Thursday 30 April 2015

Don't tell him your name...

The season opens tomorrow. I am not sure how much more information is wanted (or needed), but this poster was on the bus shelter at Fougeres sur Bievre.

Wednesday 29 April 2015


 Wild Strawberry Fragaria vesca.

In Europe the wild strawberry (Fr. la fraise des bois) has been cultivated since the 14th century (Charles V had 1200 strawberry plants in his garden). Its botanical name comes from the Latin for 'fragrant'. In 1712, Louis XIV sent the military engineer and explorer Amédée François Frézier to Chile. He brought back a plant carrying big white fruit and gave some plants of this strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis to the botanist Antoine de Jussieu. It wasn't until 1761, in Brittany, that the agronomist Antoine Nicolas Duchesne discovered that the plant would only fruit in the presence of another strawberry species, F. virginiana, from north-east America. From this cross was born the Garden Strawberry Fragaria ananassa, which is the origin of all our strawberries today.

Wild strawberries growing on the bank of a stream in Preuilly.
The strawberry season extends from March to October for the late varieties. There are more than 600 varieties. Amongst the most well known in France are gariguette (which appeared in 1977), the most popular variety, followed by mara des bois, which tastes like the wild strawberry.
Newly planted strawberry plants in our potager a few years ago.
In 2009 France produced 37% of the strawberries consumed in the country, with another 43% coming from Spain. However, the French strawberries are considered far superior in quality and taste. The Fraise du Périgord has had IGP (international geographic protection) certification since 2004 and Label Rouge has certified strawberries as meeting their criteria of harvesting when mature and at the peak of sweetness since 2009.

Strawberries flowering in our potager in May a couple of years ago.
If buying strawberries, the hull must be green and the fruit shiny. Never buy strawberries in stormy weather. They are fragile and will go off easily. Strawberries must be harvested when perfectly ripe, as once picked they will not ripen further.

A bucket of strawberries from our potager from a couple of years ago.
Strawberries are delicate and shouldn't be served too cold otherwise you will lose all their aroma. They can be eaten raw on their own or with a bit of sugar. They give their best flavour in coulis, tarts, puddings such as charlottes, ice cream, smoothies or compotes. They go well with rhubarb, citrus and exotic fruits like pineapple. 

Gariguette strawberries from O Petit Verger at Preuilly market.
Ideally you should eat them immediately after purchasing. Otherwise, keep them for 2 - 3 days in the vegetable drawer of the fridge. The best method of long term preservation is to make jam, which retains the natural flavour of the fruit.

Never hull strawberries before washing them. They will just suck up water and lose nutritional value. Don't bother with special tools for removing the hull -- a thin sharp knife works best.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Twenty Years Ago

Twenty years ago we were on holiday in England and spent two weeks in a hired narrowboat with Susan's sister, travelling a loop which included Worcester, Tewkesbury, Stratford upon Avon and Birmingham. Even though we made no plans, I think that it was somewhere along the way that the first thoughts of resettling in England started.

The canal boat was a 42 foot "Clee Hill" class (I don't know how beginners cope with 70' boats) with just about all one needed, including bathroom/toilet, kitchen, wood burning stove. For 3 people it was more or less big enough.

The first complete day we had to navigate the Tardebigge Flight - a run of 30 locks - followed by the Stoke Prior set of 6 locks. This meant that on the first day we only covered 5km, but had very little fear of locks for the rest of the trip. Susan got really good at them, and we never dropped a lock key into the water once.

Another highlight was a couple of aquaducts - watery bridges over rivers or railway lines. 

All in all, a great 2 week break, although we really tried to cram just a little bit too much in. One day we might try repeat it, but travel half the distance in the same time frame. For those for whom this kind of thing is interesting I mapped the whole trip onto Google Earth (surely there is at least one other person in the world who does this...). If you know how to operate Google Earth you can fly along our whole trip.

Twenty years ago....

Monday 27 April 2015

Act Swiftly

A swift entering a nest behind a carved filigree stone screen in the Alhambra in Spain. 
My friend Carolyn has been nagging me for about two years to write a blog post about Common Swift Apus apus (Fr. Martinet noir) conservation, so here it is.

Swifts flying around a courtyard in the Alhambra.
If you see a group of dark sickle shaped birds zooming around at rooftop level and screaming their heads off, you've got swifts. They arrive in central France just about now (Carolyn and I saw the first ones for this year on 15 April, in Amboise and Loches respectively) having overwintered in Africa, mainly in the Congo. They are incredibly fast and agile flyers, reaching speeds of up to 200 km per hour. Except for nesting, these birds spend all their lives on the wing -- eating, preening and drinking without a toe touching a tree, building or land.

