Thursday 28 February 2013

Preparing for the Coming Season

Célestine has been for her pre-season checkup. She's in good health, with new oil and the annoying panel on one of her back doors fixed so clients don't all have to pile in from one side only.

Last year we began using a garage in Bossay sur Claise, the next village upstream from Preuilly. The mechanic is 'young Cosson', and the workshop is quite remarkably neat and tidy. He's the youngest scion of the Cosson family, all involved in the family business. He and his mother and one staff member run the mechanical side of the operation on the rive droite, his father and older brother run the panel beating workshop on the rive gauche. His brother Tony is rather a local celebrity, being the French rally car champion for 2012, and having won the title a number of times before I believe. Mme Cosson tells me that young Alexandre, our mechanic, has taken up the sport too, since last year.

At the same time I booked in Célestine for her contrôle, I booked in the mower for a révision too, at the same garage -- no job too small for them. I knew the mower would need an oil change and the blades sharpening. Alexandre tells me he also fitted a new spark plug and replaced the air filter, but he says it is in good nick and goes well. He also asked me if I ever tipped it over on its side. 'Yes, sometimes, probably...'. 'Hmm, well, make sure you only tip it to the right, OK?' 'OK'. I remember reading something in the instructions about not tipping it over, but never understood why, and couldn't figure out how you dealt with looking at the blades and suchlike if you couldn't tip it over. I'm still not entirely sure why one doesn't tip to the left, but I believe it has something to do with not getting oil on the spark plug.

Alexandre was slightly bemused to be asked if I could take his photo with my mower...
I really like Nadine (Mme Cosson) and her family. For one thing, they always seem to understand what I say, even over the phone, and are very patient when making sure I understand them. It's always really interesting (and relieving) to meet people who have the knack of understanding heavily accented non-fluent French. It's interesting that some people, like the Cosson's, are so intuitive, where others, equally benignly disposed towards me, can't understand a word I say.
Loire Valley Nature Update: The entry for Violet Helleborine orchid Epipactis purpurata has been updated.
The entry for Autumn Lady's Tresses orchid Spiranthes spiralis has been updated.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

New Boots

New boots.
I bought a pair of new hiking boots on Friday. They cost me €7.50 at MaxPlus, the discount end of line store in Chambray-lès-Tours. They are not a well known brand, but they are leather, with a proper sewn in waterproof tongue. I like the fact they are nice and simple, without multiple cut away layers and kilometres of stitching for water to seep through. I'm slightly dubious that the inner soles will stay put and I will certainly put in an extra insulated inner sole.

This laneway looks lush. What you can't see is that walking it meant going through knee deep water. No wonder the sign tells you not to take farm machinery down it.
My current pair of boots were reasonably expensive (£80 I seem to remember) Salomon lightweights that I bought in Kathmandu (the outdoor and travel gear store in London, not the Himalayan city) just before we moved to France. So, they've lasted nearly 4 years and are still perfectly wearable, but starting to show battlescars. They especially didn't appreciate being waded through floodwater along a farm lane in the Brenne last May. Foolishly, I didn't rinse them when I got home and they've never been quite the same since.

The Salomon boots, and I'm soaked through from the knees down.
The new boots will serve as a fine backup, allowing me to put the old ones into semi-retirement.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

A Raid on the Paris Store

Last Friday we went up to Tours to check out a couple of hotels and do some shopping. One of our planned destinations was the Paris Store in Tours Nord. Despite it's name, Paris Store is actually a chain of Asian grocers. We stock up there with specialist ingredients from time to time, as they are much cheaper than the supermarkets for the Asian staples like soy sauce, and have many things we just can't get anywhere else.

As regular Paris Store shoppers, we even arrived with our own store branded bag...

