Monday, 18 September 2017

Self-service beer

Self-service beer is a new idea to me, I must try it out.  And don't you just love the name of the bar?

Thursday, 14 September 2017


I have removed a few trees from the garden over the years, and as a result I have some stumps scattered about.  They lurk in the grass, and the longer the grass the more they lurk.  This can be a problem for the mower.  I more or less know where they are, and if I am alert, I can lift the mower blades as I approach, and no harm is done.  Sometimes however, I'm not alert, I'm drifting off into daydreams, and forget to compensate for the stumps.  This can result in a noise like a lawn mower imitating a chain saw, a sudden jolting stop, or the need to repair the mower before I can carry on cutting the lawn.

I saw a product in the garden centre the other day, that promised effective stump removal.  You drill holes in the stump, pour in this chemical, drench the ensemble with paraffin, and set fire to it all.  The stumps are then supposed to turn to ashes over the next couple of days.   Since I want to remove the stumps and also enjoy setting fire to things, there was nothing not to like.  Did it work?  Judge for yourself.  These pics show two different stumps after the treatment.

The second one is a bit better cooked that the first one that is hardly touched but it was sell rotted beforehand.   They still represent a hazard to dreamy mowers.  If I was a politician I could call it a partial success.   I suppose the torrential thunderstorm didn't help.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Bak to werk

It's la rentrée time in France.  The August holidays are over, and people are going back to work or back to school.  The event happens every year but the back-to-school aspect of it still gets wide news coverage, with a good five to ten minues devoted every evening for a week, on what needs to be bought, how much it will cost, and the implications.   It seems to be bigger than the real new year on Jan 1st in its significance to French life.

It's also the time for car boots sales, vide greniers.  We're quite lucky in that there are four that we could go to, all in a straight line journey.  We went to two of them; the one in Laval and the one in the smaller town of Argentré that is on the way to Laval.   We had some small difficulty in confirming beforehand that the Laval one was in fact taking place, but it always happens at the same time as the other three, and "everyone knows this".  It's normally the biggest one around.

I was on the lookout for a used hose reel (didn't find one), but it's always good to nose around.  I bought a few CDs (25 cents each, you can't argue) and a length of plastic tube that I have a use for in the veg patch.

The Laval one was poorly attended; not many stands and few buyers.  It was covered in the local paper the day after and everyone agreed that it was way below expectations.  Next year we are promised more publicity together with bouncy castles to attract a bigger audience.

Argentré by contrast was hopping, so Laval's poor showing wasn't anything to do with any fundamental changes in outlook for consumerism in France.  We shall see what happens next year.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

BBC wildlife attempt No 3

The special characteristic of my new camera is its zoom capability; 84 times optical, or to 2,000mm equivalent for a 35mm camera.   It's certainly more than I can hold steady in my hand - to use that sort of magnification needs a tripod or some other physical stabiliser.  But it means that I have a fighting chance of being able to photograph some wildlife without having to get so close I scare it away.  Assuming that I spot it in the first place, of course.

This bird looks like a cormorant to me, and it was drying its wings on the Mayenne river near Laval the other day.  The wingtips are a bit blurry because it was flapping them about.  Unforgivable in a bird, I know, but there you have it.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Festival de la viande

The Evron harmonie played at the opening of the Meat Festival at Evron this weekend, as we usually do.  Notable were the big concrete blocks scattered around as defence against terrorist attacks.  Some had lumps on the tops like giant Leggo bricks, rendering them useless for sitting on, but others had flat tops where you could put music bags and instrument cases.

The machinery at the event was impressive as ever; the tractor here is at least the height of two men.  And the bunnies and ducks were present alongside the cows and sheep.  I didn't notice any pigs, but I'm sure they were there.

There were also numerous stands for energy management products; wood-burning stoves, solar panels (significantly cheaper now than a few years ago), boilers and so on.  This is becoming increasingly important to farmers.

Quite a lot of farms have good lengths of hedgerows surrounding their fields, and the management of these results in big heaps of wood suitable for burning.  You can either burn the logs as they are, or shred the wood into little chips for feeding automatically into a boiler.  In any case, the winter heating is free, or very nearly so.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The vegetable year

This year has been good in terms of veg crops; my best yet, but that's probably because I'm still very much a beginner, therefore still improving.   My time has been limited both by customers in the gîte and by a big DIY project to renovate our main bedroom in the house, but even so I'm pleased overall.

