14 November 2021

The weather pattern over much of the past few weeks has been one we’d give our eye teeth for in summer: mornings and early afternoons which are (more or less) bright; then rain – mostly rather too light for the purposes of filling our depleted aquifers, but we’re not complaining – that doesn’t set in until darkness has fallen… which of course happens tragically early now that the clocks have changed.

It’s mostly warm and mostly muggy, and the autumn colours are quite quite dazzling. “Who needs New England?” a British client of mine enthused the other day as we surveyed the multi-hued woodlands beneath her house. It really is utterly lovely.

But all that is failing to deflect attention from the general state of the planet as Cop26 blunders to an end in Glasgow and we learn that this summer was Europe’s warmest ever … something that we kind of felt for ourselves. The idea of “we’d better hurry up and do something about this before it’s too late” is looking ludicrously naïve. And scary.

The result of this heat – and possibly of the dearth of rain – is a clear shift towards the tropical. We have a crop of feijoas aka pineapple guava (Acca sellowiana) the like of which we’ve never experienced before. Until now we’ve had no other fruit – not a single apple, pear or cherry – and the olive crop in these parts is disastrous this year… though all that was due more to the Great Freeze of last April which struck as flowers unfolded. Clearly, the feijoa was nowhere near producing flowers when that happened.

Actually now I look more closely at ideal growing conditions for the beautiful feijoa plant, I see that what we experienced last summer is not at all ideal. It likes dampness. I guess that makes sense: it’s from Brazil’s sweaty sub-tropical highlands rather than the dry savanah. Still, for whatever reason the crop on my short hedgerow of bushes this year is so immense that I’ve even had to branch out into jam… an interesting concoction which tastes like all the tropical fruits you can think of, mixed in together, with a strong overlay of banana. 

(I was about to launch into recollections of the huge feijoa trees growing in the odd straggly property where we stayed last July in Chiavari on the Ligurian riviera, with a link, of course, to that particular blog post. Except that very oddly for me, I find no such post was ever produced. I never described our stay in Chiavari and our brief gastronomic experience in chi-chi restaurants around the oh-so-pretty, oh-so-ghastly Portofino. In fact, last July seems to have been swallowed by the vortex of a daughter’s wedding. I really must have been very busy.) 

One other hot-climate fruit is currently remarkable: the pomegranates, which are huge and full of juice and dauntingly prolific. 

We pick them and remove the seeds. Our earliest attempts, in the years when our little tree first produced, were a crime scene, in that the walls ended up streaked with scarlet and the floor ran with garnet-coloured liquid. It took a while to work out that the top and bottom had to be carefully removed, and the central section of the fruit divided into easy-to-access wedges. Cutting means disaster: the secret is careful skin-scoring, around the extremes first, then from top to bottom, followed by deft pulling apart of the sections. Once you’ve mastered the perfect scoring depth, then you can flick the seeds out without creating a horror film set: very satisfying.

We freeze most of our pomegranate seeds, to be used throughout the winter in salads and fruit salad and anything that needs a flash of jewel-like brilliance. L is also a big fan of pomegranate juice – whether made with seeds straight from the fruit, or those out of the freezer. 

Put them in a tall container (a jug, for instance) and pulverize them with the stick blender, taking care of course not to send the damp, wholly indelible scarlet mass flying across your kitchen. Then strain the result through muslin, et voilà. Though it’s immensely good for you, with its antioxidants and fibre and cholesterol-beating qualities, I still can’t persuade myself that I like it in juice form. I need to work on that… and perhaps branch out into pomegranate jelly. As we grapple with our over-heating world, I for one am going to put the fruits of our tropical existence to good use.

Mid-week we tried to book at a local restaurant for Friday night. Not a single table. This is a large restaurant – popular, yes, but big enough that they can usually squeeze regulars in. Nothing doing. So we tried again for Saturday night. Same story. 

