Touraine - from then until now!

This blog is an attempt to show some of the vast history of Man's prescence in the Southern Touraine.... from first footfall to the present....
especially in and around le Grand Pressigny area.... with special emphasis on life at and around le Moulin de la Forge.
There will also be occasional entries about time before man was here and when the area was at the bottom of a warm, shallow sea...

Sunday 14 November 2010

More about Jim the Champignon Champion

On Thursday we visited the mushroom caves of Champion Mushrooms at Loches.... now MPC [Mushroom Production Caves] where they are developing an organic mushroom business in the former production caves of Paris White mushrooms.

While the rain and wind walloped the walnut trees on the hillside, underground all was still. A hundred years ago, things would have been very different. "Le Champion" employed as many as 300 people, and were the first to apply scientific techniques to mushroom production. They perfected a strain of the white Paris mushroom that became a worldwide standard, and researched optimal growing conditions so that for the first time mushrooms could be grown on an industrial scale. They sold fresh mushrooms, but also supported a massive canning operation in Bordeaux, and produced packs of spawn for other growers.

Charles Gillard - Founder of "Le Champion" - in 1900

The temperature in the caves varies by only a couple of degrees, and the Japanese mushrooms now installed there grow without heating, but we saw a huge pit where the coal-fired boiler serving the Paris mushrooms once stood. There was underground stabling for horses, to draw the carts which took the mushrooms down to the railway station. There were dog kennels and even a bread oven. Phillipe Gillard, Jim's business partner, is the great-grandson of the founder of "Le Champion" and drives around the caves in a battered 2CV. Unfortunately we were unable to meet him today, but we look forward to learning more about the history of his family business.

"Your Subterranean Tour Taxi!"

In the meantime we have some of the history that was displayed in an earlier museum that was set up some years ago, as well as some shots of the new style of mushroom growing.
Mushroom growing was only comercialized on the Touraine region in 1854 when Charles Gillard [above] started growing mushrooms in the caves left behind by the quarrymen who supplied the stone to build Loches. There are [as mentioned] 30 hectares of caves on this site... hence the 2CV [and, one hopes, expert knowledge of the way around]

A potted history of mushroom cultivation in Touraine by Paul Gillard

This developed into a business that not only supplied mushrooms to markets but, quite rapidly, began to develope the growing mediums and cultures for successful crops. The poster below shows the growth of the canned mushrooms produced by Gillard and Co from 1902 to 1909. They were marketed as "Royal Champignon".

Growth from just under 500,000 to almost 4 million cans in seven years.
And these are the canners at work.

By the early 1990s they were growing and supplying medium for over a dozen different types of fungi including:

Shiitaké, Paris White, Shaggy Ink-cap [Coprinus comatus], different strains of Oyster Mushrooms [Pleurotus species] and Enokitaké. Some of these are pictured below with onginal pickers baskets.

A cornucopia of fungi

There has even been a Shiitaké beer brewed for a restaurant in Belgium.... apparently it tasted good. But this bottle was empty and I've only got the drinkers word for that.... but he likes a good beer!

Monday 8 November 2010

Taillé du Silex

Or flint-knapping to us...
The 18th and 19th of September were the Jours du Patrimoine or French Heritage Open Days.
We visited a number of events, but were eager to catch the flint-knapping demonstration in the ground of the Chateau at Le Grand-Pressigny.
Having struggled from the square up to the Chateau we rested a moment [I think even fit soldiers would have found it impossible to fight once they'd arrived at the castle gates up that slope!]
The demonstration was worth the climb though... the knapper, Frédéric Demouche, the Museum of Pre-history's public events demonstrator, was very informative, explaining things like why he was changing the position of the face he was striking; what tool he was using and why; what the tools were made from; how the tools were used; etc.

He took a large flat piece of flint and deftly formed it into a large, but demonstrably servicable, hand axe, in what he described as the Cro-Magnon style.

The original slab.... Here he is showing why he is about to attack the upper face.

And off comes a 'slice' of silex.

Another shower of flint particles to show that a flintknapper has been at work here.

Having formed the rough shape he then used Red Deer and Elk Antler tools to refine the shape.
The Red Deer tool is on the left, the Elk antler tools are the large cream ones on the right.

Here he's using the Elk antler hammer to refine the edge

And here is his finished axe!

This was followed by showing how a large core could be used to supply almost equal size and shaped flakes... one of which he repidly converted into a scraper to work hide...using it on the goat skin on his lap.

