Friday, 31 May 2013

Turbulent Times in Azay-le-Rideau

I've delayed posting these photos of the Indre river at Azay-le-Rideau because we wanted to show the spring 2011 counterpoint photos. A week ago the water was swirling and raging through Azay-le-Rideau, churning over the weir by the bridge.

This time two years ago, you could easily have walked across the weir without getting you feet wet, but you will have to trust me on that. I cannot find the photos, even after several hours of increasingly frustrated searching.

It seems to us that the water is exceptionally high, but in fact the levels are coming nowhere near the flood markers from past years. If you are in Azay-le-Rideau, stand on the bridge and check out the flood markers on the boathouse steps. The water has been at least a metre higher in the past, and significantly higher that it is now on at least half a dozen occasions.

Update: Colin has sent me a link to his blog with a photo of the weir completely exposed.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Saché's 'Secret'

Saché is a picturesque village known for being the country retreat of 19th century French writer Balzac. Much of the tourist focus is on the chateau he stayed in and the sites in the surrounding Indre valley that he made the setting for scenes in his novels.

But Saché has another famous past resident, and a souvenir of his time here is in set in plain view in the middle of the mairie carpark. Recently we stopped here with some art loving American clients. They were astounded to see that it is safe to erect a work by Alexander Calder as a piece of public art in such an out of the way place. The standing mobile is not defaced by grafitti, shot up by rednecks or stolen by scrap metal merchants.
One of the truly wonderful things about France is the abundance of art that you can get right up close to. It is presumed that members of the public will respect the works, and the authorities see it as their responsibility to encourage the arts at all levels. French curators are not keen on ropes and barriers, and there is an expectation that the general public are interested and educated when it comes to viewing art.

American artist Alexander Calder loved Saché and his estate endows a foundation which allows artists to live in his house here and spend three months working whilst supported by the foundation. He had spent the late 1920s and early 1930s in Paris, and later, after he was married, bought a house in Saché. His wife was Louisa James (related to the writer Henry James, who also loved France). By the 1960s he was internationally famous and living in the Touraine full time. During this time he constructed a studio and then a house overlooking the Indre valley. Between them the couple made many of the household objects -- she hooked rugs to his designs and he forged pans and cutlery for the kitchen. He died in 1976, and she 20 years later.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Glory in Glass

Not much really old stained glass survives in the Touraine (and very little in situ). This area has been a battleground for too much of its history. The Protestant iconoclasts in the 16th century Wars of Religion did much of the damage, but the Revolution in the late 18th century, the Prussian War in the 19th century and the Second World War in the 20th can all take their share of the blame. Almost all of the stained glass you will see now is 19th century, and some of the surviving older glass has been moved from its original surrounds.
The church in the lovely village of Montrésor is one of only half a dozen that I know of which retains some of its medieval or renaissance glass. It was commissioned by Imbert de Bastarnay (grandfather of Diane de Poitiers) and built between 1519 and 1541 in the gothic style. The window over the altar is a rare survival from that time, and depicts the Passion and the Crucifixion. At the other end of the church the gable above the entrance was opened up in the 19th century to take some very beautiful renaissance era windows that were formerly part of the choir screen (not shown here). The colours in both sets of windows are rich, intense and jewel like, far less flat than their 19th century counterparts. They are truly striking windows, and doubly so because of their rarity.
Considered a very fine example of a Renaissance building, the church is open every day.
Our medieval historian friends Niall and Antoinette have written more fully and more knowledgeably about the church here.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Black Farm Chickens

Preuilly is blessed with an excellent butcher, who I use regularly. A few weeks ago I bought two chicken legs from him for our dinner. I asked for deux pattes de poulet, just as I had heard an old lady doing a week earlier. Just as he had done with the old lady, the butcher repeated the request as deux cuisses de poulet. Whole chicken legs are usually referred to as cuisses, even though the word actually means thigh. Pattes de poulet makes more sense (chicken legs) except that pattes is frequently used to just mean feet. In fact, when I overheard the old lady, I was intrigued, because I assumed she was buying chicken feet. The butcher got out a new waxed cardboard box and opened it up to get her order -- deux cuisses de poulet.

