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

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Sunday, 30 March 2008

Spring at last

Spring does seem to have arrived at last, but only after winter really had hit out again one more time. Yesterday we returned to Villa for the first time since planting the new vines. All of them had suffered frost damage. They had been reared at the relatively mild coastal climate above La Spezia and had already sprouted green shoots, well ahead of their cousins up in Villa. Now all those green shoots have died. I hope the vines still have enough in them to sprout again. We gave them a good watering anyway and can now only hope. It can’t have been lack of water anyway, as there had been plenty of rain, hail and possibly up there snow.

Still lacking a plough, (the local bicycle and small machine repair man in Santo Stefano said he’d keep a lookout for a second hand one for us), we were hard at it to dig over a large area to bury the potatoes. After some 5 hours solid digging my shoulders were about to drop off. We managed to plant most of the spuds we had, but we’ll have to finish off the job tomorrow. Hope they won’t get dug by the local wild boar population. There only seems to be evidence of them lower down though and not 3 terraces up. They obviously don’t like climbing, but you never know once they get the scent of some nice nourishing potatoes…

Today we were back in Arcola to plant out some radicchio lettuces and water the veg we planted the other day. One of the cucumber plants had been dug by the neighbour’s cat, what a nuisance. The peach and plum trees are pretty much finished flowering, now it’s the turn of the cherry (top photo) and pear trees. Many wild and semi-wild flowers are also in bloom. The bees love the borage (middle photo), which has sown itself out between the strawberries (bottom photo). Borage and strawberries are said to make good companion plants and once you’ve sown borage they will happily sow themselves out year after year. I love the delicate flavour of ravioli al boragine, borage and ricotta filled pasta. And as for strawberries… shouldn’t be long now for the first crop.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Collapse of Civilisation

Civilisation as we know it has just collapsed. The curse of modern civilisation, McDonald’s, has just arrived in Sarzana. I had been so happy that kids in this country still ate real food and knew what it was. Now… the future looks bleak. No doubt now Italian kids, like their equivalents the western world over, will succumb to the temptations of artificial food and become big fat blobs! There is still the hope that a repeat of Benevento is going to happen in Sarzana. When we visited a winery near this provincial town in Campania, the 17 year old brother of the cantina took us on a guided tour. When we passed a wrecked building, he informed us, that it used to be a McDonald’s, however they had closed permanently after having had their windows smashed repeatedly and generally proved unpopular. Somehow I don’t think the Northern Italians quite have that revolutionary spirit any more. Maybe I’m going to have to start an anti-McDonald’s campaign myself.

The weather forecast has been rather capricious recently, i.e. totally unreliable. Yesterday it was supposed to be sunny and it rained heavily in the afternoon. Today it was supposed to be mixed and it was beautifully sunny, albeit with a cool easterly wind. The next few days are forecast to be fine, so we’ll see what’s happening. We planted a few things out in Arcola today: strawberries (the plants were on special offer), courgettes, cucumbers and red and yellow peppers. I hope it’s not too early for the peppers. In the afternoon we were trying to buy a motor plough, however the plough we had recently spotted at our local hypermarket was sold out. So we went in search for something else affordable. I had seen, what I thought was a second hand plough outside a hardware store. So we went and asked how much that second hand plough was. The chap in the shop insisted it was new and wanted €450. It was the same model as the one we saw in the supermarket for €300 and it had various scuffs and wasn’t clean. He must have thought I was born yesterday, or maybe he heard the foreign accent and tried to get one over on me. Well we are going to have another hunt tomorrow. We really need to turn some soil to plant our spuds. Failing this we’re going to have to dig the old fashioned way again.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Did the Earth Move for You?

