Sunday, August 26, 2012

Building, sunflowers and other ravellings.

It's been a dirty noisy messy place round here, quite a lot of the time.

I finally admitted defeat, that even with more time on my hands, there was no way I was going to get the back wall of the house pointed within my expected lifespan.  Nothing for it but to raid the piggy bank and call in our favourite stonemason, Jean-Paul.  

Perhaps stonemason isn't quite the right job description in English, since it sound rather like someone who makes tombstones or statuary or mullions or something, which he might be able to do but probably wouldn't care to, as it would be a bit fiddly for his preferences.  JP is un maçon, a builder and worker of stone in stone buildings.  He is about my height, and rather thinner, and prodigiously strong and wiry.  In two days he had knocked out most of the old mud pointing and re-shaped the stones where necessary, a job that probably would have taken me months, by the end of the third he had repointed a significant area, cut out the face of a scruffy concrete lintel over my blue-room window and started re-cladding it with stone, and scrubbed the blue granite dressing stones which we had always assumed were dull brown so they shone like new.  He won't do anything by halves.

We really like him a great deal. Whenever he comes in he can't resist looking into my blue room and exclaiming 'Qu'est-ce c'est jolie, la vie en bleu!' He enjoys the garden and to my delight he is a fellow pumpkin enthusiast; we wax rapturous about the thought of eating pumpkin soup all winter, and the amazing  way they get bigger every day.

When he first came to work for us, about fifteen years ago, he lived alone, apart from a dog, some sheep and a miniature pony, all of whom he loved dearly; it was always a huge relief to him when the sheep gave birth to a ewe-lamb so he wouldn't have to eat it.  There was, we gathered from others, some sadness about a wife and child whom he no longer saw.  Now though, he has a new lady in his life, who, we have heard, is very large and a faith healer. He looks sleeker and cleaner and generally better cared-for, and is always going somewhere nice at the weekend, either to some festivity to do with her family or their wider community, or further afield on some jaunt or excursion.  We've discovered a few gems of places tucked away out in the countryside on his recommendation, including a monastery where she likes to go to get books and music for her line of work.  She has, he assured us, cured him of multiple things that ailed him by means of prayer.

'I think that was probably love that did that, Jean-Paul,'  said Tom.
'That too,' he agreed.

The only trouble with him is he leaves a trail of rubble and devastation in his wake, and will help himself to anything that comes to hand while he's working - only to borrow, not to take away, or else to finish things, so some useful piece of wood or stone or whatever that one might have put aside for something is likely to end up immured.  We were kind enough to put the lidded bucket that we collect the dog poo in prior to disposal out of his reach so he didn't grab it with a view to mixing something up in it and get an unpleasant surprise. 

It was a bit dark in the kitchen while he was bashing away outside, but better than broken windows.  We did feel a bit like we were under siege.

So we're kept busy clearing up after him, but the job will be done long before the winter, and it cheers us to feel we are bringing a rather neglected bit of the building into better repair.

That's on the outside, but inside there are upheavals and improvements too.  A long time ago, Tom built the kitchen.  He did floor tiles and wall tiles and worktop tiles, he did a cooker hood and things to hang things on, he built nice cupboards all around the outside of it on the floor, and he built one cupboard up on the wall... and then he ran out of steam, and I hung up old Victoire's ancient pan rack again and stuffed the place with stuff all over the worktops and propped and pinned things any-old-how and that was how it stayed. It looked like it did in this picture, most of the time. Every now and then I moaned that he might at least put me up a shelf (occasionally threatening to do it myself except as I didn't know where the electricity cables were he knew I was bluffing), but he said no, he would build the wall cupboards properly, one of these days...

Then one of these days arrived!  And in just three and a bit weeks we have a full set of beautifully crafted hand-made cupboards, painted inside, varnished out, with task-lighting under them.  This was a typical scene of work in progress, vegetables jostling for space with glue guns, chisels, screwdrivers etc.  There's still nothing in them, as many of the kitchen contents are still spread around the house, pots and pans on the table, spices in the laundry-room, and I've not got around to putting them all away again.

That's a courgette from the garden.  They aren't a great success; I think they're being bullied by the pumpkins.

