Monday, 28 February 2011

Luck and an experiment

 N/NW towards St Flovier
Last day of February; we have some sun and it's pretty cold. There's quite a nasty N wind coming over Eric's field. When I had a wander round earlier it made my eyes water. I took a couple of photos simply because the sun was out and it wasn't grey any more!

looking SE/S towards Limeray

As always, taking decent wildlife photos presents a real challenge and it's one both of us fail to meet most of the time! It requires endless patience and a real dose of luck--being in the right place at the right time with your camera. We have been lucky enough to have been in the right place at the right time but mostly sans camera. Photos of flowers and plants is fine; buildings even better. Photos of deer which arrive in poor light and are at least 50 - 75m away = much much less fine. Last time we mentioned chevreuil we used a stock photo so we thought it was about time we offered some proof! 

chevreuil v early one morning
We've been seeing them quite regularly. There's always 3, two hinds and a juvenile buck. They nibble our grass as they amble past. One of the 3 stopped long enough early one morning late last week for Niall to go and find the camera and grab a fast photo. Apologies for the poor quality--we've tidied it up as best we could.

Our feeder remains constantly busy; the blue tits squabble with the single willow tit. The great tits muscle out the blue tits until they come back mob-handed.  On a little rise we've strewn seed and this is the domain of the chaff and green finches. We've had a visit from a solitary gold finch but he didn't want his photo taken alas.

great tits, blue tits and 1 greenfinch
However, there is one greenfinch who likes coming to the feeder and despite the fact that he's a bit hopeless at hanging on he persists. So in order to to try and get a photo of him I untertook at bit of an experiment. I have a very nice pair of Minolta Activa 10 x 25 binoculars. So holding the binoculars in one hand and the camera in the other I brought the camera right up to one of the lenses and pointed both at the feeder. It took a fair bit of patience and a bit of trial and error. The end result may not be brilliant but it did work after a fashion... You can see the greenfinch on the right waiting to get onto the feeder. 

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Priory & pigeonnier

From our house the most direct, but not the fastest, route to Tours is the D50 via Le Petit Pressigny, Ligueil, Menthelan and Veigné. If you take this route you pass through Le Louroux.
The village has a wonderful lake and a priory. We used this route recently and as we weren't in a hurry we re-visited the priory--we'd seen it many years ago. The lake was, once upon a time, the priory's stewpond:- making sure the monks had a plentiful supply of fish to eat all year round.  
Le Louroux: pigeonnier, calvaire and priory
Although it is an historic monument you can just wander in. It is in the process of being restored with the support of EU funding. There wasn't a soul about. 

15th cent: lodging on left, monk's dortoir/grange on right
Le Louroux is among the 101 priories founded in the 11th century which were dependent on the Abbey of Marmoutier; 10 of which were located in England. Priories like Le Louroux answered to an Abbey. Marmoutier iself dates from the time of St Martin [4th century] and is probably the most famous abbey in Touraine. In the early 13th century one of the Abbots of Marmoutier re-organised the lands of Le Louroux so that it became a model of agricultural exploitation.

medieval bus shelter & phone box
 The original gatehouse to the priory had rounded towers on each side. The one on the right is now what must be the most historic bus shelter and public telephone box in the departement! The beams inside are lovely.

The monk's dortoir was part of a huge 15th century grange which divides the courtyard in two. They have restored the dormers and some of the other windows sport renovated stonework. It has also been beautifully re-roofed. We were able to take a peek through one of the restored windows on the lower level  [not glazed or shuttered] to see the supports which have been put in to hold up the lathe and plaster dortoir floor. In the photo you can just see the metal beam underneath the original wooden cross beam both of which are now re-enforced by the new A shaped support.

dortoir floor supports
The priory church is a bit of a mix. We couldn't get in but from the outside it's clear the nave and bell tower are 12th - 13th century. The bell tower has some very nice romanesque arches.


Just outside the walls of the priory precinct is a large pigeonnier which, like the stewpond would help make sure the monks had enough to eat. It certainly looks big enough to have housed over 500 birds. We've written about pigeonniers before. Size gave an indication of the wealth of an estate.

