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

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Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Summer Follies

Now those with a delicate disposition should look away now!!! This entry contains a nude photo... Lock your children away! Well... our friends James and Alison seem to have passed on their rain jinx on to Susan's brother. The latter had showers for the whole of his weeks stay. The day after James and Alison arrived and summer seems to have come with them with humid 35 degrees. Susan's old schoolfriend Barbara is also over with her twins. We had them over for BBQ at our land yesterday (after I did apply the strimmer to a few terraces) and went to the beach afterwards for our first swim of the year. The temperature of the water was still refreshingly cool. Today we went over to Villa to fight the jungle with the strimmer again. I attacked to terraces and freed the newly planted vines from the encroaching shrubbery. All but one of the vines are alive and well and we need to go over in the next few days to build a support for them as they are stretching their tentacles heavenwards. After a few hours with the strimmer in still damp greenery I was covered head to toe in green. I reckon the legendary Green Man of British mythology was just strimming his weeds! Well to clean myself up again I dived in the altogether into the icy waters of the stream. Brrrrrh. Susan was under strict instructions not to take a full frontal of me though... Hope you're all not too shocked. It may in fact all of sudden increase the visitors to my pages...

Sunday, 25 May 2008


Later in the afternoon the sky had cleared up a bit and there was another festa on in Santo Stefano, a forest festa. The excuse this time was a more secular one, the opening of a new footpath from Santo Stefano to Ponzano Superiore. To be precise the footpath S5 had long existed and we had walked before, however it led partially over private land and it involved opening and shutting gates to keep grazing animals restricted. Now this path bypasses this and new fresh red and white signs by the CAI (Club Alpini Italiani) have been put up as well as the undergrowth cleared. The festa took place at a agriturismo at the foot of the path and featured Anchefunky, an Afro-Brazilian (almost) all female percussion group. A lot of fun was had by all especially the kids as you can see. Check them out on http://www.anchefunky.net/. We did walk back on the path spotting snakes and a badger. It leads through lovely leafy woods, which smell just lovely with all that rain we’ve been having. It’s not the shortest pedestrian route between Santo Stefano and Ponzano Superiore, but during the heat of the summer it offers great protection from the sun and a quiet get-away from the hubhub of the valley.

Festa del Corpus Domini

Today in the Christian calendar is Corpus Domini, don’t ask me why. Don’t worry, we haven’t turned religious all of a sudden, but a display of flowers was promised in Santo Stefano. And it did not disappoint! All the streets of the centro storico, the historical centre, were covered in flower petals which were arranged into artful pictures. It was quite an impressive display. They must have started picking several kilos of flower heads yesterday and laid it out over night. The base was grass clippings, which made it obviously slightly easier, but all in all about a kilometer of street was covered in flower petals. There was a procession over it and the head priest got the largest umbrella as it was drizzling a bit. He had 6 people carrying it for him. Well I’m not much of a religious man, but I did like the effort that went into this lovely flower arrangement.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Cherries and Andy White

Just a brief update on what we’ve been up to last few days. I had forgotten to mention that while Frank and I were churning the earth Susan was planting out celery and cucumbers. The weather has continued to be unsettled apart from that one all sunny day. It’s not raining that much, but a shower never seems far away.

Which is why last night, after a farewell meal with Susan’s brother who returned home to Leeds today, we opted for the indoor concert that was on last night. There was the International Guitar Meeting was on in the Citadel in Sarzana, but given the unpredictable weather we went to see Andy White in the Pegaso in Arcola. We had been in Arcola earlier that day to prune a large and quite ill cherry tree back, cutting out many of the dead branches and some of the living ones too as this was the only way to get to the highest sweet cherries. Susan got quite worried about me dangling 20 feet in the air with a telescopic pruning tool, but a large yield of delicious cherries made it worth our while. Some of them we preserved in grappa and with the rest of them we have just been eating ourselves sick!

Andy White, this is the third time we have seen him live at Pegaso, it’s one of his regular haunts. He is a Belfast singer/songwriter who now resides in Australia. However he likes Arcola so much that he bought a house there together with his parents. Given that the lyrics to his songs are important it is surprising he is so popular in Italy. We spoke to a woman called Lara during the concert and whilst she spoke some English she admitted to not being able follow a word from the songs, whilst Susan laughed out loud to some of the lyrics. His songs are intelligent and often humorous and are very Belfast or Ireland in their stories. He sings about “Religious Persuasion”, Sam Beckett, George Best, James Joyce, the 12th July and “Italian Girls on Mopeds” amongst other things. As usual, an enjoyable evening, not least because they serve Guinness at Pegaso! Check him out at www.andywhite.com. Tomorrow our rain gods James and Alison are arriving back in Italy for a few days, so no doubt it will continue to rain…

Incidentally, as I write this I sip some of our elderflower Prosecco. It’s delicious!

