Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Ovipositing swallowtail, another reason to have fennel in the garden

Fennel, dill, aneth, fenouil... it's a little confusing. I've never tried growing vegetable/bulb fennel, I don't care for it all that much, even veggie lover as I am. The herb one we have is the bronze one, and I think, like the bulb, it's called fenouil in French. I've always tended to think it very similar to all intents and purposes to dill herb, which is called aneth here. But then I asked Polish Chick, I think it was, or maybe Joe, who was also devotee of dill if not a fan of fennel, whether I couldn't substitute fennel for dill in a recipe - it might have been gravlax or pickles - as I didn't have any of the latter, and I received an uncompromising no, dill was distinctly different in flavour from fennel! (None of this alliteration took place at the time, whomever the conversation was with.)

So I tried growing some dill, and the germination was rubbish but then some of the seeds did come up eventually, and I've carefully nurtured the plants, but now they've grown big I can't honestly smell, taste or even see, once the dill plants grew beyond the early feathery-leafed stage, much difference between the two, and I haven't got around to making either gravlax or pickles with them.

However, they are both attractive to a somewhat unusual range of insects. Greenbottle type flies, which aren't very pleasant really but I suppose they have their place in the scheme, and also these curious leggy wasps:

They are the most unassuming and gentle creatures, showing no inclination to sting or bother one at all; in fact looking at the photo perhaps they don't even have a sting or aren't even true wasps. I'll try to find out.

[Edit: they appear to be paper wasps, polistes dominula. Some dizzyingly detailed facts about them in this Wiki link; how do people know all this stuff?]

The other insects which are drawn to it, not to feed but to breed, are the swallowtails. Not always, some years we see them often, others not at all, when they simply flutter through they are so rapidly moving and elusive I can seldom photograph them, but on this occasion one set about laying its eggs, or attempting to, on the plants, and being thus preoccupied, I was able to capture it on camera, with a lot of zoom.

I've since looked for the eggs or caterpillars, but no sign. Other years we've had them on various other plants, mostly other umbelliferous ones like carrots or parsley, but also on some Mexican orange bushes where this butterfly was also prospecting, and I have even been known to take them off and overwinter them as chrysalids in a terrarium, with a small amount of success. Both as caterpillars and as butterflies, they are impressive creatures, I think, at least by the standards of this corner of northern Europe.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Raindrops on fennel

We've had a drop of rain. Which was OK, than became a little tiresome especially accompanied by winds more equinoctial in character than suited to the season, 'not the yellow Provençal August that the English dream of' as I say every year, I think.

Never mind, raindrops on roses, or anything else, might not quite be my favourite thing but they really aren't bad, on leaves of  hypericum, for example:

We have a lot of fennel, the bronze kind. We must have bought a plant once but we've somewhat rued the day (umbelliferous pun there), since it sows itself promiscuously everywhere now: in the terrace gravel, the flower pots, the vegetable beds... I pull it up briskly but find it hard to throw it away, and often heel it in somewhere else. It doesn't seem to mind.

Fennel is quite good for culinary purposes, though there's a limit. But it's a graceful plant, and when it comes into it's own is after a shower of rain:

One of the appealing things about water drops is that they act as little lenses. Generally the naked eye, mine at least, can't really catch this, but with the additional aid of the camera lens, and subsequent cropping and enlargement, and upside-down image of the object behind is often to be seen within them. Thus:

A fish-eye view of the barn and blue washing.

I always think my first, old camera was best for this (I just looked back over those and yes, it really was), but it's still worth attempting.