This is what we bought:

A bunch of green celery (celery is often blanched here, so I buy green when I see it) 74¢
A bunch of coriander 36¢
A 300g box of silken tofu €1.50
A 240g tray of acras antillais (Caribbean fish dumplings) €3.36
A packet of transparent soy noodles in 5 x 50g bundles €1.08
A 450g packet of quick noodles in 50g bundles €1.45
A 1l bottle of sweet chilli sauce €1.99
A 500g packet of fresh bean sprouts €1.20
A 500ml bottle of dark soy sauce €1.35
A 500ml bottle of premium light soy sauce €1.25
A 225g bottle of plum sauce €2.05
A 400g packet of 19cm² rice starch spring roll wrappers €1.65
2 cans of ginger beer 55¢ ea
A 750ml bottle of ginger syrup €3.99
5 packets of instant noodle soups 35¢ ea
A packet of baby pak choy €1.05
A 1kg bag of blanched almonds €10.20
A tray of 6 'spring' rolls (the sort that are deep fried, and known as nems in France) €2.30
A 100g packet of rice snack shapes 85¢
A 500g block of fresh firm tofu €1.42
A 400g bag of coloured tapioca €1.10
A 300g packet of Soba buckwheat noodles 95¢
A 225g packet of Udon noodles 60¢

Grand total €43.29

The loot unloaded.
Recipe suggestions please...
Weather Update: On Sunday we had a very light dusting of snow and overnight it built up to a couple of centimetres. It's supposed to come to an end today.

Monday 25 February 2013

Trams in the Street

On Friday we were in Tours and as we pulled up at some lights we realised that one of the new trams was parked at a station right in front of us. It looked very sleek and shiny. As we went round the corner I snapped a couple of shots through the windscreen, and the tram pulled away from us, going in the other direction.
Loire Valley Nature Updates: The Pyrenean Fragrant Orchid Gymnadenia pyrenaica entry has been updated -- it has been elevated to full species and confirmed as being present in the Touraine.

Sunday 24 February 2013


This lovely New South Wales Waratah Telopea speciosissima, the state flower of New South Wales, was flowering in the Australian National Botanic Gardens when I visited in November. A member of the Proteaceae family, waratahs are native to the eastern seaboard of Australia. They are so spectacular that, although initially they were thought to be difficult to cultivate, they are now a popular garden plant and cut flower. One of the roles of the ANBG is to work with garden worthy native plants and develop an understanding of how to propagate and cultivate them, which can be passed on to commercial growers and the public. Their fact sheet for Waratah is here. In the wild the species relies on periodic bushfires to successfully germinate seeds in the open areas created by the burn. Waratah is an Aboriginal word. The New South Wales Rugby team is called the Waratahs.
Bakery News: The bakery 'up the hill' has announced their fermeture definitive on 5 March, en cause de manquer clientèles et depôt de pain.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Here be Dragons

A large female absorbs warmth from a rock on the shoreline at Manly.

On our recent trip to Australia I encountered Australian Water Dragons Itellagama lesueurii (syn Physignathus lesueurii) in both the Australian National Botanic Gardens and on the coast at Manly in Sydney. This meant I got to see both subspecies -- the Gippsland Water Dragon I. l. howittii in the Botanic Gardens, and the Eastern Water Dragon I. l. lesueurii at Manly.

A female Eastern Water Dragon.

In both places the dragons are considered an attraction and visitors are encouraged to spot them. In Manly in particular, it is clear that the local population has adopted these rather formidable looking lizards. Whenever we stopped to watch and photograph a dragon there, a passing local would step up and tell us about them. Even blokes sitting on park benches with cans of beer knew all about them and were clearly proud of them. We learnt what they ate, where to see them and how to tell male from female, all from random locals who saw we were interested.

A young adult Eastern Water Dragon, showing the pattern on its back.

We were told several times in our discussions that it was not permitted to handle them. With us, they were simply imparting a piece of information along with many other snippets about the creatures, and we were not being suspected of disturbing the dragons. Our friend Stefania, however, who is a qualified eco-guide specialising in marine mammals tours for French and Italian visitors, told us that she had a French client recently who picked one up and was most put out when she very firmly told him to put it down and leave it alone or there would be consequences. The lizards may be on show and familiar with being in close proximity to people, but they are not zoo animals and they are not pets. The cliffs are steep here and they can decide just how close to people they get. Like all reptiles in Australia, they are protected by law and there is a fine for stealing, handling or disturbing them.