Calvaire, detail
In the cemetary opposite there's a 15th century calvaire. A calvaire is different from a croix [cross] in that it includes more figures than just the crucified Christ. The calvaire at Louroux has Mary on the left and St John on the right. There's also a figure on the reverse, but it is too worn for us to make out who it might be. A few years ago we visited Britanny and the ones we saw there were amazing; very elaborate with many figures.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Waiting on sunshine

The weather has been grey, by turns misty and rainy. Definitely not the kind of weather that makes you think of doing outdoor things. Although it is not cold; 13C today. Hopefully we'll get some drier weather soon as our grass needs cutting but it is just too squelchy to run the tractor mower.
buds just waiting for some sun
Our poor neighbours, down for the half term week from Paris were telling us that often in previous years they have been able to sit outside --with a good fleece-- for lunch. Not this year. Their 3 yr old doesn't seem to mind too much--she's turned into a little mudlark.

small but beautiful
  As this is our 1st year here we have been doing regular rounds to see what's coming up plant wise and today we found lots of lovely little dog violets. This in addition to our drifts of snowdrops, numerous clumps of daffs and 3 weedy crocuses. We've also spotted tulips but whether they will bear flowers remains to be seen. We're just as likely to get foliage.

Now all we need is some sunshire.
almost ....

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Threads of gold

Back in January we had lunch at l'Image in Preuilly. You know how it is; you've done some shopping and other bits and pieces in the morning and you just happen to be passing one of those local little restaurants which offers a set menu for lunch. You look at your watch and 'quel surprise' it is lunch time!  We had a lovely lunch; said hello to monsieur Pinkosz--the TV/satellite installer, his wife and team who arrived just after us and who wished us 'bon continuation'. 

As we were leaving Niall picked up a leaflet from the display. It was about saffron. So he hummed the refrain "I'm just mad about Saffron" from the '60s Donovan song 'Mellow Yellow'. It stayed lodged in both our brains for the rest of that day!

Anyway, back to saffron. The leaflet announced that Preuilly sur Claise hosts two saffron festivals. One on the third Saturday in February to celebrate the spice, the other on the 1st Saturday in July to sell the Crocus sativus corms--the plant which produces the saffron filaments. 

Yesterday was the 3rd Saturday so off we went to the Saffron Fair. I have, on a very rare occasion, cooked with saffron and know it is commercially cultivated in Spain but didn't know it is grown around here. 
  removing the saffron threads  photo: Les Safraniers de Touraine
Originally from Asia, Saffron has been used in cooking and dyeing in Europe since the Romans. After the fall of the Empire saffron cultivation vanished in Europe until the rise of Moorish civilsations in Spain, Italy and France. Later in the Middle Ages the best saffron was imported from the Middle East via Venetian and Genoese traders. Saffron was also greatly valued for its supposed medicinal properties. There was a huge demand during the Black Death [+/-1350 to 1370's]. 

The English word 'saffron' comes via Latin safranum from Old French safran. The source of the word can be traced back to either the Arabic for 'yellow': asfar; or Persian for 'having golden stigmas': zarparan

The whole harvesting process is done by hand. The flowers are picked, in autumn, by hand and then the the red-orange stigma and styles are carefully removed from the the rest of the flower; again by hand. This, and the fact that each corm only flowers once so it's cormlets need to be dug up split and replanted make it so incredibly expensive. You need between 120,000 and 150,000 flowers to produce 1 kg of saffron and that equates to 370 to 470 hours of manual labour! Thankfully a few filaments or strands are enough to flavour a dish (aboout 1/10 of a gram).

12th Saffron Fair, Preuilly sur Claise
 This year was the 12th Saffron Fair in Preuilly.   In the 1990's a local launched the revival of saffron growing and each year the event has become bigger. This year for the 1st time it was held in Preuilly's sports hall so that there would be enough space for the 16 saffron producers; as well as a few wine growers and producers of other things -- pottery, baskets, home-made soaps.

 There was a wide range of products made with saffron on sale as well as the little pots of the filaments. We saw producers of jams with saffron, saffron infused cordials and drinks but the most popular was pain d'epices [spice cake] with saffron.  

rapidly shrinking pain d'epices
We had a chat with one producer who came from Drache and tasted her pain d'epices with saffron, saffron and orange, and, saffron and chocolate. The saffron and orange combination won and we bought a pain d'epices with this combination. Although the producer assured us we could freezer it, we did tell her it was most unlikely that it would last much more than a few days--it was far too tasty! Yesterday afternoon we had a couple of slices with our tea and it was gorgeous! We'll have a slice again today, and I suspect our treat will be gone by tomorrow!  

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Stone & Glass treasures

Recently we went up to Montrésor, one of our favourite places. In fact when we were house hunting last year we looked at a house near Beaumont Village just up the road; but it wasn't quite right for us.

 lintel above south chapel door
Montrésor is lovely and proudly displays an  official sign which announces that it is one of the prettiest villages in France. It has a picture postcard castle perched above the village, an ancient halle (market) and cute streets and a fascinating church.

We were there for the church. Dedicated to St John the Baptist, it was built as a church cum mausoleum by Imbert de Batarnay to house the tombs of his family. Begun in 1522, Imbert never saw it finished dying in 1523. The church was finally completed in 1541.

Intruiging is the mix between medieval and Renaissance. The church is still clearly medieval with its gothic windows and arches but the decoration adoring it is most definitely Renaissance. You would never find cherubs and scallop shells in medieval carvings as one finds above the south chapel door. The south west door now used to enter the church also shows this mix of medieval and Renaissance in its carved roundels which depict scenes from the Nativity of Christ beginning with the Annunciation and ending with the flight into Egypt.
Flight into Egypt

A sunny day in early spring is one of the best times to look at stained glass as the angle of the sun is good for lighting the it.  Montrésor has some lovely 16th century glass which happily survived the Revolution.

Pilate's blue boots
 The east window is complete and shows the Passion of Christ. It is still medieval although the apex of each lancet is already very flattened, almost horizontal. The colours are jewel-like and we especially loved the contrast between the angel above the good thief on the left and the wee winged devil hovering above the bad thief on the right. The devil seems almost quivering with eagerness to drag the poor chap off to hell the minute he expires.  Pilate's snazzy blue boots and amazing lion throne are also impressive; as is the detail on his golden robe which is beautifully painted.
winged devil top right; good angel top left
As an additional bonus the church also has some original stalls, complete with misericords. These are little shelf-like supports attached under the seats so that, when the seats flipped up on standing, you could still rest your bottom while standing during a long service. At Montrésor quite number are plain but a few have carvings--there's a cute angel and a great skull.

lute player, south chapel vaulting
harpist, south chapel vaulting
If the misericords are medieval then the carved roundels on the doors are again clearly Renaissance as are the carvings of musicians which decorate the barrel vaulted ceiling of the south side chapel.

We had the church completely to ourselves so we spent a great time examining all its treasures and taking photos--quite a few of which we've used here. All in all a superb morning's 'entertainment' for 2 medievalists!
Renaissance decorative door roundel

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Here comes the sun

Two deer again v early this morning. They are deeply skittish -- understandably so, the hunting season doesn't officially end until the 28th of this month --and the light is too poor for our simple Exilim camera to take a picture. Antoinette has a dSLR Canon 500D EOS on her wish list but it may take a while..... they are not cheap!! Like many we initially pooh-poohed the digital cameras and carried on using our Canon EOS SLR but 6 years ago we caved in and went digital with a simple point & click. The little Exilim we have currently has one great advantage in that it can be easily put in a pocket which means you always have a camera with you to snap something interesting. 

Soon after the deer visit the sun came up and it looks to be a glorious day! Niall took these just after 8 am as the sun popped up over the woods to the east of us.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Feathered fine dining

In addtion to the peanuts and suet balls we hang in the Maple bush we also have one of those bird feeders which you can fill with seed and then hang up. This hangs outside one of the livingroom windows. The seed fills the little trough-like tray at the bottom and the birds pick up the seeds from there. As the seed gets eaten more seed trickles down. 


Or so you would have thought. The Blue Tits are fine, they fly in 1 or 2 at a time and perch happily, picking seeds and then flying off. But there is one larg-ish Great Tit who comes to this feeder and has absolutely NO table manners whatsoever. The seed is a standard mix which contains amongst others sunflower seeds. 
polite diners

It seems  'monsieur' is used to  fine dining--only sunflower seeds will do. Perhaps they are are the equivalent to 3 Michelin star dining in bird world!
As a result, when he flies in he roots about in the tray vigorously spraying seeds until he finds a sunflower one. He does this so energetically that the rejected seeds ping off the window glass!

We've had to sweep up after 'monsieur' several times now and the amount of seed he's sprayed on the ground under the feeder is impressive. In fact so much so that when we swept it up a couple of days ago there was more than enough to put in another container and pop it on another window sill.
'monsieur's' left overs

Based on the evidence this morning it needs doing again. We'll be able to sweep it up later if the rain stops and ground has dried out a bit.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Of beasties, feathers and flowers

daffodils coming soon!
When we first moved in we saw quite a bit of wildlife:  chevreuil, pine martens, red squirrels, foxes, pheasants and a bat who used our barn as a summer roost. Of course as winter set in we saw them all less and less; although the squirrels and the cock pheasant did continue to make appearances.

From November we've put out birdfood and as a result we've been visited by hordes of greedy blue, great and longtailed tits with a supporting cast of chaff and green finches. There's also greater spotted and green woodpeckers who drop in and blue jays; and once we saw a hawfinch. One bird we've not seen so much has been the wood pigeon; yet this morning there was a gaggle roosting in one of our oak trees. In Suffolk we were overrun by them. Yesterday I spent some time watching, through the binoculars, a buzzard in Eric's field. He'd sit for a bit looking round, hop and glide to another spot close by and again sit and look round. He repeated this over and over obviously quartering an area looking for food.

We have been wondering however how 'our' wildlife has fared during the hunting season. We have woods to the right and to the left of the house and between these 2, right on the border of our land with Eric's field is a wildlife 'highway'. They do shoot in both woods fairly regularly.

chevreuil    photo:
Happily it seems rather well! Yesterday while making an early morning cuppa Niall saw 3 chevreuil (roe deer) nibbling the odd blade in Erics field while they ambled from right to left and the day before, again in the early morning, he saw first a dog fox and then a vixen moving left to right. As he smugly remarked when handing me my tea: "foxes 2 French hunters 0". Hopefully we'll see the pine martens again soon too.

This morning it was the pheasants--Mr and Mrs circling each other on our drive. We tried to inform them that anywhere round here is not a 'des res'; what with its usual predators and our 2 cats as an added bonus.

1st forsythia flower
Meanwhile the plants too have been busy showing that winter might be over. The snowdrops and hazel catkins we posted about last month showed the way. Now the daffs and forsythia are joining in.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Pre spring in Paris

Since Sunday we've been having lovely weather. Granted Tuesday, when we went to Paris for the day wasn't so good; but Monday, yesterday and today have been glorious. Cold and frosty early in the morning, it soon warms up and the cats have a lovely time going mad on the roof chasing the lizards. We doubt they will catch one; they are just too quick! Having said that, Antoinette's mother used to be able to catch lizards with her bare hands; an Italian friend taught her.
Paris en grisaille

Paris was great, not too busy yet with tourists, although there are always some at any time of the year. The Dutch Embassy is not far from Gare Montparnasse where the TGV arrives, so we walked down. It was efficient and processed the paperwork for Antoinette's passport quickly after having taken her fingerprints--a new addition to the application process since last time. The passport will be ready in 2 weeks.

virtually tourist free Louvre

This meant that we had quite a bit of time before catching the TGV back. We decided to have a wander down towards Les Invalides and then over to the Louvre where we treated ourselves to lunch at Cafe Marly. As far as we were concerned it wasn't warm enough to sit outside -- although there were some hardy souls who did so. If the sun had broken through it would have been a different story. As you can see from the photos it didn't.

We were very impressed with the quality of the TGV train. It goes like the clappers and took exactly 1 hr from Tours to Gare Montparnasse. The level of comfort in 2nd class was also extremely good. Certainly way better than what we'd been used to when travelling into London from Suffolk. Considerably cheaper too! 

Back here the daffodils are exploding out of the grass and the primulas are not far behind and the ground is drying out nicely, which means the first cut of the grass is not far away.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Les chats et le chateau

imminent be-kittenings
Hurrah!! This afternoon the skies cleared and we were treated to blue sky and sun. It started around lunch time--little bits of blue came out between the clouds as we drove in to Preuilly to do some quick shopping before everything closed. 

Parking opposite the vet we saw these 2 cats; obviously 'energised' by approaching spring. We enjoyed the irony of where they were eying each other up; though the thought occurred that they could both do with a respective op as, sadly, there are far too many un-wanted kittens around.

chateau La Guerche
We decided not to go straight home but to make a little detour and check out La Guerche. We knew there was a 15th century chateau but hadn't done any more finding out about it. 
chapel at La Guerche
We are aware however, that most medieval castles in this area were, more or less, on the front line between Plantagenet (English kings) and Capetien (French kings) power struggles. Located on the banks of the river Creuse it obviously held a position of strategic importance. A notice informed us that it was closed and would re-open to the public on 27 June 2011. We look forward to visiting it in the summer! And we will blog about it in detail then. The village also had an interesting church as well as wee chapel on the right just before arriving at the square in front of the marie.

Shadow 'guarding' the front door
When we got home we were greeted by basking cats. In fact on the south side of the house it was really quite warm. So much so that after getting a photograph of our camera shy Shadow, we lingered outside to watch the cats.

Shadow had strolled along the house towards the grange when he stopped, pricked his ears and launched himself at the honysuckle under one of the windows. He wasn't successful but we did find out what had caught his attention ....lizards!

cat pounce

The warm sun had brought them out--this one on the left was just peeping over the top of one of the shutters. Standing still we watched a few more brave enough to venture out. They were obviously enjoying their first 'bask' of the year.  Perhaps spring really is on its way :-)

Friday, 4 February 2011

Grisaille and paperwork

'Grisaille' is a term which is familiar to us from working on medieval stained glass--of which there is plenty in York. The famous '5 Sisters' window in York Minster's North Transept is an outstanding example of this type of glass. Created in 1260, it is made up of 5 very large lancets. The glass used in the groundwork is grey-ish white; hence the term 'Grisaille'.

detail of the 5 Sisiters Window;  copyright York Minster
 It comes of course from the French word for greyness--which is exactly the weather we are having at the moment. Everything seems blanketed by a layer; sometimes thicker, sometimes thinner of grey cloud. Even at its thinnest the sun can't quite break through. Earlier in the week we also had some mist or low level fog as an added 'treat'. It seems it is all to do with high pressure systems which sit over the centre of France where we are. The only positive is for the most part it doesn't rain. If it did the Scots word 'driech', which beautifully describes the grey lowering skies which pour down a steady drenching rain would fit the bill. 

The grey weather seemed an appropriate time to do some admin. Part of the admin meant filling in census forms. In France they take a census every year selecting a different sample of the population each time and this year we are part of the sample. In the UK it is done once every 10 years, but then everyone takes part. Antoinette also needs to renew her passport--so more forms and photos. 

February, Les Tres Riches Heures de Duc du Berry
On Wednesday we dropped in at the Mairie to hand in our census forms and passport photos of an appropriate size were taken yesterday, Thursday:--every country's photo requirements are different as we know!! The UK measurements are different to the US ones, and both are different yet again to the Dutch ones and the French ones are again different; so we went to a photographer in Loches armed with detailed information as to exactly what The Netherlands requires. Next Tuesday sees us off to Paris for the passport--you have to apply in person.

Les Tres Riches Heures du duc du Berry are a marvellous contrast to grisaille. Each illumination in this fantastic book of hours (daily devotions) created in the early 15th century by the brothers Limbourg is a riot of colour and gold leaf.  They are housed in the Musee de Conde, Chateau de Chantilly north of Paris. The blue is just amazing (lapis lazuli). Just wish our skies were that colour!