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

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Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Our Terraces part III

Sunday, as you may have gathered from my 2 last posts was pretty much a write-off, raining all day. Monday morning the rain held off long enough to plant out the last of the tomatoes (we’ve got 41 plants in total, not counting the ones that seem to have sown themselves out on our compost, which is now spread amongst the courgettes), weed amongst the peas and nipping some bamboo shoots in the bud (or should that be butt?).

Today rain was threatening all day, but never materialised at all. So we got a good days work in, in ideal condition: not too warm, not too cold, nice damp soil for sowing and transplanting; didn’t even need to water things in. Susan started off with sowing cayenne chillies into the poly-tunnel, which previously held the volleyball-size radishes (we thought we’d eat them before they reach basketball-size…). She went on to sow more radishes and a mixture of lettuces next to one of the pea beds. I, in the meantime, sowed out dwarf runner beans (can’t be bothered with building great support systems), together with some savoury. Those two don’t only go together on the plate, they also make excellent companion plants, so much so that the Germans call it Bohnenkraut, bean… well you all know what a ‘kraut’ is.

After that I got on with transplanting some peppers out and some gherkins. I am absolutely addicted to pickled gherkins and I don’t know why I have never tried growing any (they don’t come pickled on the plant obviously, you have to do that bit yourself). Susan meanwhile got on with some vigorous digging on the terrace below (terrace 16, for those who follow the series; bet you can’t wait for that episode). Oh and of course I sowed out some basil on the rows between the tomatoes. Another good companion plant combination as well as working well together in culinary terms. Funny the way that happens, if it tastes good together it will be mutually beneficial if grown close together.

Oh and I almost forgot, I also secured the end of the potato terrace, which had experienced a bit of a landslide after some of the torrential winter rains we’ve been having. I now have an exceptionally deeply dug level bed between the last olive tree and a fledgling fig tree. I intended to sow some artichokes out on there. I only just read though, that the seeds should be soaked in water for a couple of days before planting, so it’ll be done day after tomorrow now.

And now for part III of the series ‘OUR TERRACES’!

Terrace 5 is what you could call our living room. At the very near end is a mature apple tree. On the slope on the right we planted a little herb garden with rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, marjoram and chives. The table is made from a solid marble slab, which we found pretty much where it is now. The barbecue has seen action this year already, when (for complex reasons I don’t want to go into at the moment) our freezer was temporarily out of service, and we had to use up all the meat stored therein quickly.

The structure, well disguised under a giant, man-eating ivy, is what currently goes as our shed. It does not cease to amaze me that it’s still standing and holding off some rain. However, it is doomed for destruction. We are busy scouring all rubbish tips for scrap material for a new and larger one. We’ve designated the area behind the current shed, so we can start building before tearing the old one down and then not knowing where to store all the tools in the meantime. It’s new location will be between a plum and a pear tree.
Terrace 6 is where our water barrel lives (which, if it isn’t raining, gets filled up from the tap on the terrace above, I failed to mention). It is also home to a very large and rather useless olive tree. It is so tall, that you would need a 30 foot ladder to pick its olives. I haven’t dared chop it down yet either and turn it to firewood, because olive wood is bl***y heavy, and a ton of olive tree falling you’re not sure in which direction is no joking matter. In the back there is a sickly peach tree and a sickly pear tree and a bed with currently, hmm can’t quite remember, weeds? No some lettuces I think and some Swiss chard, plus some cabbages, which aren’t showing anything yet.


Sunday, 26 April 2009

Our Terraces part II

Well here comes the second part already. While I was writing part I this morning, Susan went out for a walk. Rain was forecast and it was overcast, but Susan went out bravely nevertheless. So, as the other spring delight has also come into season, elderflowers, to make refreshing, spritzy elderflower wine (for recipe see entry from 5 or 6 May 2008), I sent her off to pick some more. We already had 2 batches on the go.

Soon after setting off it started drizzling a bit. Undeterred she tracked down some elder bushes and picked sufficient fragrant flower heads for a gallon batch. Shortly after she found herself in the middle of a mountain bike race, so she decided to try a different path to avoid those maniacs. The drizzle became a heavier drizzle and as Susan is wont to do, she got lost. The heavier drizzle developed into a proper downpour, which incidentally is still ongoing. She came home 4 hours later looking like a wet poodle.

