Tuesday 31 October 2017

Chestnuts and Cider

The étang is dry.

One morning about 10 days ago my friend André rang me up. He asked me if Simon and I were free the next afternoon (we were). So we were invited to a small gathering at André's secret woodland hideaway, where we would roast chestnuts and drink cider, in the spirit of the season.

The waterlilies are an ornamental species, not native, but there is barely enough water to keep them alive this year.

He sent me instructions by email for how to get there and then corrected my French when I replied (I'd used était where I should have used serait, although there was a bit of discussion about whether it should actually have been soit...) Our mutual friend Jean and his wife Maggy would be coming, as well as André's partner Louisette.

André has built himself a hide.

Years ago André bought a parcel of woodland with a large manmade pond called an étang in the centre. It's about 20 minutes from where he lives and about half way between his place and ours. Over the years he's had fun with his various diggers and earthmoving equipment creating holes, mounds and tracks. There is a caravan, permanent awning and barbecue on an island in the middle of the étang. You access it by a high bridge with wire sides so you don't fall several metres into the drink.

André wrangles chestnuts at the barbecue whilst Jean and the rest of us wait patiently.

Mambo the 18 month old Rhodesian Ridgeback was delighted to have extra company. He is very tall and hasn't yet learnt to sit quietly under the table when people are eating.

Louisette and Maggy.

I really liked the low key way everyone dealt with Mambo. He's a big dog and doesn't yet understand that he is encroaching on people's personal space. Nobody made a fuss. He wasn't harshly disciplined, but he wasn't rewarded with excessive attention either. Reward good behaviour and ignore bad is a relaxed and sensible way to deal with Ridgebacks.

I also really enjoyed the fact that no one fussed when Mambo interacted with me. I like dogs and am perfectly capable of dealing with an enthusiastic hound. I don't mind owners who check with me about how I am with dogs on first meeting, but I get frustrated by owners who continually keep their dogs away from guests and spend all their time fussing about what the dog is doing.

One reason I enjoyed the company of young Mambo is that I owned a Ridgeback myself in my twenties and thirties. I know what they are like and would recommend them to anyone who likes hunting dogs.

André has offered his place as a venue for one of our monthly apéro or picnic gatherings, so I think in the late spring or summer we will organise it.

Come on! I thought we were going for a walk!!

Mambo has the most remarkably springy step, like a prancing thoroughbred and is still prone to mad puppy fits of bouncing around, tearing up and down or wrestling sticks.

No, I have no idea why there is a table with a decaying table cloth next to a folding bicycle...

Monday 30 October 2017

Monday is Queens Day: 6 Anne of France

Anne of France was the eldest daughter of King Louis XI. When her father died Anne was 22 and her brother Charles VIII was 13, so Anne and her husband (Peter of Bourbon) stood as his regent.

Anne had been described by her Father as "the least foolish woman in France", and this appears to have summed her up nicely. Amongst her acheivements she managed to pick the winning side in the War of the Roses (she sent troops to support Henry Tudor, later Henry VII), end the 100 years war (she signed the Treaty of Etaples in 1492) and engineered the marriage of Charles VIII to Anne, Dutchess of Britanny in order to bring Britanny under French control.

This last action proved somewhat to be Anne of France's downfall - when the regency finished Anne of Britanny had her and Peter removed from court in revenge for reducing the independence of Britanny. They retreated to Peter's territories, which they immediately started to enlarge (in more than one way - they had a child, Suzanna). When Peter died in 1503 Anne became Duchess of Bourbon in her own right.

When Anne died in 1522 the family line became extinct, Suzanna having died the year earlier.

The Jardin du Luxembourg has statues of 20 French Queens and Illustrious women. The subjects were chosen by Louis-Philippe I in 1843. This statue was created by Jacques-Édouard Gatteaux in 1847. To see this statue of Anne you have to go here.

Eventually all 20 statues will be featured here.

Sunday 29 October 2017

Black Swan

Not a random and improbable event that turns out to have major consequences nor a restaurant in Yorkshire, but an elegant Australian bird. They are popular as captive wild fowl on grand estate ponds in France. This one was photographed in the grounds of the chateau of Cheverny. The green isn't algae, but a reflection of the trees that surround the lake.

