Showing posts with label Gamone. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gamone. Show all posts

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Glimpse of Gamone

For people driving down from Presles to Pont-en-Royans (not a busy road), this photo presents their rapid glimpse of my house at Gamone.

[Click to enlarge]

Emerging from a blind bend in the narrow road, drivers are not inclined to examine the scenery. So, they probably hardly notice the presence of my house on the opposite slopes. I wandered up to that spot a couple of days ago to take a look at work carried out by roadworkers with heavy equipment who removed crumbling rocks that fall constantly onto the roadway. This second photo, from a nearby viewpoint, reveals the final section of this bend, with traces of the work I just mentioned.

Many drivers coming up in the opposite direction decide to blow their horns upon reaching this corner, which is one of the first uncomfortable corners on the road up from Pont-en-Royans. A little later, most of these drivers abandon their horn blowing when they realize that there are dozens of uncomfortable bends like this on the road up to Presles. You simply have to slow down and watch out for approaching vehicles. At places like this on the road up to Presles, if the approaching vehicle happens to be a truck, a tractor or a bus, the only solution is to back up over a distance of a hundred meters or so.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Grass is for rolling in

Every pagan dog knows that the gods made grass for rolling in. It's the dogs, of course, not the gods, that do the rolling.

At Gamone, I'm not pretentious enough to refer to our grass as a lawn. It's simply a patch of rocky soil on which a pleasant blend of grass and weeds has appeared... with a minimum of assistance from me and my electric mower.

Fitzroy would surely agree with me that all the wet weather over the last month or so, followed by the last three days of sunshine, has enhanced the rollability of our grass.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Moving heavy stuff

Over the years, I've become accustomed to inventing ways of moving heavy stuff single-handedly, with a minimum of effort. Here, for example, I was faced with the challenge of moving the heaviest element of my future wood oven. It had been sitting outside in front of the house, and I decided to bring it into the cellar, where the future oven is to be built.

The new door has not been installed yet on the cellar. Even though the weather has improved enormously at Gamone over the last two days, the warmth has not yet diffused into the cellar, which remains quite chilly, even though it's just alongside my living room. So, I haven't yet got back into action concerning the construction of the wood oven. To be truthful, I'm incapable of performing useful manual work in damp and chilly conditions. In my brain, there must be some kind of motivational switch that needs a certain level of dryness and warmth before it'll jump from off to on. In fact, there are probably quite a few archaic on/off switches of an electromechanical kind in my brain, which is a bit like an old factory that was built back in the early days of industrial electricity, before the introduction of modern electronic devices. To use the same term applied to aging computer systems, you might call it a legacy brain. But it still seems to work quite well, for example, in the case of inventing ways of moving heavy stuff single-handedly, with a minimum of effort.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Varieties of orchids at Gamone

This morning, once again, I strolled up along the road at Gamone to admire our splendid wild orchids, while attempting to identify as many as I could. In yesterday's blog post [display], I indicated the presence of many Monkey orchids (Orchis simia). I picked a few specimens and brought them home to be photographed. The monkeys in the following specimen have dark purple paws:

[Click to enlarge images.]

In another specimen, the monkeys are pale and slender... and the fellow at the bottom has an erection!

I don't know whether they're two slightly different varieties, or whether the first plant is simply more mature than the second. In the following specimen, probably a Military orchid (Orchis militaris), the form still has arms and legs, but it's more like a woman in a bulky skirt than a monkey:

I haven't been able to identify the following fine specimens, whose flowers have the form of a person wearing baggy pants, but they might be Burnt-tip orchids (Neotinea ustulata):

In various places on the slopes above the roadway, there are entire walls of Pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis).

From a distance, you might mistake each plant for a single flower. But, when you examine them more closely, you realize immediately that each pyramidical head is indeed a group of orchid blossoms.

The larger flowers at the bottom reveal the typical asymmetrical form of each orchid blossom, composed of three small sepals, two small petals and a large third petal, double-lobed, called the labellum.

Finally, the most exotic orchid specimens I discovered at Gamone were members of the Ophrys variety, whose labellum looks like a large insect.

I examined this specimen from every angle, and compared it with photos on the web, in an attempt to identify the exact variety.

I concluded that it could well be an Ophrys fuciflora (Late Spider-orchid), or maybe an Ophrys apifera (Bee Orchid).