A male Eastern Water Dragon, showing the very contrasting light and dark markings that distinguish this subspecies from the Gippsland Water Dragons.

The Water Dragons are the largest species in the Agamidae family of lizards, and can reach a metre long. The holotype (ie the original specimen which was used to write the official description of the species and to which a scientific name was formally assigned) is kept at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris, and is named after Charles Alexandre Lesueur, the naturalist aboard Nicolas Baudin's early 19th century French expedition to Australia, who collected the specimen.

A crowd of interested passersby gathers to watch and photograph a dragon at Manly, keeping a respectful distance so as not to disturb it.

Their main predators are snakes, but cats, dogs and foxes can also harm them, and birds like Kookaburras will take young ones. They get run over quite a lot, as they like to bask on warm bitumen, and the Botanic Gardens has recorded at least one instance of one with a broken back after a kid threw a rock at it.

We were told exactly where we would find this magnificent male by a local who stopped to talk to us.

The female digs a hole in the ground and lay eggs in the spring. The eggs are covered with earth and leaf litter to insulate and camouflage them. Depending on the temperature of the nest, she may produce a predominance of males (if the nest is warm) or females (if the nest is hot or cool).

Totally camouflaged -- and that's even after I've upped the contrast a bit in Photoshop.

They are semi-aquatic and always live near water. They will feed on land or in the water, and they often use water as a refuge if disturbed. They eat almost anything (including the tomato from your hamburger, according to our new friend on the park bench with the can of beer).

If you want to know more, the ANBG has produced an FAQ page on their website, and the Australian Museum has an excellent page on them.

A Gippsland Water Dragon, much more uniformly dark grey, in the Australian National Botanical Gardens, Canberra.

These notices appear at intervals along the coastal walk around Manly, and clearly have the support of the locals, who seem to act as self-appointed guardians in a thoroughly heartening way.

This small dragon was not old enough to be digging a nest, but instead we think was hunting for ants and eating them. (That's me and Stefania talking in the background.)

Friday 22 February 2013

Doing a Salamander

The salamander was the emblem of the French kings and is particularly associated with François I. The salamander's position as royal insignia comes about because of its reputation of being able to survive unscathed from the fire.

 The background to this seems to be that salamanders, which are native to the Loire Valley, François' stronghold, live in cool, dark, damp places like firewood piles. Inevitably from time to time they came in on a log and were put on the fire. Naturally they scarpered pretty nippily once in proximity with the flames -- surviving unscathed.

Yesterday we had a bonfire in the orchard to get rid of a pile of prunings. At one stage I noticed a small movement at my feet and to my surprise a longhorn beetle was staggering away from the fire. It didn't look very well, so I think it was suffering from smoke inhalation and general roasting.

I picked it up and sat it on the box of matches to take some photos of it. After I had finished it determinedly chugged off into the undergrowth.

Once I got home I used the photos to identify it. There was no difficulty in that -- it is Cerambyx scopoli, the quite common lookalike little cousin of the rarest and most iconic of the French longhorn beetles C. cerdo, The Great Capricorn (France's biggest beetle at 55mm long).

I was surprised to see an adult longhorn in February, but it seems that some individuals of this species do emerge very early, like this one. Mostly however, the adults are active in May and into June.

This one is a female, with much shorter antennae than a male. I thought that her antennae and legs had a dusting of ash, but in fact, they are covered in grey downy hair. Her body is 'ruggedised' (as manufacturers of field equipment like to say), very textured, and verging on irridescent. She measured about 25mm from mandibles to elytra tips.

She is no threat to timbers in buildings. Like many big longhorns, she requires dead timber in still living trees for her larvae to develop in. The species is not really common enough to be considered a commercial pest, and because dead timber tends to be removed, the population of C. scopoli is almost certainly declining.

Thursday 21 February 2013

A Fromagerie in Paris

 Fromagerie La Ferme de Chloé.

