Friday, 21 November 2014

Why some autumns have better colours than others

Posted by Rosie

I mentioned recently how we have had probably our best autumn colours here in France since we arrived.  Why is it though, that some autumns are wonderful and others are rather drab?  It's all down to 2 factors, the weather and the tree species affecting the colour pigments in leaves.

Autumn colours are caused by 2 groups of pigments in the leaves, carotenoids and anthocyanins.  Throughout the year a third pigment, the more well know chlorophyll used in photosynthesis, masks other pigments and so the leaves appear predominantly green.  As the tree prepares for leaf fall in autumn less chlorophyll is produced and other pigments can show their colours.  Carotenoids are present in the leaf all year round and they give leaves their yellow, gold and orange colour.

Carotenoid pigments in beech leaves

Anthocyanins give the red and purple colours but they are only produced at the end of summer in a complex process connected with sugar production and the decrease in chlorophyll manufacture.  The brighter the light levels and drier the weather, the greater the production of anthocyanins so in a hot, dry late summer and early autumn you will see good colour as the season progresses.

Anthocyanin pigments in Virginia Creeper leaves

Not all trees are the same though and some contain more of these colour-giving pigments than others.  Maples, dogwoods, cherries and some oaks contain the most and these are the predominant tree species in New England, a region famous for it's autumn colours.  In Great Britain (and probably Normandy) only about 10% of the trees have these high levels of pigments so we can never really compete with New England.  That said this year has been wonderful.  The weather earlier will have helped to produce some of the colours but a long calm autumn (except for the day the boys and yours truly decided to take a ferry to England in the tail end of a hurricane!) has meant that the leaves have not been blown off early and so the colours have had the time to develop and shine through.

Cherry Tree at Eco-Gites of Lenault

In Normandy this year, it is the carotenoid yellows, gold and oranges that have really been the stars of the autumn show.  Having some lovely sunsets has also helped to show our late autumn colours at their very best.  This was our oak tree aa couple of days ago, bathed in the bright orange light of a fabulous sunset.

Oak tree bathed in the light of an autumn sunset

Have you had a good autumn where you live?  What colours have been the best?

Post Comment Love

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Strawberry Fields Forever ... Getting Weedy

Posted by Rosie

As you may have read in a blog I wrote earlier in the year I am a great lover of landscape fabric that I use to cover the veg patch in winter, suppressing the weeds, whilst the worms work away underneath incorporating the manure I have also added, into the soil.  There are, however, places the fabric is harder to use and without careful weeding things can get out of hand ... namely the strawberry patch.  Now I know a lot of people go grow their strawberries through holes in the fabric but I have never done this as I like to allow the plants to put out runners in late summer which when rooted I can pot up for new plants to replace old ones. 

My initial strawberry patch that we planted in 2008 when we first moved to Lenault had become very weedy so I took the decision 2 years ago to dig up some of the plants and create a new bed. So far so good and this summer I had a fantastic crop of strawberries from it.  I had also repeated the exercise a year ago to further extend the bed but this has been much less successful.  It may be that the soil I planted into was too full of weed seeds or I may have brought the weeds over in the roots of the transplants.  I don't know but the result is an exceedingly weedy second strawberry bed.  The main intruder is a species of buttercup and it doesn't help that the leaves of this looks very much like those of strawberries plus it has exceedingly tenacious rootss that make it hard to dig up.

This is what I have to deal with:

The newer strawberry bed - most of what you see are buttercup leaves

Below are the 2 beds side by side:  The older bed that I have weeded through easily is on the left and the newer problem bed is on the right. 

2 year old weed weed-free strawberry bed on the left

What should I do?  This was some of my 2014 harvest and I really do want to see this sight again come the summer.  Whilst the one bed will give me lots of strawberries I actually want MOUNTAINS of the things.  There's strawberry gateaux I want to bake, jam to make, strawberry liqueur and ice cream.  Oh and strawberry sauce and rhubarb and strawberry crumble and and and .....

I have a plan!

