May in Piemonte - Chicken Time!
May hit with the heat of a Swedish sauna and we stepped gaily into it, luxuriating in balmy evenings, like a rose scented warm bath. At last, the sun was setting after 8.30pm and we could pretend we were on holiday in beautiful Piemonte and the rolling Langhe Hills, but no and as we keep saying, ‘This is what we signed up for’, this isn’t a holiday it is our life. Wow. Never a day goes by where I don’t pinch myself and give great thanks to my sheer plain hard work in the dark corporate days since the financial crash and know that all that graft and mental pain was worth it for this.
We are wandering, this morning, through the cobbled street of our inner town, we look at the frescoes dotting the walls, they retell the story of the crusades, the Christian war against the Islamic invasion of the Southern territories, we are captivated by these beautiful frescoes and the tale of the brave knight from here who rode out to join the crusades. I have never seen this story told with civic pride on the walls of a street before. There are more signs of the crusades along the archway covered lane where our Friday market lines up, a man size wooden crusader with its face missing so the few tourists who arrive here can have their memento of this town in their holiday pics, with their faces poking through the hole, putting on their best ‘Crusade war face’. We decided not to take such a picture, after all we aren’t tourists - we live here. Along this street are many little business enterprises, which you just wouldn’t know existed, as this is a pedestrian street only, for most of it. Driving through this town you would think there was not much going on, but like with many of Italy’s towns and villages the outskirts do not paint the true picture of the real town in the inner core.
“Andrew!”, calls a woman’s voice from behind, as we float along the cobbles, turning we see our local antiquities dealer, Monica, running up to us. She announces that she has found the glasses Andrew mentioned briefly a few months ago and ushers us into her cool bewitching shop. Entering here is like being hypnotised, I fall into a buying trance each time. In my life I have rarely bought anything new, after all why buy new when you can buy history instead? There are many useful and purposeful household furniture and furnishings in this shop, all mostly Italian and clearly well loved. Huge mahogany dressers and wardrobes that wouldn’t have looked out of place in ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’, gleam with varnish and hidden promise. I can imagine them sat in a place of pride in a massive palace of a home, the height of some of these wardrobes would have almost reached the top of our old house in Dublin, getting them up the stairs – well we would have had to take the roof off! In our Langhe house the ceilings are refreshingly high but as we inherited some wonderful cherry wood wardrobes with the house I can only marvel at these ones instead. There are grand dining tables of dark wood with matching chairs, glassware and dining sets from all decades from the early 1900’s on-wards that I truly covet but again we are stocked with an array of 1960’s dining ware that came with the house too.
I wander round taking it all in and smelling the polish and wax of the truly cared for antiquities. It’s quite astonishing how Monica remembers what Andrew had, briefly in passing, asked for the last time we were here, it must have been January. I have an additional level of admiration for this canny business woman, what a lady. She is crouched down over in the corner of the shop, near her office, rifling through a large cardboard box, which is full of glasses wrapped in newspaper and Andrew is bending over the box looking like a child about to receive a surprise Birthday present, she delicately unwraps a long stemmed champagne glass, not a flute, but a real flat goblet champagne glass, or as my sister might say something like a ‘Babycham’ glass, well, yes, but this one is ever so pretty, it has detailing etched around the edge like lace ribbon and Andrew is, after a decade long search for these glasses, truly in awe. He asks the price and I can see him hold his breath and she says €12, there are 6 glasses so €72, ouch, are they worth it? I see him balk a little and gently say, "Ahh, ‘troppo cara, no?" (very dear, no?) now she looks taken aback, which she is oft to do when we question her on the prices, she says in quick reply, "What? €12 for 6 glasses!" My eyes widen into saucers, €12 for 6 antique champagne glasses! You have to be kidding us. Andrew is back tracking fast, "Oh, mi dispiace, Monica, I thought you meant €12 each!" They both start laughing, and the warmth of the deal descends, as Andrew reaches for his wallet. The thing is, having antiquity scavenged my heart out in places like Rye, in Sussex England, I would probably have accepted them being €72 but here in Italy in a real non tourist town, prices are more than reasonable. But I have my own scavenge to attend to.
There is one thing I really need here in Italy and that is a desk. My neck, shoulders and back have progressively been getting much worse of late from trying to work from the couch in the living room. With our procrastinating over the much-desired attic extension we are forced to work in these non-ergonomically correct positions. My once employer, ‘Intel’, would have a hernia! They of the measuring tape and correct desk postural set up, such an anti-litigious company! I on the other hand can only sue myself if I end up with a humpback, or lumbar damage. Ah the joys of self-employment. I take myself around Monica’s shop looking at desk level, there are so many tables and grand desks. One desk with a smoked brown glass top catches my eye, it’s hardly noticeable at about a metre in width by half a metre deep. The glass covers an old writing top of fading leather and there are drawers, 4 small A4 sized wooden drawers on one leg side and a long width drawer above the seating alcove. The wood is dark brown with wear and tear of what must be students past nicks here and there. I have found my desk.
There is a tiny chair tucked under that desk, that is also wooden with etched flowers in the back panel and I take a seat at it, and it is just my size, certainly this desk belonged to either a woman, or a child. This is perfect for me. “Monica”, I ask tentatively, she looks over, still engrossed with the deal on the glasses and wrapping them in even more paper. “How much is this desk?” I try to not look too eager, “€110.” she replies. Darn it, after the €12 glasses my expectations had been a bit out of whack, still, not a bad price for an antique writing desk, and how much is my back and shoulders worth to me? “And the chair?”, she wanders over with her polishing cloth in hand, “That will be €20”. Right I think, I need a deal here, Monica is polishing the glass top on the desk to a bright glistening sheen. I ask her, “Do you have a cushion? The chair is a bit uncomfortable without one.” She heads off to the office and returns with a delightful chintz blue and white floral cushion and ties it on to the chair. “I will take it”, the fateful words have tumbled out, just like that, “But can I have the cushion?” “Of course!” she laughs and says she will give the cushion for free and take €10 off the price for taking both desk and chair, deal, I shake her hand and 5 minutes later we leave the shop with 6 antique champagne glasses and a vintage desk, chair and the all-important cushion. You see, a buying hypnosis! We were only stepping out this morning for a coffee!
May starts to speed by fast, and we keep our heads down and work as hard as we can on our remote businesses. We are still attached to Dublin for financing this new life and clients take precedent over our days. Andrew again faces over a week in Dublin, including an award ceremony for his tourist site tech application, he frequently gets nominated and the tux gets a dusting down each time, this time it’s starting to sag around him, he is getting so toned and fit working the land each day, the pounds have been shedding. I wish the same would happen to me!
While he is away, I ‘hatch’ a plan to surprise him on his return. One of our to-do list items is to get hens in the garden. I am obsessed with hens, ever since I played on my Irish family’s farm in County Clare with the hens, I have sought chickens out over the years and wished that, one day, I would have the opportunity to have the land to afford the chickens a good lifestyle, well now we do. I can’t put the egg before the chicken though, a house is needed first. I am at my new desk in the correct ergonomic set up and am searching and searching on the internet for a hen house. I did not anticipate that this would be a challenge. Three days later I am still at my desk searching. The problem is Italian hen houses are ugly, most are made of metal and are not aesthetically pleasing. This is bizarre considering Italian design is known for its style, often over substance. I have had to resort to looking in the UK. They seem to have the most beautiful hen houses, wooden mini cottage style housing with good runs and at extraordinarily good prices. Most do not deliver outside of the UK though, which I can never understand. It’s not much hardship to trade in the EU for the UK right now, though with Brexit looming… I eventually find one lone supplier who will ship to Italy, thank the God’s! I press buy and it’s done, step one of the hen plan.
