Tuesday 31 March 2015

It may be spring...

... but at the moment it's only spring one day at a time. We have had some lovely sunny days, and a few crisp mornings, but these have been interspersed by wet, windy and cold days. Luckily, I think countryside can look lovely, even in the middle of a squall.

Unfortunately, you don't get the full effect of the softness of this photo, because Google (who own blogger) have a deliberate policy of ruining people's photos by over saturating, over contrasting, and sharpening any photo posted to blogger. They call this "auto awesome" and there appears to be no way of avoiding it. (There are many pieces of advice on the internet as to how to do it, but they all involve signing up to Google+. I tried it, it doesn't work). They have been doing this since about two weeks before I stopped blogging regularly in 2013.

The original of this photo looks like this: (I can do this because I have loaded the photo to our website server, not blogger)

It's subtle, but obvious: especially when you compare the two side to side. (It's even more obvious when you click on the photo and view in full size)

So if you have a blog and your photos just don't look right, don't blame your camera or your computer, blame someone at Google with the tastes of a child who thinks that everything should look like a computer game.

To see what this really means, this picture is identical to our blog header - in fact, it is our blog header, but loaded into blogger instead of our own server.

You will notice that instead of the photo backgrounds being the same colour as the blog backgrounds the greens are much lighter, the slightly off white text is now white, and the grass is yellow, not green.

Even better, each time you load the photo, it gets auto-awfulled - here I have downloaded the above photo from blogger and reloaded it again to blogger.
I could go on (and on, and on...) until you are unable to tell what the photo is. But I won't.

I do not blog often, and when asked why that is, I say that it's because I just do not like blogger. This is just one of the causes of that dislike.
Note from Susan: For those who like to know these things, the village in the top photos is Faye le Vineuse and the photo is taken from a hill behind Braslou. The smoke on the left in the middle distance is from a roadside still. We chatted with the owner, who was distilling red wine into eau de vie in one still and fermented plum pulp into eau de prune in a second. Some large plastic rubbish bins full of fermented pear pulp were waiting in the wings. His clients were extremely camera shy and no photos were allowed unfortunately. But Elizabeth and I were allowed to climb the steps to reach the top of the alembic and sample the eau de prune as it was piped into the second chamber of the still. Many thanks to Colin and Elizabeth for introducing us to this walk around Braslou.

Monday 30 March 2015

Limouzin freres: Cheese Making

Limouzin frères is a goat cheese dairy near us. They make prizewinning AOP Sainte Maure de Touraine cheese as well as several cheeses which don't have AOP status.The certification label AOP stands for Appellation d'Origine Protégée, and means that under European law the product can only be labelled with the certified name if it is made within the specified geographic area and using specified production methods. In the case of Sainte Maure de Touraine cheese the cheese must be a log shape, with a rye straw engraved with the maker's name inserted down the middle. The goats must be either the Alpine (brown) or Saanen (white) breed and eat a diet that is 75% made up of crops grown on the farm. If the cheese is to have the additional fermier (farmstead) certification it must be made from the milk from a single herd and be made on the same farm that the goats live and where they are milked.

The milking parlour.
The goats are milked in their cohorts of 40 animals and milking the whole herd of 300+ does on this farm takes an hour and a half to two hours morning and evening. The goat shed is immediately to the right of the photo (see our post on goat husbandry at the Limouzin farm) and the cheese making facility immediately to the left. These Alpine does give about 2 litres a day (Saanens give more milk but it is lower in fats and solids).

Milk standing in troughs to develop the culture and coagulate.
Milk from the parlour is pumped through to a holding tank in the cheese making facility. The tank holds two milkings, one evening's milk and the next morning's milk. The evening milk is cooled to 15°C and kept at that temperature overnight. The next morning more milk is added and the temperature raised to 23°C. The milk is transferred to open holding troughs on wheels and left in an anteroom for culturing and coagulation to develop over the next 24 hours. The culture is one that has developed on the farm and is not brought in.

Sainte Maure de Touraine cheese draining in moulds.
Once curd has formed the troughs will be wheeled into the next room and their contents carefully ladled into moulds, using a large scoop to fill the plastic log form, then topping up with a small scoop or ladle. This technique ensures the curd is not broken up too much.

