Thursday 31 July 2014

Sunny Sunflowers

A large sunflower in a field just outside Sublaines, with happy honey bees gathering pollen and/or nectar in a safe, neonic free environment (presumably).
Sunflower season here is July and early August. The clients love them, so we always scope out the best field for photographs.

We park up on the side of a country road and the clients scatter every which way to take photos.
A la cuisine hier: Carrot soup, spiced with ground coriander seed and ras al hanout.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

In the Wine Cave

New oak barrels.
The temperature in the cave is a constant 13°C. It's the place to be on a hot summer's day like we've been having recently.
In the foreground, bottles of sparkling wine upside down and ready for disgorging to remove the dead yeast which forms an unsightly sediment in the wine.
The stainless steel vats in which the base wine for the sparkling Vouvray is made.
Boxes of wine on pallets ready for international shipment.
All photos taken at Chateau Gaudrelle, Vouvray, on 23 July 2014.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

800 Years Ago in Preuilly sur Claise

An array of starters and nibbles ready to be taken out for the hordes to descend on them.
It is a little known fact in the Anglo world that at the Battle of Bouvines on the 27th July 1214 Philippe Auguste of France defeated an army consisting of Imperial German, English and Flemish soldiers. One of the outcomes was that King John of England lost most of his French holdings and was forced by his barons to sign the Magna Carta.

Seated, clockwise from bottom left: Pierre Yves, Thierry, Sweetpea, Gaynor, Tim B, Paul, Lisa, Suzanne, John, Roger (obscured), Dennis, Tim F, Pauline, Louisa, Cathie. (The head that is right in the foreground belongs to Ninna, from Taiwan.) Standing, left to right: Elizabeth, Angela, Kath. (4 French, 10 English, 1 Welsh, 1 Scottish, 2 American.) Many thanks to those who brought chairs.
Another repercussion was that Philippe Auguste needed money to pay his mercenaries. He instigated a series of changes that bought tax collection directly under the auspices of the king rather than his lords, and built a series of warehouses in which to store the grain collected as tax.

Simon broke out the Bullfrog speakers and his amp, which haven't seen service since we moved here. Apparently you could hear the music at the top and bottom of the street, but we didn't get any complaints -- presumably down to the extremely good taste demonstrated by the playlist.
One theory is that our graineterie was the warehouse built in Preuilly. Although it is only a theory, we decided to celebrate the 800th anniversary as if it were fact and therefore invited people to attend an open house on  27 July 2014 at the graineterie.

Simon preparing to grill seasoned chicken thighs, dressed with Jamaican curry rub, Adobo spice mix or just salt, pepper and herbs de Provence.
According to Bernard, the President of the local history association, our barn/granary/graineterie is definitely older than 15th century and 13th century seems reasonable. It is also a building that must have had some sort of public function, not a domestic building. More than that we cannot say for sure, but he certainly does not dismiss the theory about it being a secular tithe barn built at the orders of Philippe Auguste.

 Desserts on the table, including the wonderful 800 anniversary cake made by Elizabeth as a surprise gift.
40 or 50 people of various nationalities turned up to celebrate. Sadly we didn't get photos of everyone -- quite a lot of French people seemed to be very good at dodging the camera! There was lots to eat, thanks to the generosity of our friends who brought quiches and salads to augment our catering. There was lots to drink as we had asked everyone to bring a bottle. The English beer was popular, and we seem to have consumed a quite remarkable quantity of red wine.

 Clockwise from bottom left: Colin, Anne-Loes, Ingrid, Nicole, Huub, Alex (3 English, 3 Dutch).
Everyone enjoyed themselves and the event was a great success. We were delighted with the turnout and it was wonderful to see everyone.

Monday 28 July 2014

Clouds From the Carpark

Simon photographed these clouds last Thursday at 7.15 pm. We were in the Carrefour supermarket carpark in Saint Pierre des Corps after dropping some clients off. The weather mid July has been hot and humid with noisy storms every few days which have delivered quite a bit of heavy rain.

Sunday 27 July 2014

Zebra Finch in the Wild

A wild female Zebra Finch at a waterhole in the Northern Territory. These charming little birds are native to Australia and can be seen almost everywhere, especially in the outback.

Saturday 26 July 2014

Budgerigars in the Wild

A small flock of Budgerigars roosting in a shrub while they judge if it is safe to come down to the nearby waterhole in Kings Creek in the Northern Territory, Australia. Budgies are native to Australia and can still be seen in the wild in the outback. Wild birds normally have the green and yellow colouration.