The Black Swan Cynus atratus is a nomadic species of the southern half of Australia. They move from place to place depending on the weather and water levels, in search of food and suitable conditions for breeding, which can be in any season, but usually during winter. In the wild they can be present as pairs of birds or aggregations of many more birds, even hundreds gathered in the same place. They will establish themselves on fresh, brackish or salt water, lakes, rivers or wetlands. They eat aquatic plants and algae.

Until Dutch explorer Willem van Vlamingh and his crew spotted them on the coast of Western Australia in 1697, the idea of a black swan was used as a metaphor for something that didn't exist. In the 21st century the Black Swan Theory has been developed to explain rare, unpredictable, high-profile events that have a major effect on history, finance, or science. One of the criteria for pronouncing an event a Black Swan is that it is subjected to post hoc rationalisation, as if it was an event that could have been predicted. The development of the internet, the end of the Soviet Union, and the destruction of the World Trade Centre by terrorists all qualify as Black Swan events. So does Brexit in my opinion.

Saturday 28 October 2017

All Change!!

Tonight the clocks go back.

Last year the area around the Post Office and Mairie in Preuilly were landscaped as part of the "Heart of the Village" program. I don't think we ever mentioned the fact that we were getting some sort of sculpture where the Mairie car park used to be, or the fact that it looked like a sundial.

The council workers will be pleased to know it isn't a sundial, otherwise at 2.00am tomorrow they would be on overtime, shifting a great lump of steel and cement.

What we do have is a "meridian plane", which should point to the celestial north, as well as showing the astronomical and true horizons, and the zenith (basically straight up). There are some other really scientific (and to me quite complicated) things being shown, but I will need an astronomer who speaks basic English to explain them.

The whole "Heart of the Village" thing seems to have been a success, although it hasn't solved the perennial Preuilly problem, the almost daily 4 truck traffic jam.

Friday 27 October 2017

Pretty in Pink

Stade Français rugby club was founded in 1883 and took part in the first French Championship final (which they lost 4-3) in 1892. Although they were sucessful for many years, they slipped into the lower divisions of the French league, and by 1992 were playing in the third division.

That is when their luck changed. In 1992 they were bought by the man behind the NRJ music radio and TV channel (you will see NRJ on cafe TVs at breakfast time in France if they arent showing BFM, the news channel) and he poured money into the team. They reached the "Top 14", the top division, in 1995, and won the championship in 1998. Since then they have won the Top 14 another 4 times.

The remarkable turnaround in fortune isn't the only interesting and arresting thing about Stade Français. Their traditional jersey was blue shirts, red shorts and white socks, but the image was updated with addition of "lighning flashes" on the shirt, and then in 2005 in a total change to a pink jersey.

And then in 2008 they went the whole hog, and wore shirts with a "Warhol" style image of Blanche de Castille. This was changed in 2009 to a full cartoon portrait of Blanche, maybe based on her image in the Psalter of Saint Louis. This was particulartly provocative, as Toulouse Rugby and Stade Français have a somewhat fraught relationship, and Blanche de Castille was responsible for the 1229 "Treaty of Paris" in which the Count of Toulouse submitted to Louis IX.

This is not a weird dream. This a real rugby jumper
worn by Stade Français in 2009 for their away games.

A website for those who love irony and bright colours (and showing most the Stade Stade Français shirts) is here

Thursday 26 October 2017

The Great Butter Crisis

I've been hearing for a week or so that the shelves in the supermarkets that normally hold dozens of different brands of butter are empty. We ran out of butter on Tuesday so I called in to Intermarché to see if the stories were true. They were. There was not a single block of butter on the shelves. I bought some vegetable oil spread. The young woman on the checkout had no idea when they would get their next delivery of butter.

"Dear clients, as a result of a production problem, we are not able to offer you our full range of butter.
We apologize for the inconvenience. The Management."

Le Figaro Madame had a handy guide to things you can cook without butter the same day. For baking they suggest using various fruits and vegetables as substitutes (avocado, zucchini, beetroot, apple purée) or you could use any number of vegetable oils, or nut butters, or cottage cheese (see below for why cheese is available but butter isn't...). For savoury dishes you are directed to oils, margarine and duck fat. For your morning tartine you should think about oil based spreads, fruit butters or maple syrup.

