Friday 26 September 2014

The lost vineyards of the Lochois

A feature of the landscape of la Touraine du Sud is the vinehouse - a little building, in scale from a one-room shed to a two-story house, where the vineyard workers kept their tools, and maybe ate their midday meal out of the heat of the sun. Once upon a time these would have been surrounded by lines of neatly tended vines, and a few of them still are. Many have gone for good, more are in ruins, but some are being restored. The Association for the Preservation of the Ligueil environment (l'association pour la sauvegarde du cadre ligolien) is particularly active in this respect.

Vinehouses at La Taille des Rois, Perrusson
Until I read Xavier Roche-Bayard's article in La Nouvelle Republique of 20th September, I wasn't aware of how extensive the area of land under vines used to be in our area. There is one commercial vineyard left - La Domaine de Ris at Bossay sur Claise. At the peak, vines were cultivated on 10,600 hectares of the Lochois. Most of the wines were classed as "vins de commerce" and considered as part of the Cher appelation, to distinguish them from "vins de Touraine".  There were prize-winning wines among them. Chateau Chanceaux, bronze medal at Paris, the same for le Clos du Main, from the vines of Chanceaux près Loches. The same for the Chateau de Marolles, de Genille... The wines of La Touraine du Sud also won medals at the Paris exhibition of 1878. These included les Clos du Temple (Ferrière-Larcon) and Chambertault-et-Malavisé (Grand-Pressigny).

James Derouet, in his authoritative work on the wines of Touraine between 1830 and 1930 (1), records that
these wines of the Lochois were described as "brightly coloured and very fresh", "very well sought by the trade as wines for blending (coupage) and "very good wines for drinking young (consommation courante)". Wines produced at Montrésor, Le Liège, Loches, Perrusson, St Jean St Germain, Chambourg, were listed on the same level as the wines of Chenonceaux, Bléré.. Le Clos de la Cloutière, belonging to M Delvaux, with 12 hectares of vines was "respected and well known for its good red and white wines, particularly well cared for"; reds from Gamay Beaujolais and Groslot whites, derived from Gros and Menu Pinot.

Vinehouse from La Cloutière, restored and relocated on a traffic island next to the LeClerc hypermarket in Perrusson
The area of vineyard in the Lochois extended over more than 10,600 hectares, when Chinon was only 5000 hectares larger, and  Tours, which included notably Amboise, Vouvray... was at its largest 39,000 hectares. This was in 1882, the year when the French vines began to feel the effects of a minute aphid, phylloxera vastratrix, now called Daktulosphaira vitifoliae. By 1885, 200 hectares over 20 communes were infected with this plague.

An abandoned private vineyard, next to a carefully tended plot including fruit trees at La Taille des Rois, Perrusson.
The vine continues to retain its presence in a very agricultural South Touraine. Valerie Louault records, in her work "Chédigny 50" issued in 1995 on the occasion of the Chédigny "Festival of the 1950s":
"Chédigny: principal culture: Vines!"  indicated the PTT (Post and Telephones) directory entry of 1950 for the town". 
The author also collected what the people of Chédigny had to say about postwar life there.
All the farm workers  possessed at least a few ares (2) of vines, sometimes several hectares.  There was a press in every farm. One would have found five grape varieties: Cot, Grolleau, Gros Noir, Sauvignon and Pineau.
The vines had the unusual feature that all the fruit trees of the farm were to be found there. Effectively, orchards did not exist and peach, pear and apple trees were planted among the vines.
This explains the occasional long row of fruit trees strung out across a field, now probably of cereals, that one sees from time to time in our district.

Vinehouse and orchard, formerly a vineyard, La Taille des Rois, near Perrusson
The small area called "Les Vignes de La Taille des Rois" is marked on the 1:25000 IGN Série Bleue map of Loches (1924 E). We have passed through this spot many times on the D93 from the direction of St Senoch, heading for LeClerc and Lidl, and noticed the (now) unusual plantings, but it's definitely worth a second look. Here, three vinehouses in a line decorate the skyline, and there are several individual patches of vines such as this one.

