Monday, 21 August 2017

Gonzague is Gone

Tourangeau writers as portrayed on the chalet at Chanceaux près Loches.
Photo courtesy of my father.
On 8 August 2017 local celebrity Gonzague Saint Bris was killed in a car accident in Calvados. The newspapers were full of it and the Touraine in shock, not least because it happened just before his long running annual book festival at Chanceaux près Loches is due to take place. Referred to by all the locals by his first name, the funeral service at Saint Denis in Amboise was packed and overflowing according to friends of ours who live close by. By contrast, the interment was private and family only. When we visited the family grave there were wreaths from the great and the good in abundance (Carla Bruni-Sarkozy is one I recall, but there were many more).

 The Saint Bris family grave in Amboise cemetery.
Born in 1948 in Loches, the son of a diplomat, he became a writer, publishing novels, histories and many biographies. His family had made their fortune as foundry owners in the 19th century and in 1855 they bought Clos Lucé, which is where he grew up. Self-taught, he became a journalist and radio presenter, then director of strategy and development at the famous French publishing house Hachette and head of the Ministry of culture and communication. He became a women's magazine proprietor and the royal correspondent for Paris Match. In 2014 he recreated the journey across the Alps made by Leonardo da Vinci on the back of a mule in 1516, after he was invited to come to France by François I.

 The chalet at Chanceaux près Loches.
At the time of his death he was best known locally for the literary festival known as La Forêt de Livres, held annually in the tiny hamlet of Chanceaux près Loches for more than 20 years. The festival is free to all, hosting 150 authors who are there to promote their latest books.

 Detail of the facade of Clos Lucé.
He died in a car accident near Pont L'Eveque earlier this month. The car was driven by his companion Alice Bertheaume, late at night as they returned from a party. She swerved to avoid a wild boar and hit a tree. Both of them were thrown from the car. He was killed instantly, she is still in hospital, in a critical condition.

 Leonardo da Vinci as depicted on the chalet.
La Forêt de Livres will be going ahead, and his brother continues the family occupancy and presentation of Clos Lucé to the public. Gonzague never managed to get elected to the Académie Française, but I suspect he was that rather undervalued creature, an enabler. Locally he seems to have been widely liked and appreciated for his loyalty to the area, and he brought a great many people together to enjoy the literary arts. I never met Gonzague, nor went to the Forêt de Livres, but I have been struck by how people have responded to his death -- perhaps rather sentimentally parochial, but genuinely mourning the fact that he is gone from their lives.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Giant Stinging Tree

Where the rainforest has been opened up by cyclonic storms you will find the notorious stinging trees growing. In south-east Queensland there are a couple of species. The one in my photos is Giant Stinging Tree Dendrocnide excelsa, which can inflict severe pain that can last for several months.

Looking up into the crown of a Giant Stinging Tree.
The Dendrocnide species belong to the Stinging Nettle family Urticaceae, and just like the common European herbaceous plant they carry stinging hairs, which if touched, deliver a neurotoxin. Giant Stinging Trees are not as dangerous as Gympie Gympie D. moroides, which causes agonising pain and has been responsible for the suicide of victims.

The trees are hairy all over, and can sting livestock and people. There are reports of horses and dogs being killed if contact with the tree is too comprehensive. First aid advice if you are stung is to use leg wax depiliatory strips to remove the stinging hairs. Wildlife, especially birds, often seem to be immune or have some protection against the stings, and the leaves and fruits are eaten by certain species. Aboriginal people obviously had ways of dealing with the stings as they used fibres from the tree for making nets and ropes.

Giant Stinging Tree trunk.
Giant Stinging Tree is a typical rainforest tree, up to 40 metres tall, with a buttressed trunk. The leaves are heartshaped and can be 30 cm across.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Assumption Day in Lesigny

When we visited M. Denis last week he asked were we going to the Assumption Day rally at Lésigny? It's free, fun and there's lots of people. Free and fun are our scene, so we did some investigation, and yes, it appeared you just rolled up (with picnic and old car) and took part.

We invited Huub, Ingrid and Anne-Loes to come and picnic with us, so as suitably 1960s attired as you can be spontaneously, we piled into Claudette and headed to Lésigny.  It was raining and thundering as we approached, but the prospect of a free breakfast meant that we weren't turning around. By the time we arrived the rain was a light drizzle, so we took our umbrellas and made for the food tables.

 Huub, Susan and Simon attack bread, terrine and cheese
(with brioche, coffee and wine to follow)

We weren't the only ones interested in being fed
(the above photos courtesy of Ingrid)

Once breakfast was out of the way we took to our cars - then sat gently steaming while the rain bucketed down for 20 minutes of so. Then we were off!! We travelled via La Roche Posay, Vicq sur Gartempe, and Néons sur Creuse to Yzeures, where we all parked up and were invited into the salle des fetes to be provided with apéros. Along the route people had turned out to watch, and the princesses in the back almost exhausted themselves perfecting their royal waves.

Parked up in Yzeures.

From Yzeures we travelled back through la Roche Posay to Lésigny, where we snaffled one end of a long picnic table, laid out our food (too many wonderful things to list). At the other end of the picnic table were a couple of other groups of picnickers, and soon the comestibles were travelling the length of the table, as slices of our quiche were exchanged for slices of their tomato tart, and our mayonnaise travelled up and back because we were the only people who had remembered.

This is typical of these sorts of car events - you bring your own picnic, sit with strangers, and soon you're all one big family group. Telephone numbers and email addresses were exchanged, and a thoroughly convivial time was had by all.

After lunch and we are all looking at each other's cars.

There's something I think I may have forgotten to mention.... Susan made a "French Apple Pie" which caused amusement (being something French people have never heard of), so it was sent up the table for everyone to sample, and in return we were pressed with apricot sponge, chocolate brownies, moelleux au chocolat and apple clafoutis.

Five desserts. That's what I call a picnic!

Friday, 18 August 2017

Yzeures, a Float

We wrote the other day about a mystery float in the parade for the Comice Agricole, and it was suggested it was the float from Yzeures.

We know it wasn't, because we saw the float from Yzeures being built, and it was this one:

And look who's driving it - it's M.Denis, to whom we entrust the care of Celestine & Claudette!

M.Denis has recently retired from owning and running quite a large Renault concession and general mechanics, and has rented a shed to concentrate on fixing old tractors. He also works on various classic cars, and always does a stellar job of greasing the Grand Dames' various creaks and aches, and can be relied upon to ferret out any little problem we may have.

The Yzeures Circus float had been in his workshop the last couple of visits (both cars recently had a pre-roadworthy test check-up) and we saw it in various stages of creation, but we didn't realise M.Denis was going to be all clowned up and driving.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Forgotten Heroine

Rosine Deréan was a French actor, born in 1910 in Paris, and dying in obscurity in Genillé in 2001. Married to the comedian Claude Dauphin, she was deported to Ravensbruck during the Second World War. After the war the couple separated and she slowly disappeared from public view. Earlier this year Christophe Meunier, a local historian and university lecturer, published a biography of this little known French movie star and Resistance heroine. 

The plaque honouring her memory as a forced labourer.
She and her husband bought the chateau de la Bourdillière at Genillé in 1939. Although she lived a long and full life, her career as an actor was relatively short, and she last appeared in a film in 1956. During the Second World War, with her anti-Nazi husband having escaped to London via submarine, she joined the Resistance network Amarante. After being denounced she was arrested and interned, along with Geneviève Antonioz-de Gaulle, at Ravensbruck in Germany, where she was put to work making rope, and from where she was liberated on 30 April 1945. Scarred by these events, she returned to Genillé but was unable to really re-launch her career.

 The community events venue in Genillé is named after Rosine Deréan.

Admired for her delicate beauty and elegance, her most successful film was a tearjerker called Les Deux Orphelines, directed by Maurice Tourneur in 1933 and co-starring Renée Saint-Cyr. She and her husband were celebrities, regularly seen out on the town in Paris. By the late 1930s they were working together, starring in films such as Les perles de la couronne, in which their personal alchemy was commented on.  

 The Espace Rosine Deréan, the community events venue (Fr. salle des fêtes).
Despite her having worked with the greatest directors and actors of her day between 1931 and 1939, there was no personal archive for her biographer to trawl through. He had to piece together her story like a detective from hints, traces and personal testimonies.

 Photograph of Rosine Deréan in the salle des fêtes in Genillé.

Adrian Matthews has written about Genillé Under the Occupation on his blog, an account of a guided visit around the village with Christophe Meunier.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Donner & Blitzen

Yesterday morning at early o'clock we took Célestine over the Yzeures to collect Huub, Ingrid and Anne-Loes for a car based picnic. The weather wasn't looking perfect, but we thought we would risk it. Heading towards Lesigny we were impressed by the lightning coming from the clouds we were heading towards, but to us it didn't seem to be exactly over the picnic area.

