Saturday 31 March 2018

Five Go Sailing

We have shown pictures of the "Great Ice-Cream Run of 2017" on the blog, but nothing else of that day.

My brother owns a Catalina 35 sailing boat, a 35 foot long American boat designed in the mid 80's. JB's boat is a mark II version, which sleeps 7 people (they would have to be friends...), and has a fully equipped kitchen, a WC, and all the bits and bobs you need for a couple of days' sailing. The boat is moored off Ettalong beach, which is on Brisbane water, part of Broken Bay, where a number of rivers including the Hawksbury enter the sea. It's an enormous body of water, quite beautiful on a bright, breezy summers day.

Not being idiots, we waited until a bright, breezy sunny day, and the the five of us - JB, my sister Elizabeth, her husband Vic, Susan and myself climbed aboard, and sailed off into the wide blue yonder...

First we had to navigate the Brisbane Water Channel, a very narrow and shallow passage between sand banks and rocks, then we headed out to sea and a couple of kilometres down the northern beaches of Sydney, before turning around, finding a pleasant anchorage in Pittwater, and having a barbecue. Befitting the event, when I took the wheel I went a bit Robert Newton, patch and all.

After lunch it was time for a swim, before we sailed across the bay to Palm Beach, which is where the Ice Cream Run happened. Then we wended our way back to Ettalong, a total distance of maybe 35km, and a lovely introduction to sailing for Susan.

Friday 30 March 2018

Hot Cross Buns

Hot Cross Buns are a traditional Good Friday treat in Great Britain and by extension, in Australia. They are not a thing  in France. Sometimes we get them shipped in when English friends arrive for Easter, but this year I decided to make my own.

I used this recipe by Paul Hollywood.

They take ages, because you have to prove them for an hour at three different stages. The dough is soft and wet, so not easy to handle. You have to be deft, gentle and quick.

I tweaked the recipe a bit, to reflect what I had in the pantry.

I didn't have any full cream milk and I only had 60% fat content butter. I couldn't see the point of bringing the milk to the boil then having to wait for it to cool to 40°C. Instead I heated it enough to melt the butter. Even so it took 40 minutes to cool down sufficiently.

I didn't have fast action yeast (never use it), so I needed to wait for the milk to cool so I could add some to the yeast and set it aside for 15 minutes to activate.

I mixed and kneaded the dough in my bench top mixer rather than do it by hand. Machine mixing and kneading gives a better result in my experience. The flour was from a producer in Berry, the next province to us, who grows and mills the wheat. It's available in the Intermarché supermarket in Yzeures sur Creuse in 5kg bags. I like it a lot, it makes a very elastic dough.

I used my homemade candied orange peel. Instead of cinnamon I thought mixed spice was a more typical hot cross bun spice.

Finally, they acquired their pink gloss because I didn't have any apricot jam. I had grape jelly though, and when you think about it, the symbolism of the colour is perfectly appropriate. The grape jelly makes a rather sticky glaze, but it dries out overnight, so when you toast the buns the next morning it's fine.

These were so good I made a second batch two days later. The process was a lot more streamlined because I knew how it went. I gave some to our mechanic and traded some for potatoes. We ate some and I put some in the freezer.

Thursday 29 March 2018

The Claise Valley Between le Grand Pressigny and Abilly

I took this view last week while walking with some friends. I'm standing on the hill behind the chateau of le Grand Pressigny and looking up the valley of the Claise River towards Abilly, where the Claise meets the Creuse. The landscape is gently rolling, a mixture of broad acre arable fields and semi-natural woodland. The village of le Grand Pressigny is below me to my left. There is a nice vine hut halfway down the ploughed slope. According to Yohann, our local river technician, the river is in fairly good health just here, and he's put a lot of work into ensuring that. The countryside in the view is excellent walking and cycling terrain, being criss-crossed with public access tracks and well mapped and marked walking routes. It has been occupied by humans for thousands of years, since prehistoric times.