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Frank and Me

At last we have a plough! Well I should call it by it's correct name a motor hoe, a plough would be too large to manoeuvre up and down our steep terraces. In Italian it's called a moto-zappa, so we decided to call it Frank, after the famous 70's rock-star Frank Moto... (Frank is the one fetchingly dressed in black and red). Tried him out today and what a difference! Dug over 2 large beds, that easily would have taken me 3 days to dig over by hand. First dug over a hard clayey bed and it went like butter through a hot knife. Curiously, I had enriched this particular terrace with some of our own compost. Now, I have been trying to grow melons from seed indoors without success. I have sown some seeds out outdoors and no ressult so far either. But at some stage last year we must have been eating melons and thrown the seeds on the compost and they have now come up! Well I let them if they are happy and carefully hoed around them. The other bed I dug over was the last of the broad beans which we harvested today in readiness for some cabbages to plant out soon.

Susan's brother is over this week, but the weather has been really wet and changeable until today. A real shame for them. Just a note to a couple of questions I have received concerning the last entry. I did spray the vines, potatoes, some of the fruit and tomatoes with Bordeaux Mixture. This is one of the oldest anti-fungal sprays known to agriculture and consists of a blend of copper sulphate and lime. Both are naturally occurring substances which are perfectly allowable even in organic farming, although used excessively may poison the soil. One of it's main features is that it clings to the plant even in wet weather, therefore protects them when they are most vulnerable to fungal attact. Last year I did not spray my early tomatoes and lost

most of the during late spring rainfalls. If spraying immediately before rain, dosages should be increased, however last week we may have escaped the worst of the rain.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

more spraying

There you go, as you can see, weather was permitting (although note the dark clouds gathering overhead…) and we spent a few hours up at Villa, watering the newly planted vines (23 of the 25 have definitely survived, and the two that haven’t have been damaged by some careless passing animal), strimming back a load of weeds and spraying the vines, apple and pear trees and the potatoes with Bordeaux mixture before the heavens opened. On the way back we stopped in the village of Tresana. We had long looked at something just off the road there, which looked very much like a fish farm, so I thought let’s check it out. And lo and behold, it is a fish farm mainly stocked with trout. I love fresh trout and Susan’s brother and family are coming for a holiday over here this weekend, so I asked them to put 5 fish aside for me on Saturday for a welcome dinner. Mmmh, can’t wait.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Time to spray

The weather the last few days has cooled down a bit and we had a few spits of rain. However, the forecast had been for torrential rain and storms, which have not materialized. We had let off on the watering routine a bit, only to see the ground slightly dampened. Most of the rain seems to have come down further south, only just skirting southern Liguria and northern Tuscany. At the weekend we sowed out some basil and melons outdoors (the melons I sowed indoors haven’t come) and some broccoli and some asparagus indoors. Today in full expectation of the rains we went to Arcola just to pick some peas and broad beans for dinner and found we needed to water! While we were there we decided to spray the vines, some of the fruit trees and some of the veg (toms and aubergines) with Bordeaux Mixture against fungal infections. In our shed we found an antique metal contraption you carry on your back and move a lever about to spray the blue liquid onto your target. Before that we planted a few tomato and aubergine plants out as well.

I have by the way found out in the meantime what is wrong with my peach and apricot trees. It’s peach leaf curl, which is a common fungal disease. Unfortunately I’m too late to do anything about it this year. All I can do is water and feed them well, so they survive this year’s attack. In November (remind me of this) I will then have to spray thoroughly with Bordeaux mixture, which should sort the problem. James, I know you’ve got a problem with your’s in Casola as well, so I could spray it then as well if you want.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we’ll be off to Villa, beating back the weeds which are already knee high and spray the vines there. Did I mention the exciting wildlife on the plot in Villa? The other day I surprised two snakes in a bit of a naughty act, quite literally snaking around each other, standing up with the front third of their bodies. They were so busy they did not pay me any attention whatsoever, even though I stood barely 6 feet away from them. The trouble was they were in front of the water barrel I tried to get to, so after a few minutes I threw a stick at them so they’d disperse. I’m told there’s only one venomous snake in Italy, the viper, and their bodies are apparently not strong enough to stand up in the grass. Still, best to move carefully.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Tree count

Just a brief bulletin today. We were out in Arcola today, planting out some more red peppers from indoors and a few aubergines. Just for fun I thought I’ll do a complete stock take of all our trees and shrubs on the 18 terraces of our plot in Arcola. Not all of them are fully productive, some because they had been neglected for so long, others because I have only recently planted them or have sowed themselves out. This is the result: 15 olives trees, 11 cherries (sweet & sour), 11 plums (mostly yellow, one purple), 8 grapevines, 7 oak trees (firewood), 4 pear trees, 4 fig trees, 3 apple trees, 3 gnarled rosebushes, 3 pine trees (Christmas trees planted out), 3 kiwi vines, 2 peach trees, 2 apricot trees, 2 almond trees, 2 bay trees and one each of the following: a sweet chestnut, a kaki, a lemon, a kumquat, a loquat, an elm tree, a hazel shrub, a willow tree (for using the rods to tie down vines and make baskets) and a walnut tree. Altogether 89 non-movable plants. I may do the same at Villa in the next few days.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Of Elderflowers and Other Spring Delights