A family-sized vineyard, grapes just ready to harvest, La Taille des Rois 24/9/2014
To quote Xavier Roche-Bayard
In the country, the wine was not exclusively for personal consumption. If the Gris, the Grolleau, which give light wines at 7 degrees, quenched the thirst generated by summer labour, the wine, like the wheat, was a money-earner, sold to the cooperative. With mechanisation, and modernisation of agriculture, many vines were torn up.

(1) Histoire de la vigne en Touraine de James Derouet, editions Hugues de Chivré, 2013
(2) one are = 100 sq metres, almost 120 square yards or a quarter perch. A standard allotment is 250 square metres (300 square yards).

Thursday 25 September 2014

How to put a nappy on a walnut

Our old walnut tree is poised on the edge of the millstream, threatening at any moment to fall, or jump, in. The result is that most of the walnuts fall into the millstream and whirl happily away downstream to become fishfood (except last year when neither we nor the fish got any at all, due to an ill-timed frost that hit the flowers for six). This year Tim was determined to put netting or something under the tree to catch the nuts before they hit the water. This was rapidly named "the nappy". He had a plan, involving bâches (tarps), string and bits of wood as usual, now all he needed was a chap as daft as he is to put the plan into action - and the walnut fruits were beginning to crack.

Enter our friend Barry B., former bike and dragster racer, on his return with Barbara from the UK to Spain where they now live, in a not-exactly-concours-condition Ami 6 estate.Was he up for it? He was! I couldn't bear to watch, because it's the best part of a two metre drop to the millstream from the base of the walnut, so there are no photos of the action. However, they triumphed (appropriately enough, though nortoned would have been better). Here is the result.

Walnut tree in a nappy
The nuts collect at the base of the tree, and are scooped up using a specially designed tool (an 8-foot bamboo cane, a wire coat hanger and a bit of bird netting that Tim ran over with the drive-on). That and the rainwater release jabber are propped against the rowan (probably) tree on the right.

This afternoon there were four nuts waiting to be collected
I'm not convinced how this will behave in a high wind. I have visions of having to fish it out of the river. It was windy a couple of nights ago, and one of the wooden uprights (tomato stake or tuteur) broke, but Tim mended it and all is well till the next windy day. It won't catch all the nuts, because it isn't wide enough for that, but anything bigger would be increasingly difficult to control.

Fortunately, there are plenty of nuts to come.

Just a sample of the nuts  getting ready to fall

Monday 22 September 2014

The missing superfood

One of my favourite recipes is Black eye Beans and Mushrooms, from Madhur Jaffrey's "Indian Cookery". But I'm having trouble finding the first ingredient. Black-eye beans are a subspecies of vigna unguiculata, a member of the pea and bean family. Kew Gardens gives a bunch of names: Cowpea, black-eye bean, black-eye pea, China pea, marble pea (English); niébé, haricot à oœil noir, cornille, voème, haricot dolique, dolique à œil noir, pois à vache  (French); caupi, feijão frade (Portuguese),  lobhia (India), lubiya (Arabic). Other subspecies include yardlong bean, asparagus bean, and catjang. The cowpea originated in central Africa - Ethiopia has the largest genetic variability, indicating that they have been cultivated there for a long time. They spread to central and southern Asia in prehistoric times, then to Southern Europe where the Romans introduced them, then to the Americas in the 17th century. These are semi-tropical plants that I assumed would need the growing conditions of central Africa or the southwestern states of the USA - hot and humid.

It is difficult to find them anywhere in our area, in any form. One supermarket yielded jars of black eye beans in brine, and we bought the last packet of dried beans from A Casa Portugaise on the D910 in Veigné. The last of these are sitting forlornly in a jar, too few to cook with. I found one european supplier of seed - Jungleseeds - although there are plenty in the USA.They recommend growing them in a polytunnel in the UK. But in France? As usual, I acted first and researched afterwards. As a desperate measure, at the beginning of June I planted a dozen beans out of the jar, more in hope than in expectation. I started them off in the spare room in Rootrainers, two seeds to a 'rainer. They germinated in two days (sown 4th, up by 6th... in a bed 19th June.)

They all germinated. I found that they could be dwarf or climbing beans, depending on the variety. I guessed wrong, they turned out to be climbers and sprawled all over a bed of dwarf beans. Their position, on a warm hillside but in the light shade of a bed of sunflowers, was, by complete chance, the best I could have chosen, as they prefer shade from the full heat of the midday sun. In Africa they are inter-cropped between rows of sorghum. Like many pulses, they fix atmospheric nitrogen in nodules in their roots, providing nutrients for themselves, for the sorghum and for the next crop. As for humidity, they are actually drought-tolerant.

The flowers are beautiful and delicate, lasting just a few hours.

Black eye Bean flower, 18th August 2014ion
Flower from the back, plus luscious leaves, 2/09/2014

Seed pods appearing behind the flower, 02/09/2014
The seed pods began to swell...

Black eye Bean pods, with "Snake" bean in the background, 2/09/2014

The same pod, only riper, 20/09/2014
More and more pods

Until finally they began to feel papery, then I picked them. Or some of them, there are more to come.

The first harvest

Small, but lots of them. They are related to the Yard Long Bean, which grows up to 90cm long.

There are 28 beans so far, so I'm 16 beans up on my starting position!
They produce a lot of nectar and will provide a valuable honey crop. Various medicines are made from the roots. The foliage is high in protein and is also eaten. The haulms (stems) are used instead of straw as bedding for cattle. The dried fibre is used to make fishing lines. The uses go on and on. This is a super-food and I've proved that it will grow outdoors - so why is so little made of it here?

I still won't have enough to make my favourite dish, or to try Hoppin' John, a signature dish of the southern USA (for future reference, the recipe is here). Maybe next year...
(Ignore the posted by Tim... 
I started it on the laptop downstairs...
P.P.S. I have just concluded that I have two varieties here: one is a climber, with the fat frog-green  pods, and one is dwarf, with the pinkish pointed pods. You can see a green pod on the left of the picture dated 20th September. This is on a different plant from all the others in the picture. There is another green pod at the back in the picture following it. The dwarf variety clearly matures earlier than the climber, but has much smaller beans. I haven't harvested any of the green sausages yet, but the pink pointy ones are nearly all ready to harvest.

Sunday 14 September 2014

This product may contain nuts

Those people who incite others to gather nuts in May are deeply suspicious and undoubtedly up to no good. Whatever they find in May will not be nuts. A few empty shells with tiny toothmarks, maybe, but the time to gather nuts - cobnuts, filberts, hazelnuts - is September. Last year we blogged about our cob and filbert nut bushes here. Since then we learned that our Halle'sche Reisennuss (Hall's Giant filbert) is by origin a French variety from Alsace which should be known as Merveille de Bollwiller.

Filberts would trip over their skirts if they were lassies
We stored last year's nuts in net bags in the cellier, and they kept very well. We ate the last ones so that the bags could be used for this year's crop, and the kernels were somewhat shrunken, but sweet and still palatable.

After last year's crop of almost a kilo from seven bushes, this year we harvested getting on for four kilos of fat filberts. Some of the nuts are huge - typically the big ones come from the tip of a branch.

Nuts in situ

The ratio of duds to good'uns is very low this year. I have carefully removed each little skirt  (husk), and chucked out any nut that
  • has a little hole in it (something got to the nut before you did)
  • is grey or blackish at the tip (it's dead)
  • is small and flattened (it never got going), or
  • won't come away cleanly from the husk (there's something wrong with it, including any of the above).
No point in keeping any of these
When you open nuts like these, you find a hollow with some brown withered shreds inside - that is, unless there is or was another occupant. I will spare the gentle reader that unpleasant sight.

Told you so
 At this time of year, the fresh nuts are crisp and tasty. Dad's old nutcracker opens them to perfection.

NUTS!! Whole hazelnuts, Cadburys take them and... oh heck, another earworm

To remove the slightly bitter inner skin from hazelnuts, after removing the shell and any pieces of brown stuff, drop them into boiling water for a minute, then peel. Another way is to roast them lightly then fold them into a clean tea towel. Give the nuts a vigorous rub. For toasted crushed hazel nuts, whirl them around in a heavy frying pan over a medium heat until they are as brown as you like, then run them through a food processor or coffee grinder.

There are lots of lovely nut recipes around, particularly those involving pears and goat cheese, substituting hazel nuts for walnuts.