Three days later the hen house arrives. Andrew is still in Ireland and I am alone with 2 large, heavy, flat pack boxes. Now, I am an ardent feminist in many areas of life and believe in equality and I know I must do this for all women and my hens. I heave the flat pack boxes into position on the veranda, my tiny biceps are popping into life and yes, a sweat bead has formed on my brow. Why do couriers fail to place these where you need to assemble them? It is 5pm and I have 4 hours before it gets dark to assemble the hen house. Why the panic you might wonder? Well, I have done something quite daft, I have ordered the hens for collection tomorrow afternoon from the local supplier! Yes, I have been bold and rather rash and I have put the egg before the chicken! I have negative visions of having to keep the hens in their box in the garage if I can’t get this built in time. What if they break out of the box in the night and poop all over the garage? ‘Stop that!’, I say to myself there will be no pooping in the garage I am going to build this hen house by myself today! I set to.
4 hours later and my body aching from the contortionist positions I have put myself into, akin to playing twister like a Chinese gymnast, while trying to assemble this thing and I reckon I am half way through. The sun is setting and the clock is ticking. I realise that I can’t lift the bloody thing halfway through assembling, yes swearing has crept in with the exasperating flat pack challenge. I need to remove the last section I painstakingly screwed in and move it, to the grassed terrace below the house where it will finally be, to finish the assembly off. I grab the wheel barrow and load it up and then unload it all into the boot, thank goodness we bought an estate. I am now running down the drive with the wheel barrow to the next lower terrace and cutting over the long wild grass and flowers and divet ground in my wellies to the furthest spot I can drive into and the sun has long since said goodbye and good luck over the far Western hill. I run back up the driveway, panting and sweating buckets. I will not be defeated. I grab the torch and jump into the car and drive it, the furthest I can go by car, carefully onto the terrace and unload it half way along the terrace, into the wheel barrow and charge back and forth with the wheel barrow four times to unload all the way off at the far end of the terrace and the chosen site. The dark violet light of dusk has arrived and I can see the moon, if there is a man in the moon I am sure he is shaking his head and laughing at me now, the crickets are sounding off their chirrups into the night all around me and I can no longer see much in the long grass to either side, I refuse to think about snakes! It is 9.30pm. 2 hours later in the pitch black the last screw goes in and I crash to my knees with weariness and a desperate craving for bed.
It has arrived, the day I have been waiting for all my life has arrived. It is chicken day. I jump out of my deep comatose sleep and hasten to the veranda to look down on my coop, it is still standing. I am so delighted with myself I can’t stop smiling. I need to collect the chickens at 3.30pm, at 2.30pm I am twitching and wishing the seconds to go, eventually at 3pm I jump in the car and set off to Cessole where I am picking up the hens from the local dealer. Bizarrely this place is a tiny DIY and animal feed centre with a petrol station out front. You order your chickens, choosing from a poster on the back of the wooden office door where there are 9 pictures of different chickens, some for eating, some for laying and some for being pretty, I think! I had selected 4 of the ‘Rosso Pesante’ the other day, which I have discovered are ‘Golden Comet’s’ in English hen language and prolific layers. I think Golden Comet’s are far nicer sounding than Red Peasants! I arrive at the store and pull up calmly, though my insides are doing somersaults. 4 old men are sat in their t-shirts and caps their wily creased tanned faces are all looking at me expectantly, yes here is the woman that had ordered the hens in barely understandable Italian the other day. One smiles a gappy tooth grin and points to a collection of white animal cardboard boxes on the ground. Today is hen collecting day and there must be twenty boxes, all stuffed with chickens. I can see fluffy bums, feathers and beaks poking out of the air holes. The Signora comes out of the office grinning at me, she is a lovely warm lady and we wander over to the boxes. She opens one and 4 tiny heads spin round at us and alarmed clucking echoes about. She picks one straight out and points it at me, these are yours! They are gorgeous, golden red with white feather darts spread out like the brightly lit trails of a comet around their necks, I can immediately see that they are indeed ‘Golden Comets’. I pay the princely price of €8 per hen and we place the box tenderly in the boot. I drive off with a wave at the signore’s who wave at me with much amusement in their eyes. I drive at 40kmh all the way home with people over taking me left right and centre. ‘Don’t worry, little hens, I will take care of you’ I whisper to them, as they silently sit in their box, and we slowly climb the steep windy road to their new free ranging casa.
The weather is like last August and yet it is only the beginning of April. "Is this normal?" I ask my neighbour, Giovanni, “Si e No, the weather here changes its mind like the weather.” he says. "Ah, I see, it’s like a woman then!". “Si”, he says, laughing his twinkly eyes and beaming at me. It seems my Italian sense of humour is coming into its own with my small use of Italian words, which are slowly starting to form sentences, albeit short sentences and in less than a couple of seconds. A vast improvement on a year ago.
Today a small white dog has been to visit, I spotted him running along the main road towards our house and then he bounded up the driveway. I am not afraid of dogs, these days, but you just don’t know what a dog is like, particularly when you haven’t been introduced. I am in the middle of cultivating the vegetable patch ready for planting and Andrew is nowhere to be seen, I call for him but these high 'Langhe' terrace stone walls have the habit of blocking my calls to him, or maybe he is blocking his ears to my frequent calls? Anyway, the dog is approaching, he seems happy, his tail is wagging and he has earnest eyes, like he is looking for something, or someone, but not for me. I ‘shoo’ him away and he shoots off on his little legs faster than a greyhound and runs off back down the hill. How strange, I wonder where his owner is? I get back on with the hard back breaking task of breaking up the land next to the 'lasagne' no dig veg patch. Unfortunately, I had made the 'lasagne' patch too small for my veggie ambitions last autumn and realise that potatoes take up too much space and there isn’t enough space for the carrots, they turn out to dislike manure, which my 'lasagne' veg patch is layered with, so more land needs to be dug out from under the fast-growing grass and wild flowers.
Whilst digging, in the background, I can hear the mating calls of the toads around Giovanni’s very large pond, probably better described as a small lake. They chirrup and squawk their way through the day and I’m sure are having a whale of a time down there flirting with each other and puffing out their slimy chests. I wonder, absentmindedly, if they are edible like frogs are? But the thought is too disgusting, I just can’t bring myself to imagine eating toad’s legs. Last year we were concerned that this squawking noise would carry on all summer, not knowing the mating cycles of these tiny creatures, it seemed to go on for a good 6 weeks, drowning out the sound of the crickets in the fading daylight and for me crickets are the sound of summer, along with that classic chart hit ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty, as soon as I hear that song I wish I was cruising along a coastal road in a convertible with seagulls calling in the air.
We have bought a lemon tree, a beautiful specimen with three already grown lemons hanging from its thorny branches. Yes, lemon trees have thorns, who knew! I guess it must be for some sort of protection from animals needing a vitamin C hit. It looks so pretty, sat in a large worn terracotta pot, in front of the balustrade, I think another couple are required and maybe an orange tree. I sit here trance like in front of it, I own a lemon tree, a lemon tree for goodness sake. Does the bounty of this spectacular place every become dull? It’s no wonder Italians are the healthiest on the planet with all this food to eat and not a McDonald’s in sight. The other day we drove through Imperia in Liguria and on to Nice in France and all we could see for miles through Liguria were rows and rows of long, industrial, glass green-house tunnels, some rotting away, others well-tended and stacked with all manner of vegetables, yet crossing over the border to France there wasn’t a single greenhouse, though the terrain was the same, what is it with the French? Are the polytunnels a blight on their landscape, as the road speeds along past Menton, Monaco and Cannes? I love green houses and polytunnels, they are a beacon of self-sufficiency, with a good sized one a family of four can be fed veg for a year. I love imagining what gems are being grown in one and, I do myself, wish we had one here, but I still haven’t worked out where to put it. With all our terraces and plans that change regularly, on what to do with all this land, it probably is better to sit it out and see before investing in a sturdy polytunnel. In the meantime, we have established the temporary 'lasagne' bed and its position on the terrace below the balustrade means I can lean over and see if the zucchini has grown another inch over night, or if those challenging carrots have poked their greenery above ground.
