Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Chromecast

On a whim I got myself a Google Chromecast device the other day.   It has since become a standard piece of household kit in routine use.  It allows you to send pictures and movies that would appear on your PC or tablet, to a nearby TV screen.


That doesn't sound particularly exciting, but combined with suitable software on the Android tablet, it makes for an improved telly-watching experience.  Mine is an old TV, no internet connectivity and bought before the days of HDTV, and the Chromecast occupies one of its two HDMI slots.

A nice piece of Android software called Molotov lets you watch live TV and record chosen programmes, so together with Chromecast it eliminates the need for both an HD tuner box and a video recorder.   We're free trialling a Netflix sub (for the second time) and the Chromecast eliminates the hassle of having to connect up the tablet to the TV via the HDMI cable every time.   YouTube videos too are easier to watch on the big screen.  The tablet acts like a remote controller.

The thing seems to configure itself easily enough and I got it working in a few minutes.  It didn't start properly again the next day though, and I had to reset the router to get it to work.  Apart from these teething troubles it seems to work reliably (touch wood).

Picture quality is good; it starts out pretty rought but sharpens up in a few seconds. 


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Autumn harvest

Anita made this little decorative display in the dining room, all from the garden.


The Dahlias are at the back centre, with, to each side, an orange squash that I grew from seeds I collected from a commercial one that we ate last year.   The green and yellow stripey ones are an acorn squash, variety Harlequin.   The grey one is a small grey Hubbard squash, in fact the smallest one from the plants that I harvested - the other fruits are about 18 inches long, 12 diameter at their widest.   Plus, next to it, the red kuri squash that the French call a potimarron, that is also a Hubbard squash, but a much smaller variety.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Mushroom management

One of the specialist industries around Saumur is the growing of comestible mushrooms.   The deep caves in the soft rock make for ideal growing conditions with constant temperature and humidity.  We visited such a farm while we were there.

The mushrooms are grown for the most part, in small bales of nutrient wrapped in black plastic and with holes cut in, through which the fruiting bodies of the mushrooms grow.  Different recipes of nutrient suit different species of mushrooms, but most seem to be based on straw or hay, with manure added.


The place we went to is called Le Saut aux Loups and claims some 3km of caves under exploitation, of which about 500m are open to visitors.   The displays showed not only current crops of growing mushrooms, but also how they were grown in the past.  Apparently, they used to use internal combustion engines for certain mechanical tasks in the caves.  Despite the (natural) ventilation in place, I bet it made for a nasty working environment.


Gathering wild mushrooms is fairly popular in France, and every year some 1,000 people are poisoned, of which about 2% die.   The most common cause of death being the Death Cap fungus that resembles a number of edible species.   About the same number of people are accidentally shot and killed while hunting. 

I have been out on a mushroom gathering in an organised group along with an expert, and have also eaten some normal "champignons de Paris" (the small white ones with pink gills that you find in supermarkets everywhere) that I found in the garden.

It's not something I do very often.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The abbey at Fontevraud

The abbey at Fontevraud is about halfway between Saumur and Chinon, and we went to see it on the second day of our break.  It's a most impressive building, originally a monastery, then more recently a prison, now it is being restored as a tourist attraction and historical monument.

They had an exhibition of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son Richard the Lion Heart, both of whom are buried there.  Their effigies were on display, along with panels telling real-life Game of Thrones story of the Plantaganet dynasty.  (In English translation too, which is unusual for France, but the need to cater to tourists of multi-national origin is starting to be recognised)


You couldn't visit the kitchens because they were still being restored, but the tour of the rest of the building is interesting and well-signposted.  There was a display of spooky owl art in the abbey cellars.  Created by means of fine fluorescent thread attached to nails, and illuminated with ultra-vioilet, these shone out in blue and white in the otherwise dark catacombs.



Saturday, 7 October 2017

Art for art's sake

There was an exhibition of modern art on at the Chateau Montsoreau.   It probed the question of "what is art", to which the response is clearly "not that", especially if it needs to be justified by explanatory notices written in impenetrable artspeak.

There were some mirrors.  I call this picture "A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Photographer"



Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Montsoreau

We took a short break - two nights at Montsoreau, a little town on the Loire where it is joined by the Vienne, a short way upstream from Saumur.  We stayed at the hotel Le Bussy in a comortable room with a view of the chateau.


The chateau as it stands, no longer has the two high-peaked rooves that stood on top of the square towers at each end; they are now completely flat.   However, the one on the right is accessible to visitors and you get a good view of the Loir and surrounding countryside.  There was a housebout (apparently it's a toue cabanée - see comments) chugging past, heading for the Vienne, making waves on this otherwise calm day.






Friday, 29 September 2017

BBC wildlife attempt No 5

This scruffy green woodpecker was in the garden.  This photo was taken through a glass window; when I went outside to get closer, it flew away.


Thursday, 28 September 2017

Misty morning

A short stroll down the road.   This morning the early mist has left a heavy dew highlighting the cobwebs.  Ths sun is now illuminating it all.



Wednesday, 27 September 2017

New boots

I'm pleased with the Peugeot 308CC.   It holds the road well, has enough performance for the backroads of Mayenne, and can carry four people plus a full week's shopping.  Downsides?  It tends to aquaplane if there's surface water, and it munches through the tyres.

I've tried a number of different service stations in the area and I've hit on a favourite for the routine replacements of things like windscreen wipers and tyres:  Norauto in Laval.

When the windscreen wipers needed replacing, Anita bought some Bosch ones in a supermarket.  The mountings appeared to be a bit loose; at any rate they clacked against the windscreen with every wipe.  So we went to Norauto and said "Our windscreen wipers are noisy, do you have quiet ones?".  "Ah", they said, "you've got Bosch, here try these", and what's more they fitted them for free.

Just recently I needed new front tyres, and I went to the same place.  Best price ever, and a good brand (Pirelli).  Tracking sorted too.




Saturday, 23 September 2017

Friday, 22 September 2017

Splitting logs

I have chopped down a few trees for firewood, and turning chopped-down trees into logs suitable for the fire usually involves splitting at least some of them.  This is hard work.  I tend to use an axe, but the last time I did that I strained some tendons in my arm that took two years to heal.  You can get electric log splitters but they're not very powerful, and are usually limited to logs smaller than those that I create.

On my walk in the village yesterday I chanced up on a group of village elders creating firewood out of fallen trees.  They weren't messing about.  A big log splitter attached to a tractor was making light work of things.  I want one of those.


Thursday, 21 September 2017

A walk in the village

My feet took me into the village today, and since I had the camera with me, I took some snaps.  There's an artwork exhibition in place, consisting in part of silhouettes in sheet metal, in strategic positions around the village.  I particularly like these fish that are placed upstream of the barrage, so that from the pedestrian footbridge, you see their clear reflection in the water.



Elsewhere there are lambs, and random people and family groups.  But this guy just looks to me like he is pissing in the hedge.


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

Stumped

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).




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