Over the next few weeks I shall try and weed through the second bed.  If this works with luck the plants will be bigger next summer and their leaves will help shade out the weeds (fingers crossed).  I do however have a plan B.  When weeding the older bed I pulled up several of the runners by accident and I have potted these up.  If weeding is unsuccessful I shall cover the patch with fabric and come the spring plant through the fabric with the plants I have in pots.  It may make it harder to get new runners but I do have the other bed for these.

Weeded out strawberry runners waiting to be potted up.

Time will tell which method turns out to be the best .. quite possibly plan C which I have not even thought about yet!  In the meantime I have a freezer full of strawberries waiting to be turned into jam - something that I will thoroughly enjoy doing in the midst of winter, filling our kitchen with the colours and smells of summer.

For more garden updates do head on over to Mammasaurus and the How Does Your Garden Grow linky.  I'm betting there may not be many strawberries there but you never know!

Simple Wanderlust

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Top Planning Tips to Reduce Food Bills

Posted by Rosie

There are many ways that you can reduce your food and cooking bills.  I have already blogged about cooking utensils to save you money, cooking methods that reduce your fuel bills and how to be a money conscious food shopper.  In the fourth and final part of this mini series on reducing your food bills I look at planning:

How many times have you got in late, there’s nothing in the fridge and you find it’s all too easy to ring for an expensive take-away? With a little forward planning this problem can disappear and you can save those takeaways for that special Friday Night in!

Top Planning Tips to Reduce Food Bills

1. Meal planning

I have seen many people do this and who swear that it reduces the risk of not having a meal ready or the ingredients in for a tasty supper.  The idea is to plan a week’s worth of meals in advance so you know what you are cooking every day and you can plan the time needed to prepare it.

2. Weekly meal preparation

Some people like to go one step further and cook all their meals for the week in one hit and freeze them.  If this is taking organisation just too far for you (and also some meals just do not freeze) it is well worth having a few ready cooked meals in the freezer so you are never caught out.  A home-made quiche for example can be reheated in probably less time than it takes to choose, order and receive a takeaway! 

3.  Batch cooking

Batch cooking is where you cook several of the same dish and freeze some for future use. If the oven is on for one lasagne then make a couple more to freeze.  A full freezer is more energy efficient than an empty one too. Cakes and bread are perfect for batch cooking but there are lots of other dishes that freeze really well. Get yourself a freezer cookbook or have a nosy round the Internet for recipes you like.  Just remember that most dishes need to defrost before reheating and will need taking out of the freezer in advance.

Batch cooking bread

4.  Freezer log book

If you have a freezer, keep a logbook of what's in there and that way you shouldn't end up with items lurking uneaten at the bottom for several years. 7 year old worcesterberries hiding in the bottom of my freezer were an all time record but I am sure someone could better that!  And talking of frozen food make sure you label things clearly.  Apple pie and mash never was a good combination!

5.  Well stocked kitchen

Have a well stocked cupboard of basic ingredients so you can always throw something together quickly rather than being tempted by a takeaway.  A jar of pesto, some pasta and a few mushrooms can be prepared in minutes and well before that take-away could get delivered. 

6.  Meals from left-overs

Get savvy at making meals out of left-overs. These are often my favourite dinners – e.g. that left over roast meat can be minced and topped with left-over mashed potatoes for the easiest, quickest and cheapest of shepherd’s pies.  Then simmer the bones with some veg and pulses for a warming and tasty soup.  Not wasting a scrap of food helps us to win 2 World Wars.  Now it can help us to save money whist still eating well.

7.  Cook extra on purpose

Where possible cook more than you need so you have ingredients cooked ready for another meal at no extra energy cost – e.g. extra boiled potatoes for a Spanish tortilla or extra pasta for a salad (stir in a little olive oil to prevent it going sticky).  Make sure you cool the extras quickly and store them in the fridge in a covered container.

8.  Portion control

If you find making meals from left-overs is not for you then get good at preparing meals of exactly the right portion so there is no waste.

9.  Look in the fridge/cupboard

There is often a meal lurking in the ingredients in your fridge/cupboard but it just needs a bit of imagination (or a search online) to work out what it is. Get imaginative and don’t be afraid to try something new.

What do you find is the best way to plan your meals and have you got any more tips to add to this list?

