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

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Thursday, 28 May 2009

Rain at last… & Part VII of “Our Terraces”

However, it would have been nice if it had arrived quarter of an hour later, so I would have got soaked to the skin!

Yesterday we were making an early start to attack the weeds and trying to escape the worst of the heat. We also picked a couple of kilos of cherries. Around half-3ish, were in just watering, Susan pointed at some dark clouds over the mountains. I just dismissed them, thinking they’ll just stay there. As we made our way home on our bikes they did come threateningly close though. I tried out-sprinting the storm – we had left our windows open – whilst Susan managed to find shelter. The trouble about out-sprinting a storm is you should try and ride in the opposite direction rather than towards it. So half way up the hill I got absolutely drenched, battered by hail and nearly blown off my bike.

It only turned out a shower though and Susan was soon able to follow. Today’s temperatures as a result a markedly fresher and cooler, rather pleasant really. At home I turned the cherries into jam and used the stones to start off a cherrystone liqueur. It’s great the way nothing gets wasted. It won’t be ready to drink until roundabout Christmas though.

Here comes Part VII of the 9-parter “Our Terraces”:

Terrace 13 features a young walnut tree in front and an olive in the back. Between those we have planted our tomatoes this year, hence all those bamboo sticks. In the meantime they are much more visible of course and should produce the first fruit in a couple of weeks or so. Behind the olive tree is a bed of dwarf beans.

Terrace 14 is the only one with no trees on it at all. It used to have a fig, which I had to cut down. It’s since been dug over to accommodate mostly peppers and a few spare tomatoes. Hidden amongst the weeds is still some garlic, fennel and some Swiss hard. I bet you all can’t wait for the concluding episodes of the story!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

On Pests & part IV of “Our Terraces”

This heat wave is showing absolutely no signs of abating, in fact is getting worse, so we’ve been having a bit of a rest day today. The long term weather forecast is predicting a scorcher of a summer too with temperatures well into the 40s, so this won’t be my last mention of the heat this year I don’t think.

As threatened, here comes a word on pests. We don’t seem to be too bad on our plot. We don’t have any trouble with snails and slugs for example. One pest troubling us is ants. We have 2 species: large black ones a small red ones. The latter have a nasty bite and are very aggressive. The main damage they do though is to our trees. As our land had been abandoned for a few years, the trees were not well looked after, suffering disease and being overgrown by ivy and brambles. This weakened them sufficiently for ants to get into them and really wreak havoc. A few trees I have already had to fell as a result. Ones established in a tree, they are almost impossible to get rid of. Fire and/or boiling water kill large numbers, but there’s always an astonishing number of survivors saving the at least some of the eggs of the colony.

Another pest is the black fly. Broad beans inevitably get attacked, however, the earlier you plant the fewer problems you have. I sowed them out in October and have now finished harvesting them. When (not if!) you get the first sign of an attack, it’s on the tender tips of the plants. As soon as you spot this, you pick of those ends, wash off the black fly, boil and eat them (the plant tips that is, not the black fly). If you do this the black fly never take over enough to completely spoil your beans. I have also had a slight attacks on my newly planted cherry tree as well as on the sunflowers, which I’m treating with my own invention of anti-insect spray.

Cultivating everything organically, as I want to eat the produce myself, I don’t use any chemicals to combat pests and diseases, so I have come up with my own recipe for, what is more an insect repellent rather than an insecticide. I had some very old dried garlic powder bought years ago at an Indian corner shop. It was so old it had solidified into one solid lump. I put that lump into a saucepan together with a grated bar of natural lavender soap, a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and about a litre of water and brought the whole thing to the boil. Once cool again dilute at a rate of about 10 to 1 with water and spray about once a week onto your plants.

The mixture stinks to high heaven, but has proved effective. Black fly don’t like, nor do the ants, who look after the black fly and aphids. Most effective it has proved to be against a red and black beetle (not a ladybird, a bit bigger and a longer body), which has destroyed my brassica in the last couple of years. I’ve sprayed the stuff onto my Tuscan black cabbage as well as on my Brussel sprouts, and they have stayed away from them since. I still spot them amongst the general herbage, but they stay away from my cabbages.

I dare say it would make a good mosquito repellent as well, if you don’t mind smelling like a garlic salesman on cheap aftershave and don’t mind having no friends… Mosquitoes are of course a problem too. Where we live in Ponzano, we have no problems with them, living on top of a hill, exposed to the prevailing winds and with no standing water near, but on our land we are protected from wind and the insects evidently find places to breed. The most worrying are the tiger mosquitoes who have become more widespread in recent years. It’s not only that there bite is worse than the one of their smaller cousins, but they are also potential transmitters of disease. A couple of years ago there was an outbreak of a tropical disease near Ancona on the East coast carried by tiger mosquitoes and of course with global warming it is not impossible that Malaria will make a re-entry into Italy.

