31 July 2008

Vineyard sunrise, collards, and walks

Of course, I'm looking west at sunrise, out over
the Renaudie vineyards — not toward the sun.

On my walk this morning, I picked a good bouquet of wild chicory, which I put in water. I'm waiting for the flowers to fade and then I'll get the seeds for my planting out back.

Cornflowers (wild chicory) for seeds

This morning I'm going to plant a row or two of collard greens so we will have a crop in November and December, before the first hard freeze. If we get a hard freeze... because sometimes we don't. I tilled up a new plot yesterday.

The new garden plot, for collard greens

The weather continues hot and dry. Too hot, almost. And too dry. After all my complaining about having too much rain in 2007 and the first four months of 2008, now I want rain and I'm complaining about it being too dry. Jamais content, décidément.

Seeds for two varieties of collards
that I brought back from North Carolina

Meanwhile, on my morning walk I actually counted the steps I take going out to the end of the gravel road that runs through the vineyard. It turns out to be 1,600 steps, one way. So 3,200 for a round trip. That's not much, since some people I know are now walking 11,000 steps a day for health purposes. I'd better start taking two walks a day instead of just one.

30 July 2008

An unusual church in Chârost

Chârost is a very old village located about 15 miles west of Bourges in the Berry. It's more than an hour's drive from Saint-Aignan. CHM and I went there on our way back from Bourges in mid-June.

The church in Chârost near Bourges

The guide books say there is a château, or at least the ruins of one, in Chârost, but it is almost completely hidden behind walls and trees. We got just a glimpse of it. We stopped and looked around the church grounds. We even went inside the church — which meant going to get the key at the Mairie, the village hall, next door — but about half of it was closed off because it's being restored.

Chârost — no, it is not brick.

The town itself didn't look very prosperous, and it was nearly deserted at 5:00 p.m. on a weekday. It's not far from Bourges, but much closer to Issoudun. The Reuilly and Quincy (AOC Sauvignon Blanc) wine areas are to the north.

The side portal of the church and a close-up

This part of the old Berry province used to be a mining center. There's a lot of iron ore in the local rock. The church in Chârost is built of limestone that contains a good amount of that ore, and the church walls look as if they are rusting. I guess they are.

L'Eglise St-Michel in Chârost

The Eglise St-Michel is an abbey church in Romanesque style dating back to the 12th century. I want to go back one day to see the part of the church that was closed off to visitors.

28 July 2008

Just some clouds and a breeze

It was anticlimactic. Météo France predicted big storms for last night. About 6:00 p.m. the wind started blowing the trees around, and we had a few drops of rain. The high temperature in the afternoon had been 31ºC or 88ºF. But it wasn't too muggy.

We closed all the shutters all around the house, because predictions were for hard rain, strong winds, and maybe some hail. We put the car in the garage for the first time in months. Then we waited. Walt watched the rain on weather radar sites on the web. It was all west of us, along the coast from Bordeaux up to Cherbourg.

And, well, it all passed us right by. We never did get any rain. We didn't hear any thunder, we felt no stronger winds than the first gusts early in the evening, and there isn't a drop of water in the rain gauge this morning. It's a good thing I watered the plants that needed watering yesterday morning.

Our friends who own a house about 10 miles south of Saint-Aignan were supposed to leave this morning to return to California. I'm glad I didn't have to go, but I'm also glad they didn't have to make the drive to Paris through stormy weather.

Skies over the vineyard at sunrise yesterday

What they do is get up in the middle of the night and leave their house at about 4:00 a.m. to drive to Charles de Gaulle airport, which is on the north side of Paris. The drive takes at least three hours — unless there is traffic, and then it takes longer. That's the unpredictable part. Then they have to wait several hours at the airport before spending an hour or two going through all the security checks.

The flight from Paris to San Francisco takes 11 hours. It's a very long haul.

Callie waiting for the stormy weather to arrive
and maybe doing some California dreaming

I think I'll just stay here. I'm not much of a traveler any more. The only reason I wanted to travel when I lived all those years in California was to come to France. Or to go see my family in North Carolina. Now I just have one destination when I get on a plane, and that's N.C. Otherwise, I'll just stay in France.

The news on France 2 TV just reported that there was heavy weather down south of us yesterday and last night. In the Lot and the Tarn-et-Garonne departments, trees were down and there was some flooding. We were spared.

