Monday 31 March 2014

A Walk With the Forester

Friday 21 March was the International Day of Forests, and our local forest managers organised a walk lead by the head forester, Gérard Couturier. He had hosted a school trip that morning and was giving a lecture in the evening. He was quite open about the fact that his professional sphere was the production of timber, and he was not an expert on the birds and animals of the forest.

The Office National des Forêts (ONF) manages the Forest of Tours-Preuilly on behalf of its owner, the City of Tours, with the aim of reconciling the production of high quality timber, the preservation of natural surroundings and the countryside and the recreation needs of the public. The ONF is a public body dating back to Colbert's 17th century economic reforms in the reign of Louis XIV, and acts as a policy developer, consultant and law enforcer in all things forestry related in France, as well as hands on management of large swathes of the country. Although the City of Tours is the nominal owner, the forest is a long way from there and in fact, most maintenance and improvements (signage, barriers, etc) in the forest are funded by the Communauté des Communes de la Touraine du Sud (CCTS).

Gérard Couturier giving us some history before we start the walk.
The forest was left to the City of Tours in 1952 by the last private owner, Madame Hersent-Luzarche. She also left the family home, the chateau of Azay-le-Ferron to the city, and the area of land which became the Parc Animalier de Haute Touche to the National Museum of Natural History. The Luzarche family had acquired the estate in the aftermath of the Revolution. Prior to their ownership, the forest had been exploited for its reserves of iron ore, which were smelted and forged down on the Claise, using the power of the water to run mills and the wood from the forest to fuel furnaces.

It has taken 50 years of modern forestry practices to bring the forest to the generally good condition we see today. Azay le Ferron was not the Luzarches principle residence, and they viewed the forest as a private leisure park for hunting. They made no attempt to maintain the forest ecosystem in good condition.

A parcel that has had a couple of thinnings and now has chosen trees marked. These will be given a 12m clearing around them on the ground and allowed to grow to prime timber to be harvested at about 200 - 250 years old. These trees are Sessile Oak.
Consequently, at the time of the legacy, there were many 'empty' parcels of forest, requiring extensive 'cleaning' and replanting. That was stage one of the forest regeneration, and the aim was enable stage two ie to start producing saleable wood which could fund further maintenance. 300 hectares in all (one third of the forest) were replanted in this first stage. Stage 3, which was basically the regeneration of another third, finished last year. Stage 4 begins this year and is consolidating more complex and integrated management systems that began in Stage 3.

A total of 9 people, including Gérard, are responsible for managing the forest. No hunting is allowed except to control vermin, which means that they don't have the benefit of that potential income stream. However, Gérard is very firm that the forest is for everyone, and hunting is difficult to reconcile with other, more popular, leisure activities such as walking. Twice a year there are organised culls of big game, but otherwise the forest can be freely used by anyone at any time. He was asked if the deer population was a problem for the forest plantations and he said no, not as far as he could see, although he would like to have a pot of money to fund some research on their impact. He observed that the deer tended to concentrate on the edges of the forest.

Two of the foresters thin a young naturally regenerated parcel that is about 12 years old. The brush will be left on the ground to rot and replace nutrients in the soil.
At this point in the proceedings he told us a story about his colleague who manages the nearby Royal Forest of Loches. The ONF forests have simple wooden bar type barriers across any track they don't want vehicles to use. Apparently his colleague arrived at work one morning and discovered that every single barrier was missing, presumably stolen overnight. The barriers are milled timbers about 5m long and probably 15cm by 10cm in section, with a strip of green reflective plastic fixed to the middle. The whereabouts of these timbers was discovered not long after, by someone arriving at a house in Genillé after dark and noticing that a roof under construction on the property was glowing eerily in his headlights. The 'rafters' had been given away by their reflective strips and the police were called.