My first observation is that the new raised beds have worked very well.  They delineate a growing area together with an access path to it, and filling the bed with compost mixed in with the pre-existing soil means that the earth is easier to work and weed.  I will install two more this Winter.  The wood for the next one is ready as soon as the waterproofing dries; the second one will have to wait a bit.

I also installed an automatic watering system that pumps well water into little nozzles spaced evenly along a hosepipe that runs along alongside the plants.   This seems to work well and is economical with the water too.  It works best on the raised beds, which is another incentive to install more of them.

I have put a lot of effort into the compost heap as well.  The shambling mound of detritus is nearly all gone, and in its place are three compost heap compartments.  The compost in the first bay is ready to go, and will go into the new raised bed.

Now for the plants.  Carrots are interspersed with onions and weeds in a raised bed in this pic.  Apparently, onions ward off carrot fly and carrots ward off onion fly. Or something.  The Onions are the worst crop this year; I bought a pack of about 1,000 seeds and have five onions, two of which are small.  They are the variety Walla Walla, very sweet, excellent with salads.  I will have another go next year.  The carrots are a mixture of different varieties.  The red ones are especially sweet and I will go for those exclusively next year.   I am pulling them as and when they are needed.

I grew runner beans this year for the first time.  Apparently they are thirsty plants, a fact that I didn't take into account.  None the less I got a good crop.  The variety is called "Lady Di", chosen without reference to the recent anniversary, but in the hope that they would live up to the hype on the packet: "Heavy crops of tender, delicious, dark green, 12 inch long pods".  They did not disappoint.

I wonder if she was ever bemused.  "When I was a kid, I never imagined I'd have a runner bean variety named after me".

Note: when making a runner bean support, make sure you can reach up to the top of it.

Around the back of the gîte is a new bed.  Since it was large and empty I decided to try it out as a squash / pumpkin patch.  I was a bit doubtful about it, since it doesn't get a huge amount of sun.  The plants seem to have grown well enough, and I have acorn squash, pumpkins and a huge grey thing that I will have to look up again, but I think it's a pumpkin.  They're not quite ripe yet, but we have six weeks to go at least before the first frosts.

We got a huge glut of courgettes this year, but that's because I planted four plants instead of just the usual one.  Tomatoes also were prolific.  This year's most successful variety was Rio Grande; I got tens of kilos of nice red, nearly cylindrical tomatoes with a nice flavour.  I will grow them again.  The Italian plum variety San Marzano did less well, but they really need a greenhouse, and I don't have one.  The pic shows the San Marzano - the Rio Grande are all finished, you can see some of the ones that didn't make it on the ground behind the plant.

As for the brassicas, it looks like I will have a few cabbages this year, and the purple sprouting broccoli should be plentiful in the Spring.

Oh yes, I got some spuds too; they seem to like it here, and I got a decent crop, more than we can eat, so they're being inflicted on the gîte guests until they run out.

Friday, 1 September 2017

First photos

I visited a FNAC in Le Mans yesterday.  It's a fatal thing to do - they sell lots of fabulous toys; PCs, televisions, drones, CDs and books, plus a camera that I have had my eye on, a Nicon P900, on special offer.  I took it out today to try it out.   Here's some pics.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

The Haydn

The flute course last week included a little concert at the end, with all the students playing in a variety of solos and ensemble performances.  I appeared at one point with Sandra and Lawrence with the first of Haydn's London Trios.  The bassoon is substiting here for a 'cello.

I like these trios.  They are not profound music, but seem to me to embody the simple pleasure of playing with friends.

I am rarely happy with my live performances, and this one is no exception.  However, here is the first London trio, warts and all.

First movement: Allegro moderato

Second movement: Andante

Third movement: Finale Vivace

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The glut

Last year I planted 3 or 4 courgette seeds in a small clump.  The idea is that you select, a few weeks later, the best of the seedlings that come up.  None did.

So this year I planted 4 clumps in the expectation that I might get something out as a result.  All 4 grew, and since one plant makes a glut, this year we have a superglut of courgettes.

We're doing our best.  Grilled courgette, fried courgette, courgette muffins, courgette soup.  But when we went of for a week's holiday, we came back to find 7 or so large courgettes, some of them nearly marrow-sized.  What to do?  I was going to chuck them on the compost heap, but Anita said to put them on a chair outside the gate, offering them to passers-by.  I was sceptical, but they disappeared the same day, and someone even left a little "thank you" note.

