Friday 30 September 2016

The Origins of Fontevraud

At each point of interest there is an info screen.

This year the Abbey of Fontevraud has opened up the 'crypt' under the church. More properly it is the space under the church floor which was dug by the young archaeologist Daniel Prigent and his team in the 1990s. They discovered the grave of Robert d'Abrissel, the itinerant preacher who founded the abbey in 1101, and the nuns' catacomb. In total a hundred or so graves were investigated, nearly 900 years after the burials took place.

Grave cuts in the limestone under the church floor.

At its peak Fontevraud was one of the largest monastic establishments in Europe. Now the 'crypt' is presented to the public, who descend a steep narrow metal staircase to a metal walkway. Along the walkway are screens at points of interest with clever animated explanations of what you are seeing. These have been designed by the artist Eve de Roeck.

These blocks of stone have the mason's mark on them (a roughly incised square). 
He would have been paid based on the number of blocks he produced.

Thursday 29 September 2016

Wild Wind

A couple of weeks ago (13 September) we had a violent wind storm that appeared out of nowhere at 10.30 pm one night. There was no rain with it, just howling winds for about half an hour. Then it was gone and the next day it rained a bit.

Driving between Chenonceau and Tours a few days later (19 September) we spotted this scene of devastation amongst the poplar plantations. Many of the trees had snapped off mid trunk and the wind here was reported to have been 100 kilometres an hour (and 104 km/h in Tours).

According to the local newspaper the storm hit Tours about an hour after us in Preuilly and caused some damage with fallen trees and branches. No one was hurt but the fire brigade was kept busy and traffic was slightly disrupted.

The fire brigade responded to 150 callouts for fallen trees and flying sheets of roofing material. 18 000 homes were without electricity for the night. In the morning 150 Enedis workers (formerly ERDF) were out reconnecting 30 medium tension electricty lines and by that evening had all but 4500 households restored to power. The train service was not disrupted.

Preuilly was not amongst the communities that were worst affected. At Luynes some businesses and the school stayed closed for the day. The arrival of the wind was so sudden that many people still had their windows open due to the heat of the day. At Sepmes, a large piece of masonry was lifted from the church and in through the open bedroom window of the house next door. Some poor bloke got the fright of his life when a branch slammed into his car on the drivers side windscreen pillar as he drove to work. At Tours Central Station work on the new foot bridge came to a halt. They had intended to put in place a large beam that night, but the crane they are using (the largest in France) cannot be used in winds higher than 50 kilometres per hour and their anemometer was registering 100 km/h. In Tours 34 trees were snapped off or uprooted and a statue in one of the public gardens damaged.

The weather bureau says the winds were caused by very warm air meeting wet air resulting in localised wind gusts. They were rather caught on the hop, not expecting such an extreme event, with the wind sweeping across the département from the west and departing to the north. They had issued an alert for the areas to the west of us, but had not predicted such strong gusts of wind over the whole of Indre et Loire.

After the seemingly endless and unchanging hot dry weather we'd had for the previous two months it was rather exciting to get some actual weather!

(PS The wind speeds were not sufficient for this to officially be a hurricane, but it was still fairly dramatic.)

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Drummer Wanted

The first trick of advertising is to place your advertisement where your target audience will see it.  So if you were a rock band looking to recruit a drummer where better than a condom dispensing machine to post your ad?

Simon spotted this after parking Claudette in Boulevard Heurteloup one morning recently. As we came back to the car I photographed it and we stood there for a minute or two laughing and talking in English with our American clients. As we were walking away I noticed the window cleaner who'd been working within earshot go up to the condom machine and peer at it in a bemused way. I went back and explained to him in French what had amused us so much. He's probably still thinking 'those crazy Anglos' though.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Label Rouge Wheat

A new bakery has opened up in Fougères sur Bievre. For two years this small village has been without one. They have had to manage with a dépôt de pain, which is to say, another shop in the town has bread delivered from a nearby village's baker and sells it on their behalf. This situation was deemed unacceptable by the local authorities, and so they purchased the former bakery in the main street of Fougères for €73 000, taking advantage of a state grant of €40 000 from a fund allocated to equiping rural areas. The cost of refurbishing the building to modern standards was €213 000, offset somewhat by making €16 000 from the sale of the old fittings and a grant of 50% of the funds needed. The rest was raised by taking out a loan. The mayor says the interest rate is low, so they can afford it. Most of the refurbishment work was done by local firms.

