orWine Tastings in the Comfort of you own villa or B&B while on holiday in Tuscany or Liguria

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Monday, 31 December 2007

Last sunset of 2007

After a miserable day yesterday 2007 is going out with a glorious sunset. The top picture shows it as from our terrace in Ponzano. However the weather is only supposed to last for another day and according to the lunar calendar it’s vine pruning time before full moon on the 8th. So no rest for the wicked, off we rushed to Villa to prune the vines. We counted about 75 vines alive. I pruned and Susan followed tying them to the supports. They are mostly white wine varieties and I’m hoping they are mainly Vermentino, which is the quality variety of the region. They had not been pruned for a year so it was a bit of a mess. Also we need to weed between them, but I’m glad we got the pruning done. Hopefully it will result in a few gallons of wine next year.

The terraces are South-west facing and the sun really warmed up the terraces as you can see Susan in a T-shirt yet again. There is plenty of room to plant some more vines, but we are probably not get around to do that this year. We are planning to clear 2 of the wider terraces to plant potatoes and maize. I just asked Susan how she rated 2007 out of 10 and she reckoned about 8. It could have been better financially, but all in all positive. I was tempted to give a lower score as the financial side has been weighing on our minds, but hey, we are healthy, we have friends… I’d love to hear some of your comments on how you rated 2007.

Happy New Year to you all!

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Cash Crops

‘”It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever,” he said. “Have you thought of going into teaching?”’ Quote attributed to Mr. Liona Keeble, employment agent of Ankh-Morpork on trying to find a new career for Death. Terry Pratchett.

I thought I’ll start with a literary quote this time, more about it in a minute. As this is also meant to serve as a diary for myself (so next year when we have the arguments like: ‘last year December was really warm’ – ‘no way we had snow!’ we can just look back on the blog), some of the more mundane details first. The last couple of days I was busy pruning olives and chopping the larger bits into firewood. Susan in the meantime dug over a new bed for planting veg and lit a fire to burn the smaller prunings. Yesterday we had the first real frost, something we didn’t have at all last winter. Even at lunchtime the lower terraces were still covered in white. Hopefully this means the mosquitoes and other insect pests are not going to as plentiful next year. Today it’s grey and damp, so I have a bit of time to write again.

Now to the quote above. According to John Seymour’s Guide to Self-Sufficiency, every self-supporter needs a cash crop of sorts. It may be one in the literal sense of the word, i.e. something you grow more of than you can consume and sell the excess at a profit. However, everyone knows there isn’t a lot of money to be made in farming, unless you have a top vineyard site where you can charge a premium. The other way is usually, that one or both of the partners do some sort of work to earn some cash, because completely without cash it is not really possible to survive in modern times. In John Seymour’s case it is him writing his books and teaching other people to become self-sufficient on his farm in Ireland. I should think he does quite well with this. In our case this was supposed to be the wine business. However, this is proving to be difficult, firstly because of the economic difficulties in Europe at the moment and secondly, during the times where I have most work on the land, spring and autumn, I am always away traveling to see clients.

So looking at other options we came up with, you guessed it, teaching English. The first qualification they ask for is that you have to be a native speaker, which excludes me. Now Susan has all the right qualifications: a degree in French and one in English, she is a native English speaker and she has taught English and French before. Unfortunately this is Italy and things are never that simple. To apply for a job she has to produce, among other things, documentary proof of her degree, an Italian VAT number, a work permit and preferably references from previous employers, and all that translated into Italian and stamped by the magistrate courts to verify that they are true translations. Not only is the whole process time consuming and expensive, it is also in Susan’s case not possible. In almost 30 years no one in the UK or France has ever actually asked her to show her degree and hence she has no idea where it might be. She asked at Edinburgh University, where she studied, whether it was possible to get a copy, but they do not give out copies of degrees taken before 1989. The VAT registration would pose similar problems as they also demand proof of qualification and/or experience of your chosen field of business, also translated, verified and, in the case of employment references, a verification and verified translation of the existence of the company concerned. When I did all this for my VAT registration it took several weeks, a lot of shoe leather and several hundred euros.