Off to a garden party this afternoon given by a local expat association in aid of the local dog refuge, where I imagine many adorable rescued dogs will be to be seen. This is doubtless a very self-tormenting thing to do; I am already subjecting myself to all manner of tearings-in-two, poring over the heart-rending canines in need of homes on the refuge web page one minute before clicking over to look at the programme for the Philharmonie de Paris, Airbnb apartments on the Ile St Louis, ravishing mountain dwellings in Epirus, while deciding which museums to visit in Amsterdam next month and how to maximise our chances of seeing the Northern Lights from Reykjavik in December, etc etc. Such a beautiful but delicious cake, can I not have it and eat it? The darker side of this is also a sense of a world beyond our hearth and garden tearing itself apart, free movement about which for pleasure and sightseeing seems more and more an ironic anomaly and blind indulgence (as well as growing more fraught if train travel is to become as problematic and hedged about with security as flying, which I'll happily mostly eschew), so the temptation to close our own doors to it, turn in on ourselves, count our blessings and live out our quietist lives, snuggled down with a warm and grateful dog, grows stronger and stronger. 

Ah well, we'll see.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

And for good measure, some rectangles

A better view of the octopus hat. The recipient says the day it arrived he wore it all evening watching telly. In August. Whether he will wear it again I don't know, it is rather large and floppy.

The comma butterfly again. Faded elegance. It seems to like purplish things, which flatter it.

Another flying insect on another DYC.

Another bee on another echinacea, another echinacea doing its Fibonacci thing. I love them.

And these sunflowers, which come in a marvellous range of colours, with several flowers to a stem, talking to the leeks about what it must be like to perennialise.

 Luxuriance, rather dried and Augustified.

Bread for honey. Un grand complet, pas tranché.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Pictures of things I find I have cropped into squares

Looking through the photos uploaded to the most recent web album, finding it difficult to find any common criterion by which to group them so as to make a coherent post, so I just picked out the square ones. I seem to have abandoned monthly collages but this is in the same line. Captions below, for a change.

Flower, always forget what these are called.

Echinaceas, one with bee, one with butterfly. The small tricolour bumble bees are probably the most frequent kind we get, I sometimes perceive they are nesting in areas of rough grass, generally in small colonies, I go easy with the mower but they seem quite docile. However, one rather ungratefully stung Tom on the hand the other day when, without thinking, he went to rescue it from drowning in a bucket of water. I gave him antihistamine tablets and he more or less slept for three days.

Dead head.

Courgette plant. These are very spiny. We get rather tired of courgettes quite quickly, even with just one plant, and they start looming into marrows.

I left a few leek heads; I've heard you can perennialise them. Ugly bug type of insects seem to favour them.

A jar of honey.

A bowl of mushrooms. They became curry, with cashew nuts, an unusual but good combination, more south east Asian than typically Indian.

Squinting. An octopus hat, rather large. Neck skin crêping. Latvian braid. Face must be the wrong way round, but that's mostly how I see it.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Spem in Alium on 'A Very British Renaissance', visitors

We've been enjoying the repeat of 'A Very British Renaissance' on BBC4. Found Dr James Fox a bit bumptious at first, but then decided I liked him, he's only a sprig but knowledgeable, charming and not reliant on the irritating, patronising and specious modern parallels so many TV historians seem to think are a good idea. (I let Simon Schama off this judgement, Bettany Hughes I don't).

I wanted to share the bit he did on Tallis's Spem in Alium, and wondered if it was available on Youtube. As a short clip it wasn't, but in fact the whole three part series is, and in quite good HD quality. However, when it came to the section with the Tallis, though the music soundtrack had been present until then, Spem itself was removed at that point, which rendered the scene somewhat incomprehensible and pointless*. 

So I wondered if I could make my own. This took a bit of fiddling about: finding out how to download the complete video, then take a clip from it, then taking the track from the Tallis Scholars CD, then matching the section of the track with his actions, fading it out satisfactorily, and then I'm not sure it's quite synchronised perfectly, but I'm quite pleased with the result. Of course I don't really have time to mess about doing such long-winded and fiddly things on the computer, re-inventing the wheel since I haven't much of a clue what I'm doing, have to use a lot of trial and error, and will have forgotten what I've learned if I try to do it again.