Andrew, now a force to be reckoned with in DIY, has kept his latest skill, taught by the wily Giovanni, on how to ‘cement in posts’ for this very project, building us an enclosed veg garden to keep the critters out. It’s the simplest thing ever, we dig out 6 holes around the veg bed and fill them with simple to mix cement and pop the posts in, then we wrap some green garden wire fencing around the outside and tie with plastic straps. Then we pop some netting over the top to keep the birds out and hey presto an enclosed veg patch, which from the inside looking out appears to be more of a veg prison but I am selfish with this project and no critter is going near this patch. Not coincidentally, I am woken in the middle of the night, after we finished the enclosure, to the sound of bellowing outside the house, a deer has stumbled across the enclosure and sounds like it is crying! I am sure it had lined up this veg patch, as a new trendy ‘pop up eatery’ in the area and was looking forward to many midnight feasts but now, alas, this is not to be. How strange the timing of this visit, I imagine he was stopping by regularly to see when this ‘pop up’ would be open for business and he would get the first table and the pick of the crop for dinner and now he has found that the rules have changed and, no, he is not on the guest list and will not be going in!
The little white dog keeps returning. This morning, I am out watering the flowers and roses along the driveway when a gentle woof comes over the top of our upper terrace, from our neighbour's, Gianna’s, holiday home, who is currently absent. Startled, I look up and there he is, his little head with the cutest black droopy ears, looking at me like I am about to burgle the place. ‘Basta’ (enough), I shout at it and he sprints away. I am starting to feel a bit sorry for him, why is he hanging about the place and where is his owner? I pause over wrapping up the lamb bone scraps from dinner, we normally give these to a grateful Giovanni for his dogs, should I give them to the little white dog instead? It’s such a difficult decision but I am firm and will not, after all, he could keep returning for food and never go home. He certainly isn’t a wild dog, he looks well maintained and is not aggressive in any way. We decide to go up by car to Gianna’s at night to see if he is there, and lo and behold there he is, perched up on a box under the outdoor shelter, bright eyes shining at us, is there hope in his eyes? We drive back down, the problem is we don’t know what the rules are in this area, do we report it to the police, or the council, would they take him and put him down, or say it’s our problem, as we found him? Too many questions. We decide to leave things as they are, surely he will trot off home soon?
I am in the vegetable prison looking at my juvenile delinquents, to see if they are behaving themselves and growing into hard working, behaved, adults. So far, they appear to be sulking. After hardening them off outside the greenhouse but tucking them in warmly back in the greenhouse each night, I am sensing petulance and bottom lips stuck out at this alarming state of affairs, as they are now being left out all night in the elements. Please grow I beg them, please show my neighbours I am not a lunatic with the no dig ‘organic lasagne bed’ experiment. I can’t bear to fail at this, they will all look at me with an ‘I told you so’ look and wonder why I am so lazy as to not furrow the ground and fill it with chemical fertiliser. Please grow. I am contemplating piping in some classical music to cheer them up while I speak to them quietly and lovingly. I am in this state of contemplation when a car pulls up and a woman, older than me, shouts out ‘Buongiorno’, I look up surprised, and see a little old red car with the lady in the front and, is it right, it can’t be, in the back is the little white dog! Huh! She asks me if the dog is mine! Oh no, I shout ‘uno momento’ and I scamper down the terraces to her car. There he is in the back shaking like a leaf, probably at the sight of evil me. I greet her with astonishment and explain my limited English. Earlier, Andrew and I had been driving back to the house when we passed the dog lying on the road a few bends away from our place, he was lying next to a baseball cap. This was weird, as there is no reason for a baseball cap to suddenly appear on the road and surely the dog knew this was not a good place to lie, although we barely get two cars an hour on this road. This kindly woman had spotted this too but, with more heart than me, she had stopped to pick him up and put him in the car, without the hat. I explained that ‘no this is not our dog’ and with great hand gestures, circled the area, to demonstrate he has been running about all over the place for the last couple of weeks. She thanks me and explains she is on holiday at our neighbours to the left of our house, adjacent to Giovanni’s, and sets off down to the house with the dog. I am so happy for the little fella, at last a home! I am yet again gardening the next day when there he is, being walked along the road, without a lead by the woman, the dog is bounding around her feet, as she walks along, and he is not letting her out of his sight, his little white tail is wagging non-stop and I am sure he is smiling. I could nearly cry with the relief, as I see him bounding down the lane to their house, turning every few seconds to make sure she is following. Home sweet home.
See what May holds in store here.
February in Piemonte - The toughest month of the year!
After the hustle and bustle of Christmas and New Year, February reached out it’s long spindly white glove beckoning us to retreat into its cold embrace and give up on the rush and pace. Everything looks dormant, brown and lifeless with not a speck moving except our neighbours’ chimneys curling warm spirals into the clouded skies. This is the resting month, a time to reflect, plan and do nothing. And for a new farmer like me a period of agitation. I itched to get on to the land and do something. Andrew set off to Dublin for a week’s work leaving me to my deep contemplation of everything green and verdant in my future planning mind. I need to step into this month much better planned next year. I am thinking a month of big bountiful books to read and a hobby, or two, to take my mind off the action less deadness of the earth in deepest winter.
Andrew kindly, and with great patience, taught me how to light the fire in the kitchen, our only fire. I placed the spindly twigs in a triangle and placed the fire-lighting cube in-between them and lit it with a long gas fuelled lighter. I stood back waiting to bask in the heat and glory of this primal action. And I did, for two beautiful golden minutes, then all became black, sooty and choke inducing, the fire had gone out, this happened repeatedly, with myself cursing and banging the fire wishing and pleading it to light. Normally, back in Dublin I would have switched the radiators on in no time and not given a second thought to the temperature. The problem with living on a small holding in the Langhe hills is there is no gas ‘on tap’, it gets trucked in and fed into an underground tank. Suddenly gas had a price, not a bill every other month, now I knew how much our gas tank held, €650 euros of gas. So, looking at the radiators I reckoned I could tough it out and not turn the gas on. I tucked myself up in a blanket on the couch, like an Eskimo, and sipped cold local red wine from my little wine beaker, hoping, vainly, that I might lose an inch from my waist, while preserving the gas tank and turning into a castle style aristocrat in our winter hideaway, like the white winter witch in ‘Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe’. I padded, throughout the evening, in my thermal socks, back and forth to the inside temperature gage and watched it tick down from 14 degrees to 10 degrees. At ten degrees, I decided the only sane option was to climb into bed with two hot water bottles, one resting against my back and the other pressed up to my chest, thermal socks plus my beret for my best impression of Scrooge in a ‘Christmas Carol’ and in an amoebic state fell into a deep, frozen sleep, I seemed to wake in the same position I had slept in with the furry water bottles still in position. The birds cheeping outside and early workers humming by, intermittently, on the road beside the house. Was I really this inept, could I be the most useless Firestarter ever?
Andrew returned from Dublin and, of course, in one fail swoop had the fire roaring and sending the temperatures back up to the high teens, making me feel I was on a beach holiday in some exotic winter sun destination, I was sweating, clearly my body had adapted to the cold and I ended up parading round in my t-shirt and wondering if my peri-menopause was moving into the ‘hot flash’ period! On Saturday, we invited dear Giovanni around for dinner, without Anna, who was in Switzerland with her family. We went to the nearby massive supermarket in Acqui Terme, for a change, and to our delight discovered the most amazing tiny lamb cutlets, I hadn’t seen any lamb anywhere in over two months. In the garden section I found the accompanying mint plants ready for me to pick the scented green leaves for my mint sauce. That night we set about a first course of Irish smoked salmon, that Giovanni had asked Andrew to bring back from Dublin, and had the roast potatoes on and the place was, of course, warm and toasty, we had some classical Italian music on for our guest and the Dolcetto opened and ready to go. Eventually, though a little uncharacteristically late, Giovanni arrived. Arms flapping, and sighing and ‘Mama Mia’ing’, after many hugs and kisses we got to the bottom of things, his donkeys had escaped. He had carelessly, in his own words, left the gate open when driving his tractor down the terraces and the two adults had scarpered off like they were in an ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ and after much torch light hunting he was none the wiser. Giovanni then collapsed on a chair and munching a breadstick, with intermittent sighs, and slugs of Dolcetto, we hesitantly presented the smoked salmon, hesitating as we both thought, surely, we ought to be out looking for the donkeys. But, Italian men will always prioritise food first, and he had called all the neighbours, in advance of our meal, asking them to keep him posted of any strange barking dogs going mad at the sight of two lumbering, grass hoovering, donkeys in their midst, besides they had cow bells on and could be heard, if the wind was in the right direction. So, amongst much tension, we had our smoked salmon and minted lamb, though you could see the stress in Giovanni’s eyes and it was the most strained meal I think I have ever had. Fortunately, after the main, and with the most perfect timing, Giovanni’s phone rang, his donkeys had been discovered some 2 kilometres away! We got up without a moment’s thought and bundled ourselves, with torches, into the car and tore off down to the location. It was pitch black, very cold and the stars were brightly lit with a near full moon shining down on us like our very own giant nature torch.
