Living like Vampires in Alta Langhe
This is my second permanent summer here in the Langhe Hills of Piemonte. Last year was a rich lesson in how to cope in relentless dry heat for 3 months straight. This year another lesson, how to cope in humid hot temperatures for 3 months.
We have turned into vampires! Bram Stoker would be proud of us!
When we used to holiday in Italy in our younger, and more naive years, we were always baffled with the deadly quiet villages all shuttered up and left, at least in our minds, abandoned. We couldn’t understand why no one walked the streets between 12 and 4pm. Back then we used to sunbathe by a pool all day and eat lunch outside in the midday sun.
Now, I dream of holidaying in Scotland next year. Living permanently in a hot climate is not sustainable I fear without a good number of breaks in the summer to more temperate climates. It doesn’t help that I am fantasising about moving to Scotland having immersed myself in the ‘Outlander’ book series, of which I am now on my third read through, or more accurately listen through, as I am listening to the audio version on Audible, narrated by the wonderful Davina Porter. I really want to be in Scotland.
But back to the vampire business. We learnt the art of ‘shuttering windows’ last summer, as our Piemontese neighbours, one by one, told us off for having all our windows wide open all day during the summer. They would say, ‘Are you mad? Shut those windows at once,’ anytime they visited before 7pm. Then after 7pm it was, ‘Are you mad? Open those windows at once,’ any time after 7pm. You see, there is an art form here. Shutters are Italians air-conditioning units. If the temperature outside is hotter than the temperature inside the house all windows and shutters are closed to stop the heat entering the house. We now have a more comfortable 28 degrees inside while it is 38 degrees outside. But, with the shutters open, the heat inside was more around 32 degrees. As soon as the temperature outside goes below the internal temperature you throw all windows and shutters open to get the cooler air to enter before bed time. It is logical and effective. It just means checking the internal and external thermometers frequently.
Our paranoia about the temperature led us to a speedy return the other day from a morning appointment. Half way back I remembered we hadn’t closed the shutters for the day and the temperature was already 30 degrees. Andrew put his foot down to get home to save the day but there was a funny moment. Coming up our hill, around 12pm, there rounding a bend, was a bunch of 5 walkers, all wearing khaki shorts, linen flowing tops in a rainbow of pastel colours and the ubiquitous straw hat – tourists! It really took me back! That was us, no more than a few years ago, out strolling and taking in the view in the midday sun while locals were racing by in cars in a demented style, mouths open wide, gawking, as they passed by the lunatic people who were mad enough to be out walking in the midday sun, while they sped up the hill to get indoors and bang the shutters closed tightly.
I do truly feel like a vampire. We are working and eating indoors all day now, even a quick walk to the garage breaks me open in a full on sweat. But at night, as the sun sets, we all venture outside to water the parched plants, bring stiff sun-dried washing in and eat dinner under the stars, hopefully with an accompanying cool breeze wafting by.
This month it is Festa season. On a trip back from visiting friends in Acqui Terme, at the Brazilian festival, a couple of weeks ago, we passed by three separate Festas. Each little village has its own Festa, though there isn’t a lot to differentiate them apart from different bands. The bands are great though, as whoever seems to book these has an eclectic taste in music. Last Saturday we went to a Festa in ‘Pezzolo,’ a tiny hamlet where Ferrero was born, he who started the Ferrero company that went on to make Nutella and Ferrero Rocher! I am surprised they don’t have a day a year off in his memory for his contribution to all things chocolate, let alone all the employment he created. ‘Pezzolo’ by day sleeps. We play tennis there on its one tennis court every weekend in the morning. Barely a soul moves about the sleepy streets of ‘Pezzolo’ during the day, which is good for me, as I get very shy when anyone even glances at me playing tennis! But at its Festa, last weekend, at least 200 locals lined the streets eating, drinking, chatting and dancing to the bands. I was very impressed with a great funk ska band that played on the main stage that night.
The Festa in ‘Pezzolo’ was a sight to behold that really gladdened the heart, because, these people are just like us. They live indoors all day and only come out at night – we are all vampires of the Langhe Hills.
I was invited to a conference in Turin recently to talk about the food and wine of Turin and Piemonte. I got asked a few questions about my memories of Italian food and why I love Piemonte food at a round table event. Unfortunately, due to a difficult translator set up, I never really got to answer any question for longer than 30 seconds. This left me frustrated. I love this region and I can gasbag on about it all day but my answers at the conference were too abstract and without depth, due to the brief time I was given, so I thought now would be an opportune and cathartic time to tell you about my first memory of anything Italian and of course Italian food.
I grew up in Surrey, England, in a town called Walton-on-Thames. A pretty place, back then, with of course the Thames river flowing through it and lots of green fields near my house and lovely walks by the river. Things have changed in the last few decades sadly, but one thing has remained, all the wonderful Sicilian and Italian people who migrated there in the 1960’s and 70’s. It was more like Sicily-on-Thames looking back on it. But as a small child you don’t notice these things. It was normal for friends to be called Rosanna, Luigi, Francesca, Lucia, Gaspare. Just as it seemed normal to me to be going across our, not so busy back then, main road to shop in one of the first Italian delicatessens in Surrey, ‘Alio’s’.
Every Saturday, from about 8 years of age, I would march across to 'Alio's', with my father’s money in my pocket, and food order in my ear, to come back with Italian bread, Prosciutto, Salami, Mortadella and gorgeous Rosetta bread rolls. But this errand didn’t bother me, I loved this errand because arriving at ‘Alio’s’ on a Saturday morning meant entering another world, another country – Italy! Inside was a cavernous cool room, with rows of dried pasta in all shapes and sizes, a variety of tinned tomatoes from South of Italy, all sorts of Italian biscotti, savoury snacks and many other wondrous delicacies. On a Saturday all the local Italian Mamas and Papas were there, hustling and bustling and ringing up the till like a famine was on the way. Each order at the tiny counter took about 20 minutes in this wonderful store, as Ben (Beniamino), the owner, sliced heaps of the whole variety of Italian charcuterie you can think of and cut large slabs of aged Parmesan cheese with his menacing cheese wire. I was tiny back then, probably no more than 4 foot and my memories were of looking up all the time, always in awe of these loud noisy, boisterous, people. They all spoke in Italian, fast and passionately with hands gesticulating wildly. The word ‘Ciao’, was my first Italian word, as I guess it is for most non-Italians, but I heard it at 6 for the first time when I was first taken to ‘Alio’s’ in 1981, as each customer shouted it in friendly greeting and on exiting. This was way back before many of us bundled off to Tuscany and the Amalfi for annual holidays, only the wealthy went there for holidays back then, but I didn’t feel I was missing out and had no urgent need to visit, as I grew up in my very own little Italy.
One of my close friends at primary school was Rosanna. I would head to her house to play and often have dinner there. I loved having dinner there, as her father had an ice-cream van business, which meant ice-cream for pudding! But one of the best memories I have is trying a 'Ragu' sauce with pasta at her kitchen table. I am guessing it was spaghetti, but all I can remember is the gorgeous, picante, rich sauce dripping down my chin and wanting to eat it forever. This was always thought of in my mind as a ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’, though now we all know that there is no real dish of that name in Italy and it is just a version of ‘Ragu’. So, my first real Italian dish was that one, a ‘Ragu’, cooked by a real Italian woman in her kitchen in Walton. It wasn’t long until my own father perfected a delicious ‘Ragu’ or ‘Spag-Bol’, as it became known, with some initial kind direction from Ben in ‘Alio’s’. I guess I and Walton were lucky because ‘Alio’s’ stocked the most amazing olive oil, which we all know these days can make or break an Italian meal. Back then, it wasn’t common in England to cook with olive oil and I don’t think it had been many years since olive oil had only been available to buy in the chemist, where it had been traditionally sold to clean out ear wax!
Another memory of my childhood is regularly seeing a big 'Artic' lorry arriving periodically with Italian number plates outside ‘Alio’s’. It was always stuffed full of seasonal Italian food treasures and big drums of real olive oil. Every early Autumn, it arrived with a special delivery – red and white grapes, ready for the local Italians to turn into wine. What a great place!
At middle school I was again blessed with another Italian best friend, Natascha. This was another step up in Italian cuisine for me, as her father owned three Italian restaurants in Surrey. I had my first wood fired Italian pizza at his restaurant in Weybridge and was instantly hooked. And so it went on. I went to a local secondary Catholic school where there were many of the Walton Italians. I rode on the school bus from Walton next to my school friends Luigi and Gaspare and my one wish of those school years is that I wish that in my school years they had taught Italian instead of French, I might have been fluent by now! But as a child I just didn’t notice all these Italians in my life, they were just there. I think it was why I didn’t see an urgent need to visit Italy until I was 30. I even had an Italian boyfriend, Ciro, for a couple of years in my twenties, who himself owned a chain of Italian restaurants. I knew so many Italians, I had eaten so much Italian food and drunk so much Italian wine I wasn’t desperate to go and visit Italy at all. Italy was, in a way, already an extension of me and my own micro-culture. Instead, I wanted to explore other countries and foods, which I did do thoroughly.
When I did finally arrive in Tuscany at 30 years of age, I was blown away. Because there is more to a country than food and wine! There is beauty, landscape, smells, temperature and local cultural differences and customs. I fell in love instantly with Italy and never looked back. That is why I am here now, in my forties, in my personal favourite Italian region, Piemonte, making up for lost time but very grateful that I did travel the world first. There is after all no place like home and, thanks to my English-Italian quasi upbringing, I feel truly at home here in Piemonte.
Travelling into Turin today I am struck with the majestic wide boulevards of artery roads pumping cars, motorbikes, trams and cyclists into and around the city. I can’t say I am impressed. Before visiting any city I imagine what it will look like and I am never correct in my assumptions. I made a big assumption that Turin was probably going to be a tiny city with a couple of old Fiat factories on the outskirts and the usual churches and a few squares. I envisaged tourists sipping hot chocolates and coffee and stocking up on chocolate presents. I was wrong on both counts.
The sat nav guides me into a beautiful small square just in the old city centre with a little grassed mound that once upon a time had a refreshment stand for the parading Torinese. Today, people are sitting on benches relaxing in the sun and toddlers are playing on the grass; it is a cheery sight. But there is a strange calmness in the air. For an old city person, I am used to noise, heaving masses, diesel fumes, here, in the heart of Turin, there is a peculiar tranquillity. The people numbers are not here. There are sporadic local people walking here and there but no jostling like other cities of Europe that one comes to expect. There are several pedestrianised streets, with little bollards at the end of the streets, frustrating any cars attempt to make a short cut.
I wander along in awe at the serenity. What this awe gives me is time to look up. I am not needing to look ahead of me to avoid people here. I can look up at the beautiful architecture. Above the shops are old apartment buildings from centuries past and fully occupied, with all the historic architectural detail you want to see. Ornate iron wrought balconies proudly presenting overflowing flower baskets framed by beautiful shutters. Little ‘key stone’ carved heads of people feature under gables and over windows, faces I don’t know but I am sure the Master craftsmen of centuries gone by knew. Some are gargoyles with grotesque faces, but most are proud and regal looking. There are carved bulls on water fountains and lion heads on many bridges and gates just in case I forget this is a Royal city, there are palazzos to see on many of the city squares. Turin was the first capital city of a united Italy. It held that position for a grand total of four years and lest you forget it was the home of the House of Savoy, one of the longest and most powerful ruling families in this part of the world. Yes, majestic is a word to sum up Turin’s architecture, squares and wide boulevards. It is a serene majesty. I feel like I have snuck in through a secret side gate into a private palace full of impressive courtyards, cool marble passages and fountains. The city is also clean, well kept and for some reason that I can’t put my finger on, it smells good. I wasn’t expecting it to smell good. Turin has had its recent smog and pollution problems, so I need to research this one.
What Turin is now is fresh and vibrant. Yes, of course, we can on a weekend visit, tick off chocolate, coffee, bicerin, churches, markets, Piemotese food of yore and Fiat. But, this is to be predictive and generic, as well as not fair to a city that is always moving. Turin is more than these classical Turin stereotypes. It is a complex city and one I have only scratched the surface of. There are numerous blocks and quarters with entirely different vibes. It is flat and on a grid layout, rather like New York but on an easier to navigate scale by foot. This is a multi-cultural city and a new one at that. Where once the Southern Italians flocked in to build Fiat into a global car manufacturer, bringing their Southern culture and food with them, now it is experiencing a wider immigration effect. This is reflected in its variety of restaurants and food halls. There are numerous Argentinian, Spanish, Greek, Moroccan, Japanese, American and other nationality restaurants here. There is a Jewish area with a fringe Muslim area with foods unrecognisable to the traditional Torino palate.
What I am delighted to see most is the young Torinese start-ups. Yes, they have been branded hipsters and even one restaurant featured some non-welcoming graffiti on its wall but they are running the show in the area of ‘San Salvario’, a hop, step and jump from the heart of the old city. The new bars and trendy eateries here are stuffed to capacity every night with young people, and the students and graduates of the various colleges and Turin University. In fact, there are young people everywhere, and many cycling at pace over cobbled streets on vintage bicycles. Even the ubiquitous bike hiring stations feature vintage style bikes! The young have taken this city and are running it. Though I’m not sure that the city knows it!
There is a propensity to fry the food here in many new establishments. I, personally, am not a fan of fried food and I don’t know if this is a trend or a Torinese tradition. Certainly, I haven’t come across it in the Langhe region where I live. As it is summer a lot of menus are featuring fried zucchini flowers stuffed with a variety of creamy fillings, fried Toma cheese and fried fish. I am still not sold on this but each to their own. Anyway, it makes a refreshing change to see different food on the menu instead of the Piemontese traditional staples of Vitello Tonnato, Agnolotti del Plin, braised beef in Barolo etc But, don’t panic if you are craving your regular Piemontese food fix, these dishes are here aplenty in Turin too.
For fashionistas you will not be disappointed. There are boutiques everywhere as well as the big fashion names, and a range of shops for all budgets. My favourite find was a beautiful Vintage Clothing shop with impeccable clothes and presentation called Char.ly Vintage & Flowers on Via Giueseppe Pomba.
The nightlife here is jumping. Starting with Aperitivo after work and moving into long summer social evenings too. All very reminiscent of a trip to Barcelona but without the heaving tourist masses, and quite refreshing for me, as a now country living girl, where everyone locally departs for bed circa 10pm. Here, in Turin, the place is buzzing from 10pm with lots of cafes and bars open with the young bright Torinese flooding the streets in all their energetic beauty. I walk into Turin’s Jazz club to find a swing dancing night on; to my delight, as I am a very experienced swing dancer. Unfortunately, I had the wrong skirt on to partake, as I really don’t like twirling my vintage skirt up with a view of my bottom on show! Frustratingly, I had to sit by the sides and watch the dancers hit the floor without me. But next time!
I recently discovered Vermouth while on a short trip to Sete in France and a visit to ‘Noilly Prat’ in Marseillan, I have never even had a Martini so this was a new taste experience for me. This drink is all the rage now in Turin, the home of Vermouth. There are craft makers of Vermouth aplenty, all battling their way to own your taste buds, over the longer established ‘Martini’ and ‘Cinzano’ brands of the recent years. Some of the old names have revived ancient recipes and come back to the market such as ‘Contratto’ and ‘Cocchi’. But I am disappointed to be offered only the ‘Martini’ brand in two of the bars I ventured into. This will take some more research on my part. I just know there must be better bars here in Turin selling better local artisanal Vermouth’s and I will track them down next time. Hopefully, by my next visit, this trend will have caught on across all the bars of Turin. If you visit here soon, be sure to find these highly rated Vermouth producers. But when in Turin a regular Vermouth on the rocks with a slice of lemon is still very refreshing on a summers day, sipped in one of the many squares, whilst partaking in the sport of people watching.
I traverse down to the River Po to view the rowers sweeping along it’s fast flowing water. As a past rower I am delighted to see many crews out on the water and I view from the bridge, with a little envy, some very beautiful rowing clubs too. Before we settled in Langhe I did try to find somewhere that was suitable to live within reach of Turin and its grand river, so that I could get a sculling boat and hit the water at weekends. But the Langhe Hills, without any rowing clubs, won my heart. Now, I think a little apartment in Turin wouldn’t go amiss…
I spy on the outskirts of the city the old large Fiat factory that gave Turin economic prosperity in the last century. Now it has been turned into a hotel and shopping mall. But Turin doesn’t rest and is on the move again, this time in technology. There is a bright aerospace technology industry set up here with a lot of investment and great University courses to fill its burgeoning graduate needs into the future. Biotechnology, Life Science and Robotics are also popular in this city and attracting a lot of international investment both in money and people.
If you visit Turin please go with an open mind. Yes, get the chocolate, coffee, church and market fix but adventure around the different quarters and see today’s Turin, not just the one of the past. There is so much to see here that even 3 days won’t cut it. I can’t wait to go back and discover more!
Rain Rain Go Away - Come again another day or month!
Rain Rain Go Away Come Again another Day
Yes, it is officially June now, we are one week in and this time last year I was at the beach every weekend. This year I haven’t unpacked my summer clothes! What has happened to the weather here?
All year we have been rained on frequently. At least once a week and in the last month multiple times a week, with many thunder storms for good measure. After having gone through a serious drought last summer, that led to us hastily setting up three new water butts in the garden this winter, we are now having to empty water out of the butts regularly, as they keep overflowing! The winter stream next to the house, which I love hearing has not stopped running. It has always stopped in March in years gone by. Yikes, is this Global Warming in full effect?
There are positives to all this rain, of course. There are birds in the garden! Yay! For the last two years barely a bird has been singing. Now I get woken to the dawn chorus and they are singing all day. So much so I was on a Skype business call the other day and my client said, ‘Wow you have some great bird song there!’ There has been heaps of new wild flowers that I haven’t seen before on my walks in previous June's, including a lovely flood of dog rose growing along the road. I am going to take cuttings and grow a dog rose bush alongside an exposed part of the garden, as I can’t find this in the garden shops anywhere here and I love drinking roseship tea in the winter. I am also experimenting with infusing regular Grappa, which all my neighbouring Italian friends do here themselves. I am starting off with a yarrow infusion and then a cherry one. The hills are verdant green and lush with leaf. Much lusher than last year and aesthetically everything looks, on the face of it, healthy.
My vegetable patch is coming along nicely, particularly veg grown straight into the ground such as the potatoes, carrots, celery, lettuce, beetroot, onions and garlic. But my tomatoes are about a month behind in growth and my aubergines won’t come out to play. The zucchini flowers aren’t happy either, I really hope this isn’t the second year in a row that I can’t manage to grow zucchini – I must be the only gardener on the planet who can’t pull this off!
The cherry tree is about a week away from harvesting and I am off to buy netting today to keep the birds off most of it. I am looking for new recipes for cherries if you have any. Thankfully I found a great cherry destoner last weekend at a French market I visited on a weekend away in Sete. The French are good at some things, I can’t find this implement anywhere here in Piemonte and yet there are cherry trees everywhere in the Langhe.
We caught up with a local wine producer, Enzo at Patrone in our local pizzeria last week. He is very unhappy about the lack of sun. Last week he said the grapes need a full run of sun and no rain for at least two weeks. Unfortunately for him and all the other growers this week has had some big rainfall already and more to come by the looks of the weather forecast. Optimism is low for the quality of this year’s wine harvest, particularly if this carries on. Last year is looking like a vintage year, though the quantity was low due to hail and the drought the quality is high. Remember to get buying the 2017 Barolo and Barbaresco as soon as they come out of their respective barrels in the next few years!
We are starting to entertain in the garden the next two weekends, weather permitting! Lots of great recipes coming up to be shared soon with you all and I might even make some videos of the recipes this time too!
Myself and Andrew are off to be a guest speaker at the Turin Epicurean event, held in Turin (of course) on 20/21/22 June 2018. Hosted by the lovely Lucia Hannau here are the details. There are lots of talks and cooking class and other foodie elements to get involved with. Come along if you are in Turin those days, I would love to meet you.
I am now off to do a little native American Indian Sun dance! Salute!
Fairy Dandelion Oil
This Spring, our Piemonte garden has been coated in a sunny yellow hue, since the beginning of April. Dandelions are everywhere. There are also plenty of patches of Daisy’s too, fighting for the sunlight, as the grass grows taller every day.
I just had to formulate a plan for this abundance. My research led me to one of my favourite ideas for herbs, a rubbing oil. I love rubbing oil. Last year I made a few pots of St. Johns Wort oil for carpal tunnel syndrome and muscle aches. Dandelions and Daisies are in this area of natural medicine too.
Dandelion flowers have great healing properties for strains and pulled muscles. Daisies are great for bumps and bruises. What a partnership.
I don’t have kids but can imagine that collecting these pretty flowers would be a great fun outing for young children to get involved in and to appreciate nature’s bounty. I have nicknamed this rub, 'Fairy Oil', as we all really know fairies live among the Daisy’s and Dandelions and have magical powers for healing!
If you have any leftover Dandelion flower heads that didn’t fit in the jar, you can also eat Dandelion petals in a salad!
What you can use Dandelion oil for
Dandelion reduces heat, alleviate swelling and inflammation.
You can use it by rubbing a little of the oil on aching sore muscles and joints, swollen breasts and tense backs and necks. Its anti-inflammatory properties are extremely beneficial for treating arthritis and gout by topical application.
Daisy oil is great gently rubbed on bruises, sprains, sore muscles and dried cuticles.
The Langhe Hills in Spring 2018!
Piemonte is alive at last, after what has seen like a very long winter compared to last year. This winter started in mid-December 2017 with snow that came and went, carpeting the terraced farmland in a blanket of crisp white snow for most of the following three months; fabulous for Christmas cards but not for the spirit! The snow was chased by rain! More rain in March and early April than the whole of last year. What will this mean for the farmers? So far they all seem happy that things are back on track, after last year’s drought, but they are hoping for some warm weather weeks now and no late April frost like last year. Last year’s frost greatly reduced grape yield in the Langhe but the quality, according to Barolo wine makers, will be high, so watch out for the 2017 vintage in a few years’ time when they start releasing Barbaresco and Barolo wines on the market!
Certainly, looking at our own land and gardens, there is a big difference this Spring. I have noticed an increase in song birds, last year the sun and heat were a month earlier and seemed to have had the birds hiding in the nearby woods, out of ear shot of the house. But we are surrounded by cuckoos, wood pigeon’s, blackbirds lots of different tits and other birds I am yet to categorise. So, for once, I am writing this outside, in the garden at 8am, with all the calls of nature in my ears, including my neighbour ‘Giovanni’s frogs and their mating calls!
The garden has woken up nicely in the last week, as at last the sun has made an appearance and daytime temperatures are up in the mid-twenties, with nights over 10 degrees. It has been a long time coming. The herb garden has taken off into a full on growing competition. I trimmed the oregano dead stalks back only two weeks ago and they have now started to billow into a stack of green healthy leaves. The parsley I planted last year, after originally planting celery by mistake (it really looked like parsley when it was young), has now become very established and in fairness has fed us fresh leaves all winter and looks like it loves it here. I have introduced some new herbs to the garden in pots to brighten up a dull entrance wall from the driveway, making a much more inviting welcome for us and our visitors. I envisage this will be far more attractive and aromatic! The herbs I have introduced are Pineapple Sage, Borage, Chives, Marjoram, Costmary, Melissa, Coriander and two different Mints. These are to experiment with and I will take cuttings soon and plant out in the garden in different areas to see how they fare here. I much prefer the idea of herbs growing in the land rather than pots. I sourced these herbs from a wondrous garden centre, Garden Pregno in Asti, Piemonte. Garden centres were getting me very frustrated, there was none I could find that had a decent array of plants but this one – oh my! You must see it! It is in Asti and you could blink and miss it driving by it but don’t be deceived. It has hidden depths! Behind the tiny entrance off the main road it has been sectioned into 6 ginormous glass houses about 50mtrs in length by 30mtrs wide, each containing different plants, trees, roses etc. It took an hour and a half to walk round just three of them – I was entranced. The plants are in amazing condition and are the best I have seen anywhere in the world. You just have to visit it if you love plants and are in Asti on a wine or sightseeing trip! Check out Garden Pregno's website
Garden Pregno, Asti Pictures
We have made a start on adding to the orchard with a granny smith apple tree, we can’t source this variety of apples in the shops here, so I am wondering how this will do in the summer heat. Another purchase is a nectarine tree, which will be espaliered against a south facing Langhe stone wall. I really hope these take off, as I sorely want my own apples in the next year or two and I prefer nectarines over peaches, which thrive in the garden but are mostly wasted on me. Fortunately, I think we have moved on from the earnest disaster of planting a pear tree in our first year and forgetting to water it! Our new friends in town have gifted us two gooseberry bushes, a new fruit for me to grow and one my mother loves. I am crossing my fingers on this, so I can feed her gooseberries all summer! The most frustrating thing now, is my lack of Italian. I am having to rely on gardening books from the UK, I know that the climate is challenging me on this front as plants react differently in each country and their instructions haven’t always played out well here, due to the lack of rain and very hot summers. I have to get on top of this language asap and buy some Italian gardening books, even if it is all Italian gardening terminology that I learn! If anyone has any recommendations please let me know.
Accompanying the return of the garden are our neighbours. They are starting to head back to Langhe after their winter sojourn in their respective, warmer weather, holiday homes in Menton and Genova. They arrive now for the summer months, as it is cooler in Langhe than the coast. Although I don’t think there is much difference in the summer temperatures, if last year is anything to go on. But I do like the idea of a coastal retreat for winter. This is something we are contemplating for next winter. Invitations are now coming in from the returners for dinners and lunches. It really is like we have been in hibernation for the last 4 months since they all departed and they have been sorely missed for entertainment, laughs and company.
I have made a couple of lovely things for the larder and health cupboard. Firstly, after a failed few attempts in the last couple of years, I have nailed a traditional Piccalilli recipe. Piccalilli and cheddar cheese are the only two food items I miss here. And thanks to some recent Dublin visitors we are now stocked with vintage cheddar cheese for another couple of months and have enough piccalilli for this year and to give as gifts to give our unsuspecting Italian neighbours palates and some lovely local ex pats.
Our garden is full of dandelions right now, I really can’t remember seeing this many last year. I have made an oil rub from these yellow darlings (courtesy of Jill at Prairie Homestead) for sore muscles, as grass strimming is upon us, or rather on Andrew. I expect the usual groans and gripes after he has strimmed the terraces and I do hope this salve will do the trick. I will also start adding the petals to salads and teas.
All in all, I am breathing again. I was holding my breath this winter and early Spring, praying for the rain to fill the well up and get the streams going again, as they hadn’t in 2017’s Spring. It feels like this year ought to be a full-on garden growing year. This is the point of being here and having this land, to feed and nourish the soul, and I am determined to make it happen this year. I will get the bountiful harvest I envisaged when we first bought here in the beautiful Langhe Hills of Piemonte!
A True Winter
I can’t get my neighbour's voice out of my head. It was about four months ago when we were sat down to a lovely lunch in their beautiful Langhe stone house, on a warm day in late Autumn. They were hosting their end of season leaving lunch before heading to their winter home in sunny Menton, just over the border in France, we had been discussing seasons in Piemonte with them and their 8 close friends around the table, while eating some of Ines’s amazing bell pepper dish, coated in breadcrumbs with hidden anchovies, we were talking about how excited we were about another winter with some snow and brisk winter walks, because truly we had had enough of the heat and, after all, that was our fond experience of our first Piemonte winter last year. “But Clare”, said Ines, “That was not winter in Piemonte, that was a blip, you have yet to experience a real winter, you will see what I mean soon.” I laughed it off, while eating some more peppers, but it niggled at me in my thoughts, as we went through November. What on earth is a real winter in Piemonte? After all, last year we had plenty of snow and it was freezing for a few weeks…
We have now found out what a real Piemonte winter is.
It started in December, a cold that descended barely a few weeks into the dark days and the temperature dropped to -10, on a night when a dear friend was visiting us, from his home in South of France. He was heading up our steep driveway late at night, with his summer tyres on (why would you need anything else in the South of France after all) and he couldn’t get traction on the, unknown to us, invisible black ice that had taken over our driveway and half way up the drive his car slowly started to swerve backwards and slide off the side of the drive until he was balanced on the side of the hill between 2 big fir trees. Fortunately, he got out unscathed and left the car, also unscathed, to dangle; there are not many alternatives at midnight in Piemonte. The next day our trusty neighbour, Giovanni, aka 'Superman', came to the rescue with his digger and towed him out to much hand clapping and back patting and sounds of ‘Oi yoi yois’ from Giovanni, I am sure we are his sole source of comedy here. Needless to say, we took him out for his favourite Pizza Margherita as a big thank you. The barter system is wonderful.
Then the snow came. One snow fall after another, as soon as we thought that would be the last of the snow and things started thawing another snow dump arrived stealthily in the middle of the night, until it was up to my knees. Then the freezing fogs came in, turning droplets into swords of death hanging off the big fir trees, everywhere looked like ‘Narnia’ and the White Witch’s palace. Every time we went outside we would practically run from under the roof eaves where icicles dangled waiting to spear our skulls opened. We soon got used to the sound of thwacking icicles breaking off and landing on the concrete veranda, shattering like chandeliers everywhere, as another thaw came and went. The summer sounds of crickets strumming their legs has been replaced with the sounds of waterfalls, like in the corny Enya ‘Orinoco flows’, Piemonte truly flowed this winter with every gutter and drainpipe letting out its notes of water music relentlessly, not great when it keeps making you want to go to the loo. I honestly don’t know how people put up with water features in earshot of the house.
But there was a moment to surpass these natural winter wonders and one that I humbly share with you, though somewhat wishing I didn’t have to, we had a ‘city slicker’ moment of mass proportions.
We had arranged an early morning appointment for a routine test in the local hospital an hour away in Asti and we cheerfully got up at 6.30am to hit the road. We had learnt our lessons last year about parking at the bottom of our driveway so we hadn’t gotten snowed in once this time, and saving us from having to dig out the long driveway, while breaking our backs and hearts in the process like last year. The car started up, registering -7 on the thermometer in the car, brrr! We poodled off down the winding road to the town. It was so enchanting with the snow blanketing the fields and everywhere bathed in the violet haze of a winter dawn highlighting the tiny steps of deer tracks and then we came to an undignified, puttering, stop, at Giovanni’s corner; well where else would we break down! The car was fully conked out. Andrew masterfully turned the engine over and over with nothing but the 3 second ‘chh chh chh chh’ sound coming from the engine. Surmising, that somehow, we had run out of diesel, Andrew took that big sigh I am becoming used to and left his DIY manhood at the car door and trudged down the very long driveway, in the half metre snow to Giovanni’s house. I do feel for Andrew in these moments, and all men, to have to admit defeat to another man and deliver further proof of ones lack of skills is no boon to the male ego. I sat in the freezing car awaiting results of the trudge.
Twenty minutes later and there they were, stepping high, up the lane, through the snow. I, at this stage, am wrapped like a mummy in the car blanket, watching my breath come out of my mouth like a fog fuelled dry ice machine and listening to Giovanni making his ‘oi yoi yoi’ sounds yet again, as he arrives and sets to expertly looking under the hood. Fortunately, he had been a mechanic before retirement. We truly landed in the right spot in Piemonte with this neighbour! He then sets to pushing the car back and forth from its side so I feel like I am being thrown around in a blender and he gamely reports that we have not run out of fuel but in fact our diesel tank has frozen. What the!!! Apparently it had gotten below -10 that previous night and diesel can freeze in the tank from -7/-8, who knew? Well not us city slickers. Then he trudged back to his house and returned 20 minutes later with a blow torch, and with me still sat in the passenger seat he sets the torch alight and starts running it over the lines in the engine – ahhhhhh! I really think I am going to be a gonner and the car will explode any moment! Health and safety hasn’t been taught here. But that doesn't work, so with two bruised ego’s outside the car and one frozen ego inside the car, we give up and decide to call the local mechanic. Fortunately, our local mechanic had seen this many times before and kindly fixed the tank with some additive and more fuel and hey presto it started.
So there you go folks, if you have a diesel car in a cold winter make sure you have additive in the tank with each fill up you do. Another mortifying lesson learnt in our Piemonte adventure. I wonder what the next lesson will be…
Please arrive soon Spring!
Summer in Piedmont 2017
A return on Easyjet to Piedmont, after a swift 4 days with my family in England, has raised some interesting questions. It seems everyone is delighted for me, and a little staggered, that I have opted out of city life, having, it seemed, the perfect set up in Dublin, city-centre house, thriving business, amazing, music filled, social life. But here I am, on the flight to Milan, pondering existential thoughts. The meaning of my life today and who I am.
I love music, with a passion, having been brought up in an eclectic, mixed music genre house, by my music mad parents, my father was a music promoter, and there was barely a moment when music was not being played on the record player, or bands were partying in the house, after a gig. I was happy hanging out backstage, organising gigs and being at stage-side of many a great concert. Yet, now I am living with no great music scene, apart from our trusty 1990's Technics CD/tape stereo that still provides a hard to beat excellent sound, and a wide mix of music, that is terrifying the woodpeckers, chickens and bumblebees, in this normally slumbering Langhe Hills, Piemonte, garden. We do have our Sardinian, elderly neighbour, Giovanni, belting out old Italian classics, after one too many home-made wines, at every dinner party, such song lyrics seem to feature sun, wine, girls and food and of course the moon, beautiful to the ears but not Rock ‘n’ Roll. We have Guido, in his mid 60’s, who makes his own music on a keyboard synthesizer, which I am struggling to fit into a genre, bless him. Though, he is a fan of the Beatles and Sergeant Peppers, probably my least favourite band by a long mile. Don't get me wrong, I live for the dinners and entertainment by my talented neighbours but...
I have gone through dormant phases of not listening to any music, which hits me after about a month, when I awaken with a jolt, after realising something is missing and I have entered ‘beige’ middle age territory. So, it was with gritted determination that, in January, I had set upon purchasing two tickets for Guns N Roses in London, for their June concert. I knew it would sell out fast and I knew I had to fend for myself and get these tickets sorted out, which meant Ticketmaster. I hate Ticketmaster. It completely sucks, I know it is egalitarian and the fastest fingers win the best tickets but I also know there are many seats held back from the sale for the corporates to waste on uninterested, posturing, clients. I went to the extent of paying extra to join the Guns N Roses fan club, to give myself a 3-day exclusive advance purchase opportunity. The moment came when the seats shone up on the screen and I had no choice but to buy them, they sat a third away from the stage. It was desperate. And, so it was, for the 4th time in our lives, myself, and my 39-year-old sister, found ourselves running around looking for cargo pants to avoid the arduous hand bag search, back combed our hair into Rock n Roll quiffs, blacked our eyes up and donned the required rock chic, red, lipstick, in preparation for viewing one of our favourite bands. Sitting in our seats at the concert, a third down the venue from the stage we realised we weren’t going to see the full-size grimacing Axl and the colour of Slashes finger nails, which we had twice before by holding on for dear life, to the front barriers at Wembley, as teens, but now, more pedestrian, we had the big screens and tiny 4-inch-high versions of the band running back and forth across the stage. An hour into the concert, two plastic bottles of Heineken down, and I was in love with music yet again, and, by the looks of it, so were most of the stadium's over 40’s. I had a yearning to return to my Rockabilly hang outs in Dublin and go to more gigs in London but I knew with a first, strange bout of homesickness, that all this was no longer on my door step. I live in the middle of nowhere, in the Langhe Hills, listening to Giovanni singing ‘Amore’ songs at me and Guido strumming his very own Italian accented ‘Eleanor Rigsby’ version after dinner.
I am looking out of the window, on the flight over the mountains, and know my life is returning to it’s quiet, relaxing pace, and I miss Rock ‘n’ Roll. What am I going to do? I vow to myself, in this moment, that I am going to get out more and find the gigs, I know Milan is heaving with music but, at two hour’s drive away, it’s not simple, not when I have been spoilt with city living in Dublin and London. So, as much as I have rebelled, and jumped off with two feet, out of the rat race, like Slash jumping off the stage with his Gibson in the air. I must not fade into this landscape. I am not retired! I feel a bit more of a sense of who I am coming back to me, now my jaded city ‘burn out’ is fading into a distant memory. I have been told that there is a season of music in 'Bergolo' of over 20 classical/swing/jazz events this summer, I might start there, it’s not Rock ‘n’ Roll, but it’s a start.
Italian’s are mostly tribal people and one of the things that they love is the ability to drive in 'scalextric' set convoys along the windy country roads. When venturing out, as a group, it is always with the instruction to drive to the bottom of the drive, of the trip’s organiser, and we will meet there and then follow each other to the destination, even though we all know the way, either this is an insecurity about getting separated from the group at the destination, or it is a chance to show off how fast the lead driver can be, as he wings it round the hillside. I also like to think it is a chance to show off, to all and sundry, how many friends they have and how popular they are. Tonight, we, and our neighbours, are all descending on 'Bergolo' to see a French band, and we have a dear neighbour, Gianna, with us. She is, as all Italian women are on a night out, dressed up, and has donned a designer denim jacket and skirt with fetching shoes, ‘Max Mara’ white rimmed sunglasses and her coiffured dark hair, with the carefully placed and gorgeous red streaks, is on magnificent display. She must have been stunning, as a twenty-year-old, as she is stunning now in her sixties.
We meet at Guido's driveway and with smiles and horns tooting back and forth, we join the back of the convoy to climb down and up another high hill, in a twisting, synchronised, convoy, to the ancient village of ‘Bergolo’. As we drive up the hill to the village, I look out of the window at the sunset, over the distant hillocks. Here, there is more pasture with a few munching, white, ‘Farrone’ beef cows, who are slowly swatting the eager hungry flies out of their eyes, like an Egyptian slave fanning Cleopatra, and completely ignoring the passing by noisy car convoy, as they meditatively graze. There are some obligatory hazelnut patches, but the land appears more patchworked than our hill and the sun setting, on the recently harvested wheat fields, shines with a deep amber gold, off the dry and stubbly wheat remains, as the last of the day’s heat mists through the little, transparent, clouds of nats and last minute pollen seekers. It is a beautiful drive.
On arrival, the car park is mostly empty and for the first time ever we seem to be among the first to arrive. Normally, we are one of the last and have to squeeze the car into a tight spot, usually with a precipice to one side and one wheel on a tree stump that no one else has risked. So, this time, we smoothly drive into a real parking space, feeling very pleased with ourselves, next to the neighbour's cars. And, en-mass, we saunter slowly down the crunching stone path to the outdoor venue, taking in the view of the far valley, now cloaked in lilac dusk, with the last of the songbirds saying goodnight, blissfully unaware, in their nightly ritual, that the ampitheatre will soon be blowing out loud musical sounds and rudely awakening them.
O Fortuna! The front row is still empty, another first for us. But there are corridors to segregate the rows and all our Italian friends take up the middle front row and we have to sit further round to the front side section. I suddenly feel, in a very Italian way, a little left out, how can we show other people here that we are in with the ‘in’ crowd, now we are sat on our own, obviously ‘stranieri’ and looking like tourists. I look around the room, as it grows busier, with more arriving music lovers, taking their seats in the half moon ampitheatre, and I soon spot a couple in the back row that we know, from one of the local shops we frequent, she spots me and smiles and I give a wave and she waves back; see everyone, we are not tourists, we do live here! Andrew ‘harrrumphs’ at me and asks me to quit the neediness, as it is ruining his, purposefully, styled Italian 'coolness' of appearing like the ‘Fonz’ in ‘Happy Days’, i.e. happy to be here but, please, don’t touch the hair!
Eventually, the concert begins, on strolls a man in his 50’s, wearing a very average outfit of a suit jacket, white shirt, regular beige trousers and trainers, he doesn’t look like a musician, more like someone’s uncle, possibly an accountant, who has stumbled accidentally on to the set en-route to finding a hidden bar, but no, he takes his seat and picks up a guitar. Next, walks on a stooped man with longer brown tousled hair and a moody face and crumpled t-shirt, ah yes, a second, real, guitarist, with the stoop from shoulders, frozen into position, after decades spent looking down over his guitar. They start to play a French tune, like one of those cliched songs from a French café in the 1930’s, with twinkly jazzy notes and comedic French lyrics, which we, and not many of the audience, understand, so the song falls flat, though there is polite clapping at the end. I look round the room and people are respectful, they are all listening attentively but I can see the strain in their eyes of trying to interpret the fast speaking French singer and, sadly, I recognise my own reflection, this must be how I appear to our local friends in conversation, at our regular dinner parties! The audience are nodding their heads along to the music but not getting it at all, and of course neither are we. The night goes on like this, until a lady joins in with a violin and a man on a big double bass, which transforms the music into a more jaunty and uplifting session. Toes are being tapped now and little smiles are appearing on the audience lips. Then, I take a peek at my neighbours, they, in contrast, are all looking rather sullen and bored. Poor Guido, he of the electronic keyboard and Beatles collection, looks like he is about to sleep, he has a hand to his face and fingers creep over an eye, like he is covering it, hoping the band will miraculously disappear and be replaced, with Paul, John, George and Ringo, singing, ‘We all live in a Yellow Submarine’, thankfully, this is not going to happen.
Eventually, after ninety minutes, the band announces the end has come and a lovely warm burst of applause opens with people cheering, I am not sure if it is a moment of delight, as now everyone can escape back to the peace of their homes and put on their own personal definition of ‘real’ music, or if they truly enjoyed it. But before the applause has ended, and to my astonishment, all my neighbours, bar Gianna, have upped and walked out, fast as you like, to the car park, they are practically jogging! No-one else has left, just them! The musicians have now tottered off backstage, for a glass of, ‘Thank God It’s Over’ Wine, I am sure, but people are still clapping and cheering, they must have liked it! After a minute the band is encouraged out for an encore and I feel a sense of embarrassment at the fact that half of the front row, our ‘companions’ have legged it, can there be anything worse for a band to be dragged back on stage, away from their much needed wine, to give one last song to a missing front row? Still, they bravely deliver one more song and, at the last note, the lights come on, signifying, that at last, it is truly over. We scuttle across the floor to Gianna, who is now on her own, and looking rather lost without the gang. We think she must have wanted to leave too but got stuck here for one more unbearable song, as her driver, us, didn’t leave with the others. But no, she wants food, this poor woman has not eaten since lunch and, in Italy, this means she is in mortal danger from starvation!
Normally, at the Bergolo concerts, there is an intermission and home-made delicacies get passed round, focaccia, flan, tarts, wine, all free and lovely, but not tonight, there has been no intermission. We spot a bustling corner group of people who have discovered a ‘life saving’ area of free drink and food. At last, the food trays have, though late, arrived! We hustle over and into the fast gathering, hungry, throng, we gobble the focaccia faster than our chickens with corn, and knock back a flat fizzy orange in a plastic cup, but there is no wine! Maybe, as it is French band night, this is an Italian interpretation of France, they think that the French do not give out free wine and nibbles at concerts in France, so this is a real French concert i.e. no free food or drink! But I might be overthinking this one, particularly as, I have now discovered from talking to them, the band are not French but Italian, from up the road, a French cover band of all things, and we are only ninety minutes from the French border! I hope the next events are going to be better, otherwise I fear for my musical sanity.
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.
This morning we are wandering 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.
Four 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.
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