Friday 25 July 2014

Brassy Longhorn Moth

The Brassy Longhorn Moth Nemophora metallica is a very small moth with metallic wings and very long antennae. They feed on Field Scabious Knautia arvensis, and in July they are out and about in numbers, waving their preposterous antennae and laying eggs in the scabious flowers.

Female, ovipositing on Field Scabious.

Thursday 24 July 2014

Tizi Tizi

This Saddle-backed Bushcricket Ephippiger ephippiger was lurking about in rough grass near Chaumussay last week. I could hear another calling their distinctive tizi song over in a nearby wheat field. This one is male and I suspect has one more moult to go before it is fully adult.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Fumigating Wine Barrels

 The other day when we visited Chateau Gaudrelle, Cyril, the maître du chai (cellar master) was fumigating the empty wine barrels. Everything has been bottled now, so he needs to maintain the empty barrels so they don't grow bacteria or fungus over the months before the next harvest.

To do that, he uses sulphur dioxide, applied by burning a small pastille suspended inside the barrel. He had a sort of hook which took the pastille at one end, which he then lit from a candle and placed inside the barrel via the bung hole. The barrel must be sealed up for a few minutes while the pastille burns and spreads its fumes throughout the interior. Then the hook is removed and the remains of the pastille, now just a block of ash, are carefully knocked off on to the floor, making sure none fall into the barrel. The pastilles contain 2.5g of sulphur and must be applied roughly once a month to dry barrels. If the barrels are wet you risk making sulphurous acid, which can lead to the barrels giving a bad taste to the wine.

Cyril showing me the sulphur pastille.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Getting the Chimney Swept

Earlier this month I made an appointment for Pascal the plumber to come and sweep our chimney. We are obliged to get the chimney swept by a professional once a year in order to ensure our house insurance is valid. The professional group entrusted with chimney sweeping in France are the plumbers. Pascal commented that we didn't have a lot of material accumulated in the chimney and was surprised to learn we use the wood stove every day in the winter.

Curiously, in the spring right at the end of the firelighting season, we had a couple of instances of something catching fire in the flue (at least, that's what we assume was happening -- there was a lot of noise of rushing air, and a few sparks and flakes of black material coming out the top). Probably birds dropping twigs down the chimney which then catch fire according to our neighbour.

We asked Pascal about the possibility of fitting a self-regulating trap on the flue, to slow down the draw. He said we could install such a thing, but the payoff is that they rattle.

Monday 21 July 2014

Wasp and Helleborine

The orchids have more or less finished now in the Touraine Loire Valley, except for one or two late flowering species, such as Autumn Lady's Tresses  Spiranthes spiralis.

The last to flower in our orchard is Broad-leafed Helleborine Epipactis helleborine ssp helleborine, and it is just opening the last few flowers on the top of its tall spike of maybe a hundred individual flowers. The species is pollinated by social wasps, and a couple of weeks ago I photographed a wasp Vespula sp going crazy trying to access the nectar in the flowers. To be honest, I can't believe this particular wasp was doing any pollinating, because the flowers were past their best and I assume would have been fertilised some days earlier. I was surprised to see the wasp so excited and determined, as I would have thought the flowers had stopped producing nectar.

Sunday 20 July 2014

A Waterhole in the Desert

A tiny life saving waterhole in Kings Creek in the Northern Territory, Australia.

Saturday 19 July 2014

Mount Conner

Mount Conner appears out of the desert landscape on the road between Alice Springs and Uluru. It is a horseshoe shaped mesa, from the same geological substrate as underlies Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
A la cuisine hier: Beef casserole, made with mince, carrots, tomatoes, celeriac, onions and garlic and served with cheesey cauliflower puree.

Friday 18 July 2014

A More Than Five Hundred Year Old Door

This is one of the pair of 15th century carved oak doors on the north portal of Bourges cathedral. The portal itself is 12th century and the embrasure features a pair of columns in the shape of women (one is visible to the right of the door in the photo above). It is not known for sure what the women represent.

Detail of the carving.

Thursday 17 July 2014

A Visitor From The Alice

Early in July we had a visit from Denise, who I went to school with. It's been so long since we actually saw one another that neither of us can remember when the last time was. We think something like 30 years ago.

