Thursday, 30 April 2020

How the French Cope With Lockdown


The strict lockdown rules in France have led to a lot of whinging and complaining about the detail, and some really valid concerns about how certain groups are at serious risk from things other than the Covid19. Like many other places in the world an unfortunate effect of the lockdown has been soaring domestic violence incidents, and a realisation that not all kids have access to the resources necessary for adequate home schooling. 

Proper champagne, from a medium sized estate you've probably never heard of.
Champagne. France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

But mostly, the rules about staying at home have been adhered to by a population that is broadly in favour of how the government is treating the crisis. It reminds me of the changes to smoking laws, where there was an expectation of widespread disregarding of the ban on smoking in restaurants, but in fact, smoking in restaurants stopped overnight. Smokers accepted that they were in a dwindling minority and took over the terraces. 

With the silent majority behind the legislation there was a genuine cultural change in smoking behaviour, and now in physically isolating to slow the progression of the virus. Sure there has been unease about the PPE situation and criticism about the clarity of some government messages, but Emmanuel Macron's popularity rating has shot into the stratosphere, people have stopped shaking hands and kissing, and only leave the house every few days for supplies rather than daily.

Chinon red wine from a small family estate in the Touraine Loire Valley.
Chinon red wine from a small family estate. Loire Valley, France. France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

One of the most interesting outcomes of the lockdown is that alcohol sales have gone down in France significantly, where it has gone up significantly in anglophone countries by about the same amount. I think this tells you something really important about French culture. Something I've suspected but wondered whether it was one of those rose coloured misconceptions that foreigners can be prone to. That is that drinking alcohol is not something you do at home alone in France, or to excess. 

It is intimately connected with socialising, when you want to relax with your friends and chat. It is not about drinking to oblivion but drinking to enhance social interaction. You don't drink because you are anxious or bored and can't sleep. You drink because social occasions benefit from a bit of lubrication. 

 Natural sparkling wine from Vouvray in the Loire Valley.
Natural sparkling wine from Vouvray. Loire Valley France. France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The French have very quickly adopted the 'video apéro' as a way of linking up with friends and family, but it's not the same as gathering in a bar together, and consequently, alcohol consumption is down 16% here. Anglo households in Australia, the US and the UK on the other hand are drinking 20% more and are finding themselves getting through a bottle or two every evening, not just a single glass, and not just on the weekends. After all, they are not getting up at the crack of dawn any more to commute to work. 

Personally I've been quite intrigued to see these figures. I think this cultural difference in how alcohol fits into the daily routine is important, but I also suspect that many French households have better stocked cellars that they can select from in a time of crisis rather than risk a trip to the shops or spend on a delivery when they don't know how secure their finances are.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Hover Flies in the Touraine Loire Valley


Some of the local entomologists are gainfully occupying their time in lockdown by working on an inventory of hover flies in our Region of Centre-Val de Loire and Indre et Loire, our local 'county'. I was asked to contribute my records, which I did. I thought it was a good moment to highlight these attractive and important little flies on the blog. Hover flies are good pollinators, and many species have predatory larvae which feed on aphids, so you definitely want to be encouraging them in your garden. Here are a selection of the species you could see here in your garden, all photographed in our orchard.

Two for the price of one.
Tapered Drone Fly Eristalis pertinax and Marmalade Hover Fly Episyrphus balteatus on Ivy Hedera helix flowers.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.
Above a Tapered Drone Fly Eristalis pertinax, below a Marmalade Hover Fly Episyrphus balteatus, nectaring on Ivy Hedera helix flowers. Drone flies are honey bee mimic hover flies. There are several species, quite similar looking, and you may have noticed them hovering at about head height in sunny spots in the spring. Both these hover flies are abundant, widespread and can be seen in every month of the year if it is not too cold.


Xanthogramma citrofasciatum.
A hover fly Xanthogramma citrofasciatum.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.
 A scarce species, associated with rough grassland with Yellow Meadow Ant Lasius flavus nests.

Migrant Hover Flies mating.
Migrant Hover Fly Eupeodes corollae, mating.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.
Eupeodes corollae, a very typical looking black and yellow stripey hover fly that is abundant in open areas of all sorts.

Hornet Mimic Hover Fly.
Hornet Mimic Hover Fly Volucella zonaria.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.
Volucella zonaria, one of the largest hover flies, they are often encountered in parks and gardens.