The commercial crop of trees is primarily oak, which is produced to the specifications of the timber industry. They want trees of a maximum of 85 cm diameter, and preferably 55 cm, which is cheaper to process. Any tree that has grown faster than 5mm per year in diameter will be rejected. Foresters have to consider whether they want bulk yields but low margins, or restricted yields and high margins. Conifers are usually an example of the former and need to yield 3000m³ / ha to be commercially viable. Tree felling machines harvest about 140m³ / hour. The management of a commercial plantation is a matrix of time, yield, timber industry requirements, and the average price received by the forest is about €25/m³. The best quality timber, from 3m lengths of trunk, will fetch €300/m³ and non lumber about €40/m³. The upper branches sell for €8/m³. Nowadays, over half of all timber produced in France comes from ONF sites.

Pruning the lower branches of young trees so they don't tangle.
The ONF aims to maintain a zero carbon footprint with its planting and harvesting cycle, as well as considering the forest as a resource for the future. The forest is managed so it is a mosaic, taking into consideration a mixture of mature commercial parcels, regenerating parcels, and parcels which will not be harvested, but left to mature naturally. Tree density and light penetration has to be managed to keep the trees in good condition. Trees chosen for timber production are ultimately given a 12m clear zone around them. At any one time these days they have 100ha in regeneration. 

Parcels are regenerated naturally as far as possible, as planted parcels do not grow as vigorously, and are more fragile and less stable. Sometimes seed from uncommercial areas are used to augment entirely natural regeneration, and occasionally a parcel will be manually planted. Machines are not used to plant in the Forest of Preuilly as they compact the soil and have other disadvantages. Regenerated areas are now mixed species (hazel, hornbeam, chestnut and sessile oak dominating, with a bit of ash, beech, birch and aspen, along with some smaller species such as service tree, wild cherry, field maple and rowan). It is recognised that monocultures of oak do not thrive, especially if they follow a previous oak plantation on the same soil. A mixture of species ensures groups of trees are not all competing for the same micronutrients, and that the soil does not become exhausted after multiple generations of the same monoculture.

 A Sessile Oak in its prime, about 200 - 240 years old.
Once the parcel is about 10 years old the foresters will move in and thin out the trees. The resulting brush is left piled on the ground to rot and feed the soil. After another 5 or 10 years more thinning takes place and trees are pruned to prevent lower branches from tangling with each other. This pruning is also the beginning of ensuring that trees can be felled cleanly and not break branches as they come down. The next stage is to mark certain trees with orange bands. These trees are the ones that have been chosen by the foresters and timber mills as the ones that will be harvested at around 250 years old, and over the years they are given more and more room to grow. Oak trees can live to a thousand years, but they become hollow inside and therefore valueless as timber if left too long. By the time they are ready it is hoped they will be worth three to four thousand euros each.

This mixed planting regime is a change from the planting schemes immediately following the Second World War and up until the 1970s. The great conifer forests of the Ardenne were badly damaged during the war and France was desperate for timber to rebuild, particularly in the mining industry. Consquently, the practice in the Forest then was to plant 10ha alternating parcels of conifers (Maritime Pine, Corsican Pine or Scots Pine) with Sessile Oak. The remnant conifer parcels are a disaster according to Gérard. The soil in these areas has been acidified to such an extent that he may not be able to plant broadleaf trees once the pines are removed. He's worried that the consultant ecologists will force him to bring in soil at great expense to reinstate the natural pH, rather than allow him to plant conifers again. On the other hand, conifers don't make any money and these acid soils lead to a proliferation of bracken and heather.

Other areas are left to gently age in a natural way. These are parcels which have proved uneconomical to harvest, and are now being reserved to provide tree seed, ensure biodiversity and create attractive leisure areas. Gérard is a staunch defender of Ivy, which is allowed to grow naturally and is not controlled or removed. He says it doesn't harm the trees, and protects and nourishes the birds, which in their turn, reduce the insect pests.

Climate change is providing a new challenge. Various cedar species and Downy Oak are being planted throughout France as a 'hedge' against climate change. Gérard predicted that Chestnut, Beech and Ash could disappear from the forest within the next 30 years, and Sessile Oak within the next 100, due to the increasingly dry summers. Already the natural distribution of these species is moving north, and it is not worth persisting with trees that will not thrive. He reminded everyone of how quickly Elm disappeared once Dutch Elm Disease struck and said it only took 2-3 days of hot dry weather to permanently damage a tree. On the other hand, he reported that Douglas Fir has already adapted to drier summers, and perhaps other species will too.

