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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Tuesday, 28 December 2010


Just to give you an idea what the rain was like about 2 km from our land.  No wonder Arcola, which is situated on that same road looked like it was hit by a monsoon.

Anus miserabilis or of Vertigo

In the famous words of the Queen, this truly has been an Anus Miserabilis (a miserable arse of a year, excuse my French!)  Yields on everything were already low due to an unusually cold spring followed by a wet and often cool summer followed by deluges of rain during autumn and now winter.

The snow from last week did not last long and was soon replaced by more rain.  Big rain!  Bad rain!  The first inkling that the rain just a couple of days before Christmas wasn't just some more rain was when we received a phone call from our friends Pam and John as they were on their way to their holiday home on the other side of the valley.  They were asking for advice how they'd get home as most roads in the valley appeared to be closed.  The last part of the journey which should have taken them half an hour took them 5 hours!

Christmas Eve and Chistmas Day we spent quietly at home, not listening or watching any news and hoping things would just settle down by next time we went out.  Although we had already discovered that a rough unpaved road down our hill was blocked in various places due to landslides and various houses had been cut off from the outside world.

On Boxing Day we were invited for lunch with friends up the valley a bit.  As we took the car out we discovered that 2 more roads down our hill were also closed for the same reason, including the main road down.  So we took a little side road over the hill towards our neighbouring village of Caprigliola.  The road was bumpy but passable, but when we got to Caprigliola it seemed eerlily quiet...  Subsequently we found out that the village had been evacuated, because it's in danger of falling off the mountain.  It has stood at this place for over a 1000 years with it's bulky Medieaval fortification walls!  As we finally made it down into the valley it transpired that the only road up the valley apart from the toll motorway was also shut in 2 places.

After all that I was getting very aprehensive what we would find once we managed to get back to our land, and with good reason.  Today we finally got over to Arcola, where our plot is situated.  The town itself was caked in stinking mud, presumably due to a broken drain pipe.  The last time I smelled anything like this was in the slums of Bombay during monsoon season!

Then the first glimpse of our land:

This is actually mostly the plot next door, which has been neglected for years, but a lot of what came down on their side swamped the edges of our land.

This reapir from the last landslides didn't withold the next avalanche.

And new landslides developed taking down another kiwi plant with it.

The foundations of my earthship are buried and a pear tree fell over it.

just devastating...

Some of my broad beans buried under mud.

It's not entirely clear any more where the border between our land is and next door's.  On the plus side many of their invasive brambles have been buried in mud too...

Under that are the remains of Eva the sweet fig tree...

most of our land as seen from the (messy) neighbour's side.  Our bit is below the red line.  You can clearly see the scars in the earth.
Now is the time we should be planning for next season, collecting manure from our neighbour to apply to future beds.  But what can I do?  For the moment the rain has let off, but for how long?  The earth is beyond saturation point.  I don't know which beds will still be horizontal next week.  All of the 18 terraces have been affected somehow by either bits broken off or bits falling on it.

I feel like thowing it all in...

Friday, 17 December 2010

They've been lying to us!

When we had snow during our first winter here back in 2004/5 they told us that this close to the coast it only happened every 25 years or so and dug up photos for us to see of 1979 when it last snowed.  The following 4 winters were more 'normal therefore with hardly any frost even.  Than last year we had snow shortly before Christmas and now this!

This is Eddie seeing snow for the first time:

After and initial sniff at the strange white stuff he went running around it like mad, chasing snowflakes.  This is the last photo he stayed still long enough to actually be in the photo!

Here a few more snowy impressions of our village:

Before the snow we had a few days of dry sunnt weather.  We were hopeful of getting a second harvest of our olives in.  But alas the clear skies also meant quite severe frosts inland where the olives are and what remained on the trees never turned black properly, but just shrivelled.  So no more olives this year.  However we did get some more firewood off the olive grove and off a large pear tree we pruned.  Very needed now we have this cold snap.