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Animal Tales - A New Blog Linky

Posted by Rosie

Starting on Tuesday November 25th this newest of linkies will link blog posts about animals.  We'd love to see you linking and there is absolutely loads of scope for posts.   It is not just for pet owners and here are some examples of animal topics you could write about:

  • Pets 
  • Zoos, Wildlife Parks, Aquaria
  • Wildlife
  • Animal events
  • Poetry and Prose
  • Animals in Art and History
  • Views and Debates
  • Animal related products you love
  • Tips on caring for animals and how to cope when the inevitable end comes.
  • Animals on holiday 
  • Pet lists - 10 reasons I would never own a ferret!
  • Art and craft projects related to animals
  • Funnies and photos

There are further details here.

Do let me know if you are interested in joining up. I will promote all posts on Twitter if you use the hashtag #AnimalTales and I will start a Pinterest page once we get going.  I'll also link my favourites each week on Google+ and Facebook.

Time to get your thinking caps on - what animal blog posts have you got ready to write or what favourites from the archives would you like promote?  Let's give the animals some blog space!

Monday, 17 November 2014

A Roomful of Wasps!

Posted by Rosie

Mid November may seem to be an odd time to be blogging about wasps but look closely at the picture I took yesterday and you will see that this is a picture of A LOT of dead wasps:

Thousands of dead wasps and ceiling plaster

It all started back in the summer when I noticed some wasps buzzing around Tom's bedroom window.  As I watched I realised that they were in fact going in through a hole above the lintel and so there must be a nest in the wall.  As a family we are not over keen on wasps (in fairness who is?) as Simon and I react badly to stings and the boys are scared of them.  They can also be a real pain when you are eating outside.  That said these wasps were not at all annoying or aggressive and we could eat our meals in peace.  We therefore decided that maybe the best thing would be to let Nature take her course, allowing the wasps to die over winter and the queens to relocate to new nests next year. (Old nests are not reused).

However, as with all the best laid plans this was not to be.  When in Tom's room it was possible to hear a lot of chewing activity in the nest, followed later by the appearance of an ominous brown damp patch on his ceiling.  There was a crack big enough for a wasp to squeeze through between the wall and the ceiling and wasps were in fact arriving in the room.

Tom was moved to the loft bedroom and we bought some wasp killing spray.  Despite this being deadly to wasps you need to get the spray into the nest but as there was 60cms of wall between the entrance and the nest this proved impossible.   Enter our bee keeping friend, Richard who bravely said he'd don his bee suit, dig up though the ceiling and spray directly into the nest from underneath.  Errm , more best laid plans and all that ....

He managed to dig some of the plaster away but where we had previously had calm wasps, now, when their home was under threat they became very angry, stinging Richard through his bee suit and then getting up inside it, stinging him umpteen times. Having got this far and despite my yelling from the other side of the door to get out NOW, Richard was not one to give up and he made enough of a hole to spray up into the nest before exiting with a cartoon-like trail of wasps following him down through the house and outside. 

The next day there were hundreds, if not a few thousand, wasps dead on the floor but a lot of agitated live ones flying round the room.  That night we (well Simon actually) went back into the room and sprayed more wasp killer into the nest.  It was then a waiting game as the product does not kill the larvae and these needed to hatch, at which point they would be poisoned by the remaining spray in the nest and die.  Over the next few weeks more and more dead wasps dropped to the floor until finally we decided, with some several thousand now dead, that the nest was wasp free and we (by which of course I mean Simon) could try and dig it out.

Cutting through the ceiling and into the nest

The papery base of the nest

The hole where the nest had been

The honeycomb interior of the nest

The nest was wonderful, a fine example of nature's creativity at her best but sadly a case of a bad choice of location for this colony.  Wasps are actually very useful in the garden, eating aphids and other pests and it is generally only in late summer when they gorge on fallen fruit and become somewhat intoxicated do they tend to sting more.  

We also have found a hornet's nest in an ash tree in the valley and this one we have left. We have not seen any hornets up near the house and like the wasps, all bar the queen will die over winter.  There are still a few flying around though as the mild autumn continues but soon they will be gone until next year ... when we hope they will chose a new home equally far away from the house.

Hornets leaving their nest (September)

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Autumn Colour in Normandy

Posted by Rosie

When the boys and I were driving round Exmoor a couple of weeks ago the autumn colours were absolutely fabulous.  In comparison at the time, I thought those here in Normandy were a little poor.  Certainly our wild cherry tree that in previous years has been clothed in red and gold was very dull and had dumped it's drab leaves early into Autumn.  However it would seem that Autumn in Normandy this year has not been as disappointing as I had first believed, just a little bit late in coming!  Whilst we can never boast the vibrant reds and and yellows that the maples of parts of North America are so famous for I do think our little patch of France can offer some great autumn colours.  Over the last couple of weeks we have certainly seen these at their best.

The colours remind me of carpet bags and the carpets we had at the farm where I grew up, full of rich hues, warmth and understated loveliness.  Russet, copper, henna, rust, auburn, bronze, cinnamon, ochre, nut, umber and bay are words that spring to mind.

Don't you think they are rather lovely?  Have your autumn colours been full of gentle charm or a riot of bright intensity?  What words would best describe your Autumn?

Friday, 14 November 2014

Money in the coffers and all that

Posted by Rosie

I was talking to our neighbouring farmer's wife yesterday and reminded her that her husband had not let me know how much I owed him for the wheat I had bought off him recently. I have some cash put aside and I wanted to say, proving how much I still translate things from English before speaking French, that if he didn't let me know soon, "The coffers would be empty."  However I quickly realised I didn't know how to say that so I simply said something along the lines of: "If not the money will disappear."  I couldn't remember the word for spend either!  

As she drove off I had a light bulb moment.  The boot of a car in French is coffre and what do the Americans call a car boot?  A trunk.  Un coffre or un coffre-fort in French is also used for a large trunk, the sort that money would once have been stored in (think Robin Hood or pirate treasure).  A quick check in the dictionary revealed that the French do indeed say, Les coffres de l'Etat - the state coffers ... so I think I would have been absolutely fine saying, "Sinon, les coffres seront vide !"

The French also have these related words:
coffre à bijoux - jewellery box
coffre à  jouets - toy box
coffre à voyage - trunk
coffre à bagages - overhead luggage holder
coffrage - to protect something by boxing it in
coffrer - to imprison
coffret - casket
la salles des coffres - strong room

In English we have these words:
Coffin was used as a word for a chest, box or casket from the 14thC and as a box in which to bury your dead from the 16thC.  Coffin can also mean a raised pie crust, like the lid of a basket and Shakespeare writes of a "custard-coffin" in the Taming of the Shrew, meaning a custard under a pastry crust.  The word coffin derives from the old French word cof(f)in meaning little basket/case.  The French word comes from the Latin, Cophinus via the Greek, Kóphinos for basket.

I love etymology, the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. It can make learning another language easier when you know the derivation and it can also help words make sense.

Can you think of any French or English words I have missed from my lists above?  Or do you know any quotes, idioms or suchlike centres around the words coffers and all it's variations?

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Fungi and Murder!

Posted by Rosie

After a couple of mornings with frost last week the weather hasn't been as cold over the last few days which has meant, after a not particularly good year so far, there are now lots of fungi to be seen.  With not much of interest going on in the garden at Eco-Gites of Lenault, today for my gardening update I shall take you on a walk around our local paths on a fungal foray.  You may need to put your glasses on though as some of the fungi are very small and I may not point out where they all are!  Clicking on the pictures will make them bigger.

The first three are easy to see:



But now they are getting a lot smaller!


 No more help now - can you spot the 2 fungi in the last 2 photos?


I love fungi.  I love their apparently short life (when in fact the greater part of their life is lived underground and out of our sight).  I love their importance in breaking down dead material and I love the fact that they can be either wonderfully good to eat or fatally poisonous.  I am reminded of a book I read, parts of which I loved, parts of which I disliked intensely but which had, I think, one of the best final lines ever, making me eternally grateful that I struggled on to the end.  A brief explanation.  There are some fungi, that if eaten initially give you stomach pains but then you appear to recover.  However at that point fatal damage has been wreaked on you and several days later you will die an excruciatingly painful death through major organ failure.  This particular book (which shall remain anonymous in case you should chose to read it too) ends with the line:

"The murdered couple drove off down the road."