For absolutely wicked sweeties with hazelnuts in, see Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's recipe for hazelnut chocolate bars  in the Guardian of 8 September 2007. This involves melting 150g of dark chocolate (70% cocoa minimum) with 100 ml of double cream (I used La Borde crème crue), 25g soft brown sugar, a slug of runny honey, 100g of toasted chopped hazel nuts and a pinch of salt, in a bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Turn off the heat as soon as all the ingredients are in. Once the chocolate has melted, stir the mixture lightly and take the bowl off the pan of water. Moisten a 20cm x 25cm baking tray with cold water, and line it with clingfilm. Pour the chocolate mix over the clingfilm and tap the tray briskly to level the mixture. Allow to cool to room temperature then draw a grid on the surface of the chocolate with a sharp knife, showing where you want to divide up the sweeties - one inch squares are good, and dirty great big lumps even better. Place the tray in a refrigerator until the chocolate has set. Turn out the tray onto a cutting board and remove the clingfilm. Cut into bars. Serve dusted with cocoa (use a tea strainer) with coffee, or just pig in. Warning - STICKY and INCLINED TO MELT!! Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Sorry no pictures - we took them to Gaynor and Tim's retirement party where they tended to stick to people's fingers and they all disappeared.

Monday 8 September 2014

A little ray of sunshine

One of the star performers in our potager this year has been Tagetes patula nana "Bolero". We use Tagetes as a companion plant to our tomatoes and peppers, to attract beneficial insects such as bees and hoverflies. Some ideas about companion planting are flannel; others have a scientific basis, as summarised by Wikipedia here.

Companion planting of tagetes with tomatoes, 12/07/2014. Flowering well even when small.

We don't go quite as far as the couple in Descartes with the immaculate, unfenced potager, who accompany each of a row of twenty tomato plant with its own Tagetes. We have two plants per bed of fourteen plants and three with the peppers and tomatillos. Lettuces did not perform well as companions to tomatoes: they bolted.

Tagetes in pepper/tomatillo bed, 01/08/2014

Chili peppers  in Tagetes "Bolero" bed, 20/08/2014
In France, all forms of tagetes patula are known as Oeillet d'Inde. In Britain, you will find this species called variously Tagetes and French Marigold in increasing order of size. African Marigold (tagetes erecta) is Rose d'Inde. They originate not in Africa, France or India, but in South America. The petals are edible, particularly by chickens if you want nice yellow yolks. They are also used in perfumery, and as a yellow dye.

I find the larger varieties too municipal for my taste. We have grown Lidl's Tagetes "Bolero" (confusion! labelled Rose d'Inde) for many years; the seed keeps well and germinates freely, it's really easy to grow and a packet of seeds costs next to nothing (29 cents or 29p a packet in 2013).

Tagetes "Bolero" with Nectar tomatoes, 16/10/2011 - not such a big plant

But the plants grown from this year's fresh supply of seed have gone bonkers. I don't think they're any taller than usual, but as may be seen by comparison with the 2011 picture above, they have spread much further and they are covered in flowers 3-4cm across. It may simply be that the weather has suited them. They show no signs of stopping, so heavens knows how big they will be by October.

The flowers open a rich mahogany red with a gold border to the petals.

Gradually the mahogany fades to orange as the flower matures, over the space of about ten days.

Ultimately the whole flower is a rich orange.

 There are lots of different flower forms.

semi-double (my favourite).
And they look good in containers too, by the way. The pairing with the dark blue lobelia was stunning, but the lobelia is now going over. Bolero marches on.

Window box with Selfie, 13/07/2013. My little Fuji camera died not long after this was taken.

Tuesday 2 September 2014

So what is the "maggot"?

The "maggot" was invented in the 2007 growing season on our allotment plot in Leeds. The previous summer, a row of raspberry plants reached the end of its working life. We were faced with a ten yard by one yard* area of couch grass, dandelions and old raspberry canes. Allotment associations have rules about weeds. Not having a great deal of time to spend weeding this strip, we covered it in heavy-duty black polythene and used it as a dump compost heap for grass clippings and other compostables. It was left for the requisite two seasons, with the addition of further layers of compostables, and then we lifted the polythene. Underneath, the annual weeds were gone, and the couch roots readily pulled out of the moist earth. We piled the decayed compost onto this surface and put the black polythene back to stop the weeds from taking hold again before we had worked out what to do with this new piece of ground.

