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.
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.
Warm up with the arrival of Spring in Piemonte here
Our first Christmas in Piemonte, Italy
It was with great excitement that we approached Christmas knowing this was our first experience ever in this wondrous land at this festive time of year. We decided to invite my mother for her first experience too and looked forward to her arrival, particularly as she was bringing little goodies, such as home made mince pies, with her that we were not able to have the time to make here from scratch.
Our plans for rest and relaxation though came to a grinding halt on the 19th December, the snow came. Now, for those who may have read my blog from March 2016 you will know that I am not a fan of snow here at all. I love the idea of a white Christmas, as long as I am squirreled away inside with a larder of food and lots of firewood and a full gas tank. This time we were caught out, returning from a trip to Dublin we arrived from Milan into Piemonte without a snowflake in sight. Once we got to the Langhe there was snow everywhere and, as we drove deeper in, the snow on the ground appeared to have grown in depth by an inch every mile. By the time we got to our town though things seemed to have been taken care of, and the snow was neatly brushed to the kerb and lots of people seemed out and about getting on with life. We decided, foolishly, to not stop at the supermarket and continue up to the house to put the heating on before coming back down for provisions. Wrong move! We got to our snow-covered driveway and a short way up the hill we got stuck with the wheels spinning faster than a hamster after chocolate on the wheel. We were going nowhere. Andrew parked it ski style so that we didn’t slide back down and stepped out of the car. The snow was about a foot deep and we trudged our way up Andrews shortcut, the recently made steps to the house, rather than risking ourselves in our town shoes up the drive. On a close inspection of the cupboards and fridge I established a possible plan of meals for a few days. The gas tank though was just under 20% and the firewood was limited to about 5 days. To make things worse the forecast read heavy snow all day and night for two more days. Tired out and, as it was dark, we decided to relax on the couch and not move.
The next day we woke and found ourselves snowed in, 14 inches of snow lay on the ground. We started shovelling. It was fortuitous that the car had got stuck so close to the bottom of the drive, as last time I had to dig the 200 metres from the house to the road, this time it was only about 40 metres. The next step was trying to work out how to use the legally obligatory snow chains, we had never opened these before. They looked like a snake’s chain mail and one that had been sliced into ribbons. Fortunately, YouTube came to the rescue and all was revealed. Finally, able to drive out of the driveway, we made it down to town for provisions. On the way back up we spotted our neighbour trying to dig his way out and after a chat Andrew volunteered to go back in the morning and dig him out too, as they were likewise caught out and were off to Milan for Christmas. With all crises averted we finally looked forward to Christmas and my Mother’s arrival.
My mother is an adventurous spirit and had decided to train it from Milan to Alba our nearby main station rather than us drive to Milan. She arrived laden with presents and mince pies galore. Christmas had begun.
After much Twitter and internet research I had decided on pheasant, as the main meal on Christmas day, Turkeys not being readily available. Besides, with the amount of pheasants everywhere picnicking on the land, and in our garden, this had to be the best choice. I went to the local cooperative butcher, a very popular place with the locals and it stocks local farmer meat. The queue was out the door. This is not because of this special time, the queue in this butcher is out the door most days, if you go at the wrong time. I was once trapped in this place in August, unknowingly before a saint’s feast day and was there for nearly an hour while everyone ahead ordered a week’s supply of meat to feed a family of 10, or so it seemed. Having been stuck next to the cash till section for a good 30 minutes I was astounded by the amount being rung up, without fail the minimum had been 60 euro, most were way more. The problem, although I am sure there is some community element to this, is that there is only a husband and wife team running it, with a back-room butcher cutting up whole carcases, the husband cuts up the meat and weighs it at the front counter and the wife rings it up and looks after the small dairy and hams counter next to the till.
The main issue, for me anyway, is the fight to get to the front and be served. When I first came to Italy I was prepared for the 'no queue' rule and each for their own, that, I thought, was the Italian way. But like many things in this perplexing country, there are local customs too. Mostly, in my town, it is a contradiction and more often there is a queue. Generally, it is the women who visit the butcher to get their weekly meat. The men lurk about outside with a cigarette, or sit on one of the benches inside, chatting to their neighbours. The women are a force to be reckoned with though. Because we are so close to Switzerland there are the contradictory 'courteous' women who seem to have an organised queue going, some of these ladies are Swiss in colouring too with blonde hair and blue eyes, which may explain their orderliness. Then there are the 'stranieri', like me, who follow the queue too. But the alpha Italian matriarchs upset this pretence to order and will appear suddenly directly ahead of me in the queue, with still 5 people ahead of me to go. Then another will appear at my side and start to inch further ahead of me on their tiny block heels, which, all women of a certain age, all wear here. I’ll look around for help with these 'ladies' and see the women behind me talking to each other saying things like, ‘She’s ahead of me (as in me), I don’t know who that woman is who cut in though, do you know her?’ etc. They will gossip like this for ages but do not assist in explaining to the one who cut in that there is a queue. This is perplexing, as it can take at least 30mins on a Saturday to get served. Four days before Christmas I was there for 40 minutes. One woman in her fur coat walked in to the shop a good 20mins after me and stood at my side, thereby bypassing about 10 people behind me, strangely she was joined by her massive burly farmer husband who kept leaning into me to talk to his mate on my other side. This went on for 10mins and then, as I finally got to the counter, she cut straight ahead of me, bold as brass. I was apoplectic. I could hear the murmuring women behind me tut tutting and turned to look at them to apologise but they just gave me a little wincy smile, as if I were to blame for them having to wait another 10mins. When it was my turn I asked to pre-order a pheasant to collect on Christmas Eve and the butcher practically laughed at me, and said something in Italian to the people in the shop, about this ‘weird’ order, they all tittered. He shook his head, no it would not be possible to get a pheasant. I asked for venison, surely with the deer ranging in my eye sight every day this was possible. Again, another joke, at my expense, was made to the onlookers, no, this would not be possible either. So, I had to settle for a Capon chicken for Christmas Day and a couple of guinea fowl for St. Stephen’s day. Not quite what I had envisaged (but joyful nonetheless). It was akin to another trip there, on a quieter day. when I had asked him to leave some fat on a pork joint, after all he trims every bit of fat off everything there, it’s the Italian way. Again, another joke was made by him to the waiting customers, even his butcher in the back room leaned around the door frame to see who had asked for such a thing. I may as well have been asking for a McDonald’s Happy meal. I really can’t say I enjoy going to this butcher and only go because the meat is totally out of this world, which makes it worth it every time. Hopefully, when I am more fluent in Italian, I can come up with a couple of useful phrases to throw back at the butcher and the Signora’s when they 'but in' next time, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Read the next installment, just when you thought the weather couldn't get worse...
When I think back on it I have been craving a garden for at least 25 years. I am 41 now, and this is the first time I can say that I have a garden to call my own. It's been a long time coming. So dreaming as I have, of this moment, I have had plenty of time to consider what I want to see in the garden. I envisage a large, productive organic vegetable patch, a fruit orchard, a berry patch, chickens and herb garden. As an avid reader I can say that I am technically proficient in a theoretical way and absolutely green behind the ears in a practical sense. My long since departed grandfather was a professional gardener and I like to think he is looking down on me, whilst smoking his omnipresent pipe and urging me to 'just get on with it'! And so I have.
The herb garden has been made, featuring Rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, chives and parsley, more to add next year.
I have just finished the lasagne garden project for the vegetable patch. Having collected as much material as possible all year, with much eye raising from my local farmers, I snaffled the dregs of the hay field we mowed earlier in the summer. I begged a ton of donkey poop from Giovanni's cute donkey pack, I raked all the hazelnut tree leaves up and bagged them with wry amusement from onlookers, just in case Italy's answer to 'New England' in the fall ran out of leaves, and yes there wasn't much need for that gathering. I squirrelled as much cardboard as I could, much to Andrew's chagrin, he does love a tidy attic and I had bundled it all up there. I started collecting as much veg scrappage as possible and popped it with relish in the steaming compost bin. So when I came to lay all this out 'Lasagne style' it was all there ready to go.
Lasagne organic gardening in my Piemonte garden - tasty!
How to Make a Lasagne Organic Garden Bed
Best started in Autumn so it can fester and be impregnated with the all important worms and be ready in time for Spring planting.
1. Lay thick cardboard over the patch you want to grow on, sprinkle with water (not Parmesan!)
2. Lay a few sheets of newspaper for good mulching measure and sprinkle.
3. Lay a layer of manure, donkey, horse, sheep, chicken etc not dog or cat poo! Sprinkle.
4. Lay a layer of hay - organic only, check out Jill's post at Prairie Homestead for this reason
5. Cover with small or shredded leaves and sprinkle
5. Cover with veg scraps, fresh or composted, sprinkle.
6. Cover with more leaves, sprinkle
7. Cover with organic fine compost, if you haven't made your own you can buy it in.
8. Sit back and watch the lovely worms gather and hey presto a veg patch to plant your seeds in come spring.
What could go wrong? Well when I went to map out my veg patch, accompanied by Andrew and my gardening consultant, aka mother, we were greeted with a curled up whip snake!!!!! Yes a bloody long snake, on my soon to be veg patch!!! A big one too. Andrew nearly jumped out of his skin, as he had just avoided treading on it. My mother was un-amused and backed up fast behind me. Where's St. Patrick when you need him! I ventured in a little for a picture, well I had to didn't I? Anyway we decided to leave it to it's own devices and head back up the hill for a nice cup of tea, and a figure out of what to do. Freshly invigorated, Andrew decided to head on back down the hill with the longest implement he could find in the shed, and slowly crept up to it, meanwhile myself and my visiting parents hung over the balustrade with cameras at the ready. My Dad, not used to such sightings, was laughing hysterically, as Andrew reached out and prodded the snake with the tip of the rake. It didn't move, was it playing dead? He tried again, nothing. Dawning realisation flooded us all at this point, it was dead! He got the rake under it and lifted it up, all 2 metres of it dangled, sadly, off the rake, skin glinting like a diamante bauble catching the sunlight, as it swayed elegantly in the breeze. We set off, down to the soon to be veg patch, clapping and bravo'ing Andrew, relieved to be getting on with the project again. It's hard to garden now without my eyes peeled, no bad thing I guess.
Our garden is alive with insects all year round, it seems something is always rustling or buzzing about. Our biggest scare though has to be the scorpions. I'm not painting a great picture am I? On our first weekend in the house Andrew had tip toed off to the bathroom in the dead of night, after a few too many glasses of Nebbiolo! He came back and went to sleep. The following morning he was acting really weird, sheepish and nervous, not his usual exuberant self. After a mild interrogation by me he came clean and told me that much to his horror he was finishing his ablutions in the night when he turned to leave the bathroom and there in the centre of the floor, ahead of him, was a black scorpion, with curled tail looking menacingly at him. So, scared, he had nearly screamed. He had bravely shot out of the room and left it to it's own devices. Now, anyone who knows me well, knows I'm not too good around creepie crawlies of the sinister genre. I frantically started googling it, 'how long was it?' I asked trying to sound calm, 'Oh, at least half a hands length', said Andrew. I kept searching until up popped a picture of the Piemonte inhabiting scorpion family, all 1 inch of it, I might add, men and their measurements!! Turns out it can barely pierce the skin with its bee like sting, but is so shy you won't need to worry much. And so every week we came across one or two brave soldiers trying to sneak into the lovely steamy bathroom, they like steam, and we had to turf them, on a dustpan, back out again. I had hidden this insects presence from my Mother though and each time she visited she didn't see any scorpions, as we were on covert scorpion patrol, until her fateful trip out to Italy with my father...and the hornets!
Hornet saga coming soon!
Find out how our Piemonte adventure began.
In Piemonte, and the Langhe Hills in Italy, we have found our perfect home, our spiritual home and our neighbours have been the biggest part of making us feel at home. Coming from Dublin, we were fairly spoilt, we lived in a close knit community in a cul-de-sac, right in the heart of South side Dublin city centre. It was a haven of tranquillity, yet, only 200 metres away, one of the main, dual carriage, arteries into the very centre ran by the house, but it was so built up we never heard a murmur of the endless cars, bikes and buses that toiled up and down the main road all day. The cul-de-sac has a beautiful flower garden, made by two lovely old 'fellas' who adopted it a couple of decades ago from a slab of empty, degrading, council concrete. We were very fortunate to find that home. Our neighbours were mainly over 60 and some had even been born in their current home, along with 10 other children. The amount of children our neighbours parents had was staggering. I kid you not, one of my closest now sadly departed friends, Patricia, had been born into a family of 21 children (same parents), albeit on the other side of town, quite spectacular. All day long there are coming and goings of grand kids and grown up kids dropping into visit our neighbours, some actually come every day to visit their parents. It’s that type of community. A rare community in the city.
I think some of the Dublin neighbours were a bit put out when we moved in to the cul-de-sac, us 'yuppy' types', so they thought, and with the Mercedes, and right in the top price boom year, 2006, a doomed year for all who bought in Ireland! But the house price was very much within our comfort zone, thankfully. Some of the neighbours had tried to secure it for their adult kids, but had been out bid, or hadn’t even tried to bid, on the, what they thought, extortionate house price; after all some of them had bought their house for €5,000 back in their younger years. So we had to meet the begrudgers and make friends. Which we did, by gardening our socks off out the front of the house, we adopted some waste land circling a street tree and turned it into a herb surround and a window box of lavender and heather and a blooming rose bush by the front door. They were happy then, we weren’t those ne’er do wells who buy a house and rent it out to uncaring souls, we wanted in, and we got in. Over the years we have sadly said our farewells to good people who passed on and we all attended, as a community group, all the funerals, there were no weddings, as we were all beyond that. But we mucked along, with the odd fall out, normally over people parking outside each other’s houses, the prime spot, every house owner cherishes in our street, right outside the front door, no driveway you see. God forbid a visitor unknowingly steals the cherished spot outside a neighbour’s’ door. Most of the time, in the early years, it was our cherished spot that was hijacked, until, Andrew, the new Alpha male of the street, went into battle. So spells of not talking and sulking did descend into our pleasant spot but it was never for long, the day soon came when normal conversation about the weather, and ailments and flowers resumed. So I can’t say that we lived in some stereotypical cold city centre spot, because it was warm and treasured but what we have found in Italy has taken neighbourhood to a whole new level.
Giovanni, our Langhe neighbour, and our house vendor, had taken it upon himself, with no prompting, to march us round, after we closed the sale, to meet the neighbours adjoining our land. We were met with the gruffest, grumpiest dog ever, and no, not one who becomes a dote after a few strokes. So, keeping the grouchy dog at bay, we had been taken into a lovely old kitchen for our first neighbour visit. We were offered plates of biscuits and nuts and coffee and had a good chat. A real Italian welcome, no visit, it turns out, goes without refreshments, we have to keep our own cupboards stocked with emergency biscuits for such an occasion, of which there has been plenty. Then we met the wonderful Gianna who lives in the house above us, retired, of course, and she has three houses, the one near us she uses for the summer, and it is also the one she was raised in. Seeing a similarity, I hope. Gianna is like the stereotype in the movies you watch about people moving to Italy, she loves shouting a ‘Buongiorno!’ at me from over her terrace balcony, which, each time, scares the wits out of me, normally she catches me in a trance while I weed the flower bed and, once recovered from the shock, I always bounce back a smiling ‘Buongiorno!’.
In our Langhe Hills region, it is courteous to always announce your arrival, if there has been some absence, not to announce one’s arrival led us to the most amusing, if not a little irritating, moment this first year has provided us with. We had set out in March from Ireland to our new Italian house, prior to moving there full time, and had decided to purchase a couch from Ikea in Genova, a good 2 hours away. So we had hired a van because they didn’t deliver back then, though this summer Ikea decided we weren’t that far for a delivery, the usual Italian inconsistency! So we hired a massive white tall van and drove to the house the day before the trip to Genova. All fine. We awoke in the morning and Andrew went for his morning stretch, taking in the 'bella' view over the veranda outside, most often he does this just in his boxer shorts, thankfully not this time, only to see Giovanni trotting up the drive. He went down to meet him half way (it’s a very long drive) and ended up being met by Giovanni and the Police! Giovanni thought we were being burgled by some white van mob and had called the police to get to our house asap, “Why didn’t you call?”, he said, and “cellulare me” (mobile phone), “I didn’t know you were here!”. Embarrassed, he sent the Police off, goodness knows what they thought of us, and I joined the, very wound up Giovanni and more chilled Andrew in the ‘welcome’. My thoughts were, ‘why on earth would I need to call the neighbours to come to my own house, we own it, it’s not a holiday home’ etc etc. So, slighted at being treated like a tourist, I joined the discussion, a little bit too strongly, and with arms flapping, from both sides, Giovanni “arrivederci’d” at us and stalked off. We didn’t talk to Giovanni for a good couple of months after that episode! Chiefly, because he didn’t do his usual daily visit, which had irritated me in the first month, bless him. He doesn’t speak English, and why should he, so we couldn’t call him and make peace, as we’re not quite that fluent. Then, one day in early summer, accompanied by my mother, a person Giovanni seems to have taken a brotherly shine to, we dropped into his home. He met us as if nothing had happened, three kisses, wine, nibbles offered and we have since then carried on as normal, with Giovanni visiting a few times a week, not daily and a number of wonderful reciprocated dinners with him and the other neighbours. Truth be told, I don’t know what we would do without him. We really did buy him with the house, that was the joke we had with our estate agents, but it really is true. Though we know when he doesn’t like a decision of ours, such as where to put the veg patch, as he has a ‘tell’, he quickly shuts down the discussion with an ‘arrivederci’ turns on his tail and walks off. Though we are so used to this we laugh it off and sometimes run up and give him a hug, no silent moments have passed since.
I have since read that Italians treat their friends as family, and I don't doubt it, for us two 'blow ins' we have truly landed on our feet here.
Find out how we started this Piemonte Italian dream here.
Ahh, Italian kisses, the stuff of movies, romance and… no this post is not that romantic! Italian kisses are confusing, they are perplexing and inconsistent and sometimes head-bumping and embarrassing. Told you it wasn’t going to be romantic!
I’m talking about greeting and kissing Italian friends in Italy. In all our travels to Italy we never really had to think about kissing anyone but, well, ourselves alone. Staying on past holidays in Italy, as tourists, in remote self-catering homes, meant we hardly saw a soul, apart from venturing out to the markets and restaurants as unidentifiable tourists that no one wanted to kiss, thank goodness! Now, living in Italy, it is a different matter.
Since buying our house in March this year we have established some wonderful friendships in our area, most of them are our neighbours, 9 people locally and Natascia and Marco our estate agents from Acqui Terme, who have become firm friends. Most are Italian and two are Swiss married to Italians. So far so great. But one of the delicate moments that I struggle with when greeting any of these new friends is the ‘kiss’. You can read all you like about this on Google and think you know the right way but, as with so many things in Italy, there are regional differences and rules are complicated. So far I have to try and remember who does what kisses, on what side, in what style and when, as there are four different kissing greeting styles we have encountered, so far, and we have to remember them all, depending on who we are greeting!
Firstly, there is the two kisses approach, firstly one to your right of the persons face (their left cheek) and then to the left side (their right cheek). Awkward in itself coming from a land where we greet our very best friends with one peck grazing their right cheek – full stop! So now, like driving on the opposite side of the road, I have to remember the opposite side of the face first, fortunately, and this is how I remember it, both are on my right side!
Secondly, there are three kisses, one to your right side of their face (their left cheek), then the left and back to the right of their face (their left cheek). Giovanni sprang this one on us both when we had our first dinner at his family home, Giovanni originally hails from Sardinia, I’m not sure if this is a Sardinian style though. Much head knocking ensued, at that first dinner, from going the wrong way in the early greeting with him and his family and then assuming the kissing had ended when there was another kiss left to do, lots of, “Ur, sorry, um, ah ha ha - yes we are Irish and we are used to one, ha ha, yes, but when in Italy, ha ha, ahhh”, cringe! So we had to get this kissing started off properly. We then took this three kiss rule to meet Natascia and Marco for lunch, they went along with it too. ‘Excellent’, we thought, we have nailed the kissing!
Thirdly, we noticed with Giovanni’s wife, who is Swiss, that she prefers proper air kisses, like a fashion diva, which she is not, she is the gentlest loveliest lady but it is the Swiss way to ‘Mwah’ into the air three times, starting the air kiss above their left cheek.
Fourthly, there is one person who likes one kiss, to the left cheek side, we haven’t worked out why this is yet though. There just is no consistency, I love being in Italy, they really keep me on my toes.
Then there is the diplomatic trick of remembering all these different greeting arrangements when we all meet for a dinner party, a regular occurrence with our neighbours, this is particularly difficult at the end of the night after a feast of food and lots of good wine when the kissing repeats again, this time in saying good night.
We have recently learned from Natascia that she was going along with our three kisses, which we had inherited from Giovanni, as she thought it must be the Irish way of kissing and was being polite by following our lead! Yeah right! Irish, yes maybe the Irish are known as really friendly people but intimate gestures, forget about it! So we have learnt that she does two kisses, starting on the persons left cheek. Ahhhhhhh!
But the golden, Italian kissing greeting etiquette, rules here is that firstly men kiss men in exactly the same way as described above, so everyone gets kisses! So both Andrew and I have had to struggle through this learning curve together. How very cool is that! Secondly, the kissing greeting commences at the second meeting, so in the first meeting a polite, standard, hand shake and ‘piacere’ (nice to meet you), is the starting point. Then kissing begins from the second meeting onwards, if it is in a social, friendship forming, context, not a formal meeting at the bank etc.
I reckon the easiest way, if socialising in a group, is to hang back and watch others kiss first, see how they are kissing and then replicate the correct way to show how culturally sophisticated you are.
I love living in Italy.
Next installment - Love thy Neighbour!
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