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

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Friday, 31 October 2008

Oh when the Saints…

Well tomorrow is All Saints (whatever that actually means; is it the day for all the saints that don’t get a mention during the rest of the year?), and winter is definitively approaching. The clocks have gone back (don’t you hate it when that happens; I never know which way they go or what day, my tummy tells me to be hungry well before lunchtime, and it’s just disorientating) and the evenings are dark early now.

At the weekend the weather was still fine and we went to the chestnut sagra in Barbarasco again, this time with James who was over. Tuesday afternoon the clouds and wind started closing in though. By Wednesday the temperatures dropped significantly and we were enveloped in clouds and gale force winds swept through our village. I spent those 2 days servicing an old mountain bike of ours. The one I had been using is slowly starting to fall apart. It only cost me £50 10 years ago, so it did me quite well until now.

Yesterday a brief break in the rain was forecast, so I went to see Franco the bicycle man to sort a couple of things I could not do on my own, a bent chain and gear mechanism. He just got a big pair of pliers and bent everything into shape, straightened a buckle in the rear wheel, oiled the lot, pumped up the tyres and adjusted the gears. All in all just under half an hours work and he insisted on being paid with a cup of coffee. When I in turn insisted in putting a €5 note in his hand he rummaged through his pockets to give me €3 change. Well, can’t complain can I?

Susan in the meantime had started to walk to Arcola to our land and I met up with her half way there. On the land I was amazed to still pick a large bagful of green beans. This particular variety has done me extremely well! I think the seeds were a cheap bag from one of the discount stores. They are a dwarf variety that I planted so close together that weeds had practically no chance of getting through. They have been producing sweet, string-less beans since about July and there are still more to pick now. I have already dried a few of the beans, so that I can sow them out again next year. Don’t know what the variety is called, but they’ve been exceptionally successful.

We also still picked a few strawberries and a good bagful of windfall olives. It’s turning out to be a very good olive year this year, by general consent all over Italy. They are more plentiful and earlier than in previous years and are not too badly affected by maggots. We’ll wait for a drier day to pick them in the next week or 2. While we were still on the land the rain returned and we still had to make the long way home exposed to the elements.

During the night we had some serious storms and today it’s been bucketing down most of the day. So today, for the first time we have lit a fire in the kitchen, more as an antidote against the doom and gloom outside and to roast some chestnuts, rather than against the actual cold.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Of Saint Happy, Mushrooms and Frank meeting Franco

Just a little update on what’s been happening the last week and a bit or so. The weather has been a bit of a mixed bag and never as predicted by the weather forecasters, which makes planning the next day very difficult. One day you decide to get up early to get some work done, because the weather is supposed to be dry and you wake up to pouring rain. Next day you have a lie-in, because they promise you rain and the sun is out. Well at least last Sunday was a beautifully sunny and warm day as it was the ‘Fiera di San Felice’, the Saint Happy Fair at Santo Stefano. Saint Happy, or St Felix I suppose, is the patron saint of Santo Stefano (and not St Stephen as one would suspect…), and every 3rd Sunday in October this gives cause to celebration with a huge sprawling market through the streets of the town, selling everything from porchetta (Tuscan roast pork) to kitchen utensils to porchetta to live chickens and cattle to porchetta to tractors to porchetta to clothing etc. You get the drift. Porchetta is an essential part of any festa in these parts. On the photo you get a bit of a flavour of the event.

On the land, we finished the autumn clean-up in Arcola and started it in Villa. In Villa we also chopped down an old, diseased apple tree for fire wood. The wine had started fermenting with a bit of delay and therefore got slightly oxidized. So unfortunately it’s going to have rather too much volatile acidity (it’ll taste a bit vinegary in lay-speak), but should still just about be alright. The cider on the other hand smells divine, bubbling away in it’s demijohn.