Next plan is to maybe stick up a couple of adds in public places for private lessons, and I shall try and find something in the tourist business during the summer, like life guard on the beach or do tours or something. We have registered with a language translation web-site offering English, German and French, but haven’t had any work from there yet. We’ll just have to eat lots of lentils over New Year, as according to the Italians, each lentil represents money you will have in the coming year…

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Christmas 2007

I wonder how you have all spent Christmas? Let us know. I tell you what we did. Christmas day I woke up early with a bit of a sniffle, sort of a hint of a cold. First one in about 3 years. It seemed to be getting worse during the day, but seems to already have passed. All this freshly squeezed orange juice we have every morning seems to have done the trick, building up my immune system. After breakfast we lit a fire in the kitchen and slowly started preparations for the meal. Instead of stuffing ourselves with mountains of food in one sitting, we tend to cook a bit, then eat a bit, cook a bit more, eat a bit more, maybe go for an energetic walk and cook a bit more and eat a bit more. Thus spacing out Christmas lunch from about midday to midnight.

First we boiled and peeled the chestnuts that we collected last week for the stuffing. Then we sat around the fire having tea and biscuits. About 1 o’clock we tucked into a mixed platter of smoked fish and a glass of Prosecco to wash it down as antipasto. The primo consisted of a creamy cauliflower and leek soup, one of my specialities, with a slice of wholemeal bread. After that we needed a walk to work up an appetite again. We just wandered around the village shouting “auguri!” at everyone. Various neighbours had already called at our door to wish us a happy Christmas and deliver wee presents.

For a main course I cooked a guinea fowl, stuffed with chestnuts and sage, cooked in a casserole on a bed of carrots, celery and mushrooms and dowsed in white wine. The wine came more as an afterthought, as one of our neighbours very kindly gave us a bottle of their homemade stuff. Now I don’t want to appear fussy, but the trouble with the homemade wines here is that after a year or so they turn to vinegar as they don’t use any additives whatsoever. This year’s vintage is not bottled yet, so last year’s vintage is good with chips, but not to drink. Also as an afterthought, I picked a pomegranate on our walk through the village and added it to the sauce and the bird. I did not quite realise how sour a pomegranate is and together with the sour wine, whilst it kept the bird nice and moist, it made for quite a sour sauce. So we added some of our own apple sauce, which we made from the last apples from Villa. All in all that worked really well. And to drink? One of the treasures out of my cantina, a 1999 Brunello di Montalcino Donatella. The winery make point out of the fact that this wine is made entirely by women. After a few hours in the decanter, this turned out a rather classy wine, possibly a bit to big for the fowl, but hey, so what?

We skipped the cheese course, had some Panetone (also a gift from the neighbours) with a Moscato Spumante and relaxed around the fire for the rest of the evening listening to some music. As far as musical accompaniment to the day was concerned, we started slow and easy with Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah, moving on to folky music such as Tandarandan and Irish music, finishing with upbeat soul and blues, which finally prompted me to get my harmonica out and dance in the middle of the kitchen.

The weather? The 3 days of rain forecast did indeed happen, finishing on Christmas eve. Christmas itself was dry, cloudy and quite warm. Now today, as you can see above, it’s been glorious, spring-like sunshine, which drove us straight to the seaside. We had a walk around the small fishing village of Tellaro on the Gulf of La Spezia. Tomorrow these frivolities, like eating all day or going for pleasant walks, are going to stop. Back to work. I’ve set up a to-do calendar for the new year and the next couple of weeks the list includes pruning vines, apples and olives as well as digging beds for spring sowing. So onwards and upwards!

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Olive wood, Christmas and Tandarandan

The forecast was for 3 days rain in a row, starting from today. Looking out of the window we saw it threatening over the sea, but that gave us a few hours to gather a bit of wood that we would be needing if the weather would keep us indoors. Whilst there is piles of wood over at George’s in Villa, it’s not of the highest quality and not quite dry enough. So we went over to our plot, where a few overgrown olive trees were waiting to be reduced significantly in size.