Click here to access an excellent website with examples of many wild orchids. Incapable of identifying with certainty my Ophrys specimen, I decided to contact the creator of this website, Philippe Durbin, who's an expert on French orchids. Here's an English translation of his reply:
I can understand your problem, because it's not obvious! I would imagine a hybrid between Ophrys fuciflora and Ophrys apifera. No certainty, however. See if you can find its parents in the vicinity.
Trust me, on my initial orchid excursion, to find a puzzling specimen! Now I'll have to wander back up on the slopes and look around for the mum and dad of this orchid love child. Why couldn't they simply procreate in a hermaphroditical fashion, like most self-respecting Ophrys orchids? Or with the help of a bee, like those queer orchids that get a kick out of bestiality? Maybe the parents of my puzzling orchid specimen had heard of "the good effects of intercrossing" in a book published in 1862 by a celebrated English naturalist.
Charles Darwin: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing.
Click here to access this surprising document, which proves (if need be) that the great Charles Darwin was indeed an amazing observer and scholar.

Monday, May 13, 2013

First signs of forthcoming walnut season

Yesterday, I discovered the first visible signs at Gamone of the forthcoming walnut season.

This year, I intend to try out a totally new recipe: fresh walnuts preserved in sweet syrup. It appears to be a Greek Cypriot specialty. The product is marketed on the web.

Here are a couple of photos of the product that I found on the web:

These images suggest that the product—referred to as glyko karydaki in Greek—has much the same appearance and texture as my familiar pickled walnuts made with malt vinegar. I've found a clear and complete recipe [here] from a Cypriot lady, Ivy Liacopoulou. I've told her that I intend to use her recipe, and she has kindly provided me with further advice concerning the importance of thickening the syrup, which plays a vital role in the preservation of the product.

In Ivy's recipe, there's an intriguing "ingredient": quicklime. I've put the word "ingredient" in inverted commas because powdered calcium oxide is merely used at one stage in the lengthy preparations in order to keep the walnuts firm. But the toxicity of this dangerous substance will have long disappeared, of course, by the time the walnuts become edible.

Natacha and Alain were the first people to inform me of the existence of such walnuts, which they had discovered at the Greek-Armenian Edykos restaurant in Aix-en-Provence.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Work at the southern end of my cellar

In my blog post of 11 April 2013 entitled Spring has sprung... at last [display], I mentioned my intention to construct, in my ancient stone cellar at Gamone, an old-fashioned wood-burning oven for baking bread and pizzas. This is likely to be a long and arduous project, since I first have to prepare the cellar for the installation of this massive object. In the present blog post, I shall describe the very first operation in this project, which I'm carrying out at the southern end of the cellar. This information is relatively technical, and is designed to be appreciated primarily by François, Emmanuelle and Christine, who have always remained interested by the evolution of the property at Gamone.

Let me start at the beginning. Here's a view of the southern façade of my house, taken in November 1993 (several months before I became the official owner of the property):

The scene reveals why, at that time, we took few photos from this viewpoint. A giant linden tree prevented an observer from obtaining a meaningful view of the southern façade of the house. But this photo indicates clearly the proportions of the roofed area behind the house (above the cellar), where a white van is parked. To reach this spot, the vehicle had to approach the house (on the opposite side of the photo), pass in front of the house (on the gravel down on the right-hand side) and then reverse up the grassy slope alongside the linden tree.

A long time ago, I asked René Uzel to remove that linden tree, along with the old apple tree that you can see on the left-hand edge of the photo. Since then, the southern façade of my house has been clearly visible, as you can see from this photo that I took this morning:

It's not easy to compare details in these two photos, 20 years apart, since it's hard to see anything at all in the first photo. It should nevertheless be apparent that a huge amount of earth has been removed from beneath the wheels of the vehicle in the old photo, enabling us to observe almost the entire southern wall of the cellar (which was completely buried in the old photo). You can even distinguish the upper half of an entrance into the cellar, shown here in an enlargement:

A decade ago, I had asked René Uzel to use his mini digger to remove the earth under which this southern entrance into the cellar had been buried, maybe for several centuries. As soon as the stone wall and the entrance became visible, I was in for a major surprise. Noticing the way in which fragments of hard earth remained attached to every rough stone in the façade, I suddenly realized that this was no doubt the first time ever, since its construction, that this wall had been brought out into the open daylight. I had always imagined that the entrance (which formed an alcove when seen from inside the cellar) had been blocked by earth, a long time ago, for unknown reasons. I now realized that, on the contrary, this entrance had never, at any point in time, been cleared of the earth that blocked it. In other words, this wall and entrance had been constructed from inside the future cellar, using the original earth as a formwork (coffrage in French). And nobody (up until my intervention) had ever got around to removing the formwork. Faced with this unexpected situation, I decided that a reinforced concrete retaining wall should be erected on the left, as soon as possible.