Anyway, I'd recommend the series, and finding it on-line was a boon as we can't get BBC i-player here and had to miss the second episode because of our visitors.

Who have now left. It was tiring but mostly in a good, energetic, getting-out-being-a-tour-guide way, rather than in a tense and frustrating trying-not-to-be-affected-by-parents-nagging-their-recalcitrant-slug-a-bed-kids way. There was only one offspring who, when here with his sister last year, had largely dissolved into a surly adolescent blob, but now, out of her shadow perhaps, was much more forthcoming, pleasant and appreciative, not at all bad company, and we were inclined to hope that the rather original, funny, curious and chatty little boy he once was has not entirely disappeared after all.

Rather rainy and autumnal outside, nice to be to ourselves again.

(The entire Tallis' Scholars Spem in Alium is on Youtube here. You do need good sound quality, headphones, speakers, whatever, and of course I don't really need to tell you to save your sanity and not read the comments.)

*I don't know why, perhaps the recording copyright owner (I'm not sure who the artists were performing) insisted on having it removed, as happened with the Gothic Voices Dufay piece I'd used for a slideshow video a couple of years ago; Hyperion, the recording company, must have done a sweep of Youtube and pulled the video on copyright ground, along with a number of others. I know they had every right to do this, and I had no right to use it, but I found it mean-spirited and cutting off their noses to spite their faces, since more people might have heard it and been inclined to follow up links and even buy their recordings after seeing it than will now, and I never bother reading their newsletters or even think of ordering from them any more. Better I think to take the line that the Tallis Scholars do, that you can use their music for personal videos but just don't try to monetise it, the right to do so being theirs (Youtube are now very quick to pick up on and label third party content now, and give guidelines about this, which is good really). Whole massive albums of music on Jordi Savall's Alia Vox label are available on Youtube, and no one seems to worry. They are, I imagine, seen as free promotion; they make a point of making their CDs objects of beauty with abundant material included that you would want to have for its own sake, and their live performances experiences beyond the recorded music. Rant over.

Friday, August 07, 2015

20 minutes: bird's nest

Which is a bit what my head feels like just now, inside and out. 

Finding myself again with a lot of odds and sods I might be able to blog about, and having got so far as to get a number of them uploaded onto a web album and Youtube, but lacking the power of concentration to gather them all together into a satisfying and coherent post, I shall try to put them up in small packages and be quick about it, as before.

Tom has been attacking the garden with a will, and a pair of tree-loppers.

 (Look, there he is, lurking in the undergrowth -


He found this,

and carefully cut it away, including its supporting armature of cotoneaster branches, to show me.

We don't know quite who it belonged to; trying to find out was interesting. It's considerably more finely made than most of the blackbird nests we find, though it might just be a serious minded blackbird with a better sense of design than most. The blue baler twine, I think, adds a decided William Morris touch.

It can't be a song thrush, since although it is held together with carefully applied mud/cow dung, in a wattle and daub fashion, it is not lined with it, added with saliva and smoothed out, which it seems is what they do.

It might be a mistle thrush, as we certainly have those around and they are fond of interleaving a variety of found objects within the structure.  Anyway, it has an aesthetic of its own.


We have our usual annual summer visitors coming tomorrow (we hope, travel problems - desperate migrants in the tunnel, tyre-burning ferry workers at the border, stroppy French farmers on the roads etc - permitting), less one female (step-)grandchild on the brink of her majority who has decided to spread her wings and go visit friends in California, which is kind of weird and exciting and a little poignant, we thought she was still only about eleven. Hence I feel a bit dishevelled and chaotic, since it's only when visitors come that I discover how many neglected and grubby corners the house has and that I'm not quite sure where all the spare bed linen is. But on the premise of want-something-done-ask-a busy-person I might actually be inclined to get here regularly for a bit visitors notwithstanding.

Now, time for more wine.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The sweet sense of things out of the way or underway; the sweet smell of a new septic tank.

