Thursday, 24 August 2017

Farmers Worried About Reform

The local newspaper had an article yesterday about farmers' concerns regarding recent national budget cuts to grants made through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP, or PAC if you are French). France has the most land under agriculture of any of the EU countries, so the CAP is particularly important here. Local farmers union members called an on-farm meeting with our local representatives in the National Assembly to get their point across.

The 'disadvantaged' southern Touraine countryside.

The farm near Sepmes that they meet on runs dairy cattle and grows grain which is used to feed the stock on farm. The farmer is a young woman of 30 who is in the process of buying the business from her former boss, an older farmer who is retiring. The hand over period is three years. The farm is 60 ha with 70 dairy cows and maize cultivation, partly irrigated. Under new rules just announced the new owner will not receive €6500 that she had hitherto been expecting as a grant to aid the transition. In addition, there has been a major redefining of agricultural areas considered to be 'disadvantaged' and she will lose nearly as much because of being recategorised.

 A local dairy farm (photo courtesy of my father).

The reason for the budget cuts at a national level are because of an EU decision to shift 4.2% of the CAP budget from direct farm payments to the more general aim of 'rural development'. These two types of payment are known as the 'twin pillars' of the CAP. In the past the direct farm payments have been aimed particularly at supporting the markets and protecting the incomes of farmers. The new focus is looking more towards the environment and farmers are having a hard time swallowing it. The farmers union is at pains to point out that it is not just graziers who will lose out, but, for example, a cereal farmer with 150 ha will lose €1300 a year under the reforms. The farmers are also not happy about the new boundaries outlining the disadvantaged areas. The Touraine du Sud (that's us and the area around Loches) is 'disadvantaged' but the Sainte Maure plateau (where Sepmes is) is not.

Typical local cereal farms. 

The reforms have been pushed back a year and the farmers are determined to make the most of the repreve. But the clock is ticking. One dairy farmer pointed out that when he started out there were ten dairy farmers in the immediate area. Five of them remain today and there will be no more than three in six months time.

 Barley is widely grown.

On one level I sympathise deeply with these farmers. I know they have long term plans that have been scuppered by this change in government policy and they are struggling to see a way forward. But the truth is the CAP direct farm payments are a really blunt instrument. Essentially farmers are paid for just owning the land, and the more they have the bigger the grant they receive. My local organic market gardeners and orchardists have very little land, and receive very little in the way of EU grants. On the other hand, the big cereal farmers are getting tens of thousands every year, and choosing to ignore the environmental damage they are causing.

 Beautiful barley.

Modern agricultural practice is having a huge impact on our environment. It ruins soil quality (by heavy machinery and deep tillage), water quality (by runoff of pesticides and excess nutrients) and air quality (by creating a toxic mix of ammonia from manure and diesel fumes). The CAP is currently not set up to adequately deal with these issues. Something must change, and farmers must be incentivised to change how they do things.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Former Occupants

One of the things that struck me about the Grand Défilé (Grand Parade) of the recent Comice Agricole (Agricultural Show) was how many people got smartly dressed to attend. They were also nostalgic, happily reliving a social occasion they remembered fondly from their childhood. Lots of people my age and older reminisced about Comices in the past.

Mid-afternoon of the great day we got a knock at the door. It was Gérard, who grew up in our house, and his wife Marie-France. They were in town because they wanted to catch the Grand Défilé, and they had brought Gérard's sisters to meet us and see what we've done to the old place. It was fascinating hearing the three of them discussing what they remembered and how the rooms were laid out.

Gérard, Claudette and Sylvie.
There was a minor argument about where the kitchen stove was, but it was eventually established that Gérard and Claudette were talking about two different stoves. He is older than the girls and remembers more. He remembers for example, when our laundry had an external door. It was wrought iron and always locked. He can't ever remember it being used. Claudette could remember the big table that sat in the middle of the kitchen. Their grandparents employed a number of men and in those days everyone ate lunch together around the big kitchen table. Claudette reckons it was about eight people every day for lunch, which I assume her grandmother produced.

Their family also owned our neighbour's place and they can remember the linden tree in their back yard being planted, so it's about 50 years old. Apparently it used to have a companion.

After the visit Claudette emailed me a copy of the deed when their grandparents purchased the property. It dates from 1900, and we will have to pour over it to extract all the interesting little tidbits of information it doubtless contains. Gérard is vastly amused that one of our Tractions is called Claudette. She was named before we even knew of his sister Claudette's existence, but she is chuffed to bits to have a namesake in the garage.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Les Greniers de Cesar

Recently we had the opportunity to visit the Greniers de César (Caesar's Granaries) in Amboise. They are privately owned, by the Hotel Le Choiseul, and access is by guided visit or permission of the hotel only. 

Once the Duc de Choiseul's townhouse, now a luxury hotel.

They are well worth going to see if you get the chance. Consisting of several large tunnels gouged out of the limestone spur that Amboise is built on, they don't sound very exciting, but believe me, they are stonking!

The site was originally occupied by an Italian hermit called Francis de Paule, who came at the request of Louis XI in the middle of the 15th century. The Duc de Choiseul, former Prime Minister to Louis XV, took over the site about 1770, when he was sent into exile by the King.

Looking up at the tunnel entrances.

The 'Granaries' are a series of vaulted tunnels excavated from the limestone. Their length varies from 40 to 90 metres and they are 12 metres high. The lower tunnel was dug independently of the others, the upper ones are divided into three by wooden floors.

19th century historians believed that the site was Roman in origin, and they've been known as the 'Greniers de César' since at least the 18th century. We know that the Romans chased the Turonien Celts off the plateau in the first century BC. The Turoniens had lived there for centuries, but there is no evidence that Julius Caesar was ever in Amboise.  

The eastern tunnel, level two.

A municipal archive document from 1548 mentions the digging of tunnels for Sir Jehan Gastignon, herbalist-apothecary royal. So the tunnels would have been simple quarries, and the stone used to construct a quay on the Loire. 

On the death of Gastignon the 'Granaries' were sold to the monks of Les Minimes, the convent next door. They modified the tunnels and added the wooden floors to use the complex to store tithes of cereals. They also dug four silos to dry their grain. The silos are brick bottle shaped constructions with a void between the bricks and the rock. Originally the gap between the inner and outer skins of the silos was filled with sand dredged from the river, to control the humidity and keep the grain dry. A staircase links the river to the plateau and comes out in a private garden just beyond the Chateau Royal grounds. Trapdoors allowed the grain to be dropped in from the chateau level, stored in the central brick bottle shaped silos and dropped through to the ground level when the time came to take the grain away for use. Nowadays the silos are also enfilade, with doorways leading from one to the other. These were added sometime before 1830.

The underside of one of the wooden floors dividing the main tunnel.

At the Revolution the religious community was evicted from les Minimes and the granaries abandoned. In the 19th century they became the property of the chemist Chaptal, who bought the Choiseul estate. The cone shaped objects you can see on the cornices in some of the photos are sugar moulds from Chaptal's factory. No one knows why they are now in the tunnels. Later the tunnels became wine cellars, and are now owned by the Hotel Choiseul.

The staircase from looking from level two up to the plateau.

For more information (in French) with diagrams, check out Touraine Insolite.

The inside of one of the silos.

Many thanks to Grégory Millet, our guide at the Greniers de César, who took the time to email me his notes after our visit. Grégory is a professional guide working for the Tourist Office in Amboise and can be contacted there for any information about the area.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Gonzague is Gone

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Giant Stinging Tree

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Assumption Day in Lesigny

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

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

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

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

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

Parked up in Yzeures.

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

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

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

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

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