Whether they are pattes or cuisses, they are a top notch product. They are Label Rouge, a trusted French quality accreditation system, and are black farm raised chickens from the Loire Valley. Not the famous Dame Noire or Géline de Touraine breed, but I think very like. The meat is as dark as duck and the drumsticks have vestiges of the black feathers. On the label it tells you that the chicken has been raised on the farm in the open air and killed at a minimum of 81 days old. Its origins are traceable up to the point of sale, and each piece is numbered. Two legs weighed 570 g and cost me €5.42 (at €9.50 / kg). They did two meals for two.

And in case you are wondering how I cooked them, they were marinated in soy sauce, pineapple juice, ginger and garlic then slow cooked in the oven over a bed of vegetables, with the marinade forming the pot liquor. I served them with buckwheat noodles.
Orchard Update: Yesterday I planted tomato, aubergine, pepper, chilli, celeriac, celery and leek seedlings in the potager. We had two warm sunny days in a row and it seemed like my last opportunity for a while. The bees of all species have been going crazy the last two days. The paulownia was seriously buzzing, as were the gardens of Chenonceau and Cheverny the day before. They obviously think it is their last chance for a while too. I roughly dug part of a new bed, maybe for green beans, and I picked the first few strawberries. It looks like this year will be the strawbs swan song, so I need to be thinking about creating a new bed for new strawberry plants. With the damp weather at the moment I am losing more fruit on them than is ripening enough to pick. The Early Spider and Lady Orchids are coming to an end, starting to look faded and past it. The Bee Orchids are spectacular -- they seem to be a particularly deep pink this year. Still to come, and budding up nicely are the Pyramidal and the Lizards.

Apparently it is the wettest spring since 2008 and the coldest since 1987.

Monday, 27 May 2013

We Won't be Going That Way!

Last Thursday we had intended to go from Chinon to Azay-le-Rideau along the river. On the day we were foiled by flooding as shown above, so we turned onto the route that takes you through the army tank training base in the forest. No go here either, as the army were out and shooting. We took the deviation as directed, skirting around the edges of the base. A perfectly pleasant drive, so our clients were not disappointed and we were all amused by the sentries in their camouflage gear topped by hi-viz vests.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Freddo Frogs

Freddo Frogs and Caramello Koalas -- classic Australian kid bait (or as I see Cadbury refers to them, 'pre-teens confectionary').

They need to be consumed fridge cold in my opinion. They aren't proper chocolate of course (being about 30% sugar and only 23% cocoa solids), so chilling them doesn't cause any more distress to food snobs than simply eating them in the first place. I am pleased to see though that when Cadbury switched a proportion of the product's cocoa butter to palm oil, sales suffered and they switched back in 2009.

When Sarah Turnbull, author of Almost French, married a Frenchman called Frédéric, he was (perhaps inevitably) quickly dubbed Freddo by her Australian family.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Where the Wisteria Grows

Wisteria trained across a tuffeau building always makes a picturesque scene. They flower here in May - June and are just beautiful. This one is in Montrésor and the building is a troglo under the chateau.


Thursday, 23 May 2013

Philippe Lesbahy's Bedchamber

Like her counterpart Katherine Briçonnet over at Chenonceau a few years earlier, Philippe Lesbahy spent several years supervising the building of one of the jewels of the French Renaissance. Both women were married to financiers who worked for the king and so were often away, leaving their wives in charge of building their beautiful new riparian status symbols in the early 16th century.

Philippe Lesbahy's bedchamber, with newly recreated canopied bed and rush wall treatment.
Sadly for Philippe, her husband and his family turned out to be wrong-uns, caught embezzling state funds, and despite her pleading, she was forced to abandon the Chateau of Azay le Rideau before it was finished.

Now owned by the State and one of the historic properties expertly run by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, it is perhaps the least well known of the big name chateaux in the Loire Valley. That's a shame, because the curatorial staff there do an excellent job and every year the presentation of the chateau features something new and exciting. They manage to be serious and scholarly perfectly combined with charming and fascinating.

The new rush matting in the Oratoire.
Their previous big project was to restore and open the roof spaces. This year they have recreated a Renaissance bedchamber, carefully based on historical sources, which they explain through the use of information panels, original paintings and a video. I knew the project was underway and involved creating new hangings for the bed, but it is much more than that, so it was a magnificent surprise to see the finished rooms when we took our first clients there in March.