Hot weather

Can you tell how hot it was over the weekend by looking at the picture below? The red-hot sun was going down behind the trees that close in our back yard.

Sunset in the back yard, 26 August 2008

Over the hedge in the other direction, I could see the roof of one of the neighbors' houses as the sun went down.

The rooftops of La Renaudière near Saint-Aignan

I walked out to the back gate to get a better view of the sunset. It was about 9:00 p.m. Saturday night.

Another nice sunset, summer 2008

Weather any hotter that we're having right now would get downright uncomfortable. The temperature hit 28.2ºC late yesterday afternoon — almost 83ºF. If that doesn't seem hot to you, you must live in a place with a very hot climate. It's supposed to hit 30º or even 31ºC — 86ºF — today here and in Paris, before some thunderstorms roll through tonight.

Callie has learned to wait patiently
while I take pictures on our daily walks.

On my walk with the dog — a sweltering, sweaty walk — I stayed in the shade as much as possible. I took my usual pictures of flowers I noticed growing by the side of the path.

I'd like to know what these are. They grow all around the
vineyard. They are tiny, no more than a ½-inch across.

Today, I think, Walt is publishing pictures he took in the vegetable garden over the weekend. But I'll post the one below anyway.

Tomates, aubergines, poivrons, courgettes,
basilic, thym, et haricots verts

If the weather doesn't turn on us, it should be a good garden year. We got off to a late start, so we need a long growing season if we are to have good crops. Cross your fingers.

27 July 2008

Wild chicory

Wild chicory flowers are really not easy to photograph. When the sun is shining on them, the color is washed out — at least the color that the digital camera sees. The pictures in this post show them in various shades of blue and violet, but in reality they are very blue.

Wild chicory is growing all around the edges of the vineyard, in uncultivated patches between the individual parcels of land planted in grapes, and all up and down the gravel road that runs for a mile out back.

When the flowers (which are sometimes called cornflowers) are not in full sun — for example, early in the morning or late in the afternoon — the flowers close up. All in all, it's really hard to get a true-color photo of a fully open flower.

If you try to take a picture of a 'stand' of chicory flowers from a distance, you don't see much. You have to get up close to them to really appreciate them. The human eye appreciates them more than the camera lens does.

The wild chicory plant is native to Europe and the British Isles, but it has been widely naturalized in North America. Chicory roots can be baked, ground, and used as a coffee substitute or additive.

Even though the term cornflower is sometimes applied to wild chicory, there's another flower called a cornflower or batchelor's button that's an annual. I thought at first that that's what we had growing in the vineyard, but it turns out to be wild chicory.

I'm thinking of trying to gather some seeds from these flowers this summer and then planting them out back next spring, just outside our fence, where I have cleared out a blackberry bramble. Or maybe I can just dig some up, since chicory is a perennial. The flowers would make a bright blue patch that would be nice to look at.

26 July 2008

Hoopoes (2)

We turned around and when we arrived back at the intersection where we had seen the hoopoe... there it was, still scratching around at the base of that hedge. Cheryl saw the bird immediately, and we both got a good look at it for two or three minutes.

Cars passing by so close didn't seem to bother the hoopoe. After a couple of minutes, it flew off to the north and seemed to be taking whatever it had found on the ground to a big tree behind a building maybe 200 meters distant. It didn't stay gone long, though, and it was back in a minute, again scratching around for food or nesting materials.

A blurry picture of a hoopoe prancing
along the side of the road on the Ile d'Oléron.

I couldn't get a good photo because the sun was low in the sky over my shoulder and the glare on my camera's LCD screen was blinding. I couldn't see what I was trying to photograph. The camera has no viewfinder other than the little screen.

Can you see it off to the left side?
I couldn't see anything on my camera's screen.

It was also really hard to take a picture of the hoopoe because it was on the other side of the street from us and there were more and more cars going by. I had parked my car in the worst possible place, nearly in the intersection and partially blocking the lane I was in — just halfway off the road. And we didn't want to walk across the street because we figured that would scare the hoopoe away for good.

Cheryl got what was probably the best picture
of the morning. We were blocking traffic as
she snapped pictures from inside the car.

Then the bird flew away to the south, flying toward some trees over that way. I said I really needed to move the car. Cheryl said she'd walk over in the direction where the hoopoe had flown while I moved the car. There was a bus turnout that would be a good place to park. Then we would wait calmly for a few more minutes to see if we could see the hoopoe again and get a better picture or two of it.

