11 November 2017

I have spent so much time at Pieve Suites this week that I found myself feeling quite homesick. Out here in my country home, final tomatoes need picking, quinces are falling from the tree, and crabapples and medlars are about ready to transform into jelly.

But I have spent almost all week up in town, keeping an eye on the men transforming my garden space, furiously attending to last-minute details (many of which shouldn’t have been last-minute at all) or simply sitting at my first-floor desk trying to get this venture up on booking sites while soldiering on with ‘proper’ work at the same time. Put that together with a series of extra-early mornings to let the builders in, and it has all been pretty exhausting.

What’s more, with family coming to visit next week and wanting all the excitement of being the first to stay in the town house, I found myself paralysed by despair over the filth walked through the place by an endless series of labourers, doubting that I would ever get it clean again. (I have now, more or less.)

That all sounds quite negative, but somewhere buried in there is a kernel of positive. It’s ready. It’s finished. A mere, um, year and ten months after buying it; a paltry year and five months after starting work. I no longer have any excuses for not opening the place. I have managed to put it off for another week, cleaning up the aftermath of garden-building, then putting plants into the new space. But now I can’t delay any longer.

It’s odd how difficult it has been, grappling with AirBnB and Tripadvisor, ploughing through their interminable listings processes which come across all user-friendly but in fact conceal layer upon layer of hidden corners where more useful information can be squirreled away to lure browsers (in the people sense). Each time I look I find another empty box into which I can insert more guff… all magnified by the fact that for various reasons I have to list my suites one by one, rather than as a single venue. But hey ho. I’ll get it all done in the end.

Quite apart from that, there’s all the other stuff: the Facebook page, the Instagram thing, the Twitter account (both @pievesuites) and the website which has been an endless to-and -ro with my techie guy in India, trying to get something that reflected how I feel about my venture. Now all I need are bookings…

A belated response to a question I put in my last post, a question I thought was rhetorical. Do hunters shoot each other by mistake?

After the thick fog of omertà (conspiratorial silence) lifted on the tragic episode in our valley last month, I found that the answer is: yes. There was no plunge down a ravine, no ill-timed heart attack. There was just a pack of gun-toting, testosterone-crazed males staggering around a moderately misty valley with a shocking degree of gung-ho Rambo-ism.

One next-door neighbour told me of two armed-to-the-teeth young men staggering up to her back door earlier in the day saying “can you tell me where we are? We’ve never been in this valley before.” They were new members of this particular hunting fraternity. If they had no idea where they were, then presumably their bloody-thirsty mates weren’t keeping track of them either. When you come to think of it, it’s amazing fatalities don’t happen more frequently.

There are, apparently, now about 570,000 hunters in Italy – half a million people who make 60 million people think twice about going for a walk in the countryside for six months of the year; half a million people who between 2002 and 2015 ‘inadvertently’ killed over 130 people according to figures compiled for Wikipedia.

Yes, the boar around here are a pest – especially since the herd was re-invigorated some years ago to keep the hunters happy. But to me that sounds like they need the occasional well organised cull, not a jolly jape for boys with lethal toys that can end in tragedy.

It took a while for the culprit to come clean, protected by the wall of silence thrown up by his fellow hunters. Guns were confiscated – though I’m told that the real die-hards simply went straight out and bought themselves new weapons the following day – and the investigation went forward. Awkwardly and ironically, it was a carabiniere policeman who had fired the fatal shot.

Now many lives are in tatters, including, I should imagine, that of the shooter. It brought home to me one of those niggling terrors – lurking well to the back of the darkest part of my imagination, but there nonetheless. What if I were to knock someone down with the car and kill them. Could I live with myself? The nightmare is gapingly infinite.

Pieve Suites (Tripadvisor)

Pieve Suites (AirBnB)

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22 October 2017

1022AToday has been a blustery day of wild, bruised skies and the hint of a chill – all the signs of storm with hardly a drop of rain falling.

Yesterday was warm blue, and humming with winged insects.

I went out mid-morning to do some shopping, and returned before noon to find a helicopter sitting in the neighbours’ field. We had been woken by shooting in the valley. Have the hunters shot each other in the mist again, I asked L (a popular tale though I’m not sure that it’s much more than a rural legend). Or are they air-lifting boar carcasses out these days?

1022BIt was neither of the above. A hunter from Perugia had plummeted down a little ravine, suffering massive trauma when he landed on his head. (The story in town now is that he fell as a result of a heart attack, not clumsy footing.) He died shortly after his fall. The helicopter clattered out of the field, leaving the body where it was until the coroner could get there. And an insect- and bird-filled quiet settled back over our sunny valley.

Until an hour or so later, when cries of wrenching pain echoed up to us. Some loved one had arrived, to pour out her grief in a place where the only loud noises we ever hear are mewing buzzards, barking deer or the occasional power tool or piece of farm machinery.

She surely won’t have noticed the loveliness of where her man died. It would be nice to think that one day she’ll remember it, and feel a tiny wave of bitter-sweet comfort.

**********

For as long as I can remember in my CdP existence, one of the signs that you’re nearly home after a weary journey has been the execrable surface beneath the long row of umbrella pines (Pinus pinea) on the road up from Po’ Bandino. The situation started bad, then deteriorated year by year – or rather winter by winter as snow and ice and and damp and inexcusable neglect did their darnedest. But there has always been a silver lining to the entropy: however travel-jagged you’re feeling, you’re snapped back to life for that final stretch as your neck jars dangerously over the ridges.

For a cyclist like L, the slalom is a nightmare. For a cyclist’s wife it’s even more so, as I imagine him swerving to avoid an eruption only to be mowed down by the unsuspecting HGV that has crept stealthily up behind to overtake at that precise moment.

Over the past few days, while my back was turned, graders and asphalters were unexpectedly at work. Now it’s smooth as a baby’s bum. I miss and don’t miss the shocks. We glide homewards now, musing on changing times.

**********

Last weekend I set off with my earth-moving colleague Giuseppe to identify the proper place for an underground water holding tank on the property of clients. We stalked about for a while, debating the relative merits of 20K litre plastic and 30K litre cement, seeking a spot where water-delivery trucks (there’s no well here, yet) could get close enough to pump in their load.

As we examined, Giuseppe lifted the lid on an old well, or maybe a defunct cistern – one that had been experimented with for reservoir purposes years ago, I had been told, and found to leak, fast. When he had rigged up his powerful spotlight, what appeared was a thing of unexpected beauty: a circular space, about two and a half metres across and six or seven deep, of perfectly undamaged brick. The only intrusive roots grew down from the surface, not through the walls. Far down before the stratum of mud at the bottom, there were small brick arches all around.

This was a job for my builder/restorer/(and serendipitously) speleologist. I called him and demanded he join us, immediately.

Some time later he did.

No cistern this, he said. This was a well. The mud at the bottom probably fills a lower space – another metre or maybe more. There must have been a vein that flowed through the arches, depositing water into the lower area, to be pulled up to the surface in buckets.

A vein of water. At six or seven metres. How extraordinary. And presumably it was a good, reliable one if they went to the trouble of constructing such a sturdy well to harvest it.

In these parts nowadays, it’s a miracle if you find water at 50m. The norm is around 80m. I’ve heard of cases in which they had to go down to 120m to find a drop. Over this dry dry summer, I’ve heard many people lamenting that their hitherto-bounteous wells have evaporated.

What have we done to our ground water? All right, this well may have been seriously old – a hundred years? Maybe more? But still, if ground water has retreated in so dramatic a fashion over such a relatively short time in an area which is so thinly populated, that doesn’t bode well for anywhere. Is it bad management, or the ground beneath our feet protesting at our use of resources?

There can be little doubt that future wars will be fought over water if obtaining it requires perforation as if for an oil well. I find the thought deeply unsettling.

**********

And talking of drought – on and on and on it drags. Very occasionally – like today – clouds rush over, but pass us by. (L set out twice on his bike today, and twice returned like a drowned rat: somewhere they had a bit of rainy relief.)

Despite unseasonably glorious conditions, I have already filled my early-autumn with foul colds – something I’ve never been particularly prone to.

“So how much time did you spend outside in the summer?” a nutritionist friend asked when I moaned about it.
“You must be joking! Do you know how hot it was here?!”

How many times did I write about our troglodytic existence, exiting from the house blinking like animals freshly awoken from a long hibernation in the cooler dusk?

“Well there you have it,” she said. “Vitamin D deficiency will decimate your defences.”

I’d never thought of it.

Apparently it’s common among pale-skinned people in very hot places. The only efficient way of ensuring adequate vitamin D intake is letting the sun help your body make it (butter and oily fish help a little). But you’re told to avoid the sun’s skin-wrinkling rays, and cover yourself with slap. You’ll never catch me outside without factor 50+ and a hat. And in this summer of extreme temperatures – plus too much to do in town to dedicate much time to my garden – I spent even less time that usual in the too-hot-to-be-fresh air.

Now, any sensible person would go and get their vitamin levels checked. Having ascertained that you can’t do much damage with it however much you ingest, I’m just taking pot luck and dosing myself from a bottle. For someone who rarely takes medicines or supplements, is this sensible? Right now as I battle the hacking cough of my second cold in as many months, I don’t really give a damn.

**********

Returning home the other evening, as I came down our lane, one very large and one quite small boar where standing beneath the vast oak that overhangs the road just before Mario’s house. I drove up slowly, expecting them to scarper. But they stood and watched me and munched the acorns scattered on the road. I thought I was going to be able to pull up bumper-to-flank. But in the end they gave me an “oh if you insist. This is terribly dull” look and sauntered off. The cheek of it.

1022C

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10 October 2017

The other evening we walked into the Cinema Caporali in Castiglione del Lago to watch Bladerunner 2049 (they were showing it in English) wearing cotton shirts and enjoying the warmth of this glorious early autumn. We emerged two hours and 20 minutes later, to be buffeted along the town’s deserted streets by an icy tramontana wind. Since when days have been gently balmy and evenings have been like that: we’ve been lighting the wood burner in the living room around dinner time – though I have to admit that far from luxuriating in delicious warmth last night, we had to keep a window open to stop ourselves melting.

The lower temperatures and that tiny bit of relief brought by dew at night has made our surroundings seem less parched, but there has been almost no rain: look a little deeper and the situation is much of a muchness. My watering systems are still running to keep things alive. I realised yesterday evening that I had been neglecting to water one tube-less bed of roses which are now particularly dog-eared as a result.

Food, however, grows in overwhelming abundance – the last throes before winter travails. I give away great bags of green beans: if I could be bothered I’d freeze them but blanching is such a pain, and my days are so full of long overdue work, that we eat what we can and bequeath the rest to any friends and neighbours who’ll take them. The bean plants clinging to their fallen-down supports (huge gusts of wind blew them over weeks ago) are looking thinner and rattier now. Occasionally I catch myself thinking that I won’t be all that sorry when I can pull them up.

At the house in town, the two vast uva fragola (concord grape) plants are cascading fruit, to the extent that they’re threatening to tug away the rusty wires which have been holding them up for decades. I’ve sent round-robin e-mails to friends and acquaintances, demanding that they come with buckets and secateurs. Some have, but the dent they’ve made in the general abundance is insignificant.

One of the older generation of the family from which I bought the house came by a couple of weeks ago to see what I had done with the place where she spent summers with nonna (grandma). She told me that she and her sister would sit at the window half way up the old stairs (I’ve moved them now) between ground and first floors, and gorge themselves on all the grapes they could reach. That must have been 50 years ago at least. Even then, those two vines were stretching across the six-odd metre stretch of garden from trunk to house wall and producing fruit for eager little hands to grab.

One friend filled an old lady-style shopping trolley with grapes then wheeled them off to a talk she wanted to hear in town. She wrote to me later about the raptures into which those grapes had sent people attending the event, particularly the Italians who reminisced about uva fragola-filled childhoods and lamented the fact that they hadn’t tasted them since.

I hear this from time to time, as if that grape variety – and not only: various heirloom things I grow have elicited similar responses – had simply vanished into the mists of childhood, a translucent memory from a more innocent time. Which is inexplicable, seeing as you can pick the plants up in just about any vivaio and stick them in your garden where they’ll whizz off on their way with little fuss.

So why the nostalgia? Fashions come and go, I guess, and even in such a linked-to-the-land place as CdP, disconnects can arise if things are not regular features on supermarket shelves. But Italy (and indeed Europe) has always had an on-off relationship with the Vitis labrusca which only arrived here in the early 19th century from its natural habitat in the cold north east of the United States. The phylloxera – another American import – that virtually wiped out Europe’s Vitis vinifera vines in the late 19th century left the disease-resistant uva fragola unscathed, creating more resentment towards this intruder from which – the general opinion is – only extremely inferior wine can be produced. Its rootstock got Europe’s wine industry back on its feet, and is still used for grafting European vines. But the ban on fragolino wine still stands, here and around Europe.

Was it our long hot summer or just exhaustion that put paid to the one of the lumps of execrable topiary which for me are an ever-present marker of the goodness of the place we have made our home? For three whole years, two unidentifiable vegetable shapes (rabbit? mouse? duck?) have perched on the roundabout outside the schools; I’m guessing that during that time, someone has been lovingly pruning them. For three whole years, stroppy schoolkids have been traipsing past these affronts to nature and not one has lopped any bits off. They continue to huddle there on their well kept bit of roundabout grass, unspeakable signs of undeniable civilisation. Now one has shuffled off its mortal coil and I’m feeling quite nostalgic about it. I hope the other doesn’t pine away too swiftly.

**********

I’ve found a use, of sorts, for the sweet potato plants which are smothering my orto. Not that I’ve used them much. The English woman who sold me the plants in the first place  tipped me off to the fact that you could eat the young shoots. I picked some, minced them finely and tossed them in the wok with some garlic and a bit of soya sauce – delicious. Now I see that the leaves contain high levels of vitamins A, C and B2 (riboflavin), and fight off nasty LDL cholestrol too. I must eat more of the stuff.

L says my life at the moment is one long displacement activity. It isn’t of course, but maybe there’s just a tiny grain of truth deep down. I don’t think I’m inventing things to keep myself from taking bookings at Pieve Suites. But I may be wallowing just slightly in the inevitable last minute detail-focussed hold-ups.

My aim is to have the website on line by the end of next week. And though I’m not naïve enough to expect to be suddenly inundated, the very idea of having to deal with guests does fill me with considerable dread. The moment I actually do it, of course, it’ll be a doddle. Or so I hope.

 

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7 September 2017

I had my fireman-chimney sweep back this week, not so much because our crazy summer weather has ended (it has, kind of) but because that’s what I do once L has gone off to the Venice film fest and isn’t around to tell me that I’m being feebly over-cautious.

The sweep was efficient and jolly as ever, but said he needed a two-month holiday after a summer of dealing with catastrophic blazes.

“And the worst,” he said darkly, “may be yet to come.”

Temperatures, the media kept telling us at the end of last week, would plunge, plummet and descend in various other dramatic ways. And so they did. From 35° to 25°.

I was in town bright and early the day after a paltry amount of rain ushered in this new situation. Alarmed by the panic-inducing deluge of weather news, people had dusted off their warmest mid-season jackets, proving once again my theory that any temperature different from the one you’re experiencing in the instant is terribly difficult to conjure up in any realistic way inside your head.

It only took half an hour or so on that deliciously blue morning for all those jackets to be discarded, as people realised that what we now had was simply warm-normal – the pleasant summery climes we had been dreaming of during our long long hot hot season.

It was precisely this, though, that was making my chimney sweep nervous. People are thinking: it’s cooler, it rained – we can burn off those accumulated piles of mouldering biomass that have been lying around for months. But the few millimeters that fell ran straight off the brick-baked ground. Things are as tinder-dry as ever. And people are forgetting this, now that exiting through the front door doesn’t induce immediate heat exhaustion. Firemen are terrified as our levels of bushfire-paranoia plunge and plummet.

One sign of how little our little rainfall changed the status quo is our field below the house: generally, the first late-summer rains turn it magically from yellow and sear to waving and emerald – more or less overnight. To date, it remains brown.

0907N

Will my ‘lawn’ pull through?

I keep looking at where my grass (decidedly not lawn) used to be, and waiting for the miracle which will prove my theory – boringly elaborated to all and sundry throughout the summer – that it will leap back to its spring-like glory (a medium-to-low bar, if truth be told) the moment the heat lets up, despite my refusal to give it so much as a drop of water all summer. My vigil is becoming more anxious; my absolute confidence in my own theory slipping away just slightly. No. I can’t go down that path: it will return, it will. And so I cross my fingers quietly, and move swiftly on to another topic.

I was feeling a trifle inadequate about my cucurbits this year (there are just two pumpkins in my orto) until I noticed that Pumpkin Man – whose wire fence down in the valley next door to the Lidl carpark is generally festooned with vines dotted with huge orange orbs – has very few as well. It must just be the year, I was thinking… until I found the rest of them.

I’m usually fairly hopeless with smaller squash, so it was in an oh-well-let’s-see kind of way that I stuck some Cucurbita pepo Cream of the Crop seeds in the ground. Now I’m finding the pretty star-section cream-coloured fruit all over the place: we’re well stocked for winter. And then I pulled a few weeds from the beds below the pergola outside the kitchen and hey presto! concealed beneath rosemary and rue bushes were several more good-sized Marina di Chioggia pumpkins – that knobbly dark variety straight out of a vegetably Flemish still life.

Most surprisingly in this year’s Cucurbita production are the melons. Where did they appear from? I don’t know: nothing to do with me. But there are lots of them growing among the (dead?) rhubarb, possibly from seeds that survived composting.

And while I’m on the subject of unexpected food production, I’m wondering what to do with my rampant sweet potato plants. I had never grown them before but their name – Ipomea batatas – should have given me a hint, Ipomea being Morning Glory. You just don’t think of a root vegetable as needing a climbing frame, do you? It’s counter-intuitive. So my 12 little plants are making a bid for complete domination of the vegetable garden.

**********

I stopped at a petrol station down in the valley the other day, put my ATM card in the machine and programmed in €50 of fuel. When I squeezed the nozzle, nothing came out. I tried again. Whizzing wheezing sounds but nothing else, so I went in search of the petrol station boy to explain what was happening.

In the mean time, an elderly debonair Italian man in red shorts had driven his SUV up on the other side of the island and was listening to my tale.

“Did you use cash or card?” he asked.
“Er, card,” I said, in a rather surprised ‘what on earth has this got to do with you?’ way.
“Well of course it’s not going to work,” he pronounced, with all the bored superciliousness of an elderly man in red shorts dealing with an obviously stupid (ie any) female. “You can’t pre-programme it if you use a card.”
“Odd you should say that,” I said breezily, “because I do it often, at least once a week if not more, and have done for decades and I’ve never had any trouble.”

He gave me a look of utter contempt, grabbed the nozzle on his side and squeezed. Nothing came out. And so the petrol station boy sauntered across to the underground tank (thoughtfully extinguishing his cigarette before he opened it), flicked a switch to activate another tank, and nodded to me to try again. It worked.

Red trousers man turned his back on me and pretended I didn’t exist.

**********

Last week my little alleyway up in town organised a cena del vicolo (street dinner) to celebrate our victory in the floweriest street competition. Everyone brought something edible, tables and chairs were lined up down the middle of the vicolo and we ate between overflowing flower pots and beneath fluttering flags and washing.

0907G

Borgo di Giano

“What was that you brought?” asked the elderly lady sitting next to me. She was kind of curious and kind of accusing: was I trying to trick them with my fancy foreign fare?
“It’s a kind of salad made with barley,” I told her, and reeled off the ingredients.
“Hmph,” she said to her neighbour, now very suspicious indeed. “Sarà roba inglese (it must be English stuff).”

I told her I didn’t cook ‘English’, I just made things up as I went along. But clearly for my older neighbours food isn’t food unless it’s the recipes that mamma and nonna made. Which was fine by me, as it meant I had lunch made for the following day too.

My house in town is now a hair’s breadth away from ready. I had people round the other evening for drinks, and they milled about in the big open spaces which I had come to love so much that it was rather a shock when my builder finally brought the sofas back.

I had arranged for these to be brought to the house weeks ago, telling the builder that he was to be out and finished by delivery date, to which he responded by hijacking the delivery truck and having the sofas deposited elsewhere until he was ready to bring them to their destination. In the event, ‘ready’ turned out to be yesterday. Which was fine, because they weren’t in my way while I was hanging curtains and the like.

But oh how crowded the rooms look now – no more long vistas. On the other hand, the suites are now rather more practicable from a sitting down point of view – kind of necessary if people are actually going to stay in them…

All that remains, more or less, is to hang blinds and attach the skirting board (plus of course the kitchenettes but I’ve put them off until winter).

The skirting board is something I didn’t want, but have been forced to accept because of the type of flooring I have used. I’m looking for something minuscule, just to hide the expansion zone around the edges. But fitting skirting board to walls which date back to the 14th century can be a challenge, those walls being big-dipper curvy. Finding just the right material is an on-going quest.

 

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Pearl barley salad

Pearl barley is a wonderful base for a substantial salad: satisfyingly chewy with a slightly woody taste… in a good sense. This salad takes a little forethought but, in the end, not a lot of time, and it can be flavoured with just about anything. The essentials for me are browned onions, fresh thyme and capers. But in fact you can add whatever grabs you. Here’s one version.

0830BarleyPearl barley – 200g
Red and/or yellow (bell) pepper – 2 medium
Smoked fish (salmon or herring) – to taste
Cherry tomatoes – about 30
Capers, salted – 1 tbsp
Fresh thyme – large-ish bunch
Onion – 1 large
Garlic – 2 cloves
Olive oil – to taste

Cut your cherry tomatoes in half and place them on a baking tray, cut-side-down. Drizzle them with a little olive oil and grind some black pepper over them. Strip the tiny leaves from about one third of your thyme and sprinkle them on top. Then place the tray in the oven at 180°C and let the tomatoes dry out, until the juice they have run is bubbling in slightly caramelised (not burnt!) fashion around them on the tray – about half an hour or 40 minutes should do. Turn the oven off and leave the tomatoes in there until you need them.

At the same time bring a small saucepan of water to the boil, pour in the well rinsed barley, and cook it at a gentle boil for about 20 minutes. Taste it from time to time while it’s cooking because different barleys cook at different rates. The result you’re looking for is still firm but cooked through: it will kind-of-squeak against your teeth. Strain the barley, rinse it under the cold tap and place it in the serving bowl which, by this stage, should already have various other ingredients in it (see below). If it doesn’t (or even if it does), stir in just enough olive oil to make sure the barley grains don’t stick to each other.

While all this is going on, peel a large onion and cut it in half, then slice the halves very very thinly. Peel and mince a couple of cloves of garlic. Pour a little oil into a frying pan, get it nice and hot, then cook the onions and garlic over a medium heat. Don’t stir them too much: the salad is tastier if you leave the onions to brown at the edges, move them round before they start burning, then leave them to brown again… several times. When they look just right, add them to the serving bowl, leaving any excess cooking oil in the frying pan.

Because you’re now going to fry the peppers, which you will have sliced lengthways into beautiful thin strips. Fry these over a lively heat for ten minutes or so. Again, a little browning around the edges will improve the flavour of the salad. When they’re ready, add them to the serving bowl.

How much and what fish you use (or if you use fish at all; feta cheese is also an option) is entirely a matter of taste. If it’s salmon, slice it roughly and add it to the bowl. If it’s smoked herring, I recommend rinsing it very well to remove some of the salt and slicing it with a sharp knife into very small thin pieces, otherwise it will overwhelm all the other flavours.

Now add any remaining ingredients to the bowl: the capers (salted preferably, with the salt rinsed off under copious running water), the thyme leaves and of course the tomatoes which are alarmingly easy to forget in the oven: I have found them looking sad and shrivelled there the next morning on several occasions. If necessary, add more olive oil to the mix.

At this point, the salad will probably be lukewarm, which is a good thing in that a little heat will help the flavours blend together well. Leave it until it’s cool enough to put in the fridge, then serve it cold.

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