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

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Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Assessing the Damage

Just to keep livening up the blog, here another archive photo: a view from our window in November.

The rain I mentioned last time has continued and reached it's climax on Christmas Eve, when it was also accompanied by gale force winds, the dreaded Scirocco. I have mentioned this wind before on this blog, because it has so much influence on our weather. It allegedly originates in Africa, in the Sahara desert to be precise and then blows in a North-westerly direction (i.e. it's a South-easterly wind, as winds are named after the direction they come from for some reason).

Now you would think, that a wind coming out of the desert is good news, dry and warm, however you'd have thought wrong. En route to Italy it crosses the Mediterranean, where it has plenty of oportunity to pick up a bit of water. Then as this warm wind travels north it hits the cold air mass coming off the Alps and the Appenines. A great time to shed some of that excess water again. In other words, in our little niche in the Northwest of Italy it doesn't rain very often, but when it does, the Scirocco is usually involved.

To compound the problem, all our windows are south-east facing, and our bedroom window in particular is leaking. Although I did squeeze an entire tube of silicon into various cracks and openings in an attempt to solve the problem, new cracks and hidden holes appeared elsewhere. The net result of all this was that I stayed up Christmas Eve, or rather Christmas morning until half past one, continually mopping the floor! On one occasion, I swear I saw Santa on his sleigh sailing past us and he never made it down our chimney as he got blown on by the wind. Rudolph's nose was Blue! I'm not sure if it was due to the cold or due to prolonged exposure to water.

Anyway, Christmas passed peacefully, as usual with plenty of food and sitting around a blazing fire. What, you want to know what we've been eating? You're a nosy lot aren't you? Ok, we started with bruschette with a chilli paste and with an olive and bean paté, followed by Zuppa Lombarda (consisting of sage, garlic and beans). Then I made up a new recipe: sage and onion stuffed ravioli tossed in olive oil and lemon juice. For main course we had a free-range capon (a castrated cocckerel) stuffed with a chestnut stuffing (which we made during the chestnut season and had put into the freezer), accompanied by rosemary roast potatoes and a Neapolitan style cauliflower salad.

Right, enough of that flippancy. Boxing Day the rain held off for long enough for us to dare a trip to our plot of land to see what damage the snow and the storms did. I'm glad to report that most things seemed fine. The first sowing of broad beans was a little damaged by the wind as they were already quite tall. Peas, fennel, celery, the brassica, onions and garlic all withstood the cold. Only our baby lemon tree looks like it got some serious frost damage. I hadn't covered it this winter, because we never had any frost the last few winters, and if than never this early (more like February or even March). The kumquat looks fine though and might just give us fruit for the first time this winter.

The wind caused a bit more damage than the frost. It blew over a slightly fragile olive tree and broke off numerous branches of other fruit trees, most notably the loquat and a couple of the plum trees. Well, all in all it could have been worse and the days are starting to get longer again, so roll on spring...

Monday, 21 December 2009

Today it was mostly...

...raining. Over the weekend we went on two www's (winter wonderland walks). It was just glorious and there wasn't much else we could do. This morning it started raining and the snow is slowly melting away. The rain is forcast to continue until at least Christmas Day. How miserable! Anyway, I don't really want to go out in this, but we need to get to our land to empty the compost bin, which is overflowing with wood ash and cat litter (the cats prefer to stay indoors too), to check out the damage to the plants and hopefully to still pick some veg to eat.
In the meantime wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year with this Angel, which was part of a huge flower petal picture on the streets of Santo Stefano di Magra earlier thios year.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Today I was mostly...

Today I was mostly sawing olive wood into logs. Then it seemed to get a bit dark, so I looked out and what did I see? A couple of swallows who absentmindedly forgot to fly back to Africa and... snow! The first snow in about 4 years! It's thick and white out there, so I'm glad we didn't go to Popetto today, as we wouldn't have been get down the mountain without snow chains.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Communication in Popetto

I've just had a conversation with Mrs. Ayak in Turkey, who is having intermittent communication problems (no phone, no internet, no skype (whatever that actually is), no electricity). So I told her about the communication methods we have been witnessing in the village of Popetto, where we are busy pruning the olives.

Popetto is a tiny mountain hamlet. Have a look at this Google link for an idea: http://maps.google.it/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=it&geocode=&q=Popetto,+Tresana&sll=41.442726,12.392578&sspn=14.515019,28.168945&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Popetto,+Tresana+Massa-Carrara,+Toscana&ll=44.268997,9.911336&spn=0.001694,0.003439&t=h&z=18 (I hope this works...). You can see the olive grove on the top right hand side of the picture.

I estimate there are about 50 people living there and their way of communicating goes somewhat like this:

A window at one end of the village opens and a woman hollers at the top of her voice: "Luigi! Luigi!! Luiiiigiii!!!"

Another window opens: "I'm not sure he's in Paula! Maybe Chiara has seen him! Chiara! Chiara!! Chiaaaaraa!!!"

Another window opens: "Siii!"

"Have you seen Luigi?!"

"I think he's in! Luigi! Luigi!! Luiiigiiii!!!"


"Paula wants you!"

"What does she want?!"

"I don't know! - What does Paula want!?"


"What does Paula want!?!"

"Don't know! Paula what do you want from Luigi?!"

"I just wanted to know if he has been to the hardware store yet! I need something!"

That message than gets passed on back to Luigi, with various other windows opening in the meantime, some taking the oportunity to add to Luigi's shopping list, Luigi meanwhile complaining that he has been disturbed in his afternoon nap, someone else butting in that he slept too much anyway and Paula inviting everyone for coffee and someone else inquiring about the health of yet another. It all ends in a lot of laughter and merryment.

This whole exchange takes some 15 minutes and anyone else who may have been having their afternoon nap is now well and truly awake. Who needs technology to exchange the latest gossip? This truly is a cheerful village!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Winter arrived on Sunday afternoon

I'm still without a camera, but I'll carry on giving you some visual contributions out of the archives, starting with that nicely seasonal shot of a pomegranate from last year round about this time (our own pomegranate does alas not produce yet, it was only planted last year).
Sorry I've been off-line for a bit. After getting the olives pressed we gave the olive grove a few days rest, partially because we had neglected our own plot for a bit and partially because the car played up, making it difficult to reach the place. The weather had continued to be balmy and at times positively spring-like. Hence weeds were still happily growing alongside our crops. Susan attacked them around the broad beans, peas, fennel, celery and strawberries (we're still picking the odd one!). I in the mean time dug over the former tomato terrace, still finding a few potatoes (from the year before...) and pruned some of the fruit trees.
By last weekend we managed to sort out the car (leaving us considerably poorer) and we got back into the olive grove to prune the remaining dozen or so trees. Before we could get stuck into that, we had a bit of tidying up to do. In the rush to get as many olives as possible harvested, I had left the prunings to lie where they fell. there were now so many of them that we couldn't move along the terraces any more!
So picture this if you will (in the absence of any current photos, you're going to have to use your imagination a bit more): There are 5 terraces with some 40 olive trees. The terraces are not quite as steep as the 18 on our land (any steeper and we would fall off the side of the mountain together with our herd of mountain goats), (no, we don't really have any mountain goats), (too steep for them...), but still, steep enough. Some of the trees, especially on the lower terraces, I had to reduce considerably in size, i.e. from something like 20 foot to more like 10 foot. The only sensible way of getting rid of all the leafy, twiggy part of the prunings is to burn them on a large bonfire. The larger parts can be cut into logs for firewood and than taken home.
The only safe place to light said bonfire is on the top terrace, whilst the car is parked another terrace above that. So yours truly runs up and down those terraces, each time returning with an armful of cuttings to carry them to her indoors, sorry her outdoors, who has the cushy job of keeping herself warm by the fire, making sure it wasn't setting the village alight. Occasionally I would have to clamber up even higher with the really heavy bits of timber.
And all that for TWO SOLID DAYS! The first 1 1/2 days of the procedure, we both were shedding layer after layer of clothing as the sun shone on us and we were keeping ourselves warm (as I say, me working and Susan by the fire...), but by Sunday afternoon, all of a sudden, winter arrived. No it hasn't snowed, but a chilly, stiff northern wind has been blowing down the valley ever since. So this gives you an idea how much we have already cut off those trees, and we've got another dozen trees to go. Mind you we won't have any shortage of firewood for a while. Every time we return from there, the car is full to the rafters.
Here's a wintry sunrise view from our bedroom window onto the Versilia coastline.

And here a wintry view of our village from above:

While we are on village views, here is a nice drawing of our village. We live in the large house just in front of the church tower.

Anyway, to fight off the big chill, we lit a big olive wood fire in our kitchen (we do have a fire place with chimney, so don't worry...) and finally got to do the annual Christmas biscuit baking fest. About 10 different varieties this year! It's nothing like an evening by the fire with the smell of freshly baked Christmas biscuits. It takes me back to my childhood (although we didn't have a fireplace, but an oil oven which stank the place out something chronic).

Friday, 4 December 2009

At the Frantoio

Yesterday was the big day as we delivered our first olives to the frantoio. We thought the minimum weight processed was 100 kg and we were desperately trying to make up that weight in the last few days before our appointment at the frantoio, the olive mill. We did want to get them to the mill though, as the first ones picked were starting to deteriorate quite rapidly. However, the weather wasn't on our side, plus the weather forecast got it wrong by 12 hours. Sunday from about midday it was supposed to rain and clear up by Monday late morning. So we took Sunday off, to re-double our efforts for Monday to Wednesday. As it happened, Sunday stayed largely dry, with the rains and storms arriving Sunday night and lasting until Tuesday noon. So 2 1/2 days were lost. Also the trees on the lower terraces are in such a bad state, that they barely bear any fruit anyway, giving us a lot of work pruning them back with very little return in the way of olives (plenty of fire wood mind).

Cut a long story short, we only gathered 83kg of olives and it turned out that the minimum weight for one run is 150kg anyway. There's no way we would've been able to make that. You then have a choice of either just have your piddling quantity pressed and pay for the minimum quantity, or you can buy some of their olives to make up the quantity. We opted for the first option, to see what the oil would taste like (also we couldn't afford to buy their olives just now...). Our friend Karen came along to the frantoio and documented it all on photo, so here we go:

Delivering the olives:

and some more

and more

I was quite meticulous picking out only the healthiest looking olives. Just before we left home I picked out a few kilos which looked decidedly manky. But having now seen some olives which other growers brought along, ours looked positively good.

Our olives going into the washing machine:

Then into the press in individual batches. Unfortunately this is not one of the traditional stone mills, which would have all looked much more picturesque, but these are becoming rarer these days.

After an hours or so of waiting and inhaling the heady fumes of fresh olive oil, and chatting to other olive farmers...

...finally the first stream of bright green oil!

...and the first taste off my finger... mmh, not bad. Rich and fruity with a distinctly spicy finish. Definitely more Tuscan in style then Ligurian (the olive grove in Popetto are just on the Tuscan side of the border, whilst we are in Liguria, which is more famous for lighter more delicate styles of oil).

A word of advice from the frantoista: "not bad, but next time bring your olives in within 48 hours of picking them." Some of you may remember that I said fresh olives are no good to eat. However, if you want to turn them to oil, you should use them as fresh as possible and the oil is immediately consumable. I'd have brought them in sooner, I explained to the miller, but I had to cut overgrown trees to size at the same time, got interupted by bad wether AND an arm operation. In future years we hope to have both better yields as well as making harvesting them easier.

Squeezing the last drops out..

And finally the end product: about 16 litres of oil!

It won't last us for the whole coming year and the quality may not be outstanding, but it's way better than any commercial supermarket oils and it's made from our own blood, sweat and tears! (Well tears maybe an exageration, but blood and sweat definitely flowed!)

Sunday, 29 November 2009

On olive pruning

Friday they took the stitches out of my arm and I'm now much more able to move it freely. I just have to be careful I don't get any dirt into the hole the size of tuppence. So yesterday they forecast one day of good weather before rains would arrive again. We woke up to a glorious sunrise, only to find that a few kilometres up the valley everything was in thick fog. It cleared eventually though and we got a good days work in.

A word on olive pruning. There are many opinions floating around about how to prune olive trees. Many people seem to think there is some mystical ability involved, which can only be taught over several generations. No one who hasn't been up the ladder in an olive tree from the age of 2 will ever pick it up.

The natives here have two principal pruning methods as far as I can ascertain: the "traditional" and the "modern". For the old farmers an olive grove was a status symbol and the bigger the trees the more proud they were. A bit like having a Mercedes Benz in the drive or maybe more the latest model of New Holland tractor. They reasoned, the bigger the tree the more olives.

Nowadays though, commercial olive producers, i.e. those who produce more than just their family's annual consumption of oil, have realised that this is not the case. Both schools agree that you need to train the tree in such a way that air can circulate around the centre of the head. The inside of the tree does not produce olives, and too dense foliage in that area encourages diseases and fungus attacks.

But not only that, if you look closely at a producing tree, the vast majority of fruit hangs on downward pointing branches. So in other words, letting the tree grow tall will result in very little extra fruit, but plenty more shading on the olives growing lower down, delaying their ripening. If you then add the fact that pruning and harvesting is much more labour intensive in tall trees, not to mention more dangerous, it shows you traditional is not always best.

So the moral is, whenever some olive producer, or wine producer for that matter, tells you their product is made the age-old traditional way, like their fathers and ancestors before them, take it with a large pinch of salt. It often can be an excuse for dirty and/or sloppy methods, or they are plain lying to you.