Until not very long ago Malaria was prevalent in Italy, which is one of the reasons why many villages were built up on hills, where there is “bell’ aria” (good air) as opposed to the plains, valleys and marshes where there is “mal aria” (bad air). To this day, when we tell people around here we live in Ponzano Superiore, they’ll tell us: “Aah, Ponzano. C’e bell’aria!”

To finish off on pests, there is the olive fly, which puts it’s little maggots into the olives, but it not enough to worry about. In a bad year 10% of olives are effected, in good year like last year none. Maybe I should try some of my garlic spray on those as well though. Oh, and the white butterflies which lay their eggs on brassica are also deterred by my spray. Other than that we don’t seem to be pestered too badly by pests.

Now to part VI of the continuing story “Our Terraces”: this is terrace number 11.

It’s dominated by cherry trees in the foreground. At the back we found space for one bed, which has a mixture of the above mentioned Brussel sprouts, red onions, Swiss chard as well a few spare courgettes. Bear in mind that all photos of this series were taken on the 25th April, so in the meantime the cherry trees are heavy with fruit.

Terrace 12 has an olive tree in the foreground and more of those wild cherry trees, which have sowed themselves out there. Behind there is a wild plum tree. Don’t miss the next episode of “Our Terraces” as we are nearing the conclusion.

Friday, 22 May 2009

on the Giro d’Italia and the heatwave

I know I haven’t posted for a while, we’ve been pretty busy with various things, so this’ll be quite a long entry today I think.

First of all, there’ll be a break in the riveting and popular series “Our Terraces” today to make room for some current sport coverage. Yesterday we had a rest day as the Giro d’Italia came to town. Yes I do like watching a bit of sport. As a kid growing up in Bremen, I used to watch home matches of Werder Bremen at the Weserstadion. I still like football, but prices to go to stadiums aren’t what they used to be and I’m getting rather disgusted with the play-acting, feigning injuries, complaining, winging and whining and plain cheating in the modern game. I also used to watch speedway, but other motor sports, like Formula 1 in particular, these days seems to be decided behind desks and in courtrooms, not to mention horrendous entry prices for a couple of hours of watching noisy cars going around in circles.

I watch other sports, mainly on TV, but there is no other sport I can think of, which you can watch for free and get THIS CLOSE to the top athletes:

This is Lance Armstrong, the undisputed superstar of world cycling. This photo was not taken with a fancy zoom lens, I just shoved the camera right into his face and was evidently even closer to the man then the TV cameras on the other side of the road.

Yesterday’s stage was a 60 km individual time trial through the Cinque Terre and was dubbed “the killer stage”. Rider’s were racing through this hilly coastal stretch against the clock rather than against each other. I have been to cycle races before. I saw the Tour de France a few years back as they skirted Germany, but we had positioned ourselves on a steep downhill stretch and the peloton was past within a fraction of a second. The only lasting memories were the smell of burning rubber as the 180 odd cyclists hit the bend at over 70 km an hour and the accompanying motorbike, which nearly ploughed into a nearby chip van. We saw the Giro the last time they passed as well, twice in fact, but both time on flat bits with the group being compact and passed in seconds.

But in a time trial you can watch each rider coming passed you one by one for 3 ½ hours. The stage was from Sestri Levante to Riomaggiore involving 2 steep uphill sections (one of them I have cycled myself before). We decided to position ourselves above our old haunt of Levanto, just over half way into the race. It was a great way of spending the day. We had a picnic with us, a couple of beers and shared into the banter with other fans. I even dusted up my old “proper” camera, I found I still had some film for it and it does have a decent telelens on it. However the photos from that camera won’t obviously be ready for a few days, hope they still develop real films.

Here’s another shot in the meantime of a Russian rider called Andriy Grivko:

We had originally planned to cycle towards the race, which would have involved similar tough climbs to the professionals, but decided against it, as we are in the middle of a heat wave, which leads me smoothly onto the next subject. Last Friday, the 15th, it made a half hearted attempt at some rain, the only time this month. Saturday summer arrived with a vengeance. Daytime temperatures are the highest ever recorded for Italy for May with the mercury climbing well into the 30’s. Our daily cycle rides to the land and work on the land itself has all slowed down a bit and both of us have caught quite a bit of colour already.

