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

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Monday, 21 April 2008

A Good Life

After a couple of good days, with nice weather, today the rain is back again, so here comes another book review. I just finished reading A Good Life - John Seymour – His self-sufficiency legacy by Paul Peacock. It’s a biography of John Seymour. I first came across John Seymour’s Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency when I was living and working on the Peace People Farm in Coleraine in Northern Ireland in the mid-80s. We were 3 volunteers living off the land there on 3 ½ acres. It was not only a centre for reconciliation, where kids from both sides of the divide could meet on neutral ground and prisoner’s wives (Magilligan Prison was nearby) could meet for a cup of tea not organized by the paramilitaries, but it also grew into a centre of alternative living.

We used this book on a daily basis to gain information on how to milk goats, tether our Shetland pony in front of a plough, thrash our oats and barley, clamp our potatoes for the winter, make country wines etc. Like for many other people it became our bible. Before launching our Italian adventure I bought myself a copy of the latest edition of this invaluable book. When I recently discovered, that someone had written a biography about this influential author I became curious. How did he start out on his path to self-sufficiency? Is there anything I can learn from it? I didn’t know much about the man apart what could be glanced between the lines from the one book of his that I have read. I didn’t realize that Seymour had written some 40 books on all sorts of aspects of country living, his travels to Africa and Asia and even a novel and some poetry. I had no idea he worked for the BBC for many years presenting both radio as well as TV programmes. I also didn’t know that he died aged 90 in 2004, the same year we arrived in Italy. In fact, apparently the day we moved into our new home an on-line wake was being held in his honour and memory. We were without electricity that day and the following 3 months, so I couldn’t have known.

What I had guessed was that he hailed from a very privileged background. His mother married twice, both times into money and high society. Seymour is said to have an early affiliation with what he called the ‘real people’, i.e. the serving staff, but the fact that you grow up in such an environment gives you much greater choice in life. He had opportunities to make it in the business world through his stepfather’s influence, but he was a hopeless romantic and wanted to become a cowboy. In pursuit of this aim he went to an agricultural college, sponsored by his parents and then to Africa, where he worked on various farms. Also in Africa he continued to get on better with the native bushmen than the white colonialists. During the war he fought in the African Corps, where as a white man he almost against his own will got promoted to the rank of captain.

Returning to England after the war he became increasingly interested in the old ways of farming. He travelled the country, sometimes by boat and collected stories. This lead him to his work for the BBC. Soon he started with his first wife to rent a piece of farmland in Suffolk. Some years later they bought a farmstead in Wales and finally he went on to move to a farm in Ireland. Paul Peacock is giving a very sympathetic and personal portrayal of Seymour’s life, showing both his qualities as someone who loved life, loved people and had an infectious enthusiasm as well as his negative traits, his treatment of the women in his life, his sometimes raucous drinking and his inability to hold on to money.

The fact that, as someone who had the choice of living a life in financial comfort with a secure job and pension which he rejected to opt for a life of relative poverty, is seen as almost heroic. The actual fact in my view though is that he did have the choice, whilst many people haven’t. He has visions of everyone owning and caring for an acre of land and therefore all of us achieving some self-sufficiency. Surely this is the vision of someone who may have experienced temporary cash shortages, but does not really understand poverty.

Shortly before his death John Seymour wrote an article outlining a ‘manifesto’ of his convictions. Whilst in principle I agree with much of his action plan to turn this planet into a better world, a lot of it is naïve and unrealistic. The first 4 points of his plan were Refuse to work for the plunderers, refuse to shop in the plunderers’ supermarkets, give up the desire for large wealth, endure financial hardship. For many working class people these are not choices. You work where you can to support your family, you shop where you can afford it, your only way out is money and enduring financial hardship you do for a living. I am 45 years old and have never known a time I have not endured financial hardship. I have tried to educate myself out of the working classes, but had to interrupt my university studies due to lack of money. I long dreamed of a plot of land somewhere to grow my own food, but it was a completely unrealisable dream. The only way out was to work for not always ethical companies, take a large mortgage from the ‘plunderers’ bank and as values of this property rose by pure chance, I could partially realise my dream. However, I still don’t even own an acre, having virtually no financial resources makes any project almost impossible. I’d like bees, but need equipment, I’d like hens and need to build housing and buy chickens; everything costs money. Therefore, not being completely self-sufficient, I have no choice but buy the shortfall from the cheapest supermarket. I can make sure that anything I do buy is at least seasonal and produced relatively local, i.e. Italian rather than South African for instance.

I was also a bit disappointed to learn that Seymour did not really live the life I had imagined. He was a full time writer, whilst his wife Sally did most of the running of the actual farm. However she seemed to prove that the self-sufficiency dream is realisable and his Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency shall remain one of my most referred to books.

In a lot of ways I saw myself in many aspects of Seymour’s character. He liked to simplify life; there’s nothing that can’t be solved over a few pints down your friendly local and a jolly good sing-song. I’ve had a good few of those myself while in Ireland. It was in the pub where we founded the Green Party of Northern Ireland, The Campaign for Cyclists’ Rights in Belfast, where we launched Blaagh, Northern Ireland’s first green magazine and where we met after a session of tool cleaning for Tools for Self-Reliance and planned our opposition to the Belfast Urban Area Plan. And we generally put the world to rights and John Seymour would have fitted right in. Shame he is no longer is with us, so I’ll never be able to share that pint with the man.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

A long Walk

Well yesterday the weather was finally dry and increasingly getting better. In the interest of saving petrol and of keeping ourselves active, we went out on foot yesterday. First we had some business in Sarzana. So we went down the Via Francigena, leaving the house about half past 9. From Sarzana we walked to Arcola via the regional park of the river Magra. In Arcola we spent a couple of ours doing some basic weeding, nothing to strenuous as we’ve already walked for 4 hours. Finally we walked home, taking a slightly more scenic route we normally take. Instead of going down the hill and walking along the relatively flat bit along the river, we headed over the hills from Arcola and found a beautiful area that we had not discovered do far. From Arcola towards the village of Vezzano Ligure we walked along a ridge with views in both directions, over the Magra valley and our own village as well as towards La Spezia. We took one wrong turn which made this a little longer than planned, but it was well worth the detour. This is the area of Arcola’s best wine producers and you can see why as they have beautiful exposure to the sun up there. Above you can see a view of the village of Arcola .

As we crossed back over the Magra we could see the result of all that rain we’ve been having. I’ve never seen the river carry so much water. What you see in the foreground is a popular beach in the summer for sunbathers. Now it’s under several feet of water! All in all we did an almost 7 hour / about 25km round walk and I can feel it in my bones today.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Of weather gods, music and soup

Yesterday we brought our newly crowned deities for rain and general plumbing (James and Alison) to the airport. The weather gave them the appropriate farewell as the heavens opened once again with thunder and lighting and the whole show. It even cut off our phone lines again for a day, but as you can see we are back on-line already. Wednesday, the rain stopped for a day, which was just as well, as we had Patrick coming over from London, who is interested in a plot of land our neighbour Carlo is selling. Himself and his wife are interested in building up something over here similar to ourselves, with producing some of their own food, so maybe in the future we’ll be creating a mini-co-op pooling resources. Self-sufficiency is a lot easier to achieve if there are more people working together on the same idea. You only need one lot of various power tools, if you have animals one can look after them if the other is on holiday and during peak times like harvest or pruning time work can be shared as well as the resulting produce. The combined harvest from 30 or 40 olive trees makes a better lot to take to the olive mill than the product of just a dozen trees, which is not enough to have pressed separately. He’s going back to England tonight to discuss things with his wife and, you never know, we may be seeing you again soon over here, Patrick!

Last night we went to see Riccardo Borghetti as announced at the Teatro Civico in La Spezia. It’s quite a large but incredibly drab venue with a huge stage and a depressingly brown décor. It was pretty much sold out though. Riccardo Borghetti is difficult to put into any particular category of music, the closest I can think of is folk-rock. He sees himself as an ageing rocker. He sings in Spezzini the dialect of La Spezia. As he puts it, the language of rock is English and Italian is not very well suited to rock as they insist on ending each word on a vowel, …a, …o, …i, etc. Which is why when Italians speak English they often add colourful vowel endings to English words. However, Spezzini tends to have words ending in consonants, i.e. vino in Italian becomes vin in Spezzin. The strength of his music is though, that there are many more influences than just rock. Some songs have jazzy inflections, others have some Parisian-like accordion sounds, country banjo, oohmpapa or African bongo rhythms. He lists the following as his influences: Influenze: Fabrizio De Andrè, Leonard Cohen, Leo Ferrè, The Beatles, Georges Brassens, Jaques Brel, Charles Trenet, Joe Cocker, Sting, Bob Dylan, Paolo Conte, Tom Waits, Jethro Tull, Ivano Fossati, Sergio Endrigo, Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springsteen, Alan Stivell, Loreena Mc Kennitt, Paul Simon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez e molti altri ispiratori ispirati. He plays with a full band including himself on acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, bass, drums and percussion, a keyboard, backing singers, plus guest musicians on clarinet, banjo and accordion. His voice is distinctly gravelly. Each song has a story as he likens his songs to your conversation you’d have down at your local bar. These chats maybe about the good old days when the streets were still lit by gas lanterns, the way we all age and go grey, our favourite food or about current world affairs like the crisis in Dafour. On his CD he gives all the lyrics including translations into Italian, which makes it a lot easier to understand for us ignorant foreigners and young Italians who don’t speak their own dialect any more. As an encore he played the really rocky anthem to Spezia football club. A really enjoyable evening out. The whole thing was filmed by local TV, so presumably it’ll find itself onto youtube eventually. You can check him out on this link: http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=335316302

Finally I’d like to let you in on one of my simplest recipes, my quick Zuppa Lombarda. This is not only cheaper and tastier than an instant soup out of a packet, it’s even quicker. Had it today for lunch. This is what you do:

Zuppa Lombarda

Ingredients for 2:
Olive oil
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
8-10 leaves of fresh sage leaves, roughly chopped
1 can of canellini beans
2 slices of old bread

Gently fry the garlic and sage in the oil for a couple of minutes. Add the tin of beans with their liquid. Add another tin-full of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for a minute or 2. Season with pepper. Put a slice of old bread into each soup bowl. Pour over the soup e basta!

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

rain, rain, rain...

This is possibly the longest stretch of unsettled weather we’ve experienced since we’ve come to Italy almost 4 years ago. Ever since James and Alison arrived last Sunday we haven’t had a day without rain, some of it heavy with thunder storms, hail and all. It hasn’t been particularly cold though, so everything got a real growth boost, especially the weeds. The day before the rains started I strimmed the top 10 terraces at Arcola almost back to ground level and in 9 days the grass has grown back by about 2 inches and as for the bamboo… I have heard that bamboo is the fastest growing plant on earth and I can well believe it, up to 3 foot in a week!

So what were we up to in the last week? Saturday we were invited to a book launch. Our neighbour, Mauro Manicardi, who I have mentioned previously in this blog for playing traditional music with his band Tandarandan, has finally after 8 years of research finished his book on the music of the Lunigiana and the Val di Vara. The traditional music of the region has not very many proponents any more and Mauro has interviewed many of the older folk in the villages and recorded many of their tunes and songs (both in print in this book as well as on CD with his band). There are also articles on the carnival traditions and dance steps to accompany the music. The launch took place at a museum in La Spezia and of course it included some musical samples and some aperitivi. Here is a link to the official website of Tandarandan: http://www.tandarandan.it/. This Thursday both Mauro and our other neighbour Marco will be playing in a concert with Riccardo Borghetti again. Remember we saw them playing at his official launch of Riccardo’s new CD. This time it’s going to be a proper public concert at the Teatro Civico in La Spezia. So, something to look forward to.

Yesterday James, who is a bit of a whiz kid when it comes to plumbing, came out to our plot in Arcola. We always had a water tap out there, but could never quite work out how to get it properly connected. So we kept either borrowing water from the neighbour or carry some up in large canister’s. This was not nearly enough during last year’s extremely dry winter and summer. In the pouring rain yesterday we bent over a manhole in the road looking at some seriously corroded piping and dodgy connections. After a lot of experimenting around we finally got all 4 valves between the main pipe and our tap open and hallelujah, there was water! James from now on will be venerated as the water god by us. Not only did he fix our water connection, but whenever he is in Italy, it’s raining. Next time we are threatened by a drought we’ll just pray to him to come over…

Today finally it stopped raining for long enough to do some work on the land. We sowed some runner beans (dolico), parsley, rocket and 2 types of lettuce (green and iceberg). In the flowering cycle the sweet cherries and pears are now finished and the apples (above) and sour cherries are in flower.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

of bees and hens

Ever since James and Alison have arrived in Italy on Sunday, the weather has been absolutely atrocious! Rain almost non-stop, wind and cold, so we haven’t really been out doing any more work, just sitting indoors waiting for spring to finally get kick started. I used the time to read up on a couple of things for projects for later on this year. The above two books have just arrived in the post and I thought I do a little book review on these for anyone else who may be interested in taking up these activities.

