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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Saturday, 23 June 2012

On mushrooms...

"Mycelium is Earth’s natural Internet.” (Paul Stamets)
Watch this amazing video, you'll never look at mushrooms the same way again...


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Of Dead Roosters and a Medicinal Plant of the month

Permaculturists seem to have serious issues of not being able to let go of a good thing  Only 2 weeks after the end of the course 8 of us reconvened near Parma for a weekend.  The participants of this year's Permaculture Design Course have now renamed themselves the Company of the Dead Rooster, due to an unfortunate incident involving a rooster at the permaculture site in Scagnello.  Above you can see our new mascott.

During last weekend's meeting we... didn't actually do that much except for...

Observing nature (very important in permaculture!):

Attempting to light a fire in the time honoured way with a stick and tinder and a piece of wood...

...and of course a cigarette lighter...

.....we built a space saving, easy to empty compost bin from scrap material:

...Gathered some food from the wild:

 ...and just generally had some fun:

But enough of that.  In a break from my usual wild food of the month I thought I'll include a medicinal herb of the month, although it has some limited edible uses too: St. John's Wort hypericum perforatum.  This is particularly timely as the ideal time to pick this herb is supposed to be St. John's Day, which is the 24th June.  This is what it looks like:

It grows up to 1m tall on quite woody stems with pairs of delicate leaves, which if held against the light display small dots, which are oil oil glands.  The flowers are bright yekkow and slightly lemon scented.  The edible uses are that the leaves can be used sparingly in a salad, although I find them a bit bitter.  The more useful thing I imagine would be to use the dried leaves and fruit as a tea substitute as they are high in tannins.  The flowers are used to flavour liquers or mead.

The medicinal properties are much more exciting for this plant.  A tea made from the whole plant has been clinically proven to treat depression.  It is also anti-viral and a sedative.  Externally it is used in a manner of ways against all kinds of skin conditions from wrinkles to cuts and bruises, from varicose veins to haemorrhoids, burns, dry flaky skin, as an insect repellant, to treat rheumatism and gout and other pains and it is even being investigated as a treatment for AIDS.

The best way to use it externally is to make St. John's oil.  Stuff a load of flowers picked roundabout now into a glass jar, top with olive oil or soya oil and leave standing in the sun for some 20 days.  Strain and use on any of the above mentioned conditions externally.  A word of caution though:  Taken internally the plant interacts with other prescribed drugs including the contraceptive pill and reduces their effectiveness.  So always consult your doctor or herbalist before trying this.

Oh and you can find the plant pretty much all over Europe on the side of the road and hedge or woodland edges.

In other news, the weather is playing silly-buggers with us once again.  The first half of June it was unseasonally cool with temperature in the mid-teens Celsius with lots of rain, the second half of June it all of a sudden became tropical with temperatures nearing 40 Celsius.  It's crazy!  In the middle of this heatwave we've had two more helpers arrive all the way from sunny Spain, Saray and David.  Yesterday we picked plums with them:

..and then turned them into jam (the plums that is, not the helpers...) over an open fire, which in some ways was not the best idea on a scorcher like yesterday:

But hey we survived after doing a Spanish style siesta while the sun was at its most intense...

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

PERMACULTURE COURSE, a review. and some practical applications

I am still overwhelmed by the emotions and memories of the Permaculture Design Course which I have recently attended in Scagnello, Piemonte about 200km West of where we live.  There is only one thing I can say if ever any of you had ever considered taking the course: DO IT!

I have learned so much.  There was of course the course itself and many things weren't that new to me, you can find much of it on-line or in books.  It did help organise things in my head though and I realised that many things I was doing were already permaculture concepts without actually realising I was doing it. There is still much more to learn and the course really is just a beginning.  Often time restrictions didn't allow to get as deep into some subjects as I would have whished.

But the most amazing part of the course was meeting and becoming friends with so may inspiring and like-minded people and that will stay with me for the rest of my life:

Above just the group who chose to camp on the Permaculture Test Site, but each and everyone of the 25 particpants was a uniquely talented, positive and critical thinking person with a real vision for the future, a harmonious future.  We have connected as group like I have rarely experienced in any walk of life and we will remain a true network and some of the friendships forged I know will last a lifetime.  For a few more impressions have a look at the photos on the Italian Permaculture site and have a read (both in Italian and English) of this beautifully written e-mail a few days after the course by Andrea (also known as Mayemi).

Anyway, as I'm slowly descending back to planet Earth I have some catching up to do having been away for 2 weeks, so time to apply some of newly learned skills into practice.  Yesterday we passed another bunch of old doors on a skip on the way to our land, something I had been on the look out for for some time.  Took them straight to the land to build another raised bed on the second terrace along the same lines as the one we had already built on the first terrace and I applied several permaculture principles in its design.

The first principle we applied is that of zoning, where your house is zone 0, the area immediately outside your home is zone 1, containing the kitchen garden and the highest maintenance part of the garden, going all the way out to zone 5, which is the way and beyond, where you contemplate nature and forage.  Previously we didn't really have a zone 0 on our land, as we didn't have any shelter there, but zone 1 was centred around the 5th terrace, where initially we had the only water access, there was the tool shed, a heavy marble table and a barbecue.  We placed a small herb garden there too.

Now the tool shed has finally collapsed to have been replaced by the caravan which sits at the very top of the property.  Also thanks to the plumbing skills of our friend Stephen, we now have a second and third water connection, near the caravan.  So when our last helpers, Becky and Nick suggested moving the rest of the stuff from terrace 5 to terrace 2, where they built us a pizza oven, it made perfect sense to make this our new zone 1.  The raised beds are going to have the most labour intensive crops growing in them, so it makes sense having them on terrace 1 and 2, which is now the area we spend most time in.

This is what we did for building the raised bed:  We put the doors upright against the back of the terrace like this leaving a little bit of a gap:

In the background you can see the BBQ, table and solar dehydrator and above you can just make out the caravan.  Next I cut into the side of the terrace to level things and take some of the topsoil off the side.  There is a surprising amount of topsoil on those vertical bits, which is fed from some oak trees above.

Incidentally, talking about vertical bits, that's another thing permaculture teaches us: there are no problems, just challenges.  I've always looked at the steep gradient of our land as a problem, but looking at it from another viewpoint: On paper my land consists of about 2,000 sqm.  That presumably is calculated on the horizontal parts.  However having an average gradient of 40% that means I have an additional 700sqm of vertical land.  You might not think this to be very useful, but there are some trees growing on the vertical areas, as well as many edible herbs and not to forget, heaps of biomass, which when cut feeds the soil below on the horizontal bits!

Anyway, back to the raised bed: next I threw some of the aforemntioned biomass, which we had cut earlier a bit fiurther up the slope and filled it in to provide nutrient and build up some soil.

..and finally, also in the interest of building soil and fertility we added some donkey manure on top:

...kindly donated to us by Pietro, the donkey (not to be confused with any permaculture teachers I may have met in the recent past...)

Another principle of permaculture is to have multiple functions for each element and this raised bed certainly complies with that.
  • It is soil building as I am adding plenty of organic matter and we had lost so much topsoil during the Christmas 2010 landslides.  
  • It prevents soil compaction.  Previously I had just used the whole width of the terrace, which meant I had to walk straight through the beds and turning our heavy clay soil into hard pan resulting in poor yields.  So although I have decreased the actual growing area I am expecting a higher yield.  
  • The new raised bed will slow and store water.  Water running off the vertical side of the terrace will first hit the fertile soil of the raised bed.  The rich soil will be much better at absorbing the excess water, unlike the hard clay surface which was the previous feature of this terrace.
  • This in turn will also prevent erosion and reduce the chance of landslides.
  • Being a raised bed means I don't have to bend over quite so much when working the bed, making work lighter.  I'm not getting any younger you know!
You're starting to get the picture.  I shall be boring you guys to death with all that permaculture stuff in my head.