Here's a closeup photo of the entrance at the southern end of the cellar, taken a month ago from the top of the short earthen ramp that leads down from the level of the outside ground:

As soon as René had unearthed this new entrance into the cellar (and the house), I sealed it firmly by means of a pair of old wooden doors that I jammed in place. Now that this wood work has been removed, I can look out from inside the cellar towards the south.

Before thinking about having a door installed here, I needed to build a concrete threshold. So, I promptly tidied up the ground and laid down the formwork for the future threshold, as shown in the following photo:

Clearly, a previous owner seems to have used this alcove to support wooden shelves.

Here's a closeup view of the threshold formwork:

A fortnight ago, when I turned on my electric cement mixer with the intention of starting to lay concrete for the threshold, I was annoyed to find that the machine stopped turning after 20 seconds. I unscrewed the cover, and discovered that the cam belt had slid off the big cog on the drive shaft that makes the drum rotate.

Knowing nothing whatsoever about the mechanics of concrete mixers, I drove immediately to a big hardware company in Saint-Marcellin to seek guidance. Usually, as soon as I open my mouth in such a setting, full of professional tradesmen, the staff and onlookers realize that I'm a do-it-yourself tinkerer, and I sense their condescending regard. But everything changes in a positive sense when they hear you explaining that you've opened up your concrete mixer, discovered that the cam shaft has slipped of the big cog on the drive shaft, and that you need to fix it. Anybody who talks that kind of talk in a tradesmen's store must be taken seriously. So, I was thrilled to find a tradesman in overalls come over and tell me that, after having installed the new cam belt, I should rotate the drum manually for a few turns, to make sure that the new belt is in place. It was surely the first time in my life that French tradesmen seemed to be respecting me as a member of their fraternity. I felt elated, but I forced myself not to say much more, for fear of being revealed as a fake.

The next morning, I was able to examine closely the mechanism of the electric motor in my concrete mixer, and I discovered that the old cam belt was in perfect shape. The cause of the breakdown was a simple bolt that had escaped from the motor shaft, enabling the small cog to drop off. And, five minutes later, I was able to insert a new bolt, tighten it and get the machine running perfectly. Funnily enough, when I went back sheepishly to the hardware store in order to return the new cam belt and ask for a refund, I was received once again as a genuine "tradie" (as Aussies say). Not only had I taken apart the motor of my concrete mixer, but I had been able to detect an unexpected problem and repair it effortlessly. The fellow at the counter found it perfectly normal to refund the cam belt.

Finally, I used two bags of cement to lay enough concrete for the threshold, and the final result is perfectly acceptable.

The concrete slab might appear to be exceptionally thick. In fact, it needed to be a little higher than the level of the future elevated wooden planking that I intend to install (once I've finished the construction of the wood oven) throughout the entire cellar, which measures 6 meters long (from north to south) and 4 meters wide (from east to west).

The threshold slab is not solid concrete from top to bottom, since the level of the ground is located about halfway down the slab. As for the future staircase, it will reach the outside ground level at about the top of the wooden barrier, which holds a rock fill on the other side.

Yesterday, a carpenter from Pont-en-Royans dropped in to take measurements for a door at this place. Later on, I intend to build a concrete staircase from the threshold up to the level of the outside ground. It will be composed of exactly 9 steps, each of a so-called rise (height ) of 17 cm and a so-called run (depth) of 25 cm. See, I'm already starting to talk, once again, like a genuine tradesman. I must be careful not to get a swollen head, otherwise my tradesman's hard hat will no longer fit on my skull.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Peony time at Gamone

All four peonies of the shrub type are in flower, whereas my five herbaceous specimens are waiting for some prolonged sunshine.

Pink Adzuma Nishiki and white Godaishu.

Red Higurashi.

Crimson Hana Daijin.

They appear to coexist well with the surrounding plants and a few weeds.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Dog contemplating the greenery

With all the recent rain, it's not surprising that Gamone is surrounded in greenery.