Yet again, we've discovered somewhere we didn't even know existed on a visit to a district of Paris that we thought we knew well. There is a fantastic cheese shop at 2 rue du Rhin in the 19ème. It's called La Ferme de Chloé and we suddenly noticed it when we stopped over in Paris in December. I have no idea how we have managed to miss it on previous visits.

The window was full of Mont d'Or, a soft cheese that is a seasonal treat at Christmas time.

There are half a dozen French reviews of the shop on Yelp and Keldelice and the like -- they just rave about the place, saying things like:

The choice here is reeeeeeeeeeally large, the welcome always really smiling and the fromager really kind. When you come in without much idea of what you want, she is quick to ask you what you really like in order to advise you what might please you.

The prices are very affordable for the cheese selection (especially for a Parisian cheese shop in an area that is becoming a bit yuppiefied*). *The reviewer used the expression un poil bobo.

There is everything from celebrated Camemberts to little products unknown to the general public. The shop assistant (happily) takes the time to introduce you to numerous artisanal products.
Loire Valley Nature Updates:  the Man Orchid Orchis anthropophora entry has been updated.
The Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera entry has been updated.
The Mueller's Helleborine orchid Epipactis muelleri entry has been updated.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Ici un grand arbre est tombé...

The parks and gardens team check the instrument readings being fed to the computer in the back of their van. The news wasn't good.
When we stopped over in Paris on our way home from Australia in December 2012 we went for a walk in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont as is our usual practice. At one point we encountered barricades and a temporary sign that said (in French):
A big tree has fallen here, its root system having been destroyed by a fungus (honey fungus) despite showing no outward signs of weakness.
This fungus can propogate itself from one tree to another. This is why the Council is going ahead with a thorough health check for all the trees situated around and about. While waiting for the results of these tests, the passage of pedestrians under these trees is temporarily halted and a security barrier installed.
Thank you for your understanding.
The barricades and notices didn't seem to be making a blind bit of difference, especially to joggers, who simply ducked under them and continued on their chosen route. I noticed that one American guy got told off when he emerged the other side, into the clutches of the tree surgery and gardening team. We dutifully went around and eventually came across the team working on the trees right next to the dead one.

 A cable had been attached to the tree and was being winched tighter and tighter, to measure the tree's 'bendability'.
Meanwhile, a climber prepared to go up the middle tree.
 The stump of the fallen tree, a Horse Chestnut Aesculus hippocastarium, or marronier in French, the right hand tree in a group of three.
The parks and gardens team take photographs of their stress metres in place -- they probably write a blog too...
 The 'bendability' metres in operation -- you can see exactly what they are supposed to be measuring by the diagram on the side.
The climber fights his way through the twigs.

In case you are wondering, there was a group of preschoolers behind us.
Weather and Related News: There was a frost yesterday morning, but it was absolutely clear and sunny the whole day. It got up to 17°C (!!) in the orchard and I had to strip off to shirt sleeves to work. The laneway is now accessible by car and I am thinking of trying a bit of digging -- or at least weeding. My rubber boots have died, developing big splits, so I'm jolly glad my patriotism only extended to €7 worth. At least they lasted through the worst of the wet.
Loire Valley Nature Notes: a new entry for Corncockle Agrostemma githago added.
Tongue Orchid Serapias lingua entry updated.
Green-winged Orchid Anacamptis morio entry updated.
Loose-flowered Orchid A. laxiflora entry updated.
Burnt Orchid Neotinea ustulata entry updated.
Monkey x Lady Orchid hybrid Orchis x angusticruris entry updated.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Nestboxes in Paris Parks

