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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6 August 2018


Cool and magical, the beech woods of Monte Amiata

Being summoned to a hospital to find your husband laid out flat on a stretcher under a blood-flecked sheet, his neck in a brace and one side of his face swathed in bandages, is a bit of a shocker. It turns out, thankfully, that L’s latest flight from his bicycle was in fact less damaging than others – just three stitches in his face and lots of cuts and bruises, as against a fractured rib a month ago, and other bone breaks and ligament tears over the years. But somehow wounds to the face look so much more dramatic than those. I experienced a split second of panic.

Shock over, I’m now thinking of the experience as yet another chance to admire our healthcare service, and maybe gloat a little. In the three hours he spent on his stretcher (the corridors of the busy A&E were lined with them – a mix of serious injury and disease, and frequent returnees greeted by name by the remarkably cheery staff) L was seen by the doctor, had his face stitched, was x-rayed and given CT and ultrasound scans, had a tetanus shot and saw the doctor again for a final appraisal. At the end of which the doctor’s assistant, rather sheepishly, said that there was a charge to pay for the attention.

“Do we pay you?” we asked.
“No, no, we don’t take money. And the office where you pay is closed. Here are our bank details: you can pay at any bank,” he said.

How much? €10. TEN euros. $US11.50. £8.90. Would they come after us if we didn’t pay? Almost certainly not, despite vaguely threatening legal language on the discharge documents. I paid it though, immediately, in gratitude and admiration more than honesty.

This morning I had coffee in town with clients who live in the US. “You’d be looking at $10,000 dollars there,” they said. An exaggeration? Probably (hopefully). But it’s interesting, anyway, that their perception of the system where they live tells them that. Allow me, therefore, to gloat.

The doctor – a cyclist himself, with shocking-pink spectacles – lectured L on the need for a helmet that covered more of his face. He was jolly and chatty and, it seemed, a good bloke. But he also provided the only sour note of the evening, in a throwaway remark that I’m now wishing I’d called him out on. He ordered L, sportsman to sportsman, to get his tetanus jabs in order, to make sure he was properly covered.

“All this multiculturalism these days,” he said. “You never know.”

To imply that immigration is/immigrants are the underlying cause of tetanus – that they underlie any disease-spreading at all – is deeply shameful in anyone. In a doctor it’s unforgivable. No serious medical publication backs this up: The Lancet argues that, being predominantly vigorous young men, refugees and asylum seekers are on average healthier than western populations as a whole. So if it’s not advice based on science, it is – to be extremely generous – reprehensible casual racism. After an evening of impressive efficiency, this left a bad taste.


High summer colours

Well before we moved to CdP permanently – so, more than a decade ago – I joked and pondered with the new owners of the Albergo Vannucci in town about what would happen to the elderly-parent-parking service that the hotel in its pre-refurb manifestation had provided. The service was unofficial and possibly undesired, but in its boarding-house-like state, the Vannucci in summer was a magnet for all those troublesome quavering old ladies and slightly demented old men from cities whom offspring were keen to squirrel away somewhere safe and anodine and far away from themselves for the summer – somewhere ‘in collina’ (on a hill) which for me summons up visions of overheated Raj officials making for tea-bush-ringed hill stations but here, very prosaically, just means somewhere a degree cooler than their lower-lying urban place of residence.

Occasionally the old dears turned up with their badanti (carers) – usually eastern European women in various stages of terminal boredom but relieved, at least, to find fellow sufferers with whom to share the travails of the summer months. But more often the crumblies would be unceremoniously dumped, and left to drive the hotel staff to distraction with tetchy whining.

From time to time nowadays, the manager of the hotel still indulges in a bit of a moan to me about one or other of the palsied eld who pass through, but I imagined – with CdP getting a little younger and a little more up-market – that they were an ever rarer phenomenon. A few phonecalls over the past few days have persuaded me otherwise. It’s usually a woman who calls – a hassled-sounding woman with a snap in her voice.

“You have places to rent. I need somewhere for my parents.”

I fell for the first call, and took a very spiky chain-smoking but actually rather likeable old dame to show her my Mid suite – the only one available for the dates in August that her brisk daughter had mentioned.

I was a bit suspicious when the daughter explained that her parents were already in town, but had to change accommodation: why? I wondered (though never found out). Doubts deepened when I called mamma to make an appointment and she told me she could come that same morning “but not straight away because I have to get him up and get him showered.” This absolutely didn’t sound like the kind of sprightly, stylish, sophisticated independent traveller that Pieve Suites was designed to attract.

So I mentioned stairs.

“He can probably cope,” she informed me, though not with any real conviction. And so they came.

‘Cope’ was ambitious. She hauled the confused, muttering soul up to the first floor as I kept my fingers crossed and willed him not to plunge down my elegantly open stairwell to his death in the cellar. I could see her itching to light up another cigarette to replace the one she’d stubbed out on my front doorstep.