Milesia crabroniformis.
A female hover fly Milesia crabroniformis.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.
A very large hornet mimic, uncommon and completely harmless (like all hover flies, no matter what they are mimicking) nectaring on Wild Parsnip Pastinacus sativa.



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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

The House Martins of Chenonceau


A big flock of House Martins appeared over our house preceding the stormy weather about ten days ago. They have arrived from Africa to breed in Europe, returning every summer to the same mud nests stuck to the sides of buildings. They are a protected species and it is illegal to disturb the birds or their nests.

House Martin and nest, Chateau of Chenonceau.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO, 'Bird Protection League') counted 1335 House Martins (adults and young) in the nesting colony at the Chateau of Chenonceau in 2019, under the roofs or cornices of the castle (particularly on the Tour des Marques, the north facade and the Chapel). In French this charming little long distance migrant is called the hirondelle de fenêtre ('window swallow').

House Martin and nest, Chateau of Chenonceau.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The population figure, up 10% from the previous survey, makes it the biggest House Martin colony in Indre et Loire (our 'county')!

House Martins can be recognized by their smart blue and white feathers: a blue-black upper body and wings with metallic reflections, and a white belly and rump, with a short tail.

House Martin and nest, Chateau of Chenonceau.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Don't forget to look up and watch their antics on your next visit!


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Monday, 27 April 2020

Cooking with Blue Feet


In early March I took an American travel agent to meet Julien Delalande, the owner of the mushroom caves at Bourré. She was checking out the area with a view to bringing tourists to experience this unusual underground farm.

 Wood Blewits in cultivation in the caves.
Wood Blewit Lepista nuda in cultivation.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

While I was there I took the opportunity to buy some wood blewits (known as pieds bleus in French, which translates as 'blue feet'). Les Caves Champignonnieres des Roches are virtually the only place now growing these gourmet mushrooms and they mostly go to high end chefs. I am lucky enough to be able pick them up for €10 a kilo at the caves.

Cave grown Wood Blewits.
Cave grown Wood Blewit Lepista nuda.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The pied bleu ('blue foot' or Wood Blewit Clitocybe nuda) is native to this area and can be found wild in the forest. However, grown in the caves they remain white and do not develop the violet colour, which is apparently a reaction to warm days. They also remain unmolested by fly larvae and slugs. Chefs love them because they retain a firm, almost crunchy texture when cooked, and will keep up to 10 days in the fridge in good condition.

Cave grown Wood Blewits, fried with onions.
Cave grown Wood Blewit Lepista nuda, cooked with onions.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

At home in the kitchen I brushed them off, cut them into quarters and fried them with onions. Then I seared some strips of beef that had been dredged in flour, added the mushrooms and onions, some beef stock, a dollop of tomato paste, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a generous pinch of thyme and lots of paprika. Once the flavours had developed and everything cooked I added a little pot of plain yoghurt to make stroganoff. Serve with buttered noodles.

Recipe inspired by Thyme for Cooking.

Further reading: The Mushroom Caves at Bourré -- a blog post I wrote a few years ago.

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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Sunday, 26 April 2020

A Rescued Koala


My father emailed me during the week with photos of a koala in his garden. It's been a few years since he's had a koala, and this one wasn't very big, so he assumed it was a young one who had been pushed out by its parents and was establishing a new territory.
 
Jethro the Koala in a garden in Pittsworth, Queensland, Australia.
Photo courtesy of John Walter.

The koala had an ear tag so Dad knew it must be being monitored by local scientists. He asked a few questions in the right places and suddenly the koala had a name and a known history.

It turns out it's a male, about ten years old (so not young at all), very under weight (a score of 4 out of 10 for condition and only weighing 6.3 kg) and had been in the rescue centre with conjunctavitis late last year. He was named Jethro.

Jethro the Koala in a garden in Pittsworth, Queensland, Australia.
Photo courtesy of John Walter.

He had been picked up on the edge of town in the street that runs behind my parent's place by the animal rescue people in October last year and taken to the rescue centre. He was treated for chlamydia, cystitis and conjunctavitis in both eyes, as well as microchipped and given an ear tag. By December he was ready for release and is one of only two koalas out of nine that were taken in for treatment who made it back to their home range. 


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Muriel McPhee


Today is Anzac Day, when Australians and New Zealanders commemorate their war dead. I thought it was an appropriate day to write about Muriel McPhee, someone with a poignant story of loss and endurance due to the First World War.

