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

To book an informative and fun wine tasting whilst holidaying in Italy or arrange for a wild food walk in your area contact me on tuscanytipple at libero dot it or check out my Facebook page

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Friday, 27 March 2009

Boy, I'm getting old!

Today the Scirocco wind is blowing cloud and rain into our direction again, so I have a bit of time for a longer entry. After Tuesday’s digging got interrupted by a shower, we cycled over to Arcola again on Wednesday, this time to glorious sunshine all day. I dug over a whole terrace, which had mostly leeks on it until last week.

Thursday I couldn’t face another day of cycling over and digging (most of it is now done anyway, except a couple of lower terraces) so Susan suggested: “why don’t we go on a ‘gentle’ cycle ride somewhere today?”. The sun was out and there was only a gentle westerly breeze. So I thought why not, I need to write up some more walks and need to start going a bit further afield for them. I had recently read about a small wetland nature reserve along the coast from here (we can see it from our bedroom window) and what could be nicer than a gentle ride along the seafront on a sunny day. Boy I’m starting to get old though! It’s either that, or due to our poverty my calorific input is not great enough to compensate for the output. I must get it into my head that just because I can see something out of my window it does not mean that it is necessarily close; I can see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Island of Elba, for Pete’s sake! So it turned out a 75odd km return ride. In my youth that was just a warm-up for me, but now I almost didn’t make it up our hill on the way back and I’m still feeling drained today. Susan on the other hand is showing some astonishing stamina, especially considering she was never much of a cyclist before and she’s older than me!

The walk through the Lago di Porta Nature Reserve was very pleasant though. It’s a 4 km round walk with informative signs around what was once a lake, but was drained in the mid-16th Century, because of Malaria being prevalent in those days. It is now a wetland area offering a home to numerous species of birds and amphibians. We spotted a marsh hawk, various ducks and a few frogs as well as some carp and tench in the water. It’s a beautiful little oasis wedged in between the busy Via Aurelia and the A12 Genoa – Livorno motorway near the town of Montignoso, which is dominated by a castle on top of a conic hill.

Incidentally, I learned something new yesterday. I always knew that the coastline of Northern Tuscany is known as the Versilia, what I didn’t know was that it is named after this little river above, which runs into the Med near Forte dei Marmi.

To do something about increasing our calorie intake I’ve decided to bake a cake today. However I was lacking some of the main ingredients you normally associate with cake, i.e. butter and eggs, and our current finances only adding up to about 17 cents, so I had to improvise a bit. Here’s how I did it:

Let’s-see-what-we-can-find-in-the-kitchen cake

150g sugar
1 vanilla pod
50ml hazelnut oil
50ml olive oil
50g chopped almonds
100g polenta
300g wholemeal flour
1 packet baking powder
A little water
100g plum & apple jam (or any other jam you fancy)
A few sliced almonds
1. Preheat oven to 175°C.
2. In a bowl beat the sugar together with the insides of the vanilla pod and the oils. Add the chopped almonds and mix well, next the polenta and finally the flour and baking powder. Work to a fine crumb, then add a little water and knead to a soft, pliable dough.
3. With a rolling pin roll ¾ of the dough directly onto a baking tin covered with baking paper. Spread the jam evenly over the top.
4. Roll out the last quarter of the dough thinly onto a floured work surface. Cut into 2 cm wide strips and lay on top of the jam to form a grid.
5. Sprinkle with the sliced almonds and bake for about ½ hour.
By the way, don’t throw the empty vanilla pod away. Place it in a small jar and fill up with sugar to make your own vanilla flavoured sugar for next time your baking.

Here’s another recipe I invented a couple of days ago, which was nice:

Chicken Breast on a Bed of Wild Herbs with Roast Potato and Fennel
Ingredients for 2:
Olive oil
1 skinless chicken breast
A selection of wild herbs, i.e. lemon balm, marjoram, wild onion (alternatively cultivated varieties of the first 2 and chives for wild onions)
1 large fennel bulb with the herbage still attached
5 medium potatoes, cubed
A handful of black olives
Salt & pepper
Semi-fermented gorse wine (alternatively Asti Spumante)
Pre-heat oven to 175°C and grease an oven-proof dish with some of the oil.
In the centre of the dish pile up the lemon balm, the marjoram and part of the fennel herb all left whole. Lay the chicken breast on top.
Around the chicken arrange the potatoes, the sliced fennel bulb and the olives. Season all liberally with salt and pepper.
Drizzle some more oil over it and a glass of the still sweet wine. Sprinkle the chopped wild onion over the chicken.
Put in the oven for about 40 minutes until potatoes are soft inside and the chicken cooked through.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Of spring and other updates