Well, it didn't come back. Cheryl was really excited and at the same time very patient. The hoopoe was all she could think and talk about. We weren't in any hurry after all, so we could wait. And wait. We had had some coffee before we left the gîte. But there no more sign of the hoopoe. At least Cheryl had actually seen it.

Finally we gave up and got back in the car to continue our drive over to the Intermarché store, in search of a replacement coffee pot. But as we pulled away from the bus turnout, there was the hoopoe again, on the side of the road. Excited again, Cheryl grabbed her camera and started trying to snap some good pictures. I turned on the car's emergency flashers, stopped at the curb, and signaled for the cars behind me go on around. At 9:30 or so, morning traffic had started to build up.

People must have wondered what we were doing and looking at. A pedestrian pushing a bicycle was coming toward us. Cheryl was snapping pictures. The hoopoe was oblivious to all of it. Then the bird saw the pedestrian approaching and took flight. It flew right toward the car windshield and then veered off, passing within a foot or two of the open passenger window. For a moment I thought the hoopoe was going to fly right into the car, but it swooped on past and disappeared into the distance. We were still amazed that we had gotten so close to such a beautiful bird.

Improvising some coffee-making
for lack of a Moulinex carafe at the

We finally arrived at the Intermarché store only to find it closed — not open on Sundays at all. We drove back up the road to a big Champion supermarket, but there we didn't find any replacement coffee pots. We ended up having to return to Intermarché the next day, and there we did find the coffee carafe we needed. For two mornings, however, we had to improvise methods of making coffee.

Meanwhile, that Monday morning, I walked Callie down to the beach and back. On the way back to the gîte, I passed a shuttered-up beach house with a big back yard, all fenced in. I looked over the fence and there, to my surprise, what did I see? A hoopoe. It flew off when I startled it and that was that.

One more attempt to get a good picture

We didn't see any more hoopoes on the Ile d'Oléron. A week later, we drove back to Saint-Aignan. And a few days after that, Cheryl and Walt took the train to Paris to go to the French Open tennis tournament. I drove them to the little train station over on the other side of the Cher River from our house.

These pictures really aren't worth enlarging, but
they were the best we could do under the circumstances.

When they were safely on the train and headed for Paris via Tours, I went back to the car and started home. I needed to stop at the supermarket, so I took a little narrow road from the station toward our local Intermarché. It had been raining, and the road was partially flooded. I was going pretty slow. And then all of a sudden I saw what but a hoopoe on the side of the pavement. It flew up and right toward the car windshield as I approached, before veering off the the right.

I started to think I had become a hoopoe magnet.

I'll probably never see another hoopoe in my life.
How many of you reading this have ever seen one?

A week or two later, our friend CHM was visiting. He and I went out for a ride around the lanes and through the villages on the north bank of the Cher, across from Saint-Aignan. We saw three or four hoopoes along the edge of the road that June afternoon as we toured around.

And then later in June Walt and I started seeing the small group of hoopoes in the vineyard on our walks with Callie. We both saw them a couple of times at least. I read that hoopoes migrate between sub-Saharan Africa and France at different times of the year, and when I stopped seeing that little flock in the rows of vines last month I assumed they had flown south.

Then just a day or two ago I saw another one. This is definitely the year of the hoopoe for me.

Here are two interesting web sites. First, hoopoe postage stamps from many nations. And then a site where you can not only see pictures but hear the hoopoe's call.

25 July 2008

Hoopoes (1)

I saw another hoopoe this morning. I was convinced the hoopoes had all flown back to Africa by now. But there's at least one still out in the Renaudière vineyard.

A month or so ago, I saw a group of three or four hoopoes several times on my morning walks with the dog. They were feeding between rows of grapevines, and Callie would flush them out. Problem was, it always happened too fast for me to take a picture.

Peterson's drawings of the hoopoe

It was the same thing this morning. Too fast, I mean. I was just walking down the gravel road through the vineyard when I noticed a bird that flew low, right across my line of sight. It must have been 10 or 12 feet off the ground. As as it flew by, the rising sun shone on it and I could see that it was definitely a hoopoe — une huppe fasciée in French.

This has been the year of the hoopoe for me. It all started on the Ile d'Oléron in May, when we spent a week down there with our bird-watching friend Cheryl. Her long-time goal — I just looked at e-mails we got from her after her 2003 visit to Saint-Aignan — was to see a hoopoe, if at all possible. She has another bird-watcher friend who asks her, she said, every time she comes back from a trip to France: "Did you see a hoopoe this time?" In 2003 and 2006, she had to answer in the negative.