At last the very slender and (in theory) uncomplicated volume I've been putting together for my brother is done, uploaded, sent to print... A lot of time taken for a very modest result I fear, and I can only hope he's not too disappointed after all the waiting. I don't mind too much if I never have to do with Blurb's new Bookright software again (and please, Blurb or rival operations, spare me the spammy comments, I'll only delete them), though of course now I've finally done with it I've pretty much got the hang of it, even appreciating its flexibility, though of course that then provides one with an embarrassment of choice which is the enemy of getting things done. I found it was useful to have some knitting to hand, to forestall me from doing violence to the hardware, while I was waiting for the little blue circle to go round and round, and the programme to tell me petulantly it was 'not responding', or to reload after crashing completely. It may be down to our big computer (my notebook can't download the software or store enough photos), which is getting slow and grouchy. Anyway, it's easier to blame that or the software than to take responsibility for not bothering to go through any of the 'getting started' guides or tutorials. And I tell Tom off for insisting that no physicist ever reads an instruction manual.

In addition to that sense of relief in accomplishment (which is perhaps too fine a word), I have also in the space of less than two days, put in train the replacing of our ageing septic tank. Long time readers with specialist interests (you may be few but I cherish you) may recall that this has been a moot matter for a long time now. Following the initial meeting of our commune on the matter, a nice young man (who's probably a nice middle-aged man by now) from the body in question, which I failed to note previously is called the SPANC*, an acronym which doesn't sound much better pronounced with a French accent, came and assessed our sanitary arrangements, advised us that they were not up to the normes but adequate for the time being, and not to do anything until the question of subsidies for the work had been sorted out, they'd let us know. We never heard from them again and the matter has drifted into l'oubli for about the last eight years. It would only really be a problem for us if we wanted to sell the house, except that the old tank is, well, old, and our washing machine discharges we know not where into the nature, which is not great from an environmental point of view.

Then just the other day I picked up a municipal bulletin with an article on the back which said the closing date for submitting a dossier to claim the 50% subsidy for the cost of replacing the tank was the end of November this year. Since we had never been told this subsidy was in place this was rather a surprise, but nothing focuses the mind like a deadline. I got on the 'phone, went to the local office, was taken through all the forms, given a list of soil analysts who conduct the first stage of the operation, made an appointment for one to come the week after next... and all this during the summer holidays too.

So, when I have finished cutting the grass this afternoon, and maybe picked the rest of the white currants before the blackbirds and thrushes completely beat me to it, I will have a very fine sense of achievement. The less onerous one's life is, it may be observed, the more onerous the few onerous things one has to do seem to be.

And here I am blogging again. Some photos, mostly from my Essex trip. We went for a long walk in the country, wheat fields and old houses with red roofs and half-timbering and gardens. Essex is really very pretty in places, and more spacious and better proportioned than much of south-east England. These picturesque corners ooze money, of course, but don't seem to labour under and be smothered by it as much as some places - sweet little Kent lapboard cottages almost entirely obscured by the enormous 4x4s parked outside them, for example.

My Aussie brother, looking like both my mum and my dad; my sister and her daughter, my Aussie niece B.

Photographing them photographing me photographing them.

This house had an beautiful lavender hedge lining its path, lavender seems to do well there,

filled with bees and butterflies.

Less charming were these very small beetles, which were everywhere but especially in yellow flowers. They didn't seem to be a deliberate nuisance though, keeping themselves to themselves.

Contentment: a very handsome cat in the sun on a red brick path.

And then last week Tom and I went to Lamballe market and bought lots of small ripe tomatoes from the Man from Finistère, who also sells pink onions, and Tom made chutney, with lots of garlic and ginger paste and spices. We put some of the stalks in because it makes it taste more tomatoey, a good tip for any cooked tomato dish, and you pay for the stalks, you might as well use them.

* service publique pour l'assainissement non collectif