Taking their cue from a well known portrait of a royal mistress in the bath, the curators have commissioned hand made rush matting from an English artisan who is one of the few remaining professional rushworkers in Western Europe. The painting shows the walls of the room the woman sits in as lined with rush matting. The chateau sadly does not have the original painting on display -- that's in Washington -- but it does have a 19th century version that you can get extremely close to and scrutinise for details.The actual braiding pattern for the matting is based on a fragment found at Hampton Court Palace.

Detail of the rush matting.
The matting is made from true bulrush Scirpus lacustris (not reedmace Typha spp, which is commonly called bulrush), which in Philippe's day would have been harvested from any of the local rivers or wetlands and worked by a local artisan. It is plaited into long strips then sewn together to form a mat. Its lifespan isn't all that great on the floor, and it would have been treated as sacrificial -- strewn with aromatic herbs to keep it fresh smelling, but removed and burnt once too dirty, worn through or the population of fleas it harboured got unbearable. Because it was 'modular', clean unworn strips from the edges of rooms could be salvaged and combined with new strips when the floor covering was replaced.

Detail of the scalloped hangings echoing the decorative wooden bed frame.
Rush matting was a relatively cheap and easily available alternative to expensive carpets and tapestries. The purpose of all of these soft furnishings was to prevent cold radiating from the stone walls and to deaden sound in large echoing rooms. Housekeeping was easy -- dirt mostly just falls through, but it is a good idea to periodically mist with water to keep the rush in good condition and pleasantly aromatic.

The luxurious bed, with all details based on historical examples.
In addition to the rush matting, the curators have taken a 19th century Renaissance revival style carved bed and dressed it in recreated Renaissance hangings and soft furnishings. It is lush! Rich purple silk velvet has been trimmed with braid. Bolsters and cushions based on various historical references have been created and trimmed with gorgeous passementerie. Everyone concerned has done such a good job with this room. It will be a real attraction for the chateau, and I hope they are all immensely proud of it.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Vachement Fleurs !

The name of this shop in Sainte Maure de Touraine made me laugh. That is because to me, vachement is a word I use in French when if I was speaking English I would use 'bloody'. It's an emphasiser, so if you are translating vachement less vulgarly, you can say it means 'really'. Its literal translation is vache = cow, and the ment ending in French is the equivalent of 'ly' on an English word. So vachement is 'cowly' in English – not a real word, and anyway cows just don't evoke the same connotation in English.

C'est vachement bien !  That's bloody good!
Vachement chouette ! F'ing cool! (literally 'cowly owl'!!...)
La vache !  Holy Cow!

Reverso has some more examples of how you might use vachement in French here.
Botany Club Outing: There is a general botany outing to the area around the hamlet of Vaux near Sainte Maure de Touraine on Sunday 26 May. Meet at 2.30 pm in the Passerelles carpark in Sainte Maure (the former parking des 4 routes).
Loire Valley Nature Updates: The Grizzled Skipper Pyrgus malvae entry has been updated to include links to Roger Gibbons' Pyrgus spp identification pages and illustrated keys.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Botany in the Rain

L'Association de Botanique et de Mycologie de Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine went on an outing to the forest on the privately owned estate of the Chateau des Ormes in Vienne on Saturday afternoon. It started to rain just before lunch and by the time I left home to drive up to Les Ormes the roads were awash with sheets of water flowing across in many places. It rained more or less heavily for the entire afternoon in Les Ormes and we were all soaked to the skin by the end of the outing.

We were met in the carpark near the mairie by Catherine, a member of a 'Friends of the Chateau des Ormes' type of group, who directed us around the park and gave us a background history of the place. The chateau (which we barely glimpsed) sits in an estate of 800 ha, divided into 4 farms. The perimeter wall is vast, and runs for several kilometres along the D910 just outside Les Ormes. It belonged to the Marquises d'Argenson, but when the last Marquis died in 1975, the family broke up the estate and sold it.*

The chateau is now owned by a gynecologist from Paris and his wife, who have apparently done a wonderful job of restoring it, and you can hire rooms for receptions or conferences. The farms were bought by the tenants and other local people bought small parcels of land.

Much of the layout and look of the estate dates from the 18th century, when Count of Argenson, Marc-Pierre de Voyer de Paulmy, purchased the estate. Although highly placed at court, he had made an enemy of the King's mistress Mme de Pompadour and was told in no uncertain terms to restrict his activities to improving his country estate and not to appear at Louis XV's court. He entered into the work with vigour and wide ranging interests, as befitted a true disciple of the Enlightenment. 

His son, the Marquis d'Argenson, continued in the same vein and many of the trees in the forest are the descendents of trees he introduced. In the 1770s, he was one of the first to plant London Planes and Lombardy Poplars in France. He also built a vast horse training facility and the first veterinary school in France. For an idea of the scale of building works, see our previous post on the Poste aux Chevaux at Les Ormes. When the Duke of Choiseul was banished from court and began a similar programme of ambitious construction and improvement on his estate near Amboise the two men developed a friendly rivalry. (The last two paragraphs are a distinctly potted history, but the intrigues of the 18th century French court are way too complicated to go into here.)

This forest is the only place in France I have been to which has a really impressive display of Bluebells covering the forest floor. Bluebell woods are one of the great glories of the English countryside, but they are much rarer in France (probably because they don't really like the poor shallow chalky soil of the Parisian Basin). These Bluebells were coming to the end of their flowering season, but looked as if they could be 'the real thing' ie Hyacinthoides non-scripta to me. However, given the cursory attention paid to them by Jean and François, I think they must be naturalised hybrids. In England, and I assume in France, 'true' Bluebell woods are under threat because of introduced Spanish Bluebells H. hispanica. The Spanish species is the commercially available type, widely planted in gardens. It escapes into the wild and hybridises readily with the native Bluebell to produce H. x massartiana. Scientists estimate that genuine native Bluebells will be extinct in Britain in the next few years, as almost all plants turn out to be hybrids now. This is a shame, because the native species is a deeper, more impressive blue, with more elegant, scented flowers. The hybrid plants lose colour and scent. Distinguishing the hybrids and the species is considered rather difficult. The flowers themselves and the flowers spikes have a slightly different habit, but I find checking the anther colour is one of the most important characters to check. If the pollen on the anthers is white you could have 'true' Bluebells, if it is blue you definately have hybrids or Spanish Bluebells. You can also check if the flowers are only on one side of the stem, and if the petals curl back tightly -- if not you don't have the 'real thing'. We are on the southern edge of the 'true' Bluebell's natural range here and the species is protected.
Walking through the forest was as wet as it could be. Much of the vegetation was bowed down with the weight of water and everything, including us, was dripping.
A lot of the grass had a fungus called Epichloe typhina. It may be particularly prevalent this year because of the cool start to the year, as it prefers such temperatures. It is known as choke disease and will ultimately weaken the grass' productivity by preventing it from flowering. This particular species is not host specific, so will infect many types of grass.
We came across several species of elm. Les Ormes means 'the Elms', so I was pleased to see actual elms in the forest. They are now very rare due to a disease which swept Europe in the 1970s and 80s. However, Catherine informed us that Les Ormes is actually a corruption of Les Hommes, and the name of the town is a reference to it having been a busy crossroads, a gathering place for men (particularly men at arms or soldiers). Nevertheless, seeing elms is a treat, and André did his best to capture a good photo of a White Elm Ulmus laevis. In the wet with low light it was pas terrible though.
On the way back to the cars we encountered a female Agile Frog Rana dalmatina, no doubt enjoying the weather more than we were. Apart from the ubiquitious Green Frog group, found in every ditch and pond, these are our most common frog, and found in damp woods and grassland rather than near water. I tried to photograph a number of insects glumly hanging from the abundant Rough Chervil Chaerophyllum temulum while they waited for the rain and cold to stop. For once I had (enforced) co-operation from my subjects, but the light level was so low I still didn't get a single good photo.

