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

Total Pageviews

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Holy Dog and other news

A little add-on to the last post about our day in the slow life. You may remember that on my morning walk Eddie the Beagle made a dash for it and disappeared for half an hour. Until yesterday I didn't know where he had gone during this period, but the mystery is solved.

As we were walking along the road yesterday a nun passed by in her car, stopped and rolled down her window saying: "I know that dog! Did he escape last Sunday?" Thinking a moment I confirmed that he had. "He came visiting us at Mass! He's lovely dog isn't he?"

So there was me telling the dog for getting up to nothing but mischief and it turns out he went to church confessing his sins! Come to think of it I'm sure I've noticed a tiny halo above his head since then. If you enlarge the photo below, see if you can't spot it.

(...not to mention the dog collar... I think he may be destined for the ministry...)

The weather for most of the week was quite good, but last night we had severe storms and it's a grey rainy one again today.

Getting on top of most of the autumn tidy-up jobs, I've had a go at our Earthship once again. I restarted my initial efforts as I hadn't filled the rims of the tyres properly with earth. I have excavated a large useless corner at the back, which provided me with the earth to fill the tyres and will give me space for the foundations. The foundation wall is now 10 tyres long and 2 tyres tall as you can see. There's room for a further 4 or 5 tyres lengthways once I have completely excavated that corner.

Now I only need more tyres. This is the problem, you see. Whilst the actual building material is free, it isn't free to transport them to our land...

Susan in the meantime is keeping herself warm in these nippier temperatures by tidying up around the wilder edges of our land.

Monday, 25 October 2010

A Day in the Slow Life

I've been memed. Or rather should I say I've been invited to meme, or write a meme, or whichever way you are meant to say that. It's the first time I've heard this particular term and I'm wondering if I'd find it in a dictionary. Well apparently it's when a load of bloggers write about the same thing and then pass it on, if that makes any sense to you.

Anyway, this one was given to me by my long lost twin brother, from whom I've been separated at birth: Mr H. over at Subsistence Pattern all the way from Northern Idaho. He would like me to describe a typical day in our 'Slow Life'. I like that expression, 'Slow Life'. We've come to live in the land where they have come up with the 'Slow Food' (pronounced slo foot in Italian) movement to live the slow life.

Having read a couple of these meme thingies now, it appears customary to give a brief outline how we arrived at the particular date chosen to represent all the other days. First of all the date I chose was yesterday, Sunday the 24th October 2010. I must say it was a challenge keeping track of it in detail. On a really typical day, we rarely know what time it is at any given point. In the middle of a job Susan will call over to me wondering what time it might be. "Four, I guess.." I'll answer. "No," says Susan, "it couldn't be later than three." I rummage around my pockets to see if I remembered taking my mobile phone along, our only time piece. It turns out to be five or two.

“Time, said Austerlitz in the observation room in Greenwich, was by far the most artificial of all our inventions, and in being bound to the planet turning on its own axis was no less arbitrary than would be, say, a calculation based on the growth of trees or the duration required for a piece of limestone to disintegrate.”

From Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

Anyway, I digress. How did we arrive at this point in time? Many years ago Susan and I met when 'working' together in Belfast (n.b.: the inverted commas around the word working are deliberate. Our official title was historical researchers and the we concentrated out research efforts on the historical pubs of Belfast...) after I had just completed a year's stint as a volunteer on an organic small holding / alternative living centre on the north coast of Northern Ireland.

For various reasons Susan wanted to leave Belfast again. For a start it didn't seem the right place and time to bring up her then 3 year old daughter. So after both completing our one-year contracts we moved lock, stock and barrel to England, Surrey to be precise, just outside London, where Susan had an offer of work.

To me England was always going to be temporary, until we could move on somewhere, where I could realise my dream of self-sufficiency, but having now a little girl to take care of, I had to live in what most people consider 'the real world' and earn some money. It soon became clear that due to brain damage and a therefore very unreliable memory resulting from a bad car accident long before I met Susan, she could not hold down any jobs for longer than 3 months. She was offered positions on the strength of a Masters degree, fluent French language skills and a pleasant personality, but she was unable to pick up any new skills required for the job, so she was always sacked after her probation period. To this day she finds it impossible to operate a computer even at the most basic level.

So I became the bread winner as I started a sort of career in the wine trade. Money wasn't great and hours were long, but we got by and even managed the first step onto the property ladder when house prices were down in the mid-90s. So temporary became 15 years, Susan's daughter became a beautiful young woman and went off to university. She now works as a successful model and still lives in London. This left us free to go our way.

To cut the rest of it short, just over 6 years ago we sold our house at a vast profit, enabling us to pay off our debts, buy a camper van and set off to find our piece of heaven. We finally found it in Italy, on the border between Liguria and Tuscany. For budget reasons we could only find a piece of land separate from our house (separated by over 10km!) and it was a jungle when we bought it, but slowly but surely we are getting to a point where we have 18 productive terraces with all manner of fruit trees as well as space for some vegetable beds.

Fast forwarding to the days before yesterday: to save money and petrol we usually walk or cycle to our land, involving a steep climb on the last stretch in either direction. As you can imagine, walking or cycling 12 km, followed by say 4 hours of physical work on the land and a return journey of the same length, tends to take it out of you, so we usually alternate days on the land with days at home. This depends of course very much on the weather as well. The past week the weather has been particularly good, so we've been particularly busy on the land for the final autumn clean-up, sowing the broad beans for spring harvesting and sowing some brassica in the cold frame (cavolo nero, pak choi and broccoli). On Saturday Susan walked across to the land whilst I cycled the 25 km to the olive grove that we look after to see how far the olives were. In my opinion they'll need at least another 3 weeks before ripening, but I also found a whole bunch of apples going to waste. I packed as many as I could onto the back of my bike, 10 kg or so.

Anyway, this all led to Sunday, 24th October 2010.

8 am: I don't have an alarm clock, nor an inner alarm. In fact I'm not good with mornings at all. Which is one of the reasons we got Eddie, the Beagle. On a sunny summer morning is soft nose will sniffle around my face at 7 or earlier, but on a semi-dark autumn morning he likes a lie-in too. On the other side of my head the soft purr of Mickey, the cat tells me that it's definitely time to get up.

Mickey wants her breakfast first. She gets it in the middle of our messy dining room table, so the dog can't get to it. Mickey is the only left of a whole battalion of cats that at one time seemed to invade our house. She is tidy and clean and well behaved. All the other ones didn't fancy playing with Eddie.

As Eddie and I step outside the door for our morning walk, it hasn't really got properly bright yet and dark clouds loom. It has been raining, but for the moment it's ok.

On our way we meet Pelé, one of the cats that was born in our bedroom.

With rain constantly threatening we go on a relatively short walk skirting the village, so we can dash for shelter if the heaven's open.

Over the sea it looks a bit brighter, but unfortunately the wind is coming the other way.

8.45 am: Just before we arrive home Eddie dashes ahead. When I arrive at home I just find Stella and Rooney saying good morning to each other in front of the neighbour's door, but no sign of Eddie. He's probably gone off to one of the many cat feeding stations around the narrow alleyways around our village to see if he can't get his share.

Now I make the first half of breakfast for us. Today it consists of some muesli with milk and some pure, freshly pressed apple juice from the apples I picked yesterday. Susan eats her's in bed, whilst I get the computer going, which takes a while (it's possibly as old as Mr.H's).

9.15: I eat my breakfast in front of the computer, while checking my e-mails, news on Facebook, latest blogs and have a nose through the newspapers (on-line). Eddie finally returns looking rather shame-faced. I tell him off for disappearing and give him his breakfast. Susan makes the second part of breakfast consisting of 2 slices of homemade bread with homemade jam, a small cup of mocca coffee and today, because it's Sunday and our next-door neighbour Piero has given us half a dozen of fresh eggs yesterday, a soft-boiled egg.

10 am: After having had her shower, Susan comes up with a mug of tea and tells me the shower is now free for me. We don't shower every day during the colder time of year. Our hot water comes from a 50l electrical boiler. Keeping it on constantly increases our electricity bill by 50%, so we only warm up water when needed and have relatively short showers, so we both have warm water. Today is also Susan's hair wash day and my haircut day. As Susan will proudly tell anyone who'll listen to her (even some who won't!) ever she has changed from her favourite brand shampoo and conditioner to using bicarbonate of soda, she has only needed to wash her hair every 2-3 weeks and it has never felt or looked better.

This is me before my shower and haircut...

...and this after Susan has cut my hair. Not a bad job, for someone who has only had a few goes at this, is it?

11 am: The rain outside really has set in now. I close the 2 gates leading into our inner courtyard, so the dog can run around freely as and when he wants, without being able to escape again. All clean, refreshed and dressed I'm looking at what needs doing. Indoor jobs get rather neglected if we are out on the land a lot, getting home knackered. I've been meaning to sort my seeds out. I have been saving some, gathering some from the wild and also have very kindly been given some by Stefani of Sicilian Sisters, who visited last week. I sort them by month in which they should be sown. Some need to be put into sachets and labelling, if I still remember what they are. While I do that I listen to some music, an MP3 I downloaded this morning from Rare World and Folklore Music, a collection of Celtic Music from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany.

12.30 pm: Gosh is it that time already? Susan had been tidying up in the kitchen and now comes up with some lunch: 2 sandwiches each with a chestnut and cottage cheese spread topped with slices of cucumber (every time I think the cucumbers are finally finished for the season, I find another one somewhere). We wash it down with a glass of homemade cider as a Sunday treat.

1 pm: It's time for some wood chopping. Our wood to heat our kitchen comes from some and diseased plum and cherry trees I've cut down on our land, some olive prunings from last year and a lot of scrap wood given to us by various neighbours who can't be bothered carrying any old bits of furniture, support beams or other bits down several flights of stairs. So they end up in our fireplace instead.

I like to keep the pile on bottom of our stairs to at least my height.

2.15 pm: No point overdoing it, this is a rest day after all. Many of the apples I brought back yesterday had been bashed about a bit on the back of my bike and want using up, so I decide to make stewed apples. Susan meanwhile is starting to crack a pile of walnuts that we foraged recently in preparation for dinner.

The stewed apple (appelmoes in Dutch or Apfelmus in German) is very simple to make. Core and roughly chop the apples and cook slowly with a little water, sugar to taste and some cinnamon until soft.

Then I run it through my tomato press to get rid of the tough skins and a perfect elk comes out... caribou... no... moose! mousse!! comes out.

Like that it keeps well for a week or two in the fridge. You can eat it mixed with other fruit, cream cheese, icecream, or just on it's own as a dessert.

3.30 pm: It's Sunday, it's a rest day, it's time for some quality time. Some of us here have recently set up an Irish music session group and I am woefully bad, so I should get a bit of guitar and tin whistle playing time in. I try out a few new songs and tunes and Susan joins in. One of the new songs is Lannigan's Ball. I must practice it a bit more so that I don't keep tripping over the words of this fast jig.

5.45 pm: I use a break in the rain for another brief walk with the dog, but after just half an hour we run for the shelter of home as rain descends again.

6.15 pm:
Susan and Eddie are complaining they are hungry, so Eddie gets his bowl-full. For dinner I had been wanting to try a recipe from Anna atBeautiful Liguria: Pansoti with Salsa di Noci. Pansoti is a simple egg-less pasta, stuffed with borage (foraged the day before), which is served with a walnut sauce. Pasta making is always a bit time consuming, but since I have found a pasta machine on a skip recently it has become a lot easier.

6.45 pm: Susan's programme on Italian TV starts: Chi Vuol Essere Millionario or Who Wants to a Millionaire. It helps her Italian she says as contestants take so long to answer the multiple choice questions that she can look up any unknown words in the question or answers in the dictionary and often still knows the answer before the contestants.

7.30 pm: Dinner is finally ready. Susan eats it while watching the rest of her programme, while I check on any e-mails again or other news. After the pasta we have a simple cucumber salald followed by some of the stewed apple I made earlier. Everything is washed down by another glass of cider or 3.

8 pm: After Milionario we watch some English language news on BBC World and a different version on Al Jazeera. Channel flicking I come across an old Sidney Poitier film in original language (I hate dubbed films, no matter what the original language), which finishes at 10.30 pm

11 pm: Susan goes to sleep, while I sit up for half and hour longer to read. Currently I'm reading A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks by Rory Spowers. It's about the author setting up an organic tea farm in Sri Lanka.

Today, Monday, it's raining again, so I have time to write all this for you. I would like to pass this meme on to two blogger friends I have been following if you feel so inclined:

Laura at French Country Challenge


Pat and Rick at Living the Dream in Portugal

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Wild food of the month October & a bloggy visit

Yesterday we had another bloggy visit. Stefani of Sicilian Sisters Grow Some Food came to see us all the way from California for the second time this year.

This time she didn't only bring her husband Eric along, but her 4 children as well, which insisted on being introduced to all the animals around our village.

Here's her youngest trying to feed grass to a donkey's bottom...

So, if you were wondering why she hasn't posted anything on her blog for a while, here's the answer: She's been taken her family on tractor rides in Italy amongst other things.

On another note, it's time for the wild food of the month feature. For October this should normally undisputedly be the chestnut. However, I have in the past written extensively about this beautiful fruit (here for instance), and this year we have an exceptionally bad year for them

Initially I had put that down to the vagaries of nature until I realised that just a few km up the valley, they have an extremely good year for chestnuts. Due to the above average rainfall this year, they have grown to a larger size and the crop is particularly healthy. The area around and just above our village on the other hand seems to have produced hardly anything and on closer inspection the leaves on the trees have started turning autumnal at least a month ahead of normal.

A chance meeting in the woods gave part of the explanation: insects have spread a virus amongst the trees and helicopters have already dropped large quantities of predatory insects to control the harmful ones, but it may already too late to save the extensive woods for a few km around us.

Further research on the internet seems to suggest that we are suffering from a twin attack of chestnut blight, which has caused famines in some of the remoter valleys shortly after the war, and the Oriental chestnut gall wasp. Over in Arcola we have a tree on our land which has not been affected so far, but we do have to go further afield for our chestnuts this year. I hope they'll manage to control these outbreaks, it's one of the most calorie-rich wild foods we gather.

So instead I'll write something on the little blue myrtle berry.

It may be a bit of an exaggeration to call it a wild food. The main use for it is as an ingredient for a Sardinian liqueur called mirto. There are 2 versions of it mirto bianco, made from the extremely aromatic leaves, and mirto classico, a dark red liqueur made from the berries. I have made neither so far, but I've picked a mixture of the berries and leaves today to dry for later use. The berries are also said to be good used cooked with venison or wild boar. The leaves, as I have already found out can be used in these essential oil burners instead of essential oil to spread a pleasant aroma in the room. I imagine they'd be good as part of a stuffing for some rabbit or grouse for example, although again not tried yet. Anyboy knows of any other uses, I'd love to hear.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Water, Water everywhere...

...and not a drop to drink! Today is Blog Action Day 2010 organised by Change.org. This year's theme is water.

So I thought I'll loose a few words on the subject. Here a few facts and figures:
  • African women walk over 40 billion hours each year carrying cisterns weighing up to 18 kilograms to gather water, which is usually still not safe to drink.
  • Every week, nearly 38,000 children under the age of 5 die from unsafe drinking water and unhygienic living conditions.
  • It takes 24 liters of water to produce one hamburger. That means it would take over 19.9 billion liters of water to make just one hamburger for every person in Europe
  • The US, Mexico and China lead the world in bottled water consumption, with people in the US drinking an average of 200 bottles of water per person each year. Over 17 million barrels of oil are needed to manufacture those water bottles, 86 percent of which will never be recycled.
  • Every day, 2 million tons of human waste are disposed of in water sources. This not only negatively impacts the environment but also harms the health of surrounding communities
  • Today, 40% of America's rivers and 46% of America's lakes are too polluted for fishing, swimming, or aquatic life

Climate change, over consumption and waste are at the heart of these problems. Even when there is, as the saying goes, water everywhere, there may not be a drop to drink, like recent floods in Pakistan after the worst monsoon rains on record showed.

(Above is not a picture of the Pakistan floods in case you were wondering, but the river Magra near us overflowing during last winter).

As usual I'm trying to relate this problem to me personally. What is my impact, and where can improve my responsible behaviour. I have always felt slightly bad about the fact that I use quite a lot of water in my garden. Although due to an unusually wet summer this year my water consumption no doubt was significantly lower. Still I'd say between middle of May to the end of August I spent about 2 hours watering every3-4 days, so 50 days of the year, 2 hours a day. In a normal summer that would be more.

I'm aware I could improve on that were I to install a more efficient irrigation system and catch more rain and dew water. I could save a considerable amount of water, however, as ever I'm short of the financial means to invest in the appropriate equipment.

I am however feeling slightly better about my own efforts since I found this website: waterfootprint.org. People have got used to talking about their carbon footprints, but this website calculates the waterfootprint of any consumer goods, foods, of countries and individuals.

Do have a look at this site, it's absolutely amazing what the water footprint for say a kg of rice is or a kg of beef. You can also work out your own water footprint and compare it to the average of your country and the world.

Any of these sort of tests are of course rough approximations, and also I found it difficult to separate my waterfootprint from Susan's. For example we don't wash dishes separately or clothes, so basically I calculated our combined footprint although sometimes no doubt I'll have got a bit muddled with that particular distinction.

Anyway the result was as follows:

Our combined water footprint: 1051 cubic metres per annum, but of that 107 for veg and 212 for fruit, which I produce myself and would therefore be included in the figure for watering my garden. Largest part cereal with 365 cubic metres per year. This comes down mostly to pasta, rice and bread flour, all of which we consume a lot of.

The average for Italy is 2332 cubic metres per head per year 51% of that falling outside the borders of the country. Global average 1243 m3/cap/yr. So in other words, we are on a third of the global average (1051 minus 319 divided by two people equals 366). This is partially due to us growing most of our own food and partially to us buying virtually no consumer goods.

The two areas where we can still improve is human waste and as I said a more efficient irrigation system. The first point we will be able to do if and when we have built ourselves a more permanent dwelling on our land from recycled materials. At this point in time I don't fancy walking the 12 km across to our land with a bucket of slosh, so for the time being we are still flushing our valuable body wastes down the bog.

The more observant amongst you will have noticed the little Blog Action Day petition on the top right of my blog. It is to support UN action to tackle the global water crisis. Do sign it. And think about water consumption, not only by turning the tap off while brushing your teeth but even more so when you buy consumer goods or unseasonal veg. I mean for goodness sake, apparently there are aspargaus on UK shelves which have been grown in the Peruvian desert, thanks to a 10 million investment resulting in water levels dropping dramatically and dangerously in that part of the world.

Let's make sure we all have clean water tomorrow, it's a human right.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Cider making

Now the promised post on cider making. Like all alcohol production it is actually remarkable simple. Last year we had a very poor apple harvest and hardly enough to eat let alone make cider. But the year before I had already made a batch of cider of which I wrote here. That time we crushed the apples in an old fashioned grape crusher and then pressed them in a basket press. Whilst this was a relatively quick way of working, I found the juice yield slightly disappointing. An estimated 50kg of apples gave us about 12 litres of cider after all the deposits were racked off.

This is how we did it this year. We picked some 100kg of apples of two varieties. One is a local variety caled Rotella, a slightly flattened shape apple with good acidity, firm juicy flesh and a very hard skin, which makes them good for cool storage.

The second variety I'm not sure what it is. It is similar to the Dutch variety Boskoop, which is generally regarded as a cooking apple. It is browny yellow in colour with a rough skin, high acid and sugar content and a more mealy consistency.

We first sorted the apples into to 2 batches, one with anything slightly damaged, bruised or with worm holes destined for the cider and the other with perfect appearance to be kept in trays in our cantina which we recenty took over from our absent neighbours (the absent neighbours don't know that, so we're calling it a squat...)

That left us with approximately 50 kg to go into the cider. This time I decided to really give our electric juicer a test and process it all through there. It passed the test with flying colours and the juice yield was much greater than with the method we used 2 years ago. However, it took us the best part of a day to get some 35 litres of juice.

This was filled into a large clean demijohn. It is important at this stage that you use a container big enough to allow the must to froth up during the first couple of days of violent fermentation. This particular container has a 70 litre capacity. Also make sure you place it where you will want the fermentation taking place before you fill it to avoid any hernias trying to move it afterwards.

You could simply leave it like that and fermentation is likely to start with any ambient yeasts, however I prefer to add some yeast at this stage. The enemy of any wine is oxygen, but one of the by-products of fermentation is CO2. As CO2 is heavier than ambient air it will form an invisible layer on top of your fermenting brew protecting it from oxygen. Hence the quicker your fermentation starts the better your chances are of not ending up with vinegar. So I added a few sachets of ordinary baker's yeast and put an airlock on top. The airlock is filled with water allowing excess gases to escape but not allowing anything into your wine in the other direction.

Now you sit back and wait. Depending on how much sugar your must contained originally and on the ambient temperature, fermentation can take anything between 1 to 3 weeks. Once you see that activitiy has seized, i.e. no more bubbles rising and your airlock not bubbling, you test the stuff. Carefully insert a length of plastic tubing inside and suck some into a test tube or similar. If you have a hydrometer insert it, and if it shows zero, all the sugar has been converted to alcohol and fermentation is finished. You can also simply test it by tasting. Concentrate on the front of your tongue to see if it is completely dry.

Now you are ready for the next stage. You will notice the cider being cloudy and a heavy deposit on the bottom of your demijohn. Carefully syphon the brew into a smaller container with a plastic tube avoiding to disturb the heavy deposit, which consists of dead yeast cells. The target container should be placed at a lower level and you simply suck at the end of the tube until you have a mouthfull and it will then start running into the lower container all by itself. Do not attempt to simply pour it from one container into another.

Ideally the smaller container should now fit the liquid snugly with as little as possible air in contact with the cider and it should be closed tightly with a cork. Leave like this for another week or 2, during which the liquid will clarify further and another much smaller deposit will form. Rack off this deposit in the same manner and bottle. Ideally you should now leave it mature for a few weeks before drinking it, if you can resist that long. In total, after the rackings we made 25 litres of cider at about 8% alcohol.

In an ideal world you have special cider apples, which make the best brews, but failing that you want sharp rather than overly sweet apples. Our brew is perfectly bone dry, quite high in acidity (we also picked much earlier than we did 2 years ago), with fruity apple notes and a certain earthiness. One other thing, whilst the odd worm or brown bit wouldn't spoil your final product, if there's a lot of rot I tend to cut that out. Another advantage of using the juicer as you handle each apple individually.


Saturday, 2 October 2010

Wild forager of the month...

This month's wild food forager is definitely Eddie the Beagle. He early on worked out that he liked all manner of fruit and gobbled up any fruit coming into season and falling off trees such as cherries, peaches, plums, figs, pears. With apples he likes chasing after them first before eating them. If I eat and apple he impatiently jumps up and down until I throw down the core for him.

When the hazelnut came into season, he first waited patiently while I picked those seemingly useless things. Finally he decided to have a go himself, cracked them with his teeth and ate the nut inside, before he ever saw me doing it. Very clever dog!

Now the chestnuts are coming into season, although it looks like a disappointing year for them. Eddie quickly worked out that you could eat them too and has no trouble getting them peeled, except... when they still have the prickly outer shell around them...

In other news, Susan and Eddie are bonding well. This was on their shared birthday (well Eddie's halfth birthday...)