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

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Sunday, 31 August 2008

Jam session under the stars

Last night we organised a big jam session on the little piazza outside our house. Our English friends Pam and John, who have a holiday home in Calice al Cornoviglio, have had musical visitors from France. So after much to-ing and fro-ing we managed to get them together with our musical neighbours for a session under the stars. I took it upon myself to cater for over a dozen people, which was no mean feat, considering we had a budget of about €1.33 or thereabouts. I attempted to make the local snack ‘farinata’, which is basically just a mixture of chickpea flour, water and olive oil, which is baked in the oven on a flat baking tray. It was only a limited success, as I discovered that our oven does not stand on an even surface and as the batter is pretty runny it turned out thick one end and thin on the other. Well, since the foreign visitors did not know what it was supposed to look like I just about got away with it.

Next I made my own variation of the local mes-ciüa soup, which was invented by the dock workers of La Spezia. They gathered up any bits of grain or dried pulses which had escaped from sacks while ships were being loaded and unloaded. Now the main ingredients are chickpeas, dried beans and pearl grain. I added a bit of celery and some herbs to embellish it all. Next I made a large pot of spaghetti with a roast tomato sauce. Next an ‘anything-I-could-find-in-the-garden-quiche’, which included aubergines, courgettes, green beans, cherry tomatoes, green peppers, basil and pancetta (didn’t find that in the garden). And finally I served some blackberry tartlets made from wild blackberries.

Luckily the visitors brought plenty of wine so this turned into a lovely festa. Soon we were joined by quite a few of our fellow villagers who were attracted by the sounds of the accordion, pipes, fiddle and hurdy-gurdy (or vielle as Sheila the player of that instrument preferred it to be called). Soon there was even dancing going on. We were celebrating until about 1 o’clock in the morning. I hope we didn’t keep the priest, who lives next to the piazza, too much from his beauty sleep. He obviously didn’t feel inclined to join in.

On this frugal living I just came across a great ‘Independent’ article, here’s the link: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/the-thrifty-foodie-how-to-eat-better-but-pay-less-836638.html. I have recently invested in the book mentioned in there: ‘Food for Free’ by Richard Mabey. It’s got descriptions of over 100 edible plants, berries, mushrooms, seaweed and shellfish, fully illustrated and with recipes. And in it’s newest addistion it comes pocket-sized, so I carry it with me at all times now. We have just tried out the Pontack Sauce recipe on Thursday. It’s made from Elderberries, red wine or vinegar and various spices and is to be used as a condiment, which goes particularly well with liver. Apparently it gets better with age (somewhere I’ve read it should be kept at least 7 years, but we had a try after about 7 minutes), which is just as well as I made over 2 litres of it. It has an interesting sweet and sour flavour with lovely dark fruity notes and an all staining deep red colour. Also on Thursday I’ve made fig jam with the second crop of figs. It was odd this year, the same fig tree produced one crop in late June, then nothing until now, then a second crop just as big as the first.

A final word about the weather, although the weather forecast keeps forecasting rain 'within the next few days', this hasn't happened yet, not even threatened to. The thermometer seems stuck at around 29 during the day and 19 at night.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Paradise Found

The search is over! After centuries of humanity’s search we have at last found the location of the fabled Garden Eden as described in the Book of Genesis and depicted in numerous works of art. Columbus thought it was in South America, others sought to bring paradise back to earth by either converting the rest of the world to their holy faith or, failing this, just slaying them. But it’s already here above the small town of Arcola near La Spezia, Liguria, Italy. It’s just like it’s been described, you reach up or down and you find something to eat. The snake seems to have moved out, but fig leaves are still available as items of clothing. Most other animals seem to get on with each other too, except me and the mosquitoes and the neighbour’s cats with each other. Incidentally there is an excellent book on the subject “Paradise – A History of the Idea that Rules the World” by Kevin Rushby. He follows the history of the paradise myth back from the Greeks (Pythagoras), the Persians through to Columbus, the pilgrim fathers of America to modern paradise seekers, like ourselves, looking for their own piece of heaven in foreign lands. The book is a really good read and comes highly recommended.

