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.
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