I'll leave you with a photo of the Christmas lights in our village:

and a sunrise before the snow arrived:

Monday, 6 December 2010

Story of Stuff, Full Version; How Things Work, About Stuff

Thanks Veggie PAK for this link. This is a good and easy to understand video on where things are going wrong in our present system. The key, as in permaculture, is to find a circular not a linear system.

Skippy, or on Food Waste

While the cat is away...  Well Susan is away for a few days, visiting her family back in Belfast, leaving me and Eddie to get up to all sorts of mischief.as you can see from the slightly guilty look on Eddie's face...  Oh, and happy Saint Nicolas Day everybody in the Germanic world, hope Santa Claus (who has been hijacked by the Anglo-Saxon world to deliver their presents at Christmas) and his helper Black Peter (or has he become a politically correct Afro-Caribbean Pete in the Netherlands these days...?) have filled your boots with goodies this year.

Any way before I launch into today's main subject, I owe you the story of what we've done to that spiky bit of veg I found the other day and asked you about.  It turns out it's a spiky courgette simlar to a chayote (which I hadn't heard about before either).  Thanks everybody for the info.  Once shaved, I sliced it into thick slices, removing the one long, soft seed out of the centre, turned it in a mixture of flour and salt and fried it in olive oil. 

It was absolutely delicious.  I think in terms of flavour this may be my favourite vegetable from the curcubita family.  I must find myself some seeds to grow it myself (unfortunately I sliced the seed inside this one before I realised it...).

Anyway, I digress.  I was going to talk about food waste today as a follow-up to the book review of Mark Boyle's the Moneyless Man.  I had talked about the practice of 'skipping'.  I believe in America this may be known as 'dumpster diving'.  I also like 'bin raiding'.  All of it meaning the same thing: searching through rubbish tips, trash cans, waste skips at the back of supermarkets.  Inspired by the book, I decided to give it a go.  Now is the time to distance yourselves from me if you think I'm overdoing things, but hear me out first.

An e-mail conversation with my bloggy friend Angela made me realise how little is known of the extent of food waste in the industrialised world.  Here are some stats:  According to British non-profit organisation Food Aware there are some 18 million tons (EIGHTEEN MILLION TONS!!!!) a year of food in the UK, which ends up on landfill sites.  According to a 2004 study around half of all food produced in or imported into the USA ends up in landfills (HALF OF ALL FOOD!!!).  Japan and Australia are not far behind those statistics.  The only slight exceptions are in fact Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland who have managed to reduce the percentage of food in landfills to below 5%.  Other countries have pledged to reduce (reduce! Hah!) this percentage to 20% from a current 40-50%.  Even in Italy, where people are justly proud of their 'cucina povera', their poor (wo)man's cuisine, where the old generation who have lived through the war and won't let anything go to waste, a new generation of supermarket goers is growing up, who no longer realise the real value of food.  To put it into the words of the UN: the USA produces enough waste food to fill every hungry stomach in Africa, France could feed the Congo and the crumbs falling off Italian tables could feed Ethiopia.

Now excuse my excessive use of exclamation marks and capital letters, but isn't that a crime!  And a shockingly under-reported one.  People say with a growing world population there's not enough food to go around for everyone.  Apart from the fact that people in industrialised countries often eat more than is good for them, there's plenty of food there, if it was only distributed to those in need, rather than going into landfills.

The problem of course is not only the complete and utter injustice of this, it's the environmental impact of it.  Some this food gets shipped halfway around the world to end up on a landfill site near you.  Not to mention the packaging.  And slowly decaying food produces methane, rather than CO2 had we eaten it.  Methane is a much more poweful greenhouse gas than CO2. 

Now where does all this waste come from?  Much of it gets sorted out at the production end.  According some EU regulation or other, this carrot is too bent, long, thin, that cucumber to pale, ridgy, small, that banana, too straight etc...  Nothing for it but chuck it.  Other bits go off or get damaged in transport, kiwis from Kiwi Land, Bananas from Panama, garlic from China (honestly, I recently saw garlic from China on sale in an Italian supermarket!  I mean, WHAT????).  It's a long way from some of these places.