They had been fed fried mushrooms for breakfast!  I like fungi but I also respect them and would only eat any that had guaranteed by an expert, which in France can be any pharmacist.

I hope you enjoyed my little wander into the world of fungi this week.  For more gardening posts have a look at Annie's How Does Your Garden Grow linky over at Simple Wanderlust ... yup - she changed the blog name again! 

Simple Wanderlust

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Pround Parent Moments

Posted by Rosie

Amongst the boring everyday moments and the fights to get the homework done, there are moments that make you very proud as parents:

Like when Ben came home and said he has the lead part in the school play to be performed next year ... not bad for the only English boy in his theatre group.

And when Tom came home and announced he would be singing a solo in the same production.

Yesterday we had another proud parent moment.  It was a Bank Holiday in France and time for the large annual cross country event at Montilly-sur-Noireau.  Athletes from all over the region and of all ages come to take part in a range of cycling, running, horse and even canine events.  Last year Tom ran the 1.8kms for the first time and came ....well shall we say we had to wait a while after the winners for him to arrive and only a few followed him into the finish.  He did say that without spiked shoes he was slipping but admitted he was somewhat our of his league.  

At the start this year - Tom's in there somewhere

This year it was all a bit different and he came about 20th out of some 60 runners and was a completely different athlete.  His sprint at the end was fantastic and he left the girl he was next to way behind.

Tom's sprint finish

Tom - you did brilliantly and at this rate of improvement you'll be in the top 5 next year!  We are very proud of you.

Proud or not, I do have to admit that the stars of the day may well have been one man and his dog.  After Tom's event came the Cani-Cross which is cross country running with your dog.  Put a special harness on your dog, attach him to your waist, teach him to understand the commands right and left (or droite and gauche if you are France) then run 5 times round the course without getting dragged through the mud, distracted by the sausage and baguette stall or wrapped around a post.  This is cani-cross and the man below and his rather gorgeous dog were the stand out masters of this sport having already overtaken some of their opponents on lap 1.  Man and dog in perfect harmony.  They were a joy to watch and neither man nor beast looked even slightly puffed!  Great running and great fun to watch.


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Remembering all the dead

Posted by Rosie

Today at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month we remember the soldiers and civilians killed in both World Wars and the countless other conflicts since.  This week I heard a heart wrenchingly sad statistic that is all too easy to pass over.  In the First World War, 12% of the widows of soldiers killed in the war were themselves dead within a year.  How many more were left is drastic states and driven to destitution we will never be know.

So today we should remember not only the soldiers and civilians killed directly by war but also remember those they left behind, so many of whom suffered so much in the life they were left with when their menfolk never returned.

In Flanders Fields 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae

Monday, 10 November 2014

Google has been down our Road!

Posted by Rosie

When we first moved to France in 2007 the Google street car taking street view pictures had only been down the main roads in this area. Now it has been down our road so the start to our front drive is there for the world to see:

Our driveway as seen on Google Street View

The date says it was taken in September 2014 and by the direction of the shadows it was taken fairly early in the morning.  Also because the dustbin lids are off it was likely to have been a Wednesday morning ... or possibly a Thursday if no-one had remembered to put the lids back on after they were emptied!  I think I may have lost my vocation as a detective!

Heading down the road a bit you can just see Eco-Gites of Lenault across the fields but with the trees still in leaf we are hard to catch a glimpse of.

In winter you do get a better view but you get  a pretty good view of us at any time of year from across the valley:

Our view from across the valley on Google Street View

Much as I am impressed with Google getting here I would have been even happier had they come in Spring when all the wind flowers are out.  Then we would have had street views looking like this, the road heading down to the valley bottom from the gite:

The valley road in March

Below is the Google image of the valley road in September - the more I look at it the more I think I am not in exactly the same place!  It took me so long to get this image though it will have to do.  It proves the point though.

Same view from Google in September

Have you had a look at Google Street View where you live? If so does the image you see have a  story to tell?