7 October 2018 – L’Eroica

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I succumbed. I always refuse to accompany L on his bike ventures. But L’Eroica is something else: a vintage cycling event through some of Italy’s most dramatically lovely landscapes. And this year, Chianti was looking particularly splendid.
Not so much a post as a photo essay.

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4 October 2018

1004AI have little affection for the vintage Mercedes camper that has taken up residence in the top carpark, blighting (as I see it) my lovely cosmos-punctuated vegetable garden. It comes as a love-me-love-my-van package with our daughter’s partner. Its only plus points for me are (1) that it came in quite useful when I needed to transport a large-ish piece of decorative iron work to a client in Tuscany and (2) its rear-mounted spare tyre is a very good spot to prop my cellphone when I’m weeding up there. There’s a signal (never a given around here) and I don’t risk putting a spade through my device.

I’d forgetten this practical boon the other evening as I waved them goodbye. They were off to the hot springs in San Casciano dei Bagni. Fifteen minutes later, I leapt up from my weeding seat and yelled “oh [expletive]!” Not only my phone, but my camera were inside that wheel rim. Panic stations.

1004GNo answer on C’s phone, so I began my long slow troll up to town, peering down overgrown banks and amid long grass on verges. My camera I found amazingly unscathed in the middle of the lane up before Mario’s house. There was no trace at all of the phone. All I could ascertain was that it was somewhere with a signal.

By the time I eventually got through to C, a good hour had passed. I had resolved to wait until L returned home, then repeat my tramp to town with his cellphone, ringing my number in a final attempt to locate it beneath roadside vegetation. But it the end there was no need. C found the phone sitting, undisturbed, in the wheel rim. Not wedged. Just sitting. After 21km of bumps, hills, sharp twists and turns and a long rest in a very public carpark. Is there a patron saint of iPhones? Is s/he conspiring with that van to make me love it more?

We have been regaled with a series of perfectly blue autumn days, interrupted more by howling gales than by the rain which should bring relief to our lovely countryside at this time of year – we had just 9.5mm in September against an average somewhere in the high 60s.

Between long slogs up and down motorways to inject fresh post-summer life back into my various garden projects, I’ve been battling utilities companies.

At Pieve Suites the drains that had been merrily gurgling through the last days of my full-house August marked the departure of my last guests by blocking completely – brilliant timing, for which I was grateful. I called a drain purging firm, expecting to discover that city-dwellers used to more sophisticated waste disposal had chucked all kinds of everything down sinks and loos. An hour and a half later than scheduled, and not very long before ten lovely ladies were due to turn up down at home for dinner, a big burly bloke with a headful of Medusa curls stomped into my immaculate townhouse, stuck a hose through the inspection cap in the niche halfway down the cellar stairs and unleashed a high-pressure jet that sent a spurt of unspeakable stinking horror straight back into the house.

“It’s blocked,” he announced. Thanks.

As I tried to mop up the worst of the raw sewage sloshing about my shoes, watching the minutes till dinner time tick rapidly away, he began playing with his electronic toys, sending a camera down the pipe until it hit what looked like a solid black wall.

“About ten metres away,” he pronounced, then got his geiger-counter-like gadget to seek the spot his camera had reached. “It’s here,” he pronounced, pointing to the floor inside the neighbour’s garage. “And it’s about a metre and a half underground. You’ll need to call a builder to dig a hole.”

I demurred, pointing out that ten metres from the inspection cap would take us half way into the street outside. All I got was a withering look (what do women know about this kind of thing?) and some garbled explanation in a bored tone of voice about how I obviously didn’t understand measurements. I mentioned my architectural credentials: he was unimpressed.

But not nearly so unimpressed as I was. I abandoned my stinking house, went home and fed my friends, then called the water board before starting in next morning on a disaster clean-up operation.

Unless you actually have a geyser spouting through your floor Umbra Acque is remarkably slow to respond to emergency calls. But come they did, after many days (luckily for me I had no clients) of countless ever-grumpier phone calls. The first time it was just one muttering soul who poured yellow colouring agent down a bathroom sink, after which we stood side by side and stared into a hole in the street and waited, and waited, and waited. About 20 minutes later something he said was yellow (I had my doubts) trickled down the pipe.

“It’s blocked, but not completely,” he announced. Thanks.

More days passed and back he came, with two colleagues – one in a sewer-purging truck and the other in a van which looked like the bargain basement version of one of those undercover police surveillance vehicles you see in movies. They unreeled their camera-probe and sent it wiggling all along the sewer pipe which runs down the centre of the street.

I admit to being fascinated by some very strange things, but I loved this glimpse into our nether world – the simplicity of it all. It’s just a big tube, with smaller pipes emptying into it on each side from bathrooms and kitchens and gutter downpipes. There’s no grey water and black water: everything finishes up in the one place, and access to it is through what I had always thought were merely heavy iron rainwater drain covers in the street. It’s about a metre beneath the surface now, but that’s the only difference between today’s sewer and the open drains which would have run along the length of the street through most of history. So why doesn’t it stink in summer? Why don’t we have rats and cockroaches climbing up those extremely accessible pipes? My three workers, amenable as they were, didn’t offer any answers. Such eventualities had never seemed to occur to them.

With taps inside Pieve Suites running at full tilt, no water was coming out of any of the pipes below the street. They ran their camera through my inspection cap inside and found the blockage almost ten metres away… out in the street, of course, and precisely where I’d said it would be. But not quite as far as the main sewer pipe, which meant the blockage was in my feeder pipe and was therefore my responsibility, they told me in no uncertain terms.

At which point, having established that they didn’t have to do anything, they simply went ahead and solved all my problems. Everything is impossible until, hey presto, before you know what’s happening it’s done: it’s a common enough phenomenon among Italian tradesmen and one that I treasure, storing up memories of positive outcomes for the infuriating times when it all goes pear shaped. In this instance, a high pressure hose, a suction pipe to remove any foul stinking back-wash well before it cascaded down the cellar steps, and 20 seconds later they had blown out what was probably a lump of concrete which had settled there decades before, then accumulated other hard matter around it until it almost (but not completely) blocked the pipe. With heavy use at Pieve Suites over the summer, it had been unable to cope.

They rolled up their equipment, cleaned up after themselves and drove off. Two weeks of waiting. Two hours of musing. Twenty seconds to fix it. Better than digging a completely unnecessary chasm in the neighbour’s garage…

My other battle has been with Telecom Italia, which is not only slow but inscrutably awful. I can’t bring myself to go into detail. The frustration is too great and, to some extent, on-going. Suffice it to say that our attempt to hitch our home number to CdP’s shiny new fibre optic network was less than successful: we soon realised that in our splendid rural isolation we were too far from the source to get a good signal, with frequent breaks in any kind of signal at all.

Fine. Back to ADSL. This was quite within our rights, and sounded simple. Hah.

After who-knows-how-many calls from Telecom re. my “request” to cut off this phone line (no!), cut off my line in town (no!), convert my line in town back to ADSL (no!), change my phone number (no!), change to fibre (no! – how can I if I already have it?), have another line installed (no!) and so on ad infinitum/nauseam, I yelled like a banshee at not one but two very nice-sounding ladies who on successive days called to ask when I’d like a technician to come round to revert from fibre to ADSL.

“No! Don’t touch it! Leave me alone! We’ll keep the fibre! Stay well away because you’ll only make things worse!”

Just hours after the second call, a technician turned up at the house, removed the fibre and hooked us back to ADSL.

“Fibre was never going to work down here,” he said. Thanks.

Since when, our ADSL line has worked far worse than the fibre optic one ever did. Ci vuole pazienza.


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Overheard in the doctors’ surgery as I wait to meet my new doctor, my previous very lovely one having sadly succumbed rather to her troublesome nerves…

Man to woman sitting next to him: “is this new one any good? Because I need to change from that awful man I have.”

“Why’s that?” the woman asks.

“Well, last time I took my father there he said ‘what’s the point of bringing him to me? He’s over 80: why should I bother to do anything for him when he’s over 80?’ Well now I’ve turned 70, I bet he doesn’t care whether I live or die either. I think it’s time to change. And anyway, he’s never there because he gets drunk every night and can’t get up in the morning.”

Just to confirm that that particular doctor is not really up to scratch, a well dressed elderly lady – kindly looking and wholesome – walks up to his surgery door, which is shut with a ‘no doctor today’ sign stuck on it. “Vecchio stronzo,” she declares and strides away. Old piece of shit indeed.


1004HThis is another van that has marked our life in the last few days – a van that took away part of our life, in fact.

On the top floor of the chicken house (so-called) we stashed everything, from the ghastly Spode dinner service that my father kindly bought for my disappointed mother in about 1979 when she had been hoping to choose one for herself (how did it even get there?!), to ugly iron bedheads that were in this house when we bought it, to sections of the caravan we had towed away aeons ago, to old bikes and rocking horses.

But I fear that one day in the not too distant future a particularly strong breath of wind or virulent downpour is going to bring that whole building down, and the less stuff cluttering it up, the easier it will be to deal with the collapse. So I got some blokes with a van and had it all cleared and hauled away.

Well, when I say all… I was trying to be resolute but for some reason the dinner service is still sitting up there. I kept C’s rocking horse too. There were some photos that I managed to snatch from their arms as they stashed it all in their van. Now I’m sure for years to come I’ll snap out of sleep in cold sweats thinking of the memory-infused things that I allowed them to drag off by mistake.

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17 September 2018

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My little sweet cherry tree, which produced precisely zero cherries this remarkably fruitless year then proceeded to lose all its leaves in mid summer and look wan and sick, is suddenly in bloom. Flowers. Lots of them. What on earth is that about? There are fresh new leaves too, and a general feeling of getting back down to springy business.

In other fruit (tree) news, we ate the two (yes, two) delicious peaches from the old tree with enormous ceremony. But I think from time to time, with some despair, of those glass jars of syrupy peaches which I won’t be squirelling away this year. (I see I have no recipe on my blog for bottling peaches. How can this be? It’s as simple as it is time-consuming. I’ll try to make amends.)

There are pomegranates on the big plant by the chicken house – not as many or as large as last year’s crazy performance – but the smaller tree outside the living room window has inexplicably given up the ghost. Poof, like that. From one day to the next. I thought perhaps it wasn’t getting water but it was: the Echinacaea at its feet are looking perfectly healthy. And it’s sending up a regular jungle of shoots from the base. But the tree with its network of little twiggy branches is dry and bare save from a few twisted brown leaves. I wonder what went wrong.

Squashed between my slow-producing strawberries and my exuberant asparagus plants, three of the several twigs from the damson tree I felt so bad about removing are putting on a brave and leafy show, to the point where I’m now wondering: what on earth will I do with them? How do I get them out of there and on to a final destination if and when they survive and thrive?

My tiny lemon tree which looked moribund after our harsh end-of-winter freeze has come back bushier than ever. I really should put it in a larger pot but at that point I will no longer be able to shove it into my minuscule greenhouse in winter. Not a single lemon though.

All I have in abundance are – as always – persimmons (pretty but yuck), and quinces, medlars and crabapples, all of which I still have oddles of in jam form in the larder. And of course my Concord grapes (uva fragola) up in town at Pieve Suites which are threatening to pull their whole support down and which, try as I might, I still can’t find enough takers for to lighten the load.

We went to Venice, L – as usual – for the film festival and me to see the new shows for Tintoretto’s 500th birthday and to catch the architecture Biennale before it slipped through my fingers.

I had a privileged glimpse at Tintoretto. I sneaked into young T at the Accademia with the very first batch of journos, and was escorted around by a wonderfully enthusiastic Paola Marini, the gallery’s director.

For the more mature works, I shuffled around the Doge’s Palace with other bits of the press pack, and ran into Frederick Ilchman, the show’s curator and someone we’ve known for more years than I care to remember.

“I still don’t get Tintoretto,” I told Frederick, trying to sound apologetic. “He just doesn’t do it for me.”

For me Tintoretto remains a genius in parts, but in the end a bit of a charlatan. Frederick suggested I took a look at some sketches – something to make me see the workings behind the paintings. But contrary to what I often find, sketches didn’t change my opinion one little bit. So I homed in on the artist’s magnificent details and tried not to focus on how much his swishy approximations leave me rather cold. You can’t like everything, can you?

This year’s Biennale was a low-key affair. It was, in the final analysis, very architectural: few of the usual flights of fantasy or wild conceptual imaginings that are sometimes interesting and sometimes jarring and sometimes just plain infuriating. There were a lot of plans and models (lovely woody smells) and careful consideration of buildings and the spaces around them. I rather enjoyed it.

Of course there were degrees of wacky too, ranging from the British pavilion (completely empty, giving us ‘space to think’, though all I thought was “shameful rubbish”) to the winning Swiss one with its house fittings in a wild range of disorientating sizes. The chapels on the island of San Giorgio were huge fun (and allowed you into bits of the island you don’t usual get to see).

There were interesting projects of all shapes and sizes in the Arsenale but perhaps most striking there was the way that the curators had opted not to break up the phenomenal space of the Corderie, leaving an unimpeded view right along the 300+ metres of it.


Home now and trying to get back to work, but just like last spring – though in quite the opposite way – I have the weather against me. Then, incessant rain meant nothing got planted in ground that was unfeasibly sodden. Now, temperatures hovering pretty near 30° most days (friends who’ve just arrived from Lesvos say it’s warmer here than on the Greek islands) and skies of pure summer blue mean no one wants to cover their pool and retreat inside for the winter. They certainly don’t want garden labourers and me getting in the way of their final balmy days.

So I’m trying to drag my own garden back from the sad neglected mess it has become. I’m removing spent soil from around my poor benighted roses and jollying them up with lashings of nice nourishing compost. I’m hacking back excessive summer growth in a last-ditch attempt to stop my shrubs becoming little more than wood. I’m fighting a pitched battle against the most combative, virulent crop of couch grass I’ve ever seen.

I haven’t yet, surprisingly, had to fend off too many plant-munching beasts but I’m under no illusions: they’re undoubtedly playing grandmother’s footsteps, creeping up on me, poised to pierce my smugness. Each time I drive down our lane huge clouds of brown butterflies lift off the road around me: I would be feeling as swept up in magical realism as a character from One Hundred Years of Solitude were it not for my suspicions that the horrid things are laying eggs which will eventually produce grubs that will consume all my lovingly tended greenery. Sometimes being a gardener can make you very cynical.

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30 August 2018

Perhaps unsurprisingly in this year of odd, vaguely tropical, weather patterns a massive afternoon storm blew our annual Palio away on the scheduled date (19 August), turning the streets of the town into rivers and the stands of the football pitch where the final archery shoot-out takes place into gushing waterfalls.

(Don’t you hate that picture on the Palio website? Selfies are bad enough; but I would make photos of people taking selfies a crime.)

Down here in our valley, the storm was mesmerising and terrifying. I’ve seen more water fall in the same stretch of time (this was ‘just’ 44mm in an hour or so) but I can’t remember ever seeing so many lightning bolts fall right before my eyes, streaking down our field and out across the neighbour’s and down into the woods below. They crashed about and rattled the house which was, obviously, plunged into darkness after just seconds, along with the rest of town.

It was afternoon but the gloom was extreme. So L, in that romantic way he has, filled the place with candles – hastily extinguished in an ungainly scramble when C opened the cellar door and a stench of gas invaded the whole house. We opened windows and turned off gas taps by the cooker and out at the boiler. Then when the rain relented I identified a certain tell-tale pattern of bricks in the path around the house, dug down to expose the gas inspection pit, and turned the supply off there too… before realising that it would have been far easier simply to go up to our big LPG tank buried further up the garden and cut the stuff off at source.

The next day the plumber came and stared and shook his head and said “what on earth am I meant to do about this?!” then went away again – though not until he ascertained that we had the means to cook (a big gas cannister, which we attached to the stove) and take hot showers (our wonderful solar panels which mean that our boiler is switched off over the five/six months spring/summer anyway).

His explanation was that a lightning bolt, falling nearby, had sought out the copper gas pipe in some spot where there was a crack in the corrugated plastic tube it passes through, and had blown it open. But there was no telling where. Well, yes there was a way of telling where, of course, but it might involve things like take up our beautiful stone floor and generally creating havoc.

If I were better at playing the drama queen, the conundrum might have been solved there and then. Instead I lauded our self-sufficiency and sang the praises of solar panels, so it was a whole week later that they drilled through walls and paths and concrete to find the buckled bit of copper pipe that had failed to withstand the storm. Thankfully, the problem lay in the boiler room outside rather than beneath our floor. But there’s still a fair bit of patching up to do.

I could have demanded more immediate action but there’s a lot to be said, I think, for not putting too much pressure on your plumber, especially when he’s inundated by panicking punters. We’re blessed around here with tradesmen who, once they’ve worked on your house – and especially if they were involved in a big restoration – become more or less part of the family. Their prices are fair, you pay their bills (often weeks or even months afterwards because they’re mostly remarkably reticent about billing), and in return you get not only work well done but the right to summon – or at the very least message – them at any kind of inconvenient moment. Over the years, I’ve had plumbers and electricians here on Easter Sunday and Ferragosto (the sacrosanct August 15 holiday) and at all times of the night. But as I said, it’s a good rule not to cry wolf: they know that if I’m demanding instant intervention, it’s for a very good reason.

The Palio did eventually take place, one week later and in tingling autumnal-feeling sunshine – far more clement than what the forecasters had promised. And we won! Borgo Dentro sailed to victory. Not that we were there to witness it: we had a dinner engagement elsewhere. But we were there the following evening for the speeches and the photo-ops and the spumante-showers and the massive bull-shaped cake and the deafening shouts of Palio-winning euphoria.

For many years, we’ve been following the (non-)progress of what I’m now calling the Emperor’s New Housing Estate. At some point soon after a very pretty valley on the north side of town had been blighted by the construction of the ugly new Carabinieri barracks and a sweep of ring-road, ground breaking began on the other side of the road and a hoarding went up showing a cluster of little box-like houses which would soon appear.

They didn’t.

This may have been as long as ten years ago. Since when, at odd times, earth-moving equipment has materialised, areas have been leveled, pipes have been laid, horrendous stone walls have gone up. The billboard grew more dog-eared and many periods of many months went by when the only thing moving was the weeds that had engulfed the hillside.

The most recent developments are startling. First, in the spring, the landscapers moved in, swathing steep inclines in horticultural fleece, laying irrigation pipes and planting shrubs so far apart from each other that they have no hope whatsoever of ever covering the banks. Shiny new road surfaces were laid, complete with glow-in-the-dark white lines and orders to ‘stop’. Dozens of quite well advanced trees were planted though I fear, here, the irrigation was neglected because there has been a high mortality rate over the summer.

The cherries on the cake are the outcrop of primary-colour playground equipment erected in the forlorn little traffic island at the heart of the ‘estate’ and the lonesome park benches positioned with views over the beautiful old stone washing tubs… and the Carabinieri barracks.

All that’s missing, in fact, are the houses. Of which there is no sign.

Is this an oversight? Should someone tell them? Or perhaps it’s a weird performance – something to do with Il Giardino dei Lauri just down the road.

Whatever the explanation, it’s shockingly ugly.

One good thing – perhaps the only good thing – about getting your tomatoes planted shamefully late is that you find yourself with great piles of ripe fruit so late in the season that the time-consuming chore of making passata ends up being done on cool late-summer evenings rather than in the heat of high summer. (I’ve provided a link to one of my recipes though I see that’s it’s an old old one that I’ve long since abandoned. I now steam my tomatoes – stems and tough bits removed – until they’re soft, then push the whole lot through the mouli. No garlic, no cooking the tomatoes. This pulp goes straight into sterilised jars, each with one nice big basil leaf in it, and gets pasteurised as per the old recipe.)

I’m slightly dismayed that the various pumpkin-y looking seeds that I sowed then planted are everything but pumpkins. How on earth will I cope without my own? I have courgettes (unimpressive) and melons (refusing to ripen) and the usual crop of cucumbers galore, but not a single pumpkin. How did that happen? The mysteries of what goes into and comes out of my little greenhouse…

 

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Watermelon ‘gazpacho’

0809AThis has turned out to be a watermelon kind of a summer. Daunted by the sheer size, and lacking the determination needed to get through a whole one (which is how they’re sold around here) when there are usually only two of us in the house, I tend to walk straight past the piles of them in the supermarket.

But house guests bought one earlier in the summer and suddenly I realised what we’d been missing. Now I’m hooked. Cool slices straight from the fridge. A sorbet made of nothing but pulverized and de-seeded fruit. Or this savoury-sweet cold soup. However you use it, it’s supremely refreshing.

 

Watermelon – about 2kg
Cucumber – 1 medium (about 500g)
Onion – 1 medium
Garlic – 1 large clove
Vinegar – 2 tbsp
Mint – 1 large sprig
Chilli – to taste
Almonds – a handful to garnish

Peel the onion and chop it roughly. Peel the cucumber, remove the seeds and chop it up. Put these two ingredients plus the peeled and chopped garlic, the minced chili and the vinegar (I use very good red wine vinegar: the better the vinegar, the better your soup will be) into the blender and whizz them until the mix is a completely smooth liquid. Pour it into a large jug or other container that can go in the fridge.

Now chop up the watermelon, setting aside a centimetre or two of the less sweet fruit closest to the rind. You’ll need this later. You can painstakingly remove every single seed. Or you can scrape out the ones that come easily and put everything else into the blender. It will take no time at all to turn the fruit into a liquid mess. Don’t blitz it for too long or else you’ll pulverize the seeds too.

Remove the seeds by pushing this slush through a sieve into the container with the cucumber and onion mix. Mince the mint leaves as finely as you can, and tip them in too, then stir the lot together.

Dice the remaining watermelon – the part near the rind – into tiny cubes (half a centimetre or so) and add them to the soup. Though salt rarely gets a look-in in my cooking, I admit to adding half a teaspoon here, to cut the remaining sweetness a little. You might think it needs considerably more.

Now put the soup into the fridge for a couple of hours, for the flavours to blend and the ingredients to chill thoroughly. To serve, dry-roast some chopped almonds in a frying pan until they’re crunchy then leave them to cool. Sprinkle a few on top of each soup bowl, perhaps with a little chopped mint.

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