Unfortunately the previous owner of the olive grove, which we have taken on, was of the traditional persuasion. The trees are massive and yields are low. We have now made an appointment with the frantoio for Thursday, by which time we need to have picked a hundred kilos. We are up to 60, so still some way to go. As far as trees done is concerned we are now at the halfway point: 20 out of 40, but the further away we get from the house at the top the worst the trees seem to be. I'm not holding my breath about the quality about the final oil either, as some have been sitting in our kitchen for longer than they should have been, but it'll surely be better than your average supermarket oil.

The photos are coutesy of our friend Karen http://www.italyhomesandgardens.com/index.html, who got us this job. At this point I should maybe give the owners of the property a plug too, as they let out the house to holiday makers: http://www.popetto.dk/. The site is in Danish, but it gives you some nice pics of the place and prices if you want to rent it in Danish Kroner (don't know how much these are worth either).

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Happy Blogday!

Today I should really be amongst the olives again, especcially since we had a wasted day yesterday. I was back in hospital yesterday, waiting around for 2 hours, just to have my bandage changed. They did remove that bit of dressing from inside the hole too, just to replace it with a fresh one. The hole looks far too big for the small bit of wood they have removed. I reckon they coudn't find it imediately and rummaged around for a while first. Anyway, by the time I was out of hospital the day was half gone and not worth starting on the olives. And today the weather has turned. there is a nasty wet wind blowing from the Southwest, so no weather to be clambering up trees and light fires.

So, since I'm now uselessly sitting at home I may as well celebrate the fact that today, exactly 2 years ago, I started this blog. Happy Blogday! This gives me an excuse to do a bit of a review of the story of this blog as well as our story in Italy.

When I started this blog I did so for 3 main purposes:
  • As a personal diary and memo to self. I'm not the most disciplined person in the world. I've tried keeping hand written diaries, but I loose them or forget about them. With this on-line version, I can now easily look up again when I planted my broad beans last year and whether they were a success. I can check out what the weather was like this time last year, etc. Also, whenever I'm not writing anything for a few days, I ask myself why. If I've been too busy, that's good, but if I haven't done much to report about, shouldn't I get up and do something? There's always something to do on a smallholding. Having no boss you have to kick yourself up the backside occasionally.
  • To keep in touch with friends and family. Having moved to a foreign country we wanted to keep our friends and family updated on what we were doing and this format saved us repeating the same thing in numerous e-mails, letters and phone calls. Of course I don't write the most intimate details in here, because you never know who is reading this.
  • And last but not least this blog was set up as an information exchange with like-minded people, who can maybe share their experiences of say growing and processing persimmons, gardening in accordance with the moon phases, bee-keeping etc. I'm pleased to say that the latter has recently also started happening.

Having previously barely looked at any blogs until very recently, I am amazed at how many hits my blog gets and from how many different places! Since I installed that little world map on my side bar at the end of March 2008 this site has had 7,590 hits from 102 countries! Here is the top 10 country list:

USA 25.14%
UK 25.11%
Italy 13.72%
Germany 8.32%
Canada 2.72%
India 2.48%
France 1.98%
Australia 1.86%
Ireland 1.32%
Netherlands 1.28%

The Usa has just overtaken the UK on the number 1 spot. My home country has only made it number 10, and who are all those Indians visiting my site?

The highest risers from year one to year two were:

Slovakia 1300%
Russia 925%
Brazil 900%
Vietnam 500%
Norway 500%

I'd love to know who you people are in Slovakia, Russia and Vietnam!

Anyway, enough of statistics. Since my camera has definitely taken it's last photo, I'm going to have to use some archive photos, which is just as well as I thought on this occasion, I'll give you a brief review of how we ended up in Italy as semi-farmers without going into too much detail.

In 2004, after having lived 15 years on the outskirts of London, the time seemed right to realize a long-held dream. Rather than working anything up to a 60-hour week in the wine trade, plus some 3 hour plus daily commute to work, and still barely surviving on my wages, it was time to go. We had been paying a mortgage for our house for some 9 years, and in that time the value of the property had trippled. So we could sell up, pay off all our debts and set up somewhere else.

Why Italy and why Liguria in particular is another story for another day. Suffice to say, as soon as the sale of our house was confirmed, we bought ourselves an old camper van. We called it the truck:

We were lucky enough to be able to store most our posessions with my parents in Germany and set off with the truck to Italy in June 2004 in search for a permanent place to live. So as you can see there was a certain amount of urgency to find something, preferably before the onset of winter. We soon stumbled across a small dwelling, which wasn't quite ideal in that it didn't have any land attached to it, but it was well within our budget. So by October we signed the papers and moved into a part of this 300 year old palazzo, formerly the kitchen quarters of the residence of the Marquis of Remedi:

The first few months were miserable. For complicated bureaucratic reasons we were not allowed to start renovations for the first 3 months. We were sitting in a very draughty kitchen, without electricity, no cooking facilities except for an open fire place, running cold and colder water, and all that during the coldest winter in the region for 30 years.

But in the new year things started picking up. We had the place renovated, electricity installed and furnished. Our search for a suitable plot of land finally bore fruit by May 2005. Our budget didn't stretch for a well tended piece of land near our village anymore, instead we bought a badly overgrown plot on the other side of the valley. It was covered in bamboo and brambles.

It took us the best part of 2 years to finally beat back the bush and cultivate all 18 terraces. Under all the shrubbery we found close to 100 useful trees, most of them we managed to nurse back to health and productivity. Amongst the trees we dug over the land, enriched it a bit and planted beds for our veg. Things can still improve, but we are getting there. I still have many plans, but now money is lacking and we have to be content to make small steps at a time. But content we are (the song on the note sheet is called felicitá - happyness):

After an initial business attempt, which failed, partially due to the financial crisis, we are now finding various means to earn some money, without which the world does unfortunately not turn, but in the words of Edith Piaff:"Je ne regrette rien".

Talking about money and financial crisis, I just saw British commedian Al Murray comment on that one. The Financial Crisis began by the banks loosing our money. Then the government gave them back some money from our tax money. In order to be able to do so they had to borrow money from us. Now in turn they are raising the taxes, so they can replace this money from our money. In other words, we are paying with our money to replace our money to replace our money to replace our money! That's what I call higher economics!

Sunday, 22 November 2009

No stopping work with just one hole in me arm...

First of a big thank you to everyone for your good wishes for my birthday and my operation. Sorry I haven't posted earlier, but I've been keen to be getting on with the olives, which is turning into a bigger job than anticipated and having a hole in me arm hasn't exactly helped. Here's Susan burning some of the olive cuttings.
Right, but one thing after another.

Tuesday morning I turned up at the hospital at 7am as requested, to then be left sitting in the waiting room for 4 hours before the threw some other poor sod out of a bed, so I could use it. After another 3 hours spent mostly waiting they finally wheeled me into the operating theatre. The actual operation took some 10-15 minutes. They wouldn't let me watch, but they did show me the piece of bamboo they extracted from my arm. It turned out to be the size of a small toothpick, but I didn't get to keep it. After waiting some more hours for the amnesty... the thing, you know the numbness, to wear off they finally sent me home at 6pm. I was knackered!

It wasn't until late the next day, when I changed the dressing (no not the salad dressing, you know the bandage and all...), that I realised what a huge hole they had cut into my arm. To top it all they stuffed half a yard worth of banadage right into that hole (sorry I hope I'm not being too graphic here). I believe they'll be pulling that out again on Wednesday, I'm not looking forward to that. I've tried pulling it out myself, but it hurts like hell!

The day after the operation I thought I better take it easy, so rather than hanging one-handedly off an olive tree we went on a wild food foraging walk. The weather has been so mild recently, and with those intermittent sprinklings of rain, the vegetation round here seems to think it's spring. So we went off picking a load of herbs that are normally more associated with spring. Below you can see 3 edibles in one picture: salad burnett on the left, oregano on the right and yes, the leaves of a wild strawberry in the middle, alas not bearing any fruit at the moment.

Here some fresh wild mint:

Lemon balm:

Wild chicory. When in flower like this, the leaves are usually too bitter to use, but we did find some young leaves, which we could use.

Wild fennel and young dandelion:

We used all this to add to a potato salad and it was delicious.

On Thursday we started big time on the olives again, but I think I'm paying for it now. My arm has been getting really sore again, so I'm giving it a bit of a rest today. I'm finding that I am becoming quite ampidextorous (is that how you spell it?), which is dead useful at times. If you are clambering amongst olive branches some 12 feet above the ground (I'm rediscovering my lost childhood here!), some branches are only conveniently reachable with the one or the other hand (given that you need to hang on with the other one so you don't fall off). So I've been managing to saw with my left arm quite well. The only thing I have to be slightly careful about is that if you cut branches above your head they are likely to fall on the latter.