In the last few years we have been doing this by hand, but whoever has ever tried cutting olive wood will know: it’s a job and a half! A trunk of say 12 inches in diameter will take the best part of a week to saw and hack through and will blunt your saw and axe into the bargain and leave you with blisters on your hands. Now, thanks to George, we have a chainsaw. We bought it on the opening sale of the new hyper-market at the bottom of our hill. It copes with clearing the weed trees off George’s land no problem, but olive wood… Every few minutes the chain needed re-tightening and the job was still a bit of a struggle. However, it was way better than by hand and we managed to fill a couple of baskets before the rains arrived. Olive wood is the best wood for burning even when slightly green. It burns slowly and gives off a lot of heat. And there is a lovely smell coming off the smoke. It should be enough to keep us warm over the holidays.

Last night we saw our neighbour Mauro with his band at Pegaso in Arcola. It was a great evening. They play traditional music of the Lunigiana region. Now this might not sound too exciting, especially if you have attended the odd village dance in the region, where the ‘duck song’ seems to be an eternal favourite. They officially launched their new album ‘Adalgisiana’ yesterday (although I’ve had a copy since my birthday last month). It is all instrumental, the instruments being a guitar, an accordion, 2 violins (or 1 violin and 2 bagpipes) and, my favourite, a hurdy-gurdy. Now until a few weeks ago you could have hit me over the head with one and I wouldn’t have known what a hurdy-gurdy is. You sort of turn a handle on the bulbous looking instrument on your lap and press some keys down. The result is a sort off rhythmic sawing sound.

The music they play is really, after much research, a revival of an ancient, almost extinct, music tradition, which has Celtic influences as well as some almost gypsy-like leanings, but is essentially dance music: polka, mazurka, waltz etc. And like all good folk music, you can’t help but tap your feet, fingers and all to it. Shame Pegaso is too small a venue to have started a dance in the middle of the hall.

One final word comparing Italian Christmas to Christmas in England. Whereas of course you get the inevitable commercial spin, supermarkets with flashing decorations, Jingle Bells out of tinny speakers etc, it’s not nearly as bad as the UK. Today, I know from experience, is the most important shopping day of the year in the UK, Saturday before Christmas, and you’ll come across multitudes of very stressed looking people and queue endlessly at the checkouts. Here on the other hand, we needed just a few bits for the weekend and tried a medium-sized supermarket in Arcola, hoping on the last Saturday before Christmas they would for once not shut for lunch. How wrong we were, lunch is sacred! So we went to another supermarket, which we knew normally opened over lunch in the centre of Sarzana. To our amazement it was almost empty (of customers not merchandise), no queues. Now I can’t think of a shop in England, which wouldn’t be pandemonium pretty much all day today and extending their opening hours.

The photos above are of Tandarandan at Pegaso last night and the Christmas decorations at the entrance to Ponzano Superiore. After such a long contribution today, I think this will be me off air until Christmas. So Happy Christmas to all of you out there in Cyber-land and hopefully hear from you soon.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Wandering around the hills

Monday and Tuesday winter really had arrived even here. There was an icy wind, gale force at times, which left us huddled around our fireplace singing campfire songs. Yesterday temperatures climbed again, just in time to sow our broad beans and peas in accordance with the lunar calendar. Our first lot planted a month ago is going strong and seems to outgrow it’s competition, i.e. surrounding weeds. We also sowed some leeks indoors. I have previously tried sowing them directly outdoors, but the problem is, the first shoots look deceptively like grass and, with the speed weeds around here grow, before you know it you either have a bed of weeds or you weed the leek out with the weeds. So this time I’ve sown them indoors in some compost and plant them out maybe March.

Today the weather was even more glorious: not a cloud in the sky, no breath of wind and daytime temperatures in double figures. So we decided to try and find a cycleable / rideable route across the mountains to / from Aulla for Paul and Babette’s guide to the Via Francigena. Now I’m sorry, Paul, but I’m still puzzled how you crossed those mountains on bicycles. We have walked across on numerous occasions via Vecchietto (incidentally, much to the amusement of people around here, the name of the village translates as ‘little old man’), but it’s a tricky one to cross on anything other than on foot. This route is definitively the shortest, but it goes up and down through a couple of valleys on narrow, steep paths, which are covered knee deep in dry leaves at this time of year.

Starting from our village, Ponzano Superiore, we walked along the road above the village for one km to as far as ‘La Volpara’ Restaurant, easily undulating along there and all paved. There we branched right and shortly afterwards it becomes a track, going steadily uphill. After another 3 odd km we arrived at the crossroads known as 4 Strade (4 streets), which is actually a misnomer. I would not call any of those paths a street in the usual sense and there are actually 5 paths converging from here. The one we arrived on is signposted ‘Sarzana’. The official Via Francigena goes straight on from there and is signposted Vecchietto / Aulla. To the left of that is a path signposted Monte Grosso. The 2 most promising looking paths to the left and right are not signposted at all, but I suspect to the right it would eventually lead to Canepari and Fosdinovo, whilst to the left, I really don’t know.

The trouble is, we have a whole collection of detailed maps of the area, but no two are the same and none seems to be particularly accurate as far as the various mule paths is concerned, or even the smaller forest roads. We decided on this occasion to follow the signs for Monte Grosso as we knew we needed to get to the other side of mountain to arrive at Bibola. This soon became far to steep and rough to take a bike or horse on, but we shortly arrived at an unpaved road that appeared to climb up from Bibola and was signposted Monte Grosso and Chiamici. We decided to follow the road uphill to see if it was crossable. After about half an hour we reached the peak of Monte Grosso (600m a.s.l.). Whilst it was a steepish climb, the road was in pretty good knick. The snag was on the way down again. A narrow path followed a ridge with fantastic views in both directions. But descending down it became narrower and narrower, steeper and steeper and covered in a two feet deep layer of dried leaves.

Eventually we arrived at a crossroad again, looking quite promising. Straight on it said Chiamici, but left and right ??? The route down to Chiamici looked initially very promising too. It even warned of sharp left and right turns as if they expected vehicular traffic down there. However it soon became difficult to pass on foot let alone anything else. Chiamici itself turned out a delightful little hamlet and we came across a red and white marker directing us to the right towards Aulla (3 ½ hours) and to the left to Caprigliola and Ponzano Superiore on what they termed as the VF(a). The path towards Aulla looked promising again, but days are getting short here so we turned towards home. This route also turned out to be pedestrian only, leading steeply into a valley and back up again.

The whole round walk as described, took us 4 ½ hours, but unfortunately I’m no wiser how you cross those mountains. We should maybe work on a map that actually shows the real, existing paths and their degree of difficulty. So Babette and Paul, I haven’t given up yet, but I can’t help wondering which route you two took. If you went via ‘4 Strade’ somehow, from there it’s easy to get down to Ponzano Superiore, but how you got there is a mystery to me. We’ll try out a couple more of the routes, that we saw. Traditionally we tend to do a New Year’s Day walk to clear the head. Maybe we’ll have more luck that time. On the plus side, we did find some chestnuts still further up. That’s our stuffing for the Christmas bird sorted out.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

There’s a cold wind blowing

Yesterday and today the weather has turned decidedly chilly with a stiff easterly breeze sweeping the country. Yesterday we had a quick look around our plot in Arcola, but with the east facing aspect, we nearly got blown off. All this concentrated our minds on gathering more wood at George’s plot in Villa. So we went today and saw the first snow flakes of the year. It’s always 2 or 3 degrees colder out there. However most of the time it was bright and we had a nice fire going and we brought a flask of soup. As you can see we filled the car up with wood and the cottage has another large pile inside. We have now nearly cut down the little wood outside the house. Next we are going to have to prune the vines and clear another jungle to the right of the entrance.

Mind you we have been having to dodge the bullets and fight off the dogs of the wild boar hunters up there too. It was only due to Susan wearing red and stoking a fire and me handling a noisy chainsaw, that we weren’t mistaken for wild boar!

We took our baskets filled with goodies to our neighbours this evening. They were quite impressed by the basket weaving and asked incredulously whether we really made those ourselves. They were just being nice to us I think. For anyone reading this living nearby, Mauro and his Tandarandan are playing live coming Friday the 21st at Pegaso Music Club in Arcola and Marco and his Tullamores are playing Irish music at the same venue on Sunday the 4th January. For more on Pegaso check out http://www.pegasolive.it/.

Oh and ps: No one entered the ugly basket competition, so I knooowww, say no more. I know when I'm not loved. Nobody wants my baskets. Pah! We'll just give them all to our unsuspecting neighbours who feel obliged to be polite about them. There!

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Series uses for bamboo, no. 2,103 and 3,180 of 10, 984

Above you see two of the many uses for bamboo, another new series on these pages. On top the leaves are used as mulch to suppress weeds between future rows of broad beans, and below Susan is constructing an extension to the framework of our compost heap. Maybe I shall try to make at least a prototype of use 525, the chicken coop, while the mountains of bamboo left is still green and pliable. See what the next days are going to bring.

The bottom picture features me 6 feet above the ground inside an olive tree, trying to cut out some dead bits. Susan gave me – hmmm how do you say this in English, a Räuberleiter, a “thieve’s ladder” – to reach the lower branches. There I had quite a secure foothold. We’re making some real progress in tidying up our orto. This is about the first time in 2 ½ years that we can see al the way from the top to the bottom! We transplanted a couple more bay trees, one into a pot to take home. As with all herbs, it is always useful to have some around the house. There is nothing more annoying to find in the middle of cooking that you are missing a herb. Luckily many of the most common herbs I can find growing wild not too far from our house. Within 10 minutes walk I can find, depending on the time of year, rosemary, sage, mint, lemon balm, thyme, oregano, marjoram, borage, salad burnet, curry plant and wild fennel free for the picking and I’ve probably forgotten a few. Why people go out to shops to buy these herbs around here is beyond me.

Yes on the middle picture you see Susan in a t-shirt and the photo was taken today. However, they did threaten cold weather in the next few days. It is to stay dry though, snow only in the mountains.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Walk to Sarzana

Yesterday, we had some business in Sarzana. We both registered for a free Italian language course beginning in January (something we should have done ages ago) and Susan applied for a teaching position, teaching English. In the interest of research for Babette and Paul’s guide, but also to save petrol and simply because it was a lovely day for a walk, we went on foot.

Going along the official Via Francigena it takes about 1 ½ hours, and Paul you are right, I certainly would not try and take a horse along it and only the most enthusiastic mountain biker would attempt to cycle. The Collo La Brina is situated like a camel hump right across the path, forcing anyone for a short stretch steeply uphill and back downhill again, with lots of loose stones making the going quite tough (see top picture). It’s only a short stretch that is tough though, but since it would be a bit tricky to carry your horse, it’s really for walkers only. Lovely to walk though and definitively the shortest route. At the top of the Collo La Brina is an old castle ruin, the views are spectacular and you get away from everything. The route I take down to Sarzana by bike is a lot easier and keeps you away from the busy Via Cisa until just before Sarzana (see bottom picture approaching Ponzano on the way back). About half of it is paved and the rest is a good dirt track. Only the first few metres look worryingly steep, but the rest is fine. I’ll send you a description.

Today we were back in Arcola on our land. I managed to clear the rest of the bamboo. I never saw Dr. Livingstone, only Tarzan, which was just as well, so he could wrestle down the tiger and the boa constrictor jumping out at me… Now we are left with a huge pile of cut bamboo, and don’t know what to do with it. We’ve already used some of the foliage as mulch for the bean and pea bed that is going to be sown out next week. Maybe I’ll use some of the stakes to build a chicken coop. Maybe we could get some chickens next year. I’m in two minds about that. I’ll probably get into trouble with the neighbour if they wander over there picking his grapes. Also it would mean, we would have to drive over to Arcola every day at least once and for the cost of petrol we could probably be able to buy eggs and chicken meat cheaper from the shop. If only we lived closer to our land…

Some people have been asking me, how come I have so much time to write all of a sudden. Well, business has been very slow recently, what with the ‘credit crunch’ and all, nobody seems to want to buy decent wine. And now, so close to Christmas, all my customers are concentrating on selling, not buying. So we’ve thrown all our energies in working the land and as it gets dark early this time of year, I have all evening to bore you all with our day-to-day life. Well, it doesn’t seem all that boring, as I seem to get an amazing amount of feedback from you all. Thank you for that. Really makes you want to go on with this.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Dr. Livingstone I presume?

I was about to come across Dr. Livingstone any moment. Or else the cast of a popular UK TV reality show ending in “get me out of here!” The bamboo behind me was up to about 12 feet tall. Bamboo does have many uses - as supports for beans, peas, vines, young trees, as building material for compost heaps, furniture, great for starting a fire even when wet, the latest alternative textile fibre, much better and environmentally friendly than cotton, the leaves make a great mulch to suppress weeds – but boy is it invasive! These towering monsters were only cut down less than a year ago. I’m thinking we should get ourselves a panda bear. They eat this stuff don’t they? That way we can probably charge people to come and see it, which would also improve our finances. And bear sh… manure probably makes good compost. Anyone know of a well stocked pet shop where we can buy a panda? Or some equivalent to the “Battersea Panda Home”?

The weather has brightened up again today, but it has got cold. The distant mountains of the Apennines are now definitively covered by snow. We have now covered our lemon and kumquat for the winter as they are not frost-hardy.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Nice weekend

There were a couple of interesting bits of news this weekend. First I have been contacted via this blog by a couple, Babette and Paul, who run a website about pilgrim's ways in Europe in general and the Via Francigena in particular. They have travelled the entire route from Canterbury to Rome first on horseback, then by bicycle. They are now in the process of writing a guide about it and wanted to know about accommodation around us. Those of you who have already visited us, will have met and possibly stayed with our lovely neighbours Marco and Susannah. They have long been thinking of letting their guest room out to passing travellers, but thought no one was going to climb up several flights of stairs to stay in fairly basic accommodation. If however, these travellers had just crossed the mountains from Aulla, they’ll probably be glad of the warm welcome that Marco and Susannah would afford them. So, after I just went over to have a chat with them, the B&B at Marco and Susannah’s is now officially open! The view from their guest toilet alone is worth the entry money. Have a look at the Website of Paul and Babette at http://www.pilgrimagepublications.com/ and check the link to their blog on their travels earlier this year. Their motivation for pilgrim’s routes is born out of their conviction for eco-friendly travel, i.e. on horseback, by bike or on foot, which is something I can only endorse. So do check them out!

The other thing that made this rainy day a bit more interesting was our other neighbour Mauro coming over for a favour. He plays the accordion and bagpipes in a traditional folk band, Tandarandan. They play traditional dances of the Lunigiana region. We saw them playing a couple of weeks ago and they are very good. They found a write-up to their latest CD on a Belgian web-site, but couldn’t understand it as it was in Dutch. So I just gave him a translation of this glowing review. For those of you who understand Dutch, check it out on http://www.folkroddels.be/artikels/35644.html. For the rest of you, if you want a flavour of some traditional music of the region check out their web-site on http://www.tandarandan.it/ and click on ascolta for some samples. See the photo above for Mauro in action.

A bit of history

It’s a really miserable day today and I have no particular indoor tasks that I can think of. So I’ve got a bit of time to talk about where we are and where we would like to be. I evidently have some readers, who haven’t met us yet, so for those of you who already know our story, please bear with me.

In the spring of 2004 we decided we had enough of life in England. I had worked 15 years in the wine trade, but with the high cost of simply surviving in Surrey / London we never really had more than a months salary on our bank account, and usually much less. The only positive was that with the property boom in the UK our house, which we had bought in 1995, had tripled in value. So rather than being occupied solely with working all the hours under the sun, being stuck for hours in commuter traffic and sleeping, without any tangible results, we decided to cash in our assets, buy a camper van and look for somewhere to live in Liguria.

Having paid off the mortgage and various other debts and with no immediate source of income, we had only a limited budget as to what we could afford. It had to be something we could move into more or less immediately before the winter and we wanted a plot of land, but that could wait. When we found this place in Ponzano Superiore we weren’t sure at first. It needed a lot of work and it consists of only 3 rooms, a large kitchen, a bedroom and a windowless storeroom. The place had character though, being part of an historic palazzo of the Marques of Remedi, it has spectacular views (on clear days we can see Elba 150km away), it had a roof, windows and running water and, most importantly, it was well within budget. It turned out to be the right decision. The location of the village couldn’t be better. It’s quiet and out of the way, but also conveniently located within 5 minutes of the motorway linking us to Pisa, Parma and Genoa. By car, public transport or bike it’s no more than ½ hour to the cities of La Spezia and Sarzana with all their amenities. And best of all there is a fantastic community spirit in the village. It’s a mixture of older farming folk, who have been here for generations and younger people moving away from the hustle and bustle of La Spezia. And all of them know how to have a great time. They don’t need much of an excuse to start a festa: to celebrate the patron saint, the local dish of scherpada (a kind of vegetable tart), generally the variety of the local cuisine, the homecoming of some American woman, whose ancestors left the village 150 years ago, a wood chopping competition or Italy winning the world cup.