Non-AOP heart shaped cheeses in their moulds.
The fresh cheeses will be left to drain in their moulds for some hours then tipped out to dry and be coated in ash or salt (or usually a mixture of the two) when firm enough. There is nothing special about the salt used but the ash must be pharmaceutical grade. Cheesemakers are not allowed to make their own as they would have in the old days. The whey, an inevitable by-product of cheesemaking, will be stored and periodically spread on the fields as fertilizer. Some goat dairies have an arrangement with a pig farmer and the whey is fed to the pigs, but often this is not practical because there may not be a nearby pork producer or the farm does not have suitable storage or transport options.

Fresh logs of Sainte Maure de Touraine.
These fresh logs of Sainte Maure de Touraine have been newly coated with an ash and salt mixture. This is gently rubbed on by hand and is quite a messy job. These ones have not yet had their rye straw inserted, but that is the next step. The straw is apparently to add a bit of rigidity to the soft log. Sometimes they are not ashed, but sold at this stage, very young, as fresh cheese.

Two to three day old cheeses in the drying room.
These cheeses will be ready for sale in two to three weeks. That's by far the most popular stage to eat this type of cheese, but they can be dried for longer, which will make them much stronger in flavour and eventually hard enough to grate. The older cheeses are not to everyone's taste. The younger ones are creamy, developing some chalkiness with age as they dry, then a really dry cheese that is more rubbery and very peppery in taste.

All the cheeses in the photos are the same apart from their shape, and this is what gives them different characteristics, as they dry at different rates and in different proportions. As well as the soft logs, pyramids, hearts, disks and bricks in the photos, the Limouzin dairy also makes a tomme style cheese, which is a hard cheese in the style of those made in the mountains.

Sunday 29 March 2015

The Devils Marbles

The Devils Marbles in the Northern Territory of Australia is one of the most photogenic landscapes I have ever visited.

Saturday 28 March 2015

Limouzin freres: Goat Husbandry

Recently we have had clients from Michigan who are goat farmers and goat cheese producers. They asked us to design them a distinctly busman's holiday, with a strong focus on meeting French goat cheese producers. We spent a week with them visiting chateaux and lots and lots of cheese related visits to cheese affineurs, artisanal cheese makers, farmers, and a winery which just happens to be co-owned by a cheese merchant who does cheese and wine pairings.

Our very last farm visit was to Limouzin frères, between le Petit Pressigny and Preuilly sur Claise. The Limouzin family farm Alpine dairy goats, Blonde d'Aquitaine beef cattle and Percheron draft horses on 150 hectares.

The goat shed.
The Alpine dairy goat herd is around 350 animals, which is large for this area. They live in a spacious barn in cohorts of 40 does. The barn is very high roofed to aid ventilation.

The feed storage area.
The goats eat hay and a mixture of grains, virtually all of which, plus the straw for bedding, is grown on the farm. The Limouzins even make their own canola pellets by crushing the seeds to extract the oil and pelletising the 'waste'. The oil, which is too rich for goats, is sent to a piggery.

The feed mixer control panel. 
The farmer can dial up or down the percentage of triticale, oats, maize, mineral supplements, canola and soy pellets, depending on which cohort of goats the mixture is for. Some farms feed their goats a smaller percentage of grains and add haylage (the stuff in the big plastic bales) to the combination of feedstuffs. Silage is never fed to dairy goats as it is too strong and produces a noticeable and undesirable flavour in the milk.

The goats are fed their late afternoon grain mix.
The goats eat 2 - 2.5 kg of hay each per day and about 1.3 kg of grain mix each. The mixture of grains they get may vary depending on their age or whether they are pregnant, dry or milking. They spend all year inside, which is a typical husbandry management decision for this area, and get their hooves clipped twice a year. The farm is worked by 8 full time people and 3 apprentices in total, 1 - 2 of which are responsible for the care of the goats (with another 1 - 2 in the dairy). Having them shedded means the cohorts are easier and less time consuming to manage.

Dairy goat herds on pasture are relatively rare in the Touraine and farmers who choose to shed their goats seem slightly defensive when asked about it. In the old days goats were grazed on the hillsides too steep to plough, eating everything from herbs to saplings. There is general agreement that the quality of the cheese is better if the goats get to graze outside, and especially if they can browse in the forest or scrubby hillsides.

