Monday 30 June 2014

Pigs in Pens

Pork appears to be easily the most popular meat in France, and France is the third biggest pork producer in the EU, but you never see pigs in the fields. You rarely notice the local piggeries at all. They are off the beaten track and the pigs are all indoors.
In the wild, pigs live outdoors of course, foraging in the forest and roaming quite widely (several kilometres a day). They live in small groups of related females with young. Boars have solitary lifestyles. Wild pigs have small litters of about half a dozen piglets. They have a reputation for ferocity, so don't seem a likely contender for domestication. However, their big advantage for subsistence and peasant farmers was that they would eat anything. The farmer didn't have to set aside special pasture or sideline any of his cereals. The pigs thrived on household scraps and what they rooted out of the leaf litter. Thus, it came about that pigs were simultaneously but independently domesticated both in Europe and China several thousand years ago.

In China, where there were fewer animals to provide much needed manure for the fields, pigs were coralled in sties from quite early on, but in Europe they stayed running free in the forests until the Industrial Revolution caused a shift in lifestyles of both city and country folk. There was a difference in the selection of breeding stock between east and west too. China selected for big litters, Europe for big pigs. European pigs even developed several extra vertebrae as they got longer and longer in the body. At some point around 1700 a Chinese pig was brought to Europe. The resulting hybrid produced a big hardy pig that ate anything, fattened quickly and produced big litters (a modern sow will have an average of 30 piglets a year). More recently, white bristled pigs became favoured over black bristled, as the consumer doesn't like to see black bristles in their pork products.
Modern pigs are raised in related groups, similar to the groups they would form in the wild. Modern lighting and air conditioning mean that pigs can be raised indoors so farmers need less land. Despite the best efforts of many farmers, there is no question that indoor pigs develop a few behavioural issues that the farmer needs to stay on top of. Although farrowing crates are still used, to prevent sows inadvertently crushing newborn or suckling piglets, gestation crates or stalls, in which pregnant sows are unable to turn around or make physical contact with one another, have been banned in Europe since 2013, and pregnant sows live together in indoor pens. French pig farmers could apply for a grant of up to €17 000 to make the conversion.

In the confined space and close contact, sows can fight to establish a hierachy and access to food. The pigs' tails are docked because tail biting is one of the ways the pigs express their aggression. Smart pig farmers are dealing with the problems of penned groups of pigs by selectively breeding for a less aggressive temperament.

French pig farms are usually fairly small scale 'farrow to finish' establishments, averaging 220 sows on 60 ha of land. Manure is dealt with by spreading on the land and few farms have treatment units. The amount of manure that can be spread is strictly controlled, which in effect controls the number of pigs a farm can hold.

The photos above are all of local piggeries.
A la cuisine hier: Eggy nests, from that irrepressible pair at Veggischmooze. Basically it's mashed potato made into a 'nest' which holds an egg and all is smothered in cheese and baked. I used Etorki, a Basque ewes' milk cheese. We had the potato skins on the side, along with green beans, as suggested in the recipe.

Sunday 29 June 2014

Not Uluru

Kata Tjuga may not be a single monolith, but this rock formation in the same national park as Uluru provides an equally dramatic skyline.
La Chatonniere: As of this season the gardens at la Chatonniere are no longer open to the public for individual visits. Visits must be by prior arrangement and in groups of 10 people or more.

Saturday 28 June 2014

Weevil in the Desert

These large black weevils were common in Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. I saw many live ones and many sunbleached remains.
Car News: The good news is that we have our keys back. Simon picked them up from the Auberge in Cour Cheverny on Thursday while I took clients around the chateau. Other good news is that Célestine's gearbox is fixed. The bad news is that the gearbox repair alerted the mechanic to the fact that she needed a new clutch and the new clutch is not working well with the new gearbox. Plus the alternator has decided not to work for some mysterious reason none of us understand. Meanwhile, Claudette soldiers on, but she needs a bit of attention and is starting to huff and puff in hot weather when in slow moving traffic. We don't have clients for a few days now so it gives us a chance to get Claudette to the mechanic too.
Veggie Vending Machine: Due to reader interest I have updated the Vegetable Vending Machine in Villandry post to show a photo of the labels with details of the French distributor and the German manufacturer.