I love this time of year. It’s a complete sensual overload. Visually – a riot of colour with poppies in obscene red competing with the bright yellows of gorse and buttercup and a variety of blues, pinks and purples all on a background of every shade of green. The sounds – the air is full of birdsong, most I don’t recognise, except for the chattering of the swallows (the quintessential Italian bird, competing with the early news exchange of the neighbours), the cuckoo of the … what bird did that again… and the hammering of the woodpeckers; and down by the river the frogs are giving an open-air concert. The smells – Everything is bursting into flower and the fragrant smells of the elderflower and the gorse mingle with the marjoram, lemon balm, thyme and mint crushed under foot; around the corner the warm spicy waft of some curry plant (unfortunately virtually useless as a culinary herb), and all this almost drowned out by the persistent perfume of jasmine. And finally the tastes – Everything tastes so fresh and new. We have today harvested our first new season peas and broad beans. And then the much-ignored elderflower. We’ve been eating elderflower fritters for dessert the last few days and have a couple of batches of simple elderflower Champagne (or more like elderflower Prosecco) on the go.

On that I’ll share my elderflower recipes with you:

Elderflower fritters:
Serves 2
About 6 heads of elderflower
1 egg
2 tbsp flour
1 tbsp sugar
35 ml cold water
Olive oil for frying

Heat the oil in a frying pan. Mix the egg, flour, sugar and water into a batter. Dip the flowers into the batter, then upside down into the hot oil. While one side is cooking cut off the worst of the stalks with scissors. Turn and finish cooking the other side. Lovely, light, easy and cheap dessert.

Simple Elderflower Prosecco:
Makes about 1 gallon / 4.5 litres
About 15 heads of Elderflower
Grated zest and juice of one large lemon
4.5 litres of warm water
700g sugar

Use the flowers as fresh as possible mix together with all the other ingredients in a large bowl. Cover and leave in a warm place for 24 hours. Drain and bottle in plastic pet bottles (glass may explode), closing them securely with srewcaps. No yeast needs to be added, as they are present on the flowers. Leave in a warm place for another 2 weeks, then drink within 3 weeks. It is light in alcohol, sparkling and very refreshing.

The other great thing about this time of year is, it’s the beginning of the festa season. Last weekend we went to the Sagra dei Muscolo Ripieno (the festival of the stuffed mussel) in Marolo, just outside La Spezia. The season for mussels is said to be only on months without an ‘r’ in it, so we are just at the start of it and Marolo is right next to the sea, so couldn’t be any fresher. From now on until September / October there is some village fest or another on virtually every weekend. We’d love to give them all a go, but we wouldn’t get around doing any real work and we probably would end up big fat blobs!

The weather as you may have gathered from my spring anthems has been glorious. Yesterday was new moon, so today it was sowing time again. I’ve sown sweet corn, courgettes, various lettuces, radishes, climbing beans and dwarf runner beans at Arcola today. Most other things are doing well.

Incidentally, anyone know what is wrong with my recently planted peaches and what I can do to save them? The leaves go all red and curl up. There is no evidence of insects. It’s not an isolated case, I’ve seen quite a few in the area suffering from the same problem. We have a couple of wild apricots, which seem to be more resistant to the problem, although they are also affected.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

of Julie and other visitors

Sorry about the break in communications. We have been keeping busy one way or another over the last week or so. The weather has been mostly fine with various odd rain breaks (Thursday, Monday night, Tuesday, last night and this morning), so we’ve got more beds prepared to plant out the various things growing indoors. Although with the cool weather, even the indoor plants have been slow to grow. Whilst there are more peppers to plant out, the tomato and aubergine plants are still very small.

During the last week we had an e-mail from our jet-setting, budding super-model daughter Julie that she had returned to London from a month of work in New York and Los Angeles and that she would be in Milan for a few days. So not having seen her for a while we decided to drive to Milan on Monday to see her. She had been doing a fashion shoot for Amica magazine and she only had a couple of hours to see us in the evening. She had only arrived early that morning and needed her beauty sleep to be rested for another day’s shooting and flying on to Paris in the evening for another job. Susan in particular was very excited about being reunited with her daughter albeit briefly.

Yesterday my cousin Karin and husband came to see us for a brief visit from Holland. They had spent a week in Southern Tuscany and stayed a night here. We had an afternoon to show them the highlights of the area briefly and went out for nice meal in the evening at our local restaurant. We had a really nice time and it was great to see them. Also our Swiss friend Irene is down here at the moment and we went to her house for a meal the other day. So as you can see we’ve been quite busy socializing and a few other people have already announced visits for later this year

On our way to Milan on Monday we stopped the morning at Villa to see how our recently planted vines were faring after the early setback of the frost damage. We’re happy to report they have virtually all survived and have developed second shoots. Other than that the weather seems to have delayed flowering and fruitset of many things, but no major damage seems to have occurred with our plants anyway. Marco from next door said that they won’t have any apricots at all this year due to the flowers having been blown off one particularly windy day, but that is the problem with Ponzano Superiore being very exposed to winds from all directions, whilst our plot in Arcola certainly is quite sheltered from the prevailing winds. The forecast is for more settled weather in the next few days, so hopefully we’ll be able to report the first harvest of peas, broad beans, strawberries, plums and loquats soon.