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

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Monday, 28 July 2008

of pears and sagre

Well the temperatures have been rising again and we've been praying for the relief of a nice thunderstorm. It was threatening today, clearly heading our way, but then decided to take a right turn out to sea. I think it's saving up a big one for us. There was the brief cooling of a shower today, but it did not last long. On the land we mostly water now and harvest lots of fruit and veg. We carry a few kilos of pears home each day as we pick them as they fall. Back home we bottle them in syrup as we can't eat them all at once and I can't think of anything else much to do with pears.

I may have mentioned it before, it's festa season and this weekend we visited a couple more. In fact they were sagre. There is no real translation for the Italian word sagra in English, but it is essentially a festival around a particular culinary speciality of a region or village. Saturday we went for the sagra testaroli e tagliatelle at Baccano di Arcola, just a kilometre from our plot of land. Tagliatelle does not need much of an introduction, but testaroli are a kind of thin pancake, which is usually served with either pesto, oil and parmesan or with a mushroom sauce. Susan had the testaroli with pesto, while I had Taglialtelle 'rustico', with a spicy tomato sauce. For secondo we shared an 'asado', Argentinian style slow grilled veal. It was scumptious. The after-dinner music was supplied by a one-man band, but the star of the show was a young Joe Cocker look-alike. He was barely 2 1/2 both in years and feet height, but he was tireless on the dancefloor, getting the Joe Cocker moves just right and asking all the girls his size to dance with him.
Sunday we went to a village called Bastremoli for the Sagra della Torta. We had not actually heard of the village before, but the posters promised music by our friend Riccardo Borghetti. The surprise was that the village faces ours across the valley, we just didn't realise it. It afforded a beautiful view back across to our village as can be seen on the top photo (Ponzano is in the background not the forground). However the food was a bit disappointing, the torte in question being a vegetable pie and a rice tart, both were not exciting. Also the music wasn't great. Instead of playing his own songs in Spezzini dialect, he played cover versions of popular American and Italian songs. He had a good few glasses of wine before he went on stage and did not get much feedback from the crowd, so he did not put too much into his performance. Shame...

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Of Cycling, walking and driving

We have found a sort of 3-day rhythm which enables us to save fuel without completely exhausting ourselves. Day one we cycle to either Arcola (1 hour) or Villa (2 hours) to do some light work, mostly watering, light weeding and harvesting whatever is ready. Day two we walk to Arcola (2 hours one way), doing some light work again. Day three we take the car to either Arcola or Villa, carrying the heavier equipment with us and doing some of the bigger jobs such as strimming or ploughing. That way the car stands idle for 2 days out of 3 and we don’t use quite so much fuel.

Today was a cycling day and we cycled to Villa. It’s about 20 km each way. First rapidly down our hill than an 8km stretch a long a busy and dangerous road. There is a traffic free alternative, which we worked out for Babette and Paul for their guide to the Via Francigena, however it’s much tougher over the mountains and the road is very rough. Susan doesn’t have a mountain bike and she does not feel very secure on rough roads. Talking about the Guide to the Via Francigena, it is now published and very good too. It gives a detailed description on how to travel along this pilgrim’s route by foot, bike or horse all the way from Canterbury to Rome (via Ponzano Superiore) on the footsteps of Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, who first documented this path back in the late 10th Century. Anyone interested can purchase the book on http://www.pilgimagepublications.com/. It comes in 2 parts, Canterbury to Great St. Bernard Pass and Great St. Bernard to Rome. Anyway, I digress, finally there is an approximately 9 km bit which goes steadily, but relatively gently uphill on quiet, shady roads. On the way we pass the village of Tresana, pictured above, with it’s picture book castle.

We watered the young vines there today as well as finishing off the door to my new winery. The bat had moved in again, so I had to wake it up and evict it again. We also harvested some new potatoes, which we just had with some butter and fresh mint. Is there anything more delicious? In Arcola lots of things are now ripening, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers, melons, plums and pears. We’ve produced some pears in cognac from my new ‘Liguria in Arbanella’ recipe book. Looking forward to trying this in a few weeks. Yesterdays driving day involved clearing up under the pear trees with the strimmer, as the pears were starting to fall off the tree and disappearing in the undergrowth

Saturday, 19 July 2008


From sconfinare – to cross borders, to cross over. The Sconfinando is an annual world music event taking place open air during July in the Fortezza Firmafede, a medieval citadel, in Sarzana. Ever since we have arrived here in 2004 we have made a point of seeing at least one concert there each year. Last night we went to see the last of this year’s (the 17th edition) events, Angelique Kidjo from Benin, West Africa. I hadn’t actually come across her before, but I’m wondering how I managed to miss her so far. Her music is a mixture of African rhythms combined with calypso, Caribbean and Brazilian sounds and rock’n’roll. She sings in English, French and her native African language. She has covered songs by Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, giving them a distinct African twist. She has actually been nominated for 4 Grammy awards and on her latest album Djin Djin, she has collaborated with, amongst others, Alicia Keys, Peter Gabriel, Josh Groban, Carlos Santana and Branford Marsalis.