The photo was taken at the end of an excellent lunch on the wisteria shaded terrace of the Clos aux Roses in Chédigny.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

A Bit Fishy

Do we have any readers who can identify fish species? We would be quite interested to know what these are. Simon photographed them in the river Cher at Chenonceau earlier this month.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

The Children of France

The story of Anne of Brittany and Charles VIII's marriage is not a happy one. Quite apart from Anne being kidnapped and forced to marry Charles for geo-political reasons, both of them die young and unhappily.

Anne is in part worn down by fighting to keep her beloved Britanny out of the clutches of the French royal family, but also by multiple pregnancies. She is dead before she turns 40.

Charles on the other hand, is just unlucky. Running through the chateau of Amboise to catch a jeu de palme (real tennis) match, he hits his head on a door lintel and some hours later dies of the injury. He is dead before he turns 30.

Saddest of all though are their attempts at parenthood and providing an heir to the throne. All of their children die in infancy and it is clear from contemporary records that both of them felt the loss of the little ones deeply.

The children are buried in Tours Cathedral of Saint Gatien, and their monument is the earliest Italianate sculpture in France. The effigies on top represent their first-born son, Charles Orland, dead at 3 years old from measles, and their next son Charles, who lived less than a month. Charles Orland in particular was doted on by his parents. These effigies are late medieval in style (15th century) made of Carrara marble in the Tours workshop of Michel Colombe. The sarcophagus itself is the work of another sculptor, Girolamo da Fiesole, working in an Italian tradition.

Girolamo employed typical Renaissance motifs such as winged paws, putti, dolphins on each corner, and a frieze featuring scenes from the lives of Hercules and Samson as well as weird mythological combi-beasts such as centaurs and sirens. The dolphins (dauphins in French) presumably reflect the fact that Charles Orland would have been the dauphin of France (crown prince).  Other royal insignia include coats of arms and one of their mother's personal emblems, the cord.

The two sculptors, working in different traditions, have nonetheless achieved a harmonious beauty and the tomb, originally placed in the Basilica of Saint Martin in Tours (now destroyed) in 1506, was a highly influential work of art in the early French Renaissance. Even centuries later, it was regarded as a touching and beautiful work, a sentiment that saved it from the destruction all around it during the Revolution.
Neonics Extend Their Malign Influence: A paper newly released in Nature by Dutch ecotoxicologists indicates that there is a correlation between neonicotinoid insecticides and declines in farmland bird populations. They are the first to point out that correlation should not be confused with cause, (Bayer is using this argument to defend its product imidacloprid)  but in this case establishing a causal relationship would require extensive and probably unacceptable field experiments (ie deliberately poisoning wild birds). They speculate that the bird populations are declining because insect numbers are declining, thus birds are finding less to eat. It seems that quite low direct doses of neonics (ie if they eat treated seeds) also have a noticeable effect on birds, interfering with their ability to fly. They tested for other correlating factors such as changes in land use, but nothing showed such a close relationship as the decline in bird population since the introduction of imidacloprid in the 1990s. It all points to a cascade of effects that hasn't been seen since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in the 1960s.

The scientists tested for residual neonics in the environment and found that virtually everywhere had high enough levels to cause sub lethal or lethal consequences not just for insects but for birds too. In a way, the previous focus just on bees has not been helpful, because it meant up till now, no one has looked at the bigger picture. Neonics are highly soluble in water and can remain in the soil for long periods of time, possibly accumulating over time or migrating into the wild plant population. They are generally applied as a coating to seeds before planting, and provide a systemic protection against insect damage by making the entire plant toxic to insects -- roots, stems, leaves, flowers, pollen, nectar. They are highly toxic to invertebrates (worms, insects), reptiles and aquatic species (fish, frogs) but break down on exposure to light. A separate independent study concluded "that even when neonicotinoids were used according to the guidelines on their labels and applied as intended, the chemicals' levels in the environment still frequently exceeded the lowest levels known to be dangerous for a wide range of species—and were "thus likely to have a wide range of negative biological and ecological impacts.""

The results reported might seem obvious to regular newspaper reading members of the public. After all, the media has been catastrophising about the decline in pollinators and the evils of neonics in particular for several years now. But this is first time the actual numbers from broader and long term data have been crunched by scientific analysis (as opposed to newspapers selling opinion being reported as fact), and this was not quite the result that was expected by much of the scientific community. The research focus had previously been honey and bumble bees. There was a general feeling amongst scientists that habitat loss was the key issue, not biocides. And in some ways, that remains true. Habitat is being lost, not only by mechanical destruction, but by being poisoned.