One day we were both off sick after consuming some wild mushrooms, so for the time being I am banned by Susan to pick any more. They were of a variety that we had picked in previous years on our land and never had any problems with. In fact we had eaten the first ones on Saturday, but with a large armful of what I identified as Chanterelles from Villa (see photo above). The mushrooms in Arcola I had identified as Sheathed Woodtufts, which are described as good and edible. By Tuesday there were so many growing on our land, that I just couldn’t resist and fried some with the steak we were having that evening. I spent most that night on the toilet, whilst with Susan the effect arrived during the next day. Still, they tasted good… Either it was because of the much greater quantity consumed compared to the previous occasion, or that I did not cook them for as long as before. Saturday we stewed them in some milk and cream for a good while as a pasta sauce. Whichever way, it put us both off wild mushrooms for a wee while. We’re alive to tell the tale!

Frank our motozappa (plough) in the meantime had to go and meet Franco, the local ‘bicycle-and-small-machinery-repair-man’. The drive belt had apparently come off and needed to be tightened. For a good 45 minutes work Franco charged us all of €8. I know craftsmen in the UK don’t even get out of bed for that amount! So yesterday he (Frank that is) was put back into action to plough over a terrace in Arcola. Susan in the meantime gave the hornets in the hollow cherry tree their final eviction notice. Today we dug over the bed behind the former hornet’s nest and sowed some more peas. I know it’s not the right moon phase, but the soil is nicely wet now and I didn’t want to leave this job too long.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Some Things to do with Chestnuts

Autumn definitively has caught up with us again and our brief Indian summer has come to an abrupt end. It started raining heavily in the early hours of this morning and as I write this (10 a.m.) it hasn’t even got properly bright yet.
Yesterday we went out chestnut hunting and came back with several kilos of this beautiful fruit. Going out into the woods is quite dangerous at this time of the year, especially on Wednesdays and Sundays. That’s when the hunters are out in droves, shooting at anything that moves and is not dressed in bright orange. So we stuck to minor roads rather than venturing right into the woods. However, there are so many chestnut trees around here that during the war chestnuts became the main food source for the inhabitants of the area. Some of the older generation say they never want to eat another chestnut, because they ate nothing else during the war. I reckon though, rather than being sick of the flavour of this delicious and versatile fruit they are tired of peeling the damn things! Our friend Carlo tells of his main childhood memory of the war being, having to grind the coffee mill day-in and day-out to make chestnut flour. Bread made exclusively from chestnut flour does not rise well, so tends to be hard and heavy, but it can be added to ordinary flour to make a fragrant loaf or used to make pasta or pancakes.

So after we returned from our expedition we started using them having found some interesting recipes for preserving them. Here I’d like to share a couple of them with you. A few general tips first:
First of all a warning: all these recipes of course are for the sweet chestnut, which is no relation to the horse chestnut, which is more common in more northerly climes and is poisonous. Horse chestnuts are great for playing conkers or to make little stick animals with but not for eating!
When out picking chestnuts, bring a pair of sturdy gloves, so you can free them easily from their prickly shells.
If you are picking sweet chestnuts in the wild always add an extra 10% on recipe quantities to allow for any slightly rotten or worm infested ones you may have to throw away.
To peel chestnuts, first cut a slit into the skin of each nut and put them into a saucepan covered with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. As soon as cool enough to handle, pull off the shells and as much of the inner skin as possible.

Castagne Sotto Whisky
Ingredients: 1 kg Chestnuts, 1 litre whisky, 500g sugar
Method: Peel chestnuts as described above. Choose the largest and best looking chestnuts and keep them as whole as possible. Place the whisky in a saucepan and stir in the sugar. Bring the mixture to the boil. Add the chestnuts and turn off the heat. Leave to cool and bottle into clean jars. Serve as a dessert on ice-cream with a drizzle of honey.

As this is out of my Ligurian recipe book, there was really only one whisky that should be used for this, Glen Grant 5 Year Old Single Malt Whisky. This has long been the best selling whisky in Italy and made Italy the largest importer of malt whiskies well before they became popular anywhere else. This reminds me of a little Scottish prayer which goes like this:

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want
As long as there’s whisky
In Glen Grant.
And if it’s gone,
No more to pour,
We’ll up the line
To Cragganmore!

Cragganmore being a distillery just up the road from Glen Grant in the Spey Valley of the Highlands of Eastern Scotland.

