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

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Wednesday, 25 August 2010


Before we are off on our first wee "holiday" in 4 years (we're going hiking for 4 or 5 days over the Appenines following the old partisan trails), I thought I'll give you a wee insight into our daily routine, especcially our eating habits. Today we'll start with breakfast and when we come back I'll go on about the other meals.

Compared to the majority of the western world we have the opposite problem: i.e. our lifestyle requires a rather large energy intake, which we sometimes struggle to fulfill.
Our morning routine goes somthing like this: between 7 and 8 am (depending how late the night was) Eddie will wake me up wanting to go for his early morning walk. Depending on what the plans for the rest of the day are, this can take anything from 15 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. At the moment we are alternating activities, one day on the land (walking there, except maybe once a week, when we take the car or bike), the next day at home preserving what we have picked the previous day. So on preserving days the walk is obviously longer, whilst on land days, Eddie'll get plenty of excersise later.

On this walk I will usually pick something to contribute to breakfast like blackberries, elderberries, apples, pears, peaches, hazelnuts, grapes... They all grow in the vicinity. When I come back I will make the first course.

In the juicer I will make a wholesome juice out of some of the fruit. Today for example it consisted of apples, pears, peaches and blackberries. To go with that we usually like a cereal. Not being able to grow many cereal crops, we have always bought a decent quality muesli, but I have now come up with a recipe of my own, while stocks last. I made it like this:

  • Soak some dried sweet corn over night (we still use some from last year, although the new crop is ready). Next morning slow cook the corn in some salted water until soft.
  • Drain the corn and place in a food processor together with dried fruit (figs and apricots in our case at the moment), nuts (hazelnuts are available now), seeds (pumpkin, but sunflower and sesame would do nicely too, and I should try amaranth in this) and some honey or brown sugar. Whizz until well chopped.
  • Place the mixture on lightly oiled baking tray and bake at a low temperature for an hour or so, until the mixture is dry to the touch and crispy, without being burned. Store in a metal tin.
Serve this with either milk or as we do at the moment with a topping of stewed preserved apple and some fresh fruit, such as some figs that wanted using up today as they were attracting the attention of the local fruit fly population.

While eating that, I check out my e-mails and any internetty news and Susan prepares the second course: a cup of mocca coffee (yes I'm addicted I'm afraid! I don't function without my daily caffein fix.), 2 slices of home-made wholemeal bread (I will soon tell you how I do that too) topped with home-made jam. Today's offering was aubergine and chocolate jam and some jam made from the fruit of the strawberry tree made last winter (corbezzolo)

Now we are ready to face the day! (...until lunch that is)

Friday, 20 August 2010

Go on, guess...

No. You'll never get it. Have a go though. What ingredients do you think I have just made jam out of? ... No ... no not that either ... no you are not even close!

Here's the story while I keep you guessing. You know us gardeners always like to experiment with something new. New vegetables or exotic fruit, or a different variety like yellow tomatoes, or purple beans, or red carrots etc. Sometimes these experiments are a great success and they enrich our dinner table, other times they are not. The latter may be due to problems germinating perhaps, or just not ripening properly, or producing lots of foliage, but no fruit, the list goes on.

Failure may also be due to the fact that the resulting produce simply isn't very nice. Maybe it's a really stringy bean or you've always had a prejudice against pumpkins and approaching them again after years you find out why you didn't like them in the first place (it's the consistency... however I've made a large batch of curried pumpkin soup for the freezer, which I find tolerable).

Well my experiment gone wrong this year (apart from the pumpkin...) is a variety of greeny pink aubergine. I saw the seeds and thought: "hmm, I like aubergines, grilled, as Melanzane alla Parmigiana, under oil, in a ratatouille etc, why do they always have to be purple." They turned out to be earlier ripening than their purple cousins. One plant died misteriously, but a good 7 or 8 of them were doing well.

So it came to the first harvest, I sliced them and noticed an abundance of hard seeds inside. That would be quite good if I wanted to grow this variety again next year, but the taste test showed them to be tough and stringy and pithy with the seeds even when grilled for some time. Not very nice at all!!!

