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

To book an informative and fun wine tasting whilst holidaying in Italy or arrange for a wild food walk in your area contact me on tuscanytipple at libero dot it or check out my Facebook page

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Monday, 28 January 2008

We did get to the tax office today, clutching all the documents and it was a very funny experience. You come into the office and report to the front desk. There you are given a bit of paper like at the butchers counter at the supermarket. However, they use a complicated combination of letters and numbers designed to confuse the uninitiated. So unlike at the butcher counter, where you see that number 172 is being served and you are number 198, giving you some time to do the rest of your shopping or have a coffee, at the tax office you get EA0007. Before us they served AO0017 and JA0012 and various other meaningless combinations. This way you are poised in the waiting room for your letter / number combination like waiting for the bingo caller to call your number at random.

There were about a dozen people in the waiting room, but no one behind any of the 9 desks serving the public. When some people started to complain, the boss came out and said they were all on their coffee break. Some people in the back of the room couldn't hear what was going on and asked if there was a strike. Someone in front answered in a rather sarcastic tone that the poor clerks had already worked hard for 2 whole hours this morning and couldn't possibly wait another 2 hours before going home. This started a bit of riot in the waiting room with the boss explaing that the coffee break after 2 hours was in their contract. There was a round of applause when 4 clerks appeared back behind their desks, some still clutching their coffees.

Finally our number came up and I was about to shout 'BINGO', when I saw the sour face of the lady about to lower herself to deal with us muck. Some thoughtful person had given her a cactus for her desk and the pot proclaimed that it's owner was called Elisabetta. We had filled in the form already except were it said 'Activity Code'. Each activity has a 6 digit number code, which of course we could not know. So Elisabetta flung a 100 page booklet in front of us telling us to find our code ourselves. Now there seemed no sensible order to the document, certainly not an alphabetic order. Asking her resuted in a bored shrug of the shoulder. Finally towards the end we found teaching and pointed it out to her. She photocopied Susan's documents and finally printed off a page with her VAT number, with a slightly mumbed 'a posto', 'that's it', dismissing us with an annoyed look. She must have had years of training to become quite as unfriendly as this.

Well, never mind. We've got what we came for and Susan will be able to start work soon.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Of Ants and Ivy

The weather really seems to be getting better again. Susan wasn’t feeling well yesterday, so we had a break, although the mercury climbed to a balmy 19 degrees. Today was a little cloudy, but still mild. So we went off to work on the land in Arcola. I cleared another terrace, 10 gone 6 to go, and Susan burned the cuttings. I uprooted most of the vines on the terrace, leaving just a few that aren’t getting in the way much anywhere, pruned the remaining ones as well as a pear tree, cut down the weeds on the fringes, weeded around the peas and dug over a bed for spring planting.

As you can see on the top picture, the pear tree is not looking too well. It’s been attacked by our twin problem threatening all our trees, termites and ivy. The ivy, if left unchecked, gives the termites and other ants shelter and however many you kill of the little blighters, there are always are more of them than there are of you. It’s like the old joke of the elephant treading on an ant heap. All the ants swarm up all over his body to attack him. The elephant shakes himself vigorously and all the ants fall off, except for one on the neck of the elephant. So all the other ants shout up: ‘Strangle him, Bob, strangle him!’ And the ivy grows faster than you can cut it down. The bottom picture is of the view from the top of the pear tree down to Susan stoking her fire.

And what about Susan’s battle with officialdom I hear you ask. Well of course she needed another document and I should have known: an Italian Identity Card. This is one of the easier documents to obtain in Italy though. You just turn up at the local council, hand over 3 photos and €5.42, and hey presto! So we’ve done this and have another go at the tax office tomorrow. Right, must do my homework for tomorrows lesson or I’ll be told off.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

io mangio, io bevo...

Io Mangio
Io bevo
Io amo

Tutto il resto è noia
(I eat, I drink, I love… all the rest is a drag.)