Brexit News: In exactly 12 months time we and all our British friends residing in the EU27 will no longer be Europeans. As yet we still have no idea what we will have to do to maintain our status in France, nor do our French friends living in the UK. For now, the strong advice is to apply for a Carte de Séjour as soon as possible, and well before 29 March 2019. The French Minister for the Interior has announced that those holding a Carte de Séjour will be given priority during the transition period (2019 - 2020). Please feel free to email me (via the link to my profile on the right hand bar) if you want further information or advice. An overview of the current state of citizens' rights in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is available here. If you are directly affected by this issue I strongly recommend that you at least read the dot points.

Wednesday 28 March 2018

Spring Flowers

Sweet Almond Prunus dulcis var dulcis blossom.

The Almond tree in the orchard is blossoming. I won't get any almonds -- either frost or lack of rain later in the season will get them almost certainly -- but the blossom is pretty, and it's always the first tree in the orchard to flower. Almond trees don't really like the Touraine. They are more an Aquitaine thing.


The Aged One must grow acres of daffodils in his garden on the hill on the edge of Preuilly. He's given me a couple of bunches and has them for sale at the market. Legally he is allowed to sell them only so long as he restricts the bunches to just daffodils. If he adds greenery or another flower he needs to be a registered florist to legally sell them in France.


Garden Grape-hyacinth Muscari armeniacum is one of my favourite spring flowers. These were photographed on a streetside bank in Preuilly. They naturalise very easily here and form bright blue carpets. They are less picky than English Bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta, and a better colour than the usual garden plant Hybrid Bluebell H. x massartiana. I also have the Wild Grape-hyacinth M. neglectum in the orchard, a more sombre blue and denser flowerheads, less prone to forming a carpet.

Wild Grape-hyacinth.

 Lady Orchid leaf rosette.

The last two years a frost in late April has wiped out my Lady Orchid Orchis purpurea flowers just as they were in their prime. Here's hoping this year they are not blasted by frost and get to produce seed.

Sweet Violets.

For some reason a high proportion of the Sweet Violets Viola odorata in the grass at the orchard are white this year.

Also in flower are the Cowslips, Primroses, Lesser Celandine and Snakeshead Fritillaries.

Tuesday 27 March 2018

The Nymphaeum

A spring fed pool outside the Nymphaeum.

The other day I got to see a local heritage site that I've known about for ages, but for one reason or another, never visited. It's not like it's difficult to get to either, as it is a short walk from the chateau in Le Grand Pressigny.

The interior.

The Nymphaeum is a little architectural jewel, situated in what was once the vast gardens of the Chateau of Le Grand Pressigny. It's concave facade is set with niches, decorated in the antique style and looking out to a rustic landscape designed to imitate cascading waterfalls. The roof is domed and the ceiling vaulted.

The Savoie Villar monogram and a scallop over a niche.

Constructed at the beginning of the 17th century by the Savoie Villars family it once acted as a pendant to the chateau, allowing a stop sheltered from the wind and the sun, tucked into a little copse in a valley. A cool stream used to gush from the 'grotto' and permitted noble ladies to refresh and recover themselves before returning to the chateau.

Hideous protective canopy and concrete block buttresses are revealed as you walk up to the Nymphaeum.

It was a discrete and mysterious place, romantic and favoured for amourous trysts.

Monday 26 March 2018


When we created our kitchen we decided that it would be nice if the kitchen tap did more than one thing, so we opted for an Ikea unit  that combined an ordinary mixer tap with a handheld spray unit. Unfortunately, after 7 years of use the tap let us down and developed a leak, a constant dripping whilst off, and a more persistant stream of water running from the handle when in use.

As these units are all modular, we called in to Ikea to buy a pair of new cartridges, one for the tap selector (tap or handheld) and the other for the mixer. Imagine our surprise (and my crossness) when they told us the units were no long manufactured.

This meant replacing the tap, something we got around to last week. We had bought a new unit from Leroy the Magician (Leroy Merlin), but when I unpacked it I looked at the space I would have to squeeze myself into under the sink and decided it was time to GTMI*.

So it's now done, and we have a new, less complicated tap that claims to use less water. It also takes up much less space, and so far I haven't missed the hand-held spray.

*GTMI = 'Get the Man In'. The man in question was Gille Barré, a plumber from Martizay, recommended to us by Antoinette.