Henkeeping and Beekeeping (sub-titled Inspiration and practical advice for would-be smallholders) are two books out of a series published by the National Trust and Country Living Magazine. The other two books in this series are Home-Grown Fruit and Home-Grown Vegetables. As I feel quite confident on the latter 2 subjects, but want to start keeping some livestock I started with the former two. Both are very much aimed at the beginner, who may only want to keep a few hens or a swarm or 2 of bees in their urban back garden, but the tips apply to actual smallholders like ourselves too. They say ‘you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover’, but I must say, I was immediately attracted to these little volumes. They are hardback, pocket-size books, that you could easily carry around with you in the garden. There is no glossy binding or fancy colour photos inside, instead they have tastefully done and clear colour and black and white drawings. Both are clearly written with a nice dash of humour and practical examples out of the authors’ own experience.

Henkeeping, by Jane Eastoe. The author herself apparently keeps only about 3 chickens in her back garden, but clearly has researched the subject. She gives advice on basic care, breeds of chickens with their individual charcteristics, hen houses and runs and problems you may be experiencing including diseases, pests and protection from predators. I liked the drawings of the different breeds and the detailed descriptions of them. It has also given me more of an idea of how to build a chicken house and run, especially their dimension per chicken. I would have liked some more detailed instructions, being not such an inventive carpenter myself. But with John Seymour’s instructions together with the information out of this book I should have probably enough to go on. It’ll be the next project for me.

If I wanted to criticize something it would be that this book as well as the one on beekeeping is very much geared for readers in the UK and their climate. The other thing that is lacking is that the author clearly only keeps hens for egg production and mentions nothing on how to kill and pluck a chicken, something I’m not particularly looking forward to, but would make sense. Why only keep chickens for eggs and then buy chicken to eat? Especially since eggs are relatively cheap, whilst meat seems to get more and more expensive.

Beekeeping by Andrew Davies. This volume gives advice on all aspects including the hive, equipment needed for both beekeeping and honey production, about the need and routine of regular inspections, how to manage bees, honey harvest and of course potential problems. The book does not claim to be a complete guide and the advice is very much to get some practical hands-on experience by watching and talking to an experienced beekeeper. It appears that beekeepers become some sort of anoraks and don’t talk about anything else much. Remind me of that if and when I start getting like this! Again this book is a little ‘UK-centric’, but it does have a good section of further references, including a couple of good web-sites. The one major omission in my view is wax extraction and use. Surely apart from honey bees also produce wax, which max lovely smelling candles. Given the advice of this book I shall go and see the vineyard, olive producer and apiary half way down our hill to see if I can have a look at what he does with his bees and where I can get equipment and bees locally.

Both books really wet my appetite to get stuck in and learn more and they will certainly be referred to often. So just waiting for the weather to turn sunny again…

Sunday, 6 April 2008

McDonald's Survey

The weather the last few days has been really nice, so much so that even have exposed my nobbly knees to the world. We’ve got a lot of work done clearing the rapidly encroaching herbage in bothe Arcola and Villa with the strimmer. Today James and Alison from Northampton arrived in Italy again and predictably… with them the rains came back. Mind you I’m not complaining; the things we have sown and planted could do with a bit of a soaking.

On my fears of McDonald’s arriving, Susan did a survey amongst her kids at the school, to see how imminent the danger of the end of the Italian food culture is. The results were quite encouraging. The food of La Mamma is still very much the favourite. Most liked to cook themselves, especially the girls and most were concerned about eating healthily, again more so the girls. It looks like traditional roles of the girls doing the cooking still seem to exist. Whilst most had eaten at McDonald’s before and liked it, there is a significant percentage that does not intend to eat at all there, whilst more than half only intend to eat there occasionally. On the subject of previous visits, significantly more girls than boys have never been before, reinforcing the notion that Italian boys tend to be spoiled. Have a look at the full results. I would welcome comments.

Total Surveyed: 177 aged 13-15 years

Favourite Foods:
40.9% pizza
17.3% pasta (including spaghetti with various sauces)
11.4% chips
11% Lasagna
Only one person named McDonald’s

Which in your opinion is the best cuisine?
91% Italian
3.7% American

Where do you like to eat most?
69% prefer the cooking of “La Mamma”, eating at home.
1.1% prefer Granny’s cooking and one person likes to eat with friends
The remainder prefer to eat out with 17.4% naming various “Trattorie” or “Pizzerie”
2.7% named McDonald’s as their favourite place to eat.
The rest was a mixture of Mexican restaurants, Asian restaurants, French Restaurant and a Four Star restaurant(don’t we all…)

Do you like to cook yourself?
Total: 70.6% do cook
Boys: 55.7% do cook
Girls: 85.9% like to cook

What do you cook?
Most mentioned was pasta (23.5%). Second came cake (19.7%), although mostly by girls. Pizza was third with 15.8%. 9.3% had no preference or liked to cook “everything”. Other dishes mentioned were, rice, egg dishes, meat, hamburgers, hot dogs, desserts, fish, chips, crepes, couscous, salad, soup vegetables, toast and Croc Madame.