However the worst offenders are supermarkets and consumers themselves.  Food distributed to supermarkets mostly has to have a best before date stamped on it.  This does not necessarily mean the food will go off on or imediately after that date of course.  In fact many foods will literally be fine for consumption YEARS after their sell-by date.  Have you ever noticed, mineral water has a sell-by date stamped on it.  What could possibly go wrong with water in a hermetically sealed plastic bottle?  Or canned vegetables or jams, for that matter can safely be consumed for years if left unopened.  A neighbour recently gave us a large bottle of Tabasco sauce, because she was worried it would go off as it was nearing it's sell-by date.  I have absolutely no qualms about using it for several months yet.

So anything that reaches this date in the supermarket, by law, has to be removed from the shelves and ends up in the skip around the back.  Any damaged packaging... out with it!  Bread going a tad stale, veggies looking a little wilted, fruit a bit bruised... bin, garbage!

For consumers supermarkets have become the one-stop-buy-all places.  Rather than going down the market, the greengrocers, the local butchers, the bakers for a daily trip for fresh goods, people go once week or once a fortnight and, being unable to plan that far ahead how much they'll be eating, invariably buy far too much, a percentage of which ending up in the bin.  Then of course there's the leftover's in restaurants and fastfood joints.  No wonder city foxes, cats, stray dogs and I believe in some parts of the world bears, hang around rubbish bins for a living.  There are plenty of rich pickings to be had.

Right, enough of the lecture.  I have decided I was going to have a go myself at this skipping business.  At the moment, this wasn't quite out of a real need yet, but this need may arise and I'd like to be prepared for that eventuality.  One quick word on the legality of this.  At best this can be described as a grey area in legal terms.  In theory you can be prosecuted for trespassing on private property as well as theft.  In practice this is rarely done.  Supermarkets don't want the negative publiciity that might go with this, revealing just how much they throw away and then denying it to a hungry person.  And morally, would you call this theft?

I decided a Sunday early evening was a good time for the particular supermarket I had selected, as it is only open a few hours in the morning that day.  During the day I had already looked for a way into the property which didn't even involve climbing any fences.  Needless to say, I felt a little apprehensive on my maiden skipping expidition.  Early nighfall and cold weather as an excuse to wear a woolly hat and scarf to obscure my features from security cameras are good friends of the skipper (I did bring Eddie though, so he might be identified in an identity parade).

I was surprised how brightly lit the back of the supermarket was late in the evening, and the security cameras were visible, so I didn't want to linger too long.  But just a few minutes rummaging revealed this:

plus much that I couldn't carry.  There were 2 large black bin liners stuffed full of bread.  And I'm not talking really badly stale or even mouldy bread.  Look at the size of the large loaf I brough home with me.  It's the size of our occasional table (occasionally it's a halucinogenic mushroom... when it's not a table I mean... sorry, getting side-tracked...).  The amount of bread I found could have easily fed a couple dozen household!  This in a country where they are proud of their recipes involving old bread such as panzanella salad or rustic Tuscan soups.  I've been eating this bread ever since.  Even today it's not even stale.  As far as Italian bread goes it's relatively dark and therefore keeps a couple days longer.  The foccaccia was also still perfectly edible after I heated it in the oven and then there were those vol-a-vent cases, which I haven't made use of yet.  In addition there was a slightly bruised marrow and a few kiwis. 

I have since eaten the foccaccia for a starter, made a cabbage & marrow soup with loads of croutons and had about 12 slices of toast for breakfast this morning.  I was kind of hoping for some out of date cheese or so, but hey, I think I did quite well for my maiden skip.  Anything I won't be able to eat will be turned to breadcrumbs (there are seriously people out there buying ready made breadcrumbs...) and used as and when.

Of course governments and businesses don't want you to know about the extent of food wastage, because it's bad for business.  Every item scavanged from a supermarket bin is one not sold through their tills.  Bad business for retail slows economic growth, the be-all and end-all mantra of our oh-so-wise leaders.  Of course skipping is not a long-term sustainable option.  For a start much of the food you'd be likely to find is neither organic nor particularly healthy.   But while there is this food out there I regard it almost a civic duty to save at least a small portion from being dumped and I shall repeat yesterday's little trip as and when the weather permits (It luckily did last night, but today the miserable weather returns... ).