Sunday 25 March 2018

Proxy Box

Today is Palm Sunday, but in Preuilly you won't see people carrying crosses made of palm fronds. They will be carrying big bunches of Box Buxus sempervirens (Fr. buis). At least they would have been in the past. With the arrival of the Box Tree Moth I don't know what people will do. Almost everyone I met in the street last year, including in the bakery, was carrying a bunch of box cut from their own garden and heading for the church service. The bunch in the photograph is held by our florist neighbour. I asked to photograph her bunch because it was particularly large and I commented that in Australia it is not used like this. She asked me what was used and wondered if it was olive. At the time, I didn't know because I've never attended a Palm Sunday service, but after I'd thought about it, I think real palm leaves are used in Australia. Simon says his memory is of palm leaves woven into crosses.

I wonder how the use of box in the Touraine will evolve now that the Box Tree Moth has arrived?

Saturday 24 March 2018

Beware of Snakes

Beware of Snakes.

Visitors to Australia are convinced that they are at risk from deadly spiders, snakes, jelly fish and insects (unspecified). In fact, I would be genuinely surprised if even 50% of visitors see any of these creatures. While we were in Australia we saw one snake (and we were in the car so entirely safe), one spider I'd be a bit wary of (not deadly, but has a bad reputation), no problematic jellies and the deadliest insects we saw were Honey Bees, which aren't even native.

This pavement warning, by the way, is at a layby on Lake George, on the road between Sydney and Canberra. I have no trouble believing that there are some very venomous snakes in the area, but I bet very few people see them. We certainly didn't.

Friday 23 March 2018

The Tathra Pub

I grew up in Canberra (Australia), and in the late 1970s earned my drivers licence. This meant that (theoretically, anyway) I was free to take myself off to interesting places, something I started doing in 1980 once I had bought myself a car.

The big attraction from Canberra was the New South Wales South Coast - a stretch of the east coast about 500km long which contained many beaches, caravan parks, pubs and clubs (not many of which existed in Canberra). One venue of note was the Tathra pub, which in those days was about 4 hours drive away. It was a quite rundown traditional pub which had live music at the weekends, cheap beer, and "interesting" patrons.

The pub still looked very much like this photo from the 1960s when I started going there.

When we in Australia at the end of last year we visited the South Coast and stayed with our friends Rick and Helen, who told us about the amazing renovations, and the great new publican whose first move was to install a good live sound system and get rid of the pokies (slot machines). The pub had only re-opened after renovation about 2 weeks beforehand. They suggested lunch and we didn't need much convincing, so we went and sat on the beautiful verandah with views of the sea on both sides. We had a great meal there while watching a sea eagle cruising along the coast. At other times of the year you can whale watch from the same seats.

We sat at the corner table, in the shade of a Norfolk Island Pine tree.

Then, last weekend I was looking at the Australian newspapers and noticed there was a grass fire in the Bega region, not far enough away from Rick and Helen's house to make everyone feel secure. I kept an eye on the progress of the fire as it marched into the forest and unrelentingly the 10km towards Tathra, crossing the river in the process. The fire started when some electricity lines were bought down by falling trees (according the the power company there were "extreme weather conditions" at the time).

The view looking in the other direction .

Tathra is only a small town, with a population of 1,622 people. So far the count is that 69 houses have been totally burnt out, 39 houses damaged, and 30 caravans or cabins destroyed. They have also lost the bowls club, supermarket and primary school. Luckily, no-one died in the fires, although many people have lost just about everything else.

The pub in December.

Also luckily, the old Tathra pub has survived. On Thursday they updated their facebook page and wrote:

"We managed to get permission ( with a police escort) to go to the hotel this afternoon to retrieve staff records so our staff can be paid.
The hotel looks untouched by the fires but we were surprised to see the bush between the hotel and the ocean still smouldering. While we were there it flared up and the helicopters were water bombing.
The power was on so hopefully we may be able to get back in tomorrow and prepare to reopen.
Feel very lucky as some areas look very bad.
Thanks for everyone's messages of help and support."