 Trousseau items made by Muriel McPhee.
Muriel McPhee's trousseau, in the National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

In the collection of the National Museum of Australia and in a display case in the First World War section are a number of pieces of beautifully made lacy underwear. They are part of more than a hundred pieces made by Muriel McPhee and stored in old flour and sugar sacks as her trousseau. It appears that at the start of the War she had a sweetheart, but he never came back from the War, and the trousseau items were never used. She never spoke about this and even her family don't know who the young man was, although she kept a photograph of him on her dressing table and it appears that he fought in Europe with the 41st Infantry Battalion, who lost two thirds of its men. She never married.

 Muriel's sewing machine and hand crocheted lace.
Muriel McPhee's sewing machine, in the National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

She worked on the family cattle farm and sewed in the evenings. One of the saddest items is the only one that would have been worn. It is a mourning overdress, of black net, a thrifty design meant to be worn over clothes you already had, to indicate you were in mourning.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Friday, 24 April 2020

Pont Wilson in Tours


During the Covid19 lockdown the City of Tours has created a YouTube series doing some bitesized history articles. I'm going to use some of them as resources for blog posts.

 Pont Wilson, Tours.
Pont Wilson, Tours.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The first one concerns Pont Wilson (Wilson Bridge) in Tours, built in 1779. This structure was the pride of its engineers because it was the first bridge in France to have a flat deck. Unfortunately, the bridge suffered damage on numerous occasions, even before it was completed. Ten years after completion it suffered a partial collapse. It was blown up twice during the Second World War (once at the beginning of the War, and once at the end), then there was a  serious collapse involving a third of the bridge in April 1978. At the time of this last collapse there was just a single vehicle on the bridge. The driver had the presence of mind to accelerate rapidly and got across to the other side, the bridge going down behind him. The cause of the collapse seems to have been a shift in the main channel of the river and subsequent shifting of sand and gravel on the river bed around the foundations of the bridge.

 Flood markers on the bridge.
Flood markers on Pont Wilson, Tours.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

It was listed as an historic monument in 1928, but owing to the many repairs it doesn't retain much of the original 18th century bridge. Only a single arch, the seventh one, in the middle, is original.

 Distances from Tours to other towns along the River Loire.
Distances from Tours to other towns along the River Loire.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The bridge spans the River Loire and was named after the US President Woodrow Wilson at the end of the First World War. It is made up of fifteen arches and is the oldest bridge in Tours (replacing an 11th century bridge slightly upstream).

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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Thursday, 23 April 2020

How Some of Our Colleagues Are Managing in the Lockdown


I emailed various friends of ours who run businesses and asked how they were coping in the lockdown. Were they winners or losers? What had changed in their typical day? Here is what they said:

Laetitia Rey, Independent Guide (specialising in wine tourism)
As a freelancer she was already set up and at ease with communications software and working remotely. But at this time of year she would normally be out with clients rather than working at the computer. Her first cancellations came in two weeks before the lockdown started. A couple of days after the US restricted travel from Europe all of her April and May bookings had cancelled. Very quickly she realised she needed to keep in touch with her network of travel agents so that they didn't forget her. She observes that travellers are choosing to cancel, not postpone. They may come later, but not this year. She is filling her time by emailing, video conference calling, working on new themed tours and learning new subjects that are not work related, but she's got time to do it now. The problem is that all of this is unpaid, and we've just come through the winter low season, so some extra revenue would have been welcome.

Laetitia pouring wine in a tasting for our clients.
Laetitia Rey, freelance wine guide.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

She is aware of the government aid on offer, but is one of the unfortunate people who falls through the cracks. Her business was only a year old in 2019, so her figures are not that great. This year she earned double what she did last March, and so is not eligible for the government aid for March. Like us, she wishes one could claim based on lost earnings (€7000 so far for her) rather than the difference between this year and last years figures. Like us, she hopes that the aid funds will be available at least until the end of the year, as tourism will take at least that long to recover. She is pragmatic about the situation though, acknowledging that it will be impossible to create criteria for an aid package such that no one falls through the cracks.


Christophe Davault, wine producer, Domaine de la Chaise
In terms of vineyard schedule, he is working as normal. He has to if he wants to produce good wine. The only thing that has changed is that he respecting the public health rules, not making any unnecessary trips and maintaining social distance.