Well further to the terraces series, here comes terrace 3:

It sports an olive tree at the near end and a newly planted cherry tree in the middle. At the far end there are 3 ancient rose bushes. This year we’ve sown out sweet corn an a few sunflowers on it.

Terrace 4 features a kaki tree on the near end and a couple of olives the far end. In between we’ve sown peas, onions, carrots and leeks (the latter show no sign of growing yet, maybe the seeds are to old). Don’t miss episode 3 of this series, where I will reveal terraces 5 and 6 to you!

Our Terraces Part I

Well, we’ve been busy, busy, busy. The weather has been doing what you expect of it in April, i.e. the unexpected: showers followed by warm sunshine, then a touch of hail. Nothing overly dramatic though and all in all the sunshine has dominated. So we’ve got all our terraces strimmed nicely and a few more beds dug over in readiness for the runner bean planting next week and to make room for the peppers and aubergines to be planted out. The tomatoes are already out. We are also eating our daily ration of lovely fresh broad beans, as well as lettuces and radishes, which now have reached the size of tennis balls!.

The broad beans are just so nice and they represent the quintessential taste of spring for me. I wonder if some village or other in Italy has thought of doing a ‘sagra della fava’, a broad bean feast, they have a sagra around any other foodstuff. Must find out, and if not, I shall plant 2 terraces with broad beans next year and invite the whole village to my own sagra della fava, probably around the first of May. Anyone else up for that? Or anyone knows a good recipe for broad beans, please leave it on my comments.

Today, it’s raining a bit more persistently today, I’m starting a new 9-part series. Yesterday, on ‘Liberation Day’ (Italians are currently discussing whether to call it Liberty Day or Liberation Day), I took a series of photos, of each of our 18 terraces. I thought I’ll publish them here, so you all have a bit more of an idea of what we’re working on. As my internet connection is excruciatingly slow, downloading all 18 photos onto one blog-entry would take days, and similarly other people with the same problem would need ages, before they would actually see anything. So I’ll bring them out in bite-size chunks, starting from the top, working our way down. All photos were taken on the 25th April at about 10am. Obviously this a snap shot, things were different a week before or a month hence, but it gives you a flavour.

Here is the top terrace:

As you can see, it’s next to the access road and is very narrow. It’s not really much use apart as for somewhere to leave our bikes. I planted am agave, which had outgrown it’s pot and at the far end is a mature olive tree. Along the top is a row of trees, mostly oak, but also one sweet chestnut and one pear. I’m not sure whether they are still ours or not, but I pick the pears and chestnuts anyway. And if one of the oak trees is starting to look a bit pale around the nose, I chop’em down for some firewood. That is because they are a royal pain in the butt. They drop their acorns onto our land, where the seedlings become a right nuiscance. Now if I had pigs, they’d love the stuff. So any ivy growing up those oak trees is positively encouraged. I suppose those trees also serve a function to keep the road on top of our land, rather than at the bottom…, so maybe I should replace any felled ones with something more useful, like more sweet chestnuts for example.

Terrace 2 is what this year is known as ‘the potato terrace’. It’s also quite narrow, so I could only sow one row of potatoes. It’s the first year we’ve put anything on it. In the foreground you see an apple tree and at the far end another olive tree. In between I planted the pomegranate shrub this winter. After lifting the spuds I’m hoping to replant vines onto that terrace next winter.

So much for today, don’t miss part two of the series, coming up on your computerscreens any day now

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Easter Bike Ride

Tuesday / Wednesday we went on a ‘mini-holiday’. Our friends from Northampton are over at the moment in their holiday home in Casola in Lunigiana. We had decided to go and visit them on our bicycles. The normal route by car is about 40km. It would have involved us hurtling down our hill, than ride along a busy main road to Aulla and then slowly climb up for about 20km along a busyish road towards Casola. I took a look at this map of mine, which has on more than one occasion lead me up the garden path (quite literally!). Now as the fly crows…erm, sorry, as the cry flows… the flow cries??? you mean what I know… it’s only 20km to Casola from here. If the cry flows high enough that is, as there are plenty mountains in the way, namely the foothills of the Apuan Alps.

So, following the map and our noses we set of on a bright and sunny morning, climbing up from Ponzano Superiore (300 a.s.l.), along a rough track to a lonely cross road known as ‘4Strade’ (550 a.s.l.). From there we headed into Tuscany towards the town of Fosdinovo, which we left below us, taking us to a small village called Pùlica.