They were some of the earliest residents allowed back in. One of the reasons it was too dangerous to let people back was there was a lot of asbestos floating in the air. Many old beach shacks and holiday homes are made from asbesto sheets. 

The pub has subsequently announced that they will be open, but all their food stocks have been destroyed because the power went off and the freezers weren't working, so they can't offer much in the way of a meal. We wish them all the best and hope to be back one day for one of their gourmet burgers and a beer.

Thursday 22 March 2018

A Thousand Winter Readings

A couple of weeks ago we went to dinner at my friend Nathalie's. Also at the dinner was her friend Chantal and she invited me to an event she was hosting. Chantal told me she had recently retired from working in the theatre as a costume maker. She grew up in Montrichard but had spent much of her career in Paris and La Rochelle. When the time came to retire she searched the Touraine for a house that had a barn suitable for staging workshops and performances.

 D'Argile et de feu by Océane Madelaine.

Chantal's event was part of a programme called Mille Lectures d'Hiver (A Thousand Winter Readings). It is designed to offer a convivial gathering to people who are interested in living authors. For each event a host invites 20 or so people to a venue of their choice. It could be their house, a library, a hospital, a village hall or a café. The guests might be friends, family, neighbours or colleagues who want to discover some modern literature. The programme runs from 1 January to 31 March every year and is co-ordinated from the Orléans library service.

 The audience mingling after the reading (my friend Bénédicte looking stylish on the right).

The host doesn't get to choose the text. The programme is all about discovery, and you can't choose what you don't know. Many writers are barely known. They can't compete with the heavily promoted publications of celebrity authors and are marginalised. Allowing the hosts to choose would simply result in many of them choosing already well known authors.

 The buffet. Chantal on the left, Marion centre.

In the case of the reading at Chantal's it was the reader, a professional actress called Marion Minois, who chose the text. She works often with the Mille Lectures programme and chose a book called D'Argile et de Feu by Océane Madelaine. It's a slim volume from a tiny publisher. The book is about two women, one contemporary, one 19th century, who are linked by fire and clay. One grows up in a rural pottery and makes a name for herself as a skilled artisan in a man's world. The other finds her diaries and notebooks containing recipes for glazes when she inherits a cabin in the woods. The author is herself a potter.

 Marion reading.

The readings last about an hour and are followed by a question and answer session. The audience are encouraged to freely express their opinions. After all, it's a lottery, and the book might not be to everyone's taste. Luckily, everybody in the audience I was part of responded positively to the book. They were also very curious about the reader. They wanted to know how much she had practiced (3 days intensive work and 3 weeks of reading through it once a day), why she had chosen the book (she had friends who were potters and thought the story evocative), what else she did (works in a company of 40 players in Vendôme, does workshops in schools with two male colleagues).

After the reading there are drinks and nibbles or a meal. The audience was asked to contribute and brought wine and cakes (sweet and savoury). I brought root vegetable crisps. The host is expected to feed and accommodate the reader.

The Mille Lectures is funded and administered by Ciclic. They pay the readers, cover their expenses and the royalty payments. They organise the circuits and put the hosts in touch with the readers. Ciclic is part of the library system in our region of Centre Val-de-Loire and they are also responsible for the film archive of  the region.

This event was in Barrou, population 492 and was free to attend. Chatting to one of the audience, she passed on to me that this sort of cultural event started happening in 1970s in the provinces. Before then the Touraine and other rural areas were hopelessly rustic and unsophisticated. But in the 1970s the educated classes started buying rural properties and reclaiming their heritage. They spent all their weekends restoring these old places, and then later retired here. They provided the impetous and connections to organise local theatre, exhibitions and concerts.

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Célestine No Longer Eats Electricity

In September last year I wrote how Célestine almost managed to completely embarrass me when she ran out of electricity coming home from Amboise.

Even a couple of days later she was a bit leery about charging the battery - some times it would charge normally, sometimes the needle on the ammeter was flickering all over the place. My suspicion was that there was a problem with either the alternator or the regulator, and somehow alternating current was getting through the system and the battery not charging.

The new electrics.

