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?

13 October 2020

I used to get furious at the boar who would root about in my grass cuttings pile and strew stuff all over the place. (I know: it’s a niche irritation, but it goes with our territory.) They’re definitely looking for insects to snack on in there. But I’m also pretty convinced that they spread it around and bed down in it: such a soft warm mulch of decaying biomass.

Recently though, I’ve decided to stop getting riled and started working with them instead. They create mayhem night after night; I let them enjoy themselves. They turn it over and over, pulling out the better rotted, insect-rich bits from the bottom of the heap and – I presume – they add their own bit of manure to what’s already pretty rich organic matter. Instead of doing the Sisyphean task of piling it all back up again and again, I now simply wait until they’ve worked their magic then transport the lot up to the vegetable garden or wherever it happens to be needed: perfectly turned, mixed, aerated compost, all ready to heave on to my beds. So, sorry boar if I’m depriving you of your compost playground but you know, it’s only fair: I cut the grass for you, you make the growing medium for me. Sounds like a good deal.

So far this autumn I have heard one shot and one tinkly hound (Umbrian hunting dogs wear bells around their necks). Basta. Usually by this time they’re driving me beserk every weekend of the pre-stagione. I think this is one of those rare Covid-silver-linings: a hunting season which is starting late. It could also have something to do with the fact that the band of gung-ho idiots who are usually allotted this particular area to hunt in are engaged in a legal wrangle after they broke some arcane hunting reg last season. Long may they be banned. It’s such a relief not to live amid hunting mayhem.

The boar themselves are somewhere between relaxed and brazen. Between one downpour and another I was doing a little tidying in the orto the other evening when I heard loud noises on the level below. I peered over. A huge beast was looking straight at me in a “so? you got something to say to me?” way. I suspect he was there because that’s where I hurl all the half-rotten apples that fall from the trees into my veggie beds: there’s a carpet of fruit. He stared at me, I stared at him. Then he sauntered off into the mass of brambly weeds below. “But only because I want to,” he seemed to be saying, “not because you made me.”

Summer was exceptionally fruitful; autumn is following suit. In some of the recent storms which have turned my clay-heavy soil to filthy glue, gusts have snapped off fruit-laden branches. I’m still picking bucket-loads of apples from trees which have rarely produced very much at all before. But now the next batch is ready too: the pomegranates and quinces, the medlars and the persimmons and oh-so-many walnuts. One unforeseen effect of last spring’s land-clearance is that the walnuts from the tall tall trees, the tips of which used to only just protrude from the jungle below, now fall in places where I can pass by and scoop them up, if I can beat the boar to them… and I have. 

My tomatoes are still going strong. My garlic was an usually measly crop. I tried planting in spring this year rather than autumn/winter. It didn’t work. It’s going into beds treated with boar/clippings compost in a couple of weeks, in raised strips to make sure it doesn’t rot. Why is it every year I have to turn to google to remind me how to make elegant garlic plaits? Every year I think I’ve bookmarked the perfect instructions; every year I find (a) that I haven’t and (b) that it takes forever to find anything that’s any help at all. This year I happened across this. The plaits seem to be holding together. 

I’m now watching my Crocus sativus in great anticipation. Last year a saffron-growing friend gave me six bulbs as a present. I stuck them in a fallow bit of vegetable garden and, hey presto, about enough saffron for one risotto for the two of us. Occasionally L laments the fact that we never took to saffron-production, a fine CdP tradition. This is ludicrous in a number of ways. 

Firstly, though the idea would have been his, it certainly would never have been ‘we’ who did the dirty work: in the long run (in fact, in the not-very-long-at-all run) garden things always fall to me. And secondly because saffron production is so labour-intensive and messy that it takes no time at all before you start wondering why saffron doesn’t cost more than its already-exhorbitant price. The bulbs have to be planted and lifted and replanted with extreme care at very definite times; the flowers have to be picked at dawn each day; stamens have to be extracted and dried over a flame of precisely the right temperature within a certain amount of time. Dull dull dull: no thanks. I like the kind of gardening where no harm is done if I forget everything for weeks. Tight timetables are anxiety-inducing. 

This year I lifted my six bulbs at a time when I needed the patch they were occupying for something else. Horror: too early. I got it all completely wrong. The six bulbs had grown and divided and magicked themselves into more than 20. Which naturally I forgot to put back into the ground at the right time; since when I’ve been watching anxiously for any sign of life. It would have been ignominious, going back to my friend to admit I’d killed off her gift. But no, they’re coming up: tiny little spikes are nosing their way out of the ground. Phew. Maybe this time we’ll get four or five risottos. That will be a luxury.

There’s so much going on around the place at the moment, so much of which I don’t go to – partly because I forget, but mainly because I almost always come away from things thinking “no, I didn’t like that: too many people in too small a space. If one of those people had the virus…”

It will get more difficult now that cold is driving us inside. Rising numbers of new cases – fewer than most European countries but still increasing – are proof of the risk. I see that one student at our local high school became CdP’s fourth positive today. How do you stop Covid spreading in a scenario like that?

One thing I really wish I had attended was this, a conference about our town’s historical archives, “one of the 15 best in Umbria” as the article keeps saying, making them sound less rather than more important if you ask me. I’ve heard about the notorial archives before. That they’re just a small part of the whole I didn’t realise. The contratto di concubinato (1456) in italics in the middle of that article is priceless. Bear with me while I translate.

In the presence of the notary Cola di Iacopo, the cobbler Giovanni and his son Tommaso promise that Tommaso will take Caterina di Germania as his concubine, giving her board and lodging. Should Tommaso have one or more children from her and should Tommaso’s wife die, or should the couple separate, Tommaso will marry Caterina and give her 40 florins as a dowry. Should Caterina not have children or should she no longer wish to stay with Tommaso, or should Tommaso no longer wish to keep her, then he will give her 20 florins, unless Caterina commits adultery with someone else. 

True, the odds are rather stacked in favour of Tommaso who, though he’s grown up enough to have a wife and a concubine, still needs to be accompanied by his Pa to sort this business out. But there’s also a reasonable lifestyle (board and lodging) and some redress (20-40 florins) for this woman who was probably a foreigner (di Germania) and perhaps without much protection. (Whether Wife N°1 feels a trifle miffed at the new arrangement is not something we’ll ever know.)

We tend to think of the writ of the Church being all-powerful in the Italian Middle Ages (with the Renaissance well on the way) yet here’s this utterly prosaic (presumably nothing out of the ordinary?) contract in which a cobbler’s son can have multiple partners with whom he is planning to have children. Will they be baptise-able? Of course the Catholic Church didn’t start strictly enforcing marriage as a sacrament under its sole dominion until the 16th century. And the same went for baptism which even now can be administered by anyone, not just a priest in a frilly frock. But that’s by the by: what’s great here is the image it paints of daily life in the 15th-century. It’s business like and sensible and delightfully shocking.