Arriving at a farm, up on the high ridged hill, we spotted the farmer flagging us down and thankfully he was laughing about the whole situation with Giovanni, as he stepped out of the car, explaining how his dogs had suddenly gone nuts at some sound and wouldn’t be quieted. I think Giovanni was mightily relieved they hadn’t been shot, a frequent pass time of farmers in this region who spot trespassing ‘meat sources’ on their land, Giovanni is one of them. I got my torch out and headed along a steep terrace in the direction the farmer pointed, stumbling across, and into, divets and crevices I, at some point in this cross-country trek, realised I was on my own. Curious, I spun round and listened and sure enough there a cow bell, back in the direction I had come from, tinkling like in a fable on a starry night. I walked back slowly towards the sound with Giovanni shouting, ‘va bene’, ‘all good’, at me, while holding the donkeys by the scruff of the neck. Andrew came up and took one of the donkeys by the leather collar and then both he and Giovanni walked the donkey’s slowly back under the star lit night with the moon behind them and looking nothing less than like Joseph and his helper on the way to a nativity scene, if it had been Christmas this would have topped all events since our arrival in this mystical place. Needless to say, an hour later Giovanni was back in our kitchen for pudding and some warming red wine.
Our first Christmas in Piemonte, Italy
It was with great excitement that we approached Christmas knowing this was our first experience ever in this wondrous land at this festive time of year. We decided to invite my mother for her first experience too and looked forward to her arrival, particularly as she was bringing little goodies, such as home made mince pies, with her that we were not able to have the time to make here from scratch.
Our plans for rest and relaxation though came to a grinding halt on the 19th December, the snow came. Now, for those who may have read my blog from March 2016 you will know that I am not a fan of snow here at all. I love the idea of a white Christmas, as long as I am squirreled away inside with a larder of food and lots of firewood and a full gas tank. This time we were caught out, returning from a trip to Dublin we arrived from Milan into Piemonte without a snowflake in sight. Once we got to the Langhe there was snow everywhere and, as we drove deeper in, the snow on the ground appeared to have grown in depth by an inch every mile. By the time we got to our town though things seemed to have been taken care of, and the snow was neatly brushed to the kerb and lots of people seemed out and about getting on with life. We decided, foolishly, to not stop at the supermarket and continue up to the house to put the heating on before coming back down for provisions. Wrong move! We got to our snow-covered driveway and a short way up the hill we got stuck with the wheels spinning faster than a hamster after chocolate on the wheel. We were going nowhere. Andrew parked it ski style so that we didn’t slide back down and stepped out of the car. The snow was about a foot deep and we trudged our way up Andrews shortcut, the recently made steps to the house, rather than risking ourselves in our town shoes up the drive. On a close inspection of the cupboards and fridge I established a possible plan of meals for a few days. The gas tank though was just under 20% and the firewood was limited to about 5 days. To make things worse the forecast read heavy snow all day and night for two more days. Tired out and, as it was dark, we decided to relax on the couch and not move.
The next day we woke and found ourselves snowed in, 14 inches of snow lay on the ground. We started shovelling. It was fortuitous that the car had got stuck so close to the bottom of the drive, as last time I had to dig the 200 metres from the house to the road, this time it was only about 40 metres. The next step was trying to work out how to use the legally obligatory snow chains, we had never opened these before. They looked like a snake’s chain mail and one that had been sliced into ribbons. Fortunately, YouTube came to the rescue and all was revealed. Finally, able to drive out of the driveway, we made it down to town for provisions. On the way back up we spotted our neighbour trying to dig his way out and after a chat Andrew volunteered to go back in the morning and dig him out too, as they were likewise caught out and were off to Milan for Christmas. With all crises averted we finally looked forward to Christmas and my Mother’s arrival.
My mother is an adventurous spirit and had decided to train it from Milan to Alba our nearby main station rather than us drive to Milan. She arrived laden with presents and mince pies galore. Christmas had begun.
After much Twitter and internet research I had decided on pheasant, as the main meal on Christmas day, Turkeys not being readily available. Besides, with the amount of pheasants everywhere picnicking on the land, and in our garden, this had to be the best choice. I went to the local cooperative butcher, a very popular place with the locals and it stocks local farmer meat. The queue was out the door. This is not because of this special time, the queue in this butcher is out the door most days, if you go at the wrong time. I was once trapped in this place in August, unknowingly before a saint’s feast day and was there for nearly an hour while everyone ahead ordered a week’s supply of meat to feed a family of 10, or so it seemed. Having been stuck next to the cash till section for a good 30 minutes I was astounded by the amount being rung up, without fail the minimum had been 60 euro, most were way more. The problem, although I am sure there is some community element to this, is that there is only a husband and wife team running it, with a back-room butcher cutting up whole carcases, the husband cuts up the meat and weighs it at the front counter and the wife rings it up and looks after the small dairy and hams counter next to the till.
The main issue, for me anyway, is the fight to get to the front and be served. When I first came to Italy I was prepared for the 'no queue' rule and each for their own, that, I thought, was the Italian way. But like many things in this perplexing country, there are local customs too. Mostly, in my town, it is a contradiction and more often there is a queue. Generally, it is the women who visit the butcher to get their weekly meat. The men lurk about outside with a cigarette, or sit on one of the benches inside, chatting to their neighbours. The women are a force to be reckoned with though. Because we are so close to Switzerland there are the contradictory 'courteous' women who seem to have an organised queue going, some of these ladies are Swiss in colouring too with blonde hair and blue eyes, which may explain their orderliness. Then there are the 'stranieri', like me, who follow the queue too. But the alpha Italian matriarchs upset this pretence to order and will appear suddenly directly ahead of me in the queue, with still 5 people ahead of me to go. Then another will appear at my side and start to inch further ahead of me on their tiny block heels, which, all women of a certain age, all wear here. I’ll look around for help with these 'ladies' and see the women behind me talking to each other saying things like, ‘She’s ahead of me (as in me), I don’t know who that woman is who cut in though, do you know her?’ etc. They will gossip like this for ages but do not assist in explaining to the one who cut in that there is a queue. This is perplexing, as it can take at least 30mins on a Saturday to get served. Four days before Christmas I was there for 40 minutes. One woman in her fur coat walked in to the shop a good 20mins after me and stood at my side, thereby bypassing about 10 people behind me, strangely she was joined by her massive burly farmer husband who kept leaning into me to talk to his mate on my other side. This went on for 10mins and then, as I finally got to the counter, she cut straight ahead of me, bold as brass. I was apoplectic. I could hear the murmuring women behind me tut tutting and turned to look at them to apologise but they just gave me a little wincy smile, as if I were to blame for them having to wait another 10mins. When it was my turn I asked to pre-order a pheasant to collect on Christmas Eve and the butcher practically laughed at me, and said something in Italian to the people in the shop, about this ‘weird’ order, they all tittered. He shook his head, no it would not be possible to get a pheasant. I asked for venison, surely with the deer ranging in my eye sight every day this was possible. Again, another joke, at my expense, was made to the onlookers, no, this would not be possible either. So, I had to settle for a Capon chicken for Christmas Day and a couple of guinea fowl for St. Stephen’s day. Not quite what I had envisaged (but joyful nonetheless). It was akin to another trip there, on a quieter day. when I had asked him to leave some fat on a pork joint, after all he trims every bit of fat off everything there, it’s the Italian way. Again, another joke was made by him to the waiting customers, even his butcher in the back room leaned around the door frame to see who had asked for such a thing. I may as well have been asking for a McDonald’s Happy meal. I really can’t say I enjoy going to this butcher and only go because the meat is totally out of this world, which makes it worth it every time. Hopefully, when I am more fluent in Italian, I can come up with a couple of useful phrases to throw back at the butcher and the Signora’s when they 'but in' next time, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Read the next installment, just when you thought the weather couldn't get worse...