 Christophe, right, consulting with his oenologist.
Christophe Davault, right, winemaker, consulting with his oenologist.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Commercially, March was normal. He sent a lot of wine for export like a good normal month. He is now worried about payment for these sales, normally on terms of 90 days. He fears an economic crisis in some countries and difficult regulations. All the restaurants he used to work with are of course closed and it's going to be very hard for them. The month of April seems to be starting to see a drop in sales, with so far very few orders. He will know more at the end of the month.


Nicole Crawford, gardener
Nicole has school aged children, so one of the main changes for her was that the children were at home. But she generally works at empty properties anyway, so her work continued more or less as normal, albeit with extra paperwork.

 Nicole, right, and her husband Alex working on the hedge round our potager.
Alex and Nicole Crawford, gardeners, working on a client's property.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Normally by now she would be handing over gardens to second homeowners who arrive for the summer, so she is actually busier than normal. But because none of the owners are here it means she can schedule work more efficiently. It's a bit tricky judging just how much work to do, without knowing when owners will return to take over. The gardens don't need to be presented at their peak, but they do need to be maintained and need regular work. Not all gardens are set up for the owners to be absent in the summer and if it is dry there is a dilemma about whether to water them or not in the owners absence. She is conscious of needing to manage owners expectations on the one hand, and of the value of her regularly visiting the property to give the impression of occupancy on the other.


Les Jardins Vergers de la Petite Rabaudière
Nothing has really changed for this organic market garden -- only the need to set up barriers in the shop and for customers to respect the social distancing rules. Everyone needs to be a bit more patient while waiting to be served. Despite the fact that only about 60% of customers properly respect the social distancing rules (but half the people who get too close are wearing masks, so it could be worse) they have no complaints about the levels of sales. They are selling lots of other organic products, mostly local, as well as their own vegetables, and have become a real little grocery shop.

Sylvain Bardin, centre, conducts a guided tour of his organic market garden.
Sylvain Bardin conducting a guided visit to his organic market garden.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.


Alexandra Boyd-Mercier, La Maison Jules, a luxury B&B in Tours
She has had no clients since 14 March, and there will be none in April and probably none in May. Bookings are reduced for June, July and August. She only has one third of normal revenue booked until August. She is doing nothing to try to secure bookings for the next three months as most of her clients are foreign tourists. She has emailed a few former clients that she stays in touch with. She is taking the time off to spend more time with the kids and home schooling two teenagers is time consuming!

The view from the front of Alexandra's B&B.
View of the Cathedral from rue Jules Simon, Tours.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.


Jean-Luc Bilien, Fromagerie Moreau, goats cheese producer
Jean-Luc observes that it's hard for everyone. His sales are slow, with Rungis, the big important Paris fresh market being 90% down on normal.  Fortunately the forty-two specialist cheese shops in Paris that he supplies are selling a bit. He has a lot of milk and a lot of cheeses in stock! He knows he has to find other sales channels.

 Jean-Luc shows off his special creamy Christmas cheese.
Jean-Luc Bilien, goats cheese producer. Loir et Cher. France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Wine Delivery


About ten days ago I got an email, forwarded by a friend. The original email was from Xavier Fortin, the sommelier at our local Michelin starred restaurant. He also runs his own commercial wine cellar, La Cave de Petit Pressigny, and periodically has events in his troglodyte cave to sell selected wines. The last one I went to was to taste champagne. Under the lockdown these events obviously can't happen, so he was emailing with a selection of wines and offering to deliver them.

Xavier Fortin, beaming in his habitual manner.
Xavier Fortin, sommelier, delivering wine to a private address during the Covid19 lockdown.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The most expensive was €18 a bottle, the least expensive €9, and all were ready to drink now according to his note. Some were from producers that in normal times I could visit for myself by driving an hour or so. Others were from further afield. There were three whites, a rosé, a sparkling and four reds. I decided to order a mixed box of six.

I already had some of the sparkling, as I had visited the producer last year. I decided on a white from Touraine Oisly, and two reds -- a Bordeaux and a vin de France from the Bourgueil area, two bottles of each. I spent €71.

My box of wine.
Selection of French wines.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Xavier arrived promptly last Tuesday morning when he said he would and we exchanged greetings through our back door. It was a bit weird, but we chatted a bit about business (the restaurant gets very few American customers, but lots of Brits, whereas we are the reverse -- I suspect the restaurant is in a better position than we are to recover after the lockdown is over). Xavier left the box of wine on the doorstep and I paid for it by bank transfer. Brilliant. Now all I need is friends who are allowed to come over and join me for a drink.

If you live locally and want to be on Xavier's mailing list so you can be alerted to any wine sales or events let me know and I will give you his email address so you can contact him.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

What Comes Out of the Firewood


I was recently in a Facebook discussion with someone living near Stockholm about some beetles that she had appear in the house. They were longhorns so we are fairly sure they have emerged out of her firewood which has been brought into the house. This happens to us here in the Loire Valley too, so I thought I'd write a blog post about the species we've met as a result of having a wood stove.

Lesser Capricorn Cerambyx scopoli (Fr. Petite capricorne)
A very rugged black beetle with a textured look. Ponderous and immensely strong they are not too fussy about their host tree. The larvae will bury themselves in the living heartwood of mature broadleaf deciduous trees that are a bit isolated and get a lot of sun. If you frighten them the adults will squeak at you in protest.

Lesser Capricorn beetle Cerambyx scopoli.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.


Welsh Oak Longhorn Beetle Pyrrhidium sanguineum (Fr. Callidie sanguine)
This is the most common firewood emergeant, the smallest, but the most visible. The red colouration is not created by the pigmentation in the wing cases, but is more like a red gold dusting of scales and hairs that can be rubbed off to reveal a glossy black beetle beneath.

Welsh Oak Longhorn Beetle Pyrrhidium sanguineum.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.


Plagionotus arcuatus (Fr. Clyte arqué)
Such a good wasp mimic it's easy to be fooled, but it is actually a type of longhorn beetle, readily identifiable by the bow shaped yellow markings. The beetles can be anything from 8 to 20 mm in length. It is lustrous black with bright yellow spots and stripes. The legs and antennae are orangey brown. They like to hang out in the sunshine on dead oak and beech. Their colouring makes them look like wasps, but to add to the effect in life they move like Vespula spp wasps. A charming and pretty beetle.

Plagionotus arcuatus, a longhorn beetle.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.


 Spotted Longicorn Chlorophorus glabromaculatus (Fr. Clyte poilu)
 A black beetle that is covered in golden down, except for a series of spots on the wing cases and thorax. Adults eat pollen and can be found in gardens. The larvae like dry dead wood, especially oak, but sometimes other deciduous trees.

Spotted Longhorn Chlorophorus glabromaculatus.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.


Sometimes the beetle doesn't get a chance to emerge. The last photo shows a larva of a longhorn beetle Cerambycidae in our oak firewood. I'm told it is likely to be Leptura sp or Clytus sp, or a closely related genus. Based on that and the size of the larva, I think it could be either Plagionotus arcuatus (Fr. Clyte arqué) or Spotted Longicorn Chlorophorus glabromaculatus (Fr. Clyte poilu).

Longhorn beetle larva.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Monday, 20 April 2020

Rhubarb Tart


Cooked and photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Simon and I both love rhubarb. Mostly I cook it in crumble, but every now and then, a tart is nice.

Prepared and photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Ingredients
Ready made sweet pastry
About 12 sticks of rhubarb, washed and trimmed
2 eggs
100g ground almonds
250g cream
4 tbsp raw sugar
¼ tsp ground cardamon

Method
  1. Heat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Cut the rhubarb into 1.5cm pieces and spread out on a baking tray.
  3. Roast in the oven for 10 minutes.
  4. Beat the eggs, cream, 2 tbsp sugar and the cardomon together.
  5. Line a 24 cm diameter metal non-stick tart tin with the pastry.
  6. Sprinkle the almond powder evenly over the pastry base, then spread the rhubarb evenly in the pastry case.
  7. Gently pour over the cream mixture.
  8. Sprinkle the remaining sugar over the top of the tart.
  9. Bake for 25 minutes.
  10. Serves 8.
Cooked and photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

I get the rhubarb from the local organic market garden, Les Jardins Vergers de la Petite Rabaudière. They come to the market in Preuilly on Thursday mornings, and sell directly from the farm shop on Monday evenings.

Cooked and photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The eggs and cream are delivered to my door by local dairy farm Lait Grand Cru.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Australians in France


The Australian Embassy in France estimates that there are around five and a half thousand Australians living permanently in France. For most of them, the only contact they will have with the Embassy is every few years when they have to turn up to collect a new passport. And like me they might follow the Embassy on Facebook, just in case some important announcement has been made.

The current Ambassador, Brendan Berne, is popular and regularly appears on social media. He's been in post since July 2017 and since the Covid-19 lockdown started has been doing a short video to Australians in France once a week from his living room (admitting to having cut his own hair in one of them). The Embassy has been assisting those Australians who need or wish to get home from France to do so. So far two hundred thousand Australians have made it, via ever dwindling commercial flights.

Australian Embassy in Paris and Eiffel Tower. France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The Embassy is located in a modernist building designed by Harry Seidler in the 1970s, on the site of a former railway yard near the Seine in the 15eme arrondissement of Paris. To get there, the easiest way is Metro line 6 to Bir Hakim, then follow the signs to the Eiffel Tower.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Basque Country Linen


Early in the 20th century a weaving tradition was well established in the Basque country and by the 1920s the industry was booming, with several well known brands well established in fashionable Paris, and sold all over the world. The fabrics are hard wearing, colourful and practical (one company boasts that their tablecloths will last 100 years) but in the 1970s the French weaving industry cannot compete in a world market and most of the weaving workshops closed or drastically reduced in size and output.

The Lartigue boutique in Saint Jean de Luz.
Lartigue boutique, Saint Jean de Luz. Pyrenees-Atlantiques. France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The fabric gets its distinctive Basque look from the traditional striped 'cloaks' worn by cattle in the area to protect them from the sun and biting flies. In time tablecloths, bed sheets and tea towels in similar designs began appearing in comfortable middle class households. Once the Empress Eugenie started holidaying in Biarritz and buying local fabric they became established interior and garden decor.

Traditionally the Basque linens were white, red, indigo and green, but today they come in a myriad of colours. The other major change in contemporary times is the switch from linen to cotton fibre. As in Ireland, flax is no longer grown in the area, but in the Basque country the weavers chose to switch to weaving imported cotton rather than importing flax to make linen cloth. Nowadays the term linen refers to the function of the woven products, not the fibre they are made from.

The most well known of the Basque Country Linen weaving companies is Lartigue who are designated a 'living heritage' business. You can visit their workshops and they have boutiques and outlet shops in several places, including at the factory in Ascain.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Friday, 17 April 2020

The So-called Hand of Fatima Door Knocker


France is home to a remarkable range of 19th century door knockers. One of the most popular designs is often referred to as 'the hand of Fatima' and supposedly derives from ancient Islamic symbolism. Personally I think the link is fairly hazy, although there probably is a vague connection by the romantically inclined.

So-called 'Hand of Fatima' door knocker.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The original 'hand of Fatima' was a palm shaped amulet used to ward off the evil eye. It is a completely stylised open right hand, not a realistic hand, decoratively patterned and often containing within it a stylised eye, representing the conscience. The hand can represent femininity, fertility, strength and/or good luck. Five, as in the number of fingers, is considered a magic number in Middle Eastern and North African traditions. It is still widely used in the Middle East and North Africa.

There is a similar symbol known as the 'hand of Miriam' in Jewish tradition, although to North African Jews it is simply referred to as 'hamsa', the Arabic for five, and this is the name it goes by all over the Middle East and North Africa now. The symbolic use of a woman's hand probably dates back to ancient Babylonia and any culture that indulged in female goddesses. The European versions tend to include references to fertility, with the hand holding a piece of fruit.  In some cultures the hand is there to ward off the evil eye or to bring good luck. There is a connection to healers and carers in some places, with the fruit representing botanical pharmaceutical knowledge and the story of Fatima includes how she cared for her father Mohammed.

So-called 'Hand of Fatima' door knocker.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Surely a coincidence, but the Hamsa is associated with an Israeli saying that is the equivalent of the English 'knock on wood'.

It's doubtful that the artisans who cast these door knockers and the householders who bought them were really aware of the tangled web of symbolism that can be attributed to them. I have always found them rather creepy, and they are referred to as 'the dead hand' in our house. I think 19th century homeowners were potentially attracted to the rather occult feel of these cold disembodied hands.

I have read one theory that the hand represents Eris, who threw an apple into the wedding festivities of Peleus and Thetis in Greek mythology. There was an argument over which of the Goddesses present was the most beautiful, that set off a chain of events leading to the Trojan War. Since Eris is the Goddess of Discord, I find this explanation difficult to swallow.

Then there is the theory that the hand signifies welcome, and the ring on the finger is connecting a vein that runs from there to the heart, symbolising love the same way wedding rings do. However, the hand is positioned with the palm hidden, not open and beckoning in welcome. There is no explanation for the fruit or ball in this version of the symbolism, and the ring wanders from finger to finger depending on the particular example you are looking at (and sometimes isn't there at all).


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Thursday, 16 April 2020

A Year After the Fire


One year after the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris, a huge crane hangs above a cathedral still wrapped in scaffolding like a spider's web. Just now it serves as a symbol of the Covid-19 lockdown -- silent, empty, at risk and helpless as events unfold around it.

Notre-Dame, a Gothic jewel, missing its spire, with no remaining original structural carpentry and a fragile vault, sits sleeping. The fire touched people all over the world, and the building remains in need of emergency work according to the team that watches over it, even if it is very unlikely to collapse. With another emergency, the Covid-19 crisis, Japanese, Chinese and American tourists have stopped coming to take selfies from the safety perimeter.

Notre-Dame at night, before the fire.
Notre-Dame de Paris, at night, before the fire. Paris. France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The construction site had been delayed during the summer by measures against lead contamination. Then in the autumn and winter, bad weather, especially high winds, greatly disrupted work. As spring loomed, the dismantling of 10,000 bent scaffolding tubes, some of them welded together by the fire, was imminent. And then the Covid-19 lockdown plunged the construction site into torpor.

In addition to the giant crane, a steel girder belt had been erected. A second light scaffolding was erected on either side of the old one. Rope workers, called "squirrels", were ready to come down and cut up the old scaffolding into pieces. This delicate four-month operation was interrupted, but General Jean-Louis Georgelin, who presides over the Etablissement public de Notre-Dame, is examining the possibility of having work partially, progressively and in a targeted manner resumed.


Notre-Dame de Paris, 4 months after the fire. Paris. France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

For example, it should be relatively easy for the rope workers to stay the appropriate distance apart.
A study is being conducted in close consultation with the project management, the restoration companies and all the heritage protection stakeholders.

Before mid-March, the site mobilized between 60 and 70 workers, mostly coming from a handful of major companies (Europe Echafaudage, Le Bras, Jarnias, Pierre Noel) plus smaller numbers from a myriad of independent specialists. Although robots have cleared the nave, the debris still has to be removed above the huge vault. These operations will in principle be completed in the summer, while the dismantling and cleaning of the great organ will be quietly carried out between now and 2024.

Sensors are installed everywhere to identify the slightest possible movement (although none is being detected, thankfully). Beyond the emergency work, the real work of restoration is scheduled to start in 2021.

A view of Notre-Dame taken 4 months after the fire, 
but from this angle you would not realise anything was wrong.
View of Notre-Dame de Paris, 4 months after the fire. Paris. France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Chief architect Philippe Villeneuve is still carrying out the restoration studies, which will inform and direct the work. Consolidation of the vaults may still be necessary and they plan to clean out two chapels as a test. It's hoped this part of the project will be done by the autumn.

The options for how to approach the next steps will be submitted to the National Heritage and Architecture Commission. In addition, the cathedral will have to be thoroughly cleaned throughout and a final protective tent erected.

At the moment they are working on the supposition that the lockdown will last about two months, and they are confident they will be able to absorb that over the total period of 68 months to still have the building finished in five years.

 Notre-Dame, 4 months after the fire, with the parvis (forecourt) barricaded off, 
to create a work depot, and to keep the public out.
Notre-Dame de Paris, 4 months after the fire. Paris. France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

There is no way to predict the final outcome of the restoration at this point. There are opposing views dividing supporters of this national and religious symbol that need to be resolved: Do we rebuild Viollet-Le-Duc's spire exactly as it was; or design a "contemporary architectural gesture", as Emmanuel Macron wishes? What will the UNESCO view be?

Some have proposed a glass spire, or to create an organic park and garden on the roof, or even a panoramic terrace for tourists...