Finally on Friday we had a bit of a belated birthday celebration. We went to our favourite local pub, the Pegaso http://www.pegasolive.it/. They have live music every Friday night, and last Friday it was Belfast singer / songwriter and troubador Andy White (http://www.andywhite.com/). We've seen him a few times there. Although he lives in Australia these days he tours Europe and the US regularly and he uses Arcola as base when he is on the Italian leg of his tour. With Susan being from Belfast, we usually have an animated chat with him. This photo is curtesy of Pegaso Pub (my camera has now finally given up its ghost):

Andy was playing a load of stuff from his new album songwriter. Some really nice melodic pieces, more folky than previous material with bits of Bluegrass in it. Listen to a sound sample on http://www.andywhite.com/video.html?v=JIV-EKIC8R0#.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Tomorrow's the day...

Just a quick update, something I've failed to mention in my last couple of posts. Tomorrow is not only my birthday (thank you, thank you...), but also I've had the phone call from the hospital. I have to be there at the crack of dawn tomorrow to finally go under the knife and have the sodding piece of bamboo removed from my arm. I can't wait to have full use of that arm again and finally get on with the rest of my life, but what a birthday present, eh?

So it won't be Champagne at mignight tonight, but fasting and abstinence for a day. Hopefully I'll be ok by evening to have at least a wee celebratory dinner with Susan (her cooking of course, what with my busted arm). So it will be a double celebration! On Friday we'll go to our favourite pub to see Belfast man Andy White play live. That'll be my birthday treat then.

So see you all in a few days time.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

More olive picking & of why things aren't made the way they used to be

After another day indoors yesterday due to the weather we were getting itchy feet to get on with the olives. Saturday, rain was forecast, and as we looked out of the window, it did look decidedly damp, so having to make a decision to drive 20 km and then stand in the rain, we opted not to go. However the rain never developed into anything more than a steady drizzle. So today we decided, hey there's people out there dealing with snow, what's a bit of drizzle, let's go.

This time we did get a couple of photos in, both taken by me from the top of a tree:

By lunch time the steady drizzle had worn us down though, our feet were soaking and we called it a day, after having pruned another tree threes, tree trees, tr..., anyway. One of dem three... trees, was a majestic ancient gnarly one. Standing near the trunk you could barely see daylight (and not feel the rain either for that matter...). I'd have taken a photo, but more of that later. We picked another 9 odd kilos of olives and got a good load of wood to shlepp home.

For those of you not familar with olives, because you happen to come from cooler climatic conditions, here a few facts about them:
  • There is no such thing as green and black olives in the way that there are black and green grapes. It's a matter of maturity. Green olives are simply harvested sooner.
  • There are however as many olive varieties as there are grape varieties. On this little olive grove alone, we have so far identified at least 3 different varieties, unfortunately I can not identify them by name:
  1. This one I like to call Plum olive, as they are quite large and more plum coloured than black, indeed we have a plum tree producing very similar looking plums

These are more classic for the region. They are quite small and very black when ripe:

These ones came of the giant tree. It produced so much shade over itself, that the olives haven't ripened as far as in other parts of the olive grove, hence many are still green. They are a little larger and more oval-shaped.

  • Fact number 3 about olives: As tempting as the ones in my hand may look, they are not edible like this. They have to be cured. The most common method is to put them in a brine solution for a period of time. Our olives from last year seem to be getting better and better, the longer we leave them.
  • Fact number 4 about olives, the wood is the hardest wood I've come across. Without a chainsaw, the job we are doing now would take much, much longer. On the plus side it burns brilliantly, giving off plenty of heat for a long time. You can even burn it while still quite green, as it contains some oil too. It also weighs some! I have trouble carrying one bucket full up to our house (at least 3 cases of wine worth!).

So much about your olive lesson for today. The other thing that's been bothering me today is: why don't they make things like they used to anymore? I own a 25 year old camera. Admittedly it wasn't cheap initially, I won't go into manufacturer details and so on. Suffice to say it was pretty much the last of a generation of cameras, where at least you still had the choice of doing everything manually, i.e. manual focus, manual apperture etc. Battery consumption was minimal and it took, no it still takes, great photos. I had that camera with me in the Tropics of Indonesia, in an Indian Monsoon, took pictures in the middle of a sandstorm in the Wadi Rum Dessert in Jordan and carried it with me during an arctic winter 500 km north of the Arctic Circle. It was my constant companion hitchhiking through Europe, got dropped several times from great heights stepping out of lorries, got used as a pillow sleeping rough under the Autoput motorway in ex-Yugoslavia and it still works. Never had a problem.

Only trouble of course was the weight with all that extra equipment and that it works with old fashioned film. Not only can I not afford to buy and develop films any more, it's also not very environmentally friendly. Millions of gallons of toxic waste used to be produced by the photographic industry, which with the onset of digital photography must have drastically reduced. So about 3 years ago I bought myself a digital camera, again brand names shall remain unmentioned. It was a little compact one, handy to carry around, and the official specs could compete with my old camera.

After a few weeks, whenever I turned off the camera, the automatic shutter wouldn't shut and open properly any more. Next the zoom lens wouldn't zoom any more. Bits of the frame would start coming undone. Buttons wouldn't work when pressed. Now it's gone completely temperamental and only works, it seems, when it feels like. After taking the pics off the tree today, the lens would only half retreat and not come out again. I was ready to throw it away after some 10 minutes fiddling. Getting home I gave it one last chance, and it managed to take the photos of the olives in my hand again. But I'm just not sure how much longer this is going to work. This may soon becaome a pictureless blog. 3 1/2 years is all it took, and the bloody thing wasn't cheap either!

Friday, 13 November 2009

of olive picking and other autumn jobs

Autumn is definitely here. Above is a photo of a threatening sky above our village. With the sweeping views and our vicinity to the sea, the sky constantly changes. It's much more interesting than the constant blue of summer.

I also love all the mushrooms out at this time of year, even if I don't recognise many of them. This was a particularly nice group below, I have no idea what they are:

This on the other hand I have identified as a Russet Tough Shank with reasonable certainty. According to most sources I've consulted it is edible, but not really worth eating. Shame because we found quite a quantity of them:

We have recently been entrusted to look after an olive grove of a Danish family, who have a holiday home some 20 km away from us in the village of Popetto. It consists of some 30 mature trees. In return for us looking after it we get to keep the olives, any fire wood and we get a small inumeration to cover costs of petrol, any pressing of the olives as well as giving us a bit of extra cash to help us through the winter.

The trees had been neglected for some years, and on first inspection back in early September, it didn't look like we'd get a great yield off the trees this year. So on Tuesday we had decided to take our bikes out there just for an inspection. It seemed easiest to combine pruning with the harvesting of any olives. As you lop off any of the higher branches, you just strip them of olives on the ground, rather than doing this while balancing on the top of a ladder. The olives had turned a beautiful, shiny black and were evidently ready. Now being black rather than green, they stood out much better against the overgrown trees and there were more than we had initially thought. So we decided to get going the next dry day, which was yesterday.

Here by the way a couple of pictures from our cycle up to Popetto at 400 m a.s.l. If you cut out the two photos and stick the top one to the left and the bottom one to the right, you'll have a complete panorama:

As you can see there's snow in the higher mountains of the Apuan Alps and also on the Appenines, I estimate to as low as 800 metres altitude .
Anyway, so Thursday we got started on the olives. We were far to busy getting some progress done and afterwards far to knackered to make any photographic record of this, but we're not finished yet, so pics of olive picking will follow soon no doubt. Well after some 7 solid hours we managed to prune 4 trees to shape and pick all the olives off them.
"How many did you get so far?" I hear you ask? Well, there are different weight measurement units all over the world. The Brits talk of stone, most Continental Europeans talk kilos, Americans pounds and the Italians measure olives in quintale. I have my own in-built measuring unit. Having worked many years in the wine trade I know exactly and instinctively the weight of a case of wine (on average 15 kilos), so everything gets measured around that. One case of wine is quite an easy weight. Remembering that we live on top of a small village, which is only accessible by several flights of stairs, if your shopping or picked produce weighs one case of wine, I have no problem getting it up.
Two cases of wine on the other hand get quite heavy, but if it saves you going twice, you'll carry it up too. Three cases of wine is getting quite tough and you really don't want to be carrying it any distance at all. Four cases of wine is a sure recipe for a hernia. Well on that basis, I lifted up our olives and said to Susan, that's about 1 case of wine worth of olives. Today, as we're having a rain break from olive picking (absolutely miserable today, compared to yesterday's warm sunshine), I cleaned any leaves and other debris from the olives and weighed them, and I was exactly right! Now we only need to pick another 5 1/2 cases worth of olives and we've got enough to take it to the frantoio, the olive mill, to have it pressed for our very own individual batch. Of course we'll leave a bottle or 2 of oil for the owners of the olive grove on their doorstep.

What else has been happening since my last post? Well we planted some red onions and garlic, which is the thing to plant now during the waning moon phase according to conventional wisdom around here. And, oh yes I almost forgot, Mrs Ayak has given me another award, the Dragon's Loyalty Award. As I understand it's been given to me for loyally following her blog and commenting on it. Well on that basis here are my nominees for this award in no particular order. I won't notify you specifically, since if you're not reading this anyway, you are obviously not reading my blog! It is also given to some people who may not actually want it, but if you do, simply copy and stick it on your blog:

For future reference, I do appreciate being given awards, but I think my trophy cupboard is full now and I rather not clatter my sidebar up with numerous awards. Thank you anyway Mrs Ayak

As a final note for today here part 6 (or part 7? Sorry lost count) of our cut out and collect series of amusingly shaped vegetables: the knickerbocker carrot:

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

of getting side-tracked

It's easy to get side-tracked in any walk of life. There's been a couple of things recently which illustrate this nicely. First of all I have recently received this award, which I was meant to pass on to a deserving recipient. Well, ok I almost forgot about it..., but after much deliberation I have now come up with two deserving blogs to pass this award on to. Both of them go to America, which just goes to show that not everyone in that strange country is humourless and thoughtless. Gives you hope really... Sorry, I didn't mean to alienate all my American readers, but I've had some bad experiences. I know you sensible Americans also exist! Here it goes anyway:

  1. http://subsistencepatternfoodgarden.blogspot.com/. In this blog Mike describes his adventures of living self-sufficiently in northern Idaho. He's clearly keeping his sense of humour despite battling the elements in this northern climate. He even manages to convince his wife to raid the flower bed for edibles, so well done that man!

  2. http://siciliansistersgrow.blogspot.com/. This one I only very recently started following. It is about 2 sisters (according to the blog name of Italian decent?) growing and gathering most of their food needs in California. Again a great read and good tips for the small holder anywhere. They even keep exact count on what they grow over the year, that's what I call efficient!

Do have a look at their blogs, if you are at all interested in alternative living.

The other illustration on getting side-tracked (apart from forgetting to pass on awards) is when you get down to do relatively simple job. Being still hampered by that stupid piece of bamboo in my arm, we have recently got rather behind on a lot of the heavy duty jobs, such as chopping wood, digging over beds, strimming down the bush etc. On Sunday our next door neighbour Marco turned up with an apricot tree he had just dug up from his garden, did Iwant it? Well, yes, even if I think he dug it up a bit early in the winter.

Sunday we didn't have time to plant it. Monday the weather was appalling and we were stuck indoors trying to keep the rain out of our leaking window. Tuesday was glorious again, however we couldn't stick it into the car and take it to the land immediately, because it was far to big and needed to be cut down first. All our gardening tools however, including any secateurs and loppers, are sensibly stored on our land (for those new to my blog, we live 10 km away from our food source). So we decided to go over to the land, digging a hole for the tree as well as doing a couple other jobs, then bring back some loppers to cut the apricot to size.

So on Tuesday Susan started turning the compost, our annual job for the waning moon phase in November, whilst I started digging the hole. Now how long can that take? I found a nice spot, i.e. next to where last winter we felled a majestic but ill cherry tree. A ring of the hollowed out trunk still remained, so I thought I'll just split that quickly into a few logs for fire wood. The first couple of logs split easily, but on the next one my axhead got irretrievably buried. So I got another axhead to get out the first one. That also ate itself into the wood and wouldn't budge.

Not having done a lot less physical work recently due to my injury I also found that my strength wasn't what it used to be and I developed blisters on my hand. Finally after much huffing and puffing, with the help of Susan, an iron bar as leverage, a pick ax and a spade we managed to free the ax heads and chop the wood into bite-size bits.

It was getting time for some lunch and I still hadn't dug my hole! After lunch I passed my recently sown bed which was to contain fennel and celery. I noted with satifaction that the fennel was doing exceptionally well, but needed a bit of weeding, whilst I couldn't see any sign of the celery. I sowed the celery late this year, because last year, when I did sow it in spring, I had loads of celery in the summer. I like celery in soups and stews in the winter though, and by then there was nothing left! So I thought I'll try for a winter crop.

This is what the fennel looks like now (after weeding):

As I looked closer at the row where I sowed the celery, I found there were some tiny seedlings, but that all the weeds around it had contrived to look just like celery. So after going through it with a fine tooth comb (no hoeing here possible!) I did find quite a few seedlings. They were sown at the same time as the fennel, but are a fraction of the size. At this rate, they'll be ready in the summer again...

This all took quite a while again and Susan had gone on to dig over a large bed, which was home to cucumbers, melons, courgettes and tomatoes this year, where we are planning to plant onions next. Finally before it got dark, I managed to get this hole dug (I'd have done it in the dark!) and filled with compost in readiness for the apricot tree, but taking some 5 hours to dig a hole is what you call getting side-tracked.

So today we went back in sometimes lighter, sometimes heavier drizzle and planted this tree. Here it is. I hope it will survive. It still had all it's leaves before it got dug up, but at least it got watered in nicely.

Finally, number 5 in our ever popular series of strangely shaped vegetable: The alien potato:

"ET phone home..."