In the sky over Loches.
The swifts have come to nest. They especially like nooks and crannies in multistorey buildings. They will slip behind cornices and up under gutters to take up residence in your roofspace. And therein lies a growing conservation problem, and the reason for Carolyn's campaign amongst her friends.

Swifts nesting behind the cornice of the Logis Royal in Loches.
With more and more buildings being renovated swifts are losing nesting places. As the open ends of canal (Roman) tiles are blocked up with mortar and the spaces between the tops of walls, rafters and roofs sealed off, the swifts are evicted or turned away. Traditional building practices taught that roof spaces should be ventilated, and in this area that means a gap between the roof and the top of the wall. But nowadays these gaps are stopped up to protect insulation from getting wet and specifically to stop animals gaining access to the roofspace and making a mess.

A swift heading for a nest in Loches.
This is bad news for swifts, which ironically, make very little mess (as opposed to the lookalike but completely unrelated swallows and martins, which it has to be said, lovely and welcome as they are in our garage, are poo machines!) Carolyn, who lives in Amboise, is hoping to set up an association to encourage local people to pay more attention to their swifts and provide nest boxes and generally behave in as swift-friendly a manner as possible. Many people are like us and look forward to a season of watching swifts hurtle around the sky. It would be a great loss if they disappeared forever because there were insufficient nesting holes left.

Nest boxes under the eaves of a house in Amboise. Unfortunately these are occupied by sparrows, but the swifts nested last year between the rafters near the downpipe.
More information can be found at Swift Conservation and Carolyn's contact details are here.

Newly placed boxes, not ideally positioned, but pragmatic. The attic behind them houses a CD player to broadcast swift calls to entice the birds in.
We have wonderful memories of watching the swifts and bats hunting insects at dusk in Granada and in Loches. As well as nest spaces these charismatic birds need an abundance of flying insects to eat.

It's probably too late to put up a nest box this year if you want it to be used this summer, but you can put up nest boxes at any time. A nest box put up now may be discovered next year. Ready made boxes cost about €30 each and can be bought online from various suppliers (search for 'nichoirs martinet noir' in France) or you can make your own. There are lots of instructions on the internet.

We haven't put any up yet as I didn't think we had anywhere suitable and I thought they would just be taken over by sparrows weeks before the swifts arrived. However, seeing the ones above in an attic window I have an idea for placing them in our barn upper windows. I will also use some sort of door to block off access until just before the swifts arrive, to prevent sparrow squatting. That is a big advantage of the attic window position, because they are reachable for opening or closing such a door.

Sunday 26 April 2015

Birds of the Interior

 Banded Honeyeater, photographed at Banka Banka Station.

This smartly dressed honeyeater is endemic to (ie only occurs in) dry tropical forest in Australia. A station is the Australian term for a vast pastoral holding (similar to the American term 'ranch').

 Varied Lorikeet, photographed at Banka Banka Station.

These little parrots live in Eucalyptus trees and are endemic to northern Australia.

A male Hooded Parrot, photographed at Pussycat Flats Racetrack. 

These are rare antbed parrots who nest in termite mounds in the semi-arid country of the Northern Territory of Australia.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Anzac Day - 100 Years On

Goulburn War Memorial was inaugurated in 1925, as a memorial to the men of this New South Wales shire who served in the First World War. It stands on Rocky Hill overlooking Goulburn and district. Visitors can ascend to the viewing platform on top. This photo was taken from the train as we trundled past in 2012.

Today is ANZAC Day.
25 April 1915
Lest we forget

The infamous Gallipoli campaign began 100 years ago today and was a disaster for all those involved, with appalling casualty figures which include Simon's great uncle William Schlitt, born 1897- died 6th August 1915, a Private in the Essex Regiment service no. 3/2098.

 (from wikipedia)

There is an interesting set of photos of Anzac Cove on the Guardian Newspaper web site (if you can make them work). Thanks to John for sending the link.

Friday 24 April 2015

Knife Making in Chatellerault

We visited the Chatellerault Motor Museum when Simon's brother was visiting a week ago. Part of the museum is given over to an exhibit on the arms and cutlery making industry.

In the 19th and first half of the 20th century Chatellerault was home to an enormous arms manufactory, known as la Manu. Nowadays divided between an adult training centre, a circus school, military archive storage, a car museum and a hydro-electric plant it is the remnant of a long history of industry in this place.

From medieval times to the early 20th century, and particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries Chatellerault was a centre of knife-making. The industry ranged from large well regarded establishments such as Pagé frères to much humbler and smaller scale cottage manufacturies.

Cutlery made in Chatellerault, from the collection of Camille Pagé.

The director of Pagé frères was Camille Pagé, who became the chronicler and historian of the trade in Chatellerault as well as a serious collector of knives and related cutlery. His firm participated in the Paris Exhibition of 1878 and supplied cutlery to fine households. 