That’s the motto of our favourite bar in Sarzana, the Bar Massimo. Great place in the historical centre of Sarzana, where you can eat a light lunch, or have a relaxing drink, sit outside in the summer (or even on mild winter days), have a chat with Massimo or Manu, who run this place and all this to some very good background music. We went there yesterday after Susan’s first Italian lesson for a lunch treat. We had some of Manu’s Mum’s aubergine bake. Sue’s beginner’s class is a 3 ½ hour marathon and she was understandably exhausted. The participants in her course consist of some Moroccans, Chinese, a Nigerian, an American lady and a Polish lady. One of the Chinese couldn’t even read the Latin alphabet! So Susan felt quite good having an advantage over some of her fellow students.

While she was having her lesson, I went into the tax office to get the forms for her VAT registration. We’ll get them back to them tomorrow. Hopefully it won’t take too long and they won’t want too many other documents. The weather is getting positively spring-like, with just a hint of chill still in the air. So today we went off to George’s land in Villa and were working hard for some 5 hours. I cut down some more trees and started clearing the thicket on the other side of the gate. Susan helped with that as well as burning the cuttings. The actual cutting down of the trees doesn’t actually take that long, it’s the cutting them into logs for our fireplace that takes up the time. And every now and then the chainsaw decides it has had enough and stops and won’t restart for a while. It appears to have a will of it’s own.

It’s beautiful out there on a sunny day. It is sooooo peaceful and quiet with just the rushing of the river audible. The water there is so clear that we drink it straight out of the river. We were working so hard, that I didn’t get around taking any pics today, so above “the amusingly shaped vegetable of the week” photo.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Things are Looking up!

Well, as the followers of these pages will know, there’s only one small thing missing from our lives here in Italy to make it pretty much perfect and that is a steady source of cash income. Not much, mind, just enough to pay the bills, electricity, telephone, petrol and keep the banks off our backs. Some of you will remember us running against a bureaucratic wall while Susan was applying for an English teaching job. Today a small miracle happened, which just goes to show you should never give up in the face of adversity. It appears they are so desperate for native English speakers to be able to work specific hours, that they are not insisting on seeing Susan’s degree after all. They have actually offered her a job today, subject to her getting a VAT registration, starting from 11 February.

She will be teaching 11-14 year olds alongside a teacher 8 hours a week for 8 weeks. The pay - well I don’t want to name figures, you never know who reads this - but put it this way: on our current very careful living standards would last us a year. There are good chances that she’ll get more work later in the year again as well though, and apparently there are other schools looking for people too. At the same time I am due to go on a couple of trips to Germany with one of my wine producers in the next couple of months, which is hopefully going to generate some more business as well. So all in all we can look forward to a brighter future. Let’s just hope that the VAT registration people are not going to throw a stick into the spokes. They may still want a copy of her degree, however, Susan’s sister has found the original in Belfast and is sending it over to us. We tried to get things going this morning, but the office is only open about 6 hours a week. Sounds a cushy number to me.

Other news: the weather has been a bit of a mixed bag. After a couple of sunny days it turned cloudy again with bits of drizzle occasionally. This morning we woke up to thick fog, which cleared up by lunchtime. Done some general tidying up on the land, weeding, grubbing up vines etc. Today is full moon and we completed the to-do list for the waxing moon period. Now it’s back to pruning and digging as well as sowing a few bits such as radishes and lettuces, which prefer to be sowed during the waning moon.

Oh yes, and we started school. Last week we met with the Italian teacher (incidentally the same school where Sue will be working) to establish our levels. I’ve joined the advanced class on Monday nights and Susan the beginners on Wednesday mornings (although this will have to change once she starts teaching). I had my first class yesterday. The teacher is very nice. The class consists of a few Moroccans, a guy from Senegal, an American lady and another lady whose nationality I have yet to determine. Unfortunately no jolly group of Irish ready for a pub crawl after lessons…, but you can’t have everything.