We photographed this nestbox in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in December. The notice underneath provides an explanation of a project that includes installing nest boxes in all Paris parks. It says:
Why put up a nest box?
The increasing rarity of natural nest sites due to the disappearance of natural grasslands, the culling of hollow trees, hedges and copses, the abandonment of old orchards, the cutting down of old non-commercial trees, and the demolition or renovation of old buildings, constitutes a significant obstacle to the reproduction of nesting birds. As a result, many species are struggling to find suitable places to build their nests.
One simple and effective means of encouraging breeding birds is to put up nests designed to be substitutes for the natural places that have been destroyed. Putting up nest boxes is an act to protect nature that should not be dismissed -- a species can be maintained thanks to this single action. The method offers the advantage of being within reach of everyone, but also to provide the sort of nest spaces that fit the birds' needs, by putting them out of the way of predators and disturbance, and allowing their reproduction to be monitored.
Every gardener, horticulturalist and forester has good reason to protect the birds -- every garden bird, and, all the more so, those inclined to use nest boxes, are insectivores during the breeding season or feed their young on insects, larvae, caterpillars, eggs, etc. A pair of Great Tits can bring up to 6000 caterpillars and other insects to their chicks during the breeding season. Not insignificant help, even if it often goes unnoticed!
This nestbox, for a Common Redstart or a Black Redstart, has been installed on the occasion of the 6th Nature Festival 9 - 13 May 2012, as part of a campaign to get 10000 nest boxes erected throughout France. To learn more, go to
It's National Nestbox Week over in the UK, and now is certainly the time to be putting new nestboxes up for the coming season, and making sure your existing ones are clean, in good condition and firmly attached. Tim from Aigronne Valley Wildlife has been busy making new nest boxes (when he's not battling The Rat). Don't forget that it's not just birds that will appreciate safe dry nests -- I've been making bee hotels.
Loire Valley Nature Update:  a new entry for Common Knapweed Centaurea jacea has been added. If you are from the UK you may know the British species as Lesser Knapweed C. nigra. It's a taxonomic nightmare and I've tried not to get too complicated with it. Even the most stalwart and intrepid members of l'Association de Botanique et Mycologie de Sainte Maure de Touraine just look at it and mumble 'hmm, some variety of la Centaurée noire...', and don't attempt to take it any further.
A new Habitat entry for Gardens (Compost Heaps) has been added.

Monday 18 February 2013

A la Foire au safran

Saturday was Preuilly's annual saffron fair, and this year I thought it went off particularly well. The day was cold and foggy, but not raining (hurrah!) There was an excellent range of artisanal gourmet produce for sale -- chocolate, spices of all sorts, cold pressed oils, syrups, rillettes, rare breed chickens, pure pork saucisson, foie gras, cheese, soaps and skin care potions, baskets made from local materials, turned wooden objects, jewellry, wrought iron, nougat and pain d'épices. Above all there was saffron, as strands, in cakes, flavouring oil, served in little verres de dégustation in both sweet and savoury versions as you came in the door.

Wrought iron objects by Preuilly based prize winning blacksmith Thierry Grall from la Forge du Serrurier. In the background you can see the handrail terminals he has designed for the new Tours trams.

We tasted duck foie gras, chicken rillettes, young, aged and blue ewes' milk cheese, saucisson, pumpkin puree seasoned with saffron and piment d'espelette and saffron flavoured citrus jelly -- all delicious. In the end we bought a Géline de Touraine (rare breed chicken) for €13.30, some saucisson and some young ewes' milk cheese (€27.50). We also bought 24 vanilla pods for €20 from Dany Blot, the same spice stall as last year. These are such good quality and such good value. You can place orders by phone 06 85 90 86 59 or email. I didn't buy any saffron, as I already have a good supply at home (and I rarely use it as Simon doesn't like it).

Farmhouse saucisson made with pure pork leg meat and some seasoning and a young tomme style brebis (ewe) cheese from the same farm. We are delighted that our friends Tim and Pauline recommended this producer, who is regularly at the markets in Descartes and la Roche Posay, but who we have never tried before.

A Géline de Touraine, a local breed of chicken that has had a revival since local restaurateurs like Jacky Dallais have taken an interest in them. The one we got came from Frédéric Guillemain, les Augeries, Betz-le-Chateau. This nice young man raises Gélines de Touraine and Charolais cattle and sells both direct to the public (email or telephone 02 47 59 62 19 to order). The chicken has the head still attached to prove that it is what it purports, and we buy a Géline from time to time as a treat.

A good crowd in the Preuilly Gymnasium, checking out the delicious offerings on all the stalls.
Loire Valley Nature Update: a new entry for Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara added.