Also from ‘Ligura in Arbanello’ by Laura Rangoni:

Marmellata di Fagioli e Castagne
This is a kind of substitute for the ubiquitous Nutella, just better and less sickly sweet.
Ingredients: 400g dried white beans, 150g sugar, 400g chestnuts
Method: Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water. Drain and boil in fresh water until soft, then whiz them to a fine puree in a food processor. In the meantime peel the chestnuts as described above and chop them finely. Put the bean puree back into the saucepan and, over a low flame stirring constantly, add the sugar. Once the sugar is dissolved, add the chopped chestnuts, taking the mixture off the heat. Bottle immediately into hot jars, seal and turn upside down for about half an hour. Use as a sandwich spread.

Chestnut Sorbet
Ingredients: 300g chestnuts, 1 vanilla pod, 150g sugar, 400ml milk.
Method: Peel chestnuts as described above. Put the peeled chestnuts in a small saucepan with the vanilla pod and sugar. Add 100 ml of water & simmer gently until the liquid becomes syrupy. Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla pod into the syrup. Puree in a blender to a fine paste, then slowly add the milk. Churn in an ice-cream machine.

Finally something that we are going to make today for the freezer in anticipation of Christmas:
Chestnut stuffing
(quantities for a chicken or guinea fowl. Double for a turkey)
450g chestnuts, 450g sausage meat, 1 onion, 50g sultanas, ½ tbsp sugar, pinch cinnamon, 25g butter, salt & pepper to taste, a little tomato juice to moisten.
Peel chestnuts as described above. Slice onions & fry in the butter until golden, then add the sausage meat & cook gently for a few minutes. Do not allow the onions to turn brown. Add the tomato juice, sugar, salt & pepper and the cinnamon. Stir together until well blended, then add the chestnuts, previously minced, and the sultanas. Mix well & allow to cool before stuffing your bird. (Recipe taken from ‘The Wildfoods Cookbook’ by Joy Spoczyinska).

There are many more things which can be made from chestnuts. We will keep a few to dry to turn to flour, there are numerous chestnut soup recipes around (made one last night), or you can make chestnut puree instead of mashed potatoes. See if we can’t get to the stage of being fed up with chestnuts! Anybody with any further suggestions what to do with chestnuts, please post them on the commentary. The best entry may get a prize, if there are a few suggestions.

Well it’s afternoon in the meantime and we’re starting to be thoroughly fed up with peeling chestnuts. In the famous words of Jimi Hendrix: “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”. At least it was a productive day indoors as the rain still comes down outside. It’s supposed to get better again tomorrow, so the plan is to cut some wood and see to our wines brewing in Villa.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Chestnut season

Allora! The weather is still holding, pleasantly warm temperatures during the day and balmy evenings. Today we were in Arcola finishing the autumn clearing job. I applied the strimmer to the top terraces, even clearing up some corners I hadn’t attempted before. There is a beautiful olive tree on the very top, which I very much assume is on our land, but which was totally overgrown by 2 ancient, rampant vines and plenty of ivy. The tree is actually heavy with olives this year, so I freed it from the invaders and cleared up the ground underneath. While putting down the strimmer for a minute I had a little, actually quite a big, visitor who settled on it for a wee while, a Praying Mantis. Not only people in Italy are religious…

This work ,of course, resulted in plenty of burnable rubbish. So Susan lit a fire nearby, and then went on the hunt for some lunch. Chestnut season is in full swing, so she collected a good kilo of them, which we roasted on the fire, Hmmmmm! We had already feasted on chestnuts on Sunday, when we went to the Sagra della Castagna, the chestnut festa, at Barbarasco on Sunday. Apart from roasted chestnuts we had pancakes made with chestnut flour topped with ricotta cheese, ravioli and lasagne made from chestnut flour with a ragu sauce and finally sgabbei, puffed up bread balls, with a selection of cheeses and salumi with not a chestnut in sight. A couple of handfuls of roasted chestnuts actually fills you up better then a sandwich.