So here I was, with a bunch of happily producing aubergine plants with inedible aubergines. What to do with them? I was tempted to throw the whole lot straight onto the compost heap. Then I passed a stall at the Medieval festa of our town recently (for photos see Facebook...), and they had various homemade preserves on tasting there. And amongst other exotica there was an aubergine and chocolate jam! And you know what? It tasted good.

I didn't want to be rude and ask for the recipe, so today I made up my own. Try it, you'll be pleasantly surprised!

  • 1kg aubergines, cubed
  • 2 large apples cored and roughly chopped
  • 50g cacao powder (maybe less...)
  • 600g sugar
  • Simmer the aubergines and apples in about a cup of water until well soft.
  • Press the mixture through a tomato mill or a mesh thus getting rid of the seeds and skins.
  • Return to the pan and bring back to the boil.
  • Add cacao powder and sugar and stir in rapidly on a high temperature. Boil for just a few minutes, stirring constantly until the the bubbles plop on the surface.
  • Bottle in hot sterilised jars.
Now you didn't see that one coming, did you?

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Call me the Michelin Man

No, I haven't suddenly put on 20 stone and become bald. Let me explain... a bit later...

Well first of all apologies for the recent bloggy silence. It has various reasons: one, I have to admit, is I discovered Facebook, and despite myself, I'm rather enjoying it. Now don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm spending all day and night on Facebook now, but having found many of my friends past and present there, I decided to put the more... how shall I put it... chatty bits, you know the "our-life-in Italy" anecdotes there and concentrate this blog on what it was created for: The Path to Self Sufficiency. I know some of you enjoyed those other bits too, so I suggest you simply find me on Facebook and you'll see photos of our 20th wedding anniversary bash, a jam session we had in our kitchen last weekend, some walks we go on, Eddie growing etc and I post links to links to articles regarding the environment, music, Italy and other subjects that interest me. Some photos are for general viewing, some you'll have to be known to me. I'm easy to find, I believe I'm the only one with this name on FB. See you there if you like?

Another reason for my recent inactivity on this blog is that of course it's a busy time in the garden. Most days we are out there watering (although the last week-10days has been somewhat cooler with intermittent rain), harvesting the bounty of fresh produce and preserving it.

Finally I spent some time thinking about the direction our "path to self-sufficiency" is going to take us next. In the 5 years since we started cultivating our plot of land we have achieved I'd say 80% food self-sufficiency. We cannot produce quite sufficient carbo-hydrates (only potatoes to feed us for maybe half the year and some corn) and we have no livestock to supply us with animal proteins. We get around that by buying flour directly from the mil to make bread, buying large quantities of cheap pasta, rice and other staples whenever we do have money, bartering eggs for jam or favours and greatly reducing our meat consumption to once a week (less when we are really broke).

We are still dependant on fossil fuels for electricity supplied by the state supplier at around €50 for every 2 months (at least Italy is currently non-nuclear), to cook with gas (about 2 x10kg gass bottles per year at €16 each) some of our heating (another 5 gass bottles per winter) and to run the car, which we are trying to keep at around €20 a month, which gives us a range of approximately 200km. The largest bill by far is for communications: Currently we pay around €100 every 2 months to have an internet and telephone connection. I do have a pay-as-you-go mobile, costing me a negligible €10 a year. There's also insurance and tax for the car, which is currently being paid for us, which isn't exactly a satisfactory solution. Water bills and other taxes I've been so far successful in dodging all together in true Italian fashion.

So if you do your sums it tells you that we live on something in the region of €3,000 a year. How can we reduce that? I have recently started following the activities of Mark Boyle. He has lived for the last 19 months in a caravan without money. He is promoting his "Freeconomy" as a counter-balance to the money-based economomy. It is a kind of bartering system, where everyone within a community offers their services free of monetary charge. I very much like this concept and in many ways it still exists in the village I live in although complete independence from money is in my opinion not quite possible unless we retreat back to the caves. However, Mark's ideas are if nothing else inspiring.

So back to our situation: Let's start with the obvious, the car. Why do I still need a car? Partially to earn money, a large part is needed to run the former. The other reason we need a car is the distance between our land and our house (12.5km). Whilst we cycle and walk as much as possible, sometimes we have to transport bulky items one way or the other and there's a steep hill to climb either side of the valley.