Often, Fitzroy remains motionless, pensive, apparently contemplating the surroundings, soaking in the greenery.

On the roadside up beyond the house, he turned his head around for the photo:

Otherwise, he's more interested in the greenery than in me.

I wonder if he recalls the scene, not so long ago, when all this was covered in snow.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Spring has sprung... at last

Over the last few days, Gamone has been bathed in sunshine: a pleasant change from being bathed in chilly wetness. Prolonged periods of overcast skies, low temperatures and dampness end up by demoralizing us at a physiological level. Our brains run short of whatever it is that comes from sunshine (vitamin D, I'm told), and we start to slow down. It's as if an audacious Lance Armstrong were to tackle the tortuous slopes of Alpe d'Huez with nothing more in his athlete's body than miserable food and water. Sooner or later, you stop... and the only possible strategy is to wait around until the sunshine returns.

Around the house at Gamone, there are several indubitable signs that the time has come to stop hibernating, and get back into outside action. Here, for example, is one of the more obvious signs:

Once upon a time, I used half an old fuel barrel, screwed onto legs made out of steel bars, to erect a makeshift barbecue, but the heavy contraption was unstable, and it finally rusted away. A few days ago, I was attracted by the relatively low price of a charcoal barbecue at the local Leclerc supermarket. The model on display looked remarkably solid, and it seemed to be a better deal than similar-looking products (but with one less leg) from the German firm Weber. I soon realized that the low price was due to the fact that this barbecue—brand name Rhodes—came as a kit, made in China, which had to be assembled by the purchaser. Maybe I was intrepid, but I liked the sturdy style of the model on display, and I guess I was intrigued to see how a Chinese manufacturer would behave in the build-it-yourself world dominated by Ikea. Well, let me say that I was totally amazed by the high quality of the Chinese presentation, which made it a pleasure to assemble the barbecue on the basis of extremely detailed diagrams of a down-to-earth kind. I had the impression that I was being invited to perform the assembly tasks in an old-fashioned environment of nuts and bolts, solid steel and precise measurements. Fortunately, I went about things by examining closely the big pile of items that were crammed inside the cardboard box from China. And I also took time to analyze every minute detail in their almost-wordless diagrams. Opening a plastic bag full of an undocumented assortment of nuts, bolts, screws and washers, I said to myself that it was highly unlikely that I would discover the intended role of every small item in this pile. On the contrary, when I reached the end of the assembly tasks, I was amazed to find that I had succeeded in identifying every object in the pile (including dozens of metal and fiber washers of differing sizes), and that not one single surplus item remained. All in all, the Chinese approach to the manufacture and presentation of this product was perfectionist. I had the impression that every minor element of the product had been designed by a team of engineers, and manufactured according to millimetric specifications. I found myself in the old-fashioned world of sustainability, where things are made to last. Needless to say, this was a quite unexpected experience.

On a nearby table, I've assembled a trivial demonstration of sustainability of a another kind.

On the left, you have the remnants of plastic Gardena devices that didn't survive the combined assaults of winter and Fitzroy. On the right, you see specimens of metallic items that I've just purchased to replace the cheap plastic junk (which turns out to be expensive when you have to replace it each year). I find it inadmissible that a manufacturer proposes an item such as the plastic nozzle while knowing full well that it will develop cracks if left outside in wintry conditions. And I have the impression that the orange parts of their plastic products have been designed deliberately to attract the teeth of dogs.

Now that the weather is starting to warm up, one of my first tasks will be to finish work on the carport, which needs to be boarded up on the far side.

The remaining firewood that was stacked up in the vicinity of the carport has now been shifted down to a place alongside Fitzroy's kennel.

Between now and next winter, I intend to erect a big wood shed in this zone, so that a truck can simply unload wood right alongside the shed.

Another sign of work about to start is the presence of a big pile of gravel at the entry into the front yard.

Meanwhile, a curious wall of small rocks has appeared on the edge of the huge embankment in front of the house, just to the right of the gravel heap.