On stage Angelique is electric. After only the first song she asked the audience: “Are you gonna dance tonight?”, which was answered by a half hearted: “yeah”. When after the next song still no one had got up she just got off the stage and dragged people off their seats and finally invited them all onto the stage. The sound technician obviously wasn’t ready for that and was having kittens about people treading onto his cables and damaging his equipment. Well for the rest of the night about 80 of us stayed up there dancing with the woman herself and her band. The band by the way consisted of an acoustic guitar player from Brazil an African percussionist and a bassist from Senegal, a lead guitarist from Guinea-Bissau and a drummer from Surinam. There was a lot of good-natured banter going on amongst the band and between Angelique and her musicians. Especially the percussionist, Ibrahim Diagne ‘Thiokho’, mingled with the crowd making everyone contort in new dance steps including a bunch of kids.

The venue, as always, was haunting, taking place in the large inner court of the citadel with it’s imposing medieval towers and walls. The acoustic is very good and last night’s rising full moon and balmy temperatures added to the atmosphere. The only down side of the concert was that it was too short. After barely 1 ½ hours and just one encore it was all over, but hey I’m a fan. There were no CDs sold after the concert, so I shall have to find one in the shops and I recommend anyone reading this to do the same.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Our New Winery

Well with the recently more bearable temperatures (it’s not cold by any means, don’t get me wrong!) we have again been very busy today. We went out early to George’s at Villa beating back the weeds on the lower terraces and around the newly planted grapevines with the strimmer. Susan in the meantime busied herself filing the door I very badly made for the house to make it fit it’s frame, watering the vines, freeing an apple tree from lianas (you know the sort of things Tarzan swings himself through the jungle on) and picking plums.

The door bit was quite important as we have a few days ago moved our new winery into there with all the equipment courtesy of Pam and John’s cantina. It’s not likely that anyone comes to our remote piece of land to nick a few bits of fairly old equipment, but the door and the window, which I also fitted are mainly to keep the wildlife out. We have already evicted a family of bats. As you can see we now have a crusher (background), a press, a corking machine and a few large demijohns. All of it needs a bit of cleaning up and maintenance of course, but hey it’s a start. Thank you very much Pam and John. Right, enough of the idle chat, now I have to turn some of those plums into plum jam.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

More sowing and bottling courgettes

Third day in a row an entry! The clouds from yesterday moved on a gain and today the sky was it’s usual Mediterranean blue with a slight cool breeze making the temperatures very pleasant indeed. I was out sowing the terrace I raked over in the rain yesterday. Sowed out corn lettuce, parsley, mixed lettuces, rocket, courgettes, more dwarf beans, radishes, cauliflowers, and spring onions. Susan in the meantime was spraying the tomatoes, aubergines and peppers with Bordeaux mixture to prevent fungal infections after the rains.

We are starting to bottle some of the over production, there are only so many courgettes you can eat in a day. Oh, by the way, for any of you Americans reading this blog, my spell checker keeps telling me I spelled courgette and aubergine wrong. Of course in American they are zucchini (as in Italian) and eggplant. So at the moment I am making some ‘zucchine al naturale’ out of my Liguria in arbanella’ recipe book. It simply involves making a brine out of 1 litre of water and 300g of coarse salt. Cut the courgettes into thin fingers and put into clean jars. Cover with the brine, seal and slowly heat in a water bath. When boiling point is reached, simmer gently for about 45 minutes. That way we should have some courgettes to add to our pasta in winter.