Sunday 30 March 2014

Shark Nets

About 50 beaches in New South Wales are shark netted. Other states do not try to protect beaches against sharks, or use a different system. This one at Manly Cove is unusual in that it is quite visible. Normally, the nets are set several hundred metres offshore and only come to within 4m of the surface of the water, to allow boats to pass over them unhindered. They appear to be very successful, in that there has only ever been a single fatal attack on a netted beach. However, any shark caught up in them drowns, and there is a significant bycatch, often of endangered species such as sea turtles, dolphins and even whales. The nets are removed over winter, partly to ensure that migrating whales are not accidentally caught.
We've Been to Paris!!: We have just got back from a few days in Paris. We rented a studio apartment in Bastille (11eme arrondissement) and spent the time doing touristy things with our Australian friend Liselle. Highlights were a guided tour of the Gobelins tapestry workshops and shopping in Bastille market. We also went to the Petit Palais, the Rodin Museum, the Jacquemart-André for the de Watteau à Fragonard, les fêtes galantes exhibition, and waved at the Chinese president on Pont Alexandre as well as just general mooching about looking at interesting buildings and eating at favourite restaurants (Chez Marianne in the Marais, Café Beauvau in rue Miromesnil).

Saturday 29 March 2014

Eco-sculpture Walk

 Snorkelling and scuba diving is popular and encouraged in this sheltered bay, although divers are reminded not to collect or disturb marine creatures by moving rocks, or even to feed them. 

These charming cast stainless steel sculptures by Tim Johnman are scattered along the length of the beachside walk to Cabbage Tree Bay from Manly in Sydney. They represent the special creatures present in the aquatic reserve here.

Gloomy Octopus (yes, that's really what they are called) are commonly encountered amongst the rocks underwater, but conservationists are concerned about the impact of habit disturbance and human interference on their numbers.

I assume the little sculptures are held on by large spikes driven into the rock and some mighty glue to prevent them being nicked.

 One of the largest colonies of Weedy Seadragons on the New South Wales coast is in Cabbage Tree Bay. They are a  protected species, threatened by damage to the seagrass habitat that they live in.

Thursday 27 March 2014

Roman Ruins near Thésée

Some years ago we read that there were Roman ruins near the small village of Thésée on the northern bank of the Cher. After studying the map and even GoogleEarth aerial photos we duly trotted off to visit them, approaching from the south and discovering the excavated foundations of a temple complex on the south bank of the river, by the small bridge with a memorial to a downed American airman. Thrilling we thought, and took lots of photos. We visited a second time and found that more excavations had been done. Super dooper and gosh what a lot of rather indeterminate rubble -- we weren't sure whether what we were looking at was Roman or 19th century.

The main building at Les Mazelles.
Eventually we mentioned the site to Niall and Antoinette and they in their turn trotted off to visit. When they got back their description of what they had seen didn't match ours at all. What was going on?

One day last year we found out. For once we entered Thésée from the west, and there on your left is a stonking great Roman ruin, with walls metres high, not just foundations requiring the maximum of imagination. Before, we had always entered Thésée from the south and turned right to go through the village, never realising that the ruins we had heard about were plain to see on the edge of the village in the opposite direction.

Looking north, from the road -- unmissable Roman ruins...
Earlier in March we returned yet again to take photos of this impressive site. It should properly be called the Gallo-Roman Site of les Mazelles. These imposing ruins have long intrigued the locals, specialists, antiquarians, archaeologists and historians alike. Theories (some serious, some crackpot) abound as to the purpose of the buildings and local legends have been created around them.

For the visitor today, the Mazelles ruins are the most visible remains of the ancient Tasciaca. In fact, far more still lies hidden underground, having been excavated and re-buried for protection. The site is situated 100m or so from the right (north) bank of the River Cher, right on the modern D176 as it comes into Thésée. In Roman times, this was the road from Tours to Bourges (and on to Nantes or Lyon ultimately). The proximity to both these highways (road and river) explain the location of Tasciaca.

The interior of the main building.
The sign says 'This listed site must be preserved. Have the kindness: not to climb on the walls; to avoid touching the stones.'
The complex consists of three buildings within a curtain wall forming a quadrangle of 7000m². The main building, to the north, is exceptionally well preserved with walls still 7.4m high and 52m in length. It comprises two rooms, one of which is 40m by 14.5m, flanked by two pavilions which were probably connected by an open sided gallery.

To the south we find two other buildings. The one on the south-west, 12m x 10m, is levelled off on top by three courses of quarry (rubble) stones. The other, to the south-east and measuring 35m x 18m, shows evidence for several rooms, but is in a rather delapidated condition and the original construction was more slapdash than the main building.

Evidence of what looks like a nicely done modern repair, made clearly visible so there is no confusion between museum service repair and original, as is best practice today.
The big main building to the north is the most interesting. Nothing else like it exists in the Gallo-Roman world, but its method of construction, with small visible stones and frequent brick courses is typically Roman. The walls have two faces, interior and exterior, made with small rectangular quarry stones or flat ones laid in a herringbone pattern, bonded by mortar. A mixture of mortar and stones was packed between these two faces. To bond the vertical layers together, two courses of big bricks which bridged the width of the wall were periodically laid.

The holes you can see in the walls are notches to hold wooden scaffolding used while constructing the building.

The cruder building to the south east, with the main building in the background.
Two thousand years later the walls are still standing, thanks to their method of construction. Although local tuffeau, like the stone used to make the chateau, these stones are of particularly high quality, with a low porosity and high density that has made them very durable. In addition, they are small in size and set in a very hard mortar, so they did not tempt the later local inhabitants to reuse them and treat the site like a quarry.

Les Mazelles was classified as an Historic Monument by Prosper Merimée in 1840. Old photos show the buildings abandoned, covered in ivy, brambles and scrub. In 1950 they were privately owned, with a vine growing in the shelter of the walls. From 1962 to 1965 a team of young archaeologists pulled the ivy from the walls, cleared the area and undertook a series of surveys and test digs. Maurice Druon, a member of the Academie Française, happened to pass the site one day in 1965. Falling in love with the place he purchased the ruins and the surrounding land, which he scoured and remodelled. In 1976 he gave Les Mazelles to the département of Loir et Cher for a symbolic 1 franc and the Conseil Général have landscaped the surroundings to what you see today.

A close up of a wall. 
Note the alternating bands of small flat stones laid in a herringbone pattern and small rectangular stones, as well as the notches for scaffolding.
Les Mazelles was probably constructed during first third of the second century, under the rule of the Emperor Hadrian, a period of peace and prosperity in the western part of the Roman empire.  The preliminary digs completed on the site have not allowed archaeologists to say with certainty what the site's role was. It is assumed that the buildings had multiple functions relating to their geographic position and in particular their proximity to the Roman road and the Cher. It is thought they were a sort of staging post, with government offices dealing with administration, taxes and justice, possibly also a market, shops, exchange and a temple. It does not seem to have been a military encampment.

The Friends of Tasciaca have an informative website here (in French), which is where I cribbed all the information above from.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

A Local Pest

Unfortunately, this is what can happen if you choose to go completely pesticide free in the garden.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Adorable ou touchant ?

An encounter with these two dogs in the market place at Blois recently led to a discussion over lunch about what (French) word best described them. I opted for adorable, but after pondering the matter for several minutes, Jean Michel thought touchant was better.

What do you think?

In English they are just sooooo cute!

Monday 24 March 2014

I Made Compost!

The composting area of the potager.
Well...I didn't make compost, a load of fungi and invertebrates made compost. All I did was chuck our kitchen waste in a pile and leave it for several years. I didn't turn it, add accelerators or anything. Just left it sitting in the bin. Nevertheless, I was thrilled when I dug into our oldest compost bin, started soon after we moved here, and it was dark and crumbly and looked just like soil. It's one of nature's magic tricks.

 Compost made from 2009 to 2012 kitchen waste, weeds and grass clippings, ready to use in 2014.
In 2012 I asked Alex to make me two more compost bins, using his simple but ingenious system of recycled pallets. They work extremely well and now I am organised for a three year compost cycle. (See here for what they looked like just after completion.) No more garden centre fertilizer and potting mix for me. I can make my own.

 The 2013  compost bin, now under a heavy cardboard cover to try to minimise surface weed growth as it matures.
It's good invertebrate habitat too. I've encountered some interesting larvae lurking around in the compost, such as juvenile glow worms and lace wings.

 The 2014 compost bin, with shredded paper on the left and grass clippings on the right. The black bin on the far left contains ash from our wood stove.
Compost spread on the newly dug potato bed, waiting to be incorporated into the soil. Look at the difference in colour between the dark brown compost and the pale grey natural earth in the bed to the right.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Surf's up at Manly

On a thoroughly blustery and not very warm day in December 2012 we went for lunch with friends on Manly Beach, Sydney. The surfers were out in force, and the local surf lifesavers volunteers were using the conditions to stage an exercise.

 A lifesaver surfs in to shore on a surf rescue board.

 Other volunteers bringing an inflatable boat in.

 Two surf rescue boats in the distance patrol the small area between the flags. The surfers have all chosen to be outside the flags to catch the breaks. (Update: Simon has pointed out to me that there is a $250 fine for surfing within the flags, because of the risk of injuring swimmers.)

 A group of surf lifesaver volunteers heads out into the waves -- this was just an exercise, they weren't heading out to save someone.

Surfboards for hire.
A la cuisine hier: Pasta with arrabbiata sauce -- I slightly overdid the chili, but it was OK.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Sailing in the Harbour

The day we were out on the harbour, spending a nostalgic day for Simon on the Sydney ferries in December 2012, we saw quite a few boats of different sorts, even though it was a fairly foul day -- extremely windy and a bit squally.

This little boat capsized and due to the wind the sailor couldn't right it. He was eventually rescued by the harbour police.

I know it's a plane, but it's a float plane, so it's going to land on the harbour and pull up at a jetty.

The ferry going in the other direction to us.

Friday 21 March 2014

So Why is it Called Toothwort?

Purple Toothwort Lathraea clandestina is a quite rare parasitic plant. There are several good patches of it that occur in the Aigronne Valley, parasitising the roots of the many poplar trees along the river. They flower in late March and early April.

Photographed at the bridge over the Aigronne by le Moulin neuf, between le Petit Pressigny and le Grand Pressigny.
Usually all you notice are the striking Phrygian cap shaped purple corollas, but in places where the river has washed away some of the surface soil, you get a glimpse of why it might be called toothwort.
Any plant which has the 'wort' ending to its name is something that was considered medicinal in medieval times. Toothwort will have got its name due to the Doctrine of Signatures, a system of identifying what medicinal use a plant may have by its appearance. Walnuts were used for head injuries because they resemble brains, lungwort was used for chesty respiratory problems because the pattern on the leaves resembled the tissue of the lungs, and so on. These ideas had persisted from ancient times, and in the medieval period were widely (although not universally) accepted.

Toothwort rhizomes exposed by erosion on the banks of the River Aigronne (thanks to Tim for pointing these out to me).
The plant has no chlorophyll and therefore no leaves or green parts, being instead entirely reliant for nutrients on its parasitic attachment to the roots of nearby trees. The resulting white scaly rhizomes have a definite toothy resemblance, and so they were inevitably included in potions and remedies for toothache.
A la cuisine hier: There was rather a 70s vibe going on in the kitchen yesterday. I made crumbed steak and an upside down cake.

The steak was in response to reading Elise Bauer's recipe on Simply Recipes for the hilariously named Chicken Fried Steak, which came across as the most stereotypically old style American artery clogging fest. However, I was interested to see if her instructions to press the coating into the steak actually made a difference. Simon commented to me that he never had any luck with this sort of dish, as either the coating didn't stick or the oil was the wrong temperature, resulting in either black crumbs or disgusting oil soaked claggy coating. I opted for dipping the steak in egg/milk wash, then seasoned flour, back in the eggy wash and then into breadcrumbs rather than follow Elise's instructions exactly, but I did take her point about firmly attaching the coating. It's messy, but appears to be worth it, as the steak came out cooked, reasonably tender and with an even crispy golden coating. I used bavette d'aloyau, one of the tasty French cuts along the grain, but any of the escalope cuts of pork, veal, turkey or chicken that are so easy to get here would work as well, lightly flattened with the meat mallet as she suggests. I didn't fancy Elise's milk gravy, so didn't make that. I had ketchup and Simon had tomato relish, but actually I think sweet chilli sauce might have been a better choice.

The cake was not the classic pineapple version of my school cooking classes but Jean's Pear and Ginger Upside Down Cake on Baking in Franglais. I veered away from her recipe slightly, by making a 20cm² and a 15cm² cake, and not sandwiching with cream. I'm not keen on cream in cakes, especially as it means you have to refrigerate the leftovers. Refrigeration may keep the cream from going sour, but it makes the cake go stale. Consequently, I mixed some finely chopped preserved stem ginger, a bit of the syrup from the ginger, the merest dash of Poire Williams, a heaped spoonful of icing sugar and a box of cream cheese, which I served on the side with slabs of cake.

Thursday 20 March 2014

Lesser Capricorn Beetle Cerambyx scopoli

A female. Her antennae are a bit shorter and she has fine hooked feet.
Lesser Capricorn Beetle Cerambyx scopoli is a medium sized longhorn beetle that seems to emerge very early in the year. Last year I recorded a female in January and a male in March. The text books all say they emerge in May and June, and I expect most of them do, but I notice on the French online insect forum discussions that I am not the only one who has seen them earlier, and André Lequet says they emerge in April (see his page on the species for pictures of the complete life cycle).

A male. He has longer antennae and wide flat feet with hairy pads.
They are not difficult to recognise -- look for the following:
  • black lustrous body, 17 - 28 mm long.
  • a groove down the middle of the head.
  • large eyes that curve around the base of the antennae.
  • long antennae -- longer than the body by 1-3 segments.
  • antennal segments near the head narrower at the bottom and fatter at the top, segments further from the head somewhat flattened.
  • pronotum (the section between the head and the abdomen) very wrinkled.
  • elytra (wing cases) long, slightly wrinkled and slightly tapering.
  • femora ('thighs') flattened.
  • covered in fine silvery downy hairs.
You can see in this photo of the male the silvery down and the way the antennae changes from bulbous to flat.
The female beetle lays her eggs under or in cracks in the bark of the host trees, which could be Oak, Beech, Elm, Pear, Hornbeam, Birch, Poplar, Willow, Lime, Hazel, Apple, Cherry, Plum or Chestnut. When the larvae hatch they feed briefly just under the bark, but soon burrow their way into the sapwood and then into the heartwood. The beetle chooses mature trees, ideally those that are somewhat isolated, with branches that get a lot of sun. The larvae will eventually pupate in the heartwood and the complete life cycle takes two to three years.

A couple of times while I was photographing him, he fell off his log. I offered him a stick to get back on, which he took, but he made a squeaky buzzing noise at me, indicating he was a bit frightened and responding by being aggressive. He didn't attempt to bite me though. They move very slowly, but are immensely strong.
Loire Valley Nature: An new habitat entry has been created for that greatest subject of all, the Loire River itself.
A la cuisine hier: Shakshuka -- this Middle Eastern dish is very trendy at the moment, but Simon doesn't like it, so he made himself tom yum.