So, what's happening... or about to happen? First, let me explain briefly—while refraining from jumping ahead in my story—that I spent a strenuous day raking up all those stones from inside the cellar of my house, and using a wheelbarrow to deposit them at this convenient spot. Now, as far as future Gamone projects are concerned, the following photo provides an answer:

Those pinkish objects are the elements of a future wood oven for baking bread, pizzas, etc. The dozen or so fragments have been molded out of a special refractory cement composed primarily of crushed volcanic rocks mined in the nearby Ardèche département. The oven I've chosen, produced by the Ephrem company in Provence [click here to visit their website] is called the Pizzaiollo... which is a Frenchified (but misspelt) version of the Italian word for a guy who makes pizzas.

Now, where am I going to install my future oven? For a long time, I imagined using a spot outside the southern façade of the house, where I discovered vestiges of an ancient bread oven (since turned to dust) when I first settled down at Gamone, some 20 years ago. But I've often wondered: Would I be prepared to wander outside the house on cold evenings, into the darkness, to fire up an oven to bake a loaf of bread or to cook a pizza? Maybe I would do so for a while, but I would probably drop the habit. No, the ideal solution would consist of placing the wood oven inside the house, where I can access it easily and use it regularly at all times of the year. But that would mean constructing an additional chimney to evacuate the smoke... and I haven't yet terminated the project of installing such a chimney for my wood stove. Well, it was Christine, in the course of a casual phone conversation, who first evoked a possible location: in a corner of the ancient cellar alongside my house. Why not?

It's not easy to take meaningful photos of my cellar at Gamone, because there's little light and you're in an essentially closed space surrounded by stone. Here's my attempt to take a photo of the far wall at the northern (cold) end of the cellar:

The vertical sections of the cellar walls are composed of irregularly-shaped blocks of calcareous stone (no doubt picked up on the slopes in the vicinity of Gamone) held together by lime mortar. Then, starting at a height of about 2 meters, the ceiling of the cellar is composed of finely-cut and precisely-assembled blocks of an exotic mineral substance commonly called tuf calcaire in French. I've only just discovered that the correct technical name of this sedimentary rock, in English, is travertine. [Click here to see the Wikipedia page on this subject.] In a blog post that I wrote back on 2 July 2009 entitled Vegetal rock [display], I referred to this substance (rightly or wrongly) as "calcareous tufa", but I shall make a point, from now on, of calling it travertine.

In the above photo, one has the impression that there's an arched doorway blocked by earth. This remains a basic Gamone mystery, which I have not yet elucidated satisfactorily. For the moment, I'm convinced that the earth blocking that would-be doorway has been there forever. That's to say, the doorway has never been open at any moment of its existence. The earth was there when the doorway was constructed, and it has never been touched since then (except by me, a year or so ago, when I started scratching at that wall of hard earth with the idea of maybe erecting a staircase at that place). Indeed, that earth is part of a layer that was used as formwork (coffrage in French) when that entire far wall was erected... maybe in the vicinity of the year 1600 (judging from similar constructions at the Chartreux monastery in Bouvante). And, if the builders never got around to removing the earth and transforming the alcove into an effective doorway, that was no doubt because their building operations were hindered by obstacles (maybe even religious warfare) and finally abandoned. But I've never succeeded in putting together a clear and convincing explanation of what might have happened. So, we're left with a blocked would-be doorway... which I will surely end up opening, one of these days, by means of a staircase ascending to the outside level, just beneath the arch.

As for the slanted and cemented opening near the summit of the vertical wall, that would appear to be the result of a relatively recent operation carried out by a grazier, rearing animals in the cellar (maybe goats), who wanted to be able to toss hay down into the cellar.

In any case, it's here, in the right-hand (north-eastern) corner of the cellar, that I intend to install the future wood oven, so that I can take advantage of the "hay hole" in the ceiling as a convenient exit for a smoke chimney.

The following maquette provides a rough idea of the form of the future wood oven:

The area covered by the oven is a square of 140 cm x 140 cm, which fits neatly into the corner of the cellar. I hasten to point out that the proportions and layout of this maquette are basically valid, but it's rather fuzzy as far as the external finish of the oven is concerned. For the moment, I can't guarantee that I'll succeed in covering the upper part of the structure with stone bricks (maybe composed of travertine). It's possible that I'll finally resort to a solution of roughcast ocher plaster (crépi in French). And I'm not yet sure of the way in which smoke from the oven will be channeled from a point just above the oven entry to the "hay hole".

Now that spring has sprung at Gamone, I've got "du pain sur la planche" (bread on the breadboard: a French metaphor for problems to be solved, work to be done). That's the way I like life.