The first one we ever saw was in March or April of 2004. Walt spotted an unusual-looking bird feeding on the ground out in our back yard. He thought it was a woodpecker at first. He called me to the window and we both got a good look at it. It had a big crest, an orange-ish color, and black and white stripes on its wings and body. We didn't have a camera out and didn't get a picture.

Hoopoes on the covers of the two bird books we have

I remember racing to the bird books (one English — Peterson's — and one French). I thumbed through the pages of both until I found a picture of a bird that resembled the one we had seen in the back yard. It was definitely a huppe fasciée, a hoopoe.

Then I put one of the books down and glanced at the cover. Right there, staring me in the face, was a hoopoe. I looked at the other bird book. Another hoopoe! Right on the cover. I had never noticed before.

On the Ile d'Oléron, it was Sunday morning at about 9:00 a.m. The glass carafe for the coffeemaker in the little house we had rented for the week was broken. Catastrophe! No way to make coffee on our first morning there, and Cheryl needs her coffee (Walt and I can and usually do drink tea).

So as early as we could, Cheryl and I set out in the car to go find a new glass carafe for the Moulinex coffee maker. Grocery stores are open on Sunday mornings in France, and Walt said he was sure that Intermarché carried replacement carafes for many brands of coffeemakers. There was an Intermarché five or six miles down the road from where we were staying.

We came to an intersection with a stop light. We were talking, of course, but I noticed a bird at the base of a tall hedge, right on the side of the road, on the other side of the intersection. The light turned green, and we started moving. I kept watching the bird, wondering what it was. Oh, it's just a pigeon, I said to Cheryl, as we drove on past it.

As we passed, I got a better look at it. Then I realized what I was seeing. "It's a damn' hoopoe!" I yelled out. "Oh no, really?" Cheryl cried out. She looked at me and said, "Can we turn around and go back? I didn't see it and I really want to see a hoopoe." She was upset she had missed it.

I of course turned around as soon as I could, but I was sure the bird would be long gone by the time we got back to that intersection. But it was early enough on a Sunday morning that there was hardly any traffic at all.

Click to read part 2

24 July 2008

Vineyard: status report

Just a few pictures I've taken over the past few days out in the vineyard. This beautiful weather we've been having is making the grapes develop really fast.

I haven't yet seen any that are turning red, however. There are both red and white varieties in the Renaudière vineyard. The reds are Gamay, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec (called Côt here).

The shot below is the vineyard looking more or less east toward our house. It really is a sea of green vines surrounded by little islands of woods. And this is only a small part of the vineyards on this side of the river, west of Saint-Aignan.

Yesterday the temperature hit 80ºF. That's really summery weather for us. Pourvu que ça dure, as they say: Let's hope it lasts.

Anything hotter would be too hot. Houses here aren't air-conditioned, because you would rarely need AC even if you had it. The big old stone farmhouses stay cool all summer. Newer house like ours, built of concrete block, do heat up when there's a long heat wave, but that almost never happens. The summer of 2003 was the exception, and I know people who bought air-conditioners after that. They've never used them since.

Our vegetable garden is really coming along at this point too. We have some green tomatoes, some little eggplants, and of course some zucchinis on the way. We are determined to pick the zucchinis while they are small this year. Like most years, we'll probably still end up with some monsters. We will also be busy picking a lot of haricots verts over the next few weeks. One whole garden plot is given over to beans this summer.

23 July 2008

The Festival of the Snails

We didn't take a picture of this sign on Sunday,
but on Tuesday I had to go down to the village
and the sign was still out on the side of the road.

In our village near Saint-Aignan, the annual summer festival is called La Fête des Lumas. I was mystified when I first heard about it five years ago — that's when we moved to the Loire Valley. Then I found out that the word luma in regional French means "snail." (Here's a link to a Wikipedia article about snails in French. And also a link to Walt's blog topic on the subject of our local snail festival.)

Luma as a word for "snail" made some sense to me, despite the fact that in standard French the word would be escargot, as we all know. The French word for "slug" — which is a snail without a shell, as we all also know — is limace, pronounced [lee-MAHSS]. From luma to limace is but a short phonetic voyage. Even a snail wouldn't need much time to complete that linguistic trip.