While we're on the subject of building work, I am rather taken by this sign which has appeared on our neighbours' gate.  

An artisan poseur.  I am hoping for Guy-Roland to appear in his blue overalls and strike some effete attitudes or try to engage me in conversation about Derrida, but it hasn't happened yet.

A propos of nuffink in particular, as they say, some fruit,

and some flowers, dead ones.  Some left from the kids, who are always nice about buying me a bunch when they come, with some cornflowers and corn-marigold-ish things from the garden.  The leaves turned to yellow and the flowers burst into downy seeds, and I was just about to throw them out but thought they had a kind of elegance in decay about them, a bit Miss Havishamish.  I like a bit of elegance in decay.

Cone flowers - echinacea - aren't really at their best, and most cone-like, till the petals start falling backwards and looking a bit brown at the edges.  The bees like them.  They also like the sunflowers.

I took some of these to a friend who has been ill and in hospital, but is now home again.  She's 87, was always tiny, and now seems even more so.  Her son cares for her with astonishing delicacy, gentle and loving but at the same time brisk and efficient, and respectful of her dignity and independence.   He has cleared everything out of the downstairs front room and set her bed up there so she looks out on her beloved walled garden, its apple trees and hydrangeas, and she told me how the light moves across the room through the day.  She has always been a watcher of the light.

I greeted her in English as usual, but it was evident that moving between the two languages demanded too much, and we stayed in French for the time I was there, except for poems.  She looked at the sunflowers and asked if I knew the Blake's

Ah sunflower weary of time
Who countest the steps of the sun...

I remembered the first and last two lines, the rest came back later. She surprised me with most of  Kipling's Road to Mandalay, making me shiver and laugh by turns, and I bless my upbringing that equipped me to chime in with it.  Her son came in again later,

'Where's your English?  You speak English with Lucy!'
'It's fine,' I said ' I know it's always more tiring for H to speak English, and it's good for me to speak French.'
'Nonsense, it's your first language,' he chided her 'and you don't usually seem to have any difficulty when I hear you talking together here!'

She got up and had tea with me, and though she's very frail and had a little trouble focussing, and expressed fears that she might not have the strength and energy for the things she wants to do, she spoke of them hopefully.  She has had an amazing, difficult, full life, with seven children, twelve books of poems, wonderful achievements and sad losses, but always with such a white-hot core of inner strength, and always turning towards the light.  Evidently it will take more than a virus to beat her, thank goodness.


And speaking of wonderful word-workers I'm the better for knowing, I promised I'd show Marly I'd got this, as her own copy's gone AWOL somewhere in North Carolina.

Some things persist as mystery
No matter how we seek
A raveling, no matter how
We vaunt, no matter how -
Slanting above our lifted faces
Like rain shot through by sun.

Marvellous Marly.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Château de la Hunaudaye

Last time we tried to visit the Château de la Hunaudaye was probably over ten years ago, I seem to recall we couldn't get in, I certainly don't remember anything much about it. Since then it has undergone extensive restoration, and we visited it a few weeks ago.

It's a grand old classic moated mediaeval fortress, with a fairly typical history: kept up and added to until the Renaissance, then fallen onto harder times, lands sold off, family diminished, then receiving it's death blow in the Revolution after which it was used as the inevitable stone quarry. You can read it at the site linked to, click on the British flag button for a translation which is quaint but intelligible.  Judging by the old postcards shown there, it was a very picturesque, crumbly, ivy-clad and weathered ruin, but there comes a point with ruins where you have to decide what to do with them, preserve or abandon, and there was clearly still much worth preserving and reassembling here.

It's something that we have observed and I've noted here before, though it is only anecdotal and doubtless these things change a bit with time and fashion, that in France, despite its being one of the homes of modernist architecture, restoration of ancient buildings, from prehistoric long barrows to mediaeval and Renaissance castles and fortified towns, tends toward creating a replica. In the UK, though there is the perception that the Brits like to hang onto and look after their old stuff, the wisdom has usually been that ruins and digs should be interfered with as little as possible, left as found, with minimal shoring up, or covered over again,  (Tom was involved in a fair amount of archaeology at one time, and confirms this), or else, in the case of bombed-out cities, swept all away and replaced with something new.  We often tend to admire the French 20th century  rebuilds, like the castles of Suscinio and Roche Jagu,  the glorious, authentic roof timbers at the latter place alone make the visit worthwhile, and you only have to compare the Intramuros, the old walled town of St Malo, 80% destroyed by shelling and bombing in WW2 but you wouldn't know it, to the miserable post-war vandalism of the town planners in English towns like Plymouth to come to the conclusion that there's much to be said sometimes for trying to put things back how they were.

