Saturday, 31 December 2011

Litte sods

It's a good idea when growing veg, to grow those that you like to eat.  I also like the idea of growing fresh veg to cook for gîte visitors, but in fact most of our visitors come in the early half of the year, so it's difficult to have home-grown veg ready in time.

Asparagus is an exception in that it is ready in the early Spring, from April or so, and it has the advantages of being easy to grow and it is quite expensive in the shops.  So I am having a go at growing it next year, with a view to eating it myself, and maybe having some left over for gîte guests.

Constraints of space still apply, and the veg patch is currently at least half-full with strawberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries.  I need to enlarge it, and that is what I have been doing over the last few days.  I will then prepare a bed for the asparagus, incorporating a lot of sand, and compost from the compost heap into the new area.

I use a string guide to delineate the new boundary, and having done so, the next thing to do is to take off the grass layer. I do this in strips one spade blade wide, making a heap of little sods off to one side. These will be buried later, deep enough so they don't regrow.  Once the whole area is cleared, I can dig a trench to fill with goodies for the asparagus, like sand and compost.

While I'm out there, I notice that the front panel on one of my new water butts is bent; it has been pushed in. I'm sure it wasn't like that before, I wonder what might have done that? Wild Boar? When I look closer at it, I see that the little spigot has been broken, it looks like it has been pushed down from above. All becomes clear. Some little sod has been climbing on it.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Lights in Laval

Apparently, people come from miles away, in coaches to see the Christmas lights at Laval.  We were pleased to go there on a clear and chilly evening, with my sister and her husband who were staying with us for Christmas.   The lights came on as dusk was settling, and after we had sampled a few of the local shops (and delicacies), there were also animated projections on the walls of the town buildings.  This year the show was a review of such things that have been done in the past, including, one year, *gasp* topless ladies.   Projected five times larger than life on the side of a public building. It would never happen in the US, of course (the world's biggest exporter of porn), that nation's children are still traumatised by the memory of having seen Janet Jackson's breast.

One of the things I really like about the town centre in Laval is the merry-go-round.  Yep, it's merry and it goes round, and it was invented before the modern passion for acronyms.  You can ride in hot air balloons, on fish and horses, and bicycles, in submarines, and anything you can think of.  It's great.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Tree up

I like trees, especially big ones and those that live a long time. Oaks feature quite high on my list of favourites. There is a fabulous evergreen Oak in the municipal garden at Laval (le jardin de la Perrine), and I was pleased to plant one as the centrepiece of the flower bed alongside the car park.

It was planted 5 years ago as a small sapling, and this was to have been its third Winter without stakes. No such luck. It survived the storms of the last two Winters, but the latest storm clobbered it. I guess, since it is evergreen, the leaves that stay on make for a greater wind resistance in Winter than deciduous trees, and anyway, it blew over.

In this case, I think that only rope stays have any chance of success. I can barely move the tree myself back towards vertical, and whatever system I use to keep it up will probably have to stay in place for at least five years. I happen to have on hand some green nylon rope, and a few tree stakes. So I can surround the tree with stays and hopefully it will stay up.

With everything in place, it feels pretty solid and I can't move the tree in any direction. I guess I will have to monitor the stakes to make sure they don't ease their way out of the ground.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


Yep, you saw it here, an advent calendar for cats. Ridiculous! How do you know that your cat is Christian? And not, say, Mouselem? Ratstafarian? Shrewish? Zen Birdist?

Fortunately, lots of French people seem to agree, and the advent calendars laced with Gourmet Gold cat food were on sale at half price this week. Which happened to make Gourmet Gold, usually amongst the more expensive cat foods available, and a clear favourite with our cats, among the cheapest in the market.

I'll have 16, and I don't care if everyone in the shop thinks I'm a cat religion bigot.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

WiFi Wot?

One of the plus points of the gîte as a place for people to come and stay for a few days, is the WiFi internet access service. WiFi is becoming ubiquitous, you find it at McDonalds, most hotels and and increasing number of other places where people gather. It really is a good idea to have it.

It's not a good idea just to share your internet connection with clients you don't know very well. A law in France called HADOPI basically means that your internet provider can cut you off if your line has been used to download copyright material, and although most clients are, I am sure, trustworthy, the gîte business is critically dependent on the internet, specifically email, to function. So a system for controlling and checking online access is mandated.