However goats become accustomed to living inside and if the farm wanted to change to a pasture based system they would have to acclimatise the herd over a period of years. One positive reason for shedding the goats is it reduces their susceptibility to intestinal worms, for which they have to be treated. The worming treatment can affect the milk and consumers are concerned about pesticide residues in foodstuff.

Goats eating a mixture of grains and hay.
All the goats are ear-tagged to provide traceability. The ear-tag goes on when they are just a day old, even on the male kids which are taken at 2 - 3 days old by a farmer from Deux-Sevrès who fattens them for meat.

Kids, about 2 - 3 weeks old.
February and March is the main kidding season, so there were lots of cute baby goats in the shed when we visited. Not all the goats give birth at this time though. Some are impregnated so they give birth in October, others are not impregnated at all and kept milking. The female kids are kept to replenish the herd. The males are mostly sold to the Deux-Sevrès farm for a couple of euros each, with a few kept and fattened by the Limouzins for meat or products such as terrine which they sell in their farm shop or La Charette, a shop run and supplied by a group of 13 local farmers at the agricultural high school in Tours.

Very young kids, under a week old, drinking milk.
The kids are removed from their mothers immediately they are born and never suckle. They are fed milk formula which is mixed by hand twice a day. The temperature is very important and the milk substitute must be at 45°C when mixed and 38°C when the kids drink it. If the temperature of the milk is wrong the kids get bloat and die. They are disbudded (their horns removed) at about 8 days old.

Not all the does need to get pregnant every year. The Limouzins are moving towards a 5 year cycle where the does are first impregnated when mature enough then milked continually for 5 years before being impregnated again. Once they are pregnant they are dried off so that they cease lactating for the last two months of pregnancy. When they give birth they are immediately back in the milking parlour (although their milk is discarded for the first 5 - 6 days). The 5 year cycle means that most does will only have 1 - 3 kids in their life. The oldest goat in the herd is 10 years old.

Friday 27 March 2015

Fabulous Fairytale Fougeres

I don't think one can have enough photos of the fabulous fairytale chateau of Fougères sur Bièvre. Despite that it's not at all a well known chateau.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Catching the Train to Erdeven

You may remember that the station at Tours has a series of 18 painted ceramic panels decorating the walls, their purpose being to beautify the station concourse and entice travellers to the destinations portrayed. At present the panels are badly in need of conservation: each panel will cost €8000 to clean, conserve and reattach the tiles to the walls and the fundraising campaign started last year to raise some of this money. In order to publicise the fundraising, last year we started posting photos of the panels.

This panel was one of those which had been removed for restoration in October last year. I was in the station last week, and more of the panels have been removed which hopefully means that the money is in place and the work to restore them is being done.

This panel feels like a bit of a cheat: basically, the way to
get to Erdeven is the same way you get to Belle-Isle en Mer.

Erdeven is in Brittany, and as you can see from their tourism site it is one of the places you can see an awful lot of dolmens and alignments. It would seem from the number of sites in Brittany that the panels depict that it was once much easier to get from Tours to Brittany.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Fritillaries on the Island

We have been out and about with clients for the last week or so and have stopped several times at Pont de Ruan. On the islands in the river Indre is a good place to see the rare Snakeshead Fritillary Fritillaria meleagris during their brief early spring flowering period. The ones in the photo are on an island that is private property, inaccessible to the public. They are clearly thriving. The ones on the island the public can get to take a bit of a beating since it is more or less impossible not to step on the plants.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Surprising Chenonceau

Last week we started going to Chenonceau again - it may have been 12 weeks since our last visit, but I expect we will average one visit a week until the end of September. Chenonceau is everything a chateau should be: attractive, royal, good grounds, and a bit of a view. If you look, however, there is amusement to be had in unexpected corners.

Traditionally this would have been red. A moss cow.

Specially for Paddy's day, or serious algae?

Wee agree.

Monday 23 March 2015

'sa Mystery

Or at least, it was a mystery. Now it's some history.

After living in a small town like Preuilly sur Claise for 5 years you begin to think that you know the place quite well. You know: someone shows you a photo taken in town and you expect to be able to tell them where it is. Instantly.