The Figaro article, and others, explained that the crisis of supply has come about due to a combination of factors. First, after the milk quota system was scrapped France was flooded with both domestically produced and imported milk. As a consequence the price per litre, which was already below break even for many farmers, plummeted. Dairy farmers reined in their production, and I've heard that about half of dairy farmers have given up (usually converting to cereal farming or selling their land to their neighbours, who cereal farm). So now we have a shortage of milk, and it is manifesting itself primarily as a shortage of butter. 

The price of butter has been steadily increasing since the abolishment of the quota, and it is now twice as expensive as it was twelve months ago. Also to blame for the gaps in the shelves is the rigidity of the big supermarkets purchasing and supply chains. 

Supposedly the crisis has been excacerbated by a spike in demand for French bakery products overseas, especially in Asia and the Middle East.  Also, recent studies which have found that butter is not the risk to one's health that many Western consumers had long believed, have seen people gleefully returning to butter (for the record, we've always used butter).

Bakers are talking about increasing the price of croissants by about 5¢. Goodness only knows how expensive galettes des rois will be come January! One baked goods small factory manager from central France talked about only being able to source a tonne of butter a week, when her business needs three tonnes. She has cut workers hours by 70%. The shortage is being described as the worst since World War II.

For those dairy farmers still in business, many are worried that they won't see a share of the price increases, but there are opportunities if you can establish a positive relationship with your local milk processor. One of the tactics being tried by dairy farmers is to launch their own 'local milk' brand, emphasising the nutritional qualities due to the care taken with the cows own diet. The milk is sold at a higher price, but consumers understand that the food miles are short and the farmers have negotiated a fair price for themselves from the milk factory. Near us the milk comes from a radius of no more than 25 km from the Laiterie de Verneuil, and is sold in the same geographical region. The dairy farmer is paid 40¢ per litre -- nearly 10¢ a litre more than the average price paid to producers.

However, modern cows produce milk that is lower in fat than in the old days, so there just isn't enough to go round. French producers have historically focused on cheese because it gives a better return when milk prices are low, as they have been for the last decade or so. On top of this we are in the season when milk production is lowest. You need 22 litres of milk to produce a kilo of butter.

No one knows when the situation will return to normal. Of course people have been panic buying and hoarding. The French are the biggest consumers of butter in the world, eating 8 kg per person per year. Margarine just doesn't cut it for French pastries. So this butter crisis is deeper than just lack of supply, but impacts on a campaign by artisan bakers to combat industrially produced croissants and brioches made by workers who simply empty a packet of pre-mixed ingredients into the mixer and add water without knowing anything about how these pastries are made.

I discovered on Wednesday that there is butter to be had, if you know where to go. I bought a block of Verneuil demi-sel for €2.60 from the cheese truck at Loches market. The woman who runs it says she has no problem with supply from Verneuil and another small scale artisan producer. When I called in to my favourite bakery in Loches to buy a baguette they were displaying kouign amann on the counter. No butter crisis here then, clearly. I quizzed the owner, who also said that she had no problem, her butter came from Verneuil. It seems that the Laiterie de Verneuil is making sure their small local artisan customers are kept supplied. There is very much a culture of rewarding loyal custom and encouraging short supply chains in rural France. It's good to hear that the third biggest butter producer in France respects this civilised way of doing business.

It turns out that this is a global problem. Check out this article about the Australian situation in the Conversation. The info graphics are good, and I see that Australian's consume half as much butter as the French per head.

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Dining Alone in Manthelan

The other day I got a phone call on my mobile. I was driving home from work and had got to Le Louroux. The caller was Simon, who told me he needed me to return to Saint Branchs. He had dropped off our clients at their hotel and was coming home in Claudette, but had developed a terrible migraine. He couldn't drive any further.

Burger van in Manthelan.

I got back to Saint Branchs to find him in the carpark by the church. He wanted water, but all the shops were closed. I spotted a man in a fireman's uniform in his front yard talking on his mobile phone, so I approached him. When I explained the situation the man, Bertrand, was kindness itself. He filled up my water bottle, moistened a towel to use as a compress and offered to look after Claudette in his back yard until we could return for her. What a relief!