Sorry about the long gap between postings again. We’ve been busy keeping our little paradise tidy and well watered. It has rewarded us with plenty of produce. Apricots, apples and since today hazelnuts are all ready. Of course there are still plenty tomatoes and other veg, which is just as well as we are pretty much skinned at the moment and would be reduced to begging if it wasn’t for our own food. We’ve been busy preserving too, blackberry and apple jam, ginger and pear sauce (great with pork), green beans in brine with herbs, roast tomato sauce, dried beans, celery in brine (just an experiment, see how that turns out), mixed fruit salad in syrup.

The weather has continued to be warm to hot and dry with the exception of the main national holiday of Ferragosto, when normally virtually the entire population of Italy heads for the beach. This year they were a bit stranded, or un-stranded as the case may be, as it was unsettled, windy and showery all day.

Last week was our sagra at Ponzano Superiore, the Sagra della Scherpada, our local version of a covered vegetable pie. As usual it was extremely busy on all 4 days, although we only we went the one day, Saturday. Over the period of these celebration the population of our village swells from some 300 to some 3000 and the volunteers cooking and serving really have their hands full. On Sunday we saw our neighbour Mauro playing with his band Tandarandan again. They performed at the Ethnological Museum of the Lunigiana at Villafranca. That way we had a chance see the contents of the museum too and were amazed to see many agricultural exhibits and tools that looked exactly like things we still use now. I knew some of our tools are a bit old, but I didn’t thinks they were museum exhibits yet.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

my new tomato press and other tales

After quite a hot spell, (even Susan dared the freezing waters of the river in Villa, although, after an unexpected encounter with some Dutch tourists the other day, she decided to keep her kit on…) today the weather finally broke with a brisk wind and a brief, but strong shower today. So no need to water the land today and I have a bit of time to write a new entry and to conserve some of our excess harvest.

We have been keeping very busy, despite the heat. Due to our general cash shortage, we have been cycling a lot too and leaving the car at home. We’re getting rather fit these days, I think I’ll enter Susan into next year’s women’s Giro d’Italia! Anyway, apart from the tedious and perennial job of weeding and chopping down bamboo, we have ploughed over another couple of terraces in Arcola. One of them we sowed with cavolo nero (Tuscan “black cabbage”), fennel, and various lettuces. Our daily harvests are sometimes too heavy to carry home on our bikes, especially climbing up the mountain back to our village in the afternoon heat. Here is a list of some of things we’re are currently picking, and no doubt I’ll forget something: tomatoes (big beefy ones, salad and cherry toms), aubergines, peppers, courgettes, melons, lettuces, picked the last pears, some late plums, rocket, cabbages, sweet corn, potatoes, celery. Since we started fighting back the jungle that was our plot 3 years ago this is the first time, that we really are producing more than we can eat, so we are busy preserving things.
My latest acquisition is the tomato press pictured above. It’s a great little gadget. All you do is roughly chop your tomatoes (I had about 3 kg spare today) and cook them for a few minutes in a saucepan. Then you throw them into your tomato press, turn the handle and on one side the skins and most of the pips exit and the other side produces perfectly smooth tomato sauce, which you then bottle with a sprig of basil and simmer for 15 minutes in a pan of water. Apparently it does 50 kg an hour and does not only do tomatoes but any fruit really. So because it was so much fun I did the same thing (save the sprig of basil) with the last of the pears. No need to peel and core them, just chop roughly and the result: a sort of baby food consistency pear sauce. Not exactly sure what I’m going to do with it. Maybe give it to someone visiting with a baby…? or serve it with some venison or wild boar (beg some of the hunters when the season starts…).

Our social life, despite limited funds, has not suffered. James and Alison, who normally bring us rain, are over from Northampton at the moment. We had them around for dinner the other day centred around the produce of our land. A 5 course dinner for 4 cost us a grand total of about €5, which isn’t bad going I thought.
Last night there was a concert in the inner court of our house. It was classical this time, chamber music to be precise. The internationally acclaimed Hyperion Ensemble played works from Vivaldi. The ensemble consisted of 6 musicians, a violin, a cello, an oboe, a flute, a bassoon, and a harpsichord. It was probably the highest quality concert we have seen so far at our house and the atmosphere in the inner court enhanced the virtuosity of the music. Only thing was the wind was starting to pick up and the musicians had to chase after their notes occasionally. To find out more about them check them out on http://www.ensemblehyperion.com/. It was only afterwards that we realized that they charged €10 entry for non-residents of the house.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

History in Santo Stefano part 2

More photos from the festa in Santo Stefano
Combing the wool before spinning
"I can see a handsome man in your future..."

History in Santo Stefano part 1

It is still festa season. Friday night we went with our friend Irene to the Sagra del Raviolo in Arcola. It’s one of my favourite sagras of the year, because the ravioli really are special. They are handmade, stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach and a choice of toppings: ragù (minced meat sauce), sage & butter, or nut sauce. The delicate flavour of the butter and sage best enhances the flavours of the ravioli themselves without overpowering them, but the rich walnut sauce is also delicious.

Last night we went to another highlight of our year the Historical Re-enactment of a Medieval market along the Via Francigena in the old town of Santo Stefano. This annual event is a great excuse for all the locals to dress up in medieval garb and have a great knees-up. Proceedings begin with a procession headed by the drum-rolling, fanfare-blowing, flag-waving ‘sbandieratore’. They are a group of young people, waving, throwing and juggling large flags around skillfully. They are followed by all the nobles, first and foremost by King Charles the I don’t know how manyeth of France, who was given the key to the city of Sarzana in 12something (I really must find out the historical details sometime). He was played as every year by our friend Pino, who rides in majestically on his horse.
All ages get involved.
After them the soldiers and knights in shining armour march in and finally the convoy is tailed by the ordinary trades people as well as the entertainers, the jugglers and musicians. After the ceremony of the king sitting down on his throne and everyone shouting “hurrah!” lots, the flag throwers, the knights and the other entertainers show off their skills. The trades people in the meantime, the weavers and cobblers, the bakers and cooks, the painters and wood carvers, the fortune tellers, and basket weavers, the herbalists and archers set up their stalls around the narrow alleyways of the town and show off their skills. As you can see, great fun is had by all.

Cooking sgabei, puffed-up, deep-fried bread balls of the region

Guitar Ray And The Gamblers

It’s been a busy week and I didn’t get time to post anything on the various events taking place this week, so I’ll have to do about 3 posts today to catch up with everything. Tuesday night we went to a free open air concert in Fiumaretta next to the river Magra just before it enters the Mediterranean. Guitar Ray and the Ramblers, a mostly Italian band, took us on a journey through America playing everything from proper Blues to Soul, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rockabilly. They played mostly cover versions of the likes of Magic Sam, T-Bone Walker and other Blues greats. Guitar Ray himself is a bundle of energy on stage. Despite the heat he was rocking and dancing away for 2 ½ hours with his guitar. Like Angelique Kidjo a couple of weeks ago, he got off the stage involving the crowd, getting them up to dance and dragging a few of them back onto stage with him. He took a particular shine to that young girl, hanging his guitar around her neck making her look as if she was playing it. He gave her a free CD afterwards and he has sure made a new young fan. His band consisted of a trumpet, a saxophone, a keyboard, drums, a bass and himself on guitar, all great musicians. It was a brilliant evening out under the stars and best of all it was free. If you ever come across them go and see them. Check them out on http://www.bluesgamblers.com/