She really liked the room. My heart sank.

“So how much is it?” she asked.

I told her, feeling slightly irritated with the daughter for leaving it up to me to break the news to this plain-speaking mamma.

“What?” she screeched, “but we could stay in the Vannucci for less than that!”

Er, yes. You could. But that’s the whole point of what I’m doing here. In the hotel the room would be smaller and you wouldn’t have a kitchenette and it’s not nearly as chic and elegant as my place. She stared at me in horror.

“I could rent an apartment in piazza Navona cheaper!” she said.

I looked dubious, and patiently explained “but this isn’t an apartment to rent. Think of it as a hotel. A hotel that’s more expensive than the Vannucci. You want to take one of my hotel rooms for a month. And that’s how much I charge.”

And so they left, though not without her listing all her friends and relations who’d love to come and stay with me, even at that price. I kept schtum.

Now when I get those “my mother needs…” calls, I know to mention the stairs first thing. So steep. So many. No railings. High probability of fractures or even fatality.

I’m not going to be their hill station. And I’m definitely not going to be their badante. Now I’m wondering: what more do I need to do to my site to make that absolutely perfectly clear?


Great concert, phenomenal setting. Incontri in Terra di Siena

Il Pozzetto down in Moiano is a very ordinary local trattoria made slightly different by the fact that the son of the family, Luca, produces seafood worthy of a much more sophisticated venue, especially on Friday and Saturday when the kind of crowd that appreciates this gravitates there.

On the terrace recently – L slurping oysters, me with a wonderful salad of raw fish, tart green apples and various other ingredients I’ve since forgotten – we found ourselves next to a table occupied by a family that definitely wasn’t there for the fish. In fact, the waiters – kind and friendly as they were – dispensed with any mention of fish, and went straight for pizzas.

The older couple (I hesitate to say ‘elderly’ because there’s a good chance that, wrinkled and lived-in as they looked, they were no older than us) were celebrating their 39th wedding anniversary. That was the only piece of information that their lively and clearly bright granddaughter of about eight managed to pry out of them. For the rest of the time he stared at his plate and grunted a bit, and she gawped at us as though we were just another show on the TV that I’d wager she kept turned on, volume at max, at all times at home. There was no real sign of interest on her part: she was just blankly mesmerised.

Spanning the generations was a daughter who mainly kept her head down. No one complained – well, no more than a few extra-loud grunts from grandpa – when the waiters good-naturedly kind-of-forget them, and their food took forever to turn up. This was just – one immagined – confirmation of their expectations of how life has to be dealt with: a bitter resignation to always being at the tail end, mute but darkly resentful, a bovine brutishness. Outsiders are greeted with baleful brooding; inside the family, one suspects communication is limited to shouting and clouting.

This is a local type of another generation which you rarely see nowadays and will not be missed when it fades away. It’s a hangover from the days of mezzadria (sharecropping) when raising your voice to il padrone might lose you even that scrappy bit of land that you worked to death to feed your family, and when education – especially for girls – took a very distant second place behind getting the chores done and the crops in. In 1962 the school-leaving age was raised from 11 to 14 but in country parts this was widely ignored and illiteracy was the norm. By 1999 when the age was raised to 15 (and 2003 to 16) however, things were looking brighter. Education is a wonderful thing, and not just for filling heads with facts.

That younger generations are growing beyond their grandparents was (thankfully) made clear when the little girl threw herself across to give her mother a big hug. Incapable of anything as dynamic as shock, the grandmother looked aggressively baffled.

“What you doing?” she shouted, at which the little girl snapped around and gave her a very hard look.

“Whatever I want. And don’t you go trying to ruin it for me,” she said, in a way that showed she was used to grandma disapproving. She still has a battle ahead.


Hot and dusty but the field, finally, has been cut

It’s hot now – well over 30° every day – and we’re in troglodyte mode, staying inside with closed shutters for as much of the day as possible, and venturing out after six pm. The wonderful thing about this summer so far has been the evenings: cool, sometimes breezy. There has been only one night in the whole season so far when we’ve turned the fan on in our bedroom. It couldn’t be more different from last year when we sweltered for over two months.

It’s odd when the hottest of the hot descends when you’re already noticing that the evenings are getting shorter. It’s odd, too, having had to wait until August 1 to pick my very first ripe tomato (partly my fault for getting them in the ground a bit late but also the fault of this season).

I was expecting the immense quantities of green fruit to ripen all at the same time, leaving me with a mountain of stuff to process into passata in an overheated hurry. But no, they’re coming good very gradually. Now my fear is that as the days get shorter they simply won’t have sufficient hours of sunshine to behave as they should. I very much hope I’m wrong.