We've not been in to sample their products, but the new baker-pastry chef, Aurélien Chevolleau, is now installed and the shop looks very smart. Their window proclaims that everything is made in house, in the French tradition and with 100% Label Rouge French wheat. Tradition française is a set of rules for making the bread which means that the baker cannot use premixed dry goods or frozen dough, must allow the bread to prove naturally, must be baking it on the floor of a traditional style oven and must adhere to a strict traditional ingredient list.

We were interested by the Label Rouge wheat. We'd not heard of that before, although Label Rouge is a much trusted food quality certification system in France. So I looked it up to see what the Label Rouge requirements are for wheat.

The two main criteria are that the stored wheat is not treated with an insecticide after harvest, and that only certain varieties of wheat may be used. These wheats are tried and tested varieties chosen for their suitability for bread and baking. The farmer must fertilize his soil, but not too much, so he is producing a wheat that is 'soft' ie low in protein, but not too low. The farmer is required to use agriculture raisonnée ('intelligent agriculture') so pesticides are used when necessary but not prophylactically and not according to a rigid manufacturer recommended calendar schedule. There are no additives (bread improvers, fungus inhibitors, bleaching agents, etc) added to the flour. At every stage -- on the farm, in storage, at the mill -- the wheat is tested and certified as meeting the Label Rouge criteria. One of the things they are testing for is certain fungi, which cause wheat to be dangerous for human consumption.

Monday 26 September 2016

Botany (and other activities) on the Loire Sands

On Saturday 10 September the Association de Botanique et de Mycologie de Sainte Maure de Touraine met at Berthenay for an outing on the Loire sands. Berthenay bills itself as 'the end of the world', being as it is in the triangle formed by the confluence of the Cher to the south and the Loire to the north.

The outing was on the Ile du Passeur, a large gravel and sand bank close to the southern bank of the Loire that has formed an island. It is accessible by foot in the summer when the water levels are at their lowest. What we hadn't realised about the island though, until Jeannine was asked what she was doing peering into the bushes, was that it is a popular dogging spot. Apparently this year, with the seemingly endless good weather of late summer it's been even more popular than usually for this particular outdoor activity. However, French botanists are made of stern stuff, and we continued regardless.

Paul demonstrating how to use an acorn cup as a whistle.

The island is directly opposite the 2000 year old Roman tower called the Pile Cinq Mars (pronounced locally as though the name was Pile Saint Mar).

La Pile Cinq Mars.

Inevitably, as all the rivers here are, the island is invaded by Water Primrose Ludwigia spp (Fr. jussie). Dominique found a patch which had two different species growing together -- L. grandiflora (Fr. jussie à grandes fleurs, the most abundant)  and L. peploides (Fr. jussie peploïde).

The two Water Primrose species --
 L. grandiflora with narrow pointed leaves (left) and L. peploides with spoon shaped leaves (right).

Water Primrose L. grandiflora in full lush growth, despite the drought.

Corn Mint Mentha arvensis (below) can be distinguished from Water Mint M. aquatica because it does not have a terminal head of flowers. They are otherwise very similar and you can't just assume that it must be Water Mint if it is growing near water. Annoyingly, for those of us who like our botany to be clear cut, they hybridise too.

A view across the Ile du Passeur -- lots of sand and poplar saplings.

An oxbow lake A summer river pond in the middle of the island.