Wednesday 19 March 2014


Here is our annual photo of Cowslip Primula veris to usher in the spring. This was actually taken 5 days ago, but I've only just got round to posting it.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

L'Eglise Sainte Eulalie in Genillé

Genillé is a village near Loches with a population of about 1600. The church (église) of Saint Eulalie sits at its heart (right opposite the excellent Restaurant Agnes Sorel).

The oldest part of the church is the square bell tower, which was constructed in the 12th century, originally with a stone spire, but now with a 15th century spire. The church was very badly damaged in 1145 during the course of a battle between the lord of Amboise and the Count of Anjou. The nave wasn't consolidated until the 13th century, modified in the 14th century and much of the church was finally rebuilt in 1523 (nave, choir, apse, south chapel and main entrance). In 1660 a chapel was added to the north. The ceiling of the nave is a vault of tongue and groove wooden panelling from the 16th century, with visible beams and king posts. The decorative paint scheme is from the 19th century.

The north chapel.
The vaulted ceiling of the crossing under the bell tower is 13th century. The clam shaped white marble font dates from 1494 and was made by Jérôme de Fiesole, an Italian sculptor working in France and employed by Anne de Bretagne.

The apse was made from cut stone although the rest of the church is rubble stones. The statues that once stood in the niches were destroyed in the Revolution. The seigneural chapel (south chapel) was turned into a sacristy in 1840. The large windows along the side were created in 1870.

 The Judgement of Saint Eulalia by Lobin.
The stained glass windows were mostly created and installed after 1881.

In the apse:
  • the judgement of Saint Eulalia in the centre. The window was made in 1871 by Lucien Leopold Lobin of Tours. Eulalia refused to worship pagan idols and so the Roman governor condemned her to death.
  • on the left, the four evangalists -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, by J P Florence of Tours in 1893.
  • on the right, the four prophets -- Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isiah, by J P Florence of Tours in 1893.
In the nave the stained glass was made between 1881 and 1903  by J P Florence, master glazier of Tours and Lobin's successor. The Lobin workshop was extremely highly regarded and sent work all over the world, including the UK and Australia.

Most of the stained glass in churches here is 19th century, and not a patch on the original medieval and renaissance windows (which only survive in any quantity in the cathedral in Tours and a few other Touraine churches, such as Montrésor). Only Lobin, in my opinion, made windows that are striking enough to have much artistic merit, and even they suffer from those banes of 19th century art -- no sign of a sense of humour and an overdose of sentimental melodrama.
Botany Outing: There is a botany walk on Saturday 22 March to learn about early spring wild flowers. Meet at 14.30 at the lower carpark next to the church at La Membrolle. Organised by the Association de Botanique et de Mycologie de Sainte Maure de Touraine.
Loire Valley Nature: Photos have been added to the Lizard Orchid Himantoglossum hircinum entry.

Monday 17 March 2014

Two Italian Inlaid Cabinets

This magnificent cabinet was a wedding gift to François II and Mary Stuart in 1558. Mary, whose mother was French, grew up in the French court and had known young François most of her life. She was considerably taller than him, but apparently they got on very well. When François died of an infection in 1560, aged 16, her mother-in-law, the formidable regent Catherine de Medici, made it clear to the young widow that she was no longer welcome in the French court. She pushed off to Scotland and proceeded to cause herself a lot of bother.

 Detail of the cabinet.
The cabinet was made in Italy in the late 15th or early 16th century. It is pear wood, which has been ebonised in parts to show off details such as the fine stringing on the inside of the doors. The drawer fronts are cast bronze and there are ivory panels with pen and ink sketches inserted into some panels. The inlay patterns are created with wood, ivory and mother of pearl. It is in one of the salons at the chateau of Chenonceau, a splendid addition to their collection.

17th century Italian inlaid cabinet at the chateau of Ussé.
This second cabinet is part of the collection at the chateau of Ussé, and is inlaid with ivory and lapis lazuli. One very easy way to tell that this cabinet dates from a later century is to look at the base. It is here that there are very obvious stylistic differences. Renaissance furniture makers (16th century) delighted in making legs for cabinets and pier tables that were grotesque combi-beings. Frequently they created creatures that had their origins in two different and unrelated myths, and it is a fashion you don't see before or after the 16th century. The base to the Chenonceau cabinet is by no means an extreme example of this (check out some of the furniture at Azay-le-Rideau if you want to see some really scary creatures supporting tables) but the Ussé cabinet has a much more elegant and refined base.

Both these cabinets are inlay, not marquetry. The difference is that inlay is decorative veneer inserted into a solid background, whilst with marquetry, both the background and the decorative motifs are veneers. Marquetry developed from inlay, and the finest examples are generally from the 18th century.

Neither are these 'cabinets of curiosity' for storing a miscellany of natural history objects. This concept existed from the late 16th century, but didn't come to mean an item of furniture until the late 17th century. The Chenonceau cabinet has drawers but was probably really just intended as a piece of conspicuous consumption, a decorative luxury object with which to impress your visitors, more like a piece of sculpture than a piece of functional furniture. The Ussé cabinet is a desk, with secret compartments and a pull out writing ledge.
International Forests Day: Friday 21 March is International Forests Day and le Forêt de Tours-Preuilly sur Claise is holding a couple of events.

At 15.00 there is a forest walk with a forest technician from the National Office of Forests, starting at l'Etang de Ribaloche and including stops at workshops demonstrating work in the forest. Free, but reservations are necessary and the number of places is limited. In French.

At 20.30 there is a lecture on the History and Evolution of the Forest, given by Gérard Couturier, the forest technician from the National Office of Forests. It will be held in the Salle de spectacles in Charnizay. Free and in French.

For further information and to book, go to the Touraine du Sud Tourist Office, Place Savoie Villars, 37350 Le Grand Pressigny, telephone 02 47 94 96 82.
Election News: Niall and Antoinette have posted an easy to follow summary on Chez Charnizay of the changes of rules at the ballot box this election. I was aware that depending on size of community voters can have the option to vote for individuals, mixing and matching amongst lists, or simply vote for a list. No problem with that concept, it's just like voting for the Australian Senate except your ballot paper isn't a metre wide with a dozen parties and squillions of names, however, Preuilly falls into the larger sized commune and we just get to vote for a list. What I have been mystified by is the notice at the town hall warning people that there is another important change, to wit, voters cannot just cross a candidate's name out and add another that they like better. It never occurred to me that up until this election voters were allowed to add random names to the ballot on the day!
Saturday's Quiz: The flags are, from left to right, the Australian Aboriginal, New South Wales and Australian. Several people got some points, sort of.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Australian Architectural Icons

Two pieces of trivia that you might not know about the Sydney Opera House: it is World Heritage Listed (you can read why here). Many people know that the Danish architect Jørn Utzon left the project when it was two-thirds finished, feeling unable to continue working with an unsympathetic change of government in New South Wales. What you may not know, is that he returned to the project late in his life, and worked with Australian architect Richard Johnson to finally create the interior according to Utzon's original vision.The Opera House was also the first big international commission that the engineering firm Arup was involved. Now a multi-national based in London, back then it was an unknown Danish company (OK, that's 3 facts, but it is wonderful building...)

I would hazard a guess that these two structures are the only examples of outstanding architecture in Australia that most people (Australian or not) could come up with. They are within sight of one another and best views are from a ferry crossing the harbour.

Two pieces of trivia that you may not know about the Sydney Harbour Bridge: it's nickname is 'The Coathanger', and the granite pylons at either end are not structural, just aesthetic.
Loire Valley Nature: A photo showing a simple water butt safety feature for small creatures who might fall in and drown has been added to the Garden Habitat entry.
Loches News: A new cook shop has opened in Loches. We visited yesterday and it looks excellent. It seems like classic quality is the criteria for what they stock, with brands like Staub and Sabatier, so not cheap, but you get what you pay for with a lot of cookware. The shop is located on the corner opposite the fountain, right by the Porte Picois and is called Picottie's.

The owner manager is Sylvie Daveau, who grew up in the hotel-restaurant business (her father is a chef) and she is the former manager of the Luccotel on the edge of town.