As the fire burned down we threw the hot embers down a terrace into the entrance of a hornets’ nest. Not that I have something against hornets per se, but they built their nest inside the base of a rather large cherry tree of ours, which has been hollowed out by termites and which is likely to die and collapse soon anyway. It also blocks the path to what this summer was our lettuce bed. Just passing the nest was fine, but when Susan was trying to dig it over last week to turn it into a pea bed, they got a bit upset and stung her. So to enable us to cut down this dying tree and to grow peas behind it these hornets, I’m afraid they have to be evicted. Not sure yet if it has worked, but it certainly created a panic amongst the insects.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Indian Summer and Cider Making

Well the much cooler weather and damper weather that had started on the 14th September has given way to a second Indian summer period, which started on Wednesday (8th). Daytime temperatures are back up in the mid-twenties and even at nigh it doesn’t drop much below 20 degrees. The clear blue skies and continuous sunshine really show off the leaves on the trees which are starting to take on golden hues. It’s just as well we are getting some nice weather again, otherwise we would have had an unusually short summer period this year, lasting for only 3 months. Now we seem to get a bonus week or two.

We did plough over a terrace last Saturday and planted it with broad beans for spring harvesting. I never seem to have enough each spring to conserve some for later use, so I dedicated practically a whole terrace to them this time. I suppose they are ready when nothing else much is growing (April/May) so they get eaten straight away. On Thursday we dug over a bed and sowed peas. I need to find another couple of locations for a greater supply for roundabout the same time as the broad beans. I also started my autumn cleaning work by strimming half the terraces. I shall finish the job today or Monday.

Yesterday we started our first cider experiment. Our friend Irene from Switzerland came out to help us. First we picked the apples, some 50 kg of various varieties. Not all the trees were as prolific as last year, but we had some really tasty, sharp apples. The majority were a variety, that according to Irene is called Boskop in German, a large, sharp, hard- and rough-skinned variety, yellowish-green in colour. Very juicy and tasty.

Then we put the lot through the crusher, which evidently is designed for grapes, but eventually crushed the apples too. Then of course we pressed out the juice. A beautifully dark golden, cloudy, sweet juice emerged. On testing the potential alcohol the must showed a whapping 11%! So it should be drunk with care and not by the pint like British cider. We made about 15 litres only, but hey it’s better than letting the apples rot on the tree or be eaten by the local wild boar population. Although I’m told the pigs taste better if they are killed just at the moment they try to eat an apple. This is the way they are often served here, still with the apple in their mouth.

Anyway, weather is far too good to sit here on my computer. Out I go!

Friday, 3 October 2008


Well autumn definitely has arrived. The last few days it has been raining and it has got a lot cooler. So time for autumn jobs, the ‘vendemmia’, the grape harvest. Well, in actual fact, we hardly got anything off our vines at Villa. They succumbed to fungal attacks. As they hadn’t been looked after for a couple of years and I hadn’t quite pruned them to their final form yet, they obviously needed a greater attack of anti-fungal spray to become productive again. So to make the meager harvest worth while, we bought some 90 kg of Montepulciano grapes so we could test out the new winery equipment. Well when I say new, it’s new to us, but I have seen bits like these in a museum…

The hardest part of the job is the cleaning of the equipment.

Next the grapes go through the crusher. Montepulciano grapes have quite a dark juice already, so it is not necessary to leave the skins on the must for long, i.e. in our case we left them on for a couple of hours. We tested the potential alcohol content and it showed a massive 15% AbV! That’ll keep us happy…

Finally the whole thing is put through the press to squeeze out the juice. We got about 60 litres of must. Now it goes into large demijohns to ferment. Hopefully it’ll turn out fine, I’ll keep you posted.

Other than that it was Susan’s birthday, which meant she got a bit of cash through the post and relieving our crisis. We spent the rainy days stocking up on some storable basics and even better, there was a closing down sale at a nearby electrical store and we managed to pick up a cheap freezer, which we went and filled up with several goodies immediately, special offers meats and fish, as well as home-made pesto. Also made some of my special tomato chutney yesterday. On Saturday was the last of the outdoor parties in the village. Mauro had invited the neighbourhood as well as the members of his band for an afternoon of music and food in his back garden. Towards the evening it was getting decidedly chilly though.

The sun appears to have made a re-appearance this afternoon and, if it stays like this we shall plough over a terrace or two in the next couple of days and plant broad beans and peas. Also on the schedule for the next week or so is cider making with the same equipment we made wine with today.