Thorn-apple Datura stramonium usually has white flowers, but on the island it has pale purple flowers. This now global weed was once cultivated to extract alkaloids to treat asthma. This year being hot and dry it is abundant. It must like sand because I have noticed it a lot this year amongst the asparagus rows near Descartes.

A strange caterpillar dropped on to the hat of one of our group and was surrounded by camera lenses. None of us had ever seen anything like it. Then someone accidentally prodded it in a way it objected to. It instantly went into a pose that we recognised. No one could remember the name but we knew we'd seen it in Chinery. For those of you unfortunate enough not to have immediate and 24 hour access to the best general insect guide for Western Europe that there is (in English and translated into French), I will relieve your suspense and name the beast. It is the caterpillar of a Poplar Kitten moth Furcula bifida. Those of you who do own Chinery will realise that the illustration we all recalled so clearly is actually of a closely related species, but we all know that Chinery often just gets you to the right family and if you want the right species you need to look a bit further. In the case of moths, UK Moths is my go-to resource.

On the other side of the island, the main channel of the Loire.

An indication of how high the floods in June were. This Common Ash tree Fraxinus excelsior has a tide mark, with dead brown silt covered leaves below and healthy green leaves above.

Further Reading: On this 2016 visit I was lucky enough to see a rare dragonfly, the Green Snaketail Ophiogomphus cecilia, which I wrote about here. The botany club I belong to has visited the Loire sands at Berthenay before. I wrote about it here and here.

Sunday 25 September 2016

Continuing the Reptilian Theme

This is a magnificent Lace Monitor Varanus varius (Fr. Varan bigarré) about a metre and a half long and not very impressed to find itself surrounded by my family all clicking away. In Australia there are 25 species of monitor lizards, all of which are colloquially known as "goannas". Big goannas like this are the quintessential reptilians. I love them.

This species is endemic to Australia and can be found throughout the east and south-east of the country. They can grow to more than two metres long and their skin is covered with white spots and stripes. The tail is long and thin (like a lace, hence their English name) and is generally one and a half times the length of their body. It is the second largest lizard in Australia, and one of the largest lizards in the world.

Occasionally climbing trees, they are usually found in bushy or forested areas and can travel around three kilometres a day. They spend winter in a cool sheltered spot like a hollow tree, and are mostly seen out and about on goanna business between September and May.

Their diet consists of insects, invertebrates, other reptiles, small mammals, birds and birds' eggs. It was not until about ten years ago that scientists discovered that they are venomous - previously it was thought that any reaction to a goanna bite was due to microbial infection. They are a favourite traditional tucker for Aboriginal people and their fat is used medicinally and in certain ceremonies. The species was first scientifically described in 1790.

Our blog posts on Sundays have an Australian theme. To read more of them, click on the Australia label in the index on the right side bar.

Saturday 24 September 2016

New For Montresor

This rather charming and well carved lizard has appeared on a gatepost in Montrésor in the last few weeks. It is only a couple of doors down from this one, which continues to fool every passerby, at least the first time...

Friday 23 September 2016

Eightieth Birthday

My father turns 80 today. Earlier this year he sent me this photo of our family, commenting that I was now as old as my mother is in this photo. It was taken in 1986. I'm the one on the left.

Thursday 22 September 2016


In May 2012 we posted a photo of the street trees in Montrésor after their recent pruning. The good news is that the trees no longer resemble telegraph poles and are looking arborial again, although one tree appears to be struggling slightly and has mushroomoids.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

A Bit of an Old Card

We were at the Château de Langeais (more about that later) and I discovered something that is quite interesting: the face cards in a pack of French playing cards (and therefore British and US cards too) are based on historical characters.

Caesar as the King of Diamonds.

Who knew? This is one of a set of seven tapestries hanging in Langeais. They were created in 1530 as a set "The Nine Worthies" for the chateau at Chauray (nope, me neither). The others will follow in due course.

