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

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Sunday, 24 February 2008

Sod the horse'n'plough, give us a pig and goat!

Say what you will, using a petrol driven strimmer maybe quicker and more thorough than scything, it isn’t half noisy though. I feel like I’ve just come out of a rock concert. The ideal method of cultivation would of course be sending a few goats and pigs on there. Goats eat absolutely anything and are not put off by brambles. Pigs don’t only eat anything above ground, they’ll also dig up any stubborn roots and plough your land at the same time. Not only is your work done for you without you having to lift a finger, but also all that herbage is turned into the best manure and lovely bacon and goats milk and so on. George’s plot at Villa would be ideal to keep some livestock. It has enough flat bits which could easily be fenced in. But, alas, this is not our own land and we’re not there 24/7 to look after any animals, so for the time being it remains wishful thinking.

We cleared one of the larger terraces on a gloriously sunny and warm day. Now it needs to be dug over or ploughed. We’re talking about some 150 m2, so I may have to either hire a plough or ask one of the neighbours if they’ll lend me one. The plan is to plant a row of sunflowers, a row of potatoes and a couple of rows of sweet corn (maize) plus a scattering of marigolds for colour and as a companion plant. We’re busy with other things tomorrow and Tuesday the rain is supposed to arrive. Thursday I’ll be off to Germany again for a few days for my brother’s 50th birthday, so things are not likely to progress for a bit.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Climbing Everest

Right, I’m back. Spring here in Italy is in full swing. The peach and plum trees are ready to burst into flower, the weather is balmy and still no sign of rain. The business trip last week didn’t go too well, but we’ll have to see. However we had a another few bits of news since, which may improve our financial situation significantly. I don’t want to go into too much yet, because it’s not certain, but things are definitely looking up. One of them though, was that one of the teachers at Susan’s school wants private lessons for himself (an English teacher mind and not for one of his pupils!). The ‘Path to Self-Sufficiency’ does feel like a climb up Everest sometimes. Somebody wrote Monte Everest at the entrance to our village across the road. There must have been a cycle race we missed. We often are on the end of stages of bike races and the 3 km up our hill are tough. I’ve done it myself.

We’ve been over to Arcola a couple of times already. We virtually finished completely cleaning up all terraces. A couple of olives still want pruning and some digging for spring planting is to be done, but that’s it. It’ll be the first time in 3 years that the whole place is in immaculate condition. Well actually in 8 years, since the place hadn’t been touched for 5 years prior to us taking over. Tomorrow we’ll be over at George’s in Villa, where we want to clear a couple of terraces for planting sweet corn and potatoes next month.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

A horse, a kingdom for a horse (and plough)

I thought we'll get some more work done, before I'm off to Germany with Stefano. Susan sowed some carrots, parsley and Swiss chard, whilst I dug a new bed for sowing & planting later. Hard work that with a spade. Dug over a large bed of about 6x2 metres. Wouldn't it be so much easier with a plough and horse. Mind you getting the horse down our steep terraces would be job in itself. I suppose I'd have to carry it...

Meanwhile the talk of the village is the early return of the swallows. Dario had spotted some and he had never seen them as early as that. And right enough, next day we had seen them too. This winter deserved it's title a bit more than last year, where it was cancelled completely, but whilst at least we had some rain, frost was rare. The weather has still been fine, although the nights are a bit chillier and there were some signs of ground frost at least the last few days. We could do with some rain again I think, now that we've sown out things. I'm going to have to get used to the cold of Germany again next week, brrr...

Friday, 15 February 2008

Quando ‘r pèo I fa ‘r grizin

Quando ‘r pèo I fa ‘r grizin
Lascia ‘a môssa e date ar vin
(When the hair turns grey,
Leave the women and date wine)
Riccardo Borghetti

Just as I thought I’m getting the hang of Italian we get invited to the launch of the latest CD of local hero and troubadour Riccardo Borghetti, who sings all his songs in Spezzini, the dialect of La Spezia! Women instead of donne become môssa. ‘k’ sounds become slurred ‘g’ sounds (as in the g in George when you’ve had a bit too much to drink). ‘tch’ sounds become ‘ss’ sounds and a load of other confusions. Everything becomes softer, a bit like Portuguese in sound, although influences are more French apparently. Riccardo Borghetti is the most famous current musician in the province, his greatest claim to fame being the fact that he wrote the supporter song for Spezia football club, after they got promoted to Serie B last season. We managed to get an invite to this exclusive event, because, in addition to his usual band he needed an extra accordion player (our neighbour Mauro) and a banjo player (our neighbour Marco). Incidentally, Marco reckons with me and him both playing the banjo, Ponzano Superiore possibly has the largest concentration of banjo players in Italy.

The music? Well his voice is certainly distinct, especially after several cigarettes and glasses of red wine. Folk-pop probably describes it best. Bits of Country and even rock come out in between, certainly a sense of humour, no… it sort of grows on you. The man doesn’t have a web-site as far as I can see, otherwise I’d direct you towards it for a sound sample. After the show there was traditional food: farinata (little chickpea fritters) and mes-ciua (a soup consisting of chickpeas, cannelloni beans and farro) and wine from the nearby Cinque Terre. And afterwards we went to Ali’s Pub next to the market in La Spezia with Marco and Susana and their parents. Really nice evening out!