The architect Philippe Villeneuve makes the case for fidelity to the brilliantly retouched Gothic style of Viollet-le-Duc (after all, there is a complete set of plans still extant for this). Villeneuve feels that an identical reconstruction would be more likely to meet the deadlines, and it is not unexpectedly the option which the majority of French people favour. Personally I think going down this route would be a shame, and a violation of the Convention on the Conservation of Historic Monuments. Viollet-le-Duc had his day. Let a contemporary architect shine now (and don't embarrass everyone by making a copy of a 19th century interpretation of what a medieval spire would have looked like -- who is going to respect that?).

General Georgelin, former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, appointed by Emmanuel Macron, took over to lead the project at the end of 2019. He is a decisive man with a firm hand, who will have to arbitrate between the many experts, commissions and trades involved.

The construction site has become more expensive due to unforeseen circumstances - lead first of all - and longer delivery times. 902 million in donations and pledges were made, ranging from a few dollars from private individuals from all over the world to huge gifts from patrons.

There are some who say it is too much of a windfall, but the General now believes that all the money will be needed. He has expressed his deep gratitude to the 340 000 donors.

After the controversy of the first few months, the concern about lead contamination seems to have largely subsided.

The investigation by three examining magistrates into the fire, which probably originated from malfunctions and negligence, is still unknown (my money is on an electrical fault in the clock under the spire, which was adapted in 2012). There is still a question mark over whether the companies involved in this case and the State will be held liable, with the subsequent insurance implications.

Also still not settled is whether an international architects' competition as envisaged by the government will take place. And how will the French public be "widely consulted"? There are still a lot of unknowns and questions surrounding the project.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

How Tongues Help Talking (2017)


Several years ago I met a French scientist on a botanical outing and we've stayed in touch despite the fact that she no longer lives in France. She emailed me to offer to help with a network of interpreters I've set up to help with medical tele-consultations during the Covid-19 crisis, in situations where either the patient or the doctor does not feel comfortable speaking in a second language. Marie speaks French, English and Spanish fluently, and probably a bit of Finnish too, as her husband and in-laws are Finnish. Nowadays with iphones that will easily do three way phone calls and software such as whats app, you do not need to be in the same country to participate in this sort of project.

I thought I would re-post my report of the botanical outing where we met, from May 2017.

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 Tongue Orchid habitat.
Tongue orchid Serapias lingua habitat.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

On Sunday 14 May Marc Fleury led a botany outing to see the last remaining colony of Tongue Orchid Serapias lingua (Fr. Sérapias à languette)  in Indre et Loire. The site is hidden away, well off the main road, and was once used as a source of kaolin for porcelin making. It is wet in the winter and dry in the summer, covered in rough grassy open areas and patches of scrub. Perfect for not just Tongue Orchids, but Loose-flowered Orchid Anacamptis laxiflora (Fr. Orchis à fleurs lâches) and Green-winged Orchid Anacamptis morio (Fr. Orchis bouffon). Apparently there are Autumn Lady's-tresses Spiranthes spiralis (Fr. Spiranthe d'automne) too, later in the season.

 Tongue Orchids don't stand out much, being pale in colour and no higher than the grass they are growing through.
Tongue Orchid Serapias lingua in wet grassland.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

It is an extensive colony of Tongue Orchids, with hundreds of plants over, I would guess, about a hectare. It's quite difficult to avoid standing on a few plants, and the tracks through the site were quite boggy.

 Green-winged Orchid, so named because the distinctive stripes on the lateral sepals are sometimes green.
Green-winged Orchid Anacamptis morio.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Tongue Orchids are one of the few orchid species that produces more than one bulb each year, so you often get multiple flower spikes very close together. They have evolved to have a large 'tongue' or labellum as their bottom petal. This serves as a landing pad for insects. The flowers act as a cosy resting place and insects often spend the night tucked up in them. When they emerge, with any luck, they have an orchid pollenia stuck to their back and will transport it to the next plant for cross-fertilisation.

The flower colour can be quite variable, so here is a rather dark tongued specimen.
A dark morph of Tongue Orchid Serapias lingua.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

The former kaolin pit, now filled with water and very deep. It is L-shaped and bends away to the left beyond the edges of the photo.
Abandoned kaolin pit.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Four-spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata (Fr. Libellule à quartre taches), staking its claim to one end of the kaolin pit.
Four-spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.

Ragged Robin Lychnis flos-cuculi (Fr. Silène fleur de coucou), another lover of wet grasslands.
Ragged Robin Lychnis flos-cuculi.  Indre et Loire, France. Photographed by Susan Walter. Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.


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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos.