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

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Sunday, 28 December 2008

I started out with nothing and I still got most of it left

Well the end of 2008 is nearing and it’s time to reflect on the past 12 months. First of all an update on the events of the last couple of weeks. The weather up to Christmas eve was glorious. We went for some walks and carried on pruning trees, something we started over a month ago but was interrupted by the bad weather. On the 23rd we had an earthquake, 5.1 on the Richter scale, with the epicentre about 50 km Northwest of here (as the mole digs) on the other side of the Appenines. We noticed a slight tremor and I don’t think anything serious actually happened. The link for more details is http://cnt.rm.ingv.it/~earthquake/data_id/2205007630/event.php.

Christmas Day turned cloudy and we had our usual quiet day, eating and drinking lots. We are now drinking our own wine, which strictly speaking isn’t ready yet, but as it was sitting in our cold cantina at Villa, fermentation had simply stopped and wasn’t likely to restart again until late spring if at all. So it’s now a semi-sweet rosé, but still at a hefty 13% alcohol or thereabouts. The highlight of the Christmas dinner was the guinea fowl stuffed with a chestnut stuffing which I made and froze when the chestnuts were in abundance. Santa brought me a the new CD by Seasick Steve, “I Started Out With Nothing and I still Got Most Of It Left”. Seasick Steve is an excellent Blues musician who seemed to have suddenly shot to fame a year ago when he made an appearance at Jools Holland’s New Year Hootenany on British TV. He plays mostly his own music in the Delta Blues fashion and he has an inimitable story telling style. Not only tell his songs stories, but he quite literally tells stories on his CDs mostly about his former life as a hoboing tramp, travelling America by jumping onto trains or hitchhiking and generally living it rough. His great sense of humour always shows through, which is something I always appreciate in any art form, whether it’s music, painting, sculpture or conceptual art. Life’s too short to take everything serious. Check him out on http://www.seasicksteve.com/

Boxing Day the weather turned seriously cold with an icy wind going. Yesterday we appear to have mislaid our kitten. She somehow escaped, but was with her mummy at the time, so we weren’t too worried, but to date she has not returned (the mother has) and with temperature around freezing outside now, and with the amount of unused cellars and hidyholes in the village a search being almost impossible, we don’t hold out much hope of her returning. Shame as we just managed to get her confidence and she was very sweet.

Anyway, to return to Seasick Steve, the title of his album: “I started out with nothing and I still got most of it left” pretty much sums up our year and my life in general (not that I’m complaining, mind). It’s not entirely true of course either. We may have been broke at the beginning of the year and still are now, possibly even more so, but we have gained experience, friends, memories and a cat. We are still here against all the odds and we are healthy.

Let’s start our review of 2008 with this blog. I started it just over a year ago and find it useful in many ways. It disciplines me into actually doing things worth mentioning in the blog, it reminds me at what we have been up to at any particular time, when we planted, pruned, harvested what and I get the occasional contact and even tip from interested people all over the world, such as what to do with kaki from someone in China. I am amazed at how many people from so many different places reach my site. On the 29th of March I installed that little world visitor map at the top right of this page. From this I gather that 2,247 visits have been registered since, that’s just over 8 hits a day, from 75 different countries. Almost exactly one third came from the UK, which does not surprise me. Number two was the USA with 23%, which does surprise me, given that I don’t know many people there. Italy is at number 3 with 15% and Germany at number 4 with 6.5%. Amongst the also rans I’m surprised to have had more hits from India than from the Netherlands (I am Dutch), and even places like Vietnam, Madagascar and the Palestinian Territories featured. How do you people find me? I’d love to know and would appreciate some comments. People who have given me feedback to this site have been all positive, so I shall carry on for the time being.

On our agricultural activities, this is the first year we have more or less dedicated ourselves full-time to them (having pretty much given up the business with the deteriorating economic conditions) with encouraging results. We keep learning new things by the tried and trusted trial and error system. Amongst the new things learned this year was that it’s generally best to plant a particular crop, such as peas or broad beans just the once, rather than staggered to increase the length of time to harvest. There tends to be a window of time which will give the best crop, whilst early or late crops won’t do so well. If you have too much produce at that time we have discovered many new ways of preserving crops, which will then come in handy when you haven’ got much else. Circumstantial evidence recently also seems to indicate that moon phases do make a difference to crop success. We sowed to beds with peas within 10 days of each other, the first during the waxing moon in ground not previously enriched and the second during waning moon a terrace down in a bed that has had compost added the previous season. The latter had over half failing to shoot whilst the former is looking a lot healthier. We have had a similar experience with onions, which are supposed to be planted during the waning moon phase, and they did do better than those planted shortly before during the waxing moon. The trouble of course is, no matter how carefully you plan your farming year, something always crops up which puts you behind schedule, the weather most notably, or equipment failure slowing the rate of ploughing or pruning and other unforeseen events.

As far as our finances are concerned nothing much has improved. My endeavours in finding a job haven’t really got anywhere. I’m registered with most job agencies in the province, but if anything at all they come with jobs I am not qualified to do such as accountant for metal company or such like. I’ve tried to get a job grape picking with some of the larger vineyards in the area but also to no avail as they already have a plentiful supply of cheap and willing Eastern-Europeans on their books. One wanted a qualified oenolgist, but whilst I have an idea of the theory, I can’t lay claim to this title. Susan in the meantime will get some teaching work again in the new year. She is going to teach a couple of classes in Borghetto Vara, a small town in the Vara valley and is likely to get her job in Sarzana back, where she worked earlier this year.

All in all it’s been a good year, if it wasn’t for the constant lack of cash. But we’re getting there and looking with some confidence into 2009. Oh and the photo on top, I have no idea what these berries are either, we saw them on a walk recently. Maybe they are the ‘fruits of our labours’… Oh and I just noticed this is the 100th entry of this blog!

Thursday, 18 December 2008

I'm Walking

Just a quick update. The weather has continued to be pretty ropey. Rome and Venice are under water and already December’s precipitation has exceeded all previous records all over Italy and the month is only half finished. This and the fact that I pulled a muscle in my back while attempting to lift a gas bottle, made last week fairly uneventful. We were invited to a lovely meal by friends of Pam and John in Calice on Sunday involving wild boar and goat, the kitten has become more trusting and my pair of boots have packed it in. They were only 4 years old, but I bought them cheap on a market. Now I have had to get my old walking boots back out of their retirement.

Yesterday the weather picked up a bit again and today we went on a long walk, working on the guide.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Born Under A Bad Sign

In the words of Albert King and other Blues greats, I must have been ‘born under a bad sign’, ‘for it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all’. Or maybe it’s the arrival in our house of those cats (‘My baby’s got a black cat bone’) or punishment for some other sin.

Things started going wrong on my birthday, 17 November. Incidentally many thanks for the various birthday greetings. The weather had been good around my birthday and we decided to get the olive harvest in. We picked a total of some 30 kg of healthy olives. It’s a bit of an awkward quantity, not really enough take to the mill to turn to oil, but a bit too much for simply eating. However we did pickle them all in brine, so shouldn’t have a shortage of eating olives in the house for a bit.

As we got home, I tried as usual to go onto my computer to check my e-mails and maybe post something on the blog, but no can do. I couldn’t go on-line. After trying various things with the help of Marco from next door, changing the modem twice, I only just now managed to get back on-line now. So sorry for any un-answered e-mails etc, and hence the long gap between postings here.

Two days after this mishap our baking oven gave up it’s ghost. I use it a lot, not least for making bread every other day. When we arrived here we bought the cheapest stove we could find and it seemed fine. The oven however can only be switched on with a timer, and the spring inside the timer had given way. I located a shop where I could order a replacement, but at a whopping €50 and a waiting time of 10 days. The whole bl***y thing cost only about €250, how can such a small part cost that much? Just as we are short on funds anyway. Well we had to bite the bullet and the machine is back in operation.

Next thing that went wrong was the chainsaw. I was trying to prune back an overgrown plum tree and the chain jumped off and bent slightly. The costs of that I have not yet assessed. I’m hoping I might be able to fix it myself. Finally today the second of our two mobile phones seems be on it’s last leg and I cannot afford to replace it. I don’t use it much, mostly for time keeping and emergencies, but it was handy for that. And I thought bad things happen in 3s not 4s.

Anyway it hasn’t all been bad. As for the cats mentioned earlier, you may remember me talking about Garfield. Roundabout my birthday he had decided to move in permanently, so we started buying a wee bit of food for him. He never seemed terribly hungry though and, for a stray cat, he looked remarkably well fed. One evening, after Garfield had settled on our bed, another cat poked it’s head through the door, a very skinny, even emaciated, black & white female. She did not look well at all, loosing hair off her hind legs, having a bright red bottom and looking very weak. So we fed her some too. We called her Dot, because of the black dot on her nose. She and Garfield seemed to get on fine with each other too as you can see.

Dot, to begin with, would never stay for very long either. A bite to eat, ½ hour’s rest and off she went again. After a few days of this, she had turned up again in the evening, had something to eat and a cuddle with Susan, and off she went again… only to reappear after 5 minutes with a little grey & white kitten in tow. Kitten, having been born in the wild and not seen many humans, went straight into hiding in my pyjama drawer and wouldn’t come out for 2 days. Now, 2 weeks later, he (or possibly she, we haven’t been able to assess that yet) has become a little braver, but is still shy. We called it Mickey (which could be short for Michael or Michaela after the patron saint of Ponzano Superiore). He stays 24/7 in the house now, Mummy Dot herself sees to it. It’s far too dangerous out there for little kittens.

Garfield in the meantime has been evicted. I saw how the lady next door specially cooked liver for him, shooing away other cats, so he clearly has understood the principal of survival of the fittest, the fittest being the cat that charms humans into feeding him well. He is doing well for himself, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to keep an intact tom cat with an intact female in our house, unless we wanted to breed them. So now we have been chosen to become cat owners. I actually wanted a dog really.

Other than that winter has arrived earlier than last year. The end of November, the beginning of December have been atrocious. Snow in the mountains, rain, hail, gale force winds and cold temperatures for days on end. We’ve been sitting around the fireplace, baking Christmas biscuits and trying to coax the kitten into trusting us. In the breaks of the weather I’ve pruned over half of the trees on our land in Arcola, planted garlic and did a general tidy up. Yesterday and today were fine and sunny again. We’ve only done one more walk for the guide (Aulla – Sarzana) because the weather didn’t allow for much more.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Volunteers Wanted!

The weather slowly has improved again. Thursday and Friday were quite mixed days with showers always threatening. So we used those two days to do some research. I have decided to write a book. Babette and Paul said they would help me with the printing and I have got it pretty much planned. It is to be a guide to walks around the Lunigiana, whereby I use the geographic term in it’s loosest definition as the provinces of La Spezia (Liguria) and Massa / Carrara (northern tip of Tuscany). The desire to write this guide was born from a frustration of the inaccuracies of even the most detailed maps of the area as well as of the general sign posting. I intend to include at least one walk for each ‘comune’ of those two provinces, give info on any sights along each walk, notes on history and nature, recommendations for places to eat and drink, public transport links, annual events, alongside detailed descriptions of the actual walks themselves with correct maps. I envisage including some 50 walks in the book and to put one day a week aside to research another for the next 12 months.

Now this is where I would like some help by anyone reading this who either lives nearby or is planning a holiday in the region. I need some people to try out the walks to see if my garbled directions make sense to them, before I launch the guide onto the unsuspecting public. Please send me an e-mail or leave a comment below. The above photo was taken on the walk we tried out this week. It’s a 5 ½ hour walk starting from the medieval centre of Santo Stefano di Magra, through quiet woodlands up to Ponzano Superiore with it’s narrow alleyways and sweeping views, down to the valley again past a Victorian style ceramics factory and back to Santo Stefano via the Regional Nature Park along the river Magra with it’s varied birdlife. Herons, storks and even flamingos are amongst the visitors during migration times.

Today the weather turned bright again, but with a strong wind blowing. I had planned on picking my olives today, but with the high winds I decided not climb the top of a 10 foot ladder. Instead we took down the tomato and bean plants, which have finally finished for the year. Mind you I still picked a good kilo of beans today! We also planted onions today, about 100 each of brown and red ones. In previous years I unsuccessfully tried to grow them from seed, now I just planted small bulbs to grow them to bigger ones. Whilst this is marginally more expensive then buying seeds, I’m hoping the results will be better. I also bought a dozen Brussel sprout plants. Last year’s grown from seed didn’t do to well either and were mostly eaten by some nasty bright red bug with a ferocious appetite. We also picked the first kaki of the year, so I shall make some of my famous ‘I can’t believe it’s not mago chutney’ chutney tomorrow. For the recipe look up this blog 6 December last year.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Of Stray cats and Pilgrims

This is our latest house mate up there; we call him Garfield, because he is the spitting image of the famous cartoon cat. He does not seem to belong to anyone in particular, but he’s a clever cat and knows how to beg. On balmy nights he does not mind striding the alleys of Ponzano Superiore, but on rainy ones like tonight he seeks shelter with softies like us. As you can see he already feels quite at home and he fell asleep as soon as he had finished reading a couple of chapters of this thriller. He purrs very loudly and at night he has been known to snore loudly, but he’s such a dear we can’t bring ourselves to throw him out.

The weather just started to turn again this afternoon. This morning we were in Villa under grey skies, bottling the cider (it’s delicious!) and carrying on the strimming job until we succumbed to a fine drizzle slowly making work unpleasant. By the time we got home we were enveloped in low cloud and the rain set in in earnest. The weekend and Monday was mostly fine, with just the odd light shower on Saturday. Our neighbours used the dry spell to get their heavy olive crops in, but we decided to delay as at least one of our trees bears a particularly late ripening variety. We on the other hand got on top of the weeding on the late vegetable beds.

Yesterday we had some pilgrim visitors: Babette and Paul, the authors of a guide to the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim’s route from Canterbury to Rome, came to see us while re-checking part of the route for a new edition. We had them around for lunch which extended to an all day affair. We found we had a lot of things in common, including a certain wanderlust, and it was a real pleasure finally meeting them in the flesh after having known them for some time purely as ‘virtual friends’ from the internet. I had a feeling we would be on a similar wavelength, but you never quite know until you actually meet people. They are planning to move closer to us, from Brittany to the Provence and I for one hope to see them again in the not too distant future. On their books see http://www.pilgrimagepublications.com/

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The Calm After the Storm

Well the weather sure has been playing up again! Saturday turned out nice, which was just as well as we went to a Guy Faulkes celebration with a bunch of ex-pats further up in the Lunigiana. It’s funny the things you do when you move abroad. I’ve never attended a bonfire night in November when I lived in England; for a start I always have had sympathies for the anarchist burning down the Houses of Parliament. Well after all the rains we had had the bonfire never lit anyway, but we had some fireworks, mulled wine and bangers and mash and a jolly time was had by all. On the way there we stopped at Villa to check on the progress of the wine and cider. The cider has nearly finished fermenting and smells divine. Shame there’s going to be less than 15 litres by the time we’ll siphon it off it’s sedimets. Won’t last us long the way we drink…

Sunday afternoon the rains set in again and it soon developed into a downpour, which lasted all through Monday and Tuesday, culminating in an enormous thunderstorm Wednesday early morning. The photo was taken in the morning after the skies finally started clearing again. As usual after a storm our phone lines were down again and have only just now come back on. Luckily the power cuts only lasted a few minutes and water supplies remained uninterrupted this time. After having been stuck indoors for over 2 days, we were glad to get out again yesterday to check both in Arcola and Villa for any storm damage. Everything was fine albeit muddy.

All that rain and the still relatively mild temperatures meant that weeds are coming back in record time. My radicchio, Swiss chard, fennel, and cabbage that I sowed relatively late are all covered in weeds. We were going to attack them today as the weather looked fine this morning looking out of our window facing south. However as we arrived on the west facing side of the house we saw dark clouds brewing and even heard a few distant rumbles of thunder. We went to Arcola anyway, but, sod’s law, as soon as arrived there it started to drizzle. This is the trouble if you don’t live next to your land. It’s fine just nipping in and out of the house, but for us it’s a 10 km trek every time.