This also means that crops are ahead of their season. Broad beans, alas are now finished. I managed to conserve a few in brine, but to build up a proper store of them I really do need to plant 2 terraces of them. Peas are ready and we are eating masses of lettuce. Strawberries are abundant and sweet cherries have already been and gone. They had a very small crop this year and birds ate most of the rest. Sour cherries are coming on as well though and they are as plentiful as ever. The first tomatoes are in flower as are the first courgettes and we water practically daily.

Earlier in the spring, when all the wild herbs were starting to perfume the air, I thought how great it would be to capture all these aromas and maybe making some liqueurs from them. I didn’t know how though and decided to find some recipes, quickly forgetting about my resolution again. Last week we were in La Spezia and I found a recipe book on a book stall along the seafront: “500 recipes for jams, preserves and liqueurs”. It’s fantastic! It not only has some great recipes for all the traditional liqueurs, but it has suggestions for making drinks out of base materials you would normally throw away: an Amaretto from apple pips, liqueurs from cherry, peach and apricot stones or the skin of melons, cherry leaves as well as a variety of wild and cultivated herbs and spices.

Most of the are really easy to make too, although they take a while before they are ready. I already have 2 brews on the go: Granny’s Digestive (I can’t help thinking that grannies in Italy have more fun, mine used to such a sweet after dinner) based on lemon balm and a Wild Cherry Ratafia with sour cherries and cherry leaves spiced with cloves and cinnamon. Looking forward to the results.

On Saturday also we had the inaugural session of the “Luni Wino” Wine Appreciation Club at our house. About a dozen of us tasted our way though some Italian wines and I believe a good time was had by all. It sort of was the launch of my new little venture, although it mostly was a social event.

I was going to have a wee rant about pests after I went on a bit on weeds recently, but Susan is already in bed and I better finish here for today. So there’s something to look forward to as well as the next installment of the cut-out-and-collect series “Our Terraces”.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

On Week(/d)days & Our Terraces Part V

One last word on weeding (well maybe not a last word; I feel a philosophical discourse coming on, on the meaning of life as seen in the absolute cunning and will to survive of weeds, indeed the virtual impossibility to kill weeds). I am absolutely determined to stay on top of the weeding business this year, so I have declared Wednesdays weeding days, no getting side tracked or anything (unless it’s raining of course).

Talking about getting side tracked, I know I was ranting a bit about the months and the unjust distribution of days within them, but where do the names of the week in English come from? In Italian you don’t have to be scholar in ancient languages to work out what the names mean: Lunedì – Moon, Martedì – Mars, Mercoledì – Mercury, Giovedì – Jupiter, Venerdì – Venus, Sabato – the Jewish Sabbath (probably means something in Hebrew too) and Domenica – Day of the Lord. All the heathen gods get a mention as well as the Christian and Jewish one (the latter two being allegedly the same). But in English? Ok, Sunday – Sun and Monday – Moon, but Tuesday? And Wednesday? Thursday probably was dedicated to Thor, who was the Germanic equivalent of Jupiter anyway. Both were in charge of Thunder, which would also explain the German Donnerstag – Thunder Day. Was Friday an early Muslim influence on the Germanic culture, meaning Free Day? I’m puzzled. Well in an effort to shed some light on the mystery I will from now re-christen Wednesday Weednesday, as probably in the olden days being the day when farmers did their weeding and I’m carrying on this ancient tradition.

What else has been happening? We’ve been out in Arcola most days to water. It’s been warm and no sign of rain recently. We’re eating our daily helping of fresh broad beans and for a bout a week a daily small handful of strawberries (delicious with sparkling elderflower wine!). The cherries are taking on a pinkish hue, the first figs will be ready soon as well as plums. Olive trees are breaking into bloom, although not as profusely as last year. And we started on “Project Shed”. Susan started digging the foundations for it (Don’t call me a slave driver, she insisted! She said it did her biceps a world of good and put her in good training for her bid to become part of the Olympic shot putting team. Nobody will believe she’s not on steroids!). We’re gathering more and more material from skips: old doors and wardrobes and any other old bit of timber we can find. The previous owner of our land had already gathered some roofing, which was stacked behind the old shed. As we lifted the stuff we discovered a snake nest behind/underneath it. Just harmless grass snakes though, which slithered off into the sunset.

I’ve had a couple of positive reactions to my mini-series “Our Terraces”, you seem to quite a enjoy it. So I won’t keep you in suspense any longer; here comes part V:

Terrace number 9 is where we currently pick our broad beans from. At either end is an olive tree. It also features our kiwis that we planted just over a year ago: Stud and his two female companions.

