1 March 2013

0301A 0301BWhat was the animal peering up at me from the compost yesterday? We’ve had all kinds of wildlife in there over the years, from woodlice to those fat white squidgy things I call wichetty grubs but of course they’re not*; from slimy back-and-yellow salamanders to scuttling little field mice and cats and slugs of every imaginable shape and size. But this one (actually two) was something quite else. And infuriatingly, while I beat a hasty and rather high-pitched retreat it stood its ground.

I’m saying rat. L, who took the compost up when I chickened out this afternoon, insists it looked far too sweet to be a rat. It must, he says, be a vole. If so, it was a bloody big vole. Whatever it was, I don’t want it there.

Out here in our far-from-everything neck of the woods, you don’t expect to find the kind of creatures I associate with cities and filth and stinking drains. This feeling of being in a vermin-free zone is perhaps in the back of my mind when I chuck just about everything into my compost, reckoning that if a sweet little field mouse wants a nibble, then he’s welcome to it… and the dozens of semi-feral cats who roam the surrounding fields are welcome, in turn, to plump compost-fed mice.

Obviously I don’t throw meat in there (we being non-meat-eaters) and fish I dispose of either in the rubbish or left in strategic positions far from the house for hungry cats to pick at (I don’t want my compost bins being too much of a home-from-home for aforementioned cats) but pretty much anything else gets hurled in there, willy nilly: vegetable peelings, egg shells, cooked food, bits of old bread, cheese, egg boxes, torn-up paper serviettes, freshly pulled weeds (seeds and all, I have to admit), leafy prunings, wood ash from the stoves… you name it, in it goes. It may not be totally orthodox but it’s a compost recipe which has always worked brilliantly.

‘Cures’ for vermin I have heard of include weeing on the compost pile, planting lots of mint around it, leaving paraffin-soaked rags around it (don’t sneak out to the compost bins for a quick smoke and drop your match in the wrong place…), leaving a radio on to scare them off (choose you programme carefully) and investing in an air rifle and using them for target practice. I think what I shall do is stop putting the old bit of lino I use as a cover on for a few nights – and let the cats do my vermin-elimination for me.

(*These are in fact the larvae of June bugs, those omnipresent beetles which pass through a stage of superb irridescent emerald green as they grow up to chomp on your plants. But the benefits of the larvae as compost processors far outweigh the disadvantages of the adult stages, so I just live with them.)

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One night last week we stayed at the Albergo Le Terme  in Bagno Vignoni. We found Bagno Vignoni in… 1985? Gosh, what a long time ago. In my final year at university I earned extra cash working at the old Cambridge Arts Cinema. I saw Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia ten times at least. As soon as I was in Italy and mobile, I set out to find the magical place in that movie with the Renaissance pool of hot water where the piazza should be.

Once we had found it, we kept going back. It was just the houses around the square then, plus the ‘new’ Hotel Posta Marcucci with its modern thermal pool. But we underpaid English teachers couldn’t afford to stay there. The affordable hotel was Le Terme, right on the piazza; a seedy place run by a morose family but remarkably cheap.

The same family is still there – not much friendlier but less down-at-heel looking. The hotel has been given the once-over, with a brave attempt at country chic. And there’s a spa in the back garden, a mod affair in stone with a green roof and a couple of small pools (one cool with whirlpool jets, one hot straight out of the ground) for wallowing. The prices, of course, have been brought up to date too. We were trying to reconstruct our lives in those days, and it’s quite astounding.

Our very first jobs in Italy – teaching English in cowboy outfits – brought us each salaries of about L500,000 per month. That’s €260. It was a pittance then, a pathetic amount to earn. But with it, we paid our rent, ate out in sweat-and-sawdust trattorie a few times a week, went to concerts and films and got away, frequently. In my memory, I think of us going somewhere at least once a month. I may be imagining this. Of course we would share petrol with friends – in fact we would use friends’ cars for a couple of years until we had an old jalopy of our own. But if we scrimped and saved (though not too much) we could afford to rattle up to BV, stay the night in Le Terme, pay for a session in the pool at the Posta and eat out. Nowadays, that kind of thing is a rare luxury. Were it not for the fact that we’re always being invited places (by which I mean, of course, that L is always being invited places, for work), our pace of life would be very slow indeed.

When did Italy get so terribly expensive?

And how, what’s more, was Bagno Vignoni, immersed as it is in the Unesco world heritage area of the Val d’Orcia, allowed to expand so badly? The short approach road is all tacky lighting and big car parks, set up for the huge tour buses that bring crowds of grockles to a place far from big enough to contain them. Then there’s the Adler Thermae, a hotel of 90+ rooms… well hidden I grant you, concealed beyond a rise just outside the village centre but disgorging its hordes of spa-goers into BV’s inadequate spaces between spa treatments and hot-pool plunges.

But on a chill mid-week morning in February, Bagno Vignoni was quite deserted and like old times. With thick steam rising off the tank in the deserted main square and the perfection of the simple Renaissance structures around, there are few more stunning places.

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Benvenuto Brunello, Friday morning. Walking into a cloister in Montalcino packed with dozens of producers pushing their wines at you at 10am tests your mettle at the best of times. But after a very pleasant heavy-drinking evening with dauntingly knowledgeable wine buffs at Allegrini Estates’ San Polo winery the night before, it can make you quake. I managed to taste two. Two wines. Pitiful. L did better than me, despite his streaming cold, and swilled six or seven around his mouth then spat. After which, we fled. What a pity! All that vinous excellence. The one comfort, I guess, is that the Riserva 2007 – the one being presented here this year – was ‘only’ a four rather than a five-star brew.

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0301D 0301C
I have finished re-organising my garden path. Finally. I am almost crippled, my hands are all one big blister and my left thumb no longer does what it’s meant to do. This project comes firmly under the heading “Anne Bites off More Than She Can Chew”. It’s a long long list.

People in their right minds get a garden designer (me?) to draw up a plan them bring in some burly men in with pickaxes to put it into action. So what’s wrong with me, who should know better? I have grubbed up and shoveled away tonnes of earth, heaved and laid great cart-load of stones, dug trenches for corrugated pipe for electric cables, shoveled and spread untold quantities of gravel. Am I mad?

I made a final push this morning, because L had told me we had to be on a train to Florence by four. At two PM I rushed inside to get washed and packed… but Florence, it turns out, is next weekend. Grrrr. If nothing else, the deadline made me get it finished.

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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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