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.



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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