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Anybody seen one of these before?

Been out walking and foraging today and came across a whole load of these.  They were actually grown behind a fence, but whoever planted them wasn't that bothered about them as they were scattered all over the ground.  One had fallen on the other side of the fence and intrigue I picked it up.  I'm assuming it's edible, but haven't cut it open yet, wanting some idea what to expect, sweet, savoury...?

I couldn't work out whether they had come of those climbing vine-type plants or a low tree.  There was one still hanging in the tree, but it may have been a vine climbing up that tree.  it's extremely prickly and you can see the size on the photo.  There's no discernable smell from the outside.  Anyone of you clever people out there...?  If no-one comes up with anything I'll cut it open tomorrow and show you the insides too.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Book Review: The Moneyless Man by Mark Boyle

I very occasionally do a book review on this, so today I have felt moved to do one again.  I have been following the exploits of Mark Boyle for a wee while.  He has been in all the papers as the mad man who had decided to go without any money for one year.  It immediately caught my attention, partially because we live virtually moneyless ourselves and was wondering how he managed to completely avoid it and on the other hand because the subject of money has been one that has always puzzled me (as can be read on a previous post of mine) and Mark having a degree in economics clearly must be more knowledgable on the subject than me.

First of all I should tell you how I managed to get hold of a copy of this book.  I did ask the man himself for a free copy, from one moneyless man to an almost moneyless man type thing.  He said in principal yes except he didn't have any money to send it to Italy.  Makes sense of course, just testing... ;)  So my bloggy friend Laura of the French Country Challenge very kindly ordered me a copy for my birthday.  Thank you Laura.  In the meantime it has come to my attention that another friend has actually ordered me a copy too.  If and when that arrives, I have at least one copy free to whoever would like it.  Unlike Mark I think I could spare a little for postage.

Right enough of all that, what's the book all about then, I hear you ask.  Below read the very first paragraph of the book:

From the onset I knew I was going to like this book.  Mark describes his experiences of his first year of living moneyless and outlines his reasons why he did it.  I say his first year, which was the original intended period he had set himself as a sort of social experiment, but today in fact he has just completed his second year and has no intention of quitting.

The really refreshing thing about the book is that nowhere does he claim to be certain that his way is the right or correct way or even the only way of living.  He states his main reason for renouncing money as, that it separates the human being from what (s)he consumes.  Thus it makes us unaware of the real impact of what we consume.  In other words we consume something and when it's broke we throw it away and buy a new one.  If we had to make this item ourselves, we'd learn very quickly to keep things going as long as possible.  Or as Mark put it: if you had to clean your own water, you sure as hell wouldn't crap into it.

I can relate to this.  Take the example of the olive oil we pressed a few days ago.  Pure costs were something like €30 for petrol and the same for pressing.  Add to that 3 people putting in an estimated combined 80 (wo)man hours in at say a paltry €5 an hour that would result in a price per litre of  €23!  That's expensive oil!  Whilst I was a bit disappointed at the low yield this year, I have a real sense of achievement and I know the real value of this oil.  It wasn't a moneyless transaction in my case, but the principal applies here too.  I could have gone to the supermarket and buy a €2.99 bottle

In the early parts of the book Mark shows that he has an economics degree, when he describes some of the more ridiculous problems with the current economic systems.  One of the more interesting facts, which I eerily had read somewhere else on the same day is the practice of fractional reserve banking.  When I wrote my history of money I had no idea this unbelievable practice exists, but it essentially means - now hold on to your seats if you are an economic greenhorn like me - that the banks basically make up the money the lend you as they go along.  yes, as in make-belief.  It's true!  95% of money DOES NOT EXIST!

