Monday, 23 November 2009

Forever Green

There's practically no colour left in the garden, none at all. Three or four nights of killing frost back in October put paid to that and it seems slightly strange in this unseasonably warm November weather that the only thing blooming is some herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) down near the river.

Well at least there's always green. Above are little pots of creeping thyme, (Thymus Preacox) 'Snowdrift'. Of little culinary significance these are not a chefs choice but come spring the new growth will spill over the sides and they'll just burst with hundreds of tiny white flowers.

I think Ivy is underrated. I know it has the ability to aim for world domination when left unchecked but who can blame it for having ambition.

These triple balls of Leylandii hold their own throughout the winter. During the summer, self seeding Himalayan balsam, Impatiens balfourii spring up in the cracks along the wall. Their wild habit looks great with the formal topiary and although they're another 'ambitious' plant, it's simple enough to weed out the extras.

Asplenium trichomanes, the Maiden hair spleenwort grows in all but south facing walls and rocks. Ever present, more and more appear as the foliage behind which they once hid dissapears.

The lily of the Valley bush, Mahonia x media 'Charity' is actually just starting to form its yellow blooms though it's the foliage I really like with this plant. It's a little slow growing for me, but eventually it'll get to about three metres in height and a fine specimen it will be.

Well what can I say, the embellishment at the end of the fence, well it's green right?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Stepping Stones

I know I've said it before, but this really is a busy time of the year for Karen and I here at Le Banquet. It's all systems go in the DIY stakes at the moment, both inside and out.

Apart from interior decorating, attending to plumbing issues and fitting new bathrooms, there's also hardscaping that needs to be done. I like that term hardscaping, I feel qualified to use it in my role as jack of all trades, and okay, possibly expert in none but all the same, hardscaping it is and I'm sticking to it.

I'm referring to my recently finished step building project. The old ones that lead from the parking area down to the path have disintegrated over the years. Winter weather always left them a little more perished come the spring and remedial patching up was exactly that, patching them up.

After gently dismantling the old steps with a sledgehammer, I made up some wooden frames to form the shape for the new risers and mixed and poured concrete into the forms. A couple of days later and they were ready to be finished with stone.

Limestone is abundant all around Le Banquet and throughout this part of the Dordogne. It is and has been for centuries the principle building material in the area. Photographed above are the ruins of a once cannonball factory originally constructed during the reign of Louis XV. It's literally just behind the houses here and these days it serves as something of a folly with its grand arches and sheer scale. I spent many an hour wandering in and around this impressive structure as it sits immediately on the edge of my land as I scoured the ground for suitable pieces of rock and stone, most of which I gleaned from under the thickets of brambles by the river.

Luckily, I'd saved some good square pieces from a few years back when we renovated the old cattle barn. These simply needed cutting to size (ish) with a disc cutter, the flat pieces on the tops just 'dressing' a bit with a chisel and it was just a simple case of bedding them all in with sharp sand and cement once they'd all been cleaned. All that remained to do was to joint them up once the mortar had gone off.

Jointing up is the best bit as it pulls everything together. I used a locally quarried sand called Liorac which has a nice colour. It's used a lot for external render called 'Crepi'.

Above is a product called Rénocal. It's two thirds hydraulic lime to one third high performance white cement together with other additives to give water and weather resistance. It's used a lot in renovation over here. I mixed three parts sand to one part of this and proceeded with pressing it into all the joints. After covering it up overnight, the next morning when the mortar had partially gone off, armed with a soft wire brush I brushed out all the excess to leave clean joints and re -expose any small pieces of stone which may have been hidden. Very satisfying.

Et voilà. The steps are finished. I reckon it'll take a couple of weeks for the joints to harden fully and achieve the right colour. I pinched that pineapple thingy out of the little herb garden and set it on the top corner as a finishing touch.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Marseille to Cassis

We've recently returned from a short break sailing under blue skies on France's Mediterranean coast.

What a treat to drive down to Provence passing through the Languedoc en route to a special rendezvous in the old port at Marseille. Leaving the beautiful earthy Perigord for a landscape punctuated with tall Cypress, prostrate Juniper and silver Olive is a real tonic for diminishing daylength and ever cooler evenings.

Although our time in Marseille was limited, its history and grandoise intentions were inescapable as we left by ferry for our final destination, the Isle du Frioul where we were to meet Karen's family aboard their catamaran.

Visible from just about anywhere near the port, the Byzantine Romanesque Nouvelle Cathédrale de la Major is an imposing structure, its first stone was laid by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte on the 26th September 1852.

On board the ferry we passed the island fortress of Le Château d'If, located on the Îsle d'If.

In Alexandre Dumas' book 'The Count of Monte Christo', the principle character was imprisioned here, isolated on an island penitentiary where escape was theoretically impossible (think Alcatraz).

Ain't she beautiful? This was the real deal. On arrival at Frioul we were greeted by the catamaran Hakuna Matata, our home to be for the next few days.

My brother in law aka 'skipper' has sailed this boat across the Atlantic and back, toured the Carribean and visited many ports in southern Europe. It isn't even his day job! If you want to read more, click here.

Many a bonheur was spent sailing in and around The Calanques, a series of limestone cliffs, fjords and rocky promontories which plunge into the Mediterranean for about 20 km of coastline immediately to the south-east of Marseille before arriving at our final destination the ancient fishing port of Cassis.