To celebrate the good news (and my friend Jo’s birthday), we’ve broken our abstinence from alcohol and celebrating with a glass of red wine, first of the year. Talking about my friend Jo, those of you who understand German, you can listen to his inspiring podcasts. Just click on the link on the side of my blog to ‘My Friend Jo’s Podcasts’ and hey presto! Anybody come up with any books they’d like to swap with me yet? I’m still waiting…

Finally I had my cousin Monica on the phone yesterday. Hadn’t spoken to her in years. She announced a visit with her family for the end of June. We have already had my cousin Karin announce herself for April and our friends Siobhan and Eleanor from Belfast for the middle of June. So we have some nice visits to look forward to. Funny that, you live in a grey Surrey suburb for years and no one turns up to visit, than you move to the sunny Riviera and everyone turns up at once… Of course you are all welcome (well not quite all of course; I wouldn’t want Osama Bin Laden or even George Bush turning up on our doorstep)

Friday, 18 January 2008

Via Francigena

The good weather has returned yesterday. And today we took full advantage and went for another walk trying to find an easier route over the mountains towards Aulla for any Via Francigena pilgrims. After enquiring with our neighbour Piero, to ensure that there is indeed a route across the mountains and getting rough instructions, we headed off again. For those who have been asking, here is the description of the road from Aulla to Sarzana, avoiding the Via Cisa. It should only be attempted by fairly fit mountain bikers, or in an off-road car or horse. In fact for horse riders it’s the only route. Whilst the Via Cisa is dangerous for cyclists, it’s impossible for horses. The problem in finding this route was, that every single detailed map of the road that I have consulted shows it passing the 665 metre peak of Monye Grosso on it’s eastern flank. This is however not the case it goes around the other way.

Out off Aulla you take the left turn signposted Bibola, Vecchietto. This a proper paved road with very little traffic. On reaching Bibola you carry on towards Vecchietto. Halfway between these 2 villages is a cemetery on your left. Shortly afterwards an unpaved road turns off to the right next to an old useless rusty gate. It starts climbing quite steeply, then levels off a little, before becoming really steep just before you reach the top off a crest. Just before you reach the crest, you will notice a gate on the right and a load of noise indicating a quarry, the road forks. Bear right to reach the top of the crest. The road then descends steeply again for a couple of hundred yards, where you take a sharp double-left turn, away from the quarry. Now you’ve got the worst behind you. The road now follows the contours of the Monte Grosso for a couple of miles, with the mountain on your left and the Magra Valley on you right. You pass a little crossroad, signposted ‘Monte Grosso’ to the left and ‘Chiamici’ to the right. Carry on straight ahead. Finally you reach the ‘Quattro Strade’, a larger crossroad. Sharp left is a sign for ‘Monte Grosso’, left the Via Francigena sign for ‘Vecchietto’ and ‘Aulla’ and to the right for ‘Sarzana’. Turn right following the sign for Sarzana. As a point of interest after 2-300 metres there’s a small path to the left which only goes on for about 10 yards, but the view from there is spectacular.

The next sign you encounter is to the left for Falcinello, which you ignore. Since 4 Strade you have been going gently downhill in a fairly straight line. After about a mile and a half you arrive at a hairpin bend to the right. Straight on at this point is the pedestrian route down to Ponzano Superiore, however riders continue on the wider road, ignoring any deviations. After another mile or so, having passed a couple of derelict buildings and still steadily descending the road becomes paved. After another 3-400 metres you arrive at a road with a restaurant on the corner ‘Il Volpara’. Turn left there and after 1 km of undulating paved road you arrive at the main piazza in Ponzano Superiore.

Here you can come and stay at Susannah and Marco’s or visit us for some refreshments. Walkers follow the signposting for the VF off the Piazza, which takes you down there within 2 hours. Riders ride through the village. At the first hairpin bend at the bottom of the village there is a small road branching off the apex. Follow this down. It is paved at first, then becomes a rough track again. Avoid the steeper right turn halfway down, other than that this route is straight forward. Near the bottom off the hill the road becomes paved again and you arrive at an old-fashioned (Victorian) looking tile factory. Free wheel a bit further until you reach the main Via Cisa again only about a km before Sarzana.