We picked a few more windfall olives though, as I put the first lot into jars. I followed another recipe out of ‘Liguria in arbanella’ (I shall add this book to the list at the bottom of this blog), Olive alla Taggiasca. Taggiasca is also the name of the best olive variety in Liguria, although ours are almost certainly Razzola. Taggiasca is a very small variety giving very delicate, fruity flavours, whilst Razzola is slightly bigger and a bit more spicy in flavour.

To preserve them for eating you immerse the olives in a brine of 1 tbsp of salt to 1 litre of water for 4 days, changing the brine daily. Then you make a brine with 150g salt to 1 litre of water, add a large sprig of rosemary, a bunch of thyme and 8-10 bay leaves and bring the lot to the boil. Simmer for 3 minutes and leave to cool. Drain the olives and fill into jars, adding a small sprig each of rosemary and thyme and a bay leaf. Drain the herbs from the brine and top up the jars with the herb-infused brine. Seal and wait for some 40 days to 2 months.

Finally, I (or rather this blog) have had a mention on the forum of Italy magazine (http://www.italymag.co.uk/forums/) in the last couple of days and visitor numbers have jumped up all of a sudden during the couple of days I couldn’t even get on the net. So thank you to the person concerned based in the Marche I believe and welcome to any new readers. I shall add the link to the forum to my other links on the side. It’s a useful forum for anyone interested in all things Italian.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Oh when the Saints…

Well tomorrow is All Saints (whatever that actually means; is it the day for all the saints that don’t get a mention during the rest of the year?), and winter is definitively approaching. The clocks have gone back (don’t you hate it when that happens; I never know which way they go or what day, my tummy tells me to be hungry well before lunchtime, and it’s just disorientating) and the evenings are dark early now.

At the weekend the weather was still fine and we went to the chestnut sagra in Barbarasco again, this time with James who was over. Tuesday afternoon the clouds and wind started closing in though. By Wednesday the temperatures dropped significantly and we were enveloped in clouds and gale force winds swept through our village. I spent those 2 days servicing an old mountain bike of ours. The one I had been using is slowly starting to fall apart. It only cost me £50 10 years ago, so it did me quite well until now.

Yesterday a brief break in the rain was forecast, so I went to see Franco the bicycle man to sort a couple of things I could not do on my own, a bent chain and gear mechanism. He just got a big pair of pliers and bent everything into shape, straightened a buckle in the rear wheel, oiled the lot, pumped up the tyres and adjusted the gears. All in all just under half an hours work and he insisted on being paid with a cup of coffee. When I in turn insisted in putting a €5 note in his hand he rummaged through his pockets to give me €3 change. Well, can’t complain can I?

Susan in the meantime had started to walk to Arcola to our land and I met up with her half way there. On the land I was amazed to still pick a large bagful of green beans. This particular variety has done me extremely well! I think the seeds were a cheap bag from one of the discount stores. They are a dwarf variety that I planted so close together that weeds had practically no chance of getting through. They have been producing sweet, string-less beans since about July and there are still more to pick now. I have already dried a few of the beans, so that I can sow them out again next year. Don’t know what the variety is called, but they’ve been exceptionally successful.

We also still picked a few strawberries and a good bagful of windfall olives. It’s turning out to be a very good olive year this year, by general consent all over Italy. They are more plentiful and earlier than in previous years and are not too badly affected by maggots. We’ll wait for a drier day to pick them in the next week or 2. While we were still on the land the rain returned and we still had to make the long way home exposed to the elements.

During the night we had some serious storms and today it’s been bucketing down most of the day. So today, for the first time we have lit a fire in the kitchen, more as an antidote against the doom and gloom outside and to roast some chestnuts, rather than against the actual cold.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Of Saint Happy, Mushrooms and Frank meeting Franco

Just a little update on what’s been happening the last week and a bit or so. The weather has been a bit of a mixed bag and never as predicted by the weather forecasters, which makes planning the next day very difficult. One day you decide to get up early to get some work done, because the weather is supposed to be dry and you wake up to pouring rain. Next day you have a lie-in, because they promise you rain and the sun is out. Well at least last Sunday was a beautifully sunny and warm day as it was the ‘Fiera di San Felice’, the Saint Happy Fair at Santo Stefano. Saint Happy, or St Felix I suppose, is the patron saint of Santo Stefano (and not St Stephen as one would suspect…), and every 3rd Sunday in October this gives cause to celebration with a huge sprawling market through the streets of the town, selling everything from porchetta (Tuscan roast pork) to kitchen utensils to porchetta to live chickens and cattle to porchetta to tractors to porchetta to clothing etc. You get the drift. Porchetta is an essential part of any festa in these parts. On the photo you get a bit of a flavour of the event.

On the land, we finished the autumn clean-up in Arcola and started it in Villa. In Villa we also chopped down an old, diseased apple tree for fire wood. The wine had started fermenting with a bit of delay and therefore got slightly oxidized. So unfortunately it’s going to have rather too much volatile acidity (it’ll taste a bit vinegary in lay-speak), but should still just about be alright. The cider on the other hand smells divine, bubbling away in it’s demijohn.

One day we were both off sick after consuming some wild mushrooms, so for the time being I am banned by Susan to pick any more. They were of a variety that we had picked in previous years on our land and never had any problems with. In fact we had eaten the first ones on Saturday, but with a large armful of what I identified as Chanterelles from Villa (see photo above). The mushrooms in Arcola I had identified as Sheathed Woodtufts, which are described as good and edible. By Tuesday there were so many growing on our land, that I just couldn’t resist and fried some with the steak we were having that evening. I spent most that night on the toilet, whilst with Susan the effect arrived during the next day. Still, they tasted good… Either it was because of the much greater quantity consumed compared to the previous occasion, or that I did not cook them for as long as before. Saturday we stewed them in some milk and cream for a good while as a pasta sauce. Whichever way, it put us both off wild mushrooms for a wee while. We’re alive to tell the tale!

Frank our motozappa (plough) in the meantime had to go and meet Franco, the local ‘bicycle-and-small-machinery-repair-man’. The drive belt had apparently come off and needed to be tightened. For a good 45 minutes work Franco charged us all of €8. I know craftsmen in the UK don’t even get out of bed for that amount! So yesterday he (Frank that is) was put back into action to plough over a terrace in Arcola. Susan in the meantime gave the hornets in the hollow cherry tree their final eviction notice. Today we dug over the bed behind the former hornet’s nest and sowed some more peas. I know it’s not the right moon phase, but the soil is nicely wet now and I didn’t want to leave this job too long.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Some Things to do with Chestnuts

Autumn definitively has caught up with us again and our brief Indian summer has come to an abrupt end. It started raining heavily in the early hours of this morning and as I write this (10 a.m.) it hasn’t even got properly bright yet.
Yesterday we went out chestnut hunting and came back with several kilos of this beautiful fruit. Going out into the woods is quite dangerous at this time of the year, especially on Wednesdays and Sundays. That’s when the hunters are out in droves, shooting at anything that moves and is not dressed in bright orange. So we stuck to minor roads rather than venturing right into the woods. However, there are so many chestnut trees around here that during the war chestnuts became the main food source for the inhabitants of the area. Some of the older generation say they never want to eat another chestnut, because they ate nothing else during the war. I reckon though, rather than being sick of the flavour of this delicious and versatile fruit they are tired of peeling the damn things! Our friend Carlo tells of his main childhood memory of the war being, having to grind the coffee mill day-in and day-out to make chestnut flour. Bread made exclusively from chestnut flour does not rise well, so tends to be hard and heavy, but it can be added to ordinary flour to make a fragrant loaf or used to make pasta or pancakes.