(It's in the top right-hand corner: "Merci bcp, Bonne soirée, Cordialement"; loosely "Thanks a lot, Have a good evening, Cheers")

Friday, 25 August 2017

Good veg

I was chatting to the chef at the restaurant down the road, and mentioned that we spent the last week in the département of the Lot.   He observed that the vegetables that are grown down there are of excellent quality.  If our visit to the Friday market at Prayssac is anything to go by, he is not wrong.

Enormous onions, sweet peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, and so on (plus goats' cheese, ducks and foie gras), plus an introduction to échaillons, a cross between onions and shallots that I had not seen before.  They had house leeks too.  I like house leeks (for decoration, that is; the romans used to eat them).

Thursday, 24 August 2017


There was an advert on French TV some time ago.  I only saw it only once, and my memory is a little faded.  Broadly, it went like this:

We open on a scene of a small, cute, quiet, French country village.  An open-top e-type (UK reg) pulls up and a good-looking, impeccably-dressed and clearly wealthy couple steps out.  They enter a bar, say "bonjour" with a thick English accent, and walk around, observing the local paysans.  The camera view allows us to understand that the man is surreptitiously taking photos of the natives.  Having walked around getting their pictures, they say their goodbyes, and leave without buying anything.

After they have gone, the moustachioed local reading the paper is revealed to have a philosophy book hidden in it, the lady behind the bar turns the mundane photo on the wall over to reveal a copy of a work of a Grand Master painter, the musac switches back to classical.

The punch line was "big supermarket chain: supporting French culture since a long time ago".  It took a few seconds for it to sink in, but I howled with laughter when I got the joke.  It was probably the funniest thing I have seen on French TV.

Last week it was the Brits bringing the culture to the little village of St Martin le Redon (Pop. 196 depending on who's on holiday).  The local church hosted a free flute concert by Philippa Davies and her husband Jan Willem Nelleke.  Of a standard for which you would expect to pay a small fortune in the most prestigious concert halls around the planet, the concert was one of those gems that you can stumble upon in the remotest parts of France, if you know where to look.

And it completely changed my opinion of the Reinecke "Undine" flute sonata, that I had previously held to be somewhat anaemic.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The chateau Bonaguil

The little village of St Martin-le-Redon where the flute course took place is not far from the massive old chateau Bonaguil.  (That sounds a bit like bon acceuil, as in friendly welcome)  It is now the property of a local commune, and is in the process of being restored.  It's a massive and impressive building, a tourist attraction, and we went to see it.

It is built on a high promontory, and offers a fabulous view over the surrounding countryside.   I'll let you read about it on Wiki, since they have a complete history of it.

There was an exhibition of artworks inside the castle, including for example, giant vampire bats hanging from the ceiling to intercept you as you walked around, or big black spiders just behind the door.  Very spooky.  And this rather fine dragon was lurking in a very dark corner, nearly invisible, revealed here only by the flash.

There is a miniatures museum nearby, specialising in historical dioramas, including many military models and battle scenes.  It is largely the work of one man who cast and painted the figures; an impressive display of talent and dedication.  I didn't go in but Anita is interested in minis so she did.  There is a full-size replica suit of armour outside; I was a bit disconcerted to see the face inside of it: it was somehow unexpected.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Flute holiday

We spent last week at a flute course in a lovely ex-farmhouse towards the south of France.   Run by Philippa Davies  (and see also here) who is a fabulous player and wonderful person, combined with calm surroundings and delicious food and free-flowing local wine, it was a good escape.  And I met some lovely people, and it improved my playing into the bargain.

We got an opportunity to do some sightseeing, and visited a local market and castle.  More on those later.

It turns out that my recent attempts to improve my left-hand flute technique have resulted in "focal dystonia" which is stiffening the hand and causing it to do things I don't ask it to.   I looked it up on Google.  In flute players it happens mostly in the left hand.  Yep.  After a change in technique.  Yep.  I have some work to do there.  None the less, the last evening's concert went well and I played the first Haydn London Trio, with a bassonist playing the 'cello part.  I also played Köhler's Walse des Fleurs, a bit of victorian grandiosity that is nothing but good fun.

Sunday, 20 August 2017


I discovered two new things this week, both food-related.   We were on the autoroute going south, and diverted into a nearby town for lunch.   A random pizza restaurant called to us from the other side of the road, so we turned off to it.

It turns out that it's part of a franchise, one I'd not heard of :  Baïla Pizza  The served a fine lunch, and were quite busy.  The pizza that Anita chose tased excellent, with a thin, non-stodgy base.  The small size was fine for one person's lunch.  I chose a folded pizza with garlic prawns, also excellent.