The small scale manufacturers were obliged to submit their wares to an authority which judged their quality, but they were essentially making workaday knives sold cheaply to travellers on the street. The knives had a good reputation for being nicely finished, but their 'temper lacks hardness'. Chatellerault is on the Vienne River, on the main route from Paris to Bordeaux and women and children would hawk their cutlery to the many people passing through the town.

The making of table knives, scissors (and nails) was a family affair. Each house in some streets had a forge and each member of the family worked making cutlery, engaging in all the processes required. As a result the industry wasn't terribly efficient and families just barely scraped a living from their endeavours. This was different to in the large factories like Pagé, where each process was a specialist task and the product was passed from artisan to artisan until finished. As a consequence the factories used proportionally less fuel and their output was higher.

According to Camille Pagé, the Chatellerault table cutlery was stylistically much influenced by the presence of the large arms manufactory in the town. Although not made for the outdoors, the cutlery often looked like hunting implements, and workers migrated frequently between civilian and military spheres.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Badger Highrise

Badgers appear to be thriving in the southern Touraine, although they are declining in many places in Europe. Within a kilometre stretch along the Claise river near Chaumussay there are at least 3 large badger setts. This one, built into the roadside bank, is like a multistorey apartment block, with more than a dozen entrance/exit holes at varying levels up the bank.

Badger hunting is allowed in France and they are widely regarded as vermin (although not officially designated as such). The main reason is the damage they do to banks like this, undermining the stability of the upper edges and steep slopes.

Setts are not the only signs of badgers that one commonly sees. Recently we wrote about seeing tracks near Richelieu, and paths made by badgers regularly traversing the grass and undergrowth criss-cross the countryside all over the southern Touraine.

European Badger Meles meles (Fr. Blaireau européen) is unmistakable, with a stripey black and white head and the deportment of a miniature bear. They are about 75 cm long and 15 cm high, weighing around 10 kg. They are tremendous diggers, excavating a burrow system known as a sett, with at least 3 entrances (sometimes several dozen). The setts can be for occasional use, or the type which are occupied for years by multiple generations. Foxes and wild cats will often take them over once they are abandoned by the badgers.

Badgers emerge from the sett at dusk and after checking for danger sit around the entrance grooming themselves. Once it is dark they trot off in search of worms, insects, fruits, bulbs, grains and possibly small animals in the forests and neighbouring fields.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Setting the benchmark

Chaumussay may be a small village with a population of only 253, but to our minds it punches well above its weight in many areas, one of which is the amenities it offers to visitors.

Not only does it have two recharging places for electric cars (something Preuilly sur Claise hasn't yet managed to install)

but it also has one of the most accessable picnic benches I have ever seen.

Not only does the picnic bench allow wheelchair drivers the chance to join their family at the picnic table without making them sit at the end, it must also be cheaper to make and install.

Now that's a win....

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Moving on North

Like many species these days the lovely Map Araschnia levana butterfly is one of those whose range is extending rapidly to the north and west, by hundreds of kilometres in the last few decades. They are abundant here in the Touraine Loire Valley most years, even when other species do poorly, but they conquered Belgium and the Netherlands only in the second half of the 20th century and soon they will be in Britain.

You can see why it is called the Map (Fr. Carte géographique).
One of the reasons Map butterflies do well, and are able to spread so easily is that their caterpillar food plant is Common Nettle Urtica dioica. This is a plant that is more or less ubiquitous, even in cooler northern climes, and certainly in Britain, which is where the butterfly is expected to turn up next. The butterfly is probably following the plant, which is becoming more and more abundant as habitats are affected by eutrophication (an over-abundance of nutrients, often due to agricultural runoff).

This stylish black and white colourway is its summer outfit, known as form prorsa or the summer morph.
Individuals that emerge in July look like this.
The Map already has an extremely widespread distribution, from Japan through central Europe and temperate Asia. It is clearly a species bent on global domination (or at least, most of the Northern Hemisphere).

The black and tan colourway, form levana or spring morph, is reserved for those who overwinter in their chrysalis and emerge in April. They are always much less abundant than their summer siblings.
If I didn't have the field guides telling me otherwise I would assume these butterflies were two different species. The phenomena is known as 'phenotypic plasticity' (in plain English 'seasonal variation'). The different colourways begin in the pupae, which have higher or lower melanin concentrations depending on the seasonal temperatures and day length.The butterfly has evolved this way because it is better camouflaged for the different seasons.

The summer morph tends to be slightly larger in the thorax and wing and more abundant. This and the colouring may be connected to the fact that it is this generation that migrates. The larger size and different proportions of the summer morph give these butterflies a lower wing loading, suggesting that they are more mobile.