So after we returned from our expedition we started using them having found some interesting recipes for preserving them. Here I’d like to share a couple of them with you. A few general tips first:
First of all a warning: all these recipes of course are for the sweet chestnut, which is no relation to the horse chestnut, which is more common in more northerly climes and is poisonous. Horse chestnuts are great for playing conkers or to make little stick animals with but not for eating!
When out picking chestnuts, bring a pair of sturdy gloves, so you can free them easily from their prickly shells.
If you are picking sweet chestnuts in the wild always add an extra 10% on recipe quantities to allow for any slightly rotten or worm infested ones you may have to throw away.
To peel chestnuts, first cut a slit into the skin of each nut and put them into a saucepan covered with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. As soon as cool enough to handle, pull off the shells and as much of the inner skin as possible.

Castagne Sotto Whisky
Ingredients: 1 kg Chestnuts, 1 litre whisky, 500g sugar
Method: Peel chestnuts as described above. Choose the largest and best looking chestnuts and keep them as whole as possible. Place the whisky in a saucepan and stir in the sugar. Bring the mixture to the boil. Add the chestnuts and turn off the heat. Leave to cool and bottle into clean jars. Serve as a dessert on ice-cream with a drizzle of honey.

As this is out of my Ligurian recipe book, there was really only one whisky that should be used for this, Glen Grant 5 Year Old Single Malt Whisky. This has long been the best selling whisky in Italy and made Italy the largest importer of malt whiskies well before they became popular anywhere else. This reminds me of a little Scottish prayer which goes like this:

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want
As long as there’s whisky
In Glen Grant.
And if it’s gone,
No more to pour,
We’ll up the line
To Cragganmore!

Cragganmore being a distillery just up the road from Glen Grant in the Spey Valley of the Highlands of Eastern Scotland.

Also from ‘Ligura in Arbanello’ by Laura Rangoni:

Marmellata di Fagioli e Castagne
This is a kind of substitute for the ubiquitous Nutella, just better and less sickly sweet.
Ingredients: 400g dried white beans, 150g sugar, 400g chestnuts
Method: Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water. Drain and boil in fresh water until soft, then whiz them to a fine puree in a food processor. In the meantime peel the chestnuts as described above and chop them finely. Put the bean puree back into the saucepan and, over a low flame stirring constantly, add the sugar. Once the sugar is dissolved, add the chopped chestnuts, taking the mixture off the heat. Bottle immediately into hot jars, seal and turn upside down for about half an hour. Use as a sandwich spread.

Chestnut Sorbet
Ingredients: 300g chestnuts, 1 vanilla pod, 150g sugar, 400ml milk.
Method: Peel chestnuts as described above. Put the peeled chestnuts in a small saucepan with the vanilla pod and sugar. Add 100 ml of water & simmer gently until the liquid becomes syrupy. Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla pod into the syrup. Puree in a blender to a fine paste, then slowly add the milk. Churn in an ice-cream machine.

Finally something that we are going to make today for the freezer in anticipation of Christmas:
Chestnut stuffing
(quantities for a chicken or guinea fowl. Double for a turkey)
450g chestnuts, 450g sausage meat, 1 onion, 50g sultanas, ½ tbsp sugar, pinch cinnamon, 25g butter, salt & pepper to taste, a little tomato juice to moisten.
Peel chestnuts as described above. Slice onions & fry in the butter until golden, then add the sausage meat & cook gently for a few minutes. Do not allow the onions to turn brown. Add the tomato juice, sugar, salt & pepper and the cinnamon. Stir together until well blended, then add the chestnuts, previously minced, and the sultanas. Mix well & allow to cool before stuffing your bird. (Recipe taken from ‘The Wildfoods Cookbook’ by Joy Spoczyinska).

There are many more things which can be made from chestnuts. We will keep a few to dry to turn to flour, there are numerous chestnut soup recipes around (made one last night), or you can make chestnut puree instead of mashed potatoes. See if we can’t get to the stage of being fed up with chestnuts! Anybody with any further suggestions what to do with chestnuts, please post them on the commentary. The best entry may get a prize, if there are a few suggestions.

Well it’s afternoon in the meantime and we’re starting to be thoroughly fed up with peeling chestnuts. In the famous words of Jimi Hendrix: “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”. At least it was a productive day indoors as the rain still comes down outside. It’s supposed to get better again tomorrow, so the plan is to cut some wood and see to our wines brewing in Villa.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Chestnut season

Allora! The weather is still holding, pleasantly warm temperatures during the day and balmy evenings. Today we were in Arcola finishing the autumn clearing job. I applied the strimmer to the top terraces, even clearing up some corners I hadn’t attempted before. There is a beautiful olive tree on the very top, which I very much assume is on our land, but which was totally overgrown by 2 ancient, rampant vines and plenty of ivy. The tree is actually heavy with olives this year, so I freed it from the invaders and cleared up the ground underneath. While putting down the strimmer for a minute I had a little, actually quite a big, visitor who settled on it for a wee while, a Praying Mantis. Not only people in Italy are religious…

This work ,of course, resulted in plenty of burnable rubbish. So Susan lit a fire nearby, and then went on the hunt for some lunch. Chestnut season is in full swing, so she collected a good kilo of them, which we roasted on the fire, Hmmmmm! We had already feasted on chestnuts on Sunday, when we went to the Sagra della Castagna, the chestnut festa, at Barbarasco on Sunday. Apart from roasted chestnuts we had pancakes made with chestnut flour topped with ricotta cheese, ravioli and lasagne made from chestnut flour with a ragu sauce and finally sgabbei, puffed up bread balls, with a selection of cheeses and salumi with not a chestnut in sight. A couple of handfuls of roasted chestnuts actually fills you up better then a sandwich.

As the fire burned down we threw the hot embers down a terrace into the entrance of a hornets’ nest. Not that I have something against hornets per se, but they built their nest inside the base of a rather large cherry tree of ours, which has been hollowed out by termites and which is likely to die and collapse soon anyway. It also blocks the path to what this summer was our lettuce bed. Just passing the nest was fine, but when Susan was trying to dig it over last week to turn it into a pea bed, they got a bit upset and stung her. So to enable us to cut down this dying tree and to grow peas behind it these hornets, I’m afraid they have to be evicted. Not sure yet if it has worked, but it certainly created a panic amongst the insects.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Indian Summer and Cider Making

Well the much cooler weather and damper weather that had started on the 14th September has given way to a second Indian summer period, which started on Wednesday (8th). Daytime temperatures are back up in the mid-twenties and even at nigh it doesn’t drop much below 20 degrees. The clear blue skies and continuous sunshine really show off the leaves on the trees which are starting to take on golden hues. It’s just as well we are getting some nice weather again, otherwise we would have had an unusually short summer period this year, lasting for only 3 months. Now we seem to get a bonus week or two.

We did plough over a terrace last Saturday and planted it with broad beans for spring harvesting. I never seem to have enough each spring to conserve some for later use, so I dedicated practically a whole terrace to them this time. I suppose they are ready when nothing else much is growing (April/May) so they get eaten straight away. On Thursday we dug over a bed and sowed peas. I need to find another couple of locations for a greater supply for roundabout the same time as the broad beans. I also started my autumn cleaning work by strimming half the terraces. I shall finish the job today or Monday.

Yesterday we started our first cider experiment. Our friend Irene from Switzerland came out to help us. First we picked the apples, some 50 kg of various varieties. Not all the trees were as prolific as last year, but we had some really tasty, sharp apples. The majority were a variety, that according to Irene is called Boskop in German, a large, sharp, hard- and rough-skinned variety, yellowish-green in colour. Very juicy and tasty.

Then we put the lot through the crusher, which evidently is designed for grapes, but eventually crushed the apples too. Then of course we pressed out the juice. A beautifully dark golden, cloudy, sweet juice emerged. On testing the potential alcohol the must showed a whapping 11%! So it should be drunk with care and not by the pint like British cider. We made about 15 litres only, but hey it’s better than letting the apples rot on the tree or be eaten by the local wild boar population. Although I’m told the pigs taste better if they are killed just at the moment they try to eat an apple. This is the way they are often served here, still with the apple in their mouth.

Anyway, weather is far too good to sit here on my computer. Out I go!