I used to use a service called ZoneCD. It cost about 50 quid a year to operate, which is small enough not to matter too much, but unfortunately it relied on the company's servers, somwhere in the USA, to handle all the admin. These servers went offline some time ago, and haven't been seen since. So I have had to replace the WiFi.

This took longer than I expected, and I have spent the last two days pretty much tied to a desk, driving up to 3 PCs at a time, trying to get a new one installed and working. For the technicians amongst my avid readership, there were three problems:

1) The WiFi access point subnet was based on IP 10.10.10.n and I had lost the IP address of the antenna so I couldn't log into it to change it. (I think it got corrupted in fact)

2) I was misinformed that this didn't matter as I could continue to use the 10.10.10.n subnet with Microsoft Internet Connection Sharing Service (ICS) (dead wrong)

3) My ADSL modem/router used address (even though its own address is, and for no apparent reason whatsoever. This clashes with Microsoft's ICS addresses and means that ICS doesn't work.

So having resolved all of these, and despite having a most unpleasant cold, and, independently, an ear infection that won't go away, I took time out to go to the Laval Christmas market. On the way, the fog lifted into a day of glorious sunshine. It was good to be out. Back home, it is still foggy.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Climate, what climate?

I remember that when I first started cycling to school, I always took a rainproof riding cape with me in my bag, because you never knew if it was going to be raining by the end of the day. Six years later, in the 6th form, I stopped bothering because by then you knew if it was going to be sunny.

Similarly, I used to expect that snow would lie, in the South of England, for at least a couple of weeks in Winter. Nowadays it's rare.

We're in the first week of December, and have yet to have a ground frost. This time last year there was snow on the ground. This Iris is flowering forlornly in response to the mild conditions, braving the drizzle and wind that are the main features of the weather today.

I don't know what's happening to the climate, but it seems to be getting quite wierd.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Art à la cart

I promise that this is the last post about my cart/trailer. An avid reader ticked me off not long ago for leaving the saga of the cart development unfinshed. So here is the end point of the story, the final cart, the pinnacle of cart refurbishment.

Please note: Silvery steel reinforcement where the handle joins the body, to strengthen it where it broke last time, firmly attached by screws.

And note also the fine extra cross-member in pine, cunningly placed to stop the full water containers sliding to the back of the cart and overloading it (which also contributed to its breaking last time)

And the shorter stiffer handle, so less likely to snap. All in all, the perfect embodiment of cart art.

I am now offering consultancy on garden cart design and construction. Excellent value, good rates, results guranteed. Yes, you will be guaranteed to get a result. The kind of result is open to discussion.

I was going to write a poem extolling the virtues of the finished product, but it has been done before, in a different context, by an genuine expert. Enjoy.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Business models

I have noted before, that in Summer at least, a lot of sunny energy lands on the grange roof and gets turned into heat, and that it would be nice to turn this energy into electricity instead of wasting it.

EDF have a serious problem with their electricity distribution network in France: it is operating at near-capacity, demand is growing, and upgrading it will cost them a fortune. There are therefore various government subsidies and buy-back incentives for electricity that you might generate with solar panels, to encourage you to fit them.

But at the end of the day, when I looked at the numbers, it would cost upwards of 110,000 euro to cover the roof with solar panels, and the pay-back period would be longer than ten years. I'm sure I could find better things to do with the money, and anyway, it's EDF has the problem, not me. Why should I tie up a load of money, and give myself the headache of managing and maintaining a solar installation, just to help out EDF?

If on the other hand EDF came to me and asked to lease my roof so they could install solar panels, and pay me a bit of cash to do so, I would be interested. They can take the business risk, and I get a bit of money plus some smugness at being eco-friendly. So I was intrigued by these guys who are basically offering to do just that for customers in the UK. Maybe someone will take up this idea for France. And I wonder how long it will take for the likes of EDF to wake up and cut out the middle man?

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Little water works

I have mentioned before the fact that there is a well in the garden. I have decided to exploit it so that I can water the garden in Summer without feeling too guilty about using tap water of drinking quality. The well doesn't always have water in it, so I need to be able to store the water if I want it continuously available. My recent weeks have been spent in setting up a couple of storage tanks.