The use of neonics is restricted in Europe, but not banned. The most common treatment for ticks on pets is a neonic, and they can still be used in agriculture and horticulture under certain circumstances. In North America there are many reports of so called 'pollinator friendly' and 'butterfly friendly' plants from major nurseries being treated with neonics, as well as seeds of all sorts.

This is a deeply worrying report, indicating that nowhere is safe from infiltration and contamination by neonics. The previous focus on bees has to some extent not been helpful. As Dave Goulson says, it's caused us to miss the bigger picture. Combined with habitat loss it means that the problem for natural ecosystems in Europe is far more widespread and far more serious than even many of the scientists realised.
Tu or Vous ? : You will no longer have to worry about getting it wrong, with this handy flowchart at your fingertips.
A la cuisine hier: Fried Rice for lunch, with a few prawns chucked in. Calf's liver with bacon and onion red wine gravy for dinner, served with mashed potatoes, grilled tomato and steamed broccoli.
Loire Valley Nature: The following butterfly entries have been updated:

Monday 14 July 2014

Chenonceau At Its Best

We visited Chenonceau earlier this month and Simon took these glorious photos. We were there with my friend Denise, who I went to school with but hadn't seen for nearly 30 years.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Half Way Up Kata Tjuta

Au jardin hier: I dug all the yellow onions (Stuttgarter Reisen). Since all my potager neighbours seem to have done so this week I figured I had better do it now. Then I weeded the beet bed (chard and beetroot). Then I dug a bed over so it is halfway prepped to take something else -- I'm thinking coriander, green beans and leeks. What do our veggie gardening readers suggest?
A la cuisine hier: That French summer classic tomates farcies. I also did stuffed red peppers. The stuffing was a commercial pack of pork meat with parsley and garlic. I added more parsley and garlic, some rosemary, a slice of chopped veal liver, salt and the tomato flesh. 

There has been a minor scandal regarding beefheart tomatoes recently in France. Apparently, French supermarkets have realised that French consumers really like heirloom tomato varieties such as coeur de boeuf (beefheart), but these varieties aren't supermarket friendly. So industrial market gardeners have developed a hybrid tomato with a thicker skin that looks just like a beefheart. Unfortunately it doesn't taste of anything. To show I was up to speed with all of this I quizzed the Organic Amazon about her beefhearts and was assured they were the real thing.
Loire Valley Nature: A new entry has been added for Sainfoin Onobrychis viciifolia. This legume with lovely salmon pink flowers was once grown as a fodder plant. Its English name is the French for 'sound (as in healthy) hay'. The scientific name means something like 'vetch leaf that makes donkeys bray', a reference to how much donkeys love to eat the plant.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Where I Grew Up

A video of the agricultural show in the 1960s in the town where I grew up. I don't recognise anyone, but I've no doubt my parents can identify a few people.
Car News: We picked up Célestine from Doctor Traction yesterday. She has had the pinion and crown wheel in her gearbox replaced, which means Simon now has to do maths whilst driving: the old pinion:crown wheel ratio was 10:31, the new is 9:31, which causes the speedo to read lower than is actually the fact. Although theoretically the speedo should read 10% slower than the speed over the ground, at first glance it just appears to read 10km slow at all speeds (it says she is doing 70kmh, the Renault speedo shows 80kmh following on behind). She also has a new clutch, which has caused even more headaches. The new part turned out to be faulty, but Jean-Louis installed it, tested it and removed it about 4 times before he figured out what the problem was. That part will be returned under guarantee and in the meantime he has installed a clutch from his own personal stock.

We had intended to swap the cars over, as Claudette needs a new silent block, but due to the delay caused by the faulty clutch, Jean Louis can't take her now until mid to late August at the earliest. She is currently running with Jean Louis's brake drums because the same company who supplied the clutch supplied faulty brake drums. He's had them re-engineered and will swap them over when she goes in for her silent block.