Mark gave a nice simple explanation how this works, so even dim lights like me can understand this:  Mr. Jones deposits 100 moneys with Mr. Bank.  Mr. Smith comes along and wants to borrow 90 moneys from Mr. Bank.  With this he goes to Mrs. Baker to buy bread.  Mrs. Baker then deposits the 90 moneys with Mr. Bank.  How much money does Mr. Bank now have?  100 or 190?  According to their books 190.  And what happens if Mr. Smith can't pay back his loan and Mr. Jones and Mrs. Baker want to withdraw their money?  That's the mess the world economiy finds itself in now!

What I want to know is, if the banks have just made up the money they've lent me, surely I don't have to repay them money that didn't exist in the first place?  Or I could make it up myself and pay them back with Monopoly money?

Anyway, I digress.  Whilst the book is not exactly a how-to guide, Mark has added some practical tips, some of which I shall try out in due course.  He tells us how to make a rocket stove:

Must look out for a couple of oil tins to build one of those on our land.  He also tells us how to make paper and ink from mushrooms:

He makes toothpaste from cuttlefish bones and fennel seeds.  Now I don't know where I'd find a cuttlefish bone, but I added fennel seeds to my latest batch of homemade tooth paste

Mark keeps saying he went into this experiment being essentially unskilled, however he is putting himself down there.  The skill that has made his experiment such a success and has brought him international fame (which I don't think he was seeking in particular...) is his boundless energy and enthusiasm.  He managed to organise a free festival for over a thousand people with 3 weeks notice, feeding them, entertaining them and all, whilst simutaneously holding dozens of interviews.  If what he writes is true (he may have made it all up of course...) he slept just 5 hours a night, sometimes less.  Hat off to him for that, I couldn't manage it.

The other area that took my interest was what Mark calls skipping.  Now before you all start hopping around, he means raiding supermarket skips for perfectly good food thrown out because it had simply run out of date, or the packaging is slightly damaged.  Considering the many tons of food that get thrown away each year, Mark says it's not only not a slightly seedy activity rummaging through bins, but a civic duty to liberate perfectly good food from landfills. 

I have had a short stint working for a small chain of convenience stores in London and I remember very well how it broke my heart to see sackfulls of food being written off on a daily basis.  All my lunches during that time consisted of out of date food.  I shall have a look at skips around us more from now on.  It would solve sourcing many foods that I can't grow myself and maybe a few freshish morsels of meat for Eddie, the Beagle if nothing else.

I heartily recommend anyone who is serious about "green living" to read this book.  It's a good read, not in any way schoolmasterly and it may give you some ideas on how you can make changes in your life that really matter.  There are compomises along the way, which Mark admits.  The royalties for his book are going into a trustfund to buy a plot of land to start a moneyless village, where people can come to (for free of course) to learn how to live moneyless.  Or simply to try it out for a while.

I have an eye on a plot of land myself, with a clean river, enough land to support a small community, a number of mature fruit trees, possibilities to expand and planning permission.  It's even on the market.  If ever we come into money (and we may) we could buy ourselves into complete freedom.  Mark has done it, just an ordinary guy from Donegal, so why not me... or you for that matter.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

More Rain Damage...

After the olive harvest we needed a days rest on which we only went out on a walk for some wild food foraging.  The one day turned to two as the rains returned.  So yesterday was the first time in a while that we got back to our own patch of land in Arcola as opposed to the olive grove in Popetto.  And we discovered further damage caused by the rain:

Half my cold frame had slid away.  There used to be a yard in front of it where we could walk along and from where we could access the cold frame.

Inside the tyre there used to be a Florida cranberry, which was already unhappy about being planted in such an unhospitable climate.  This has given it the final nail.

It had slid along with half the bed that we had just dug over to plant brassica on top of the straggling remains of my tomatillos.  Susan is just rescuing what she can, while Eddie looks on being a puzzled about the new shape his familiar landscape has taken on.

I provisionally repaired the cold frame, but this is what the mud looked like that I was standing below it:

The soil is absolutely saturated!  Today there's a bitter wind blowing and more rain...