Monday 19 September 2016

The Machine That Goes Ping

When I got to Domaine de la Chaise the other day Christophe was filtering the last of his current stock of white wine for bottling. The machine is a Flavy FX cross-flow filter. Christophe loves it because he just has to connect it up to the appropriate hoses, programme it and set it going. He can get on with other things while it pings and bongs and tootles its way through the task. He and I are both rather amused at its somewhat eccentric tone repetoire.

The machine is owned by a group of seven winemakers in the Saint Georges sur Cher area.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Jacky Dragon

This is a Jacky Dragon Amphibolurus muricatus, photographed in New South Wales. Their most striking feature is a bright yellow interior to their mouth. The species was one of the first Australian reptiles to be described and given a scientific name, back in 1790. It is one of 70 species of dragon lizards from the family Agamidae to be found in Australia. They are about 23 cm long, with the tail making up two thirds of their length. They weigh about 30 grams and live on average about 4 years. 

You see them in dry sclerophyll woodland and they are semi-arboreal. They like to sit on fallen timber, or as in this case, a rock. They eat insects such as flies, moths and caterpillars, and are in turn eaten by feral cats and kookaburras. The species is abundant.

Saturday 17 September 2016

The Three Living and the Three Dead

The chapel of Saint Catherine at Jouhet, 16th century.

In the 13th century a story started doing the rounds in France and England. It is known as the story of the Three Living and the Three Dead in English and le dit des trios morts et des trios vifs in French.  The Latin title is De Tribus Regibus Mortuis. The story is told in a call and response type of verse. In the Jouhet painting of the story the characters have 'speech bubbles' above them. In the Antigny version the poem is written below the illustrated action.

 North wall of the nave in Notre-Dame, Antigny, 14th century.
 (I think this is the remains of a version of the story, but am not certain.)
It goes like this: One day three young noblemen were out hunting, usually hawking. To their horror they encounter three corpses which become animated and lecture them on the error of their ways. It is a moral tale about the transience of life. The corpses point out that once they were as the young men are and warn them that they had best change their hedonistic lifestyle.

The side chapel of Saint Catherine on Notre-Dame, Antigny, 15th century.

Sometimes the young men are kings, sometimes they are mounted, at others they are on foot. Very occasionally one of them is a woman.

The corpses are quite menacing. Sometimes they have grave digging tools, occasionally they carry weapons and threaten the young huntsmen.

Both the young men and their horses demonstrate varying degrees of fear with exaggerated body language. The corpses are in varying stages of decay, from semi-shrouded nudes, to worm infested cadavers, right through to skeletons.

There is a heightened awareness in this era that death is ever present, and comes to all, no matter who they are. This story also highlights that it could come at any time and you need to be ready.

Nobody really knows the origin of the story, but it appears in Western Europe at a time when disease (especially plague) and warfare is raging. It is possible that it is a transferred and transformed Buddhist story, that has made it to Europe via the Silk Road and the Ottoman trade routes.

Friday 16 September 2016

27 August 1944

We have written before about the events at Maillé on 25 August 1944.

What is less known (and certainly less mentioned) are the atrocities of the 27th August along an axis from la Celle Guenand to Saint Hippolyte. These included the killing of civilians in la Celle Guenand, the farm "Repinçay" along the route Saint-Flovier, Saint Flovier itself, and Saint Hippolyte. Research on the internet has turned up some details of events in la Celle Guenand and Repinçay and Saint Hippolyte but so far we have found nothing about what happened in Saint Flovier.

The memorial at Saint Flovier.

It is couched in atypically emotive language.

It is quite possible that those responsible were the same troops involved at Maillé a few days earlier, but they were confused and therefore poorly documented times, and many people seem to have decided put such events behind them and not talk about them as a method of dealing with the horror of it all.

We would be interested to discover the events behind this memorial and be able to honour the memory of those involved in a less generalised way.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Encouraging the Fig to Leave

 The rebuilt oven building, with the remains of a fig and a lilac still there.

Recently we visited Dennis and Angela to discover that they had been rebuilding their bread oven. They live in a fermette with an interesting collection of outbuildings around a courtyard very close to the river Creuse (the buildings closest to the river flooded in June). Projecting from the back of one of the store rooms is an old bread oven. Unfortunately it has been invaded by a fig and a lilac, which have caused the building to fall down.

The oven.

Dennis has spent the summer digging out fig roots and rebuilding the oven building. The roots go down for metres and unfortunately (for Dennis, not the fig...) the oven is next door to a spring, so the fig has thrived and is proving extremely difficult to kill. Its roots have spread so they can suck up endless quantities of water from the spring, plus the fig is periodically watered when the farmer next door irrigates his crop. I reckon Dennis has another couple of summer's work on his hands before the fig will give up the ghost. 

On the back wall of the main barn, facing east, is a large vine with delicious white table grapes (probably Chasselas).

Also benefitting from the well drained sandy river loam and the farmer's irrigation on this side of the courtyard are a large grapevine and some very healthy looking zucchinis.

 Angela's zucchinis.

This summer the farmer has grown maize, and as is traditional for this area he has trimmed it off at a height of about 2 metres. I assume this is to lessen transpiration causing the plants to lose water, to prevent the crop from being so high it obscures the header driver's view at harvest and in this case, to allow the irrigation sprinklers to poke out above and water everything evenly. The farmer has a licence to extract water from the river I think.

The maize crop beyond the boundary, with irrigation sprinklers.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Cars and Car Parks

Regular readers will know I spend a lot of time in car parks, and ocasionally I see cars that outshine even our Grandes Dames. Last week was an interesting example of that - every car park we visited had at least one example of a car to covet.

A Sunbeam Alpine coupe, and in the background an Alpha Romeo 2000
(which I didn't photograph, because I didn't see it until I looked at the photo at home).

A Morgan Plus8 and a 1962 Mercedes 190sl.

SS100. The Swallow Sidecar company changed its name to Jaguar after WWII.

A pre WWII Bentley convertible

An MG Midget, quite possibly an MG TA Midget.

1930 Rolls Royce 20/25 Gurney Nutting Weymann Fixed Head Coupe rebuilt as a Drophead Coupe.

The other cars we have seen this week include the beautifully emblemed Bentley 4¼ litre I mentioned a couple of days ago, a gaggle of 1970s Porsche 912s, and a bright yellow Peugeot 404 Cabriolet.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Can We Have Circus Summer School Please?

This is a special request blog post. Anne-Loes, aged nearly 11, spends her summers at her family's holiday home near Yzeures-sur-Creuse. This year, as well as spending most mornings at the swimming pool in Preuilly, she spent two weeks doing circus school and loved it.  To quote her, " It is even more fun to do it than to look at it".

The circus school is one of the activities provided by the local authorities to keep kids entertained during the school holidays. It's run by Juliette and Nico and is called Zero Point Cirque. They are on Facebook if you want to check them out. Anne-Loes wants to make sure that the authorities who make the decisions about what is offered during the holidays know how much fun she had. She really really really really hopes it will be offered in 2017 too.

The rumour is that it will be offered, and Anne-Loes can't wait! Juliette and Nico mainly teach juggling, aerial work and hula-hoop but I notice that Anne-Loes is on a unicycle and a balance ball in the photos her mother sent for the blog post. Apparently the local kids get the benefit of circus classes at school as well as during the summer. Anne-Loes probably won't find herself too far behind though, as she does gymnastics back home in the Netherlands.

Photos courtesy of Ingrid de Winter.


Drought: After the floods of June, Indre et Loire has now been declared drought stricken. The first water restrictions have been introduced. They only concern certain water courses and the Claise water catchment is not amongst them. As before when water restrictions have been introduced the first stage is to limit irrigation of crops (the main users of water here), prohibit the watering of lawns between 10 am and 8 pm, and prohibit the washing of cars at home. Vegetable gardens for domestic consumption can still be watered. 