Bertrand, engineer, volunteer fireman, 2CV owner and all round good guy.

After he had managed to manoeuvere Claudette through Bertrand's gates I got Simon into our modern car and drove off. We only got as far as the bus stop between Saint Branchs and Le Louroux. The movement of the car was too much for Simon and we had to stop. 

After a considerable time Simon felt capable of continuing, but once again, we didn't get far. This time we reached Manthelan and I parked outside the salle des fêtes. Simon tried to get comfortable in the car and I decided to take a walk. 

It was starting to get dark, but the temperature was 22°C. I happily wandered about the village for a while, somewhere I've never really explored before. When I returned to the main street because it was dark there was a burger van set up on the pavement. I thought I might as well order a burger. The choice was extensive but finally I opted for a chicken burger with two sorts of cheese, an egg, onion marmalade, lettuce and tomato in a standard burger bun and served with chips for €8.50. The burger chef said it would be 20 minutes so I wandered about a bit more. I checked out the public toilets (next to the town hall, clean and with toilet paper). When I went back to collect my dinner there were two other customers. One of them was collecting six or eight burgers, and I assume was the reason my order took 20 minutes. I bore off my prize and sat on a bench in front of the town hall, in the dark, to eat it. It was good. I didn't want to take it back to the car in case the smell was more than Simon could bear (he'd already thrown up in the bushes several times).

Finally I returned to the car and Simon, who was semi-reclined in the back seat, said we could continue. This time we made it to Ligueil, where we made a short stop for puking at the lavoir, before eventually getting all the way home. Simon went straight to bed. 

The next afternoon, despite Simon still feeling a bit fragile, we went back and retrieved Claudette. I'm sure Bertrand would kindly have kept her for several days, but we had other commitments in the upcoming days and felt we should collect Claudette immediately.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

The Chapel has its hat on

I mentioned a while ago that work was continuing on the chapel, and that we had a good view, but what I failed to mention that the good view is from our guest bedroom window.  Which is OK really, because I now have an opportunity to mention that the view is from our guest bedroom, and the scaffolding and covering is now complete.

We passed on Sunday, and there were some issues with the covering having been blown around. We had a yellow warning for wind due to storm Brian at the time, so I hope no damage was done to the chapel.

Monday 23 October 2017

Monday is Queens Day: 5 Blanche de Castile

Blanche de Castile (daughter of Alfonso VIII of Castile & Eleanor of England) was never intended to be a queen of France - her sister was meant to marry the future Louis VIII, son of Phillip Auguste. However, when Eleanor of Aquitaine (their grandmother ) met the two princesses she deemed Blanche the more likely one, and the deal was done.

They were married in 1200 (when Blanche was 12 and Louis 13) but the marriage wasn't consumated until 5 years later. Of her twelve children six died in infancy, the first to survive to adulthood being her fifth child, the future king (and Saint) Louis IX. She must have felt some relief when Louis VIII died in 1226.

That presented some issues, as the future saint was only 12 years old, and his father had baron problems that hadn't been resolved. Blanche appears to have been a canny operator, because she immediately had Louis IX crowned as King of France and served as his regent for about 8 years.

Even after Louis IX was married (in 1234, to Marguerite de Provence) Blanche appears to have exercised inordinate control, even more so when he went off on crusade in 1248 and she was once again appointed Regent in his stead. She fell ill and died in 1252, four years before Louis returned to France.

The Jardin du Luxembourg has statues of 20 French Queens and Illustrious women. The subjects were chosen by Louis-Philippe I in 1843. This statue was created by Auguste Dumont in 1848. To see this statue of Blanche you have to go here.

Eventually all 20 statues will be featured here.

Sunday 22 October 2017

Land Leeches

Unlike anywhere else (apart from south-east Asia) Australia has land leeches. They are the bane of rainforest walkers lives. My sister's abiding memory of walking in Ravensbourne National Park is of coming home with blood soaked socks.

The leeches lurk about on the forest floor, questing about for anything mammalian that passes. Leeches are quite closely related to earthworms. They have suckers front and back, and latch on to their prey to feed on their blood. The group isn't widely studied and they are not easy to identify to species level. Whilst they will latch on to your legs at any opportunity they are not known to transmit diseases and realistically are just a minor inconvenience.