Monday 20 April 2015


Bitter-vetch Lathyrus linifolius (Fr. la Gesse à feuilles de lin) is a low growing early spring flowering pea flower that you could easily miss in the rough grass. Look for it on the edges of heathy forest in the southern Touraine. Once you spot it you will realise it is charming, with its delicate narrow leaves and raspberry coloured flowers that fade to blue-green. 

What you won't realise just by looking at it is that the plant has a couple of intriguing secrets.

The first is that in Finland the species has such a strong association with Iron Age sites that archaeologists will look for the plant in order to locate artefacts.

The second is that its tubers were dried and used in Scotland as an appetite and thirst suppressant in times of famine prior to the introduction of the potato and to bolster warriors before battle or labourers in the fields who needed to work all day without respite. The plant seems to have been used medicinally or whenever strength or endurance needed to be enhanced in a number of places across Europe from Roman times to the 17th century. The tubers are apparently extremely sweet and smell of anise, but you are advised to cook or dry them before eating and you need to be able to accurately identify the species, as several lookalikes are poisonous.

Sunday 19 April 2015

Pale Pink Desert Flowers

Globe Amaranth Gomphrena sp.

 Ptilotus sp, a type of grass. All 100+ species are native to the arid areas of Australia and are sometimes called by their Aboriginal name Mulla Mulla.

Gossypium sp, probably Sturts Desert Rose, the state emblem of the Northern Territory, a native plant that is closely related to cotton.

Saturday 18 April 2015

Bloomin' Marvellous

Some photos from last Wednesday, taken in the carpark at Chenonceau. The thermometer on the car was showing 37C at the time. Ouchies!

Friday 17 April 2015

Ten Years After

A photo from exactly ten years ago: the only observation I have is that in our shaded garden in east London spring arrived a month later than in central France.

And whilst we are talking of Ten Years After:

Thursday 16 April 2015

Catching the Train to Saint Jean de Luz

You can tell we're busy - I am writing little blog posts.

And today we are back in the station of Tours, which 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 being conserved: each panel will cost €8000 to clean, conserve and reattach the tiles to the walls. 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 is one of the panels which has
been removed for restoration
St Jean de Luz is half way between Biarritz and the spanish border. To get there by train from Tours you catch the shuttle to Saint Pierre des Corps, then a couple of TGV: the first to Bordeaux, and the second to St Jean de Luz.

One day we will travel down this way: for the past couple of years it's been a bit of an ambition to visit la Petit Train de la Rhune, a tramway which take you to the top of the Pyrenees. Last year we would have done so, except stuff happened, and the year before we would have but we didn't (can't remember why, probably stuff happened then, as well).

Maybe this year.  Stuff can't happen every year.


Wednesday 15 April 2015

Lost in Translation

I bet you're glad you asked for the english menu...


Tonight and for the next few days there is a chance of some seriously good International Space Station action if you're in France. Do it, and then ponder on just how amazing science is.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Canola Gold

The canola (Fr. colza) is in flower again. I'm not a big fan. It's acid yellow which is hard on the eyes, it stinks of cabbage (to which it is related) and it gives me hayfever. It's widely grown as a crop here to produce oil, biodiesel and a high protein stock feed (which is actually a by-product after the oil is extracted). Only palm and soybean are more important globally as oil producing crops. The EU is the biggest producer, followed by Canada and the US. It is favoured as a source of biodiesel because canola produces more oil per hectare than other oil seed crops and freezes at a lower temperature than other oils.

A typical April sea of canola in the Touraine.
Bees love it and many of the apiarists here will sell a pale creamed or set honey labelled colza. The honey crystalises easily, which is a nuisance for the beekeeper and the crop can cause a boom and bust situation in the hive. It flowers relatively early, but doesn't last very long, so if the bees don't have anything to move on to it can be a disaster for them. On the arable farms where canola is grown crop margins where wild flowers might grow are getting smaller and smaller. These days the bees are in real danger of starving after the canola finishes flowering.

Roe Deer like canola flowers too.
Canola is prone to fungal diseases as a crop and is typically sprayed with fungicide about 8 times between late August when it is planted and early June when it is harvested.

The Chateau of Montpoupon through the canola.

The view from our guest bedroom window every alternate April.
A la cuisine hier: ANZAC biscuits, which are notorious for spreading all over the oven tray. I managed to judge the spacing quite well, with only a few joining up at the edges.
Au jardin hier: Onions, garlic and broad beans weeded and watered. Mangetout (snow peas) sown (I figure that if ordinary peas have failed to oblige by not germinating after two sowings I might as well see if mangetout will come up instead). Strawberries planted. Brassicas and lettuce seedlings planted. I've set up a fleece tunnel for them. It's an experiment to protect the lettuce from frost and the brassicas from caterpillars.