The part of the snail festival we went to see was the flea market.
It wasn't really "exotic" and we didn't buy anything.

Luma is another name for the snail called the petit-gris. That's different from the escargot de Bourgogne, which is called the gros-blanc. The color, gray or white, describes not the snail's shell but the color of its flesh. Here in Saint-Aignan, we see a lot of the "little-grays" outside in the garden, but I don't think I've ever seen a "big-white." We used to see a lot of petits-gris in California too. They were evidently imported from Europe in the 19th century or even earlier.

Somehow, calling snails by a term so closely related to the word for "slug" makes them seem even less appetizing, doesn't it? But people eat clams, oyster, mussels, conchs, and other mollusks, so mollusks that live on land, like snails, are fair game too.

Wonder why it is that people don't eat slugs? I bet some do. Or used to.

As Walt said, one of the big acts at the festival was
this French group that performs Beatles' songs.

So when did people start eating snails? I found this web site in French that gives an answer to that question. Reading it, I learned that there are 40,000 species of gastropods (snails and slugs) on Earth and that, according to archeological evidence, people have been eating them since at least the Mesolithic Era —12,000 years ago.

The Ancients, Greek and Roman, enjoyed eating snails too. Pliny writes that Romans liked to have some grilled snails and a glass of wine at snack-time. One enterprising Roman came up with the idea of gathering and feeding snails to fatten them up. The practice spread throughout the Empire.

At the time of the French Renaissance, 500 years ago, people got interested in all things Ancient again — including snails. In fact, snails and frogs are cold-blooded animals, so they fall into the same category as fish. During Lent and on Fridays, in monasteries and convents all around France, members of religious orders ate snails, frog's legs, or fish instead of meat. In the French provinces, so did everybody else, even when the more affluent crowd in Paris turned their nose up at them.

I liked this old Peugeot 403 (produced from 1955 to 1966)
that I saw down in the village on Sunday.

In the early 1800s, the famous chef and gastronome named Carême — he who presided over the kitchens at the Château de Valençay, about 20 minutes from Saint-Aignan — got interested in escargots. He served them to the Czar at a state dinner. They became all the rage in Paris society. Restaurants started serving snails Burgundy-style — that's with butter, garlic, and parsley. That's the way you eat them today in France, most of the time.

In fact, I can't remember the last time I ate snails. I didn't go to the Fête des Lumas to eat, but I know that snails are what was served. Walt had some in a restaurant a year or two ago. Maybe I'll have to do the same the next time we go out to dinner.

22 July 2008

Harvesting grain

We spent the afternoon out in the country with friends who have a house about 10 miles south of Saint-Aignan. The land down there is given over to real agriculture, with rotating crops of barley, sunflowers, rapeseed (aka colza or Canola), and hay. Not grapes.

The grain harvest is under way at full tilt all over northern France right now. The weather has been relatively warm and dry since May 1 — especially compared to the weather a year ago. This is the driest July here since we put in our first vegetable garden in 2004 and started keeping track of rainfall.

I think the grain you see being harvested in these two pictures is barley, but I'm not sure. It could be wheat. I know a lot of wheat is grown in the region called La Beauce, which is the flat country with wide fields of grain just north of us. We drive through there on the way to Chartres and Paris.

The grape harvest won't start until September unless the weather turns really hot and speeds things along.

21 July 2008

Campeurs !

The Renaudière vineyards yesterday morning

Twice in the past week when I've gone out for a morning walk with the dog, I've seen people camping out in the vineyard. I don't know if there's any rule about camping out there, but it's unusual for us to see camping cars and tents.

A family in a camping-car (that's French) out in the vineyard

Then yesterday there were cars parked out where I often walk with Callie. Three of them. From a distance, I thought what ended up being little tents were trailers or farm equipment of some kind.

Cars and tents

It was only when I got home and looked at my pictures on the computer that I could see that the red and white things were tents. These campers, like the ones in the RV, cleared out pretty early in the morning and I haven't seen them again. I guess they were doing what in French is called camping sauvage — outside campgrounds with no hookups for water or electricity.

Mareuil-sur-Cher, near Saint-Aignan

Yesterday our village, pictured above from a vantage point I hadn't found before, had its annual festival. Included in the festivities are a big flea market, music, and food. We went down and looked around but didn't buy anything.

Caterpillar on yellow flowers

One more picture: I wonder if this caterpillar is going to turn into one of the butterflies I've seen recently. As you can see, we are having very fine weather.