Still the floweriest of them all: Borgo di Giano celebrates

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15 July 2018

Down here in our valley we don’t have mains gas. We have a thousand litre LPG tank buried in the garden which is filled at great expense when necessary – though I have to say that since having the solar panels installed for heating water, it’s necessary less and less often. When the gas is getting low, I rummage about in the chicken house and pull out the dusty red and white plastic stakes – one with an ugly sign attached – which must, by law, show where the tank is buried. I hammer them into place around the tank’s inspection cap… then try not to be at home when the delivery man comes, to avoid any comment on my perfectly obvious ruse.
Every three years or so the company sends an inspector to fill forms and tick boxes and re-register our tank with the local fire service. This morning he showed up unannounced.
“I just have to check it’s intact and take some photos,” he said as I pointed out the inspection cap to him. I was wittering on about how I’d just removed the stakes temporarily because the garden needed weeding, when he cut me short.
“Do you have them? Because if you haven’t it doesn’t matter. I’ll get some from my car. We can just stick them in for a moment while I take a photo. You don’t want to have those ugly things right by your drive like that.”
The health and safety inspector who brings his own props and worries about clients’ aesthetics. Another reason to love Italy.

Last week I watched a funny little bulbous green-white spider (I’m going to stick my neck out and guess from the depths of my ignorance that it was some kind of  Thomisidae crab spider) suspended from one of my buddleias on an almost invisible strand of silk as it hooked, stunned and subdued a butterfly about four times larger than itself in a matter of minutes.
When I happened across the scene, the butterfly had clearly only just fallen prey to the angling spider because it was putting up a magnificent fight, flapping and contorting and generally doing all in its quite considerable power to escape the spider’s grip. But gradually the fluttering became less frantic, then stopped. The spider began wheeling itself in.
It wasn’t so much the spider-butterfly interaction that held me mesmerised, though, as the silk at the end of which the drama was playing out. It rocked and swayed and – to my eye – seemed to extend and contract in time with the paroxysms at the far end. I found it hard to believe that it could stand up to the strain. How strong can such a gossamer strand be?
The answer, I find, is that its strength is about the same as a high-grade steel alloy, ie phenomenal. But it’s the toughness (ie strength plus extensibility of up to about five times without snapping) that make it truly amazing… that and the hard-to-conceive-of fact that a strand long enough to encircle our whole planet would weigh about half a kilo. Clever things, spiders.

0715F0715GI had stopped in via Borgo di Giano (the street where my Pieve Suites is located) to snap a picture of our third consecutive ‘floweriest street of CdP’ prize plaque when a French acquaintance with a house in town wandered by.
“We’re the most beautiful street!” I said to her.
She turned to give the alleyway a look, and with true Gallic disdain said “it is not the most beautiful!”
“Well,” I said, trying to be conciliatory. “It’s definitely the floweriest.”
“Yes,” she admitted, sounding rather bored, “there are flowers. But it’s not the most beautiful.”
“So where is the most beautiful?” I asked, at which she stared at me as if I were completely stupid.
“Have you never been to Paris?” she said.
It’s hard to please some people.

I realise that the advent of a new compost bin might not seem like the acme of achievement to many, but for me, my long day’s sawing and drilling last Sunday was one of immense fulfilment. For years, that overflow compost heap round the back of the chicken house was precisely that: a heap. Sprawling, messy, spread about the place by burrowing animals –hedgehogs mostly I’d say, looking for a quiet hole to retire to.
Then I took the big decision to fix it up, went and bought the necessary lumber, stacked it in the chicken house and. Did nothing. For months. While grass grew between the stakes and planks and every time I passed by it nagged at my conscience.
But now (with some help from my garden assistant Indi, who drove the stakes into the ground and then was quickly bundled away before he tried to bring his questionable aesthetic sense to the project) I’ve done it – give or take some stakes to be sawed down to the right height and a couple of bits of rebar that need to be hacked off because they’re driven far too far into the ground to be hauled out. I’m rather pleased with myself. Now I just need to tidy the rest of the horribly neglected place.