We are very relieved to Célestine back!
Loire Valley Nature: A new entry for Spotted Fritillary butterfly Melitaea didyma has been added.
A la cuisine hier: Inspired by Ken's recent post on Italian style green beans, I made my own version, using the last of the haricots verts sold by the charming Amazon who runs the organic veg stall at the Thursday market in Preuilly. I added some of her tomatoes and tasty green peppers along with home grown onions, garlic, zucchinis and broadbeans.
Asian Hornet Research: Chris Luck has just posted an outline of some promising research conducted by the François Rabelais University Tours. They have discovered that the native thick-headed fly Conops vesicularis will parasitise and kill the invasive alien Yellow-legged Asian Hornet Vespa velutina nigrithorax, and therefore may act as a naturally occurring biological control.

Friday 11 July 2014

The Roman Amphitheatre in Tours

The garden of the Musée de Beaux Arts in Tours. 
The wall behind the terrace is the remains of the Roman amphitheatre.

The amphitheater, the only [Roman] monument preserved, is unfortunately filled with houses or covered with earth. It was one of the largest in the Empire (143 x 124 m on the axes). The outer height may be calculated as ca. 20 m. The seats, which are cut in the natural rock to the N, rested on vaulted passageways. The walls are faced with limestone rubble with white mortar joints, often trowel-marked, and double courses of brick. Four passageways have been found, placed on the axes of the ellipse; at the entrance they are reinforced with enormous buttresses shaped like semicircular towers about 6 m in diameter. The size of the building and the moderate use of brick indicate that it dates from about the time of Hadrian (117-138). The remains can be reached through the cellars of certain houses.
The 3d c. surrounding wall, an irregular rectangle (ca. 340 x 240 m) enclosed half of the amphitheater on its S side, and formed an enormous bastion that dominated the plain (perimeter 1155 m, area 9.23 ha). The foundations were built of reused material (blocks, columns, capitals); the wall itself was 4.3-4.8 m thick, made of rubble dressed with small blocks of stone and with red mortar and double bands of brick every 7-10 courses. It was flanked with round towers filled with rubble up to the first floor, where small tegular windows were set. Remains can be seen at rue des Ursulines no. 12, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, and the N and S sides of the Cathedral. Source: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites.

From GoogleEarth.
Preuilly News: The new police station (caserne in French), which includes accommodation for the gendarmes, has been officially opened. It is named after Denis Bonnaudet, a local policeman during the Second World War who became a member of the Resistance, captured by the Nazis in July 1944 and died in a deportation camp in April 1945. His two daughters were present at the inauguration ceremony.
Au jardin hier: I weeded the potato bed -- took me 2 hours. I also dug the remaining white onions. They've formed bulbs the size of large marbles to golf ball size, so not huge, but good quality and no sign of onion fly. The yellow onions are ready to pull too, but they will hold a bit. The tomatoes are thriving, but I am slightly concerned about pollination levels. There was plenty of honey bee action, in the flowers that have come from a sowing of Vilmorin's 'biodiversity seed mix', and in the Virginia creeper, but honey bees can't pollinate tomatoes (or peppers, aubergines, chillies, zukes or cukes). My impression is that although the year began well for bumbles and solitaries, they are now much less visible and active. However, something has been pollinating the zucchini and the gherkin, so perhaps the slow development of fruit is more down to the recent lack of sun.

Thursday 10 July 2014

House Martins at Chenonceau

Every year these little birds fly in from Africa to nest on the Chateau of Chenonceau and other buildings in the Touraine Loire Valley. In French they are called les hirondelles de fênetre (='window swallows'), in English they are House Martins. Their scientific name is Delichon urbicum
In general, just as at Chenonceau, property owners leave them to get on with nesting, and they return year after year to the same mud nest, repairing it as necessary for the next year's brood (or broods, as they may have more than one if they are quick off the mark). Where one nests, others will join to form a colony.
They can be distinguished from other similar species by their white rump. 'Aerial plankton', tiny flies and aphids caught on the wing form the bulk of their diet. 

French Expression: Parti en fumée = gone up in smoke. I heard this twice in one evening recently from different interviewees on different subjects on current affairs programmes. An expression of their frustration with how life and politics in France is heading.
Quiz Results: The mystery chateau has not been openly identified by anyone, but I know Liselle knows it, as she was standing next to me when I took the photos. To find out where it is, go to the post.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

The Streets of Bourges

Recently we went to Bourges and enjoyed this small city very much. Bourges is situated about 2 hours east of us. Here are some pictures of the centre ville.

A street in the really old quarter of town.
 I forget what this building is (the old Palais de justice maybe?) It's medieval anyway.
 I liked the juxtaposition of old and new here.
 A typical shopping street.
 A 15th century church.