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

At the Frantoio Part 1

After another only half day on Monday due to miserable weather,

we finally got a whole day's worth of olive picking in on Tuesday, the day before we were due at the frantoio, the olive mill.  Here are some views of my co-workers as seen from the top of a tree:

With all those rain interuptions we have only managed to pick about a quarter of the trees so far, however many were still quite green and might benefit from a couple of weeks longer on the trees.  Besides, we couldn't have fitted any more olives into the car.  As it was I let the girls drive to the frantoio, whilst I took the bike for the 15km journey.  I got there 15 minutes before them, not having taken the scenic route the ladies took...

Anyway they got there without me having to send out the search troops.  We unloaded the car onto the scales:

...and they weighed in at 184kg.  I already started salivating and calculating.  Last year our relatively small harvest (half of what we have picked this year so far) yielded 1 litre of oil for every 5kg of olives.  I didn't realise at the time that this was a particularly good yield and was hoping to double our oil quantity for this year on the first harvest alone.  I was wondering whether we brought enough containers.

Let me take you through the process at the frantoio.  Unfortunately they no longer have the old stone presses to grind your olives.  They are only left as reminders of more romatic times:

First the olives get separated from any leaves and stalks you may have been mixing in with them:

Next the olives are washed:

Then they end up in this container where they are crushed:

This is what it looks like from the inside:

Finally they are pumped into the press where the oil is separated from all the other components:

This is an overview of the control centre:

This whole process takes a little over an hour, during which time you wait in anticipation:

Finally the green liquid appears:

and you gather it in your containers:

Finally the result, but... big disappointment!  This year's resa or oil content is a mere 10 % as opposed to last year's nearly 20%.  This means out of every 10kg of olives you get only 1 litre of oil.  Hardly more than last year, even though we have gathered twice as many olives!

Apparently we are not the only ones with that problem.  All that recent rain has meant that, whilst the olives looked nice and big, even healthy (apparently olive flies don't like the rain much either, as we haven't noticed any signs of an attack at all), most of it is just water bloating up the fruit.

And the taste test?  Not as good as last year.  If you want to be kind you could call it 'delicate', but frankly it's rather on the thin and short side.  It has some fruity and grassy notes, but much less of the spicy notes we had last year.  And, so far at least, still not enough to last us through the year.

We are looking to get another appointment mid-December, but I can't help feeling quite disappointed.  The cost of the pressing and the petrol for going up to Popetto a few times and then to the frantoio works out at the same price as some cheap supermarket oil, and whilst the quality is better than that, it's not exactly exceptional.  The vagaries of nature...  At least we know WE made our own oil.

So any helpXer's out there wanting to help gather our harvest mid-December, as Cat will be leaving us tomorrow.  We've got quite used to having her around and she was definitely a help achieving what we did.  So thank you Cat, come back any time (in 3 weeks would be good... :) )

Monday, 22 November 2010

Persimmon Cookies

...or kaki biscuits, depending on your linguistic preferences  Although, these things are definitely cookies, I reckon.  You know the ones that Cookie Monster devours (I'm told he's now a politically correct veggie monster!). 

Anyway, I'm often asked what I do with my kaki / persimmons / sharon fruit, whatever you want to call them.  Some people apparently simply eat them, but I'm really not very keen on them, so have always turned them into my "I can't believe it's not mango chutney" chutney.  But now our little helper Cat has found another delicious use for this fruit: Persimmon Cookies.  She was reading a book called Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen.  At the end of the book there were some recipes including this one:

Apparently Mennonite cooking is particularly good, because they chain their women to a stove all day.  Cat has made those for us twice so far (we didn't have to chain her up for that!) and they are delicious, retaining a nice moisture.  Highly recommended recipe.

In other news our olive picking is being constantly interupted by rain.  Sometimes this almost enhances the spectacular views from the olive grove in Popetto:

Other times we hardly see a thing:

And we have had plenty enforced breaks and didn't even bother starting on Sunday:

Finally Eddie and Cat are bonding well:

If you want to know what Cat makes of all this check out her blog.