law around (both keen birdwatchers).

Nuthatches I've seen before, even in England, but these two were very cute. I think they might have had a nest in this Cedar of Lebanon at Chenonceau. They are one bird I see quite often there, even scavenging under the picnic tables like a sparrow! They are a lovely agile little bird, with very smart grey and buff plumage.


Thursday 26 July 2012

The Permeate Hits the Fan

I was first alerted to the gathering storm about permeate by my friend Louisa. She is an American who has lived most of her life in France, but she is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a hippy. As such she is interested in matters of nutrition and the evils of modern food processing, and sent me an article about a substance which, at that stage, hardly anyone had heard of, but the first rumblings of a controversy were starting in Australia and the global nutrition emailing lists.

Raw milk, unpasturised cream and Ste-Maure-de-Touraine
fromage de chevre from my laitiere.
I have long had reservations about fat reduced and homogenised milk, as I believe there is evidence to suggest that there are issues with the smaller size of homogenised fat globules in milk. This means that instead of big fat globules that mostly get passed straight through your digestive system, it seems that the fat from homogenised milk may be easier to absorb. Conversely, to absorb the calcium from milk the fat content has to be right, and reduced fat milk doesn't contain enough fat to allow you to benefit from the calcium.

The sort of thing most people here buy - UHT
and referred to in our house as 'emergency milk'.
Milk from the farm is routinely deconstructed by the milk processing plants and reconstructed to create standardised products. The milk is filtered through finer and finer mesh to first extract the fat, then the protein and finally, the sugars and water (or permeate). Until recently the permeate was a waste product, sold off as animal feed to pig producers. But in Australia it has been permitted to include up to 16% permeate in milk without noting it on the label. The view is that it is a natural component of the milk so there isn't a problem. However, the end result has a higher water and sugar content than milk would naturally - it's just a bulking agent, and a way of discreetly dumping waste. Probably it makes no difference to the average consumer, but I wonder how many lactose intolerants the higher dose of milk sugar has created. The irony now is that several Australian milk processors are trumpeting their plan to produce permeate free milk - but it will be more expensive (presumably because of the requirement to dispose of the permeate in some other way).

Luckily, here in France, I have access to raw whole unhomogenised milk that is delivered to me twice a week by the farmer herself. We don't consume huge amounts of milk - about 3 litres a week. Until I mentioned this consumption level to various friends and family, I thought this was quite a lot of milk, but I am astounded by how much milk the tea drinking Brits get through! Still, I imagine we consume more milk than French couples of our age. We have milk in a cup of coffee and some cereal most days, and regular doses of homemade custard. Lots of French people think of milk solely as something you make riz au lait (rice pudding) with, and would feel distinctly queasy at the thought of drinking it, even in coffee. That's why French households habitually buy UHT milk - the slightly caramelised taste is perfect for puddings, and it just becomes a store cupboard ingredient, like cans of tomatoes (and in French homes, instant mashed potato flakes, but that's another story).

My laitiere (milk woman) tells me that she has less and less demand for the raw milk, but she isn't planning to cease offering it. The few French people who buy it are mainly elderly and don't shop much at supermarkets so they don't have access to the UHT milk. Their solution is to buy the raw milk and immediately boil it. We, on the other hand, recklessly, and with no regard for the myriad of possible diseases and bacteria, consume it straight from the plastic bag.


Wednesday 25 July 2012

Party Pics

It was Simon's birthday on Monday, so here are some pics from the party. Half the guests had gone home by the time anyone got round to taking any photos, so all the food is eaten and all the remaining guests feature several times in the photos. Also there but not pictured were Tim B, Gaynor, Antoinette, Niall, Colin and Elizabeth. It got quite chilly and most of us were dressed for the high 20 degrees it had been in the early evening.

Tim, Huub, Rob, John McI, Alice, John E-W, Pauline.


John McI and Alice.

Huub and Tim.
Rob, John McI, Alice, me, John E-W, Jill.
It was held in the orchard and we supplied max strength Aerogard because the mozzies and horseflies were enjoying themselves on some of the guests (not me though - I didn't get a single bite and I wasn't wearing repellant). The menu was pissaladiere and dolmades with pineau des charentes or sparkling Montlouis for apéro followed by Simon's marinated barbecued smoked chicken with salads (from Antoinette, Elizabeth and the charcuterie in Preuilly). Then there was fruit salad from Gaynor and red and black currant ripple meringues (except I forgot to serve the coulis that went with them - oh well - party leftovers are always handy).


Tuesday 24 July 2012

Schmallenberg Virus

Dairy goats near Onzain.
Some months ago a notice appeared on our town noticeboard at the mairie. It said that if you had any suspicion that you might have Schmallenberg virus in your herd of cattle, sheep or goats you had to report it to the authorities. I meant to photograph it and write about it, but never got round to it and now the notice is gone. However, a few nights ago I was relaxing in the bath listening to ABC Radio National and Dr Peter Kirkland was interviewed. He is an Australian expert veterinary virologist and he talked about having been to Europe 3 times in the last 9 weeks to advise on the new virus that has emerged in Europe. It reminded me that I really ought to write a blog post on the subject.

Solognote ewes and lambs in the Brenne.
Schmallenberg virus is so called because it first appeared in the town of Schmallenberg in Germany near the border with the Netherlands. It is a new virus, of a type never seen before in Europe, but similar to a number that occur in Australia and Asia (such as Akabane virus which originated in Japan). The vector is a small biting midge and the disease causes birth defects or abortions of foetuses. If your herd is pregnant at the time of the outbreak you can expect up to 50% losses. If the virus hits at other times of year then there is no impact, and it does not infect humans.

Limousin cows and calves next to one of my butterfly transects.
I'm told that one of our local vets was the first to identify it in the Touraine, earlier this year. It first arrived in France on 25 January, after turning up in the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain. The first case in Indre et Loire was in a flock of sheep at Abilly, in February. By April it had become widespread in the Touraine. The newpaper reports indicate that it was only prevalent in sheep here, and losses were up to 35%. By late April 1303 farms in 49 départements had reported the disease, of which 1098 cases were in flocks of sheep. Just recently a report showed that 10% of ewes in our region test positive for Schmallenberg virus, but natural immunity is high and there will be no need to mass vaccinate with the recently developed Dutch vaccine. Sales of sheep and lamb meat have not been banned and the PR men have been mobilised to explain to the public that there is no risk to human health or the flavour of the meat.


Monday 23 July 2012

Biodiversity in the Vineyards - some background

First, some buzzwords to get you into the swing of this biodiversity malarkey:

Agroecology - agricultural practices that take the ecology into account.

Farmscale - an individual whole farm management approach.

Landscape scale - a management approach that is scaled up to focus on an entire area, not just individual farms. Sometimes referred to as 'regional scale'. It necessarily involves many more stakeholders, both private and public.

Sustainable agriculture - an approach to agricultural practices that takes into account economic, environmental and social aspects.

Conservation Biological Control - the use of landscape scale management practices to control pests and diseases. Naturally occurring indigenous predators (as opposed to introduced native or exotic predators) are provided with food sources and shelter throughout the year to ensure their numbers are maintained and they are available for pest control in an effective and timely manner.

Ecological Compensation Area - often abbreviated to ECA. Uncultivated areas such as hedges, crop margins and stone walls. These are key to Conservation Biological Control techniques.

Ecosystem services - elements of the environmental matrix such as decomposition, nutrient cycles, soil formation, water, climate and aesthetics.

Agroecosystem - an agricultural environment which incorporates a natural community of plants and animals.

And finally, the biggest buzzword of them all:

Biodiversity - the most widely accepted definition today comes from the 1992 Convention for Biological Diversity and is 'the variability among living organisms...and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.' It is generally accepted that the higher the level of biodiversity and the more complex the inter-reactions between species and their environment, the more stable and sustainable the ecological system is. It is further generally accepted that high biodiversity and sustainability is a Good Thing.

Vines with green cover between the rows - becoming the norm.
So, how does all this relate specifically to vineyards?

In 2000, vineyards covered 3% of French farmland, but soaked up 20% of the pesticides used in agriculture here. ('Pesticides' is used in the current sense of the word, meaning herbicides, insecticides and various other biocides.) Ten years later, the situation regarding pesticide use was changing very rapidly, and it was the Loire vineyards leading the way. Nowadays, sustainable agricultural practices are considered very normal, even the common sense no-brainer approach, although even today, not all vineyards have taken up the challenge and you still see 'nuked' bare-earth parcels of vines dotted about.

The use of acaricides (miteicides) has been widely replaced by the biological control of using predatory mites. Green cover in vineyards is now common, used to reduce the vigour of the vines and to act as a sponge, soaking up excess moisture.

The biodiversity quickly builds up in a recently abandoned vineyard.
In 2005 the 120 winemakers within the 65km² Saumur-Champigny wine appellation created an appellation wide flagship project to encourage biodiversity and control vine pests. The appellation sits in a triangle between Saumur, Montsoreau and Chacé, north-west of Fontevraud, with the Loire river as the northern boundary. The average production per winemaker is 85 000 hl per year. From the beginning, scientists from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) have been involved, but the fact that the project was initiated by the growers themselves makes it very different to one which is delivered and managed by a government body.

To a large extent the project has an economic basis. The growers were seeing the cost of pesticides spiralling ever upward, and they were conscious that the use or otherwise of pesticides can alter the consumer's perception of the appellation. Being pesticide free can be used as a marketing tool.

A vineyard in early spring. Note the nearby woodland, providing
shelter to beneficial insects in winter when the vines are exposed.
Today roughly half the winemakers in the appellation are fully onboard and actively involved in the project. Why does it matter? Well, that is the subject for another blog post later.


Source: Protection des Paysages Viticoles, a paper by G. Pain et al, 2010, Mission Val de Loire.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Feeling Blue?

Surely impossible in the Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire!

This garden from last year featured two colours of agapanthus, perovskia, eryngium, geranium, catnip, asters and salvia, and in mid-July was absolutely blueautiful.


Saturday 21 July 2012

A Ceramic Footrest

This adorable footrest is in Fern Bedaux's bedroom at Candé. We have a soft spot for mini dachshunds (or teckels, as they are called in France). In London we were aunty and uncle to sisters Tiger and Sponge, and got to look after them sometimes when their doting owners were on holiday or away on business.

The docent told me that Fern didn't actually use it as a footrest, but to hold the pages of books open.

If you are interested in Fern Bedaux (if you know her name at all, it will probably be as the hostess of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's wedding) there is a well researched blog post here. She was a fascinating person, full of unexpected redeeming features and contradictions. Wallis Simpson liked her, and I doubt you could say that about many women, although I'm not sure if it is necessarily a positive attribute.


Friday 20 July 2012

An Annual Photographic Challenge

As you know, if there is an attractive insect around, Simon and I will usually try to photograph it. One of the most challenging subjects at this time of year is the Broad Bordered Bee Hawkmoth Hemaris fuciformis (called le Sphinx gazé in French). Between us we got some nice shots of it feeding on lavender at the Prieuré d'Orsan last year, and I got this single lucky shot (below) while doing my July 2011 butterfly survey in the Parc de Boussay.


Thursday 19 July 2012

Weeding the River

There is an invasive water plant here called jussie. It establishes itself in the still, quiet sections of the rivers and fills up the étangs. In order to control it, it is necessary to carefully pull it out. Strimming it simply causes it to spread, when fragments take root after floating downstream. One of the local river technician's major tasks is co-ordinating the war on jussie. Recently he has put an information board up by the bridge in Preuilly.

It says:

...act to preserve your environment

Rivers Plan 2011 - 2015

Water Primrose Weeding

Invasive Water Primrose:
South American in origin
Without predators and very persistent
Grows rapidly and spreads by cuttings (5cm = a new plant)

Work done:
Thorough manual weeding of all the plants
Disposal by drying
They did a good job. I couldn't see any jussie down by the bridge, and there used to be some there. The only evidence of their work was a few trampled looking reeds.


Wednesday 18 July 2012

The stuff you learn...

... and can't use.

We have been following the Tour de France on TV this year, and really enjoying what is basically the world's longest travel advert. Along the way I have learnt stuff, like I really want to visit the Alps in Célestine, and I really do want to see the Pyrenees.

I have also learnt about hill climb classifications.

The classification range is from 4 through to 1 and h.c., with 4 being the easiest hill (I have met speed bumps, particularly the one at Artannes-sur-Indre, that probably rates as a 4) and hors catégorie being the hardest. Today's stage (stage 16, 18 July 2012) is in the Pyrenees and has two catégorie 1, and two h.c. climbs.

The term hors catégorie for hills was originally used for mountain roads which it was expected motor vehicles wouldn't be able to climb.

And catégories 1 to 3? Simple. That's the gear you need to use to climb the hill in your Traction Avant.

Maybe I will be able to use that information after all.


Tuesday 17 July 2012

Snakes on the Plain

After several conversations, both online and face to face, about snakes in the Loire Valley just recently I feel it is time to write about them again. I quite like snakes, but they make many people nervous. This is presumably based on the fact that, globally, many snakes are venomous.

Our orchard resident Western Whip Snake.
I am here to reassure you about the Loire Valley snakes. Those signs at Montpoupon that say 'Danger vipères'? - wishful thinking. Your French neighbours who warned you about les vipères in your very first week staying in the Loire? - they may have lived here all their lives, but they don't know any more about snakes than you do.

Detail of the back of a Western Whip Snake
(brought to an outing by Marc Fleury).
The Adder Vipera berus (aka Common Viper or la Vipère péliade) is extinct in the Loire Valley, although it occurs to the north of us and in the mountains. The only venomous snake in the area is the Asp Viper V. aspis (la Vipère aspic). They are uncommon and rarely seen, and they don't waste their venom on defense unless desperate. I've never seen one. If you see a small (less than 50cm) brown snake with a pattern of offset black bands or zigzags, it might be an Asp Viper, but it is far more likely to be a young Viperine Snake Natrix maura (la Couleuvre vipérine). Natrix spp (les Couleuvres) are grass snakes, and as such, non-venomous.

Marc drawing our attention to the round pupil (venomous species
in France have vertical slit shaped pupils).
If you see a snake at all here (most people rarely or never do) 9 times out of 10 it will be a Western Whip Snake Hierophis viridiflavus (la couleuvre verte et jaune). I've seen very young ones several times in the streets of Preuilly, and we've had one in the house. We also have at least one adult resident in the orchard.

Close up of the head.
Western Whip Snakes often put on a fine show of agression, but they are effectively non-venomous, like the rest of the grass snakes. Your dogs, cats and small children are not at risk except from a bit of a fright.

The belly, showing the cloacal slit and the junction between body and tail.
By all means email me if you have seen a snake and want to know what it was, but don't expect me to believe you about how long and thick it was. Those of us who work in the field know that most people over estimate the size of creatures they see in the wild by about 3 times. This is so common a human error that even experienced naturalists find themselves doing it sometimes. I probably won't be able to identify your snake from just a description either. If you have a photo, though, and some details about where and when, I have a reasonable chance and am happy to help.


R.I.P Jon Lord

One of my true music heroes died yesterday. Jon Lord was a founder member and the keyboard player in Deep Purple.


Monday 16 July 2012

Bad News on the Bakery Front

Yesterday when I called in for our daily bread there was a notice stuck to the counter explaining that the bakery was in liquidation and would open for the last time on Tuesday. The other customer in there at the same time as me is a young woman much the same age as Carene Pichard, who runs the bakery with her husband. The two of them have always appeared to be on quite friendly terms, but she was as shocked as me to hear the news.

Carene herself seemed calm and matter of fact about it. I suspect it was a relief to have it out in the open and the end in sight. I did not attempt to get any real details from her, but based on a conversation we had some time ago, I presume it brings to an end an ongoing dispute with their landlord (they don't own the bakery premises) about who should spend the money to upgrade the plumbing and other problems. The landlord would have been perfectly happy for them to plough their money into his real estate and improve it, but he wasn't interested in even meeting them halfway with the expenses, or giving them any sort of equity, and they felt it was too much of a risk.

As far as the Pichard's are concerned, it may well be the best thing that could have happened. It leaves Jean-Luc free to get a salaried job as a baker in one of the big supermarkets. This would give the family financial security and according to Carene, the bakery departments at the big Auchan and Leclerc supermarkets are proper boulangeries ie making the bread from scratch, not from frozen dough. At some stage they may move to Le Blanc, where Carene's family lives, but for the moment it seems they will stay in Preuilly and keep the children in school here (parents of primary school age children will be relieved, as it is always worrying when numbers drop in small rural schools). I suppose they will move house though, as they currently live over the shop.

As it happens I had a conversation with their boy (Florian I think his name is...) on Bastille evening. He asked me what I was doing when he saw me heaving a shutter up onto a side door of the house. He was just passing with a group of kids, including his sister, armed with bangers and cigarette lighters (which he proudly showed me). I would guess he's about 7 or 8. He and his big sister are confident, polite and lively children, easily recognised around town by their white blond hair and alabaster pale skin, and often in the shop 'helping'. Their parents too are involved in town life outside of the bakery. Both of them help with fundraising events for the school and I am always having to come up with good excuses as to why I can't attend fundraising belote (a card game) or loto (bingo) gatherings with Carene - ce n'est pas mon truc.

As far as the customers are concerned, it will mean going to the other boulangerie patisserie in town for 5 days of the week, and using the depot de pain at the Vival supermarket on the baker's day off. We will probably make our own bread on these days. Their part time employee, who only works a day and a half a week, can't have been earning very much, but I don't know what her situation is, so I don't know how much it will impact on her.

According to someone I ran into on the way home, the third bakery in town only closed in about 2003 or 04. A few years later, it was one of the places we looked at when we were house hunting. It would have been a real challenge to renovate, and is right on the main road, so it is a good thing we didn't buy it (we almost did). It seems incredible that a town with a population of under a thousand could support more than one bakery, much less two or even three.


Sunday 15 July 2012

Lesser Purple Emperor

In last year's drought some species of butterfly did poorly, but many of the forest dwelling species did exceptionally well. The shade provided by the trees seems to have helped reduce the impact of the lack of water on the habitat. This year, however, with the cold and damp, they are not doing nearly so well, so you might be lucky to see an Emperor Apatura spp or one of the white Admirals Limenitis spp.

One of the loveliest of the arboreal species is the Lesser Purple Emperor Apatura ilia (or le Petit Mars changeant in French). The males of this large (in European terms) butterfly are a gorgeous irridescent purply blue on their upper sides. Generally they are not all that common, but will often visit gardens in areas with suitable damp woodland (I have seen them at Villandry, for instance). Their main caterpillar host plants are poplars (including aspen), willows and occasionally alder. Their numbers are threatened by modern forestry practices, which clear out all non-commercial tree species (such as aspen and willows).

This photo, taken at la Châtonnière, is not perfect, but I
like the way it shows the butterfly's yellow tongue.
Males are most often seen, because they descend from the treetops to suck moisture and minerals from damp patches on the ground. They are famously attracted to faeces and entomologists studying them regularly lay the most disgusting baits to lure them close. Females are less frequently seen because they are not so easily tricked into coming down to earth.


Saturday 14 July 2012

Bastille Day 2012

Yesterday was the 5th Bastille Day Retraite Aux Flambeaux I have been to in Preuilly sur Claise, and the first that looked like it wasn't going to happen due to rain.

Luckily, the best weather of an extremely miserable day arrived at 9.00pm, allowing us the opportunity to samba around town.

The fireworks were cancelled because of lack of opportunity to set them up this afternoon, and there were less people on the retraite than normal, but we maintained the tradition and that's what matters.


Friday 13 July 2012

A Magnificent View, but where is it?

Taking my cue from various blogger friends who like to post a puzzle now and then, I thought I would post this gorgeous photo taken by Simon recently and see if anyone could name the spot it was taken from. Remember to click to enlarge for full magnificence.

No prizes for guessing correctly, but you will have my admiration.


Thursday 12 July 2012

Like Putting the Clock Back 50 Years

Moving to rural France from urban England, like moving from the east coast of Australia to New Zealand, is often said to be like putting the clock back 50 years, to some halcyon period when the sun always shone, adolescents were always polite, you could leave your front door unlocked and family life was important, but you couldn't get very much in the shops.

This photo no doubt bolsters the myth. We don't know the man with the 2CV, we just happened to pull up behind him at the pumps in la Ville aux Dames.


Wednesday 11 July 2012

Salvage Operation

The clipped box bushes on our front courtyard came through the cold winter variously. Some look completely unscathed, but two were à-peu-près mort, as our neighbour Edouard noted. He said they weren't quite dead, but I needed to prune them hard, back to where the new shoots were coming underneath. I forgot to take before photos, but basically all the visible leaves were yellowy brown and the bushes were the same size as the green ones.

Hey ho - 10 plus years of growth into a ball about a foot in diameter, down the drain in minutes. I don't suppose it will take more than a couple of years for them to catch up again though. After all, they now have very little top growth and a substantial root system. I've fertilized and will try to keep the water up to them (one thing this weather will help with...)

I'm also having a lot of trouble with ant colonies moving in to the bigger pots. They really cause the plant to slow down, and then start to die off, I guess because they are disturbing the roots constantly. It's not obvious that they have moved in until the plant starts looking sickly. I'm trying to keep the soil too moist for them, but I don't think it's working (I'm not consistent enough).


Tuesday 10 July 2012

A Dent in the Plans

If you read other French based bloggers, or indeed live in France (or the rest of the world) you will know that the weather this year has been crazy. The way this has manifested itself in Preuilly sur Claise is as a pattern of a couple of wet, chilly days, followed by the weather clearing up.

Sunset last week. This blog post is illustrated
with pictures not connected with the story.
This has played havoc with my sinuses, and for much of the past six weeks I have had pain of the face, mainly around the jaw. (This quite common with serious sinus cases - a dentist friend of mine once told me that about 10% of people who visited him at certain times of the year didn't have bad teeth, they had a sinus infection). Then one morning, I did have bad teeth - overnight I had clenched my jaw and gritted my teeth so hard (to make the pain go away) that I had cracked a tooth. This is seriously bad news, because I have a fear of dentists. It isn't a phobia - it's reasonable - and they are expensive.

I have had to just put up with the pain for 2 weeks because we have been working so much - no sick days for self employed people, dontcha know. Eludril pro anaesthetic mouthwash and RhinAdvil used in combination with the occasional panadol usually managing to keep the pain at a bearable level, but it wasn't much fun and there were one or two sleepless nights.

The Chateau of Cheverny, looking
like Moulinsart (Marlinspike Hall)
Yesterday we managed to contact a dentist in La Roche Posay (the dentist in Preuilly being on holiday this week) and made an appointment for Thursday at 15.30. Half an hour later the dentist rang back and said "I can see you in an hour". This was both good and bad news, because I knew things would get a whole lot worse before they got better.

Well blow me down... Half an hour after arriving the chunk of broken tooth was removed, a filling was in place, and we were out the door. Did I impress myself with my bravery? You bet - I even managed it all without anaesthetic. Me - having my teeth drilled without at least 3 jabs!

Love is...
I am told that I will get occasional reminders of the pain for a few days yet as the nerves settle down, but so far so good.

The other amazing thing is that the whole proceedure cost me €28.92, of which we should get about half back from our health insurance.


Monday 9 July 2012

La Reine des Glaces

French people eat a lot of fresh raw leafy greens. And they are very precise about nomenclature. Laitue can be translated as 'lettuce' but to a French person, laitue is a quite specific type of lettuce, and the generic term for what in English would be lettuce or salad greens is salade in French. Within the salade section of a market stall you could get labels for laitue, batavia, scarole, mesclun, mache, feuilles de chene, endive, frisée, romaine, roquette and no doubt a few more that I've forgotten or don't know about.