Friday, 3 October 2008


Well autumn definitely has arrived. The last few days it has been raining and it has got a lot cooler. So time for autumn jobs, the ‘vendemmia’, the grape harvest. Well, in actual fact, we hardly got anything off our vines at Villa. They succumbed to fungal attacks. As they hadn’t been looked after for a couple of years and I hadn’t quite pruned them to their final form yet, they obviously needed a greater attack of anti-fungal spray to become productive again. So to make the meager harvest worth while, we bought some 90 kg of Montepulciano grapes so we could test out the new winery equipment. Well when I say new, it’s new to us, but I have seen bits like these in a museum…

The hardest part of the job is the cleaning of the equipment.

Next the grapes go through the crusher. Montepulciano grapes have quite a dark juice already, so it is not necessary to leave the skins on the must for long, i.e. in our case we left them on for a couple of hours. We tested the potential alcohol content and it showed a massive 15% AbV! That’ll keep us happy…

Finally the whole thing is put through the press to squeeze out the juice. We got about 60 litres of must. Now it goes into large demijohns to ferment. Hopefully it’ll turn out fine, I’ll keep you posted.

Other than that it was Susan’s birthday, which meant she got a bit of cash through the post and relieving our crisis. We spent the rainy days stocking up on some storable basics and even better, there was a closing down sale at a nearby electrical store and we managed to pick up a cheap freezer, which we went and filled up with several goodies immediately, special offers meats and fish, as well as home-made pesto. Also made some of my special tomato chutney yesterday. On Saturday was the last of the outdoor parties in the village. Mauro had invited the neighbourhood as well as the members of his band for an afternoon of music and food in his back garden. Towards the evening it was getting decidedly chilly though.

The sun appears to have made a re-appearance this afternoon and, if it stays like this we shall plough over a terrace or two in the next couple of days and plant broad beans and peas. Also on the schedule for the next week or so is cider making with the same equipment we made wine with today.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Of slimming, beer and mushrooms

The perfect slimming plan! Guaranteed to work.
Step 1: Base your diet mostly around potatoes. You can do with them what you like, boil them, fry them, eat them as mash or gnocchi or whatever else.
Step 2: Grow your own potatoes. Choose a plot some 25 km away from your home, preferably up a hill. Only ever cycle to this plot. Turn an uncultivated stretch of this land over with a spade prior to planting your potatoes, then plant them.
Step 3: After a few months come back and dig over the plot again to retrieve your potatoes. The calories you have expended on growing the potatoes are roughly equal to the calories you take in from consuming them.
Step 3 ½: If you are feeling particularly energetic, you can come a few times in between to weed, water (carrying the water up a few terraces from a nearby river) and earth up around the plants. This will increase your crop, but of course also involve further expenditure of calories.
As you can see here we were out potato digging in Villa today, cycling back with over 10 kg of spuds on the back of my bike, which is particular fun coming back up our hill… Mushroom season has also started in earnest. Around us it’s still to dry, but in Villa we found a good crop of chanterelles last week. Today we found a good handful of little brown button-like mushrooms, which I haven’t actually identified, but I had thrown a couple in last time with the chanterelles and we’re still alive. We also found two beautiful porcini. So we’ll have a lovely mushroom dinner.
This evening we also decided to test my home-made maize beer. As you can see it’s a bit cloudy, but it has a distinct hoppy aroma from the wild hops we picked and a nice dry finish. It actually tastes of beer despite the fact that it hasn’t seen any barley. Alcohol content is about 5% AbV. I only made an experimental 3 litre batch, but shall try a larger amount next time.

Finally the festa on Sunday got pretty much rained off. There was a poetry reading in the small community centre in the village, but the concert was called off. They had actually lugged up this huge concert piano up to outside our house. Anybody who has ever visited us knows how many steps this involves. They just covered it up against the rain and collected it again the next day. We did have a little private festa in our kitchen though. The pianist and two lost Swedish tourists came down for a glass of wine. We had the Swedish couple over for dinner even. They weren’t actually lost. Elin and Martin were on their holiday and, looking on the internet, found themselves a little B&B just outside our village. It turned out a jolly evening.

Sunday, 21 September 2008


Well here we are again. Sunday seems to be the day for blog updates. As announced last weekend, autumn has definitely arrived. Cooler sunny days are interrupted by rainy ones and showers. Today we got drenched on our bikes on our way home from Arcola. Friday we hardly left the house although it did dry up in the afternoon. Many of our neighbours have begun their grape harvests. Our vines in Villa have yet again succumbed to disease and not produced anything of note. The vines we planted last year are of course not producing yet, but they mostly seem to have survived the dry summer. I shall help our friend and neighbour Carlo with his grape harvest at the beginning of October. Modern wine producers measure the best time to pick their grapes by monitoring sugar and acid contents on a daily basis, but Carlo uses the scientific method of “my son, who likes helping with the vendemmia, comes back from holiday on the 3rd October; that’s when we’ll harvest.” Harvesting that late for exclusively white wines made from Vermentino means he produces quite alcoholic wines with low acidity. I’m having a glass of his wine from last year as I write this.

We still carry large crops back from our land, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, apples and beans today. Something I don’t think I have mentioned is that we have had our daily handful of strawberries since May until now. Never enough at any one time to make jam out of or even bother carrying home, but just enough to pop them into your mouth whenever we are in Arcola.

The festa season is coming towards the end. Tonight there is the annual event in honour of Ponzano Superiore’s most famous son, Cesare Orsini. I’ve been trying to find out a bit more about the man on the internet, but clearly his fame has not spread widely beyond his home town. All I could find out was that the man lived in Ponzano between 1571 to possibly 1636 and wrote amongst other things something called the ‘Cappriccia Macaronica’. He himself felt important enough to give himself an artist’s name: Magister Stopinus. In a very brief mention on Wikipedia for Santo Stefano he is described as a bad Latin poet. Well I was hoping I could find a nice little quote to introduce this entry, but I could only find this picture of him and his bad hair do.

Anyway, the poetry readings are to be followed by a concert. Hope the rain stays away.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

There's autumn in the air

Yesterday autumn arrived. This is not to say it has turned chilly and cold, but the last two nights we’ve had heavy rain, the first serious rain in 3 months really. There were odd showers before, it’s been threatening occasionally, but nothing that left proper puddles behind until yesterday. During the day yesterday there were a few showers too and drizzle on and off and there is now even a slight chill in the air, which is actually quite refreshing after weeks of constant heat.
Nevertheless we walked over to Arcola yesterday to pick as many ripe tomatoes as possible, before they would be attacked by rot. Made a few more jars of tomato sauce today with it. Above you can see the dark clouds threatening above our village on our way back home.

Today was a beautifully bright and fresh day again and after the rains I thought this should be the ideal mushroom hunting weather, but no luck. We went into the woods and came back with virtually nothing, just one tiny mushroom of unknown provenance. We found some blackberries though as you can see. Soon it’ll be time to collect chestnuts.

I have, lacking any further advice, started making beer from maize and hops. I tried malting it (soaked the maize in water for 3 days, then spreading it out for another 3 days, until it started to sprout) and it worked to an extent, but there was not sufficiently enough sugar produced to turn into beer. So I added a bit of sugar to come to a potential strength of 5% AbV. It’s bubbling away merrily now. The colour of the brew is an odd yellow and it does not smell as good as the real thing in a brewery, but it’s only a small experimental batch, so we’ll just see.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Beer out of maize?

Well the last few days the “Scirocco” wind has been blowing a warm wind north from the shores of Africa and it has a brought a change in the weather at last. As the warm wind meets with cooler air flowing off the Alps it builds up clouds and the odd storm develops. One such storm came down over us on the night from Thursday to Friday and this morning we had a heavy, prolonged shower. All this is making it feel uncomfortably humid and the wind barely helps cooling things down. On the plus side, we haven’t had to water for the last few days.

Being in a period of the waxing moon again and having had some rain to moisten the soils, I sowed some more seeds out on Friday, namely celery, spinach, Tuscan black cabbage, lettuce and fennel. We’re also finding a lot of wild food at the moment, especially blackberries and walnuts. We have made a new discovery on Friday. On our way to Arcola we found a prolific source of wild hops growing up some shrub next to a canal. Just picking up a handful and smelling it you realise where the aroma of good quality beer comes from. So of course I couldn’t resist and we picked a whole bag full to make beer with.

Now I watched the beer-making process many times in breweries and whisky distilleries and I know the theory. Hops are of course only a traditional flavouring and preservative for beer the usual main ingredient being barley, or more precisely barley malt. You obtain barley malt by soaking the barley in water for a few days, then spread it on the malting floor in warmish, light conditions to encourage them to geminate. At this stage the starch inside the grain is turned into fermentable sugar. Once that has happened you arrest the growth by kilning the grain. This is done at a temperature of 50 to 60°C until it is dried and crisp. The result is than ground and finally with the addition of hot water turned into a kind of porridge to dissolve the sugar out of the mash. This would be the time to add your hops as well. The resulting liquid is then fermented to make beer. This in a nutshell is the way to make beer.

Whilst I know all this there is one snag: barley is not easily obtainable around here. In theory it is of course possible to make beer out of any grain. Most notably wheat is used for various speciality beers in Germany and Belgium, rice is routinely used in Asia and at least as a part ingredient in many American beers, in the Garfagnana region of Tuscany a micro brewery produces a beer out of a local and ancient kind of hulled wheat known as “farro” and maize is also used in America and parts of Africa to name but a few examples. However, there was a reason why barley is the best raw material, I just can’t for the life of me think what it was. Of the above mentioned grains, the only one readily available to me here is maize. Farro is grown locally, but expensive. I have unsuccessfully been trying to find anything written on the question whether you treat other grains exactly the same as you would barley. Anybody reading this got any ideas?

In the absence of any further info I decided to experiment anyway and soaked a large bowl of maize (or corn whatever you want to call it) to see if I can’t get it to germinate. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of malted maize. Maybe this is the difference, other grains don’t lend themselves to this treatment. I don’t know. Anyone who can shed light on this, please let me know!

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Jam session under the stars

Last night we organised a big jam session on the little piazza outside our house. Our English friends Pam and John, who have a holiday home in Calice al Cornoviglio, have had musical visitors from France. So after much to-ing and fro-ing we managed to get them together with our musical neighbours for a session under the stars. I took it upon myself to cater for over a dozen people, which was no mean feat, considering we had a budget of about €1.33 or thereabouts. I attempted to make the local snack ‘farinata’, which is basically just a mixture of chickpea flour, water and olive oil, which is baked in the oven on a flat baking tray. It was only a limited success, as I discovered that our oven does not stand on an even surface and as the batter is pretty runny it turned out thick one end and thin on the other. Well, since the foreign visitors did not know what it was supposed to look like I just about got away with it.

Next I made my own variation of the local mes-ciüa soup, which was invented by the dock workers of La Spezia. They gathered up any bits of grain or dried pulses which had escaped from sacks while ships were being loaded and unloaded. Now the main ingredients are chickpeas, dried beans and pearl grain. I added a bit of celery and some herbs to embellish it all. Next I made a large pot of spaghetti with a roast tomato sauce. Next an ‘anything-I-could-find-in-the-garden-quiche’, which included aubergines, courgettes, green beans, cherry tomatoes, green peppers, basil and pancetta (didn’t find that in the garden). And finally I served some blackberry tartlets made from wild blackberries.

Luckily the visitors brought plenty of wine so this turned into a lovely festa. Soon we were joined by quite a few of our fellow villagers who were attracted by the sounds of the accordion, pipes, fiddle and hurdy-gurdy (or vielle as Sheila the player of that instrument preferred it to be called). Soon there was even dancing going on. We were celebrating until about 1 o’clock in the morning. I hope we didn’t keep the priest, who lives next to the piazza, too much from his beauty sleep. He obviously didn’t feel inclined to join in.

On this frugal living I just came across a great ‘Independent’ article, here’s the link: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/the-thrifty-foodie-how-to-eat-better-but-pay-less-836638.html. I have recently invested in the book mentioned in there: ‘Food for Free’ by Richard Mabey. It’s got descriptions of over 100 edible plants, berries, mushrooms, seaweed and shellfish, fully illustrated and with recipes. And in it’s newest addistion it comes pocket-sized, so I carry it with me at all times now. We have just tried out the Pontack Sauce recipe on Thursday. It’s made from Elderberries, red wine or vinegar and various spices and is to be used as a condiment, which goes particularly well with liver. Apparently it gets better with age (somewhere I’ve read it should be kept at least 7 years, but we had a try after about 7 minutes), which is just as well as I made over 2 litres of it. It has an interesting sweet and sour flavour with lovely dark fruity notes and an all staining deep red colour. Also on Thursday I’ve made fig jam with the second crop of figs. It was odd this year, the same fig tree produced one crop in late June, then nothing until now, then a second crop just as big as the first.

A final word about the weather, although the weather forecast keeps forecasting rain 'within the next few days', this hasn't happened yet, not even threatened to. The thermometer seems stuck at around 29 during the day and 19 at night.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Paradise Found

The search is over! After centuries of humanity’s search we have at last found the location of the fabled Garden Eden as described in the Book of Genesis and depicted in numerous works of art. Columbus thought it was in South America, others sought to bring paradise back to earth by either converting the rest of the world to their holy faith or, failing this, just slaying them. But it’s already here above the small town of Arcola near La Spezia, Liguria, Italy. It’s just like it’s been described, you reach up or down and you find something to eat. The snake seems to have moved out, but fig leaves are still available as items of clothing. Most other animals seem to get on with each other too, except me and the mosquitoes and the neighbour’s cats with each other. Incidentally there is an excellent book on the subject “Paradise – A History of the Idea that Rules the World” by Kevin Rushby. He follows the history of the paradise myth back from the Greeks (Pythagoras), the Persians through to Columbus, the pilgrim fathers of America to modern paradise seekers, like ourselves, looking for their own piece of heaven in foreign lands. The book is a really good read and comes highly recommended.

Sorry about the long gap between postings again. We’ve been busy keeping our little paradise tidy and well watered. It has rewarded us with plenty of produce. Apricots, apples and since today hazelnuts are all ready. Of course there are still plenty tomatoes and other veg, which is just as well as we are pretty much skinned at the moment and would be reduced to begging if it wasn’t for our own food. We’ve been busy preserving too, blackberry and apple jam, ginger and pear sauce (great with pork), green beans in brine with herbs, roast tomato sauce, dried beans, celery in brine (just an experiment, see how that turns out), mixed fruit salad in syrup.

The weather has continued to be warm to hot and dry with the exception of the main national holiday of Ferragosto, when normally virtually the entire population of Italy heads for the beach. This year they were a bit stranded, or un-stranded as the case may be, as it was unsettled, windy and showery all day.

Last week was our sagra at Ponzano Superiore, the Sagra della Scherpada, our local version of a covered vegetable pie. As usual it was extremely busy on all 4 days, although we only we went the one day, Saturday. Over the period of these celebration the population of our village swells from some 300 to some 3000 and the volunteers cooking and serving really have their hands full. On Sunday we saw our neighbour Mauro playing with his band Tandarandan again. They performed at the Ethnological Museum of the Lunigiana at Villafranca. That way we had a chance see the contents of the museum too and were amazed to see many agricultural exhibits and tools that looked exactly like things we still use now. I knew some of our tools are a bit old, but I didn’t thinks they were museum exhibits yet.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

my new tomato press and other tales

After quite a hot spell, (even Susan dared the freezing waters of the river in Villa, although, after an unexpected encounter with some Dutch tourists the other day, she decided to keep her kit on…) today the weather finally broke with a brisk wind and a brief, but strong shower today. So no need to water the land today and I have a bit of time to write a new entry and to conserve some of our excess harvest.