So the other day I was looking at Delcampe and noticed a postcard I hadn't seen before. I downloaded it for a better look and was instantly puzzled: where was this place I didn't recognise?

I knew it had to be south of the Claise, because the land is flat there, whereas north of the river is sloping. I suspected it had to be somewhere near the railway line, because that would make sense, but after wandering the streets (the things I do for entertainment...) I was no closer to solving the mystery. One location I checked out closely was Bertus old yard, because it sort of looked right, but obviously wasn't.

Searching for the business online didn't help either: none of the names listed for the business returned any details: Lansard et Liot, Lansard-Neuvy, Neuvy-Moreau. All have been more or less lost in time apart from the postcard.

It nagged though - I felt sure I should know it: Preuilly isn't such a big town.

Then I took to Google Earth and started looking for buildings with the correct angles - the narrowing of the gap between the building in the centre foreground, the houses on the left and in the background with lucarnes (dormer windows).

And then I had it.

I was right about it being Bertu's old yard, but taken from an viewpoint you no longer get because of a modern building.  When you look at a contempory postcard viewing down the street you see that some of the buildings facing the road still exists, and if you revisit the shot from streetview you get the all of the buildings shown on the original postcard, but from the side instead of front on. Even the background houses, with their lucarnes, still exist.

So that's one mystery solved. Now to get to grips with what caused the Big Bang. Should be comparatively simple...

Sunday 22 March 2015

Alice Springs Telegraph Station

Surrounding the old Alice Springs Telegraph Station buildings today is a nature reserve which is well worth walking around. You will almost certainly pass Euros (Wallaroos) lounging around under bushes and small scrubland birds hunting for insects. You need to get your eye in though, the animals and birds are not easy to see.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Zero Phyto

In 2008 France set in place laws that are intended to reduce the usage of pesticides nation wide by 50% by 2018. The programme that is working towards that goal is called Ecophyto. The legislation came about when it was realised that French people have higher exposure to pesticides than most other countries. One of the main culprits in terms of pesticide usage is the wine industry, but farming in general uses high levels of pesticides and France is a surprisingly rural country.

The French language has co-opted the word phytosanitaire to mean the use of all pesticides connected with plants, not just those products associated with plant health. Thus, somewhat confusingly for English speakers, produits phytosanitaires includes herbicides as well as insecticides, miticides and fungicides. Thus, zéro phyto in practice means zero use of herbicides.

Flaming the weeds in the street.
Local authorities are working towards reimagining the management of streets, parks and other public spaces so that they are using no pesticides at all. I photographed a park in Noyers sur Cher last year which was proudly proclaiming it's pesticide free status. Preuilly is amongst those taking the project on board too.

One of their first moves was to lease a street sweeper. This is an expensive piece of kit and the council wisely decided that a lease arrangement would allow them to test a model and see if it suited. As it turned out, the first one they tried was too big for our narrow streets and they swapped it for a smaller one. Regular street sweeping is important for keeping weeds down. It removes dirt and organic matter that weed seeds could take advantage of.

 The hearse like vehicle that the phytosanitation man transports his gear in.
The latest technique for weed control that Preuilly has adopted is a gas fueled blowtorch for burning the pavement weeds. Personally I think the operator needs to go on a training course -- he's a bit prone to just frizzling the leaves and not holding the flames on the plants long enough to kill the roots. But it certainly is a good alternative to glysophate and shouldn't be any more difficult to successfully use.

The vehicle provided by his employer is a second hand black van, which leads to him being the butt of jokes about it looking like a Black Maria or a hearse. 

Friday 20 March 2015

Look - up in the sky!

Quand l'abricot est en fleur, jours et nuits ont même longueur. 
 When the apricot is in flower, days and nights are the same length.

At the time this goes to post we will be in an eclipsed state. Todays eclipse will be about 80% where we are, but pity anyone at the north pole. If my reading of the matter is correct today is their one sunrise of the year - and when it rises the sun will be eclipsed.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Taxonomists do it with Class

Today is Taxonomist Appreciation Day.

What is Taxonomy? It is the study of organisms and how you phyllum. Boom boom. That was last year's winning taxonomy pun.

 Fieldwork in the Brenne, watched by Konik ponies 
(one of whom chewed a hole in my rucksack later...)
The average number of new species described and published per day by taxonomists worldwide is 44. They include everything from yeasts to mammals, hoverflies to snakes.