Friday 27 June 2014

Thursday 26 June 2014

Botany Outing to Les Pelouses de Bertignolles

 A view of les Pelouses de Bertignolles from near the entrance.
On Saturday 21 June Dominique Tessier led a group of botanists from the Association de Botanique et Mycologie de Sainte Maure de Touraine on an outing to the Pelouses de Bertignolles.

Botanists looking at a sedge Carex sp on the edge of one of the shallow pools.
The site is situated on the left bank of the Loire, in that triangle of land known as the Véron, formed by the confluence of the Vienne and the Loire. We met in the car park at Candes Saint Martin, then crossed the bridge over the Vienne and turned left into the site down a dirt track.

 Sand Broomrape Phelipanche arenaria, rare and specialised in terms of habitat and host (it is parasitic), one of the prettiest of its family.
The flora here is of considerable interest because the substrate is alluvial sand. That meant it was very dry, and Dominique warned everyone that they would get covered in really annoying grass seeds that would get stuck in their socks and boots. I had arrived in shorts and sandals (looking sportive, according to my friend Paul) which Dominique was a bit dubious about, but actually, that turned out to be better than if I had been fully kitted out in hiking boots and socks, as the grass seeds just slid off me. The area is really a low lying sand dune, much of it covered in Grey Hair Grass Corynephorus canescens and Cladonia lichen, which crunches underfoot. In English this type of habitat is called Grey Dunes (Fr. les dunes gris) because of the colour of the vegetation. I've never visited this type of habitat before, and I was fascinated by how different the plant species were and the abundance of interesting insect life.

 The gorgeous male chafer beetle Hoplia caerulea, abundant on this site.
Dotted about this dry sandscape were shallow pools with aquatic plants and rabbit warrens which turn out to be very important in the ecological cycle of the site (especially while they wait for a flock of sheep to manage the vegetation).

 A grasshopper moulting.
 My personal highlights for the day included:
  • several species of Robberfly Asilidae
  • Hoplia caerulea, an irridescent blue chafer beetle which I have never seen live before.
  • The chafer beetle Anisoplia cyathigera.
  • a Bembix sp sand wasp shoving a grasshopper down its nest hole in the sand.
  • an Ammophila sp sand wasp rushing about moving clumps of sand and small bits of wood chip to close its nest hole in the sand.
  • Common Forester moth Adscita statices.
  • a grasshopper, maybe Euchorthippus declivus, moulting out of an exoskeleton that has become too small as it has grown to adulthood.
  • Oak saplings which had signs of animals digging for summer truffles around them.
  • a tiny baby Tree Frog (Fr. Rainette).
  • Sheep's Bit Jasione montana 
  • Tasteless Stonecrop Sedum sexangulare
  • Reflexed Stonecrop Sedum rupestre (syn. S. reflexum)
  • Hoary Allysum Berteroa incana -- this is not native to here, but a common plant, interesting because it was introduced in the 19th century in hay brought by Prussian troops during the Franco-Prussian War.
  • Crow Garlic Allium vineale -- this is also a common plant, but I hadn't realised that its French name is Ail des vignes.
  • Field Wormwood Artemisia campestris (Fr. Armoise de champêtre)
  • Hare's-foot Clover Trifolium arvense
  • Yarrow/Sand/Wormwood Broomrape Orobanche purpurea, syn. O. arenaria  (Fr. Orobanche de l'armoise), which was parasitising the Field Wormwood.
  • Birthwort Aristolochia clematitis (Fr. Aristoloche clematite). For me, Aristolochia is a coastal rainforest plant that is the food plant of birdwing butterflies in Australia, so I was amazed to find a species in this situation.
  • Narrow-leafed Lupin Lupinus angustifolius, very rare and protected nationally. One of the flagship species of the site.
  • Bastard Lucerne Medicago varia.
 An Ammophila sp wasp putting the finishing touches to her nest.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

The Tarte Tatin Man

The famous Tarte Tatin was created by a pair of sisters in the Sologne (not far from here). This guy was at Loches market turning them out in the sun and offering a free third one if you bought two. His apprentice was making little deep fried puffs flavoured with garlic and parsley.