At the moment Eddie our puppy is starting to be too big to ride on the back of the bike, but yet too small to run along. He's also in the chewing-everything-in-sight stage, meaning he can't be left home alone safely for a long period of time. So it's walking or driving at least for the moment. We can afford to drive maybe once a week. Other days I put on my rucksack and put a heavy compost bucket in it, returning with it empty but several kilos of potatoes, pears, apples, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, cucumbers... you get the picture. The other day I climbed back up our 300 metre hill with some 30kg on my back in the August heat.

This leaves us with very little energy to do a lot of the work that needs to be done and would therefore make us more independent, and we fall behind with pockets of jungle taken over various corners of our land. Also it greatly increases our calorie consumption, meaning we have to grow more to feed our greater calorie need. It's one of the reasons we are not complete vegetarians, because we literally crave higher value calories at times, feeling list-less and exhausted at times.

This summer we had come up with a part solution in setting up a semi-permanent tent on one of the lower terraces, but man I'm getting old. When I was young I didn't mind lying on any surface to sleep, but now I get up after a night on hard ground and I have trouble moving and my back is killing me, which is not conducive to a second days hard labour on our terraces.

Last year we had planned to build a larger and more solid wooden shed than our existing one, which looks like this:

We had gathered a lot of scrap wood off tips and were ready to start when I drove that %~+>£&** piece of bamboo into my arm. That put me out of any serious work for 4 months by which time the olives became a priority and then the weather changed. Now I look at the pile of timber gathered rotting on the top terrace and think of my efforts in woodwork classes in school. I was the kind of kid that came home with my piece from woodwork class and my parents would enthusiastically pronounce: "What a lovely... hedgehog?... piggy bank...? thing!"

Now finally the connection with the Michelin Man: last week I came across this web-site about how to build a house (low skill required!) entirely from recycled material, namely old car tyres, plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans. They called it an earth-ship And hey presto a plan evolved in me head, but PSSSSSSSSST!!!! don't tell anyone. Strictly speaking I have no planning permission to build a dwelling on our land and not likely to get one either. I am allowed an up to 12m2 agricultural building, but I want more. The plan is this:

I'm intendingto construct a semi-permanent structure on our land using old car tyres filled with our clayey sub-soil (I knew the clay would be useful for something!) as main supporting walls. Some parts will however be sunk into existing terraces and covered up again with a vegetation covered roof, making them invisible from the outside, quasi underground. Not sure yet whether the vegetation will be grass growing on top or simply some climbing plant. Having in the meantime spoken to a couple of people with an engineering background, I was advised that the weight of the tyres might cause my terraces to subside, and I can see that.

Having chosen a realitively shady area with not much growing on it bar weeds on terrace 6 for the location of what I estimate to become an approximately 25 m2 house, I decided to build a foundation on terrace 7, also from tyres.

Not one to hang about for long, project Earth Ship got under way yesterday:

The only problem now is to find a sufficient number of tyres, so if you read this and you are in the area, please let me know of any hordes of dumped tyres, pick up any you may find on the side of the road, safe any from the tyre change on your car, please.

Eddie was helping too.

The idea is that I would like to build a building where I can store my tools and equipment safely, and which has a proper sleeping area, a kitchen and a bathroom. This way we can spend most of the summer there, use our produce fresher (rather than mashing them on the back of a bumpy bike only then to carry part of them back as compost), we'll have facilities to preserve them on-site and we have a shelter near our food source.

Longer term we may be able to work out some energie and communication solutions which won't involve being connected to the main network. We could possible sell our current house to finance things like solar panels and water retention systems etc. We wouldn't need a car any more and we may be able to keep some livestock.

This obviously is going to take us a while. I need to do a lot of excavation and more importantly we need to find a couple of hundred tyres and transport them to our land. Any advice by anyone on this would be much appreciated. Anybody wanting to get their hands dirty and help, you are more than welcome. For the moment Eddie is having a rest from his part in digging on the beginnings of the foundations: