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

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Saturday, 27 March 2010

We're Grandparents!!!

Well cat grandparents at any rate. Our model daughter hasn't yet decided to curtail her career. Yesterday I woke up with a splitting headache. As it coincided with the Scirocco once again sending wet an miserable weather our way, it was the perfect excuse to spend the day in bed. At some stage a couple of our cats, Rooney and Senna demanded entry, so we let them in and I went back to bed, while Susan busied herself downstairs in the kitchen.

After a wee while I became aware of some unusual activity. So I carefully opened my eyes... and there... right on my favourite TV chair was Rooney giving birth to a kitten. We knew she needed neutering, but couldn't afford the vet's bill. She had increased in size suspiciously, so it was bound to happen sooner or later. By the time I got my camera ready, the first one was already out: a tabby, just like her mother and grandmother (her natural grandmother that is, Susan is only her adoptive grandmother (Susan isn't tabby either (not even tubby I hasten to add))).

Here's number 2 coming through!

... and she's made it safely!

...but what's this? It's number 3!

Number 1 and 2 aren't sure yet whether they like being bored... born, sorry born!

And finally number 3 has made it too! Quite enough for a small cat like Rooney.

Here's Auntie Senna congratulating the new Mum and asking if she can be the godmother of number 3 who looks so much like her.

Finally, after much confusing woozling about, each finds a tit to suck Mummy's milk, and Mummy can finally have a rest.

And this is them 24 hours later all well.

We've sort of already thought of names. Now for my friends from across the Pond, they may not realise after whom Rooney was named. Wayne Rooney is currently the best English football (or as you would prefer to call it soccer) player. Now we didn't name her that because I am a particular fan of Manchester United, Rooney's current club, nor because he's a particularly good looking fellow (he isn't), neither would Wayne Rooney win the Brains of Britain competition (our Rooney would beat him hands down), nor was it because our Rooney is a partularily good footballer (although give her a wine bottle cork and she dispays some talent at dribbling!). The naming came about due to another marked similarity between the two, when Rooney was still a kitten (our Rooney that is). She had huge ears, just like her namesake. Whilst the footballer is still afflicted with those ears, our Rooney sort of has grown into her ears, but the name stuck.

Now staying on the football theme, we decided to give the kittens footballer's names too. The dark tabby one (in the middle of Susan's hand) we decided to call Pelé, after the greatest footballer ever to grace a pitch. The ginger one (to the right on Susan's hand) shall be named Cruyff (pronounced more or less Kroif), after Johan Cruyff, the best footballer ever to come out of the Netherlands. Finally, the youngest multi-coloured one shall be called Georgie, after George Best, the best ever footballer from Northern Ireland and a particular favourite of Susan's (don't get her going on the day she accidentally passed him on the Belfast airport that now bears his name...).

Now instead of being broke and having 5 cats to feed, we're now broke with 8 cats to feed! Not sure if that puppy has been born yet. Well anyway, any donations of cat food will be gracefully accepted and if any of you ever fancied a wee kitten... Pleeeeeeezzzeee, taking them off our hands! I believe you can even eat them!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

It's asparagus time!

We went off on a walk to our post office today. It was the first day of the year on which we went out of the door, walked a few metres, and then decided, there was no need for a jacket at all!

Anyway I had already decided that dinner was going to be a risotto involving some of our leek and some borage I was going to pick on the way to the post office. On the way back we decided to take the more scenic route, over the mountain, through the woods and past the old castle ruin.

And suddenly I spotted them! Wild asparagus!

In previous years I've always kind of missed the boat. Gathering asparagus is a very popular past time here, and if you don't get up early enough, they will literally all be snapped up before you realise the season has begun. So they must have just produced their long shoots a couple of days ago.

To the untrained eye, asparagus isn't that easy to spot. The trick is, you start looking for the weed weeks before the season starts and memorise where you've seen them.

The weed is much easier to spot. Once you've seen a few you start looking around for the shoots. They can be quite a distance from the rest of the plant. They grow very long and wind themselves around other plants. Of course wild asparagus is much thinner than the commercial variety, but no less tasty!.

The outstretched tongue is for those of our greedy neighbours I've beaten to the first harvest this year and to a certain so-and-so, who tried to make me jealous yesterday with boasting about her asparagus meal (she'll know who I'm talking about... :-)).

I should've maybe not mentioned this in my blog at all lest I trigger a stampede into the woods in the next couple of days, but I think most of our neighbours have already cottoned on to the fact that it's asparagus season. On our way out of the woods we met an elderly couple with baskets heading into the woods. And as we approached the village we bumped into Bruno, who asked me if we had found any asparagus, despite the fact that I had disguised them in a non-see-through plastic bag. Can't keep anything a secret here for long!

Here's a funny gnawed tree we saw on our walk, which no doubt will fall over soon.

... and on our land, after the almond and plum trees, now the peaches in flower.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Spring sowing take 2

Today's post is mostly my own personal diary entry on what I've sown during this waxing moon phase. So if you're not really into gardening, stop reading now. I don't want to bore you.

This week marked the second big sowing phase for this spring, as my neighbour Antonio helpfully pointed out last week. You just walk around the village innocently, when you are approached by your neighbours, telling you what to sow and when.

Anyway, the weather forecast predicted the Scirocco wind to start up again the tail end of this week, so we were quite keen to get the sowing finished before then. The Scirocco brings warm and moist air our way, so ideal for freshly sown seeds (indeed during the night there has been some rain and it looks like more in the air).

So to start off with I needed to make some room in the cold frame. As usual I sowed out far too many lettuce seeds and they were growing fast. Now I can't stand simply thining them out and discarding the extras. So I started transplanting some. I counted 57 plants so far which have gone partially amongst the leeks and onions on terrace 6 and partially on an empty bed by the Rennet apple tree on Terrace 10 (the locations are mainly as a reminder to myself, so you can skip over those).

The other thing that was screaming to be transplanted were the lentils. They had started to hit the ceiling of the cold frame. There were some 17 plants which had already developed an amazing root system:

I'm not sure if they need any support, but I gave them a bit of bamboo each, just in case and interplanted them with a few more lettuces.

Now for the sowing. In the cold frame I sowed the following:
  • 2 types of tomato kindly supplied to me by Beck of http://greenspain.blogspot.com/: kumato, a brown tomato, which matures from the inside out and can therefore be eaten when still green on the outside and Campari a slightly larger cherry tom. Incidentally, my cold frame proved so effective, that during one of the sunny days last week my main tomato variety, marmande, simply frizzled and burned. So I'm glad to have some backup.
  • 2 types of cucumber: Verde China and Market More
  • 3 types of squash, 1 summer and 2 winter: Now, apart from courgettes, I've never really grown squashes and have rarely even eaten them. The varieties I went for were a pattypan squash called sunburst (mostly because it looked pretty on the picture of the seed packet, although I have no idea what it's going to be like or even how to cook it), a kind of butternut squash called violina lunga and an actual Halloween type pumpkin called Big Max. What possesed me to go for the latter I have no idea. I don't even particularly like pumpkin ever since I was introduced to sweet pumkin pies one Halloween I had the misfortune to spend in America back in 1979. And this fellow is said to produce 45kg fruit if you let it. How on earth am I going to stagger up our terraces with a pumpkin that size and how are we going to manage to eat it all!?! Well to solve the space problem that comes with these ginormous plants I have been gathering old car tyres and the like to place in little niches to small to dig a whole bed. So I'll just fill them up some compost and let them get on with it out of the way of other veg, just competing with their surrounding olive trees.
  • Another chilli calledPiccante a Mazzetti, an Italian varietal growing upright in little bunches.
  • more basil. You can never have enough!
  • another lettuce called Romana verde
Outside I've sown the following:
  • dwarf nasturtium amongst my brassica (T9)
  • wild rocket (rear bed T2)
  • Leaf chicory Catalogna Gigante di Chioggia (rear bed T2)
  • 2 types of chard: Coste verde a costa bianco and bionda a costa argentata (T10 rear)
  • flat leafed parsley (T10 amongst chard and onions)
  • Endive Romaesco (T10 front amongst lettuce)
  • and finally sweet corn mixed from saved seeds (T 13).
Then disaster struck. Just as I was going to untangle our long hoses for the first time this year to give the sweetcorn a good watering, I discovered that they had suffered badly during the winter and snapped in various places. Now our water source is on terrace number 5 (counting from the top, where the road access is). What remains of our hoses reaches Terrace 10 at a stretch, and the thirsty sweetcorn is on terrace 13. So yours truly had to run up and down the terraces (have I mentioned how steep they are?) with a watering can. So as a matter of priority, we need to invest in some new hoses, before the summer starts properly.

So for those who have read this far and haven't fallen asleep yet, here a pretty pic of some coltsfoot. Makes a good cure for coughs apparently. I'd gather some if ever I'd egt a cough.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

of plums

I'm not happy if I haven't planted at least 2 trees during any winter / spring. Most the wood we burn is just prunings or dead or diseased trees, but I feel I need to put back in, what I take out.

I had already planted an apricot early on in the season, which my neighbour really had dug up a bit too early. I'm still not sure if it's going to survive. It still has green bits, but no developed buds to burst into flower yet. Anyway, so yesterday was the day to plant another tree, before it was getting too late.

Meet Stan

No the one on the right is Susan of course, it's Stan the Stanley plum in the left. We have quite a number of plum trees, but most of them are wild plums: a very early variety of small yellow plums, which make kilos of jam for us each year, a slightly larger, egg-shaped yellow variety and a few purple plums, which never seem to be producing much and when they do they go straight from green and hard to rotten. So I wanted a later variety of purple plums. It says about this one that it's particularly well suited for drying. I've been meaning to get more into drying things so I'm hopeful that this little fellow will perform well for us.

And speaking of plums, the early wild variety is now in full flower:

Monday, 15 March 2010

Of arm wrestling, nuts and bulbs

Just a quick update after a week's silence. Last week, the beginning particularly, winter and spring had their annual arm wrestle. Last year they had cancelled the event as winter never made a proper appearance last year. But this year, just as you thought spring had finally arrived, winter let's you know he is not going without one last showdown against spring.

So they stand there, facing each other. Spring in the south at the mouth of the river and over the Med, Winter on top of the mountains on the Appenines. So all of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, winter threw everything he could at spring: icy northern winds swept down the valley, dropping temperatures back to freezing, even some snowflakes drifted by! Springs arm was nearly on the table, but then... by Thursday she was starting to get at least on level terms. Friday winter threw a bit more wind back and some cold misty rain, but you could tell he was already weakening. Saturday, winter got up and left the table, heading back up north again to not to return until next year.

So the wild flowers are out in lovely balmy sunshine. I thought this might be echinacea, but on closer inspection don't think it is. Pretty though!

I'm pleased to say that my cold frame has been doing the job admirably. Even on Monday, when temperatures with windchill were below zero, inside we measured 15 C. And yesterday morning we measured this:

By early afternoon the mercury had climbed to 45C. Almost too hot for my gherkin seedlings, which I have had to transplant into pots already. The tomatoes and aubergines are also poking their heads out, only the peppers are still taking their time. Today is New Moon, so a break day for gardeners and the starting pistol for the next lot of spring sowing.

Something a bit different on my favourite subject, wild food. The other night I was reading a book in bed, Susan had already gone to sleep next to me. I was reading Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It's an autobiographical book by an American woman who goes through something of an early mid-life crisis. In order to find herself she goes travelling for one year to Italy, India and Indonesia. I won't bore you with the details, it's not relevant for this story.

I was reading over this one bit, where she describes eating out in Rome and being served pickled wild hyacinth bulbs. You know me, I was hooked immediately. I gave Susan a violent shake: "Susan! Susan!!" - "Hmmpff..?" "you know those bulbs on our land we keep unearthing and throwing out?" - "t'll me t'mrrow...." - "but... but... you can eat them! Pickled!!!"

Needless to say I barely slept a wink that night with excitement! A search on the internet the next day confirmed it. They are known as lampascioni in Italy and are a particular speciality in Puglia in the south.

Then coming to think of it, surely I had seen them, just not knowing what they were. Today and yesterday was the St Joseph Day Festa (Happy St. Joe's Day Joe!), which involves a huge sprawling market in the city of Sarzana. And there was a stand selling olives, pickles and... Lampascioni. You can see them in the foreground.
So typically, we've done all of our major digging for the season and, not knowing what they were, I threw all the bulbs I found into the general countryside. Now that I was actually looking for some I could barely find a handful:

I shall try and pickle them or eat them some other way. Apparently they are rather bitter and should therefore be boiled and left in the cooking water overnight. I'll let you know of the results.

Finally a couple more images from the festa in Sarzana. St. Joe appears to be the patron saint of the hazelnut as they are a bit of theme around this particular festa. Necklaces made from hazelnuts were on sale everywhere as well as the ubiquitous porchetta, without which no festa in Italy is complete.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

...gone to the dogs

I just quickly wanted to introduce you to Rufie. He's been our helper on wild food forages over the last 2 weeks, while his owners were away in England.

His self esteem has been suffering a bit while he was with us, as the people in our village gave him the nick name "il cinghiale", the wildboar and was described as "simpatico, ma un po brutto", friendly, but a bit ugly. I must admit he wouldn't be my ideal dog, I'd prefer one with actual legs, so he can manage to go on one of our longer walks. This one gives up after about 10 km.

Anyway, today him and his to two cat friends are going back home, but on my final walk with him this morning I bumped into our neighbour Piero. You know the one with the donkeys, chickens and wild boar and 25 hunting dogs. He said one of his dogs is about to give birth to a litter of puppies at the end of the month and asked if I wanted one. Now I only have to twist Susan's arm. I'm not sure what kind of dog it is going to be yet, so will have to make sure it has legs first.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Waning moon sowing

With my very much simplified understanding of gardening with the moon phases, I plant things growing up during the waxing moon phase and things growing down during the waning moon. In keeping with that I planted potatoes, carrots and leeks yesterday. The carrots, a variety called Karnavit, and the leeks ("long winter") I planted in the cold frame. I had already sowed some leeks of a variety called "Carentan" during the previous waning moon phase and they are coming along nicely.

During the spring-like weather until the weekend, the temperatures inside the cold frame hovered around the mid-twenties Celcius range, much warmer than any part of our house! However, the last couple of days the temperatures dropped noticably again and inside the frame it's now more like 15 C (still warmer than the house...just). I hope that it's not going to get much colder again, as it sometimes does with us. In some years we've had the coldest weather of the winter in mid-March.

The seed potatoes I've used are partially left-overs tiny ones from last year, which have sprouted nicely. They are a mealy type yellow potato. The others are from a local supermarket. They've reduced the price of a 10kg sack of red potatoes, because they had started sprouting. That's of course ideal for planting them and they only cost me €2.

I planted them on the terrace that last year had aubergines and some borlotti beans. The bigger ones I cut in half or even in quarters, because they had so many eyes on them.

Elsewhere in the garden the broad beans are looking well:

Note the bumble bee on the broad bean blossom! I feel another poem coming on. Something like: Bumble bee battering broad bean blossoms but bringing blenty bollen... no... no... something's not working here... Anybody with any better ideas?

In the cold frame the first seedlings are appearing:


lentils (it's working!... so far...)

kohlrabi (old seeds, but still germinating)

A view underneath the glass to the half with the lettuces in the background and raddishes (also sown a month ago) up front,

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Wild Food of the Month: March

Here comes part 3 of my popular series of wild foods of the month. As I had said, I was going to feature the Judas tree, but I have to find one first, so today I'll be talking about something slightly less exotic, borage. I know for many of you it's simply a garden plant, but here it grows everywhere in abundance and it's at it's best right now.

Many of you will know it as a salad ingredient. Pick the young leaves and the pretty blue flowers of this plant. The leaves are rather hairy and coarse so need to be chopped finely. They also make nice additions to refreshing summer drinks or are good as a tea. However I would like to introduce you with my favourite way of eating borage, as a stuffing to ravioli as what the Italians call ravioli al borragine. It makes seasonal appearances on restaurant menus here and is usually quite expensive. I've never looked at a recipe of it, but came up with my own version, which follows here:


For the stuffing:

  • 1 pint borage leaves, plus a handful of flowers
  • 250g ricotta cheese
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 100g hard cheese, i.e. Parmesan or Grana Padano or a mild pecorino, but not too mature otherwise it will mask the delicate flavour of the borage
  • 2 tbsp of breadcrumbs
  • Pepper and a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil to taste

For the pasta dough:

  • 100g white flour (grade 00) per person plus 100g extra if anyone wants seconds!
  • 1 egg per 100g flour
  • Pinch of salt and a touch of olive oil

To serve:

  • Large knob of butter
  • A handful of sage leaves
  • Some grated cheese (optional)


    1. Place all the ingredients except the flowers for the stuffing into a food processor and blend until smooth:

    1. Knead together the ingredients for the dough to make a smooth dough. If too dry add a splash of water.

    1. In batches roll out the dough as thinly as possible. If you have a pasta machine, use it, I unfortunately don’t. Cut dough into rectangles of about 3x4cm. Don’t worry if some are a bit bigger or misshapen. Into each rectangle place a dollop of the stuffing.

    1. Brush the edge of each rectangle (trangle, trapeze, strange wobbly shape...) with some water and stick together to form a little pasta pocket enclosing the filling. Set aside. This part of the job is a bit fiddly so give yourself plenty of time.
    2. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. In the meantime gently heat the butter in a frying and fry the fresh sage leaves until crispy. Drop the ravioli into the boiling water. Once they float to the surface, which should only take a couple of minutes, they are ready. Taste one to make sure. Drain the ravioli and serve with the sage butter, the reserved borage flowers and, if you like, some grated cheese

It is delicious, but it ain't half fiddly. I stood in the kitchen for 2 hours. I don't know why I keep doing it, we didn't even have guests to impress with this. Those photos should also show everyone why I could never be a chef. Presentation has never been my strong point, I'm mostly concerned that it tastes good.