Catherine took us to see one of the farms, a great square of buildings surrounding the basse-cour (farmyard) and housing the farmer and his family, poultry and machinery. It was situated next to an ancient ford across the river Vienne. A walled ramp led down to the river and the riverbed is apparently paved, but it certainly wasn't shallow enough to get across now. The river is running high and fast, and gets very deep just beyond the ford. I wonder how they managed in the old days in years like this, where the river cannot have been traversable for about 6 months? Eventually, in the 19th century, the townspeople raised a public subscription and had a bridge built in the town further upstream, but up to then I suppose you were stuck, as I don't think crossing by boat would have been practical either. There was a fee to cross at the ford, which varied depending on whether you were walking, riding or on a cart and whether the cart was loaded or empty. A ford is un gué in French, pronounced like 'gay' but keeping the vowel sound short and sharp.
*I was interested to hear the verb demorceler used by several people to describe the breaking up of the estate. The online Larousse dictionary doesn't list it as a word and a Google search directs you to the page for morceler, which Larousse defines as 'to divide something into several parts eg morceler un héritage'. However, if you simply search for the word demorceler you get clues that it is an old word, synonymous with morceler, and still used from time to time by historians and (surprisingly) on an IT forum.

Monday, 20 May 2013

A Bit of a Stink

Don't be surprised if you encounter what appear to be flying iridescent black marbles in the woods at this time of year. If you see one, you are likely to see several, if not dozens, all heading in the same direction in a crazy out of control sort of way.

A crowd of Dor Beetles and other coprophagous
insects working on dung in the Brenne.
These are Dor Beetles Geotrupes sp, Europe's largest earth-boring scarab, and they are speeding to the latest bovine deposit, irrestistibly attracted by the smell wafting through the air. Once they've arrived at the source of the aroma, usually a nice fresh cowpat on the edge of the forest, they set to work digging and burying the precious manure. Ever noticed that cowpats are pitted with small holes? Well that is the work of these beetles, taking down pieces of dung into the ground. Both the adult beetles and their larvae eat dung.

They will lay their eggs in the middle of a lump of dung 20-60 cm underground. In time the larvae will hatch into the midst of a ready meal. What they don't eat and what they excrete goes on to be further broken down by fungi and bacteria and fertilizes the surrounding vegetation. Without these marvellous beetles we would be knee deep in excrement in no time flat.

Sadly, their numbers are declining, as almost all cattle are treated with ivermectin, a chemical administered to control worms in the guts of domestic grazing animals. Unfortunately, the still active ivermectin is subsequently expelled along with all the incompletely digested grass and hay. Unknowingly, the adult Dor Beetles are poisoning their young by providing them with contaminated dung.*[see update]

A close up of the action.
Along with Cockchafers, also in decline because of modern agricultural pesticides, the Dor Beetles are a major prey species for Greater Horseshoe Bats, and the decline in the beetles is leading to a decline in the bat population.

Although Dor Beetles are Geotrupidae, rather than Scarabaeinae like true dung beetles, their role in the landscape is very similar. As Alex Wild points out on his fantastic blog Myrmecos, 'there are as many species of dung beetle as mammals. Think about that!' And if you need a bit of laugh (don't read while eating your lunch, btw) Bug Girl wants to know if that stool is taken. I can remember my father receiving little boxes of dung beetles for distribution around our cattle paddocks in Victoria in the 60s, and for a more serious look at the introduction of non-native dung beetles (including 2 French species) to Australia to deal with the non-native cattle dung, check out 'What to do with too much poo' in Cosmos.

*Update: my father has emailed me to point out that I have been somewhat cavalier in my condemnation of ivermectin. For a start, I should have referred to avermectin, which is the active ingredient in question. Ivermectin is the brand name of the most well known product containing avermectin. Secondly, the jury is still out regarding how much of a problem avermectin is in the field. It seems to be complicated, with different toxicities at different times for different species in different places. Here are some links to scholarly papers on the subject: Field Effects of Ivermectin Residues on Dung Beetles (Lumaret et al, 1993); Dung Beetles (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae and Geotrupidae) in North Carolina Pasture Ecosystem (Lastro, 2006); Dung Beetles (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae and Geotrupidae) in North Carolina Cattle Pastures and their Implications for Pasture Improvement (Berthone, 2004).

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Australasian Darter

 An Australasian Darter snoozes on the wreck of the French ship Adolphe, now embedded into the breakwater at Stockton Beach, on the central New South Wales coast.

The Australasian Darter Anhinga novaehollandiae can be found on water bodies both inland and at the coast. Like cormorants they dive for fish.