Terrace 10 is known to us as the strawberry terrace, although there’s quite a lot of other permanent stuff growing there. On the right foreground you can spot a fig tree and an olive. On the left foreground there are a number of cherry trees. In the centre there’s a young apple tree, a plum tree and on the far side another olive. Around the apple tree we’ve planted courgettes, melons and cucumbers this year. This is the terrace we spread our homemade compost, which means that it’s now more melons then cucumbers and a few tomatoes, have also sowed themselves out there, which I left in situ or transplanted a foot or so to the left or right.

Look out for Part VI of the riveting series “Our Terraces”

Friday, 1 May 2009

Our Terraces Part IV and on Weeding

First of May today? Where’s April gone? One moment it was there and I turn around and it’s gone! I don’t know, but I think the days of the month are badly distributed. January goes on forever. February is better with fewer days. March can drag on a bit and then the nice spring and summer months always seem to fly by. I reckon they should shorten January to about 25 days and March to about 28. The days gained there could be added to April, May and June, maybe a day or two to September.

Anyway, I digress. I was going to loose a word on weeding (better than loosing other things like my temper or my mind…). This is partly inspired by the fact that I was weeding for the last couple of days and partly I’m in the middle of reading Chas Griffin’s “More Scenes from a Smallholding” (great read, I shall give you a book review one rainy day soon), which contains a whole chapter on the subject.

The routine generally is, you start at the top somewhere and you work your way down terrace by terrace. Terrace 2, as you have already seen, has spuds on it at the moment. Easy peasy! With the hoe you just wiz over it quickly, little danger of mistaking a potato for a weed or causing them permanent harm. Terrace 3 gets trickier with the corn and a few sunflowers. After all corn is just a glorified grass and while still small looks just like it. You have to keep your wits about, no more mindless swinging of the hoe. That’s the time you start getting distracted: ‘there’s a bit of dead wood in that tree, must deal with that.’ – ‘I think I’ll swing that sickle at those bits of bamboo poking out’, etc.

By the time you get to the bottom after all your distractions, you have to start at the top again. In between are the really tricky bits like amongst the carrots with the spontaneously mutating weeds, that disguise themselves as carrots, or the bed you can’t remember what you sowed on in the first place and don’t therefore know what to look out for. That’s happened on terrace 6. I decided that they were supposed to be cabbages, but didn’t show, so I planted some cucumbers on it instead.

Finally comes the problem how to define what is a weed. The thrifty Italian eat almost anything that happens to grow on any given field. It is not uncommon to see a 90 year old bent-over lady with a basket on her arm rummaging through the undergrowth for wild asparagus or chicory. And not only that. Having no animals to eat our vegetable cast-offs (the cats turn their noses up to them), they all land rather indiscriminately on the compost (the vegetable cast-offs that is, not the animals).

This may be a good time to show you the photo of terrace number 7 in our popular series ‘Our Terraces’.

It contains our double compost heap, skilfully put together by Susan from bamboo sticks, a pear tree, a bed currently producing onions, behind the compost our mini polytunnel with lettuces and behind that a bed of peas

Anyway to carry on the thread, it’s inevitable that a few seeds land on the compost too. Last year a tomato grew out of the compost and a lemon tree, which is now doing very well on the kitchen windowsill. But the strangest one are the melons. We bought a melon 2 years ago from our friendly Sicilian greengrocer, ate it and threw the skin and seeds on the compost. Last year I bought proper melon seeds (Charentais or something like it), sowed some indoors in pots for a nice early crop and some outdoors. The result was absolutely zero, however weeding a bean bed, where I had spread our compost, I found little seedlings, which at that stage could have been courgettes or cucumbers. I left a few and waited: melons. The seeds of which ended on the compost again of course.

So this year I wised up. I again sowed some proper shop-bought seeds indoors and outdoors, but this time I spread our own compost onto that same bed. Again the intended melons did not come, but the spontaneously sown ones did as well as a good dozen tomato plants. So instead of going wholesale weeding amongst the bed with the courgettes, cucumbers and melons, it became a delicate transplanting job. I’m looking forward to seeing what type of tomatoes they’ll be.

To complete jobs done in the last couple of days, I did sow out the artichoke seeds. If they’ll al come we’ll have some 50 plants, which would take up 2 whole terraces. I’ll be able to sell them, which may not be a bad idea. Best probably preserved in oil. I also thought I’ll try growing strawberries from seed. Seems a good way to get lots of strawberry plants. The berries on our existing plants are starting to show a pink hue. They should be ready any day and then spring will have arrived properly. The weather was positively warm and sunny too today too.

Finally Terrace 8 coming up:

It features 2 recently planted almond trees and 2 mature olives. The bed in front has been dug over for the first time and will just have some rocket on it this year and few bits and bobs.