Friday, 24 June 2016

Sand Martins



The last time we were at Clos Roussely, a winery we use at Angé in the Cher Valley, I was delighted to see that there were Sand Martin Riparia riparia nesting in the drain pipes which project out of the retaining wall that forms the front part of the cellar.


Sand Martins are kind of the forgotten hirundine. They are not so dependent on man as Barn Swallows, House Martins and Swifts for nesting spaces and so rarely interact with people so closely. In fact, I've never before seen Sand Martins nesting in a manmade structure that wasn't purpose built for them.


The birds are small and lively, coloured ash grey brown and pure white, rather smart in their own understated way. Like their cousins they feed on insects caught on the wing and because they normally nest in river banks and the sides of gravel pits, they are normally seen zipping about over the rivers here.


The species is known as Bank Swallow in the Americas, Collared Sand Martin in South Asia and Hirondelle de rivage in France. Like the other hirondines it is migratory, but it occurs very widely around the world, spending its summers breeding in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, northern Asia and North America, and wintering in eastern and southern Africa, South America and South Asia. Although their population has declined markedly, they are not considered rare or endangered.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Secret Snail Business



The other day I was botanising on a site that not only has fantastic orchids and other plants associated with warm limestone slopes, but also has a considerable population of Roman Snail Helix pomatia (Fr. Escargot de Bourgogne or gros blanc). Surprisingly many of the snails were out on the open chalk ground in the middle of quite a hot day (one of the few we've had this year...). What were they doing? One couple appeared to be preparing to mate, but most of the snails were on their own, and most of them, although large, were sub-adult. Were they collecting calcium for shell building (maybe the epiphragm used to seal them in the shell for estivation)? If so, why did they have to do it out in the open, which seems a bit risky? If any readers have any ideas I'd be interested to hear them.

These two appear to be courting.

Escargots à la bourguignonne is a traditional French dish based on Helix pomatia served at the Christmas eve family dinner. Snails have been eaten by humans since the dawn of time and the Roman Snail is distributed across eastern and central France. About 30 000 tonnes of snails are consumed in France annually, of which only about a thousand tonnes are farmed in France.

The term Escargot de bourgogne is a protected name, and only Roman Snails may be used in a dish referred to as Escargot de bourgogne. The species has been protected in France since 1979 due to its declining population, and collecting and selling them is regulated. Like so many wild creatures, they are declining due to the intensification of agriculture, modern drainage and habitat loss. Collecting them during the spring breeding period (1 April to 30 June) is forbidden. Collecting and selling them between 1 July and 31 March is allowed, so long as the shell has reached a diameter of 3 cm or more. A mature snail has a white reflexed rim and they take two to seven years to reach maturity. They can live for up to 35 years, and 10 to 20 year old snails in the wild would not be uncommon.

Wild collection is insufficient to supply the market and is mainly just for personal consumption. The snails served in restaurants have sometimes come from French snail farms or more likely, imported from Poland and other Eastern European countries in great quantities and at low cost. Commercial snails must be labelled with their country of origin and where they were processed. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Wildlife at the Gates



The Manoir du Moulin in central Onzain is a former wine co-operative that is now run as bed and breakfast accommodation and an events venue. The front gate is a fabulous representation of the Loire river and its wildlife, viticulture and mill heritage. I don't know who the sculptor is, but there is an artist who works in metal living in Onzain so it is likely to be his work. We have encountered other metal sculptures in nearby villages that are probably his too.


I somehow failed to take a photo of the giant yabby that is on the side gate. Dammit! However, you can see it if you go to my friend Rosemary's blog.


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Odd One Out


Garden villages don't get that way by themselves. Note the council guy and his little electric truck.







These photos were all taken on 10 June 2016, after days of torrential rain and floods. The scent was amazing. However, one of these photos does not belong with the others. Can you identify which one and why?

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Monday, 20 June 2016

Men in Black


Mondays in Milan / Les lundis en Lombardie

Portrait of Lorenzo Lenzi by Bronzino, 1527-28.