The project was simply to build a small hard standing, and put some water tanks on it. First I had to clear the undergrowth from the area where the tanks will go. Then build a little frame to hold the concrete, with some rocks at the bottom and some steel reinforcement on top of them so hopefully it won't crack.

Then pour the concrete. I borrowed a mixer from a friend down the road (thanks, Brian), which made the whole thing easier, but there were still 34-and-a-half 35Kg bags of premixed dry concrete to put into it. It took about four hours in all to mix and lay the concrete. For the water tanks, I had to buy them one at a time and transport them in the trailer because I couldn't quite get one in the Espace.

Once the concrete had dried, I put the tanks on top; this all seems to work well. I chained them to the concrete in case of light-fingered natives. So now, if they forget to bring their battery-powered angle-grinder (15 seconds to cut the chain) and instead only bring their lump hammer and cold chisel, it will take them 10 minutes to free the chain from the concrete. That'll be safe then.

The tanks aren't all connected up to the well yet, and the pump in the well is not permanently connected to the electricity (I have to plug it in) but at least I can now fill the tanks and have proper well water on tap.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Bogeyman the fungus

Various varieties of mushrooms were presenting themselves during today's little walk by the river. I have never seen the first one before: little spikes of white-tipped black poking out of the ground, about an inch and a half high. When you tap them, they give off a fine white powder that floats away.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Home again

No matter how well-known the track, how many times I have walked on it, I find there is always something new to remark upon. This time, two coppers: A tree in copper Autumn colours, and a number of small copper butterflies, (thanks for the ID Mark), one of which stayed still enough to be captured by the camera.

I threaded my way through the undergrowth to see if I could find any seeds of the tree that was brightening my view, but there were none that I could see. I shall just have to enjoy it as it is and where it is. Perhaps that's not a bad thing.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Aspects of California - 4 Soaring career

As my avid reader will know, I'm building a portfolio of nature videos as part of my effort to start a career as a BBC wildlife photographer. Here's a video of a big black bird, whose soaring of the up-currents in front of the Golden Gate bridge I found especially impressive. I feel imminent career success coming on.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Aspects of California - 3 Staple diet

So I'm trolling around California with a number of friends, including Dick. We find ourselves at a loose end one morning so we decide to take a look in Staples. For me it's just curiosity. We have Staples in England and I want to see if I can spot any obvious differences.

Well, apart from being bigger, and with more room, and having staff who greet you with a friendly "good morning", it seemed pretty much the same. Except I have never seen a display of tablet PCs that you can play with in a UK Staples, but perhaps that's because I've not been in one recently.

There was the Galaxy 10.0, an Acer, and various others, and even better, they were connected to the internet. So I downloaded Angry Birds onto one, and showed Dick how to play it (he's not very computer savvy) and on a different one, I downloaded Fruit Ninja. Dick was soon chuckling away to himself as he fired dangerous birds at pigs and I was merrily slicing fruit.

Actually I was introduced to Fruit Ninja by a friend who had it on his iPad, where it ran well. But when I installed it on my Archos 1.01 I found that the processor power was lacking, and as soon as there were two fruits on the screen, it failed to respond to the touch. So I use my Fruit Ninja score as a proxy for tablet PC processor power. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Aspects of California - 2 Mixed feelings

One of the great thigs about the internet is that it makes price comparisons easy. A couple of button-clicks and you can see which shop will sell you this month's gizmo for the least money. Another thing that the internet is good for is seeing in which country you can buy things cheaply.

Now I appreciate that an objective of nearly all businesses is to charge for their product or service "what the market will bear" (i.e. as much as they can get away with) and product pricing is an art. But I do get wound up to find that time and again, products are cheaper to buy abroad than they are here.

The new entry-level Amazon Kindle? 79 dollars or, to you in France, special offer, cutting me own throat guv, 99 euros, (say, 137 dollars). (Prices from and today) I'm inclined to shout WHY WHY WHY, but in fact I don't give a damn what the excuse is, I just want this to stop.

So I have mixed feelings about the fact that I bought some Ryobi tools, of which I have spoken before, while I was in the USA, much cheaper than I can get them over here. Angle grinder? 44 dollars vs 70 euros, (say, 97 dollars). Circular saw? 70 dollars vs 70 euros. I got a great buy in comparison to European pricing, but why should I have to do that?

And the thing that wound me up most recently was that wouldn't sell me a (high-definition, no compression, digital) copy of "Band on the Run" since their marketing contract with the record company did not permit them to sell it outside of the USA. WHAT? The record company thinks they can screw more money out of me via a European pricing model? It's data, for heaven's sake, the same the world over, no matter that it's used for entertainment. No wonder that the music companies are struggling to make money if they're at war with their customers.

This sort of thing encourages people to look for a nice blog reader based in the USA, with a Paypal account who could buy it and email it. As long as they don't keep a copy for themselves; that would never do.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Aspects of California - 1

Anita and I spent 12 days touring around California with some friends recently. No need to go into daily details, but I'll note here a few aspects fo the trip. First some things that just tickled me.

This poster is clearly intended to hammer home the difference in quality between the Black Angus beef on offer at this particular diner, vs the competition. Fair enough. It was when Anita suggested that perhaps the competition's Black Angus had some White Angus ancestry from the last century that I saw it in a different light....

San José has a fine tech museum. It's intended to enthuse youngsters about technology, very appropriate for Silicon Valley. It has examples of interactive displays, things you can do, and so on. I was most impressed by the globe of the world that show ocean currents and climatological factors, that you can control with a trackball, but there were other things too, such as a device for simulating jetting around in zero-G space in a space suit doing repairs to a satellite. But there was a schoolboy glee in realising that the robot arm that spelled out using bricks, words that you typed in, could be made to spell anything you like....

I wasn't quite sure what to make of this notice beside the municipal fountain in San José. I've seen such fountains often enough, seen little kids playing in them, adults standing downwind to enjoy the spray, all in various locations around the world. But I've never seen a notice like this, nor in any swimming pool, public jacuzzi or anywhere else it might be relevant. I am just wondering if the city governers have given more thought than anyone else to the possible dangers, or perhaps they have had some traumatic experience in the past. Once could imagine the conversation:

"Ummm Mr Mayor, we've had another brown fountain day"
"Ahhhh sheeeeiiittt. Well, do something about it... put up a notice or something."

There's even a hotline number to report fountain contamination. I really don't want to think about that......

Friday, 21 October 2011

GOMNN Newsflash

We have been using public transport a bit more than usual recently, which presents the opportunity to observe the great unwashed at close quarters.

The first incident was in the queue for the baggage X-ray at the Eurostar check-in. Our delightful subject (in his sixties, I guess, along with his wife) decided that the person at the front of the queue was taking too long to get their affairs in order, and elbowed past not one, not two, nor yet three, nor even four, but five people to get to the front of the queue to get his bags onto the conveyor. I mean, it's not like we're not going to catch the train, is it?

When you run a self-service, fast-food business, it is fairly easy to know how long the average customer takes to consume his meal. When you know how fast you can serve the meals you can then plan the number of tables you need, and this number is sensibly independent of the length of your queue for service. This fine balance is then completely screwed up by cretins who "reserve" a table by sitting at it and defending the unnocupied places by asserting that "someone is sitting there" while the rest of their troupe queues for food. The longer the queue for food, the more tables are wasted in this way. Prize goes to the woman at the Universal Studios theme park in Los Angeles, who bagged not one, not two, but three whole tables (places for 12 people) for her meal-buying crew. Since hers was the most blatant abuse of all, I ate my meal there. I was gone before her group arrived to eat.

But queue-jumping and table-bagging are not exactly new forms of boorish behaviour. Heck, in our wild and impetuous youth, some of us might even have done it. Occasionally. But I was surprised and delighted to be able to study what was for me, a completely new phenomenon on the Air Canada flight from Paris to Toronto. A woman two seats away from me decided that her husband would be especially interested in an article in the paper she had just opened. She read it to him out loud. The whole thing. It was a full page of a broadsheet newspaper. It took her from about two minutes after sitting down, through the push-off from the terminal, through taxiing for take-off, take-off, climb to cruising altitude, and a few minutes of cruising. It was a précis of a speech given by Steve Jobs and printed in tribute. Since he graphically described some of his interventions for cancer, I was only glad it wasn't colo-rectal.