We have been keeping very busy, despite the heat. Due to our general cash shortage, we have been cycling a lot too and leaving the car at home. We’re getting rather fit these days, I think I’ll enter Susan into next year’s women’s Giro d’Italia! Anyway, apart from the tedious and perennial job of weeding and chopping down bamboo, we have ploughed over another couple of terraces in Arcola. One of them we sowed with cavolo nero (Tuscan “black cabbage”), fennel, and various lettuces. Our daily harvests are sometimes too heavy to carry home on our bikes, especially climbing up the mountain back to our village in the afternoon heat. Here is a list of some of things we’re are currently picking, and no doubt I’ll forget something: tomatoes (big beefy ones, salad and cherry toms), aubergines, peppers, courgettes, melons, lettuces, picked the last pears, some late plums, rocket, cabbages, sweet corn, potatoes, celery. Since we started fighting back the jungle that was our plot 3 years ago this is the first time, that we really are producing more than we can eat, so we are busy preserving things.
My latest acquisition is the tomato press pictured above. It’s a great little gadget. All you do is roughly chop your tomatoes (I had about 3 kg spare today) and cook them for a few minutes in a saucepan. Then you throw them into your tomato press, turn the handle and on one side the skins and most of the pips exit and the other side produces perfectly smooth tomato sauce, which you then bottle with a sprig of basil and simmer for 15 minutes in a pan of water. Apparently it does 50 kg an hour and does not only do tomatoes but any fruit really. So because it was so much fun I did the same thing (save the sprig of basil) with the last of the pears. No need to peel and core them, just chop roughly and the result: a sort of baby food consistency pear sauce. Not exactly sure what I’m going to do with it. Maybe give it to someone visiting with a baby…? or serve it with some venison or wild boar (beg some of the hunters when the season starts…).

Our social life, despite limited funds, has not suffered. James and Alison, who normally bring us rain, are over from Northampton at the moment. We had them around for dinner the other day centred around the produce of our land. A 5 course dinner for 4 cost us a grand total of about €5, which isn’t bad going I thought.
Last night there was a concert in the inner court of our house. It was classical this time, chamber music to be precise. The internationally acclaimed Hyperion Ensemble played works from Vivaldi. The ensemble consisted of 6 musicians, a violin, a cello, an oboe, a flute, a bassoon, and a harpsichord. It was probably the highest quality concert we have seen so far at our house and the atmosphere in the inner court enhanced the virtuosity of the music. Only thing was the wind was starting to pick up and the musicians had to chase after their notes occasionally. To find out more about them check them out on http://www.ensemblehyperion.com/. It was only afterwards that we realized that they charged €10 entry for non-residents of the house.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

History in Santo Stefano part 2

More photos from the festa in Santo Stefano
Combing the wool before spinning
"I can see a handsome man in your future..."

History in Santo Stefano part 1

It is still festa season. Friday night we went with our friend Irene to the Sagra del Raviolo in Arcola. It’s one of my favourite sagras of the year, because the ravioli really are special. They are handmade, stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach and a choice of toppings: ragù (minced meat sauce), sage & butter, or nut sauce. The delicate flavour of the butter and sage best enhances the flavours of the ravioli themselves without overpowering them, but the rich walnut sauce is also delicious.

Last night we went to another highlight of our year the Historical Re-enactment of a Medieval market along the Via Francigena in the old town of Santo Stefano. This annual event is a great excuse for all the locals to dress up in medieval garb and have a great knees-up. Proceedings begin with a procession headed by the drum-rolling, fanfare-blowing, flag-waving ‘sbandieratore’. They are a group of young people, waving, throwing and juggling large flags around skillfully. They are followed by all the nobles, first and foremost by King Charles the I don’t know how manyeth of France, who was given the key to the city of Sarzana in 12something (I really must find out the historical details sometime). He was played as every year by our friend Pino, who rides in majestically on his horse.
All ages get involved.
After them the soldiers and knights in shining armour march in and finally the convoy is tailed by the ordinary trades people as well as the entertainers, the jugglers and musicians. After the ceremony of the king sitting down on his throne and everyone shouting “hurrah!” lots, the flag throwers, the knights and the other entertainers show off their skills. The trades people in the meantime, the weavers and cobblers, the bakers and cooks, the painters and wood carvers, the fortune tellers, and basket weavers, the herbalists and archers set up their stalls around the narrow alleyways of the town and show off their skills. As you can see, great fun is had by all.

Cooking sgabei, puffed-up, deep-fried bread balls of the region

Guitar Ray And The Gamblers

It’s been a busy week and I didn’t get time to post anything on the various events taking place this week, so I’ll have to do about 3 posts today to catch up with everything. Tuesday night we went to a free open air concert in Fiumaretta next to the river Magra just before it enters the Mediterranean. Guitar Ray and the Ramblers, a mostly Italian band, took us on a journey through America playing everything from proper Blues to Soul, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rockabilly. They played mostly cover versions of the likes of Magic Sam, T-Bone Walker and other Blues greats. Guitar Ray himself is a bundle of energy on stage. Despite the heat he was rocking and dancing away for 2 ½ hours with his guitar. Like Angelique Kidjo a couple of weeks ago, he got off the stage involving the crowd, getting them up to dance and dragging a few of them back onto stage with him. He took a particular shine to that young girl, hanging his guitar around her neck making her look as if she was playing it. He gave her a free CD afterwards and he has sure made a new young fan. His band consisted of a trumpet, a saxophone, a keyboard, drums, a bass and himself on guitar, all great musicians. It was a brilliant evening out under the stars and best of all it was free. If you ever come across them go and see them. Check them out on http://www.bluesgamblers.com/

Monday, 28 July 2008

of pears and sagre

Well the temperatures have been rising again and we've been praying for the relief of a nice thunderstorm. It was threatening today, clearly heading our way, but then decided to take a right turn out to sea. I think it's saving up a big one for us. There was the brief cooling of a shower today, but it did not last long. On the land we mostly water now and harvest lots of fruit and veg. We carry a few kilos of pears home each day as we pick them as they fall. Back home we bottle them in syrup as we can't eat them all at once and I can't think of anything else much to do with pears.

I may have mentioned it before, it's festa season and this weekend we visited a couple more. In fact they were sagre. There is no real translation for the Italian word sagra in English, but it is essentially a festival around a particular culinary speciality of a region or village. Saturday we went for the sagra testaroli e tagliatelle at Baccano di Arcola, just a kilometre from our plot of land. Tagliatelle does not need much of an introduction, but testaroli are a kind of thin pancake, which is usually served with either pesto, oil and parmesan or with a mushroom sauce. Susan had the testaroli with pesto, while I had Taglialtelle 'rustico', with a spicy tomato sauce. For secondo we shared an 'asado', Argentinian style slow grilled veal. It was scumptious. The after-dinner music was supplied by a one-man band, but the star of the show was a young Joe Cocker look-alike. He was barely 2 1/2 both in years and feet height, but he was tireless on the dancefloor, getting the Joe Cocker moves just right and asking all the girls his size to dance with him.
Sunday we went to a village called Bastremoli for the Sagra della Torta. We had not actually heard of the village before, but the posters promised music by our friend Riccardo Borghetti. The surprise was that the village faces ours across the valley, we just didn't realise it. It afforded a beautiful view back across to our village as can be seen on the top photo (Ponzano is in the background not the forground). However the food was a bit disappointing, the torte in question being a vegetable pie and a rice tart, both were not exciting. Also the music wasn't great. Instead of playing his own songs in Spezzini dialect, he played cover versions of popular American and Italian songs. He had a good few glasses of wine before he went on stage and did not get much feedback from the crowd, so he did not put too much into his performance. Shame...

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Of Cycling, walking and driving

We have found a sort of 3-day rhythm which enables us to save fuel without completely exhausting ourselves. Day one we cycle to either Arcola (1 hour) or Villa (2 hours) to do some light work, mostly watering, light weeding and harvesting whatever is ready. Day two we walk to Arcola (2 hours one way), doing some light work again. Day three we take the car to either Arcola or Villa, carrying the heavier equipment with us and doing some of the bigger jobs such as strimming or ploughing. That way the car stands idle for 2 days out of 3 and we don’t use quite so much fuel.