Of course, having two cars, and it being near the end of what turned out to be a somewhat truncated  season, Célestine didn't see a lot more action last year, so when we went to Australia we parked her (snugly wrapped in a blanket, of course) and she sat out winter in some friends' garage. Our plan was to get serious about her electrics when we got home - and at last we have done it.

Parked by a very full Loire River in Amboise. It snowed earlier in the day,
so I am using a rally plaque as a radiator muffler.

We took her to the nice folks at Classic Auto Elec in Nazelles-Négron. Auto electricians aren't really a thing in France. You're expected to take the car to your local mechanic who will know enough to sort out the problems, so having a specialist within 80km of home is a real bonus. They thoroughly checked out the system, replaced the alternator, the battery, and a bunch of wires, and it appears that all is again good.

We picked her up on Monday, so now we are on the road again, shuffling cars between mechanics, upholsterers, panel-beaters (bodyworks) and polishers, and soon our season will be on track, and we will be dazzling all who see us.

Roll on spring!

Tuesday 20 March 2018

At the Dentist

Simon goes to the dentist (for treatment) way more often than I do. My dentist has retired, and I haven't bothered going to the new young dentist in town yet. Dr Renaudie, my old dentist, rides a Harley, wore a checked shirt and string tie for work, had a jukebox that played country and western music in the surgery and he cracked jokes all the time. The new young dentist will have to be going some to beat that, but his first name is Claudius, so that's a good start I guess.

Simon about to be examined by Dr Beye.

Simon's teeth have had to deal with a lifetime of Ventoline, which increases the risk of cavities and other oral problems. Unfortunately Simon, like many people his age, was thoroughly traumatised by the dentist in his childhood. Luckily, now, we have Dr Beye.

We first made an appointment with him several years ago when Simon cracked a tooth. I couldn't get him in to my dentist in Preuilly, so I rang around. The receptionist at Dr Beye's, in La Roche Posay, said they didn't have a slot immediately but she would ring me if one came up. True to her word, a couple of hours later, she rang me and said if we could get there in 20 minutes, an appointment had become available. Easy peasy. La Roche Posay is only 10 minutes away.

Dr Beye is a big African man, of few words and remarkably small fine hands. In the past 6 years Simon has had root canal work, two crowns and a couple of fillings done by him. Dr Beye's calm demeanor and the improvement in dental techniques (especially anaesthetics) in the last decade or so mean that Simon now more or less willingly goes to the dentist. In the old days he would have put up with many months of pain and discomfort, and swallowed endless painkillers on a daily basis rather than put himself in the dentist's chair.

When I asked Dr Beye if he minded if I took this photo, his response was very French. 'Non, ça ne me dérange pas'  ('no, that won't bother me').


Just a quick word about the Tour The Loire gift store. We notice that people have ordered t-shirts, mugs and a tote bag - thank you very much all. We ordered a set of coffee mugs as a thank you to my brother and Rosie and were really impressed.

If you're looking for a unique piece of Loire Valley memorabilia, it can be bought here.

Monday 19 March 2018

The Twelfth Annual Cowslip Photo

Every year about this time we post a picture of a cowslip. It used to be the first cowslip of the year, where we would excitedly stop the car and back track to take a photo (they are roadside specialists), but more recently they have been the first photos we have been able to take in safety. Age/wisdom I guess...

One reason we post a cowslip photo every year is because it means spring is here or hereabouts. This year it's definitely hereabouts, as we are expecting frosts and fog and maybe even a sprinkle of snow.

There is, however, another reason. In 1981 I travelled to the UK with my Mum, and she had me driving all over East Anglia looking for cowslips, her favorite childhood wildflower. We saw one in the six weeks we were there, and the farmers all said it looked like they were on their way out. You can imagine my surprise when we arrived in France to see cowslips in profusion. Mum is no longer able to travel, but this pic is for her.

Sunday 18 March 2018


Yup - we went there too. The Gate of Heavenly Peace was one of the places we visited on our 12hour layover in China in November. It's a big thing, being 66 metres (217 ft) long, 37 metres (121 ft) wide and 32 metres (105 ft) high, and serving as the gateway to the Imperial City, which itself contains the Forbidden City. These days it tends to be used a a saluting podium for offical events - you can see the enormous ranges of seating for the generals either side of the actual gate.

Tiananmen at night (with added tourists)

Of course, Tianenmen is probably more famous for its square, first built in 1651 and enlarged to four times its original size in the 1950s. After another rebuild in 1976 it is now 44.05 hectares (109 acres) in area and is claimed to hold 600,000 people. It's one of the biggest monumental squares in the world, and surround by monumental buildings, including the Great Hall of the People, The Monument to the People's Heroes, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, and the National Musem of China.

The Monument to the People's Heroes and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

Because it was night, and because we're just not well connected enough to get high above the square to take an overall photo, you will just have to take our word (and everyone else's word too) about just how BIG it is. It's big! Luckily, being a winter's evening it wasn't full so we were able to appreciate the acreage (and having walked one side, the length) but although it felt kind of empty, we weren't the only people there having our photos taken.

Tianenmen Gate

(and some extra, random pics!)

Saturday 17 March 2018

Pest Control in Namadgi NP

Invasive species are a tremendous problem in Australia. In Namadgi National Park, in the 'high country' (as the mountain terrain is known) around Canberra, non-native canines are some of the species they are trying to keep under control. This is partly to safeguard the native species that might be prey animals (I assume mostly small marsupials and ground nesting birds) but also to placate sheep farmers whose land adjoins the National Park. The National Park is seen as a reservoir of fox and wild dog populations by the local farmers.

Poison notice in Namadgi National Park.

1080 is a brand name. The chemical compound is sodium fluoroacetate and its use is strictly controlled. Baits are pieces of meat that have been dosed with the poison. They are placed at carefully chosen locations along the access tracks around the edge of the park. Bait sites are chosen by first laying out fresh meat and using trail cameras to record what comes to the meat. Baited meat is then only set out at sites which were uniquely used by foxes or dogs. The meat is usually buried to a depth of 10-15cm. Canines can easily sniff this out. 

Ejectors are a type of bait set in a sort of trigger mechanism. When the animal puts its muzzle around the ejector and pulls with sufficient force the bait is ejected into the dog's mouth. This technique is used to protect other wildlife that might be attracted to meat because only canines have enough strength to trigger the ejector. This method also avoids the risk of animals caching baits that could be found later by non-target species. 

The term 'wild dogs' is a sort of catch all which includes dingoes, feral dogs and their hybrids. In other parts of the park 1080 is used to control feral pigs, using impregnated wheat, and the presence of dingoes is encouraged because they will prey on the piglets. On the edges of the park though, it is considered necessary to protect the neighbouring sheep, and the programme has been very successful at doing so.

A notice informing of biological controls for Vipers Bugloss and Nodding Thistle.

Animals are not the only invaders. There are plenty of plants too. At Brayshaw's Hut I came across a notice informing walkers that the CSIRO were using a biological control on certain plants, Vipers Bugloss Echium vulgare and Nodding Thistle Carduus nutans (aka Musk Thistle). Both these plants grow in natural abundance in the Touraine, but they are invasive aliens in the Australian bush.

Vipers Bugloss in Namadgi NP.

Vipers Bugloss is closely related to one of the most notorious and long established of Australia's invasive alien plants, Patersons Curse E. plantagineum.

I don't know what bio control the scientists are using here, but it's likely to be one of a number of species of weevil which have proved successful on Echium and Carduus species.

The CSIRO is the rather wonderful Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Friday 16 March 2018

Random Manly Pics

The ferry at Manly Wharf. This is the harbourside beach.
To the right of the photo is the shark-netted swimming area

The safe swimming area at sunset. At this point Susan was still swimming.

The view from JB and Rosy's apartment in Manly.
The light coloured building in the background is Manly Wharf.

The view from Manly Head on a very, very heavy day
(40C, 999% humidity - and no, I haven't missed a decimal point).
You can see the city of Sydney in the background.

In our 8 weeks in Australia over Christmas I spent more time in Manly (10 Days) than I ever remember spending there in the 30 years I lived in Australia. Most of the previous times was for a couple of hours at the beach, or parking in order to catch the ferry. Turns out that it's an interesting place, especially as soon as you get away from people (of which there are a lot!).