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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