Today was a cycling day and we cycled to Villa. It’s about 20 km each way. First rapidly down our hill than an 8km stretch a long a busy and dangerous road. There is a traffic free alternative, which we worked out for Babette and Paul for their guide to the Via Francigena, however it’s much tougher over the mountains and the road is very rough. Susan doesn’t have a mountain bike and she does not feel very secure on rough roads. Talking about the Guide to the Via Francigena, it is now published and very good too. It gives a detailed description on how to travel along this pilgrim’s route by foot, bike or horse all the way from Canterbury to Rome (via Ponzano Superiore) on the footsteps of Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, who first documented this path back in the late 10th Century. Anyone interested can purchase the book on http://www.pilgimagepublications.com/. It comes in 2 parts, Canterbury to Great St. Bernard Pass and Great St. Bernard to Rome. Anyway, I digress, finally there is an approximately 9 km bit which goes steadily, but relatively gently uphill on quiet, shady roads. On the way we pass the village of Tresana, pictured above, with it’s picture book castle.

We watered the young vines there today as well as finishing off the door to my new winery. The bat had moved in again, so I had to wake it up and evict it again. We also harvested some new potatoes, which we just had with some butter and fresh mint. Is there anything more delicious? In Arcola lots of things are now ripening, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers, melons, plums and pears. We’ve produced some pears in cognac from my new ‘Liguria in Arbanella’ recipe book. Looking forward to trying this in a few weeks. Yesterdays driving day involved clearing up under the pear trees with the strimmer, as the pears were starting to fall off the tree and disappearing in the undergrowth

Saturday, 19 July 2008


From sconfinare – to cross borders, to cross over. The Sconfinando is an annual world music event taking place open air during July in the Fortezza Firmafede, a medieval citadel, in Sarzana. Ever since we have arrived here in 2004 we have made a point of seeing at least one concert there each year. Last night we went to see the last of this year’s (the 17th edition) events, Angelique Kidjo from Benin, West Africa. I hadn’t actually come across her before, but I’m wondering how I managed to miss her so far. Her music is a mixture of African rhythms combined with calypso, Caribbean and Brazilian sounds and rock’n’roll. She sings in English, French and her native African language. She has covered songs by Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, giving them a distinct African twist. She has actually been nominated for 4 Grammy awards and on her latest album Djin Djin, she has collaborated with, amongst others, Alicia Keys, Peter Gabriel, Josh Groban, Carlos Santana and Branford Marsalis.

On stage Angelique is electric. After only the first song she asked the audience: “Are you gonna dance tonight?”, which was answered by a half hearted: “yeah”. When after the next song still no one had got up she just got off the stage and dragged people off their seats and finally invited them all onto the stage. The sound technician obviously wasn’t ready for that and was having kittens about people treading onto his cables and damaging his equipment. Well for the rest of the night about 80 of us stayed up there dancing with the woman herself and her band. The band by the way consisted of an acoustic guitar player from Brazil an African percussionist and a bassist from Senegal, a lead guitarist from Guinea-Bissau and a drummer from Surinam. There was a lot of good-natured banter going on amongst the band and between Angelique and her musicians. Especially the percussionist, Ibrahim Diagne ‘Thiokho’, mingled with the crowd making everyone contort in new dance steps including a bunch of kids.

The venue, as always, was haunting, taking place in the large inner court of the citadel with it’s imposing medieval towers and walls. The acoustic is very good and last night’s rising full moon and balmy temperatures added to the atmosphere. The only down side of the concert was that it was too short. After barely 1 ½ hours and just one encore it was all over, but hey I’m a fan. There were no CDs sold after the concert, so I shall have to find one in the shops and I recommend anyone reading this to do the same.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Our New Winery

Well with the recently more bearable temperatures (it’s not cold by any means, don’t get me wrong!) we have again been very busy today. We went out early to George’s at Villa beating back the weeds on the lower terraces and around the newly planted grapevines with the strimmer. Susan in the meantime busied herself filing the door I very badly made for the house to make it fit it’s frame, watering the vines, freeing an apple tree from lianas (you know the sort of things Tarzan swings himself through the jungle on) and picking plums.

The door bit was quite important as we have a few days ago moved our new winery into there with all the equipment courtesy of Pam and John’s cantina. It’s not likely that anyone comes to our remote piece of land to nick a few bits of fairly old equipment, but the door and the window, which I also fitted are mainly to keep the wildlife out. We have already evicted a family of bats. As you can see we now have a crusher (background), a press, a corking machine and a few large demijohns. All of it needs a bit of cleaning up and maintenance of course, but hey it’s a start. Thank you very much Pam and John. Right, enough of the idle chat, now I have to turn some of those plums into plum jam.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

More sowing and bottling courgettes

Third day in a row an entry! The clouds from yesterday moved on a gain and today the sky was it’s usual Mediterranean blue with a slight cool breeze making the temperatures very pleasant indeed. I was out sowing the terrace I raked over in the rain yesterday. Sowed out corn lettuce, parsley, mixed lettuces, rocket, courgettes, more dwarf beans, radishes, cauliflowers, and spring onions. Susan in the meantime was spraying the tomatoes, aubergines and peppers with Bordeaux mixture to prevent fungal infections after the rains.

We are starting to bottle some of the over production, there are only so many courgettes you can eat in a day. Oh, by the way, for any of you Americans reading this blog, my spell checker keeps telling me I spelled courgette and aubergine wrong. Of course in American they are zucchini (as in Italian) and eggplant. So at the moment I am making some ‘zucchine al naturale’ out of my Liguria in arbanella’ recipe book. It simply involves making a brine out of 1 litre of water and 300g of coarse salt. Cut the courgettes into thin fingers and put into clean jars. Cover with the brine, seal and slowly heat in a water bath. When boiling point is reached, simmer gently for about 45 minutes. That way we should have some courgettes to add to our pasta in winter.

Above you see one of my courgettes.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Flowering Vegetables

Today it rained for the first time since the 18th June. It started with a light drizzle, while I was raking over a bed, but then developed into a full blown downpour, but luckily not for too long. It gave everything a nice watering without causing any damage. Above just a few photos of how pretty vegetables can be as well. On top a courgette flower, which of course is edible either stuffed with ricotta, stir-fried with a light tempura-like coating or in oil with some delicate herbs as a pasta sauce. The middle one is an aubergine flower and the bottom one is one that one should normally not see. Some of my radicchio lettuces have shot to flower and they turned out to be very picturesque.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Cusina d’ Sa’Steu

Last night was festa time again in Ponzano Superiore. Every year the local restaurants are organizing a number of events around Santo Stefano celebrating the distinct cuisine of the town and surrounding villages, in dialect ‘la cusina d’ Sa’Steu’. Last night’s event took place on the terrace outside our palazzo under the moon and the stars. Guests were welcomed at the entrance of the village by a brass duo. As you worked your way up the village you picked up your first antipasti on various tables. The first table had cheeses and a glass of white wine from local producer Zangani. Next we were entertained by a couple of belly dancers, a very exotic sight in our village! At the second table they handed out bruschetti and the speciality of the village, ‘scherpada’, a kind of vegetable pie. The third table offered passers-by vegetable balls and chickpea chips.

As we finally found our seats at the top we were given further antipasti, fried anchovies, vegetable parcels, some walnut bread and focaccia, and finally we settled to our primo (lasagna al forno) and secondo. The centre piece can be admired on the photo below, the famous 4-headed Ponzano inflammable pig! Finally there were various cakes, chocolate cake, fig cake and pineapple cake.

As after-dinner entertainment we moved into the inner court of our palazzo where there was a fire juggling show. Originally our neighbour Mauro with his band Tandarandan were supposed to play, but the event had to be postponed from last week, due to the sudden death of someone and Mauro unfortunately couldn’t make it for yesterday. The best thing after all that food and drink was that we only had a few yards to stagger home and fall into bed.

On the land in the meantime I have ploughed over another terrace in readiness for some sowing. Frank Motozappa the hoe gave me some trouble though. The sparkplug cover had split and wasn’t holding the metal connection in place properly. I was quite proud of myself though that I managed to locate the fault and replace the faulty part myself. I’m not normally known for my mechanical abilities. However this meant that there was a 2-day interruption to the work. This morning it looked almost as if it was going to rain, but it has cleared up nicely again. The courgettes and cucumbers on the land are starting to take on gigantic proportions!