There are free concerts, exhibitions and open-air food festivals taking place all summer, some even on the inner court of our palazzo. So you just have to stumble out of your door to join the merriment. People tell me “oh you lived in London, there is so much culture.” Well I couldn’t afford the culture in London, and whilst I might not get the Rolling Stones and the latest Picasso exhibition here, I take part in a lot more here than I ever did in London.

Once we moved in we put the word out that we were looking for a plot of land to grow our own food. It soon turned out that prime farming land around here is not cheap. We had various offers of plots around the village, that we could not really afford. They were mostly well looked after plots, planted predominantly with olives. After 6 months search we found our plot on the other side of the valley in Arcola. We had to compromise in various ways. It is almost 10 km away from our house. There is a short cut on foot or bike, but it involves descending from our village (300 metre altitude) to sea level and ascending on the other side to about 220 metres and vice versa of course). Secondly it was totally overgrown with brambles and bamboo and not touched for 5 years. And thirdly it is a steeply terraced plot, making it difficult to cultivate and impossible to keep any animals on there.

On the plus side, it has a great variety of all manner of mature fruit trees on it - a dozen olives, cherries, plums, apples, pears, figs, hazelnut, peach, apricot, chestnut, kaki, loquat (another new fruit to us, but delicious) – there was an old shed full of useful tools and it was within our budget. So now we commute most days across the valley, usually by car as we often have something to carry on the way there (compost bin, chainsaw, strimmer) or back (wood, veg), but sometimes on foot or bicycle. On the photo above you get a bit of an idea of the terrain. I am taking the photo from about the second terrace from the top, whilst Susan is standing 3 terraces below. There are in total some 16 terraces. As you can imagine it’s tiring just climbing down to the bottom and back up again, let alone doing some work as well and carrying stuff up and down! We started beating down the jungle by hand only and cleared most of it this way within a year. Only recently we invested in a strimmer and chainsaw, which lightens the load considerably. Slowly but surely we are winning the battle. As from next year I feel we will reach the full potential of the land.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Leckerli Chocolate Bisciuits

Here due to popular request (well by Heike) the recipe for the Leckerli Chocolate Biscuits, although as the request came from Germany, this time in German:

175g Haselnüsse
100g Zartbitter-Schokolade
200g Zucker
1 Päckchen Vanillezucker
¼ Teel. Zimt
1 Prise gemahlene Nelken
2 Eiweiß
1 Prise Salz
Zucker zum Ausrollen
100g Halbitter-Kuvertüre

Die Haselnüsse mit der in Stücke gebrochenen Schokolade durch die Mandelmühle drehen. Mit dem Zucker, dem Vanille Zucker, dem Zimt und den Nelken gründlich vermischen.
Die Eiweiße mit dem Salz zu sehr steifen Schnee schlagen. Die Nuß-Zucker-Mischung hinzufügen und alles zu einem festen Teig verkneten. In Folie eingewickelt etwa eine Stunde kühl stellen.
Den Backofen auf 200° vorheizen. Die Arbeitsfläche dünn mit Zucker bestreuen, den Teig gut 1/2cm dick ausrollen. In Rechtecke schneiden und auf das Blech setzen.
In den heißen Ofen (Mitte) schieben und etwa 12 Minuten backen. Die Leckerli sollen im Kern noch weich sein, sie werden beim Auskühlen noch fester. Auf Küchengitter setzen und abkühlen lassen.
Die Kuvertüre in grobe Stücke schneiden und im Wasserbad schmelzen. Die Leckerli zur Hälfte eintauchen und trocknen lassen.

Friday, 7 December 2007

The Great Ugly Basket Competition

Here it is! The great ugly basket competition! No, not ugly bastard… Who said that? Now which of the above baskets is the ugliest? Is it
A) top left
B) top right
C) bottom left
D) bottom right

A basket will be made (none of the above!) for one (un)lucky winner, which will be drawn at random amongst all participants in the survey. As a hint, 2 of them were made entirely by myself, one entirely by Susan and one was a joint effort, so there is pride at stake! Please let us know before Saturday the 15th December.

