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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!)