When I think back on it I have been craving a garden for at least 25 years. I am 41 now, and this is the first time I can say that I have a garden to call my own. It's been a long time coming. So dreaming as I have, of this moment, I have had plenty of time to consider what I want to see in the garden. I envisage a large, productive organic vegetable patch, a fruit orchard, a berry patch, chickens and herb garden. As an avid reader I can say that I am technically proficient in a theoretical way and absolutely green behind the ears in a practical sense. My long since departed grandfather was a professional gardener and I like to think he is looking down on me, whilst smoking his omnipresent pipe and urging me to 'just get on with it'! And so I have.
The herb garden has been made, featuring Rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, chives and parsley, more to add next year.
I have just finished the lasagne garden project for the vegetable patch. Having collected as much material as possible all year, with much eye raising from my local farmers, I snaffled the dregs of the hay field we mowed earlier in the summer. I begged a ton of donkey poop from Giovanni's cute donkey pack, I raked all the hazelnut tree leaves up and bagged them with wry amusement from onlookers, just in case Italy's answer to 'New England' in the fall ran out of leaves, and yes there wasn't much need for that gathering. I squirrelled as much cardboard as I could, much to Andrew's chagrin, he does love a tidy attic and I had bundled it all up there. I started collecting as much veg scrappage as possible and popped it with relish in the steaming compost bin. So when I came to lay all this out 'Lasagne style' it was all there ready to go.
Lasagne organic gardening in my Piemonte garden - tasty!
How to Make a Lasagne Organic Garden Bed
Best started in Autumn so it can fester and be impregnated with the all important worms and be ready in time for Spring planting.
1. Lay thick cardboard over the patch you want to grow on, sprinkle with water (not Parmesan!)
2. Lay a few sheets of newspaper for good mulching measure and sprinkle.
3. Lay a layer of manure, donkey, horse, sheep, chicken etc not dog or cat poo! Sprinkle.
4. Lay a layer of hay - organic only, check out Jill's post at Prairie Homestead for this reason
5. Cover with small or shredded leaves and sprinkle
5. Cover with veg scraps, fresh or composted, sprinkle.
6. Cover with more leaves, sprinkle
7. Cover with organic fine compost, if you haven't made your own you can buy it in.
8. Sit back and watch the lovely worms gather and hey presto a veg patch to plant your seeds in come spring.
What could go wrong? Well when I went to map out my veg patch, accompanied by Andrew and my gardening consultant, aka mother, we were greeted with a curled up whip snake!!!!! Yes a bloody long snake, on my soon to be veg patch!!! A big one too. Andrew nearly jumped out of his skin, as he had just avoided treading on it. My mother was un-amused and backed up fast behind me. Where's St. Patrick when you need him! I ventured in a little for a picture, well I had to didn't I? Anyway we decided to leave it to it's own devices and head back up the hill for a nice cup of tea, and a figure out of what to do. Freshly invigorated, Andrew decided to head on back down the hill with the longest implement he could find in the shed, and slowly crept up to it, meanwhile myself and my visiting parents hung over the balustrade with cameras at the ready. My Dad, not used to such sightings, was laughing hysterically, as Andrew reached out and prodded the snake with the tip of the rake. It didn't move, was it playing dead? He tried again, nothing. Dawning realisation flooded us all at this point, it was dead! He got the rake under it and lifted it up, all 2 metres of it dangled, sadly, off the rake, skin glinting like a diamante bauble catching the sunlight, as it swayed elegantly in the breeze. We set off, down to the soon to be veg patch, clapping and bravo'ing Andrew, relieved to be getting on with the project again. It's hard to garden now without my eyes peeled, no bad thing I guess.
Our garden is alive with insects all year round, it seems something is always rustling or buzzing about. Our biggest scare though has to be the scorpions. I'm not painting a great picture am I? On our first weekend in the house Andrew had tip toed off to the bathroom in the dead of night, after a few too many glasses of Nebbiolo! He came back and went to sleep. The following morning he was acting really weird, sheepish and nervous, not his usual exuberant self. After a mild interrogation by me he came clean and told me that much to his horror he was finishing his ablutions in the night when he turned to leave the bathroom and there in the centre of the floor, ahead of him, was a black scorpion, with curled tail looking menacingly at him. So, scared, he had nearly screamed. He had bravely shot out of the room and left it to it's own devices. Now, anyone who knows me well, knows I'm not too good around creepie crawlies of the sinister genre. I frantically started googling it, 'how long was it?' I asked trying to sound calm, 'Oh, at least half a hands length', said Andrew. I kept searching until up popped a picture of the Piemonte inhabiting scorpion family, all 1 inch of it, I might add, men and their measurements!! Turns out it can barely pierce the skin with its bee like sting, but is so shy you won't need to worry much. And so every week we came across one or two brave soldiers trying to sneak into the lovely steamy bathroom, they like steam, and we had to turf them, on a dustpan, back out again. I had hidden this insects presence from my Mother though and each time she visited she didn't see any scorpions, as we were on covert scorpion patrol, until her fateful trip out to Italy with my father...and the hornets!
Hornet saga coming soon!
Find out how our Piemonte adventure began.
In Piemonte, and the Langhe Hills in Italy, we have found our perfect home, our spiritual home and our neighbours have been the biggest part of making us feel at home. Coming from Dublin, we were fairly spoilt, we lived in a close knit community in a cul-de-sac, right in the heart of South side Dublin city centre. It was a haven of tranquillity, yet, only 200 metres away, one of the main, dual carriage, arteries into the very centre ran by the house, but it was so built up we never heard a murmur of the endless cars, bikes and buses that toiled up and down the main road all day. The cul-de-sac has a beautiful flower garden, made by two lovely old 'fellas' who adopted it a couple of decades ago from a slab of empty, degrading, council concrete. We were very fortunate to find that home. Our neighbours were mainly over 60 and some had even been born in their current home, along with 10 other children. The amount of children our neighbours parents had was staggering. I kid you not, one of my closest now sadly departed friends, Patricia, had been born into a family of 21 children (same parents), albeit on the other side of town, quite spectacular. All day long there are coming and goings of grand kids and grown up kids dropping into visit our neighbours, some actually come every day to visit their parents. It’s that type of community. A rare community in the city.
I think some of the Dublin neighbours were a bit put out when we moved in to the cul-de-sac, us 'yuppy' types', so they thought, and with the Mercedes, and right in the top price boom year, 2006, a doomed year for all who bought in Ireland! But the house price was very much within our comfort zone, thankfully. Some of the neighbours had tried to secure it for their adult kids, but had been out bid, or hadn’t even tried to bid, on the, what they thought, extortionate house price; after all some of them had bought their house for €5,000 back in their younger years. So we had to meet the begrudgers and make friends. Which we did, by gardening our socks off out the front of the house, we adopted some waste land circling a street tree and turned it into a herb surround and a window box of lavender and heather and a blooming rose bush by the front door. They were happy then, we weren’t those ne’er do wells who buy a house and rent it out to uncaring souls, we wanted in, and we got in. Over the years we have sadly said our farewells to good people who passed on and we all attended, as a community group, all the funerals, there were no weddings, as we were all beyond that. But we mucked along, with the odd fall out, normally over people parking outside each other’s houses, the prime spot, every house owner cherishes in our street, right outside the front door, no driveway you see. God forbid a visitor unknowingly steals the cherished spot outside a neighbour’s’ door. Most of the time, in the early years, it was our cherished spot that was hijacked, until, Andrew, the new Alpha male of the street, went into battle. So spells of not talking and sulking did descend into our pleasant spot but it was never for long, the day soon came when normal conversation about the weather, and ailments and flowers resumed. So I can’t say that we lived in some stereotypical cold city centre spot, because it was warm and treasured but what we have found in Italy has taken neighbourhood to a whole new level.