The weather has still held so far. The middle of last week a cold North-easterly had sprung up, bringing a drop in temperatures (especially at night), but none of the horrendous rainfalls and storms we’ve had in previous years at this time. Sunday turned particularly nice again, even warm, so we took our bicycles over the scenic mountain route to Terrarossa, just the other side of Aulla, where there was an olive oil fair. Tasted plenty excellent oil, some interesting wines and some delicious cheeses, plus a selection of traditional breads from different Lunigiana villages. Apparently there is a bread road you can follow through the area.

Thus fortified we cycled on to Villa to see how things were there. It never ceases to amaze me how a few kilometres inland makes such a difference to the climate. Whereas we already start fighting the weeds and cut tall grass in Arcola, growth hasn’t really begun yet in Villa. It’s at about the same altitude, but does not get the warming effect of the sea. And the plot in Villa is also in quite a narrow valley, so does not see as much sun.

During last week we also sowed out the other things which wanted to se sown out during the waning moon phase, leeks and cabbages, dug over some more beds in readiness for the big sowing time commencing next week and have started watering the new seedbeds every other day or so. The forecast yesterday had promised us a continuation of the sunshine, so despite seeing some unexpected clouds out of our window this morning, we set off on our bikes to Arcola. Of course, as soon as we got going on some digging (me) and weeding of the strawberry and lettuce beds (Susan), the sky turned threateningly black, and in no time we found our selves in the path of 2 thunderstorms passing us left and right. Luckily it was only a shower and we could resume work afterwards, but it was the first rain in about a month!

Lots of things are now flowering beautifully and buzzing with bees, apricots, plums and as you can see on the top of the page, rosemary.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Here's to you Paddy

Well happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone, for a start. We were going to go to our favourite bar, Pegaso at Arcola, which has a do on tonight, but unfortunately we are to broke for that. We’ll just nip over to our neighbours with a couple of beers to have at least a wee celebration. Spring has definitely arrived in force now. The weather has been fine since the last post, glorious sunshine and daytime temperatures in the upper teens and even lower twenties. These primroses above I spotted on a walk I went on near Brugnato yesterday, while Susan was giving her class. They were in a little wood, which was literally covered with them. Incidentally, to anyone reading my post on the wild salad, I don’t recommend the use of primrose leaves at any rate, unless you have a fetish for drinking your bathwater. It tastes of soap!

The moon is now waning and as a general rule of thumb as far as I understand, things that grow downwards should be sown during this period. So today we were out in Arcola and sowed out potatoes at one of the top terraces and carrots on one of the beds, which has already onions growing in it. Carrots and onions are said to make excellent companion plants as the smell of one repels the pests of the other. I have so far not had much success with carrots. This is partially due to our heavy soils and on the other hand due to the fact that evolution seems to be extra quick around here. As soon as you grow something like carrots, all surrounding weeds take on the same shape, so you don’t know which is weed and which is not. So you either pull out things you meant to keep or leave things in you didn’t. Either way you can’t win! We had, just before the full moon sowed out one more bed of peas as well; hope not too late.

From previous years experience we tend to get one more cold spell at the end of March. Hope we’ll escape it this time. As my dad would say: “Wouldn’t mind if the weather stayed like that until… Christmas… and then slowly got better.” Well a bit of rain would be useful, as long as it falls at night and not too heavy.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Harbingers of spring

Just a quick update as I haven’t posted in a while. The weather until the end of February stayed fine, with some warm sunshine. Above you can see the cats basking in the sunshine. On the 1st March the rain returned and it did not stop until yesterday. Today the sun returned and the first harbingers of spring have arrived. Below you see the almond trees which we planted last winter are starting to flower for the first time.

The early plum tree is also just bursting into bloom. We planted a bed of peas today and did a bit more digging. The lettuces in the poly tunnel have started growing, the broad beans are in flower and everywhere are signs of life. With all that water, we’re going to have to start fighting the weeds soon. The forecast is for sunshine and warm temperatures for the next few days. Hope this is going to be more or less the end of the winter; it seemed long, damp and grey.