However, the sleekly imposing, newly-solid châteaux, fine though they are, deny one the pleasure of ruins, which lies in their fragmentation and porousness, in the breaking down of barriers between spaces, the tension and surprise of moving between dark enclosure and illuminated openess, between vertigo and claustrophobia, solidity and the void, of places once clearly accessible rendered precarious and unattainable. Often too there is the merging of piecemeal elements of different periods in tantalising abstracts.  Quite simply, they leave so much more to the imagination.

The restoration of la Hunaudaye however, it seems to me, succeeds in getting the best of all worlds.  It keeps and indeed enhances all these charms of dereliction, while making them safe to be around and at the same time creating a modern construction within and around it the the originality and technical wizardry of which are much to be wondered at.

It was decided that insufficient sources existed to enable an authentic reconstruction, so instead the project aimed to preserve and work within the building as found.  This was the rationale, but it seems to me that surely the architect, Marie Suzanne de Ponthaud, must have found this way of working with the randomness of the partially dismantled structure and the opportunities it afforded just more interesting for architect and visitors alike.

(It occurred to me, on trying to find out a bit more about the Mme de Ponthaud, that to my awareness, to come across a woman's name in the context of a significant architectural project is a bit unusual. But I didn't know, since, fond though I am of architecture and buildings, I know little about architects, so  I googled the matter of women in architecture, and found I was right; the intake on architecture courses is fairly well balanced but then there's a drastic falling off of female numbers when it comes to architectural practice. It's a much discussed matter, and a few different reasons are put forward to explain it, most of them fairly obvious ones really.  But there are and have been some notable women architects, and it was interesting to learn more about them. Marie Suzanne lives and works on the Crozon peninsular in western Finistère, but doesn't seem to have her own website.)

Not being a great one for the long-distance landscape shot, I don't really have a picture of the whole castle from the outside, (there are plenty of those at the website anyway) but this is a wooden model of it that sits in the central courtyard which visitors, young or not, can play with, dismantle and put together as a puzzle,

and they also provide dressing up sessions for youngsters,

 here are some small mediaevalists.

And this is the castle inside the castle, the courtyard seen from the tallest tower. Those robust, comfortable metal chairs are scattered about the place; we ate our sandwiches sitting in some in an upstairs chamber with a roof over it but completely open on one side while it rained outside, which was lovely.

There were many many things, large and small, to point the camera at:

Swallows live here in abundance.

An old castle wouldn't be an old castle without a spiral staircase or several.  As a child, I can't say I was greatly fond of these, especially very narrow, ill-lit ones in crumbly Welsh castles.  They seemed dark and dangerous, hearing people coming the other way worried me, one would have to squeeze to one side, the possibility of plunging to one's doom down the central pillar always seemed imminent.  Hunaudaye has a number of them, (since it has a number of towers).  Mostly they are wide and well cut and well lit though.

though they can still provoke a certain frisson of vertigo, something which is enhanced by the best of them and the most thrilling, the new one which takes up almost the whole internal volume of the largest tower.

The transparent and openwork materials used in its construction are one of the signature elements here, notably the rigid mesh which forms the floors of the staircase.  Strong and secure, it nevertheless gives a view onto the space below, and makes interesting graphic effects when layers of it are superimposed.

Stepping out onto it, if vertigo or acrophobia are any kind of a problem for you, can be rather challenging.  My sister  (hers are the black shoes in the photo but one above), only did so after much screwing up of courage, and held onto the rail and didn't look down).

It is also used in a platform over a well, full of water of unknown depth and covered in green slime (we dropped a euro-cent into it to find out) in another of the towers.

My sister didn't even want me walking on that one,

though Tom was not to be deterred.

As I say, so much to see, much of which I haven't included, and much detail.  Outside the castle there's a crêpèrie where you can have lunch or just coffee and ice cream, and a collection of well-looked-after goats, chickens and other fowl, and a very pleasant well-shaded car park where we were quite happy to leave Mol in the car for an hour or so, (though it wasn't too hot anyway), which is always a consideration for us.  There are good toilets, a little shop with mediaeval themed books, cds, toys and a bit of food, and all in all it's a really worthwhile, well designed and maintained place to visit.  The staff in the reception/shop were pleasant but possibly summer students, they weren't very well-informed though helpful enough.  What they couldn't seem to tell us anything about, and which we nearly missed altogether, since it was unmarked and uncredited and in a kind of dungeon part of one tower, the main entrance to which was separate, was an art installation.  Quite simple, just thousands of die-cut white paper butterflies, welling up from another mesh floor, with a few more of them scattered on the earth floor below it, all lit from below by ultra-violet.  Absolutely magical.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Late summer longueurs, with pumpkins, onions and visitors.

Against habitual preference, I am rather enjoying this time of year, probably because any kind of summery weather is so belated and so unaccustomed that it seems precious.  It's hard not to feel a bit cheated of the late spring and early summer that I love, but to rail against the weather is futile; better late than never, and being high and dry as we are up here, usually struggling against drought, it's been good not to have to water the garden too much.

But it's a dry, flat season all the same; lots of work to do, family visitors to feed and entertain - the two functions in these parts being very largely synonymous - which is all great of course, but not a great deal of creative inspiration, the perceptions dulled and sated by summer's fullness of wealth. It was ever so. The light offers little of interest except at each end of the day.  I stay up and sleep in too late, but vowed this morning to get up and catch the sunflowers in the morning light.

I edited a version of this where I cropped out the heap of plastic over the disused raised bed in mid-shot, which didn't really look so evident at the time, and the old fence post in what used to be the hens' living space.  But it's really all part of the landscape.  I don't miss the hens too much, except that while they lived, no food was ever wasted.

The sunflowers were a mixed packet which were supposed to be shorter, multi-headed and mixed colours.

They are multi-headed, and come in pretty bronze shades as well as yellow, but some of them are very tall nevertheless,

and reach quite shamelessly for the sky.

They appear more richly coloured in the morning and evening light, it's true, but it's in the heat of the day that the bees enjoy them most.

The white clump of stuff in the photo before last is coriander. Conveniently, here in Europe (as I understand it) we give the same name to the green leaf as to the seed, so no fussing about cilantro etc, pretty word though it is, know how to pronounce it though I don't.

Convenient because the plants that I have are somewhere between the two states now; they have long since bolted, but still yield plenty of leaf for my needs (I've frozen plenty too), but the seeds are still soft and green, and their flavour too is interestingly betwixt and between, and boost the rather mild flavour of the leaf, which I put down to a lot of rain and not much sun. All kinds of bees and hoverflies are loving the flowers (see how I give way to the use of the verb 'love' in a continuous tense, is this capitulation, sinisterly influenced my fast food advertising?), so I'll leave them to finish flowering and harvest as much seed as I can for replanting and as spice.  Interested to know if others have done this and any recommended techniques.

I'm aware I've not answered Catalyst's question on the last post about the difference between male and female flowers of pumpkins, which gives me a ready excuse to post a load more pumpkin pictures; you know you want to see more of my pumpkins, really you do. Of course the main and most evident sign of a female flower is that it will have a fruit forming at the base of it, like so:

and the male doesn't:

However, and I remember my mother teaching me this at an early age with the flowers of primula and polyanthus  (she was rather less communicative about the sexual development and characteristics of human beings, but never mind, it probably would only have embarrassed me hideously if she had been), the difference can also be observed within the centre of the flower itself.

It's all to do with whether it's a stamen (the male's single pointy thing, above),

or a pistil (the female's collection of vase-shaped bobbly bits, above).

And really, that's all you need to know.

(Yet speaking of such matters, I cannot fail to observe how typically women are drawn to vessels and containers - boxes, cups, vases, saucepans; I myself am a sucker for bowls and have to stop myself collecting far too many, especially those with beautiful insides like Mason Cash mixing bowls with the blue linings, and wee cider bols with glossy red interiors.  Men, it must be observed tend more to tools, implements, remote controls for the TV even... It amuses, delights and slightly appals me that we are so transparently driven by our biology, even down to our aesthetics.)

And while we're on pumpkins, and sex, it must be time for an update on the fruit.  The largest of them are the size of a fair-sized melon, but their breeding and the matter of the male/female flowers puzzles me.  You may not remember (and why on earth would you, since I cannot expect you to share my preoccupation with these vegetables, Tom's eyes glaze over when I start to talk about them), I planted two kinds: the classic big orange rouge vif d'Etampes, one of the few widely available here, from a packet, and some saved seed from an unnamed lumpy greenish-skinned variety of surpassingly good flavour I got from a local box scheme.

I have heard that pumpkins and squashes are very promiscuous things, that all kinds of cross-pollination takes place and you can never be entirely sure what you'll get - unless I suppose you only plant one variety of selected seed.  Many of the fruits which are developing would seem to prove that some such wanton miscegenation has indeed been going on.

(The two above are some odd ones I planted in pots on the terrace, an experiment to see whether, with liberal amounts of pelleted manure and water, pumpkins can successfully be grown in pots.)

However, what I don't understand is, the fruits begin to develop, and show signs of their final markings, shape and colouring, before the female flowers open and can possibly be pollinated by the male flowers (of which their seem to be many more coming now).  So surely cross-fertilisation this season can't affect the fruits of the same year? So why worry about pollinating them at all? Perhaps the fruits would wither without it, as some have done, or perhaps it is the seeds inside which would be barren, which means perhaps that this year's motley of shapes, colours and patterns is down to last year's fruiting elsewhere. Clearly I must do some research on this matter.

More veg talk.  This seems very largely to have become a gardening and cooking blog, and a sporadic one at that - where are the deep, solemn, frequent and would-be lyrical posts of yesteryear? Anyway, this is the final harvest of the Roscoff pink onions, curing in the sun in the same old wine box I bletted the medlars in .  The largest is about 10 cm across, but they've been somewhat affected by the damp, and may not keep long.  Not to worry, using them up won't be a problem.

Molly enjoyed having visitors.  She got to walk out on the beach with Benj, and it was quite nice for me to let someone else on the end of her lead having to run round in circles and get her untangled from the rocks and out of the rockpools.

She was much livelier as she always is with other people about, though they got up a bit late for her liking, no matter how much she snuffed at their bedroom door and barked in the hall.

Emily's dad shows her the seashells he's collected.  However, the only kind she's really interested are the mussels she gets to eat with chips.  It's worth having them here to watch and wonder at the enormous quantities of these succulent bivalves she can put away, and the speed with which she does it.  I procure huge quantities of them which I cook in the largest stock pot we own, put out a large paper tablecloth, supply her with a bowl and a ladle, then wind her up and watch her go, her little thin elbows stuck out sideways, and a look of rapture on her face, occasionally murmuring 'They're so nice!' between mouthfuls. Then we take her to Le Vivier in Erquy and she orders another bucketload, this time with Roquefort sauce, and starts all over again. I'm not sure I even know what the inside of a mussel looked like at fourteen. Show her a green pea and you'll get short shrift, mind.

Just save me some chips, says Mol.

Breaking news - or nearly.  The Olympic women's mountain bike gold medal winner, Julie Bresset, hails from Ploeuc-sur-Lié, a small inland town just down the road from us, hitherto noteworthy only for being the origin of a variety of potato, the BF 15 (a fact not negligible among potato cognoscenti...).  Apparently big screens were set up in the centre of town for the populace to watch her progress.  I was almost tempted to go along but the thought of sweating out the midday sun among the citizenry of Ploeuc (pronounced something like Plurk) didn't quite hold enough appeal.  Now there is doubtless revelry in the streets and I almost regret my decision. 


I'll try to do more little-and-often kind of posting from now on, which is really what I prefer to see on blogs that I read, rather than such long but infrequent offerings.