Above you see one of my courgettes.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Flowering Vegetables

Today it rained for the first time since the 18th June. It started with a light drizzle, while I was raking over a bed, but then developed into a full blown downpour, but luckily not for too long. It gave everything a nice watering without causing any damage. Above just a few photos of how pretty vegetables can be as well. On top a courgette flower, which of course is edible either stuffed with ricotta, stir-fried with a light tempura-like coating or in oil with some delicate herbs as a pasta sauce. The middle one is an aubergine flower and the bottom one is one that one should normally not see. Some of my radicchio lettuces have shot to flower and they turned out to be very picturesque.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Cusina d’ Sa’Steu

Last night was festa time again in Ponzano Superiore. Every year the local restaurants are organizing a number of events around Santo Stefano celebrating the distinct cuisine of the town and surrounding villages, in dialect ‘la cusina d’ Sa’Steu’. Last night’s event took place on the terrace outside our palazzo under the moon and the stars. Guests were welcomed at the entrance of the village by a brass duo. As you worked your way up the village you picked up your first antipasti on various tables. The first table had cheeses and a glass of white wine from local producer Zangani. Next we were entertained by a couple of belly dancers, a very exotic sight in our village! At the second table they handed out bruschetti and the speciality of the village, ‘scherpada’, a kind of vegetable pie. The third table offered passers-by vegetable balls and chickpea chips.

As we finally found our seats at the top we were given further antipasti, fried anchovies, vegetable parcels, some walnut bread and focaccia, and finally we settled to our primo (lasagna al forno) and secondo. The centre piece can be admired on the photo below, the famous 4-headed Ponzano inflammable pig! Finally there were various cakes, chocolate cake, fig cake and pineapple cake.

As after-dinner entertainment we moved into the inner court of our palazzo where there was a fire juggling show. Originally our neighbour Mauro with his band Tandarandan were supposed to play, but the event had to be postponed from last week, due to the sudden death of someone and Mauro unfortunately couldn’t make it for yesterday. The best thing after all that food and drink was that we only had a few yards to stagger home and fall into bed.

On the land in the meantime I have ploughed over another terrace in readiness for some sowing. Frank Motozappa the hoe gave me some trouble though. The sparkplug cover had split and wasn’t holding the metal connection in place properly. I was quite proud of myself though that I managed to locate the fault and replace the faulty part myself. I’m not normally known for my mechanical abilities. However this meant that there was a 2-day interruption to the work. This morning it looked almost as if it was going to rain, but it has cleared up nicely again. The courgettes and cucumbers on the land are starting to take on gigantic proportions!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

of heat, festas and getting ready for winter

Sorry again about the long gap between postings. We’ve been suffering a bit of a heat wave since last time. The mercury climbed to 40°C and above and people were advised to stay indoors between 10 am and 5 pm, which we pretty much did and just vegetated. Especially as our plot in Arcola is east facing, we couldn’t get up early enough to escape the heat. We just paid a daily visit in the evening to water everything and keep things ticking over. And of course it’s festa season, so often we’ve been spending our evenings at some sagra, festa or other. Since our village has not been connected to broadband yet, that means that I tend to do my postings in the evening, when phone line costs are lower and the weekends have also been taken up by events. Finally we have had quite a few visitors recently and people to see, keeping us pretty busy.

The latest festa was the medieval one in Fosdinovo last weekend. We were there with my cousin Monica and her family, who are over from Holland at the moment. Above some impressions. The guy in the cage asked me to pass the photo on to Amnesty International… We also celebrated our next door neighbour Piero’s 50th birthday last week. The whole neighbourhood got together to organize a surprise party for him at a local restaurant. We played plenty of music and even the owner of the restaurant joined in giving some renditions of popular Italian songs on the guitar. The collection for Piero’s present bought him a more powerful CD player/stereo system to replace his old radio/cassette player, so he can keep us awake at night even more persistently. Well, we love him, really.

We also met up with Pam and John from Derbyshire again at their little house in Calice al Cornoviglio. They have a lovely place there and they showed us their cantina, which has a lot of old, unused winery equipment in it. They very kindly offered them to us, as they aren’t any use to them. So one of the next few days we’ll be up there to collect it, a crusher, a press, a corker and various 20 litre demijohns. I’m chuffed to bits, just in time for this years harvest. We should now also be able to make some cider this year.

Meanwhile on our land things are developing at pace. We’re still eating courgettes, as well as beans, almost daily lettuces, cucumbers, cabbages, celery, figs. Any day now we are awaiting the first tomatoes to turn red, the early pears and late plums to ripen, the first aubergines to show, the accidentally sowed out melons to grow to full size (at the moment about the size of a tennis ball). The heat wave has abated in the last 3 or 4 days, although it’s still warm and dry. Today we started off really early as it’s the waxing moon again (sowing time) and ploughed over another terrace with Frank the motozappa. We sowed out parsley, Swiss chard, fennel and beans there. Tomorrow we’ll do another session like that to make sure plenty of things will be growing later in autumn and over the winter.