The other thing was discovered in a market in the little town of Prayssac in the département of Lot.  Great big onion-like things, red and white, that, according to the vendor anyway, are sweet.  They're a cross between shallots and onions, and the French call them échaillons.  They were about the size and shape of your hand if you compress the fingers sideways, like you're trying to get it into a narrow circular opening.  The échaillons in the picture are in the pile next to the tray of red onions.   I will get some seed and see if I can grow some since I like sweet onions in salads.

I didn't buy any, which was perhaps a mistake.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The mill near St Georges sur Erve

We went to look at a house for sale because the advert mentioned in passing that the place has a mill.  I was intrigued, not least because there isn't much in the way of a river nearby.   It turns out that a small stream that rises in a spring some 2 kilometres away passes near the house, where it forms a lake before running off into the fields.   There is a mill wheel in a shed a short distance away, and it takes the water from the lake until, presumably, the lake is empty.

There is no longer any water passage from the lake to the mill, and the wheel is in disrepair.  The wheel takes water in at the top, turning so as to release it at the bottom, which is a more efficient use of the water's energy than the usual type of mill where the water runs underneath the wheel.  The wheel itself is about 7 metres in diameter.

Here's some pictures of the mill wheel and what's left of the mechanism.

Other aspects of the property were interesting: the water comes from a well, so it doesn't cost anything, except the annual analysis that is required since the water is drunk by farm animals (not required if the water is used solely by humans), and the owner owns a lot of hedges, so the wood-fired boiler is also free to run.  He has to pay for electricity but I wonder if the mill could be used to get that for free as well.   Possibly with solar panels as an adjunct.  Hmmmm.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Going Dutch

The Espace Eméraud is a chain of agricultural supply shops.  They do small tractors, lawn mowers, building materials, animal food, various tools, and industrial style clothing.  Perhaps that's why these rather fine acrylic knitted tops didn't sell: not agricultural enough.  Anyway they were on sale, 70% off!  How could I resist?  And they go well with jeans that I wear to the exclusion of almost any other form of trousers.  €17 the two.  Can't be bad.

Saturday, 22 July 2017


A music teacher called François Borne (1840 – 1920) went to see the opera Carmen and afterwards wrote a brilliant fantasy for flute based on its musical themes.  My flute teacher suggested that I practice it during the summer holidays, but she also suggested I make a point of seeing the opera; there are plenty of options on YouTube, or DVD.  As it happens I watched it twice; it was transmitted on France3 television with helpful subtitles, but there was also a live performance shortly afterwards at a nearby village.  I went to the dress rehearsal, being unable to make the official performance.

The performance was excellent, and a was communal effort.  The cast and support team of some 96 people were put up in local houses, and transported to and fro by volunteers.  The event was held in the grounds of a chateau and had an atmosphere all of its own. For example, the opera calls for a bell to announce the shutting of the cigarette factory where Carmen works, and the little bell that you can just about see on top of the chateau roof played this part.

The entire event was in the open air, a risky business.  One earlier rehearsal was interrupted by rain, since the orchestra couldn't play.  You don't want violins getting wet.  But the rain stayed away from the dress rehearsal and the performance.

Apparently, the owner of the chateau wants to make it a centre for performance arts, so I am looking forward to other similar events in future.

No event like this goes without a hitch.  I am told that the guy originally playing Don José had a heart attack on the way to the rehearsal (he is OK) and a last-minute sub (who in the event was a singer of international renown) had to be found.  A performer, feigning being woken up with a start, knocked over a candelabra, which called for some creative extinguishing of candles (not a beat was missed).

The conductor was good, too.  At a couple of places, where the singers were just a tiny bit out of synch with the orchestra, he signalled quite clearly, mouthing the words, and emphasising the beat, telling them exactly where they should be.

It was all excellent.

Update:  I discovered that the last-minute sub was Philippe Do.  I am told that he is a friend of the lady who played Carmen, and that she got him to cut short his holiday in Greece to come and sing on no notice whatsoever - that is, she called him in the morning and he was there the same evening for the dress rehearsal.

There were 1300 paying customers on the night - exceeding all expectations.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The harvesting of potatoes

This is the first year that I have had a serious attempt at growing potatoes.  I grew a few last year, just to see what would happen, and found it very satisfying digging up and eating the spuds at the end of the season.  I had decided not to grow ones that you can easily buy in the shops, and chose the variety called Miss Blush.    It has a blotchy pink and white skin, and tastes excellent, especially in salads.