While we were standing there a man sampled one of the puffs, then a second. He was going for his third and the baker decided enough was enough. We were entertained by witnessing a very strongly worded dressing down which included the freeloader being told that he was 'beyond disagreable' and would have the contents of the boiling oil vat tipped over his head if he didn't push off.

After the kerfuffle, we purchased a tarte, which we ate for lunch and it was very good.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Beautiful Landing

This cutesome creature is a male Beautiful Demoiselle Calopteryx virgo, who spent some time sitting on my boot by the bief (millstream) in le Petit Pressigny this time last year.
They are the most abundant dragonfly along this small stream, which is nice, as they are not a particularly common species, being very picky about their habitat.

Monday 23 June 2014

Furry Fish

Dogs and horses were domesticated thousands of years ago, but rabbits only came into the domestic fold about 1400 years ago. Once Pope Gregory I (590 - 604) declared that baby rabbits could be classified as marine creatures and could therefore be eaten during Lent, their fate was sealed. The monastic communities knew a business opportunity when they saw one, and in addition to fish farming, started raising rabbits for sale to the surrounding populace.

 A wild Rabbit (Fr. Lapin de garenne) Oryctolagus cuniculus.

Nowadays both wild and domestic rabbits are widely distributed across Europe and have been introduced to Australia, but originally the wild population was present only in Iberia and southern France.

A domestic Lapin Gris de Touraine (Touraine Grey Rabbit).

The process of domestication does not involve the switching on of a single 'domestication gene', but rather small changes to many genes, resulting in an animal that is more placid, often bigger and less independent. In the case of rabbits many of the changes relate to brain and nerve cell development.
Car News: We've been having a fairly stressful time of it lately. Célestine is still at the Dentist's, partly due to the fact that the suppliers of the spare parts needed to repair her 'forgot' (!!) to send the parts, so the work was delayed by a week. Claudette has been performing better than we expected, but we are having to nurse her somewhat. We took the difficult decision last week to cancel a booking for a wedding at the last minute. I spent a very fraught time ringing around trying to find someone who could replace us and thanks to our friend Fabien, who suggested someone from another car club, we were able to organise a substitute and all turned out well. We felt dreadful at messing people around on an important day, but also that we couldn't risk overloading Claudette with too many kilometres between services and committments to clients who have booked chateaux tours, which is our core business, while we didn't have a back up vehicle.

Then on Friday we got back to our garage in Saint Pierre des Corps after dropping clients off at their hotel after a day's touring, only to discover that the key to the garage had gone missing sometime during the day, along with one of our modern car keys and keys to our house and home garage. The real worry was the Saint Pierre des Corps garage key, as there is only one. Once again, I spent a fraught time ringing the hotel our clients stayed at, the clients, the carwash, the petrol station, several chateaux and town halls, and the restaurant we lunched in. In some instances I had to leave a message and wait for people to get back to me (thank you Yves from the carwash and the guys from Manoir Les Minimes who went above and beyond by searching the carpark multiple times), or I couldn't get through the first time (la Vieille Auberge at Cour Cheverny). Finally, yesterday, I rang the Auberge again and they said,"yes, we have your keys, they were found under your table". I can't tell you how relieved we are, and we can pick them up on Thursday when we are back with clients! (Thank you also to Antoine for phoning to suggest a good locksmith should we need one, after Brigitte passed on our news to him.)