Saturday 21 October 2017

A Fungi Foray in the Forest of Preuilly

Late September saw the recommencement of fungi outings by the Association de botanique et de mycologie de Sainte Maure de Touraine in the local forests. It had been dry, so no one held out much hope for many species on the day. In the end we identified 53 different species, which is about half what we would get on a good fungi foray in any of the old forests around here.

The Etang de Ribaloche, with very low water levels.

Wood Cauliflower Fungus Sparassis crispa (Fr. Clavaire crépu).

This edible fungus can grow to several kilos in weight. It is associated with pine trees.

Ivy growing up an oak.

A Dor Beetle Geotrupes stercorosus syn Anoplotrupes stercorosus (Fr. Géotrupe des bois).

Around here, this is by far the most common species of Dor Beetle, so beware of using Michael Chinnery's Insects of Britain and Western Europe to identify any Dor Beetle you discover. If it is in the woods and there is no cow dung in sight, it will not be G. stercorarius, the species featured by Chinnery. The species in my photo is a woodland species and relatively small but otherwise looks much like other Dor Beetles. They are irridescent blue black and like all other Dors, are dung processors. These ones are not overly choosy, burying the dung of many different mammals as well as leaf mould and fungi. To be sure of the identity you need to look at the rear tibia and check how many keels it has (sharp ridges across the outer facet). There should be two.

Common Rustgill Mushroom Gymnopilus penetrans (Fr. Flammule pénétrante).

A very common fungus of pine forests, they can appear in large numbers together. Despite its piecrust appearance it is probably toxic.

Shaggy Parasol Chlorophyllum rhacodes syn Macrolepiota rhachodes (Fr. Lépiote déguenillée).

Most parasol mushrooms are toxic so if you are a fan of the edible species Common Parasol Macrolepiota procera you need to make sure you know how to recognise its snakeskin patterned stem so you can tell it apart from the Shaggies and others. Shaggy Parasols blush slightly red if they are cut or bruised. It's quite a common woodland species.

Another parasol species, Lepiota ventriosospora syn L. metulaeospora.

Scarletina Bolete Neoboletus luridiformis syn
Boletus erythropus (Fr. Bolet à pied rouge).

This is an edible mushroom, despite the lurid colours. However, it is rarely eaten, as it is often confused with the much better known and toxic Satans Bolete Rubroboletus satanas. The Scarletina stem goes from bright yellow to deep indigo when wounded. The Satan is creamy and just goes a bit blue when wounded. This is a mushroom I have wanted to see for several years, so I was pleased we found one.

Wood Mushroom Agaricus silvicola (Fr. Agaric des bois).

This pretty slightly pearly pink mushroom has an obvious stem ring and a faint smell of aniseed. It is edible, but you need to be able to distinguish it from the pale deadly Amanita species such as the Death Cap A. phalloides and the Destroying Angel A. virosa, which also grow in the woods. (I had a couple of Destroying Angels in the orchard a few days later.)

 Blue Roundhead Mushroom Stropharia caerula (Fr. Strophaire bleu).

An unusual little blue mushroom, localised in distribution and found in calcareous beech woods.

Christian and his newly adopted dog.

Christian is a recently retired vet. The young dog was found wandering on the road. Fruitless attempts were made to find her owner, but finally Christian decided to keep her. She has no manners at all at the moment, but I'm sure will grow into a loved companion.

Identifying the fungi found on the day.

Russula poubellus.

That's a French mycology joke. The English name would presumably be Rubbish Brittlegill.

Apples and edible mushrooms gathered in the forest.

While we were identifying the fungal haul a family emerged from the forest. There were three generations of them, from kids to grandparents, and they'd been foraging. They had Weeping Boletes, Red-capped Scaber Stalks, False Chanterelles, and Shaggy Inkcap mushrooms, and apples. Information and advice was exchanged. They were clearly enthusiastic and knowledgeable foragers, and knew what they had. Nevertheless, they were reminded to peel the Weeping Boletes because the milky discharge that gives them their name can cause stomach upsets. They were also reminded to use the Shaggy Inkcaps that evening because if they left them until the morning they would have auto-digested and just be a pool of ink.