 A male Australasian Darter on the breakwater at Stockton, New South Wales.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Norfolk Island Pine

Norfolk Island Pine Araucaria heterophylla is endemic to the small (35km²) Australian territory of Norfolk Island in the Pacific Ocean. As a consequence, the native population of this attractive tree is relatively small, but it is necessarily resistant to salt and wind, and so has become a very popular shore front tree planted on the temperate east coast of Australia. Unlike many trees it retains its symmetrical shape no matter how strong the prevailing wind.

When they are young they have an almost artificially perfect 'Christmas tree' form, but they get a bit more random looking with age. They live to about 150 years and are one of the relics from the age of dinasaurs.

In Europe, although you often see their Chilean cousin, the Monkey Puzzle A. araucana, in parks and gardens, Norfolk Island Pine does not seem to be planted here. You see it sometimes as an indoor plant, as it copes well with limited light and grows slowly enough not to outgrow its pot too quickly. Indoor Norfolk Island Pines are very young specimens, and their leaves hang down. It's only when they get bigger and older that the leaves lift up into that distinctive upturned frond.
Orchard Update: Yesterday I spent the afternoon creating a ratatouille ready bed, for the tomato, aubergine, zucchini and pepper seedlings I bought at Verneuil. They are thriving on the front courtyard, but are still in their little seedling pots and need to be put out. The Saints des Glaces have passed, and no late frosts are predicted. The sun shone (mostly) while I worked, the turtle doves purred and the crickets chirruped. Tiny nectarines and cherries are forming on the trees. A team of Violet Fritillary butterflies were doing an excellent job of pollinating our strawberries and the first Blue Featherleg damselfly of the season was drifting about by the stream. The paulownia is covered in lavender coloured flowers and the orchids gorgeous.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Looking out the Window

We love the views you get out of the distorted window glass of chateaux. This view is from inside the chateau of Azay le Rideau, looking across the canal towards what is now the restaurant, taken in early April.
General News: Our trip to Tours was uneventful (except for nearly running out of fuel and arriving at the first service station with the fuel light on, only to discover that they had run out of diesel...) We were in and out of the Préfecture in an hour, and Claudette now has a new set of number plates. The farmers were all out on the road with their tractors heading to work in the fields along the D50. You can see which fields have been planted with sunflowers and which with maize now, as the newly planted crops have their first couple of leaves. The overwintering canola is still flowering like mad, the barley with obvious whiskery heads and turning increasingly yellowy green, whilst the wheat is still mostly ear free and blue green.
Orchid Update: I took the scenic route home from the supermarket yesterday so I could do a driveby survey of some of my good orchid sites. Wow!! The orchids are looking superb all over, including a colony of rare hyperchromatic Man x Monkey hybrids. The Carthusian Pinks are also out, so purpley pinks of all hues and tints rule at the moment on the roadside banks.

Thursday, 16 May 2013


The chateau of Azay le Rideau is clearly worried it has a clothes moth problem. Tucked under a chair in the Biencourt's morning room is a triangular trap, made of folded card. These inexpensive little items feature a sticky base and are known as blunder traps, as insects (and occasionally small mammals) simply walk across them by accident. They get trapped on the sticky surface and the curator or conservator checks the trap regularly to count the victims.

The traps are for monitoring, not for control. They are to indicate the presence or absence of insect pests to the collections care staff. They can give an idea of relative abundance or rarity, but no real quantitative information. In this case they will be monitoring for clothes moth and their larvae, known as woolly bears. The carpet is old and woollen -- a favourite target of clothes moth caterpillars. The woolly bears can be difficult to spot, as they are often covered in fibres from the carpet and totally camouflaged.

If the staff find the numbers being caught are increasing they will take action to eradicate the pest. The carpet will be thoroughly cleaned by vacuuming both sides and inspected minutely by a conservator. It may also be laid upside down on a sheet and gently beaten to dislodge dirt and bits of organic waste that could attract or harbour pests, or otherwise damage the carpet. Any other objects in the room that might be susceptible will be checked and cleaned. Nooks and crannies that insect pests like to hide in will be investigated and cleaned. If necessary objects will be wrapped in plastic and put in a freezer or a sealed CO² chamber for a few days, killing off eggs, larvae and adults very effectively and without risk to the object.