This year I gave over much more space to potatoes, and have been digging up several of the varieties I planted in the Spring.  It's a bit early to be doing this, but the foliage had died back on these plants, and didn't look like it was going to add anything to the potatoes in the ground.  I think perhaps I didn't water them enough during the recent dry spell - other potato plants that the watering system reaches better are still growing strongly.

I have tried a few of this year's crop, and they taste good.  Varieties are Miss Blush, Franceline (it has pink skin), Institute de Beauvais (Pitted skin with white flesh, makes big potatoes) and Pink Fir Apple (Knobbly, with pink flesh).  The Miss Blush I saved over from last year's crop, but I don't think I will bother saving any this year, I'll just buy in new seed potatoes at the right time.  I found that the saved ones sprouted too early, so I had to plant them out, and then I fretted about the risk of frosts killing them.

I'll definitely make more of an effort to water them next year too.  The difference between the well-watered and not-so-well-watered is quite clear.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The growth of walnuts

Walnut trees grow like weeds here; they are well-adapted to our local conditions.  The soil is a stony clay about 2 feet thick, over well-drained calciferous rock, the summers can be long, hot and dry, all of which can make life difficult for small trees.

The first thing a walnut seedling (nutling?) does is send down a deep tap root to chase the water up from deep in the ground.   Self-seeded walnuts seem to survive the hottest summers, but transplanting them, which cuts the tap root, never works.

The walnut nutling will have a single vertical branch that shoots up quite quickly. However, this represents a tasty morsel for deer, boar and hares that eat the shoot or gnaw the bark off the stem.   But if the upper part of the tree is killed, the root just sends up several more branches to replace it.  These tend to shield each other so the tree has a chance of finding a leader shoot that remains uneaten, until it hardens.

Apparently, it's not good to put walnut shreddings onto compost heaps as they prevent the decay, so they have some kind of bug protection too.

And they make walnuts.  Excellent.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

It's fetch a bucket of water, boys

There have been several new country cycle routes and walks signposted in our area, and I have been doing parts of route no. 3 on my bike.  The motivations are several: a desire to keep fit, curiosity as to where they go, and to check out the accuracy of the signage.   There is an added benefit in that the route takes me to attractive and out-of-the-way places that I would not see in the normal run of events.

Today's route was typical.  I went to the village of Chammes (the farthest point from my place) via the shortest road route, and joined cycle path 3 to get back home.  So it was, when I got to the village of St. Jean sur Erve, instead of following the main road past the front of the church as I normally would, I took the signposted path around the back.

There I saw something that just strikes one as wrong.   That is, a smouldering hole in a garage door.   So I got off the bike, knocked on the nearest door:  "Sorry to trouble you, but...."   Buckets of water were fetched, and, it being impossible to open the doors for the time being, I reached in and used my water bottle to squirt water on the inside that we couldn't get to.

I was wondering how a fire like that starts low down in a garage door.  Someone told me that the council weed eradicators had been around that day with their weed burner.   Oops.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Trampled on with intent

I have/had a perfectly harmless rain gauge, it used to sit in the garden collecting rain, to tell me how much I needed to water the garden, if at all.   And here it is, smashed.   There are tell-tale signs of  wild boar having dug up bits of the garden around it.   Maybe I should start hunting them.

(French for wild boar: le sanglier.  Not to be confused with cendrier (ash tray))

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The rat trap

My Nan had a rat trap.  It worked on the same principle as the weedy little mouse traps that you can get, but it was much bigger, more powerful, and evil.  A spring-loaded bar is triggered by the rat's attempt to take the bait, and it comes down to break the rat's neck.  As a young kid, it took most of my strength to pull the bar back against the spring to set it, and if I accidentally caught my thumb in it, it hurt like hell.

After my grandad died, my Nan took in a lodger.   He was the only person who used the shed where Nan kept the rat trap.   I get the impression that he was not much liked by my family, although I had nothing against him.   So it was more out of childish malice than anything else, that I figured that if I set the trap, put it away on the shelf in the shed alongside some other innocuous items to conceal it, maybe it might get him.

I had forgotten all about it until one day my father came to me, and explained carefully that it was a really bad idea to leave set rat traps where people might find them.   The thing is, he couldn't keep his lips from twitching up at the end, so I knew I had struck gold.

There was one for sale at the car boot today.  Happy memories.
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