One that I hadn't noticed before is reine des glaces. I was alerted to its presence on Madame Morin's stall on Saturday by the woman behind me in the queue. 'Oh!' she exclaimed, 'You have reine des glaces! You hardly ever see it these days! It's so good to see someone growing the old varieties! My husband loved it and used to grow it! It has such a distinctive taste!'

Reine des glaces and tomato baguettes.
It is a cut leafed lettuce and I thought it looked like an escarole type, which are a little bitter. 'No, no', I was assured. 'It's a batavia.' This is the variety I usually buy, as it is crisp, mild and keeps well (we don't eat nearly as much lettuce as your average French person). Monsieur Morin seemed very pleased with all the attention his reines des glaces were getting and handed me one saying 'Here, try one. Take it, it's a little gift for you'.

So I brought it home and we had some in a simple tomato sandwich for lunch. Very nice - very crunchy and a flavour as if it has been seasoned with salt and pepper.

It turns out, now that I've googled the subject, that batavias are iceberg lettuces. This will give anglophone readers a vision of a melon sized ball of tightly packed pale green leaves with no taste but plenty of crunch. French batavias are picked before they get to that stage and are a small loose head of bright green leaves. It further turns out that reine des glaces is an extremely popular 200 year old variety that everyone raves about. It is reliable no matter what the weather, and particularly so in the cold (hence the name, which means 'ice queen') making a small round head and best if not watered. Those who are particularly enamoured even talk about its unique 'hazelnutty' flavour. Its only drawback seems to be that it sets very few seeds and so can be difficult to source if you want to grow some.


Sunday 8 July 2012

June Butterfly Survey Report

A Ringlet, at rest. When flying they are very difficult to tell
from the male Meadow Browns also flying around the grass.
I finally got to do my June butterfly survey, on the very last day of the month. It was quite hot (25C) and fairly cloudy but the wind was not too bad.

The ubiquitous Marbled White (a male).
According to Luc Manil, who co-ordinates us STERFistes, it is the worst butterfly year for 7 years. The only species doing notably well across France is the Marbled White. My observations certainly back that up. On my June survey I saw 289 individuals of Marbled White and there was not a single transect where I didn't see more than one. This is more than twice as many of this one species than of all the other 30 species put together. The next nearest in abundance was the Small White, with 23 individuals. The only other species I would note as being more numerous than usual is the Peacock. They are always common, but seem to be a bit more so this year.

Skippers always strike me as cheeky little blighters, but this
Large Chequered is having a laugh - resting on my trousers.
The reason for the absence of several of the Fritillary species, most of the blues, the White Admirals (who had an outstanding year only last year) and the Swallowtails, is the weather. An exceptionally dry 2011 followed by a very cold snap in February killed many caterpillars. Then after a hot dry start to the 2012 spring, it turned cool and wet. The temperature in June was one degree lower than the average for this month. We only received 70% of average sunshine, and around 80mm of rain (that's nearly twice the monthly average I think).

An Ilex Hairstreak walks across some
clematis between two oak saplings.
It was so consistently cold and wet in April that I never got to do a survey that month - no point if the weather means no butterflies will be about. My first attempt in May I abandoned halfway through because of a storm and because my Boussay transects were so waterlogged I couldn't access them without rubber boots - again not ideal butterfly conditions. Now in June, two of my Boussay transects have shoulder high grass and all of the rest (bar one which has been mowed) are so tangled and overgrown I could have done with a machete. Miraculously, I had only picked up two tiny ticks by the end of the day!

A beautifully fresh male Short-tailed Blue.
Still, mustn't grumble - it may have rained a lot, but we needed it, and it hasn't flooded here (unlike many places in Europe). I've got a couple of new species for the survey since last year, with (not terribly good) photos. And it's turning out to be a good year for dragonflies (they had a poor year in 2011 with the dry). And the orchids have been good (still a few of the late flowering ones around too - they have also appreciated the cooler, wetter conditions).