I used the last of our stored rainwater to water the green beans yesterday. From now on I will be clambering down into the ruisseau (stream) to collect water. Luckily I have not planted anything else that needs water, and luckily the ruisseau has not run dry like it has most summers in the last few years. I'm glad I got beans in though because otherwise I would have had nothing at all from the potager this year. It's either been too wet or too dry to work the soil, and the onions and garlic I harvested in June were barely worth the effort, but the beans are doing me proud. 

At the moment, as well as the beans, I am harvesting wild blackberries which I am strategically allowing to grow in the boundary hedge, hazel nuts which have produced a good crop this year, and windfall apples which are small but useful. The pears never got big enough to bother picking. Walnuts will be ready to gather in a few weeks. The grapes are just beginning to colour.

The last of the orchid species will be flowering any day now. At the moment the Autumn Lady's Tresses Spiranthes spiralis look like tiny asparagus shoots.


Improve Your French: A new course for English speakers who wish to learn or improve their French is being proposed for the MCJ (behind the library) in Preuilly. If you are interested go along to the information evening on Wednesday 14 September at 6 pm. The course will run if 10 people sign up and will cost €40 per quarter. The teacher is a woman from Boussay.

Monday 12 September 2016

Eclade de Moules

At the end of August, when who knew how many more long and hot days we had, we were invited to dinner at Marie-José and Philippe's. We were warned it would be quelque chose d'un peu sauvage, which I took to mean extremely informal. It turned out to be éclade de moules, a dish I had seen prepared on the television but never encountered before in real life. Marie-José comes from the Ile d'Oléron just off the Atlantic coast, so she grew up with this dish in its native territory. I thought the mussels were delicious, with their smokey tang. Here is step by step of how it was done:

Step 1: Preparation
Scrub the mussels. Lay out on the ground in an open area of the garden the cast iron central disk from a sundial that you found years ago at an abandoned chateau. Cover it with a layer of fig and vine leaves. One by one select the mussels, debeard them and place carefully on the leaves. Start in the middle and work your way out concentrically. The mussels must be placed resting on one another slightly, straight side down so that when they open a bit with the cooking they don't get cinders inside them. Discard any broken mussels or any that are open and don't close when given a sharp tap, just as you would normally.

Step 2: Pine Needles
Cover the circle of mussels with a thick layer of dried pine needles that you have previously gathered from under the pine trees in the garden and stored in old dog kibble sacks.

Step 3: Set Alight
Set the pine needles alight in several places. Step back and wait several minutes until the flames have died away and all the pine needles are burnt.

Step 4: Fan
Fan the mussels with a plastic stackable chair that has lost its legs to get rid of any remaining pine needles and as much of the cinders as possible. Try not to flap cinders onto your bare feet, the tablecloth or into people's drinks.

Step 5: Remove poultry
Encourage the chook to stop hanging around by bribing it with grain as necessary. The chook is the sole survivor of a fox attack on the chook house two years ago and she has attitude.

Step 6: Eat
Sit around the mussels and take one at a time. Extract them from their shell and eat. The shells will often slide apart sideways. Sometimes they will crumble, which results in you having to pick bits of fragile shell off your mussel before consuming. The mussels are eaten with buttered pieces of baguette. It's a messy business and your fingers get covered in soot.

Step 7: Relax
Once all the mussels are finished, lean back in your chair, relax and discuss such subjects as Wuthering Heights, the extent and depth of troglodyte caves under Preuilly and the shooting club at La Roche Posay. Eventually, get up and wash hands. The remains of the meal are swept up with a dustpan and brush and put in the rubbish. Dessert is served.

Step 8 Star Gaze
Sit until dark then look at the bats and stars for a while before your guests go home.

Further Reading: Quite by coincidence Susan from Our French Oasis discovered this method of cooking mussels and had them the same night as we did, at a seasonal restaurant close to where she lives in the Charente Maritime. There on the mainland the dish is called la terrée de moules.