It is unlikely the curators will use any sort of chemical pesticide, as it may adversely affect historic objects. For example, the woollen pile of the carpet will be dyed with natural substances. There is no way of knowing how such dyes will react to being sprayed with a pesticide -- they are often not fast, and could run if the wool gets wet. For some types of pests though, they may resort to slightly more sophisticated blunder traps, with pheromone impregnated sticky bases. These can be used for control, but are only useful against the single species that is attracted to the particular pheromone used.
Orchard News: More than half of the potatoes I planted are up. The blossom has just about finished, with only the apples still with any flowers. The strawberries are flowering well, but no fruit yet. The grapevines have lots of leaves, but still too small for dolmas. The grass is mid-thigh height with gently waving seedheads. Insects of all sorts love this, as they can drift amongst the shimmying grass in camouflaged protection. Our orchard neighbour has mowed paths between his walnut trees, but otherwise none of us have mowed yet. I was impressed to see he has mowed around his substantial Lizard Orchids, now sending up huge fat flowerbud spikes. The much smaller young Lizard Orchids in our orchard are going to flower too. The orchids in the potager have turned out to be two different species, Bee and Early Spider. Yesterday I disturbed a Western Whip Snake in the potager twice (I assume two different individuals).

The Bee Orchids have just started to flower in the orchard.
General News: We are having a rather trying time at the moment. Neither of us is feeling all that well (seasonal and weather related) and it is one of those periods when money seems to be flowing out of the coffers at a considerably greater rate than it is flowing in. We went to visit Claudette over in the lair of the Great Wizard of Chateauroux on Tuesday. The good news is that he has got her to the stage where she passed her CT (roadworthy). The bad news is that to do so she was fitted out with two brake drums from Jean-Louis' private stock, as the new ones he bought for her are not round. This is the same problem we had with Célestine. Unfortunately, there is only one manufacturer of Traction brake drums. Jean-Louis doesn't know if they have just unloaded a crummy batch on the retailer we use, or if they are all now like that. He will be on the phone and having some strong words to say. We can only have his brake drums temporarily, and hopefully he is going to be able to negotiate some mutually acceptable solution with the manufacturer. Anyway, armed with the new CT and all the other documentation (including a cheque...) we are off to Tours today to finalise the transfer of ownership and get new licence plates for her.

Adding to our woes is the dishwasher having decided to invoke its overflow / anti-leak mechanism. All it will do is flash lights at us. So far as we can tell it needs to be pulled out of its slot under the bench and tipped forward to reset the sensor. We don't know what set it off in the first place -- it appears to have neither leaked nor overflowed, and is not full of water. Naturally it is out of warranty. We are hoping that Stéphane, who has moved to Paris, is coming down for the weekend, as Simon needs an assistant to get the dishwasher out, and Stéphane is the man who got it in there in the first place so may remember what the trick is.
Loches Market: Yesterday we shopped at Loches market, one of the best in the area and one we take clients to a lot. We noticed that the horse butcher, Jean Michel Daveau, had goat meat for sale (he also had lamb). There were cutlets, chops (labelled 'ragout'), boned leg and boned rolled shoulder, all for half the price of the lamb. We bought a kilo of the 'ragout' for €8.20. Curry goat coming up -- when we got home I made up a batch of Jamaican curry powder and the goat meat is now rubbed and in the fridge overnight for cooking tomorrow. I asked him why it was so rare to be able to get goat meat here, when there are so many goats, but he didn't really have an answer.

We also bought an excellent piece of Brie de Melun from the wonderful cheese van, a baguette from our favourite baker, some forest honey from a producer based between Chatillon and Loches, more green asparagus from the strawberry and asparagus woman, potatoes (baking and new) and some huge rhubarb stalks from the market gardeners across the river in Beaulieu-lès-Loches and a bag of canellés (rich little cakes that are toffee on the outside and custardy on the inside).

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Wonderful Wall Paintings!