Adding to our woes was coming downstairs on Saturday to see a flood all over the kitchen floor. The washing machine had emptied not down the drain but all over the floor when it did its overnight wash. After mopping up and taking the machine apart, Simon finally diagnosed the problem (grit in the thread of the filter so it wasn't sealing properly) and we have a properly functioning washing machine again. Phew!

We aren't out of the woods yet, but hopefully we've turned a corner and the stress levels are already significantly less.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Desert Oaks

Young Desert Oaks Allocasuarina decaiseneana in Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, the Northern Territory, Australia. When young this species has a rather whimsical feather duster form. Once a bit older they spread out into more 'classic' tree shape.

Saturday 21 June 2014

The Other Rocks

Kata Tjuta, not as monolithic as Uluru, but higher and equally fascinating.

Friday 20 June 2014

La Fête de la Musique

Every year the whole of France celebrates the summer solstice with La Fête de la Musique. Every town and village will stage some sort of live music for the community tomorrow.

Les Débranchés last year in Preuilly -- an ideal choice for the event if only the weather had co-operated.
Last year the weather was cold (people were wearing overcoats!) and threatening to rain. Preuilly had a good three piece band who played jazz and blues, but the event was not a great success. I think people stayed home because it was outdoors and the weather was poor. It was a shame for the band and the organisers.

Fête de la Musique in the town hall square 2013, Preuilly-sur-Claise.
Let's hope this year will be better!

It is a blues band, starting at 7pm and there will be food and drink available. See you in the Hotel de Ville car park!
A la cuisine hier: Chicken and spring cabbage soup, made with red lentils, celeriac, carrots and homegrown onions.
Au jardin hier: The tomatoes are beginning to flower and those from the aged orchard neighbor are looking most robust. A few baby zucchini are beginning to form, and tiny little peppers. The beetroot and chard are looking excellent and we will soon be able to cut leaves from them. The celery is looking fine, but it's way too early to tell if it will turn out alright. The aubergine seem to be alright but are still being munched by something eating their leaves -- no flowers yet. The potatoes are powering away, with lots of leaves on thick stems, starting to flower. The 'wildflower' mix sown amongst the potatoes is also starting to flower -- just Californian Poppies so far, but a mystery pinky-purple thing not to far behind. I picked a couple of meals worth of broad beans, a few strawberries and a punnet of perfect Géant sweet cherries. That will be it for our sweet cherries this year and we ate the lot after dinner. The onions and garlic are just about ready to pull. Various berries have well formed fruit but will be a while yet before they are ripe. Plums, apples and pears looking good.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Cicadas Say Summer

For many people, especially in the southern half of France, the sound of cicadas buzzing in the trees is the sound of summer, and there is a saying il ne fait pas bon travailler quand la cigale chante ('it's no good working when the cicada is singing'). Even in the initially pathetic excuse for a summer that we had in 2013, the cicadas emerged on time in late June and zzzzzzzzed away. This year's summer has been fairly iffy so far, but yesterday I heard my first cicada, right on cue. During the warmer months I often hear them in the orchard, accompanied by the Field Crickets Gryllus campestris, but whereas I see the crickets every day sitting in the entrances to their burrows in the potager, the cicadas remain invisible up in the trees.