Well, with Susan being back at work I had a bit of a lazy start this morning, reading up in bed. Then suddenly at about 10.19 and 31 seconds the bed rattled under me. Susan in the meantime was in the middle of a class and got evacuated out of the building. An earthquake of the magnitude 4.1 on the Richter scale had struck the hills above La Spezia. Haven’t heard anything about any damage though, but for those interested there is a link to all seismic activity in Italy and this quake in particular: http://cnt.rm.ingv.it/~earthquake/data_id/2201087190/event.php. They publish a regular map of earthquakes during the last 90 days and it’s quite an eye opener how many of them there actually are. Today’s was the largest of the last month and a half though and most go completely unnoticed.

We’ve got over Easter with the unsettled weather continuing. Saturday and Sunday night we had bad storms, which cut our phone line off for 24 hours, led to temporary power cuts and one particular lightning burned out our neighbour’s computer. Easter Monday we had Cath and David from Leeds for lunch. They have bought a wee house up in the Lunigiana last year. We’ve got to know them via the forum of Italy Magazine: http://www.italymag.co.uk/forums/. The Swabian in me, that comes out during the pre-Christmas period in my baking biscuits, also makes an appearance just before Easter. The Swabians are quite a religious lot, observing the lent strictly, by not eating meat. However, by the Thursday before Easter they get a bit desperate, so they have invented their own type of meat-filled ravioli, so that the dear Lord doesn’t see they’re actually eating meat. Since I didn’t stick to lent anyway, I decided to make these ‘Maultaschen’ as they are known, when the visitors came. And I thinks they quite liked them.

Hopefully by the weekend the weather will settle down a bit, as we are about to invest into a motor driven plough and plant potatoes in Villa then.

Thursday, 20 March 2008


Well, it’s certainly been an eventful day and I’m knackered as hell! The picture above only tells half the story. I’ll start at the beginning. We were wanting to plant vines on George’s plot in Villa this week before it was to late for this year. Ideally they should have been planted before the last full moon in February, but at a push before this full moon (i.e. tomorrow). Our neighbours knew a good garden centre in La Spezia and, since they also wanted some vines, phoned on Monday in advance to see if they had some Vermentino vines ready for planting. Vermentino is the quality grape of the region. They said they didn’t, but were going to their suppliers on Wednesday and will ring us back if they managed to get some. This morning they did ring, but said they couldn’t get hold of any Vermentino, but they had some 2 year old vines of various varieties and I could come and have a look at what they had. These were of course a wee bit more expensive, but on the plus side they’ll give us grapes a year earlier.

Marco gave me very precise directions how to get to the place, which was just as well, as we would never in a month of Sundays have accidentally found this place. It was a beautiful spot and the husband and wife who run this place were extremely friendly and helpful. They have some 6000 trees up above the Gulf of La Spezia, including some impressive potted lemon trees and olives. We finally made a choice of some 25 vines, 10 red and 15 white, enough to make a row on the terrace we cleared recently. From there we went straight to Villa to plant them; we had already dug the holes yesterday ducking in and out of showers every now and then. Today though was a beautifully sunny day with a slight, cool breeze.

To keep Susan busy while I planted the vines, I told her to light a fire to burn some of the cuttings from recent clearing jobs. We decided to light it in the vicinity of a dry bramble bush in the hope that it would catch as well, saving us the bother to cut it down manually. Now this slight breeze I mentioned earlier made this fire spread much quicker than we expected and before we knew it, it had made short work of some dry grass, brambles and some small weed trees over several terraces. It was spreading like wildfire (literally) and was threatening to ignite the surrounding woodlands. When I realized we didn’t have any control over the fire, running up down to the river with a bucket like a mad man, I sent Susan to the only neighbours. Of course they weren’t in. I thought there’s nothing to it, I’ve got to ring the fire brigades, but no reception on the mobile. So I sent Susan to the “main road” to stop any of the rare passers-by. She did manage to flag someone down, but nothing happened for some time, so I took the car to somewhere, where there was a signal and rang the fire brigades. When I got back, some helpful neighbours had turned up and managed to get the fire under control. They knew where the direct neighbours got their water from and put it out to our great relief, before it actually did any damage. I had to drive back out of the valley to call off the alarm, but everything was ok. The result can be seen above. It looks worse than it is. All the dry grass burned off at incredible speed, but the vines and trees were all ok. On the positive, it does save us cutting down a lot of the weeds and puts some potash into the soil and we got to meet Signor Bruschi, the previous owner of the place, who could fill us in on the grape varieties of the old vines and who said he could fix the door to the cottage, so we could lock it up and keep tools there.

