21 September 2011

We’re back to two – very strange after a summer with C around. It’s an odd time: just graduated, absolutely no idea of where to go next. But it was made even odder by her being here, for months, in CdP – the place she had for years fought tooth and nail not to be dragged to: a living grave. From her privileged position as head waitress at our favourite local wine bar, Il Saltapicchio, she suddenly was privy to pievesi habits which we hadn’t even dreamed existed.

Whoever would have thought that on nights during our August Palio bars were open until 5.30am with Brit-style scenes of broken bottles and rivers of vomit? (My admiration for our local street cleaners has grown in leaps and bounds because there is never so much as a hint of this when normal people reach town next morning.) That the taverne – the makeshift restaurants that each terziere (district) sets up during festivities – are rowdy, we knew, but that they harboured pantagruellian scenes until the small hours we didn’t: they always seemed such family-fun places during our early-evening visits… such as they are because the menu generally is so heavily slanted towards variations on wild boar that they don’t interest us vegetarians much at all.

Now we’re C-less but – alas – anything but alone. The hunting season has begun – shots from the woods at 6.20am on the first day, last Saturday, reminded me of what lies ahead – and there are days when our fields are a veritable motorway.  Like today. I have to say, I prefer the solitary old men with their friendly hounds and their old rifles slung over their shoulders to the packs of testosterone-fuelled boar-hunters who power down into the valley like so many Rambos. Of course, hunting in any form isn’t ever my favourite thing. But one of today’s visitors seemed to be waiting to be talked to as he skirted the edge of the garden, lingering as I tried to dissuade his dog from digging up my hydrangeas.

I said hello and in he came, disturbing me as I dug up and divided the old iris bulbs around the trunk of the big oak tree: “sa signora, sono nato in questa casa.” You know, signora, I was born in this house.

I think there must be dozens of people up in the Pieve who could use that as a calling card. This man – Sergio – is the nephew of Gigi, who has regaled us with tales of his youth ever since we bought this house. Gigi is 85 now, born here in 1926. He was still living here when this nephew was born. Gigi had seven siblings alive at the time… all of them, I presume, living here. Plus his parents – his father disabled and bed-ridden. Now I find that Gigi and his brothers and sisters were marrying, and having children in this house. How many people could possibly squeeze into the four rooms – one of which was the kitchen – which made up the living quarters then (downstairs was for animals)? There wasn’t even space enough to put in beds for them all! This Sergio moved out in 1964, which was when Mario bought it (in fact, I thought Mario – from whom we bought the house – had bought it in 1963, when share-cropping was abolished and the land was redistributed.) What happened to all the people squashed into our house then? Where did they go? It must have been bad enough being so numerous in so small a space, at the mercy of an absentee sharecropper baron landlord, but perhaps things existed which were even worse. Were they turfed out by bailiffs? Were they all – bed-ridden parents and newborn children – thrown out on to the street? I didn’t pursue the subject, and he didn’t volunteer any information.

Sergio didn’t, as Gigi always does, tell us how very wonderful those days were. But he did add some more colour to Gigi’s stories. Like the spring – the one just across into Mario’s land. The hospital, he said, would send a cart full of demijohns down regularly to have them filled from this spring – the best water for miles around according to one of the doctors there, and the only drinking water patients were ever given. (It should be noted that Mario – who still drinks nothing but that water –  is minuscule, rather toothless, with a chronic heart condition: not a great advertisement for the water’s health-giving qualities.)

Then he examined the path which L and I have been trying to clear of Arundo donax, the one that leads down into that part of the field where there are five or six walnut trees. It’s a bumpy track now, and rather narrow. That, said Sergio, was a fine wide track where carts passed easily on their way from casale to casale, or down to the broad field in the valley – a jungle of trees and ferns now, despite L’s best efforts to clear it. The vaschetta,  he said, was surrounded by a wall which emerged from the ground for almost a metre. I think this is an exaggeration – it couldn’t have been more than 70 or 80cm, because it’s no deeper than that from current ground level to the paved bottom of the tank, and the wall, though now buried, is still there. So that level there, immediately to the south of the house, has risen considerably. The vaschetta, he said, didn’t have a roof (I had suspected it must have had some kind of lean-to, when Giuseppe my bulldozer boy once cleared the tank out for me and dug up a neat layer of thin ceiling tiles from the bottom). That, Sergio confirmed, was where the woman from all the casali around came to do their washing. And it was where the animals were led to drink.

Clearing the reeds away from that path down there has, of course, revealed hidden gems. The fig tree is one: I had always thought of that fig tree as a rather stunted little twisted thing. Now, cleared of its creepers and its misleading offshoots, it stands out as majestic – quite huge. Down the slope beneath it – in the shade of a little oak which I could see was there but which had never been given space to breath – is a tiny spindly peach tree. It is completely covered with fruit: they’re the size of large apricots, and that shape too. And not one of them has a single mark on it: they are all utterly perfect. I should imagine the tree is spontaneous, not grafted, and that the fruit – if they ever ripen – will have little flavour. But it does make you think: the moment we ‘refine’ plants with edible fruit, parasites move in. Why is this? If they’re left alone, abandoned in the midst of vegetation which should really have smothered it, they do just fine.

Which reminds me: the walnuts are looking quite stupendous.

Of all the many quinces which appeared on that little tree is spring, only one remains. But it is a magnificent one – quite huge. Just as well it has placed itself so that it rests on a branch just below, otherwise it would have pulled its own branch right off. I have done a deal with our friends T&A: they will give me all their quinces, I’ll turn them into jelly, and we’ll go halves on the outcome. But L wants to do some significant quince-ritual with our extraordinary examplar. I’ll have to think of something.

Similarly, there’s just one rather lovely looking pomegranate on that little bush. This, though, is a success story in the other direction. I had almost given up on the pomegranate – resigned myself to having been palmed off with a sterile one – because the beautiful flowers never did much more than bloom then fall, leaving nothing. This one fruit proves, however, that the plant has simply been biding its time. Good. I look forward to more and more in coming years. Hopefully.

I neglected to say that our never-ending summer came to a dramatic end in a huge storm, seemed to have gone forever through two days of sub-20 temperatures and drizzle, then came back today in a blaze of glory. Twenty eight. Cloudless. Tiny breeze. Post-tramontana clarity of light. Spectacular. The kind of day you’d get if you could put in an itemised order for perfection.

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About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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