They wished us 'bonne omelette' and we parted on good terms.


We went outside this morning at 7.00am to do some meteor spotting. Because it was overcast we saw nowt, but it was very breezy and 16.5°C. The average maximum October temperature in Preuilly last year was 17°C, and her were are, 90 minutes before sunrise, and the temperature is close to that already. That'd be Brian's fault (I don't know if he has a French name yet).

Friday 20 October 2017

Is it too soon to mention Christmas?

Christmas is just over nine weeks away, so we have decided to give everyone a helping hand.

Instead of expecting gifts this year (we'd be disappoint anyway, right?) we would appreciate it if when shopping you took a look at the Loire Valley Time Travel gift shop. My map of the Loire Valley river system is there, available on a range of cups and clothing, as is the Loire Valley Time Travel logo.

I was prompted to put the map on a t-shirt when we were on the walk from Chambon and someone commented on Susan's London Underground map t-shirt, saying that it wasn't much use in the middle of the French countryside.

We also have a range of Loire Valley Time Travel mugs. These are extra large coffee mugs (although I suppose they will hold a similar amount of builder's tea).

The shop is here: https://www.zazzle.com/tourtheloire/

Now - that's the adverts over, we'll resume normal service tomorrow!

Thursday 19 October 2017

Walking from Cussay

On Tuesday we wrote about a walk we did a couple of weeks ago, today we are catching up with a walk we did last week.

Last Thursday was a typical October day - started with very light drizzle, and ended up quite warm and very sunny, which made the afternoon perfect for a walk. We met up in le Grand Pressigny and drove to La Bosniére, a hamlet just outside Cussay (There's a link to the map at the bottom of the page if you don't know where these places are).

The main excitement on this walk was a number of roe deer we disturbed.

If you want to do this walk, the map is here.


And talking of weather... It has been unseasonally warm here of late. On Monday the temperature reached 27c, almost 10 degrees warmer than average for mid October. It has cooled down slightly since, but daytime highs are over 20c for the next few days, then we're cooling down for a few days of showers. Next week we're up in the 20s again.

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Cardinal Richelieu

One of our favorite television shows of the past ten years was the first season of the BBC production of Musketeers. It is a modernisation of the story of Louis XIII's musketeers, using Alexander Dumas' characters but with a modern twist. All the usual suspects are there: a mysterious lady, Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, and four butch blokes and their boss.

Besides the Musketeers themselves the most important characters are Cardinal Richelieu, played in a most chilling pantomime way by Peter Capaldi, and the costumes. The following video shows what I mean.

If you haven't seen the show, and have a couple of hours to spend knee deep in intrigue, violence and slightly kinky (admit it) costumes, seek it out.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Walking From Chambon

A recent walking club outing was a circuit from Chambon, going up the hill, through the forest, overlooking the Creuse valley then back around, past picturesque cottages, hidden vineyards and mature oak trees. Here are some pictures from the afternoon in late September.

A very old house in Chambon at the start of the walk.

Bolete type fungi right on the edge of the road.
You wouldn't want to eat these mushrooms, not because the species is toxic -- it probably isn't. But the mushrooms will be covered with substances coming out of the exhausts of passing vehicles, and they will have absorbed similar substances from the ground as they've grown.

Fabrice stripping off in the heat.
It was unseasonably warm the day of the walk (in the mid-20s) and we were all a bit overdressed. Fabrice thought he'd take advantage of zip-off trouser legs, but then found he couldn't get them over his boots.

An early autumn view over the Creuse Valley.

Walking through a parcel of forest.

A farm track.

The chateau of Rouvray.

Turning to go back up into the woods.

On the edge of the forest, looking over a small valley.

A fine specimen of a mature oak tree.

A well by the side of the track.
The above to photos were taken from where several forest trails meet. We chose to go right, past the oak tree, but we could have gone straight ahead past the well.

By the end of the walk the sun was low in the sky and the shadows were long.

A picturesque cottage.
We passed through several hamlets with picturesque cottages. This is just one of them.

The chateau of Chambon (more of a medieval fortified farm).

If you want to do this walk yourself, here's the map