We walked the bit from Ponzano Superiore to Bibola in the reverse direction and it took us 3 hours. On the way back we took the official, well signposted path via Vecchietta, which took us 2 hours. Puci, the neighbour’s dog followed us all the way, causing search troops to roam the village for him. It was a great adventure for him anyway. Hope this helps, Babette and Paul. It must at least partially be the route you took in September.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

More Rain...

Well, I’m sure if you live on top of a mountain like us, you shouldn’t have any rivers flowing past your front door, but there are now a number of rivulets flowing through the village. And I’m sure I’ve heard some hammering from nearby and a suspicious number of animals in pairs going towards that noise… So much for the sunshine being back, it lasted all of one day. And the really bad news is that our friends Alison and James are coming over from Northampton in a couple of weeks and they always seem to bring some English weather with them!

Yesterday I spotted a well-priced almond tree in the supermarket, something I was looking for all last winter. So of course I bought it and today, despite the rain we went out to Arcola to plant it. At least we didn’t have to worry about watering it after planting. We also went out to Villa to pick up some wood. By that time the rain came down in sheets! Allegedly it’s going to get better tomorrow. I’ll believe it when I see it! Tomorrow we will also return to school. The free Italian lessons in Sarzana are starting. See how that goes…

Anyway, other than that I baked a cake yesterday, Susan’s Cantucci were too delicious to last long, and today I decanted the kaki wine off it’s skins. Above you can see our micro-winery. Everything bubbling away merrily.

One other thing: many years ago I bumped into a traveling busker in Germany. He didn’t carry much with him on his travels, a guitar, a sleeping bag, a change of clothing and one book. He said, once he finished reading this book, he’d swap it for a new one with someone he’d meet on his travels. Something that person had read recently and really liked. That way he’d only ever own one book, but a book that meant something to someone he had met. Now I liked that idea, not being encumbered with a small library, but always having something new to read.

As you may have noticed with my recent Terry Pratchett quotes, I am reading through his back catalogue again as I have no new reading material. My Italian isn’t good enough yet to read a serious book, so I have a shortage of new books. On the other hand I don’t really have any shelf space for new books either, so here comes the proposal: would anyone of you like to swap books with me? They may be in English, German or even Dutch (although in Dutch I haven’t got much to swap back). Please, please let me know. It should be something you’ve enjoyed recently and I’ll give you something that I’ve read (not Terry Pratchett (unless you want to)). I’m expecting a flood of responses!

Sunday, 13 January 2008

The Sun's back!

What a contrast! After yesterday’s weather we were expecting Noah’s Ark to float by any minute, and today… Beautiful sunshine, calm as you like. So we had quite an active one. Went out to Arcola, doing some weeding, sowing peas and rocket and picking some more willow to finish the basket, some rocket for dinner and the last of the kaki to experiment a bit further with my country wine making. This year, or should I say season, we actually managed to get the kaki all ripe, without losing too much to rot. And above you can see my foot treating the kaki to the traditional ‘méthode à pied’. Now I don’t want any smart remarks about cheesy notes with fungal hints in the wine!

With the willow I finished my log basket. I still have to practice doing handles, but it seems sturdy enough. The trouble of course compared to the plastic basket is, that this basket has a fair weight by itself, but it should last a while. I’m very proud of it anyway. Once you get the hang of it it’s not that difficult, it’s getting it started is the tricky bit.

We also sowed some seeds indoors, namely aubergines, peppers, chillies, cucumbers and melons. For dinner we had pasta with rocket pasta, one of my really simple and cheap recipes. Just chop a handful of rocket finely and mix it together with ricotta, olive oil, the juice and zest of a lemon, some grated parmesan and some pepper and mix it all together with the cooked pasta. Takes all of 5 minutes and is delicious!

Saturday, 12 January 2008

I can't stand the rain, 'gainst my window...