Were you aware, that a McDonald’s is about to open in Sarzana?
89.8% were aware of the new Mc Donald’s

Have you ever eaten in McDonald’s? if yes, how often?
13.1% never
42.6% once or twice
33.5% 3-10 times
10.8% more often
5.1% never
45.6% once or twice
39.2% 3-10 times
10.1% more often
18.7% never
40.7% once or twice
28.6% 3-10 times
12.1% more often

Did you like the food?
91.5% of those who had been to McDonald’s liked the food.

Now that there is going to be a McDonald’s in Sarzana, how often do you think you will eat there?
17% never
59.1% occasionally
14.2% once a month
6.8% once a week
2.9% more often
No significant difference between boys and girls.

Is eating a well balanced, healthy diet important to you?
67.4% answered yes, 14.3% no and 18.3% weren’t sure.
Only 48% of boys answered yes, 26.6% no and 25.3 weren’t sure
85.9% of girls though a healthy diet is important, 3.3% did not thinks so and 10.9% weren’t sure.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

...continued from previous entry

Palazzo Bianco has a similar collection of paintings from both local and international artists of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The highlight for me was ‘Ecce Homo’ by Caravaggio. Although it’s not considered one of his best paintings, you can see how subsequent painters were influenced by him with his use of light, his absolute realism and use of real models, rather than the stylized paintings that had been the vogue before him. The figure of Jesus is a mere youth with just a wisp of a beard. An exotic looking figure behind him appears to cover him with a blanket in a gentle manner, almost sexual. Caravaggio is likely to have been gay, which showed through a lot of his paintings. The figure of Pilate looks grotesque and Peter Robb speculates whose caricature he was intended to be: Gallileo, who was known to Caravaggio and was very unpopular with the church at the time? Maybe not Caravaggio’s greatest work, but still unmistakable.

Palazzo Tursi has a few paintings too, but impresses mainly with it’s actual architecture and an exhibition of antique household items and coins.

Art in Genoa

Yesterday we planted the rest of the potatoes in Villa. It was a hard job. All in all we double dug an area of about 20 x 6 feet. Double digging is the technique, where you first take off the top turf layer, putting it aside. Then you dig another spade depth further, return the turf upside down, then in this case you throw the seed potatoes on top and cover them again. This will hopefully kill off the herbage that was growing on top and at the same time decompose to feed the potatoes. Signor Bruschi next door was also just sowing out his potatoes (he was impressed we managed it by hand!). It’s nice to know we got them in at the same time as the neighbour, which is always a good guideline.

Today we had some business in Genoa and it was a nice day, so we decided to take in a bit of culture while we were there. We’ve of course been a good few times to the regional capital, but so far we had only ever rushed through the Via Garribaldi, which has recently been declared a UN World Heritage Site. It’s quite a narrow road dating from the 1500’s, lined with grand palazzi, bearing witness to the times when Genoa was a major player on the world stage. Being a narrow road, you don’t appreciate the façades of these buildings when you are just passing through, so we made a point of stopping this time and looking at them. 3 of the palazzi are open as Museums on one ticket, the Palazzo Rosso, the Palazzo Bianco and the Palazzo Tursi. As I knew that Palazzo Bianco had a Caravaggio in it’s collection and I’ve been a fan of this painter ever since I read his biography entitled ‘M’ by Peter Robb, we decided to go inside.

Palazzo Rosso has a great collection of paintings from local artists as well as a number from Flemish (Van Dijk and others) and French artists, as well as couple of works from Dürer. The ceilings inside alone are worth a look with 3d cherubs floating above you or sometimes humorously aiming eggs at you. We had a sit down in the sun in the tranquil gardens. The biggest surprise was when we were taken to the roof of the building, where you get a sweeping view of the whole city. Of the local artists my favourite was Luca Cambiaso 1527-1585. His lines are soft, colour sparing, but the atmospheres and expressions of his subjects are very moving. My favourite painting was Madonna col Bambino with baby St. John (I assume), who is looking extremely happy cuddling a lamb. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find an image of it on-line, but here another example from this artist. I wasn’t that taken by the more celebrated Genovese painter Bernardo Strozzi, except for maybe his ‘Il Pifferaio’.