 A captured fly popped in a specimen tube for later identification in the 'lab' 
(in my case a multipurpose space that doubled as a sewing room).
All biological sciences are underpinned by taxonomy, but it remains a shadowy and secretive art to most people. Taxonomists are viewed as autocratically and unilaterally changing the names of species willy nilly and to suit themselves. Publications and museum labels become outdated and the cost of keeping them up to date is significant. Professional ecologists and amateur naturalists alike resent taxonomists when this happens.

On the other hand, if something doesn't have a name that is understood to refer to individuals with a particular set of characteristics and are related in a particular way to other species, we cannot talk sensibly about a specimen. Taxonomy seeks not just to name a specimen but to establish its relationship to others in its genus, family and beyond. It's not just about physical characteristics, it can also be about behaviour and ecology. It's not all about naming new species either, it's about biodiversity surveying and establishing the range of known species. If you know what species you have on a site, you have some clues about how to manage it. Two species may look virtually indistinguishable, but have different ecological niches. If you know the range of a species you can monitor its population and whether its distribution is changing geographically.

For more about why taxonomists matter, read my page on Loire Valley Nature.


Tomorrow morning there will be an eclipse where we are - not a total eclipse, that happens way up in the Arctic Ocean. Down here we will be about 80% in the dark at around 9.00am (for some us us who are in the dark about most things most the time, this can only be an improvement). For all of our readers in Europe this means tomorrow morning may be gloomier than you expect. Check the map out here.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Joining a Special Club

We have owned our ladies for over 5 years, but in all that time there is something I had never attempted: hand cranking.

This has always sounded scary, with many cautionary tales of broken wrists. So naturally it is something I have always avoided trying.

However, the other day I though I would have a go. I have seen it done by others, and it didn't look too life threatening. I would hate to be in a situation where it became necessary, and not be able to do it.

You will note there is a metal peg hanging from the crank handle. Normally this fits into a rest on the bumper bar to make life easier. However, Célestine's rest doesn't align with the crank ratchet.

The first attempt at starting, of course, I got a kickback. The second time, she started.

So that's another life skill I have. I wonder how many men born in the 60's have hand cranked a car?

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Chateau de Bridoré

The Chateau of Bridoré is a 14th century fort, around which a village has grown up. The chateau dates from the reign of Charles V and has been rebuilt several times. The most recent significant remodelling was at the orders of Imbert de Bastarnay in the late 15th century. Counselor to Louis XI, Imbert bought the chateau in 1475. He created the underground defences known as caponiers that in time would inspire Vauban. He refaced the keep and brought it up to 30 m high, adding a new roof and lookout towers.

The square keep with its round staircase tower.
In 1641 the Marquis de Viantais purchased the property and turned it into a nunnery. At the Revolution it was seized as state property and sold. The family who purchased then still own it.

One of several old side entrances.
It was listed as a national monument in 1911 and its then owners, the painters Simone Lefèvre-Mouveau and Pierre Mouveau restored the buildings. Their grandchildren are the current owners and responsible for its conservation and restoration today.

The interior of the keep is covered in grafitti, some of it dating back to the 16th century.
The caponiers (the one in best condition visible in the top photo) are the oldest extant examples in France, the only medieval examples still in existance and were very early of their type when built. They are semi-underground blockhouses positioned to project at an angle from corners in the defensive wall. Access is via underground tunnels, so defenders are protected at all times. They sit in a deep steep ditch and are specifically designed so that defenders can pick off a line of attacking soldiers one by one.

The impressive curving carpentry which holds up the roof of the keep.
They were developed as a response to the increasing availability of firearms. Attacking soldiers come over the earthwork bank and find themselves in a steep sided narrow ditch. With the attackers forced into a line along the defensive wall, the defending soldiers in the caponier can shoot them one at a time through the slits in the caponier.

The back of the keep, showing latrine chutes (square holes in the wall facing us).
The other remarkable feature of Bridoré is its hypocaust heating and steam bath system (below).
Chateau de Bridoré is open to the public in July and August, for guided tours in the afternoons only. For details see here. I was lucky enough to visit privately a few weeks ago with a group invited to survey hibernating bats in the chateau buildings.