Last night and today we've had enough weather to fill a week. Gale force winds kept us up all night. By midday it got pitch dark; a thunder storm with lashing rain and hail came down on us. Amazingly the electricity did not get cut off this time. So we haven't peeped out the door yet. Above you see the view from our kitchen window. I decanted the rosehip must off the skins and into demijons. Potential alcohol is 12.5%, so that should warm us nicely when ready, and rosehips are a rich source of vitamin C, I believe.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Country Living

I’ve had complaints for not updating you lot regularly enough, so here comes what’s been happening the last few days. The weather has been misbehaving, never doing what the forecast promised. Sunshine is always supposed to arrive day after tomorrow, which keeps getting pushed forward another day. The first of January was glorious as was the 8th new moon. In between it’s been more or less rainy although getting a bit warmer again. No sign of frost or snow.

Roughly speaking, according to the Demeter calendar, you do things like digging over the beds and pruning during the period of the waning moon, whilst a lot of the sowing is done on the waxing moon. So on the nice day we pruned some more olives as well as doing some major earth shifting work. There was a large hump on one of our terraces, which we leveled. This involved shifting about 2 tons of soil and digging through the bamboo roots. After a week of near inactivity that really went into our bones! Just as well it was raining again the next day so we could recover!

On the days when there was only a light drizzle we did a bit of light tidying up and collecting wood. Wednesday we went to Villa and noticed that the various wild roses were heavy with bright red rosehips. So I thought we’ll try something that I did not think I’d do again here in Italy: make country wine. So yesterday we went out for a long walk in the drizzle to collect some more and go general wild food foraging. We walked all the way to Arcola, where we picked some rosehips on our land as well as the last of the Kohlrabi and a kaki (had another idea for a use of kaki as an ingredient in sweet and sour pork; worked really well). On the way there and back we found some more rosehips and some wild beet and a few herbs (salad burnet, rosemary, oregano, wild fennel to dry and make herbal salt with) and a turnip.

Now we’ve got a rosehip wine on the go, I’ll let you what it’ll be like. Talking about alcohol, we’ve been abstaining recently after the usual over-indulgence over Christmas. We haven’t had the shakes yet nor have been getting ratty with each other, so we are doing ok. Today the rain has been coming down in sheets. We had also picked up some more willow from Villa the other day and our old plastic wood-basket is slowly falling to bits. It’s only just still holding on, because I’ve fixed it with willow, so I thought I use my newly acquired skill and produce a big basket this time. As usual in times like this I turned the kitchen blue with my swearing, but it’s taking shape. Ran out of material though and I’m going to have to work out how to make a handle. Susan in the meantime was complaining that the Christmas biscuits had all run out and we had nothing to go with the tea. So me, twisting a particularly stubborn twig, snapped back: “you do it!”. So she did. Made some particularly nice Pantucci. Our Swiss friend Irene, who was over last week gave us a few left-over bags of nuts and almonds she didn’t use in her Christmas baking (it’s one of the few things cheaper in Switzerland then here), so why not indulge in some more January biscuits.

Oh and one other thing to report is we went to see some friends in the valley, Pino, Cristina and their little daughter Caterina. Pino and Cristina are always the main act every summer at the medieval re-enactment in Santo Stefano. They play the king and queen of France and get the best seat at the banquet. They come striding in on his horse. They said any time we wanted we could have as much horse shit as we could carry, so that’s useful. I’m waiting for few dry days though, so it’s not too messy.

Saturday, 5 January 2008


To quote from Terry Pratchett again: “On nights such as this, witches are abroad. Well, not actually abroad. They don’t like the food and you just can’t trust the waiter and the shamans always hog the deckchairs.”

It’s the eve before Epiphany, on which traditionally the witches go from door to door giving out sweets, if you give a small amount for some local disabled kids. Tonight they were accompanied by our next door neighbour Piero and one of his donkeys as well as Mauro playing his pipes.

Last night we saw Marco play Irish music with his band. It’s usually the busiest night at Pegaso, our favourite bar. Tomorrow the weather is supposed to get better again, so back to work.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

No weather to send the dog out!

At least that was what Puci said, after his owner sent him out into near freezing rain and sleet. So he came to shelter at our house for a while. Any stray dog in the village seems to find it’s way around to our house eventually. Don’t know why, it’s not that we feed them. Genoa has some proper snow apparently. It’s supposed to stay like this until Sunday, so just as well we finished the vine pruning and stocked up on firewood.