Bronzino is one of the most talented portraits of the Florentine court. The Lenzi family were second only to the Medicis and young Lorenzo was about 11 years old in this portrait. His maternal uncles were great patrons of the arts. He was the protege of a family friend and poet, and this portrait was probably done while he stayed with this older mentor, outside of the city to escape the plague. The book is poetry written by his mentor. His father died a year later and his uncles, brothers and mentor brought him up and paid for his education. As an adult he moved to Bologna, studied law and became a bishop. In his forties he is sent to France as an ambassador, probably partly because of his distant kinship to the French Queen Catherine de Medici. He was a witness to the Amboise Conspiracy and is closely associated with the Guise family and the Catholic faction. After spending a decade in France he dies in Italy aged 55. We know a lot about his life because much of his correspondence survives.

Portrait of a Gentleman with his Dog by Antonio Sacchiense, 1530.

I love the way this wealthy educated beardy bloke has had his portrait painted with his funny little pooch, presumably a much loved pet. I assume the artist, whose real name is Licinio, is related to the other artist of that name mentioned below, but I can't find out any details.

Portrait of a Youth by Lorenzo Lotto, 1524-27.

Lorenzo Lotto is a bit of an oddball. He's one of the earliest Mannerist painters so his subjects are often positioned in uncomfortable and unlikely looking poses, with elongated body parts. He was much in demand in his lifetime, but fell out of fashion in his seventies and has never really had a revival. Once he could no longer make a living as a painter he joined a monastery as a lay brother. He is one of the painters I was introduced to when I lived and worked in London, so I have a bit of a soft spot for him despite his awkwardness.

I can't read the label for this painting...

The reason I took this photo is because this man is absolutely typical of a 16th century gentleman -- dressed head to toe in deepest black, bearded and serious looking. I couldn't identify the artist or the subject unfortunately.

Portrait of a Woman Holding Her Husband's Portrait, by Bernardino Licinio, 1530.

I found this painting surprisingly moving. It is a portrait of a woman (who was once believed to be Isabella d'Este), holding a portrait of her husband. It is clear that the husband is absent, and I assume probably in fact dead. If the woman is Isabella d'Este then the man must be Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua. There are known portraits of both of them, and although I could believe the woman is Isabella, the man looks nothing like Francesco. What I find so touching about this painting is that these two people appear to be ordinary looking and in their prime. It is sad to think that this woman must shortly go back to her father's house and try to negotiate a second advantageous marriage. If she has children they will not be allowed to go with her but must remain with their father's family. No wonder she looks pensive. He looks vigorous and determined. It is hard to believe he never lives to achieve his ambitions.

The artist, Bernardino Licinio, came from Lombardy, but until relatively recently we knew nothing about him and many of his paintings were wrongly attributed. Vasari, who is the source of much background information about 16th century Italian artists, had mixed him up with another artist and so there was no entry in his 'Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects' for Licinio.

A quick twirl around any fine arts gallery with a collection from the 16th century will reveal that black was a very fashionable colour at that time. The reason is the dominance of the Spanish court, who chose to project an aura of sombre richness. Also black is an expensive dye that doesn't wear very well so to wear black was a demonstration of wealth. Even in the more licentious and frivolous French and Italian courts black was the choice of many, for portraits at least. And once the Protestant movement got underway, restrained and businesslike black was adopted by those who would reform the Church too. All of these portraits hang in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.

On Mondays our blog posts are dedicated to the northern Italian city of Milan. If you want to read more, click here.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Cockpit



Until recently this was my father's domain. It's the cockpit of his four wheel drive, and ideally it would have had a caravan attached. He and my mother would have been off to somewhere wild and natural for some birdwatching and camping with friends. Because they often went to very isolated places my father drove surrounded by comms – short wave radio, mobile phone, GPS, and CCTV to tell him what was behind. 

A few months ago he reluctantly took the decision that neither he nor my mother are fit enough to be going off camping in the bush any more. He put the caravan up for sale and a woman from a nearby town has bought it. It sounds like it is going to a good home, but Dad will miss it a lot.

On Sundays our blog posts have an Australian theme. To read more of them click here.