Last year at this time we were shrivelling up in the relentless heat, dreaming of unsweaty nights and spending our days in darkened interiors. This year, I’m still hard at work. After the spring work-washout, we garden people have been granted a long long planting period right into July to catch up with projects which have been pushed back and back and back.
It’s hot, certainly. But it’s not too hot. Which is good. And not good. My hoped-for summer lull is taking far too long to materialise. I pound up and down motorways and spend days heaving plants about in the sun… satisfying (mostly), gratifying (in many cases). But now I’m ready to stop, just for a bit. That moment too will come.
What was really missing this year was our pre-season sea. There’s generally one weekend in June when we (well, L, if truth be told, for what he calls work) get/s invited somewhere exotic – a luxury resort, a spectacular yacht – from which we launch ourselves into a chilly Med. This year? Well, at the appropriate time it was raining, mostly.
So this year we made up for it with a night in Orbetello. It’s a funny place Orbetello: picturesquely perched on its strand of land poking out towards the presque-ile (is that the correct term?) of Argentario; workaday and lived in in some ways but very much a seaside holiday town in others; not sophisticated enough to be chic but quietly elegant in parts, interspersed with some reconstruction nightmares after heavy WW2 bombings.
We took our bikes with us and pedalled along to the Tombolo della Feniglia, riding through the reserve beneath umbrella pines to a white-sand beach littered with hippy-shelters cobbled together with white-bleached driftwood. The Feniglia was one of our summer daytrip venues through many years when we lived in Rome. During the week, it was acceptably empty though I suspect that those most inaccessible areas where even on high-season weekends we used to find unpeopled stretches are now heaving on summer Saturdays and Sundays. After weeks of rushing and stressing, some salt water and salt air was welcome.

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Homemade yogurt

In my latest battle in the war against single-use plastics, I have banned shop-bought yogurt. As I rarely eat yogurt (I really only like it with curry or baked potato, ie with savoury foods) this is very unfair on poor L who consumes litres of it weekly. I’ve never really seen the point of the flavoured kind, which has cloying amounts of sugar and ‘fruity’ flavours which rarely resemble fruit in any way.

To compensate, I’ve become very serious in my yogurt making.

Milk – 750ml
Plain yogurt – 3-4 tbsp

There’s no end of advice to be found about what milk to use for your yogurt. In my experience, almost anything will do. I use semi-skimmed fresh milk (1.55% fat content) from the supermarket and the end result is thick and creamy and just fine. Different types alter the consistency and the flavour slightly. Whatever you opt for, the fresher the milk, the better the end result.

More important, I think, is the culture that you start off with. You can begin your yogurt-making career with powdered cultures bought in speciality shops, but this is, in my opinion, an unnecessary gimmick. What you really need is plain yogurt, and to get the culture ball rolling it pays to get a really good one. I started my process with a few tablespoonfuls of excellent cow- and sheep-milk yogurt from Pianporcino in the Val d’Orcia. Of course you can’t gauge from labelling just how many active helpful, milk-thickening, live active bacteria are swirling about in any given yogurt pot but you can bet that the food-industry giants skimp on those like they do on anything that is truly natural and beneficial.

As soon as you’ve made your first successful batch, remember to hold back a little of your yogurt to get the next one going.

Lastly, you need something to make your yogurt in. You can buy dedicated yogurt-making equipment but again – it’s not at all necessary. A glass jar, a towel and a shelf in a warm airing cupboard will do. I’ve opted for a vacuum flask – not the kind for drinks but the kind you can carry hot food about in. Mine holds 3/4 litre of liquid, hence the quantities given above. The important thing is that you create the conditions to keep the fermenting yogurt warm for six hours or more, to give the bacteria time to do their thing.

Heat the milk slowly, preferably in a fairly wide, heavy-bottomed saucepan, until bubbles start forming around the edge. At this point it’s pretty hot but not boiling, and you’ve killed some of the not-so-good bacteria that might fight off the thickening bacteria that you’re about to add (thermometre-obsessives will tell you this is about 82°C.) Then leave it to cool down, until you can rest your little finger in it without feeling scorched (about 45°C).

(My instructions now presume that you’re using a vacuum flask like me. You’ll need to adapt if you’re opting for some other method.)

Remove any skin that may have formed on the warm milk, then ladle out a small amount into the container and beat the starter yogurt into it. Add the rest of the milk and mix it all well. Close the lid, set the flask aside and don’t peek again for another six hours at least. Overnight or 12 hours is better. If conditions are right, the longer you leave it, the more of a bite the yogurt will have.

You should now have beautifully set, creamy yogurt which you can flavour with jam, honey, fresh or cooked fruit… anything really. You can keep your yogurt in the fridge for a week or more, though if you’re using a thermos you’ll need to pour it into another container before transferring it or it may not get cold enough to block the fermentation process properly.

For thicker Greek-style yogurt, line a sieve with a piece of cheesecloth or muslin, pour your fresh yogurt into it and leave it to strain: the longer you leave it, the thicker it will become. (The whey that drips out is rich in proteins and vitamins but low in fat – great for baking and very good, some say, for your skin and hair.)

Now that you have your own yogurt to use as a culture, you’ll need to save a few tablespoons to get your next batch going, so don’t be tempted to eat the lot. Tales of yogurt cultures handed down through generations abound. I’m told that you can freeze yogurt for emergencies (such as some uninformed person polishing off the whole jar while you’re not looking), and unfreeze it to get your culture going again. I have squireled a small pot away in the back of the freezer but have yet to test the theory.



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