Well done southern Europe

With friends last night (around their dining table: we gave up the search for a restaurant in the end) we were trying to think of a single restaurant or shop in this area which went under during the last two bizarre years. Of course a global pandemic with associated economic upheaval has caused mayhem, but really… we struggled. Eventually I came up with one – a very strange trattoria squeezed between a shopping mall, a multiplex and a used car showroom across the Tuscan border in Chiusi. Plus the chain-store pizzeria up in town which always felt out of place here and looked destined to fail since well before Covid. 

The general feel – as I see it – is optimistic; the town is, more often than not, rather pleasantly packed. 

So it was satisfying to see that data for Umbria (sorry, Italian) confirms my rose-tinted vision. First-half regional GDP up 6%; year-end forecasts of earnings above 2019 levels for three-quarters of local businesses; house sales up 25.3% on 2019; a record-beating leap for the tourist sector from July onwards. (Data from Banca d’Italia.)

Moreover, Umbrians appear to be emerging from the pandemic (fingers firmly crossed) with more savings than they had when they went into it. We’re not talking billionaire making-an-obscene-killing-from-misfortune levels. But between end-2019 and end-2020, average per-resident bank deposits rose by 13% (a figure slightly skewed by the rush to take advantage of government grants for building works, money from which pops up in calculations of financial holdings) and households’ investment in the stock exchange soared 20.8%.

So how much of a nest egg did each pievese have at the end of 2020? A peek into accounts (again, Italian) in the town’s banks showed that the average deposit per resident is €23.9K, a rise of €2.5K on the previous year. Initial reaction: that’s what happens when you’re locked at home and have nowhere to spend your money. Followed swiftly by the question: have my fellow pievesi not noticed that there are any number of on-line opportunities for frittering your savings away from the comfort of your own home?

25 October 2021

We’ve been in Venice. I wouldn’t say the tourist situation was back to normal, numbers-wise. But it was a very far cry from our extraordinary, magical, empty-Venice experience of last February.

There were visitors a-plenty in the most obvious spots. But still the city had a crowded-not-crowded feel. One possible pointer as to what/who was missing occurred to me as we made our way back to the station at the end of our short stay.

Right by the Ferrovia vaporetto stops I spotted a lone selfie-stick seller, forlornly waving his fluorescent yellow utensil around. He was practically invisible. And it struck me: Venice, which in another, pre-Covid age was a bristling forest of threats to eyes and sanity was now selfie-stick-free. This was the first one I’d seen. Many demographics – mostly European, with a larger-than-usual percentage of Italians – have swarmed back to this unique place… where authorities, I suspect, have made very little use of Covid-enforced down time to reconsider over-crowding problems, and seem to be resigned to a return to the bad old days, give or take a shiny tourist spy centre of dubious use for anything other than to monitor the downwards trajectory.

I began asking myself: do selfie sticks define a certain (still missing) kind of tourism? Do they define particular vacationing nationalities which will need to return before La Serenissima returns to her full frantic chaos?

Covid restrictions mean: no Chinese, no Indians, no Middle Easterns – the entrance to the Grand Canal by the Giardinetti in particular, in my mind, is associated with beautiful, colourful Middle Eastern families snapping radiant groups with cellphones mounted on unfeasibly long protruberances. Now: no selfie sticks. Or perhaps it’s nothing to do with nationality, and they’ve simply gone out of fashion. Boh.

We were in Venice for the presentation of a new hotel. And we used the opportunity to catch this year’s architecture Biennale. I had read so many “meh” reviews of this year’s event that I was surprised by quite how much there was of interest: not a superlative year but I enjoyed it for one long afternoon and another long morning. That said, just ambling around the glorious spaces of the Arsenale and the Giardini doll-house pavilions brings me such joy that what’s inside is always slightly secondary.

Present for the hotel presentation were old friends from our Rome days, friends we hadn’t seen for a ridiculous number of years. Picking up where you left off with people – if the occasion feels pretty seamless, and this one did – is always satisfying. She immediately mentioned the odd serendipity that her Canadian sister-in-law’s sister had just bought a house in CdP. Photos were produced – slightly unfocussed snaps presented to a slightly unfocussed me, who took a while to realise: I was looking at my own street, by which I mean Borgo di Giano where my Pieve Suites is located.

