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.
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?