The Summer Season Begins in Piedmont
For certain, as time has gone before, farmers could rely on the changing of the seasons, not like clockwork but in a rhythm of clearing, sewing, tending, pruning, watering, harvesting and resting. All conducted at a certain time and manner befitting the season. This seems to be changing along with our climate sadly.
I was out walking today on what finally felt like the first day of real summer. Before me were a multitude of herbs, fruits and wild grass that seemed to be thriving but according to my journals kept over the last 4 years all seemed to be late in their scented splendor. I have been contemplating this for some time. I admit to only having walked a half life so far on my journey on the earth, but it seems to me the seasons are shifting slowly.
But let’s not be too hasty to start mourning the loss of what we know seasonal timings to be when we can look around us now and enjoy the view.
On my stroll
Stepping out of the fading wooden front door thoughts of re-varnishing it leave my mind on seeing the beautiful sight before me, the Langhe Hills of Piedmont, in perfect green and lush magnificence. My ears are hit hard with a choir of bird song, as I make my way down the stone driveway and pass the soon to bloom lavender to my right and the overgrowing hedge to my left. Butterflies dart about through my experimental wilding habitat and the frantic buzzing and strumming of bees and crickets awaken my senses to summer. I can’t believe it’s here. No more rain forecast just glorious sunshine baked days.
Strolling on to the Strada I hear no motors coming, only a cuckoo calling. I take in the sight of my elderflowers coming into bloom, though not as plentiful as last year. I think there is just enough heads to make my Elderfower cordial. I take in a deep lungful of green, new summer, air.
The background is full of the low hum of strimming sounds from distant farms. It’s that time of the year when farmers here go at it like mad things, sweating through their ‘overalls and ruining the tranquillity of nature on the rise. I feel somewhat clever for adopting Isabella Trees ‘Wilderness’ approach in the garden. I have informed the neighbours of my wilding experiment. They crease up their brows on hearing my plan to let the land go ‘au naturel’ and look at me bemused. Unless there is a heatwave of epic proportions, and fear of land burning, I won’t be moved on my decision.
Last year when we gave up chasing our tails with the strimming of it all, this new approach soon became a revelation. There were more bees and butterflies and insects I had never seen before flitting amongst the long grass and wild flowers and this year there are even more. I love it. I love treading in my wellies through the wild wheat that dominates the background of this natural landscape, they sway at my shoulder showering me lightly with tiny crickets. I enjoy seeing a habitat of natural beauty rather than artificial boring cut grass. I love wondering what all the pretty flowers and herbs are that grow in this wild apothecary. I wish I knew. I feel that we have lost so much knowledge of nature and its healing properties over the last 100 years.
I stroll along leisurely up the winding hill. A stream trickles down the side, snaking its way down to my neighbour Giovanni’s small lake, providing his captured fish with clean water. Just the other week we were visiting Giovanni and Anna on the way back from town. Giovanni's eyes gleamed at the sight of us and his enthusiastic kissing and big hugs forewarned us that he was about to ask a favour. He was.
He pointed towards a small wooden white rowing boat that sat in his driveway, about four foot wide with a bench in the middle. He was about to place it in the lake but obviously he couldn’t do it alone. It required some wrestling to heave it on the back of the small trailer, but Andrew and Giovanni deftly managed it with some flexing of the muscles. I went with Anna to watch the two men at work. We headed down to the lake, passing the sheep and baby lambs who stood stock still and bleated quizzically at us. Finally, through much grunting, posturing and panting the boat slapped into the water. Back slapping and cheering met it’s bounce on the water, particularly with the sight of it floating. Giovanni clambered in and set to rowing like only a man from Sardinia could do. The fish won’t know what’s coming!
Climbing high up the hill I am completely alone. No houses are in view, no cars growling by. Solitude. All is lush and green, every shade of green even eucalyptus green from a tall gangly sapling. There are so many birds, I wish I had my long departed grandfather with me on this walk to tell me what birds are singing now. The question comes back to my mind ‘How much knowledge have we lost over the last 100 years?’ It is frustrating me not to know, I can’t even see the birds to identify them as they are hidden in the rich green foliage of the trees.
I turn back and take in the view of the valley, as it curves down to the village out of sight around the hills, as it always has done for thousands of years. How fortunate am I to live here and be a witness to nature in all its sprouting, budding, springing glory, now that summer has arrived.
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.
Summer in the Langhe Hills
The fast turning days of our first Piemonte Spring passed us by with speed like the fresh breath of a morning, dew filled, day; quite quickly it became warm and sticky, with the leaden, heavy, breath of summer. No distinction, or gentle easing, this year at least, from one season to the next. The year had been preceded by El Nino and it is often said that the following year is the opposite, climatically, than the El Nino year weather had been before it. We hadn’t been following the Italian weather at all, until buying the house in Italy, so we had no idea what the opposite weather this year was to be. The Autumn we had visited Piemonte, in the year before had been unseasonally hot, with a lot of our new neighbours verifying this. Of course it had snowed in March, the first week with my Mother and a bare month after receiving the house keys. It hadn’t snowed in the preceding five years, according to the font of all local knowledge, our neighbouring farmer, Giovanni. Spring was a hotch potch of fog, a common occurrence in Spring, Autumn and Winter and some drizzly rain, with a few hot heated patches when the clouds cleared. Then in May, wham! Heat! Hot, hot, heat, all day and into the early evening, with a sudden drop when the sun dipped down to bed over the far Western hill. Our Irish skin was unaccustomed to doing any more than flat out sunbathing in our ‘prior’ life of vacationing in the heat, covered in factor 15. This was a very different experience. We had to get some of the land in to order, the first important step was my very necessary herb garden.
Working in the heat, at 35 degrees, with a sun hat and very little other protection, was extremely arduous. Sweat and sticky dirt trickled over my skin from head to toe, whilst pulling out the multitude of weeds from a waist high concrete bed, perfectly situated to the East of the house, and in reach of the kitchen for herbal recipe necessity, this bed a grand 15ft x 2ft, hadn’t, it appeared, been thought of in years. Every grain of dirt appeared to be attached to a weed, whether ready to sprout from it’s hibernation, or attached to the swaying weeds and sprawling ivy above ground. I hate to waste a good bit of dirt and rather than dig it all up and start again with new topsoil I decided to sieve it. Yes, sieve it, in 35 degrees of heat. A sucker for punishment, I went off to the local hardware shop and in my best broken Italian made the request and lo a sieve was produced, perfectly perfect for the job. I set to, and a good 5 days later had sieved at least ¾ of the bed. My biceps had toned and I felt like a Roman warrioress in the garden, no weed was left undefeated, all had vanished into the bin bag, along with an inch off my waistline, and off to the very handy local commune tip.
My first herbs, planted in Italy, were Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Basil, Oregano, Chives, Parsley and Mint. Planted fresh, from locally sourced growing pots, straight into the earth, in the garden. The joy of it. After years of growing herbs in pots in our 4x2m decked yard in our city centre Dublin terrace you have no idea how wonderful it was for me to just dig a hole and plant a plant, letting it decide how big it wants to grow. Every day I waked, padded out to the herb garden and marvelled at it all, while sprinkling with some well water before the sun popped over the Eastern hill. The honey bees from the farmer in an upper terrace were, it seemed, equally delighted with this new arrival, buzzing around and scouting out a new pollen patch for later in the year, for now though, they were content with the huge lavender bush that arched it’s newly sprouting flowers over the Eastern end of the herb garden.
We bought some necessary garden furniture in June for lunches and dinner alfresco. We had inherited a round table that sat awkwardly, for now, under the portico but felt an additional eating area was required for more formal events and our own entertainment. We purchased an 8 seater and chairs and placed them under our only shade giving tree in the garden, a gigantic spruce that was well positioned for the midday sun, as it cast a cooling shadow, for a few hours anyway, from 12pm til 3pm, someone must have thought of this idea years before our arrival, I like to think that the plan had been for this to be the lunch tree. It is an interesting Spruce with drooping arms and needles, like long fingers pointing down to the earth, at least 60ft in height, it majestically towers over the South East section of the garden, near the house. On further research, we discovered it to be a rare ‘Brewer Spruce’ tree. Hence forth it has been referred to as Brewer, as in ‘shall we have lunch under Brewer?’.
We settled into a new routine, quite, startlingly for anyone who knows me, distinct from our Irish pattern, in Piemonte we rise at 7am, water the garden, have a herbal tea in my case, coffee for Andrew and then some writing and emails for our own businesses and a swim for an hour in the local pool, then more work emails or calls, lunch under ‘Brewer’, gardening, emails, calls and then aperitivo at 5.30pm and dinner at 7pm, finally listening to an audible book for an hour before bed at 10pm. We have made the conscious decision to forego a television, we inherited one with the house but have put it in the attic. There doesn’t seem time to watch television here, there is always something to do outside during the day and in the evenings we ease our tired limbs and eyes on the couch, while sipping a glass of Dolcetto and listening in comfort to a book (via Audible), this quaint pastime has become something I find both rewarding and relaxing. Are we getting old? Who knows. We may end up getting a television installed with Sky by Christmas but at this moment in time I can’t see why.
Read all about our garden surprises next.
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