So far, so good. A turned out to be a picturesque little place, nestled among the mountains. From there, according to my map, is a road leading to another village called Marciaso. The distance between the last junction to Pùlica, which took us about 15 minutes to cover, looked the same as from there to Marciaso, but where was the road? So we asked an elderly lady, who told us that that would be very rough road to cycle, but if we insisted we’d have to go out of the village, then left and left again. We arrived at the first left turn and asked a younger lady this time. She in turn directed us right and right. We decided to follow the latter directions. This turned out to be not only a rough road, there was also no signage or indications where you might be, as well as a complete lack of any peasants one could ask for further directions.

Several equal looking forks in the path tempted us invariably into cul-de-sacs, forcing us to turn around and try the other way. After about 2 ½ hours spent mostly pushing the bikes, I was sure we must have passed Marciaso long behind, we stumbled onto some houses with signs of life in them. We woke the inhabitants out of their siesta, to ask them where we might be. The good news was that we were heading the right way, the bad news was we were only just before Marciaso. Thankfully from there the going was relatively easy. The high mountains were now south of us and we were on the right side of the mountain ridge. After an initial free wheel downhill we climbed into the village of Tenerano, then down hill to Monzone, near the thermal baths of Equi Terme. From there we descended towards Gragnola and a short ride along the main road took us to Casola. We had well deserved our beer and hearty dinner that evening!

We stayed the night with our friends, and after a strengthening lunch with some other acquaintances of ours in the nearby village of Codiponte we cycled back the easier route. However due to a large landslide over the main road to Aulla we had to divert over some hills. I’m really glad we did this trip though. We saw places that we otherwise would have never seen, either because in the car you whiz past far to fast to even notice them and they are too far to walk to them, or you wouldn’t have gone there in the first place in a car.

'Critical Wine' Tasting

I meant to give you all an update over Easter and wish you all happy holidays, but Telecom Italia spoiled those plans. Yet again we were the entire Easter weekend without a phone line! This time there was a thunder storm just in the vague vicinity and bang Saturday morning the line was down. Of course they don’t work over the weekend, so it wasn’t fixed until Tuesday some time. I’ve had about enough of this company: they can’t do us a broadband connection for our computer and every 6 to 8 weeks at least the line is down for 3 or 4 days. What am I paying service charges for? If anyone knows of an alternative telephone service provider in Italy they can recommend, please let me know.

To all those who have asked about the Abruzzo earthquake, thankfully we were far enough away to not have been affected by it or even have noticed it. We don’t know anyone in the L’Aquila area either, but it does make you think, an event like this. You feel all snug and safe in your century old, solid stone building and there even historic churches fall over like card houses. To those of you who can afford it, do give to the various appeal funds to help the victims who are now staying in tents. We heard reports on the BBC channel that Silvio Berlusconi told those victims that they should see the fun side of it all and treat it as a “camping weekend”. Significantly this wasn’t reported by the Italian media and our neighbours were disgusted when we told them, quite rightly so!

Right, now that I have got rid of my two annoyances of the week, ‘what did we get up to over’ Easter, I hear you ask. The weather has been good despite forecasts to the contrary. Only today the Scirocco is blowing rain in our direction again. We planted out some more tomatoes and we’ve been harvesting our first broad beans, lettuces and radishes (the size of golf balls!). Just in time, before we start suffering from malnutrition.

Good Friday I made my traditional Swabian ‘Maultaschen’, a kind of German Ravioli stuffed with spinach (or Swiss chard in our case, can’t grow spinach to save my life in this climate) and minced meat served in a broth. The Swabians being a very religious, but also very cunning people, try their hardest to stick to lent and not eating meat during the run up to Easter. However by the Thursday before Easter (they call it Green Thursday for some reason) they get quite desperate. So they disguise the meat with the green of spinach and stuff it inside the pasta, in the hope that the Lord above doesn’t see them cheating.

On Saturday I still had so many Maultaschen left, that I took them across to our next door neighbours, Marco and Susannah, and we had them together with them, followed by a secondo of lamb chops. It was a lovely evening and with our and their food combined we had the best meal in a while.