Back home, I mentioned this to the beautician with a shop two doors down from me, expressing my surprise because I hadn’t even realised that that house – owned by someone I know – was for sale. She looked at me incredulously.

“Haven’t you heard?” she said. It’s the talk of the street. Where has my gossip radar gone? I’m always on top of things. But this time, everyone seemed to know except me. “It was bought on line by some crazy foreigner who never even came to look at it!” 

I related this tale to a pievese friend whose daughter works for a big estate agent, one that deals to a large degree with in-coming wealthy foreigners. The numbers of north Americans buying in this area has sky-rocketed, it seems. The technology for waltzing prospective buyers around possible purchases has been refined (another one of those Covid advances?) to the point where there’s little difference between viewing from your Canadian living room and visiting the place in person. Or so the argument goes…

I have to say that before I made such a major investment I’d want to experience the place first hand. But that’s just me.

As it becomes easier for Americans travel to EU countries, Italy included, the momentum is slowly building. Even my little Pieve Suites will host a couple of house-hunting Californians in November. 

Two years of hankering for Europe from across the Atlantic is obviously having a salutory effect on the Italian real estate market, with bel paese-loving hordes seeking to stake a claim here, just in case things go pear-shaped again. 

We’ve had a bit of rain – not enough to compensate for our summer of drought – and some cold drear days and there really is no way I can go on trying to kid myself that summer is still here. There’s no rhyme or reason to autumn colours in this neck of the woods. In town, the golden foliage of horse chestnuts and lime trees is falling already. Up by our gates the mulberry trees – usually the first to turn startling yellow and detach themselves – are mostly still green and clinging on.

It’s a confusing time of a confusing year. One day early last week I started – rather reluctantly and under familial pressure, granted – to give a blast of heating in the house morning and evening. The temperature in the bedroom had, after all, hit 15°C. Today, with the overkill heating firmly off again, and after days of tepid temps and drizzle, it’s nearer 20° in there, quite inexplicably. I don’t understand how that happened.

There are days of needle-sharp sunlight where the wind knocks you off your feet, and days of grey soul-sapping drizzle where it’s so muggily warm that any rain gear turns into a perambulating sauna. Then again – perhaps that’s just what our autumns are like these days: more capricious than spring.

Down at my laundry in Chiusi Scalo, Pino who keeps my Pieve Suites sheets and towels clean asked me slightly hesitantly the other evening “does this laundry perfume your suites?” A moment’s hesitation (I didn’t want to hurt his feelings) and I answered “yes – perhaps even too much.”

Is it just an Italian thing, this idea that traditional precedents have to be followed, even in the most banal sectors, and if you step out of line then you’re really very odd? Or is being fanatical stick-in-the-muds a global thing? In Italy, clean washing is highly perfumed. That’s it. There is no alternative. You can’t just go into any supermarket and find unperfumed washing liquid. Washing is perfumed – basta. (I have the same problem with unperfumed deodorant: every now and then some company brings one out but it collects dust on shelves for a few months, bought only by me, then is discontinued.)

But… in for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. 

Look, I told Pino, I might be odd (to which, funnily enough, he replied with a very serious “yes”) but I have real problems with artificial, industrial perfumes: some make me quite nauseous. I really don’t understand why things need to smell to prove that they’re clean.

“People are saying that to me more and more,” he admitted. “I’d never really thought of it before.”

So great, I said, let’s experiment. We agreed that the really smelly stuff isn’t going into the washing machine next time. My towels may be a fraction less soft, I’ve been warned. It’s a small price to pay. It’s interesting to see, though, that a change and a concept which until incredibly recently would not even be up for discussion with someone who was so heavily invested in maintaining the smelly washing status quo is now something to be debated – even experimented around. Next thing you know, I’ll be able to persuade him to stop swathing my clean laundry in copious single-use plastic wrapping, and actually get him to use the dedicated carrier bags which I’ve tried time and again, unsuccessfully, to foist on him.

Change will, I’m sure, come… piano piano.