The scraper is on the left.... the other flakes are....

....just part of the stone-age hunters worplace. A couple more large flakes to make into scrapers....
a few cores, a hammer stone, a couple of spear throwers [one almost finished]
.... and plenty of small flakes!

He then went on to show how a small core would be carried by a hunter and used to make scrapers, burins and flakes to set at spear point using resin.

Holding the small core in his right hand, he showed us a spear point with resin set flakes.

Finally he covered spears and spear throwing using a throwing stick to extend the power of the elbow.... and then demonstrated how in the castle moat!
Altogether a very good three-quarter hours worth.... and like most of the other Patrimoine events, absolutely free.


Today we awoke to the sort of morning when the mind turns to porridge - a gusting wind whirling out of the southwest, hurling massive raindrops at the windows. The cats took one look and went back to bed - tempting to do the same. And what better breakfast for such a morning than a bowl of hot porridge oats, sweetened in Pauline's case and salty for Tim, but in both cases made with unpasteurised milk (lait cru fermier) from GAEC Lait Grand Cru at La Borde, a farm enterprise in le Grand Pressigny. This milk is the real thing - it comes in plastic pouches (ideal for freezing) which sit in a little plastic jug for pouring, but the cream rises to the top, just as it used to when I was a kid. We separate it into "entier" for coffee - and porridge - and "demi" for tea, and woe betide anyone who doesn't shake before using.

Pauline's childhood memory of 'top of the milk' was that largely the cat got it. Her family didn't even have a cat. It was just a neighbour's cat, visiting, and knowing a soft touch when it found one. We now know that cow's milk is bad for cats (sorry guys) so all the more for us!

At La Borde they also make creme cru, a natural cream so thick it grabs hold of the spoon, which keeps for ages. And delicious live natural yoghurt. And butter, stamped with designs. And Soft cheese with garlic and herbs. And don't get me on to the rice pudding! Oh all right then. This is 1 euro 30 a jar, but the jars are identical with those supplied by Lakeland at 1 euro 20 each, and are ideal for home-made preserves - fruit jellies, lemon curd etc. One jar makes a rich dessert for two people or one gannet. You can buy La Borde products from the farm, or from the stall at Le Grand Pressigny market every thursday. The Spar in GP sells an increasing volume of La Borde milk at 80 cents a litre, and you can also find it in local supermarkets. The only way we could drink milk with a smaller burden of food miles is to have our own cow!

Sunday 7 November 2010

Vide-etang at Le Louroux

To Le Louroux yesterday morning (via a deviation that took us twice as far as the normal route). Traffic was re-routed one way through the village to allow parking on one side of the road between Le Louroux and Manthelan. Traffic control was in the hands of a series of young ladies in yellow high-visibility jackets. The lake is emptied every two years to maintain the quality of the environment and to regulate fish stocks. There were huge queues for the fish and a TV outside broadcast team interviewed the enthusiastic buyers about their favourite recipes.

We were entertained by a troupe of wandering minstrels....
Do you know this one?
No! You play it and I'll improvise...

Meanwhile a hardy team of pisciculteurs from the Brenne in waders and waterproofs worked from the exposed lakebed and a small flat-topped aluminium barge with an outboard motor.

The net was laid carefully on the top of the barge, concertina folded so that it could be paid out again behind the boat to enclose the next catch.

Two or three men worked on the shore while the boat worked in a curve laying out the net. It stopped a few metres from the shore and one man waded out to pull the net in and close the loop. 

Starting to pay the net out.

 Having been carefully laid out on the barge.... The net is now carefully fed back off.
Begining to turn back to shore
Return run

The full circle
Ends are secured....
....and the net is slowly and carefully drawn in.
The net is almost small enough for the fishermen....

They peg the sides of the net higher than the waterline so that none shall escape!

But one tries.... but is heading the wrong way!

When only a small patch of water was left inside the net, the men pegged the net in place with metal stakes and started scooping out the fish with hand-nets into boxes.

Handling a large pike [left of picture] and filling a box [right of frame]

Excess net is already being paid back out, ready to be loaded. Meanwhile, yet more fish is loaded into boxes.

Struggling with a heavy net full of fish is tricky work... and it is inevitable that some escape...
but only back into the circle!

Meanwhile, a young man came to the fish traps behind the dam with a triangular net to fill his bait box with tiddlers.

Apart from the outboard motor and the metal barge, this scene has been played out for at least nine centuries. The lake is probably in a natural basin in mostly flat countryside, but it is by no means natural. The monks of the Benedictine Prieuré of Le Louroux re-routed and straightened streams, deepened the lake and built dams, so they could have fish on a Friday. Some of the fish sellers dressed in rusty brown robes to celebrate the historical links. I'm sure Brother Cadfael never wore trainers though, or went to collect bait on a motor bike.

There is more on the vide-etang at Le Louroux by Susan and Simon at Days on the Claise and there is more about the exhibition of fabulous macro photographs of insects by David Greyo on his Blog

Sunday 31 October 2010

Popping up like mushrooms

Today we visited Beaulieu-les-Loches for the 'Fil et Bio' exhibition of organic products and fashions. Here we met an old friend - Jim the Mushroom Man, formerly of Leeds Farmers Market and now based in Loches. He and his partner Philippe have 30 hectares of mushroom caves on the south side of Loches. Here they continue Philippe's family tradition of mushroom-growing. They specialise in Japanese mushrooms - Shiitake, Oyster and Eryngii at the moment - and have just secured organic status. As well as Loches market, they sell from their shop at the entrance to the caves at 45 Rue des Lilas. Can you imagine 30 hectares of caves? These former stone quarries date back to the early history of the city of Loches. They offer tours of the caves and plan to have a small cafe and tourist reception.

We'll put some photographs of the caves and the growing mushrooms up here once we've visited but here is a picture of the Eryngii mushrooms growing on their substrate at an organic grower's in Kent.

Friday 2 April 2010

Museum re-re-opens

No, that's not a mistake in the title!

 The Musée de la préhistroire du Grand-Pressigny has opened again again!

It had a grand re-opening last September.... then closed for further work and re-opened 'properly' on Sunday the 7th of March.

We've been waiting for this since 2006!!

The architect has chosen to go ultra-modern with the design so that it does not become a mere copy of the old building... the materials used are well chosen and the 'neutral' feel of the design doesn't distract from the exhibits.


The improvements over the 'old' museum are immense... for a start there is a real timeline in the two main displays... the geological one is downstairs in the cellars and deals thoroughly with the immediate geology and the fossils that are to be found in the various geological 'levels'.

On the old terrace, now closed in as part of the new building, are three ankle-level displays covering The ascent of man, man from scavenger to modern agriculture and a comparison of art now and in prehistory showing the timelessness of the subjects and the way they are portrayed.

The history of Man timeline, located in the old Renaissance gallery [which also originally housed the prehistory exhibits] has been much improved and runs from the period of Man's origins in the region to the Roman period.

At right angles to the timeline are display cabinets containing examples of tools, weapons and pottery from each period. The original dioramas are still used, but within the timeline.

Returning to the cellars the major flint groups found locally are displayed in the geology section and this leads into a display of the main tool types from the region, followed by a film giving a demonstration of how the 'grand lames' [the very long flint blades] were freed from the core... a superb example of reconstructive archaeology.

It is well worth a visit... and then another!

Wednesday 24 March 2010

The start of a story

Well, not exactly....
I've started this blog because of the object shown here >>>

 I had posted it on my flickr site and got 136 hits that first day! I was very surprised.

The object is a hammer stone with three working faces showing wear on all faces and a wonderfully polished area where the user had removed two chunks of flint to make it fit his grip.

It fits my grip comfortably  and the two 'hammer' faces are clear of my fingers. I am mainly right-handed.

Unfortunately the hammer stone was found out of context.
We have had a 'fosse touts eaux' [a septic tank] installed and this was in the spoil heap.

The altered areas on the grip are shown below...
the arrows point to the exposed flint, polished by use.

Also use polishing shows on the rough outer surface of the nodule.

The two 'hammer' faces are at different angles and show the most wear at the inner and front side of the 'flat' face [visible on the top picture] and the outside and bottom of the angled face. The 'handle' face also appears to have been used and a flake was removed from the top of the hammer, between the two hammer faces.
This also fits comfortably into my hand with the thumb resting down the concave face [visible in the top picture] and the fingers down the convex face [visible left].

The next picture shows the areas of wear on the hammer faces.

1 & 2 ] The areas of greatest wear are between the arrows...
the curve following the line of wear from blob to blob.

3] This face on the flat hammer is still sharply defined and appears never to have been struck.

I will return to this object once I have taken some better photos.