Sunday 17 February 2013

Birds in the Botanic Gardens

The Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra is rightly proud of the native wildlife the Gardens support. The most visible group (other than plants) are birds. I took the opportunity to photograph some of the larger avian inhabitants of the garden when I visited in November.

 This Crimson Rosella was sitting in a beautiful gum tree, waiting for his mate, who was in the nest in a knot hole nearby.

 A Red Wattlebird arrives to survey what might be available for lunch at the Gardens' café.

 White-winged Choughs like this one go around in gangs, poking their beaks into anything they encounter and descending on abandoned tables and scavenging the scraps.

Crested Pigeons are much more circumspect, keeping their distance and seeking the shade under the bushes.
Loire Valley Nature Updates:  a new Habitat label created, with a first entry about Small Rivers added.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Wobbly Wattlebird

While in Canberra in November I visited the Australian National Botanic Gardens with my sister-in-law Rosy's mum. She is a recently widowed retired plant physiologist, and was delighted to have an excuse for an outing to the Gardens.

We started by checking out the excellent visitor centre shop, but when we came out we noticed a bird on the pavement, clearly in distress. It was a juvenile Red Wattlebird Anthochaera carunculata, lying on its side in a most unnatural way, arching its spine and jerking as though it were having a fit.

I rushed inside and told the receptionist, who found a box in the back office and came out, ready to rescue the bird. By the time we got back outside though, it was sitting up, panting, but not fitting. Suzanne stood so her shadow was over the bird, as it was a very hot day. We watched it for a minute or two, and just as I suggested getting some water for it, it heaved itself up of the ground and flapped into a nearby bush. It looked a bit confused and the landing wasn't very dignified, but it seemed like it was going to be alright so we left it to its own devices.

We presume it had managed to fly smack into one of the covered walkway posts and concussed itself.

Red Wattlebirds are extremely common in Canberra, and highly visible, as their raucous calls draw your attention. They are a type of large honeyeater, a family of birds unique to Australia and the surrounding islands, which use their brush tipped tongues to gather nectar from equally unique native plants such as Banksias and Bottlebrushes. Wattlebirds are bold and opportunisitic, so happily share space with man in parks and gardens and are quick to investigate picnic tables and barbecue areas for possible food sources -- they will take meat, bread, cheese and fruit given half a chance.

Friday 15 February 2013

Rhapsody in Baby Blue

We first saw this car on the Journées Nationales des Metiers d'Art open day at Auto Classique Touraine in April 2011. (We thought we had blogged about it, but looking back it appears we didn't. Tant pis.) As you can see, back then it was looking a bit sad: an empty shell in a not terribly fetching shade of undercoat.

But now the ugly duckling is a fully grown... wotsit. Maybe not a swan, exactly, but something completely different. The car is a 1937 Delahaye 135M with coachwork based on a design by Figoni et Falaschi.

There is a local angle to this story: the Delahaye company was founded by Emile Delahaye, who was born in Tours in 1843. He started building cars in 1894 in Tours, before the company relocated to Paris.

Nice, but you would have to be a willowy blonde with a borzoi to really carry it off.

Loire Valley Nature Update: a new entry for Domestic / Feral Cat Felis catus has been added.
A new entry for Hunting has been added.
Photos of Chalk Milkwort Polygala calcarea added to the Milkworts Polygala spp entry.
A new entry for Sweet Chestnut Castanea sativa has been added.
A new entry for Spotted Longicorn beetle Chlorophorus glabromaculatus has been added.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Still Two Boulangeries...

...but will it last? This is the scene chez Sophie et Aurélien, the popular boulangerie 'down the hill' in Preuilly. (Actually, these pictures were taken just after Christmas, when we were still a single bakery town.) The new baker 'up the hill' has been persuaded to stick with it...for now...after a bit of a wobble.

Loire Valley Nature Update: a new entry for Psathyrellaceae Fungi Inky Caps added.
Photos added to Wild Boar Sus scrofa entry.
A photo added to the Burnt Orchid Neotinea ustulata entry.