Easter Sunday we went to a wine tasting in Montaretto near Bonassola. The title of the even was ‘Critical Wine – Terra e Libertà’. I wasn’t sue exactly what to expect, but with that title it was bound to have something to do with wine. We took a morning train to Bonassola, a pretty little Ligurian seaside resort on the other side of the Cinque Terre.

From there we could either take the shuttle bus, which winds itself 10km around bendy mountain roads to the village of Montaretto, or we could take the shortcut up a steep 3km footpath. It was a nice day so we opted for the latter. The views became more and more spectacular as we fast ascended above the sea. We heard Montaretto before we could see it. The whole village, a place about the size of our small village, was in party mood. On the outskirts an ad hoc campsite had sprung up on what normally served as the football pitch. A remarkable number of long-haired, flower-power hippy types seemed to be around for this 3-day festival. I was glad I hadn’t donned my business attire for the occasion, I would have looked a right fool.

Despite all that it was actually a serious wine event showcasing mostly organic wine producers and leftish-leaning co-operatives (sometimes combined). Most producers came from Liguria, Piemonte and Tuscany, but other regions were also represented. It was interesting to taste these wines. I must say though that many a small producer uses the tag organic as an excuse for dirty winemaking techniques. Quite a few had a tendency to be oxidised and just lacked definition. Others have produced good wines though, so I shall use some in upcoming tastings. As one of the suggested tastings I am offering is organic and biodynamic wines, as I do get asked a lot about the subject.

To name a couple of the highlights of wines you can also look up on the internet, there were Chianti Montalbano from Fattoria Castellina on www.fattoriacastellina.com, Candia dei Colli Apuani (Just down the road from us) Vermentino (tastes of Banana!) on www.viniapuani.it, Barbera Colli Tortonesi (Piemonte) from the Co-op Valli Unite www.valliunite.com (especcially their Vighét 2005, made from old vines) and a lovely Verdicchio di Castelli Jesi from La Marca di San Michele, www.lamarcadisanmichele.com. In addition to wines, there were offerings of beers, preserves, Sicilian bread, honey, organic beef, donkey salami, sheeps cheeses, etc.

Despite the fact that Susan in the end was a little unsteady on her legs we walked back down along a different, but no less scenic route again.

Maybe next year we’ll return to this event and join the tent colony, so we won’t have to wobble down the steep mountain after drinking large quantities…

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Things are looking up!

Well apart from spring in the air putting a spring into our steps there are a good few things to be optimistic about. First of all to our agricultural activities. The mini-winter that usually hits us at the end of March / beginning was a lot shorter and less severe than in previous years. The last weekend in March, especially the Sunday saw quite a lot of rain. It caused another minor landslide on our land, at the end of the terrace where we just planted potatoes. However, by the middle of last week the rain had fizzled out to just the odd light shower and by now has given way to very pleasant temperatures with warm sunshine. We’ve had a couple of foggy mornings, but nothing worse than that.

Accordingly everything has been getting a real growth boost and what the smallholder calls his ‘hungry gap’ - the time of the year when the winter vegetables have been harvested, the preserves come to an end and the spring vegetables are not ready – is nearly over. Another week or so and we’ll be eating our first fresh broad beans of the year, soon followed by peas, strawberries and plums.

The cherry trees are in full flower now, as are the pears, and the apples will follow soon. On the turn of the moon phase we went into sowing overdrive too. Courgettes, melons, cucumbers, broccoli, sweet corn, sunflowers, parsley, dill, celery all were sown out into outdoor beds. In the meantime the seeds sown indoors are growing fast and we shall start planting them out soon. All this helps no end improving our moods.

In addition to that today the prospects of actually earning some money again have drastically improved today. I had closed my small wine agency business at the end of last years as business had dropped off completely due to the current economic climate. I am now in the process of building up something new. I have had a meeting in Pistoia today with an agency, which rents out villas all over Tuscany to tourists. They will add a page to their website with my details offering tutored wine tastings to anyone staying in their villas. I will bring a selection of wines and give an informative and entertaining wee chat. So first of all I should give a recommendation of this agency which has given me this chance to anyone out there looking for a holiday villa or apartment in Tuscany. They are www.italytuscanyrentals.com. My page will appear there shortly.

Si if anyone out there knows of any other agencies near us, renting out villas or running B&Bs or even hotels, I’m available to run tastings for foreigners. Any contact may be useful.