Giovanni, our Langhe neighbour, and our house vendor, had taken it upon himself, with no prompting, to march us round, after we closed the sale, to meet the neighbours adjoining our land. We were met with the gruffest, grumpiest dog ever, and no, not one who becomes a dote after a few strokes. So, keeping the grouchy dog at bay, we had been taken into a lovely old kitchen for our first neighbour visit. We were offered plates of biscuits and nuts and coffee and had a good chat. A real Italian welcome, no visit, it turns out, goes without refreshments, we have to keep our own cupboards stocked with emergency biscuits for such an occasion, of which there has been plenty. Then we met the wonderful Gianna who lives in the house above us, retired, of course, and she has three houses, the one near us she uses for the summer, and it is also the one she was raised in. Seeing a similarity, I hope. Gianna is like the stereotype in the movies you watch about people moving to Italy, she loves shouting a ‘Buongiorno!’ at me from over her terrace balcony, which, each time, scares the wits out of me, normally she catches me in a trance while I weed the flower bed and, once recovered from the shock, I always bounce back a smiling ‘Buongiorno!’.
In our Langhe Hills region, it is courteous to always announce your arrival, if there has been some absence, not to announce one’s arrival led us to the most amusing, if not a little irritating, moment this first year has provided us with. We had set out in March from Ireland to our new Italian house, prior to moving there full time, and had decided to purchase a couch from Ikea in Genova, a good 2 hours away. So we had hired a van because they didn’t deliver back then, though this summer Ikea decided we weren’t that far for a delivery, the usual Italian inconsistency! So we hired a massive white tall van and drove to the house the day before the trip to Genova. All fine. We awoke in the morning and Andrew went for his morning stretch, taking in the 'bella' view over the veranda outside, most often he does this just in his boxer shorts, thankfully not this time, only to see Giovanni trotting up the drive. He went down to meet him half way (it’s a very long drive) and ended up being met by Giovanni and the Police! Giovanni thought we were being burgled by some white van mob and had called the police to get to our house asap, “Why didn’t you call?”, he said, and “cellulare me” (mobile phone), “I didn’t know you were here!”. Embarrassed, he sent the Police off, goodness knows what they thought of us, and I joined the, very wound up Giovanni and more chilled Andrew in the ‘welcome’. My thoughts were, ‘why on earth would I need to call the neighbours to come to my own house, we own it, it’s not a holiday home’ etc etc. So, slighted at being treated like a tourist, I joined the discussion, a little bit too strongly, and with arms flapping, from both sides, Giovanni “arrivederci’d” at us and stalked off. We didn’t talk to Giovanni for a good couple of months after that episode! Chiefly, because he didn’t do his usual daily visit, which had irritated me in the first month, bless him. He doesn’t speak English, and why should he, so we couldn’t call him and make peace, as we’re not quite that fluent. Then, one day in early summer, accompanied by my mother, a person Giovanni seems to have taken a brotherly shine to, we dropped into his home. He met us as if nothing had happened, three kisses, wine, nibbles offered and we have since then carried on as normal, with Giovanni visiting a few times a week, not daily and a number of wonderful reciprocated dinners with him and the other neighbours. Truth be told, I don’t know what we would do without him. We really did buy him with the house, that was the joke we had with our estate agents, but it really is true. Though we know when he doesn’t like a decision of ours, such as where to put the veg patch, as he has a ‘tell’, he quickly shuts down the discussion with an ‘arrivederci’ turns on his tail and walks off. Though we are so used to this we laugh it off and sometimes run up and give him a hug, no silent moments have passed since.
I have since read that Italians treat their friends as family, and I don't doubt it, for us two 'blow ins' we have truly landed on our feet here.
Find out how we started this Piemonte Italian dream here.
Ahh, Italian kisses, the stuff of movies, romance and… no this post is not that romantic! Italian kisses are confusing, they are perplexing and inconsistent and sometimes head-bumping and embarrassing. Told you it wasn’t going to be romantic!
I’m talking about greeting and kissing Italian friends in Italy. In all our travels to Italy we never really had to think about kissing anyone but, well, ourselves alone. Staying on past holidays in Italy, as tourists, in remote self-catering homes, meant we hardly saw a soul, apart from venturing out to the markets and restaurants as unidentifiable tourists that no one wanted to kiss, thank goodness! Now, living in Italy, it is a different matter.
Since buying our house in March this year we have established some wonderful friendships in our area, most of them are our neighbours, 9 people locally and Natascia and Marco our estate agents from Acqui Terme, who have become firm friends. Most are Italian and two are Swiss married to Italians. So far so great. But one of the delicate moments that I struggle with when greeting any of these new friends is the ‘kiss’. You can read all you like about this on Google and think you know the right way but, as with so many things in Italy, there are regional differences and rules are complicated. So far I have to try and remember who does what kisses, on what side, in what style and when, as there are four different kissing greeting styles we have encountered, so far, and we have to remember them all, depending on who we are greeting!
Firstly, there is the two kisses approach, firstly one to your right of the persons face (their left cheek) and then to the left side (their right cheek). Awkward in itself coming from a land where we greet our very best friends with one peck grazing their right cheek – full stop! So now, like driving on the opposite side of the road, I have to remember the opposite side of the face first, fortunately, and this is how I remember it, both are on my right side!
Secondly, there are three kisses, one to your right side of their face (their left cheek), then the left and back to the right of their face (their left cheek). Giovanni sprang this one on us both when we had our first dinner at his family home, Giovanni originally hails from Sardinia, I’m not sure if this is a Sardinian style though. Much head knocking ensued, at that first dinner, from going the wrong way in the early greeting with him and his family and then assuming the kissing had ended when there was another kiss left to do, lots of, “Ur, sorry, um, ah ha ha - yes we are Irish and we are used to one, ha ha, yes, but when in Italy, ha ha, ahhh”, cringe! So we had to get this kissing started off properly. We then took this three kiss rule to meet Natascia and Marco for lunch, they went along with it too. ‘Excellent’, we thought, we have nailed the kissing!
Thirdly, we noticed with Giovanni’s wife, who is Swiss, that she prefers proper air kisses, like a fashion diva, which she is not, she is the gentlest loveliest lady but it is the Swiss way to ‘Mwah’ into the air three times, starting the air kiss above their left cheek.
Fourthly, there is one person who likes one kiss, to the left cheek side, we haven’t worked out why this is yet though. There just is no consistency, I love being in Italy, they really keep me on my toes.
Then there is the diplomatic trick of remembering all these different greeting arrangements when we all meet for a dinner party, a regular occurrence with our neighbours, this is particularly difficult at the end of the night after a feast of food and lots of good wine when the kissing repeats again, this time in saying good night.
We have recently learned from Natascia that she was going along with our three kisses, which we had inherited from Giovanni, as she thought it must be the Irish way of kissing and was being polite by following our lead! Yeah right! Irish, yes maybe the Irish are known as really friendly people but intimate gestures, forget about it! So we have learnt that she does two kisses, starting on the persons left cheek. Ahhhhhhh!
But the golden, Italian kissing greeting etiquette, rules here is that firstly men kiss men in exactly the same way as described above, so everyone gets kisses! So both Andrew and I have had to struggle through this learning curve together. How very cool is that! Secondly, the kissing greeting commences at the second meeting, so in the first meeting a polite, standard, hand shake and ‘piacere’ (nice to meet you), is the starting point. Then kissing begins from the second meeting onwards, if it is in a social, friendship forming, context, not a formal meeting at the bank etc.
I reckon the easiest way, if socialising in a group, is to hang back and watch others kiss first, see how they are kissing and then replicate the correct way to show how culturally sophisticated you are.
I love living in Italy.
Next installment - Love thy Neighbour!
One of our biggest and most satisfying achievements, particularly for Andrew, this year on our new Piemonte farm was mowing the meadow. A fan of hay bales, stacks, rolls and the like, I love looking at the different shapes and sizes on show in hay fields, whenever I pass by any field in Summer. I used to dream that one day I would have my own hay bale, or roll, to play with on the farm. It hasn't quite worked out like that, yet.
Our infamous 'vini culture' land, that had been cleaned many years ago of any vines, sat naked in Spring, with just a few green patches of weeds and herbs, naturally growing on it (no herbicides here thank you), to hide it's modesty. But, within the space of four months, it had transformed itself into waist high, (well on my 5ft 4inch frame anyway) dense grass and wild flowers, a pretty sight to behold. Walking slowly through the tall grassed land, advance parties of butterflies, bees and crickets would float and jump their way ahead of me, as if guiding my way, accompanied by a low level hum of happy, pollinating, insects. It was truly delightful to see all this nature at one with itself. Until, that is, I read a book written by two ladies who had moved to nearby Liguria, and it all changed for me. They spoke of how their locals liked everything neatly shorn to prevent fires, particularly in the hot summer weather and how it was frowned upon to let your land grow unruly and, indeed, they had been witness to such fires threatening to burn down the local's olive trees and houses. Startled, and on alert for unwanted smoke signals coming from our distant land, we decided to mow the meadow, as fast as possible.
Curiously, Italians seemed to have been given the label as somewhat 'slow in action', certainly 'piano, piano', meaning 'slowly, slowly' is a common enough phrase, that I hear directed at me, more often when I am attempting to speak in Italian, as fast as possible, in a lame attempt to show off my near non-existent linguistic talent. Quite difficult it is too, with all the 'rrrrr' rolling through nearly every other word. So I take the 'piano, piano', as a kindly meant line to mean, 'Clare I have no idea what you just said, were you speaking in Russian?' Sometimes things here move quickly, sometimes they move slowly, there is no pattern. It depends, I think, on the whim of the person acting out the request. So we asked Giovanni, would he kindly lend us one of his multitude of machines from his massive farm to mow the meadow, expecting that he would helpfully lend us a machine some time in the future. Now, you have to understand with Giovanni, he absolutely loves teaching us 'stranieri' new tricks of the farming trade and his eyes lit up on this one and he seemed overjoyed that we would want to mow the meadow. I think he had been using this 'meadow mowing' failing of ours, over the past months, to amuse his many friends with. Maybe he was relieved that we weren't as dumb as we appeared and that his, and the neighbour's farms, wouldn't be burning down, after all, from our meadow growing experiment. Anyway, quick smart, the next day he had Andrew under instruction, getting him to push a very large lawnmower up and down the meadow. Though, I had a sneaky suspicion that Giovanni could have laid his hands on a sit on mower but he liked the idea of whipping Andrew, the city gent, into shape. Andrew grimaced, grunted and sweated his way over the 2000sqm of meadow, most of it on an awkward tilt, perfect for growing vines on but not so easy with a manual pushing mower! And after a big effort it was finally well groomed, rather like Elvis getting his first buzz cut in the army.
The best part of asking favours in Italy is that you often get asked a favour in return, like the old barter system, you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, so of course Giovanni, wonderful as he is, had a favour to ask us and that was for him to keep the hay for his four donkeys. See, told you I haven't, yet, got the chance to claim a haystack for myself. The problem, for me, was that I wanted some of the hay for my up coming hay layering experiment in the vegetable garden (idea courtesy of Prairie Homestead). Not a lot, and certainly not the contents of the meadow, but some was required. But after all my strenuous activity that morning, raking up hay, I was fit for bed, so took myself off for an early siesta and left Andrew and Giovanni admiring the new meadow. What I hadn't realised was that the newly shorn grass was being sucked up into a hay baler by another friendly neighbour, Armando, while I had my little power nap, how quick was that!!! Armando owns the biggest farm around, in our part of the Langhe in Piedmont, and is an absolute gentleman. Giovanni had arranged for him to drive the 2 miles down the road, in his big tractor, with hay bale attachment, to hoover the lot up, in return, again the barter system, Armando got to keep a bale of hay for himself. I was dreaming my exhausted dreams in bed while the most exciting thing to date on the farm, that I had been looking forward to seeing, was carried out. I woke a couple of hours later, to the news that the baling had been done. Gutted, is a word I would use on this occasion. Later we went to look at the big round bales, two of them left standing there in the drying sun. I felt a bit bereaved, knowing that really though they sat on our land, they weren't really ours, they were now Giovanni's and the donkeys. Still, we had kept our honour and hadn't set fire to anything. Andrew had, though, arranged for us to have the scraps from around the edges to be collected by our own hands, not baled, for my gardening experiment. I looked at the scraps, looked longingly at the bales, back at the scraps, and gave up. I hope the donkey's appreciate the hay.
Read more - how to kiss the neighbours! Saucy!
New discoveries in our Piemonte, Langhe Hills, Garden
Having bought 2 acres of land it was hard to resist the urge to start landscaping and planting and cultivating from the get go, particularly coming from our 4x2m city garden, but we resisted and made a rational decision to watch the land for a year. Yes, a whole year. I had read in many a good gardening book and I think, even Monty Don, the famous 'Gardeners' World', BBC gardener suggests this to his fan base. Watching the land, as it grows, will enable us to see what springs up and in what order, after all, what looks like a weed in March, can turn out to be a pretty, bee loving, flower by August. So, painful though it was to sit back and watch, that is what we have done. Here are my first year observations.
Firstly, the land grows very fast in the Langhe Hills in Piemonte. Whether this was anything to do with the spring snow, or the rain fall in late spring, I don’t know, but Andrew, and his new additional muscles, knows all about it, or his new title, ’Strimmer in Chief’ (SIC), SIC being sick of strimming! Every three weeks a few feet of shrub would stretch up from all of the ground, every stalk waving around in the air, feeling the freedom of a plant on the make, that is until Andrew lopped them all off with a commanding swish of his new power strimmer, give a man a tool for a day etc. We made the decision to leave a couple of sections to grow uninterrupted for wild flower purposes, because one of our discoveries above the house, on neighbouring land, had been a small bee hive farm and I hope to meet the farmer soon to see if I can get a share of the nectar bounty, after all our garden has been feeding the bees! Nothing beats the sight, or sound, of honey bees making the rounds in the garden.
Secondly, we seem to have a wild mint problem. One of the first smells, I noticed, when we viewed the property that fateful day last November, was wafting up from the underfoot crushed wild mint on the lawn, wow what a gorgeous deep smell it is too. I thought this a selling point of the house, Giovanni has recently pointed out that this is, in fact, an invasive weed and I had better Monsanto it! I think he was joking about Monsanto, I have repeatedly said our land will be organic and not in any way covered in vile noxious rubbish like ‘Round up’, I am sure he was joking, as he seems to be passionate about not having chemicals anywhere, including in his wine. I am sending some soil off to be tested soon though to see what chance we have of claiming organic land.
Along with the wild mint there appeared a lot of Yarrow, Elderflower and my favourite, St. John’s Wort, sprouting all over the place, like a Piemonte herbalists apothecary. I had bought some St.John’s Wort plants back in Dublin and knew what it was straight away, manna, no more buying St.John’s Wort again, I have so far made an oil from it and a tincture. The oil is great, as it works brilliantly on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a side effect of too much strimming! Next year, I am going to get some herbal recipes for Yarrow and not miss the Elderflower bonanza again.
Some of the unidentified fruit trees came out, in the end, to reveal their fruity secrets, peaches galore, both white and regular, on two trees, made into peaches in brandy for Christmas. Plum tree with a few plums, a gargantuan cherry tree with so many cherries on it, sadly we missed the harvest, as we were away in Dublin for a couple of weeks and when we returned they had pretty much been nicked by the birds and half rotten, I have diarised that now for next year, as I intend to make a fierce cherry brandy in 2017. A very healthy fig tree ripened in mid-September and all gobbled up fast, as they don’t last long before spoiling. A neighbour’s apple tree has been adopted, as the apples were rolling on to our side of the unfenced garden and were, umm, going to waste. Wild strawberries lined the driveway raised bed and many a strawberry leaf tea was made, I will dry these leaves next year. Our 10 grape vines, which no one seemed to know what variety they were, stayed white, and then, just as we were considering harvesting them, Giovanni revealed that they weren’t grapes for wine but regular eating grapes! Boring or what? We aren’t too sure on keeping these long term, neither of us being avid grape eaters, but grape drinking on the other hand... Andrew has decided that they can stay until after the extension is built, then up they will come and be replaced by about 40 Dolcetto vines instead, along that lovely wide sun drenched terrace, at the moment it will stay empty, bar the vine edging along the front, as the builders will have to use it for access. Giovanni had gifted us a surprise of two almond trees, which he planted in secret, while we were away in April, on return there they sat, on the edge of the lower terrace, with a fascinatingly situated, if not peculiar, asparagus row, which he has set in between the two almond trees, another Giovanni addition, I’m not sure if this is a Piemonte gardening trick, or in his case, Sardinian, but we will have to see. This year only one of the almond trees fruited, providing 5 nuts! I think we will give them a few more years’ reprieve to see how they grow.
But the biggest surprise the land has given us, this year, is our very own hazelnut plantation. When Andrew had negotiated the extra parcel of land from Giovanni, we knew it had been registered as ‘vini culture’, vine land for a vineyard. We didn’t mind this, as we had the usual dream of making our own Langhe Hills wine. However, as the season shifted to early summer and we got more familiar with the surrounding farms and masses of neighbouring nocciole (hazelnut) plantations, I started to notice the resemblance of our vineyard’s tree lined boundary, the trees arcing protectively around the land boundary, next to the not very busy road. One day, in early summer, my mother and I set out to investigate and upon reaching the first trees, there, on the branches, were the little hazelnut pods! Every tree was covered in them. All 52 hazelnut trees! This was our lightbulb moment! I had always said that the land would tell us what it wants to grow, and it did.
And last, but maybe even least, a funghi, not the normal mushroom stalk with umbrella top funghi but a weird shaped, orange, funghi growing around the base of a tree stump, well we are in funghi season after all, and in Piemonte that means plenty of funghi eating festivals, but I think we will leave this one to it's own devices and stick to more well known quantities of mushrooms from the market, mushrooms on toast anyone?
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If you want to read this as a story from the beginning here is the first installment.
Summer in the Langhe Hills
The fast turning days of our first Piemonte Spring passed us by with speed like the fresh breath of a morning, dew filled, day; quite quickly it became warm and sticky, with the leaden, heavy, breath of summer. No distinction, or gentle easing, this year at least, from one season to the next. The year had been preceded by El Nino and it is often said that the following year is the opposite, climatically, than the El Nino year weather had been before it. We hadn’t been following the Italian weather at all, until buying the house in Italy, so we had no idea what the opposite weather this year was to be. The Autumn we had visited Piemonte, in the year before had been unseasonally hot, with a lot of our new neighbours verifying this. Of course it had snowed in March, the first week with my Mother and a bare month after receiving the house keys. It hadn’t snowed in the preceding five years, according to the font of all local knowledge, our neighbouring farmer, Giovanni. Spring was a hotch potch of fog, a common occurrence in Spring, Autumn and Winter and some drizzly rain, with a few hot heated patches when the clouds cleared. Then in May, wham! Heat! Hot, hot, heat, all day and into the early evening, with a sudden drop when the sun dipped down to bed over the far Western hill. Our Irish skin was unaccustomed to doing any more than flat out sunbathing in our ‘prior’ life of vacationing in the heat, covered in factor 15. This was a very different experience. We had to get some of the land in to order, the first important step was my very necessary herb garden.
Working in the heat, at 35 degrees, with a sun hat and very little other protection, was extremely arduous. Sweat and sticky dirt trickled over my skin from head to toe, whilst pulling out the multitude of weeds from a waist high concrete bed, perfectly situated to the East of the house, and in reach of the kitchen for herbal recipe necessity, this bed a grand 15ft x 2ft, hadn’t, it appeared, been thought of in years. Every grain of dirt appeared to be attached to a weed, whether ready to sprout from it’s hibernation, or attached to the swaying weeds and sprawling ivy above ground. I hate to waste a good bit of dirt and rather than dig it all up and start again with new topsoil I decided to sieve it. Yes, sieve it, in 35 degrees of heat. A sucker for punishment, I went off to the local hardware shop and in my best broken Italian made the request and lo a sieve was produced, perfectly perfect for the job. I set to, and a good 5 days later had sieved at least ¾ of the bed. My biceps had toned and I felt like a Roman warrioress in the garden, no weed was left undefeated, all had vanished into the bin bag, along with an inch off my waistline, and off to the very handy local commune tip.
My first herbs, planted in Italy, were Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Basil, Oregano, Chives, Parsley and Mint. Planted fresh, from locally sourced growing pots, straight into the earth, in the garden. The joy of it. After years of growing herbs in pots in our 4x2m decked yard in our city centre Dublin terrace you have no idea how wonderful it was for me to just dig a hole and plant a plant, letting it decide how big it wants to grow. Every day I waked, padded out to the herb garden and marvelled at it all, while sprinkling with some well water before the sun popped over the Eastern hill. The honey bees from the farmer in an upper terrace were, it seemed, equally delighted with this new arrival, buzzing around and scouting out a new pollen patch for later in the year, for now though, they were content with the huge lavender bush that arched it’s newly sprouting flowers over the Eastern end of the herb garden.
We bought some necessary garden furniture in June for lunches and dinner alfresco. We had inherited a round table that sat awkwardly, for now, under the portico but felt an additional eating area was required for more formal events and our own entertainment. We purchased an 8 seater and chairs and placed them under our only shade giving tree in the garden, a gigantic spruce that was well positioned for the midday sun, as it cast a cooling shadow, for a few hours anyway, from 12pm til 3pm, someone must have thought of this idea years before our arrival, I like to think that the plan had been for this to be the lunch tree. It is an interesting Spruce with drooping arms and needles, like long fingers pointing down to the earth, at least 60ft in height, it majestically towers over the South East section of the garden, near the house. On further research, we discovered it to be a rare ‘Brewer Spruce’ tree. Hence forth it has been referred to as Brewer, as in ‘shall we have lunch under Brewer?’.
We settled into a new routine, quite, startlingly for anyone who knows me, distinct from our Irish pattern, in Piemonte we rise at 7am, water the garden, have a herbal tea in my case, coffee for Andrew and then some writing and emails for our own businesses and a swim for an hour in the local pool, then more work emails or calls, lunch under ‘Brewer’, gardening, emails, calls and then aperitivo at 5.30pm and dinner at 7pm, finally listening to an audible book for an hour before bed at 10pm. We have made the conscious decision to forego a television, we inherited one with the house but have put it in the attic. There doesn’t seem time to watch television here, there is always something to do outside during the day and in the evenings we ease our tired limbs and eyes on the couch, while sipping a glass of Dolcetto and listening in comfort to a book (via Audible), this quaint pastime has become something I find both rewarding and relaxing. Are we getting old? Who knows. We may end up getting a television installed with Sky by Christmas but at this moment in time I can’t see why.
Read all about our garden surprises next.
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