A female Tibicina haematodes (la Cigale rouge in French) photographed on a redcurrant bush in late June last year in a friend's garden in le Grand Pressigny. All the photos are the same species (and probably the same individual). This species is large, about 30 mm long.
Like so many creatures today though their numbers are in serious decline, especially in the south, where habitat loss due to vineyards being planted on large areas of the native garrigue is the main cause. There are about 20 species present in France, but only 2 or 3 are large, noisy and abundant. Like other true bugs, they suck sap from plants through a hypodermic needle like mouthpart. They are incapable of jumping, but can sit for hours completely still and camouflaged, their wings folded over their body pitched roof fashion. Only the males 'sing', producing the sound from an unique and elaborate system of 'cymbals' at the base of the abdomen. The males contract and release muscles connected to the 'cymbals' 300 - 900 times a second in order to produce the sound. To amplify the sound, their intestinal organs are pushed towards the tip of their abdomen, leaving most of their abdomen hollow and acting as a resonator. Each species has a different sound or pattern of buzzing. 
Their life cycle includes adults which can fly and nymphs which live underground. Once emerged as adults they have 2 - 3 weeks to live. In contrast, their life underground is of at least 2 years duration. Adults and larvae look more or less alike, with robust digging front legs and bristley faces. Since they are no use underground the wings remain vestigule and 'under wraps' until the adults emerge. The adults have very good sight, but the larvae are blind, although the eyes are there, behind a protective cuticle dome.

Females lay eggs inside plant stems or under bark. The larvae hatch as tiny things barely 1.5 mm long and head for the ground to bury themselves. Over the next couple of years they grow, moulting periodically as they outgrow their exoskeletons. They burrow through the ground looking for vegetable material to eat, their front legs excavating using their built in pick and shovel arrangement and their back legs pushing. They identify their surroundings using their facial bristles. They prefer dry soil, but when it is too dry and hard to dig they pee on it to moisten it and make digging easier.
After their 5th moult they spend 8 - 10 months in a sort of suspended animation, then another month preparing to metamorphise, changing from white to brown and green and positioning themselves vertically just a few millimetres below the surface of the soil. When ready to emerge as adults the nymph climbs above ground a short distance to split open the exuviae down the back. They are very vulnerable to predation by ants and wasps at this moment. After a few hours their exoskeleton has hardened and their wings pumped up and useable. Now they can fly to a nearby branch, sing and take their first meal of sap.
The males 'sing' to attract the females. Both sexes have 'ears' on the underside of their abdomen, very sensitive to vibrations and acting like sound mirrors. Once they have mated, the female will lay 30 - 50 eggs by inserting the very hard tip of her abdomen into a plant stem and depositing an egg.

Source: Biologie et Comportement des Cigales de France, M. Boulard, OPIE, 1988.
French Expression: En déplacement = on a business trip. I learnt this expression when one of our winemakers used it to explain why they would not be available one day. Now I use it when I explain to our laitiere (milk lady) that we will be away with clients so I don't want her to leave any milk.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

The Organ at Candé

This mahooooosive organ is in the Library at the chateau of Candé. It was made by the American company Skinner and is one of only a dozen or so of their organs still in working order. It is listed as a French national monument in its own right. The organ can not only be played by a musician seated at the keyboard, but it has rolls that can be inserted and turn it into a self-playing instrument. We've only seen it open a couple of times, so Simon took the opportunity to take a photo last time we encountered the technician servicing it.

According to one of the gardeners at the estate the organ can be heard several kilometres away! The pipes stretch up into the attic, so it packs quite a punch. I'm not sure it would necessarily be a terribly pleasant experience sitting in the library with someone playing at full whack.

The organ is yet another of the incorrigible Charles Bedaux's modern gadgets, installed in the 1930s to keep the glamorous household entertained.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

A Visit to Chambord

 Me in a Rosalie in the grounds of the Chateau of Chambord.

We had a few days off in early May so decided to visit Bracieux and Chambord, to try out a restaurant there and check out the progress with the building works on the chateau. We had heard it was covered in scaffolding and wasn't worth visiting, but in fact the scaffolding made a relatively minor impact on our day. We hired a four wheeled pedal powered 'Rosalie' for €20/hour and set off round the grounds. Unfortunately for Simon, the pedals on my side stopped working after about 20 minutes. I thought the thing was rattly and noisy and would recommend hiring regular bikes or walking as a more peaceful way of progressing.
Botany Outing: There will be a general botany outing on Saturday 21 June to see the notable plants of the Pelouses des Hauts de Bertignolles. Meet at 14.30 in Candes Saint Martin in the carpark on the left bank of the Vienne. Organised by the Association de Botanique et de Mycologie de Sainte Maure de Touraine.

Monday 16 June 2014

Buildings in Bracieux

Bracieux is a town in the Sologne, near the Chateau of Chambord. There are some attractive buildings there, and some decent restaurants.

 A very spick and span looking timber framed house with brick infill.

 The covered market. Some elements are clearly 19th century, but others may be earlier.

 Covered market interior.

Sunday 15 June 2014

One Last Look at Uluru

When it rains the dark stain is the route the water takes to drain off The Rock and into a series of basins it has carved out for itself.

Saturday 14 June 2014

The Family Rocks

Me, my sister and brother-in-law walking the base of Uluru in April 2006.

Friday 13 June 2014

Tulip Mania

If you didn't make it to the Chateau of Cheverny in April, this is what their 60 thousand tulips in the park looked like.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Horsepower in the Vineyard II

Claudette parked next to Vincent Roussely's delivery van at Domaine du Clos Roussely. The delivery van dates from the 1980s (!!) and has the same motor as Claudette (who is from 1956). The day we visited Vincent was having trouble starting the van and Simon was very pleased to be able to pass on a tip which helped.
WWII Anniversary: The last cabinet meetings of the Third Republic of France were conducted on 12 and 13 June 1940 at the Chateau of Cangé in Saint Avertin (now a suburb of Tours) after the government  fled Paris.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Re-roofing a Tower

Last month we encountered these guys re-roofing a tower in Montrésor. The half cone shape had been formed with lengths of curved wood. The guy in the flat cap was engaged in rasping the surface smooth before terracotta tiles were fixed.
Botany Outing: There will be a general botany outing to look at wild flowers of agricultural land and pond plants on Sunday 15 June. Meet at 10.00 and/or 14.30 at La Morellière, Saint Laurent de Lin, home of Dominique Tessier (I can provide a phone number if you require it). At Chateau la Vallière take the D749 towards Bourgeuil. At the Croix du Chêne Pilé crossroads take the Saint Laurent du Lin direction. La Morellière is about 1 km on the right. Bring a packed lunch (many people will bring something to share). People can come for either the full day, arriving at 10 am, or half a day. If you are just coming for the afternoon arrive by 14.30, or get there an hour or two earlier and join the group for lunch.
French Expression: Désormais = from now on. This seems to me to be a somewhat formal word, the equivalent of 'henceforth' in English, although in more mainstream use (journalists use it both in writing in the newspaper and spoken on the television).

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Elderflower Syrup

Two years ago I had the idea I might like to make elderflower champagne, but common sense got the better of me, and last year I made elderflower syrup at this time of year when the elder trees were nicely flowering.

The substantial Elder Sambucus nigra in our back yard when we bought the house.
Elderflower syrup is easy peasy, and does not involve having to check the bottles every day.

10 - 15 elder flower heads
Zest and juice of 4 lemons
500 g sugar
500 ml water

  1. Strip the flowers off the stems and mix into the lemon zest and juice in a bowl. Set aside.
  2. Put the water and sugar in a saucepan on high heat, stirring until it goes clear and boils.
  3. Allow this simple syrup to boil rapidly for a minute then pour it over the elderflowers.
  4. Cover the elderflower mixture and set aside to infuse for several days.
  5. Strain the mixture through a jelly bag and bottle the resulting syrup. Keep in the refrigerator.
  6. To make into a refreshing drink, mix with fizzy water in whatever proportion is to your taste.
The drink is really a glorified traditional lemonade, but you can tell it's got elderflower in it. The flowers give it a floral fragrance and an extra citrusy note that is more orangey than the lemon. Of course, you need to collect your flowers from somewhere pollution free. I got mine from trees along the bief (millstream) in le Petit Pressigny. Choose heads with flowers that are freshly opened and have plenty of pollen.

The recipe makes just under a litre of syrup.
I had an interesting experience a few days after making this last year. I was wine tasting with a client at Chateau Gaudrelle and was really struck by how much their sparkling Vouvray Brut Millesimé 2011 reminded me of the elderflower syrup I'd just been making. After spending a few days with the aroma filling the kitchen and pantry, my brain immediately and automatically made the connection when I first put my nose in the glass of wine.


French Expression:  Au fur et à mesure = as it goes along / as and when. For instance, if you have a buffet, people can serve themselves au fur et à mesure. The expression indicates something happens slowly, progressively, gradually, evenly. A lot of the time it just means 'as'.

Monday 9 June 2014

The Offal Butcher

At Loches market there are many butchers trucks. They sell the usual beef and lamb, a couple sell horse and goat, some specialise in poultry and rabbits, others in pork. This one specialises in offal. Not just tripe as the name suggests, but feet, heads and innards of all sorts. As you can see, there is a queue for his products.
French Expression: Valoriser = to add value to (either by developing something or by educating people so that they hold something in higher esteem). It is often used by heritage and nature conservation organisations as one of their missions.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Mum at The Rock

Here is my mother taking a break at Uluru in April 2006.
French Expression: Gaspillage = waste. I'm hearing this word a lot lately in the media, in relation to food waste (gaspillage alimentaire). In this sense perte (= loss) is synonymous, and my aged orchard neighbour often gives me things that he says would otherwise be perdus (= lost). I don't recall him ever using gaspillé (= wasted).

Saturday 7 June 2014

In the Cave Like a Wave

Standing in a cave at the base of Uluru, looking up at The Rock.
French Expression: Quasiment = practically/virtually (in the sense of nearly). This is a word I hear often on the news and in documentaries (eg le lynx pardelle ne mange quasiment que des lapins = the Iberian Lynx eats virtually nothing but rabbits). A peu près means the same thing (as in à peu près parfait = practically perfect).

Friday 6 June 2014

Carpet Beetles Beware

Although small (only 5mm long from head to tail) the flutter fly Palloptera muliebris is distinctive and easy to identify. Not only are their pretty tortoiseshell banded wings unmistakable, but their behaviour is odd enough to make you notice them.

It is not uncommon to find them inside, marching along an invisible grid pattern on a wall, gently waving their wings and turning abruptly at right angles every 10 or 15 cm, as though doing some sort of drill.

Until recently it was assumed they came inside by accident, the way some hover flies do. So little is known for sure about their lifecycle that entomologists are just guessing, but there has been a suggestion that they may be predators of carpet beetles. This would mean the flies are coming inside deliberately, to lay their eggs so that their predatory larvae can hatch near a ready supply of food.

So, my advice if you see one of these flies in your house -- just let it get on with whatever it is doing (and check under your oriental rugs for woolly bears). The presence of a predator usually indicates a good population of prey.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Botany Outing to the Pelouses des Grandes Fontaines, Bléré

Botanists looking at grass.

On Sunday 18 May the Association de Botanique et de Mycologie de Sainte Maure de Touraine met for an outing at the Pelouses des Grandes Fontaines near Bléré. The main objective was to see the limestone grassland orchids, but like all limestone grasslands, there are many other special plants there.

Adonis Blue butterflies Polyommatus bellargus were abundant on the site. This one is female.

It's quite a big site (70 ha), on two dry rolling slopes with a depression cutting through the middle that is much wetter due to the presence of springs. These springs, which feed a small stream called the Herpenty, also supply the town of Bléré with its water, thus the site is protected by the local authority to maintain the high quality of the water. As a nature reserve the site is not fertilized and it is forbidden to dump any sort of waste there.  The plants and soil bacteria on the site help purify the water that falls as rain into the system, by filtering out for their own use such pollutants as nitrates, phosphates and organic material.