The name "the maggot" came about from the shape formed by the wheelbarrow-loads of grass trimings and weeds, which created a series of mounds like a big green caterpillar. When Tim felt the heat radiating out of the long black cushion-like area that resulted, it seemed an ideal place to grow squashes and pumpkins. The black covering would keep the roots warm and retain moisture, the decaying vegetation would generate heat and nutrients, the living foliage would disguise the black polythene. We cut holes in the polythene, parted the compost to reach the soil surface, dug some pelleted chicken manure into the ground, added some general purpose compost, planted just four plants (Acorn squash, Crown Prince, Red Kuri, butternut Harrier...).
The pumpkins loved it. They grew phenomenally, and covered the black polythene completely. We quickly learned that we needed to mark the planting holes with canes, so that we could tell where to direct water and feed, so well hidden they were by leaves. The crop was excellent. We repeated the exercise the following year, in the same place, with equal success.

In France, the maggot system is used for all our cucurbitaceae - courgettes, cucumbers and melons as well as squashes and pumpkins. Every year it hs been refined slightly.In 2011 we replaced 2/3rds of the black polythene with tarpaulins (bâches), cutting the planting holes with a soldering iron to seal the edges. Last year we bought a third, which has two holes in for the pumpkins. Now there is a drip watering system, and we have retired the marker canes.
However, next year the canes will go back, to mark the plants for feeding, but we can't see the holes. We can't find them in the foliage!
A jetwash-type dispenser attaches to the ordinary hose for the feeds.

The maggot 2014 showing planting windows and scientific method of holding it down.

We use the maggot as a way of breaking in new land. We cycle our plantings through a series of five sets of beds. The 2014 maggot completes the cycle. Next year it moves to bed Number Two and will, hopefully, start to really condition the soil by adding all that composted vegetation to the soil for the start of 2016.
The pale green bâche in the background covers a stock of dry grass clippings that should have gone onto the maggot before the plants got too large. Unfortunately, the plants grew so quickly this year, we missed the opportunity, so it will be added to next year's "maggot".Or used to put around plants that need protection over the winter, then added to the compost cycle.

19/5/2014 Maggot ready for planting, the potato beds (site of 2013 maggot), leeks and onions (maggot 2012).
The planting windows are filled with a mixture of soil (originally molehills), fumier (bagged horse/cattle manure) and multipurpose compost, with added pelleted chicken manure and hoof and horn (corne broyée). The ground underneath is loosened with a fork so the roots can penetrate more easily. We raise our young plants in propagators in the guest room. They are moved into pots in a cold frame, and we plant them after the Ice Saints indicate the last frost is past.

25/07/2014 Growing strongly
Near row: from left, melons, Crown Prince, Sweet Dumpling (patidou), Red Kuri (potimarron), butternuts Harrier and Hunter, cucumber La Diva. Far row: Golden Nugget, courgette Rond de Nice, two plants each courgettes Précoce Maraichère and Ice Ball, Yellow Crookneck squash, cucumber Marketmore, another Yellow Crookneck.

25/7/2014 view from the Melon Patch showing the drip watering system
The dry grass is to lift the growing fruit away from the tarpaulin, which can collect rainwater in puddles.

30/08/2014 a breaking wave of vegetation - Sweet Dumpling heading to take over the melon patch
By the end of August the tarpaulins are completely covered and the vines are heading over the grass. The plants on the side near the wheelbarrow have put on so much greenery that we suspect there may be organic remains underneath dating back to the dairying days of our land. We may find out more next year when it comes to potato planting season.

The maggot, with Bezuard farm in the background

A hint of fruits to come:

Crown Prince

Red Kuri

Another Red Kuri, with a Butternut behind it

Sweet Dumpling / Patidou

* when Burley Model Allotments were established in 1958 on a site that was designated originally for allotments in 1892, a standard plot was 10 yards wide by 30 yards deep, an area, my dad used to say, of "one perch". A square perch is actually 30 ¼ square yards. No doubt the plot size is now 9.144 metres by 27.432 metres. No amount of metrication will make the plots any bigger or smaller.