Finally my tip of the day, a new and irregular feature on these pages. Today’s tip concerns cooking with chillies and has two parts to it.
1) During the winter it’s a good idea to add plenty of chillies to any dish, you will save a fortune in heating bills
2) When cooking with chillies, forget about washing your hands beforehand, wash them afterwards! Should you not wash them afterwards, at least make sure you do not pick your nose, rub your eyes or touch any other sensitive body parts (I leave that one to your imagination…).


They did forecast rain for today and they were right. We just nipped into the woods before it started in earnest to collect a few twigs as Christmas decorations for our house. Our village, Ponzano Superiore, lies directly on an ancient pilgrims path, the Via Francigena, which leads from the Swiss border to Rome. Around 999 AD the Archbishop of Canterbury walked this route and gave the first historical mention of our village. We just walked it uphill for a wee bit to pick some holly and laurel to make our house festive. On the middle picture, behind Susan, you can see our village from above and on the picture below, the results of the decorations.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Kaki Chutney

Susan’s been digging today. You should see her muscles… and weeding the carrot bed, whilst I was fighting through the jungle that is our lowest terrace, beating down brambles and freeing a plum tree from ivy and over-enthusiastic vines. Amongst them I found a wild bay tree with lovely aromatic leaves. I dug it up and transplanted it to a less wild spot. Also transplanted a few sprouts, which are looking healthy and well. The sun was out all day, but it is getting noticeably fresher. Especially since our plot in Arcola is east facing and sun disappears behind the hill by 3 pm.

I picked a few more ripe looking kaki and had a brainwave. They look a little like mango, how about turning them to chutney? So I did. So if you ever find yourself with some spare kaki, this is what you do: to 1 kg of kaki, peeled and chopped, add 350g brown sugar, 250 ml white wine vinegar, 2 tsp of dried ginger and 2 bay leaves. Bring to the boil and simmer for 45-60 minutes until cooked to a pulp and quite thick and jam-like. Pot in hot jars, seal and store. I am going to call it “I can’t believe it’s not Mango Chutney” Chutney. Could anybody coming to visit us from the UK bring some Popadoms with them the next time?

More Christmas Biscuits

Finished the Christmas baking. On the top we have Twirly Biscuits and Vanilla Horns and on the bottom picture there are Tangy Lemon Biscuits and Cherry Jam Filled Doughnuts. Anyone want to join us for Christmas? As I said, anyone wanting a recipe of any of the above, you let us know. The nice weather in the meantime has returned and we’ll be out on our vegetable patch again today. See you later…

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Advent Baking

The weather outside is still miserable, but today is the first Sunday in Advent. That’s when the German in me is rearing it’s ugly head, or more precisely the Swabian. My mother comes from that part of Germany and every year at this time she got busy baking masses of biscuits for Christmas. Of course I was always the first to volunteer to help, as I would therefore would also become the first one to taste. My Mum would go to great lengths in hiding the filled tins of biscuits around the house, so me and my brother wouldn’t eat them all before Christmas had actually arrived. Sometimes the biscuits were so well hidden, that we didn’t find them again until Easter, when we were hunting for Easter eggs. Luckily these biscuits do last this long and they made a nice Easter surprise. Today’s batch consisted of “Cinnamon Stars” and “S” (top picture) and Swiss “Leckerli” chocolate biscuits (bottom). Recipes available on request.

And what could be better on a dark December day than lighting a fire, heating up the oven and spreading the smell of fresh baking through the house.

Saturday, 1 December 2007


It was a grey, miserable, drizzly and cold day today, so I thought I could teach myself a new indoor skill. And a skill it is! According to John Seymour you just walk into a wood with a knife and you come out with a basket. Well may be a bit of practice will do the trick, this was my first attempt. We cut of the willow rods a couple of days ago and you must admit the end product looks vaguely basket-like. Although note the grim expression on my face while I’m wrestling with those sticks. We’ll make a few of them, filling them with Christmas biscuits and jars of our homemade jams or chutneys as presents for our lovely neighbours in Ponzano Superiore. Surely it beats wrapping paper and it doesn’t cost anything…