After all that the real work of planting the vines began. I will list them here in order of them being planted for my own and George’s benefit, for future reference. I planted them on the 3rd terrace up to the right of the central path like so: 2 x Barbera, 4 x Dolcetto, 3 x Bonarda, 1 x Barbera, 5 x Chardonnay and 10 x Sauvignon Blanc. Now the Barbera was unintentional, she thought she gave me 6 Bonarda, but it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference. All 3 red varieties are at home further north, producing fruity wines in Piemonte and Lombardia, so they should do well here too. The choices for white were Trebbiano (which makes dead boring wines), Malvasia (which is not much better), Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Now, the slightly cooler conditions at Villa should bring out the more aromatic qualities of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay blended in adds body and mid-palate, which is often missing in Sauvignon. The old vines apparently are mostly Trebbiano and Albarola (the latter is the traditional blending partner of Vermentino, which we will plant next year). Oh, and I think the lady at the garden centre also made another mistake with one of the Sauvignon Blanc vines: the seventh from the left is labeled Edeka di Bogliasco. I’ve never heard of this one, so it may even be red as far as I know. We’ll see…

Sunday, 16 March 2008

End of week update

Winter and spring seem to have a bit of a battle over us at the moment. On Wednesday the weather turned windy and cold again. Thursday Susan donned her shorts for the first time this year. Friday was a bit mixed, cloudy and cool, but we sowed out peas, savoury, carrots, chervil, lettuces and raddishes. Saturday we went with Marco and Susanna to their house in Vecchietto and had lunch with them there. The weather there was grey and threatening, but it only rained in the morning. Today it was windy and cool again with rain on and off. Tomorrow it's supposed to get better again and we hope so, as we want to buy vines tomorrow to plant over at Villa.

Now we have seen the little house out in Vecchietto I'd like to advertise it here. It's a cosy little place in a very quite village. So if it's quite you're looking for and good value, the place is for hire. Just drop us a note for more info.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

I'm Back!

This time I’ve had several complaints about not publishing any news! Well, sorry about that, there were 2 reasons for that. First I was travelling a bit, to my brother’s birthday in Germany as I had already mentioned, but I also had some business in London to attend to. The second reason is that the weather until today had been absolutely atrocious! Rain, wind and cold for the last 2 weeks. Today finally the weather broke, the sun’s back and temperatures are up. So finally we got some work done again today. With all that rain the weeds were starting to take over again so we attended to them. A lot of the fruit trees are bursting into flower especially the peaches, apricots and plums, but also many wild flowers are popping their heads out. Isn’t it a beautiful time of year?

The party at my brother’s was great fun. He insisted on having a garden party on the 1st March in Northern Germany. Of course we had gale force winds and horizontal rain. Luckily there was plenty of whisky to keep us warm and a Scottish piper made us dance some reels while his fingers nearly fell off with frostbite.

Today, as we drove back from Arcola, we saw a lady from our village standing at the bottom of our hill waiting for a bus. So we gave her a lift up. It turned out she is the sister of our good friend Carlo. As a thank you she invited us in for a ‘coffee’. The coffee became a small meal involving some of her own red wine, her home baked bread with her own olive oil, artichoke pie and potato and leek pie. Than she filled a bag with some spare vegetables, including some potatoes, a lettuce and courgettes. I don’t know where she gets courgettes from at this time of year. The ones I sowed indoors haven’t even started growing yet.