 The final scene in the sequence of Christ being tempted by the Devil. I love the slightly sheepish aspect of the Devil and the somewhat peeved expression on Christ's face -- both are thinking 'oh no, not again...'
One morning in late March we were sitting around in the lobby of the Hotel Diderot in Chinon, waiting for our clients to finish breakfast. I noticed that there were some leaflets on the side table for a church with wall paintings that I had never heard of, so I picked one up and was immediately intrigued by what I read. By good luck the church was exactly on the route we planned to take with the clients, so we asked them if they would be interested in stopping there. We told them we had never seen this church, but it looked fascinating. They readily agreed, and so we made the wonderful discovery together.

A wider view of the various temptation episodes.
The church of Saint Martin in Lignières en Touraine is situated between Azay le Rideau and Langeais. It dates from the 12th century and inside is like a mini Saint Savin. The wall paintings are contemporary with the oldest parts of the church, but have been retouched several times, in the 13th and 14th centuries. They were professionally restored and conserved in 2008-09. The church is open every day and entry is free. If you want to illuminate the painted ceiling you put a €2 coin in a slot. That gives you about 10 minutes and we put in €4 in total.

Abel is blessed by a disembodied arm.
The paintings are utterly captivating. You don't need to be overly familiar with your Bible stories to identify what the paintings are illustrating, and anyway, there is a brief, but excellent guide (in French and English) available for visitors to read and fill in any details they are unsure of.

Panels from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man has died (centre left) and the monsterous dog like Devil lies in wait to take him to Hell.
Decorating the arch as you enter the apse is a series of boxes representing the months of the year. Lengthwise down the barrel vaulted ceiling are a series of 'cartoon' style stories -- Christ being tempted by the Devil, the story of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and the parable of the rich man (Dives) and the poor man (Lazarus). Over the altar is Christ in Majesty. On one of the window surrounds is Cain and Abel. The stained glass is 19th century, and the theme of the window now bears no relationship to the theme of the painting surrounding it, resulting in a disembodied hand blessing Abel. Antoinette explains in her post on Chez Charnizay that this was a convention to avoid having to portray God.

The angels gently and lovingly receive the soul of Lazarus, the poor man.
Naturally I immediately alerted Antoinette to the existence of this church, in the hope that she and Niall would go to visit soon and write one of their erudite posts about it. I am pleased to see that they have obliged.

Looking straight up, showing the story of Adam and Eve above and the rich man and Lazurus below.
Next week is the annual national Fête de la Nature. This year's theme is 'small creatures'. Please support your local nature enthusiasts by attending an event near you.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Heath Fritillary butterfly - a photo series

To learn more about this species go to the page about them on Loire Valley Nature.
Botany Club Outing: There is a visit to the private section of the park of the Chateau des Ormes on Saturday 18 May. Meet at 2.30 pm in the grand place in Les Ormes on the D910 (at the lights, on the right, if you are coming from Tours).

Monday, 13 May 2013

Ussé Driveby

The chateau of Ussé is very satisfactorily chateau-y, with plenty of pointy bits. It sits high above the road that runs parallel to the river Indre, and if you don't want to go in, at least take the time to park up and cross the river to marvel at the chateau as it faces you directly over the narrow bridge. It's quite large as Loire chateaux go, with many phases of building exhibited in the various architectural styles as you 'read' it from one side to the other.

Check out all those architectural styles -- medieval towers, renaissance twiddly bits, classical windows, all charmingly combined in one impressive building.

Looking down the River Indre from the bridge in late March.

A lovely medieval and renaissance collection of towers, roofs, chimneys and windows.
We've written about Ussé several times before, for example, here and here.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Outsmarting the Blackberries

Blackberries Rubus fruticosus agg are an invasive alien plant in Australia, declared a noxious weed that landowners are obliged to attempt to control. The problem is it escapes into the bush and creates dense impenetrable thickets several metres high and many metres in diameter. Growing along creek banks it can restrict access to the water and easily out competes the natural vegetation.

Blackberry thickets also harbour another invasive alien species -- foxes. The foxes set up home under the protection of the thorny blackberry canes and their diet includes ripe blackberries, leading to seeds being excreted to start new colonies.

 Warning sign on Melba Hill in Canberra.

The blackberries are extremely difficult to control. The best method is to adopt an integrated approach, introducing a rust for biological control, followed by careful spraying with a herbicide. Even within a best practice regime, years of monitoring and spot control must be undertaken before you can be sure an area is blackberry free.