Susan in the meantime has nearly finished her first week’s teaching. And it hasn’t turned out as bad as she had feared. She takes 10 different classes, which means she only has to prepare one lesson a week. I told her it would be good idea to start with a sporty theme in her first lesson to get their attention, as most Italian kids are sports mad. So as there are the 6-Nations on at the moment she tried to interest them in some rugby: Contrast and compare football versus rugby. Amongst the things we came up with was in football they dive and feign injury, but if a rugby player stays down he’s broken a leg! Anyway, some classes seem to have been better than others, but certainly manageable. Next week she’ll do Irish music. I on the other hand will be away from Sunday to Wednesday or so for a couple of wine tasting events in Germany with one of my clients.

On the agricultural front, we haven’t done much on the land, but I sowed a lot of things indoors. Here’s the list: peppers, cucumbers, 3 types of tomatoes, melons, aubergines, chervil, basil, savoury, tarragon, dill and chillies. If only half of this takes we’ll be well supplied over the summer and autumn.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Bird Eviction

Yes, it was time again to evict several rare species of bird of paradise, which had started to build a nest on top of my head again in anticipation of spring and go and see Giorgia my hair dresser. Above you see the before and after pictures. The weather ever since James and Alison left has been uninterrupted, glorious sunshine. Unfortunately, we had to spend quite a bit of the time indoors to prepare the lessons for Susan, who is starting work tomorrow and prepare a business trip to Germany for me. I’ll be off on Sunday for a few days attempting to flog some grog as they say.

We did manage to get out for a few days to Arcola though. Uprooted more vines, clearing terraces and chopping down most of a large, though quite ill plum tree, thus destroying another bird habitat. The base is seeping gallons of sap and we’ve never managed to get any nice plums off it. It was just threatening to collapse on top of our already very rickety shed. The lowest picture shows you this shed. It could do with complete rebuilding. It’s being attacked by some mammoth shed-eating ivy. On the other hand it’s possibly the only thing still keeping it together. With the bad weather during the waning moon period, we never managed to complete all tasks on my list. This week includes a lot of sowing, both indoors and outdoors. I’m slowly running out of space to put more pots near our windows.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Almond tree etc.

Well, you’ve got to feel for them. Our friends James and Alison from Northampton come over for just a few days and the weather, as always, is at it’s worst. They arrived on Saturday morning and landed in Pisa in the middle of a thunder storm and they left again today, finally seeing a bit of sun, but in between… , Saturday it rained all day, Sunday and Monday most of the day with another spectacular thunder and hail storm last night. We had them and our neighbours around for dinner on Sunday. I made a curry for a change: chicken in curry and yoghurt marinade, Saag Aloo (replacing spinach with Swiss chard), a spicy dhal, basmati rice and chapattis.

And this morning we woke to clear blue skies and fantastic views over the Versilia. By mid-morning we were on our patch at Arcola and doing basking shark impressions (i.e. we were basking in the sun… Why do they call them basking sharks?). We planted the almond tree, which got a good watering. You can see Susan standing proudly behind it above. And we cleared another terrace and a half of vines and weeds; 11 ½ done, 4 ½ to go. We got back early, because Susan had not done her homework yet for tomorrow’s class. I busied myself sowing a few more things indoors: white and red cabbages, parsnips and corn lettuces. The weather is to remain fine for a few days, so hopefully we are going to get plenty of work done.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Of Kiwis and Almonds

‘I love fuzzy male kiwis, though clean shaven Australians can cause problems.’
W.M., Hobart, Australia

This week went really quick somehow, I don’t know what’s happened to it. The weather has been a bit of a mixed bag, mostly cloudy with occasional showers. I sowed some lettuces indoors, radicchio and green lettuce as well as some leek.

After I had acquired the almond tree last week I read up in my Royal Horticultural Society book on Pruning and Training, that you should always plant at least 2 together for pollination. So we spent some part of the week finding another specimen which wasn’t too expensive. During our search we came across some well priced kiwi vines. I always quite fancied growing kiwis and if they grow in the relatively cool climate of New Zealand surely they’d flourish here I thought. I didn’t know much about how to grow kiwis, but I had heard that they need one male plant to a few female plants. The male plant does not produce fruit, but is needed for pollination. The technical term for this apparently is dioecious. So not being able to resist a bargain I bought a male and two females.

The RHS book on Pruning and Training does have a chapter on kiwis, however it’s very technical without much of the way in instructive pictures. It did however say, there a various ways of training kiwis, but one way definitely not to use is twirling it around a stake. This is exactly the way they sell them in this country. The other thing it said was, that it was quite tolerant to different soil types, except clay soils which, of course, is exactly what we have got. Well to find slightly easier instructions on how to plant and train kiwis I searched the internet and came up with 2 useful websites (one of them with the above quote. It appears that the growth of kiwis is somewhat similar to grapevines, only they are even more rampant! It suggested that plants trained to an Espallier system should be planted 5 metres apart and a strong support system should be constructed. A kiwi plant can apparently live up to 50 years and when mature is capable of producing up to 250 pounds of fruit. So there is a lot of weight to be supported.

Today the rain held off for long enough to plant these kiwis and build their trellising. I hope they’ll forgive me the clayey soil and the fact they had been twisted around a stake. The plant you see above in the foreground is female in case you ignorant people can’t tell the difference. On the way home we stopped at the local supermarket and guess what? I finally found that second almond tree I’ve been looking for all week. As soon as it stops raining again I shall plant that somewhere near the first one. And for dinner tonight it’s the national dish of Ponzano Superiore, Torta di Verdura or as it is locally known Scherpada. It’s a pie stuffed with a ricotta, Swiss chard mixture. Swiss chard or bietole in Italian is a great, versatile vegetable. According to John Seymour you grow it as cattle food, but I think it’s delicious and it’s used a lot around here (in human food).