Her husband's reaction was equally interesting to watch. About halfway in he started playing with the touch screen in front of him, presumably found some music, and plugged the left earpiece into his ear. However he couldn't quite bring himself to plug in the one on the side his wife was sitting. He played with it, scratched his cheek with it, but couldn't quite bring himself to put it in. I was just willing him silently on... go on... go on... No luck.

That's all from your Grumpy Old Man News Network, stay tuned for more updates. And now life resumes as per normal.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Strawberry season

The strawberry harvest was poor this Springtime. I put this down to the unseasonal hot, dry weather we had at that time, combined with my failure to water the plants.

And by this time of year, I would be expecting strawberry plants to be making runners, but they're not. Instead, they are making an enormous crop of strawberries. Perhaps the warm, rainy Summer followed by the last couple of weeks of dry heat has made the difference, but the plants are fruiting prolifically. This bowl holds the latest of several similar harvests of tasty, sweet berries. It's been difficult to keep up with the cropping.

I am thinking that the flavour is perhaps not quite as intense as I remember of the Spring crop, but if anything the sweetness is stronger. By the way, I have noted before that clotted cream is hard to get in France. I am very pleased to report that Mascarpone cheese, widely available, makes a very acceptable replacement. Especially on strawberries.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

London calling

We spent last weekend in London, occasioned by the 50th birthday celebrations of a good friend. A great time was had by all, I think, great evening at the pub, excellent meal and a natter afterwards, though we had to poop the party at 2:00 (3:00 French time). I guess we're none of us as young as we used to be.

On Monday, a visit to the London Eye. I note that this is now run by EDF (Electricité De France). I can never see the EDF logo without reflecting on the breathtaking hypocrisy of the French government, encouringing its industries to go out and buy foreign companies, whilst prohibiting foreign companies doing the same with French ones.

The eye trip comes complete with a cinematic show in "4-D", that loudly (deafeningly, perhaps) shows off various perspectives of the Eye, in a 3-D cinema. The "fourth dimension" is provided by the physical experience of real bubbles being blown at you when the film shows it happening, real fake snowflakes at the appropriate moment, and so on. I was glad that the seagull that led us through the scenes in the film was not similarly realistic.

We walked in the sunshine along the embankment towards Tower Bridge, to lunch with a diffferent friend, who works in the area. She told me she reads this blog (hiya!) and asked about progress on the infamous falling-apart cart, so I promised an update. To follow.

Meanwhile, here's some pictures taken of and from the London Eye.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Cracking nuts

There doesn't seem to be a generic French word for nut. Une noix is specifically a walnut, and other nuts such as peanuts, almonds, etc have their own names.

Well we have two mature walnut trees in the garden, and several productive hazlenuts, and since their nuts have been on the ground for a little while, I thought I should set about gathering them and shelling them.

I think that the squirrels must have found the walnuts first, judging by the number of split shells all around. They have nicked all the good ones too, because once I started cracking them, the kernels turned out to be almost all black and shrivelled.

The hazelnuts were a better story, and after half an hour's patient work with the nutcrackers I had a bowlful of sweet and crunchy nuts. Those that I didn't eat ended up in the nut mix that I have with my yoghurt in the mornings.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Lots of squash

I like butternut squash, and they're not that easy to find in France, so I thought I'd have a go at growing some this year. I also planted some acorn squash, just to see what they're like.

The trouble with growing your own veg is that if they crop well, you end up with too many. So I have 51 squash of various sizes. Even after giving some away, that's a lot of squash to eat over the next few months. Good job I like them.

They are easy to cook; you just have to heat the thing in whatever way you like, until it becomes soft. Probably my favourite is the simplest: you slice the sqash in half, remove the seeds and cover the exposed flesh with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, cook in the oven (220 degrees), exposed side up. It will take about an hour for the squash to be ready. Serve as is, with a knob of butter in the seed cavity.

This year has been quite wet, and my tomato plants only yielded a small crop before they rotted. I think the fungus might have infected some of the squash, since the fruits have a stained appearance on the skin in some areas. This hasn't affected the flesh at all, though, and they still taste good. The acorn squash (yellow and green in the pictures) taste very like butternut ones, by the way.

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