We were right - at 09:30 the lightning hit the drawbridge tower of the chateau of le Grand Pressigny, causing a rock fall and damaging the roof of the orangerie. As a result of this, the chateau is currently closed. The Nouvelle-Republique article that alerted us to the event is here.

The gateway in 2008. This is the most recent photo we have...

We may write some more about the car-based picnic (it was genial) later in the week, but in the meantime, here's a preview:

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Comice Agricole 2017 - Day 3

Day three of the comice is reserved for the "Grand Défilé" - the big parade. This year's parade was much bigger than that in 2011, with much more community involement. Many of the villages and towns around Preuilly had circus themed "chars" (floats), including:







Unfortunately I have no idea who this cricus school is (or where they are from)
The kids were pretty good though

Preuilly sur Claise's float was for the Reine de Comice

Some excellent planning and creativity had gone into the floats, although at one stage it looked like one of the floats had been measured to fit precisely though the narrow gaps in the street, but it had been  forgotten that there would be people standing on the footpaths...

There was also a number of bands: from Saumur, Yzeures, and Saint-Geno, and a pair of majorette teams.

In all - very colourful, very local, and a most entertaining way to spend an otehrwise quiet Sunday afternoon.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Cooking With Kids

Preuilly is full of grandchildren in August. They are sent down from Paris and from other big cities during the school holidays to stay with their grandparents in the country. All over France small towns and villages experience an influx of young people in August.

Ludmilla weighs butter, while Hamud, Yasmine and Aboud look on.
My friend Christiane is one of these grandparents, and she currently has four of her teenaged grandchildren in the house. She thought it would be a good idea if they kept up their English studies and spent some time with me too. So I had to dream up some activities that we could do together whilst speaking English. Baking cakes proved to be by far the most successful.

Yasmine and Ludmilla grease a rum baba mould for the boys' chocolate cake.
I asked the kids what type of cake they wanted to make. Hamud said 'chocolate!' and Ludmilla said 'lemon?' I gave them a selection of recipes in English and the boys chose Chocolate Sponge Cake and the girls chose Lemon Drizzle Cake.

Yasmine adds sugar.
Christiane checked out the recipes and made sure she had all the ingredients in the pantry. The boys did their cake first and while it was baking the girls mixed theirs. Then while the girls' was baking the boys did their icing. 

Ludmilla mixing.
We decided to use a rum baba mould for the boys' cake because Christiane didn't have two sponge tins the same size. Like the beautiful old kitchen scales Ludmilla is using in the first photo, the rum baba mould had been Christiane's mother's, so the kids great-grandmother's. It was a bit battered, but the girls greased it thoroughly and the cake released with no problems.

Hamud icing.
I enjoyed spending time with the kids. Like so many young people I meet, they are smart, funny and good company. They worked really well together, sharing the tasks fairly and not bickering or niggling one another. They are a credit to their parents.

Proud bakers Hamud and Aboud show off their Chocolate Sponge Cake.
 Proud granny Christiane sends a picture to the kids' parents.
 Equally proud bakers Ludmilla and Yasmine with their Lemon Drizzle Cake.
 Hamud concentrating on getting perfect slices.
 Enjoying the fruits of their labour.
Somewhat to the boys' chagrin, everyone except them liked the Lemon Drizzle Cake best. The Chocolate Sponge Cake was extremely sweet.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Sydney Blue Gum

The upper trunk, with bark hanging in shreds.
More or less impossible to photograph, this venerable Sydney Blue Gum Eucalyptus saligna stands at the entrance to Ravensbourne National Park in south-east Queensland. It is still here because when loggers arrived in the area in the 19th century, this tree was already old. It was hollow inside, and no use to the loggers. It acts as a multi-storey apartment building for forest animals, their supermarket, as well as being an air purifier and water pump.

 The lower trunk.
High up in the sky bats and bees feed on nectar from its flowers. Down in the trunk termites munch on heart wood. Underground fungi grows on the roots and lives in a symbiotic relationship with insects. Signs of occupancy include claw marks in the trunk, faint trails across the bark and droppings on the ground.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Caterpillar Catastrophe

European Box Buxus sempervirens is probably native (or at least naturalised for more than a thousand years) in this area. Up until 2009 it had no significant insect pests, although it could be attacked by the fungal diseases known as box blights, which arrived in France in 2006. Sadly, now there is a moth which arrived in our garden last year, and this year has caused significant devastation in gardens and in the forest locally.

 Caterpillars have got the low hedge and are half way up the Box ball.
The brown and white Box Tree Moth Cydalima perspectalis is native to east Asia and seems to have been accidentally introduced first to Germany in Europe. The caterpillars eat the soft green parts of the leaves and not the harder central rib and outer margin, so the plants take on a particular lacey appearance. Ironically, one of their predators is also here in Europe, and Yellow-legged Asian Hornet Vespa velutina, currently causing a lot of concern amongst apiarists, has been observed taking caterpillars in France. Supposedly birds do not like the caterpillars, as they have ingested a lot of toxins from the Box leaves, but Simon has witnessed sparrows taking the caterpillars in a friend's garden.

Various synthetic insecticides, including pyrethrin sprays, will kill the caterpillars, as will Bacillus thuringensis and the appropriate nematode. They need to be applied regularly (about once every 10 days) to keep plants free of the caterpillars. Some control can be achieved by using pheromone traps from March to October to catch the males and prevent the females laying so many fertilized eggs.

 The caterpillars and their typical sticky web and pattern of eating just the soft parts of the leaf.
The plants don't die, but since Box is often topiarised, cutting it back to allow encourage vigorous shoots from the base to re-establish a nice green plant is not always an option. I notice that a lot of the online garden advice websites are claiming that hand picking off the caterpillars is a worthwhile method of control, but it's obvious to me that there are too many caterpillars for this to work once you have an infestation.

The adult moth, courtesy of Aigronne Valley Wildlife.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Mudlarking at Mont Saint Michel

Recently I had the opportunity to join a group walking across the bay from the Ecomusée de la Baie de Mont Saint Michel to Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. I was working with Walking Adventures International as their local guide in the Loire Valley and after hearing what a wonderful experience it was to approach the Mont from across the sands at low tide, I requested to join the group early. Our local guide was François Lamotte d'Argy, who focused as much on the ecology of the area as the history as we walked.

The saltmarshes with Mont Saint Michel in the background.
We started by walking across the saltmarshes, home to grazing sheep and cattle. Once we got beyond the electric fences keeping the cattle beyond the limits of the tides François pointed out edible plants such as the samphire and we all had a taste.

The saltmarshes are succeeded by fine squidgy muddy silt. It is covered by a film of algae that is the first stage of the land being reclaimed from the sea.

Walking across the sand.
The mud gives way to sand, which is inundated daily by the tide. The mud and sand are full of little creatures, including tiny shrimp in any little puddle. The bay is an important food resevoir for wading birds, many of which are migratory and need stopovers like Mont Saint Michel in order to fatten up for their journeys north in the spring and south in the autumn.

François leading the group out of one of the rivers.
The Mont Saint Michel estuary is where three rivers, the Sée, the Sélune and the Couesnon empty into the sea. The river channels twist and curve, changing their paths over time, which is one of the reasons you need a guide to lead the crossing.

François listening to the sand.
The sandbanks between the rivers are full of tiny organisms, and if you stand still and listen you can hear them sucking and blowing. If you pick up a handful of sand it's full of tiny holes made by these little creatures.

Strung out across the sands.
The walk we did took about three hours, during which time the Mont never seemed to get any closer. At this point we are all strung out, walking in contemplative silence to recreate the experience of being a medieval pilgrim. The only sound was the wind, the distinctive call of the Redshank Tringa totanus...and the squishing of François' booties.

Slipper Limpet.
We found whelk, cockle and winkle shells, bits of coral, spider crab carapaces and some Slipper Limpets Crepidula fornicator. These last are notable for the stacks of up to a dozen animals that they form, with the lower ones being older females and the upper ones younger males. 

The Mont and its reflection.
 At last the Mont gets a bit closer.

François draws a map of the new water management system.
François' map shows the canalised river Couesnon at the bottom, with the barrier and the flow divider on the right. The water can be directed around between the Mont and the mainland to scour it out and keep it an island. The scheme is generally hailed as a great success but François is starting to have concerns about how much the sand is moving around, how much further upstream the rivers are converging and how all of this might be affecting the wading birds and their food sources.

Washing our feet at the base of the Mont.