This abundance of plantlife is growing in soil only a few centimetres deep. The underlying limestone breaks through in patches (eg on the left) allowing you to see just how thin the soil is.

These dry grasslands weren't always in such good condition. They have undergone a period of carefully managed natural regeneration. They will always have to be managed if the grassland is to remain. The natural succession is for bushes and scrub to take over. As a consequence the site is mowed and grazed (by sheep and horses) as appropriate, and the invasion of scrub is kept to a minimum. Thus the grassland offers a sanctuary to many species that are threatened or have disappeared from other places. It is rather similar habitat to the Puys du Chinonais that the club visited two years ago.

A Green-underside Blue butterfly Glaucopsyche alexis -- an exciting new species for me and a chalk grassland specialist like the Adonis Blues.

Brome grass dominates the dry limestone grassland which was once used as pasture, before the days of intensive arable farming in the area. On one side of the site there are hundreds of Pyramidal Orchids Anacamptis pyramidalis. My friend Jean, a formidable botanist, commented to me that this protected species, which is a species more commonly encountered in the south, is extending its range and increasing in abundance because it favours dry slopes such as motorway embankments. Orchid seed is so light the turbulence created by passing vehicles can carry seeds as far as 50 km to establish new colonies.

Amethyst Broomrape Orobanche amethystea, a parasite of Field Eryngo Eryngium campestre, seen here clearly associated with its host. This was another exciting first for me. Broomrapes are notoriously tricky to tell apart and this one could easily be confused with Common Broomrape O. minor.

One of the other members of the club told me a great story, nothing to do with the site. He lives next door to the pharmacy in his town and in France people are encouraged to take fungi to the pharmacist to be identified and pronounced safe to eat. Paul, my friend, happens to be a fungi expert, so the pharmacist often calls him in to confirm an identification. He says that its got to the stage where locals are not just bringing in fungi, but all sorts of natural history for identification. The other day he was called in to identify a mating pair of Great Peacock moths Saturnia pyri. He doesn't mind -- he's retired, he is pleased people are interested enough to ask, and he got some great photos.

 One of the many Pyramidal Orchids on the site.
French Expression: Oui s'il vous/te plaît = yes please. This is the expression to use if you want seconds of dessert or more to drink. Saying 'oui merci' will likely get you passed over as 'yes thank you' doesn't exist in French, having been interpreted as meaning 'thank you, I've had sufficient'.

Wednesday 4 June 2014


Simon shot these pics of a Starling coming in to its nest in a plane tree in Chanceaux près Loches earlier this month.

French Expression: C'est comme ça = that's just how it is (shrugging is optional).

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Media Scrum, Candé, 3 June 1937

Click on this rather unpromising looking image and it will take you to the British Pathé website and a video of some rather random images of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's wedding day. You will see French gendarmes strolling about, cameramen lurking in the shrubbery desperate for any glimpse of activity at the chateau, journalists along the roadside waiting for the action to start and scenes of Monts as it was between the Wars. Briefly, at last, you get to see Wallis and Edward and their hosts Fern and Charles Bedaux and the crowd of locals waving the happy couple off. There is no sound track, it's 8 minutes and 20 seconds long.

Of course, all this media and public attention was nothing compared to what the Duke and Duchess would have excited had they got married where they had wanted to, where most of their glamorous friends lived (or at least, played), on the Riviera. However, apparently George VI put his foot down. It was bad enough that his selfish irresponsible brother had abdicated his responsibilities to marry a twice divorced gold digging commoner, but to have the wedding turn into a media feeding frenzy on the fashionable streets of the Riviera was too much. The wedding must take place somewhere out of the way and unknown.

Luckily for them, their acquaintances the Bedaux owned the ideal place, hidden away in the hopelessly rural profundity of the Touraine Loire Valley.
Cheese Fair: The annual Foire aux Fromages will be held Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 June in Sainte Maure de Touraine.
French Expression: Moi non plus = me neither; moi aussi = me too.