12 December 2021

As Christmas bears down on us there’s a sense of things condensing, overlapping and getting completely out of hand. 

We’ve already had our first respectable dump of snow (snow? in November?!) The splendid leaves of this magnificent autumn are clinging on gamely: it was disorientating seeing snow blanketing russets and ochres rather than balancing along the bare branches of our predominantly deciduous natives. Driving along the Pievaiola towards Perugia on that snowy Monday morning, white powder fell from great amber oaks forming an arch across the road. So very beautiful.

Even unseasonable snow and the endless dripping damp of November (we were only not-quite-back to our monthly rain average finally, but it felt like a veritable deluge after so many dry months) were preferable to the quick trip to the UK which we inserted mid-month. My last trip there was in December 2018. I can’t say I was missing it. Neither am I in a rush to return… ever.

Autumn shades were lingering prettily in Chichester too – and here ends my positive take on the country. 

A shift back in the general direction of caution has been ordered from the top now, apparently, but when we were there – in West Sussex, with one of the country’s worst daily case rates – the whole town was a heaving mass of unmasked people piling, coughing, into shops and public spaces of all kinds. 

There seemed to be no awareness – or no desire to give any thought to – the fact that the pandemic hasn’t gone away, nor any kind of consideration for general well-being. How I longed for the taken-for-granted common sense of my Umbrian town! I spent a week with my FFP3 mask firmly on; but even this didn’t quell my mounting terror that I might catch something and not be allowed on the plane home. My negative pre-flight test result was sheer elation.

Apart from the general lack of any care for the commonweal, other English oddnesses struck me – the disengaged, infrequent visitor and not-so-objective observer. 

The food shops, to begin with. We paid an initial visit to a huge supermarket on the edge of town, which was recognisable and relatable to, as a place to go to buy stuff for the preparation of meals. Yes – as reported in the press – there really were big gaps on the fresh food shelves during our late-afternoon shop: plenty of onions and carrots and those veg which could, possibly, be grown in the UK but a distinct lack of many more ‘exotic’ greens. 

In the city-centre supermarkets, on the other hand, what was on the shelves was as baffling as it was uninviting. There was a distinct lack of ingredients – plenty of “food”, little raw material. The quantity of ultra-processed, oven-ready everything was shocking. 

I’ve mused on this before (“eat proper food” being my favourite mantra). 

The chart I reproduced in that post is from a 2018 report. It lamented the fact that ultra-processed food had climbed above 50 percent of everything consumed in the UK. Take a look around any smallish city-centre store in that neck of the woods and you might wonder what they use to produce the almost 50 percent of non-processed food: there’s not a lot of the genuine thing.  

Next up: business models. I went into Boots to buy some foundation. “It’s three items for the price of two,” says the very kind, very over-made-up girl serving me. Why not? I select a couple of lipsticks but as I’m examining the colours she creeps up on me and shoves a ‘£10 off’ voucher into my hand. “Use this too,” she says, encouragingly. Great.

So I have one item that I really wanted which cost (I’m ad-libbing here: I can’t remember the prices) £10 and another two which I kind-of wanted which also each cost £10. All of which together cost… £10. Brilliant. But what am I to think? That the ‘real’ prices are simply a rip-off? That everything should be reduced by two-thirds so that they can save on the cost of printing ‘3 for the price of 2’ posters and ‘£10 off!’ leaflets? Or do they want me to feel in their debt somehow, eternally coming back to enjoy their largesse while actually giving them quite a bit of my money? I just don’t get it.

I feel safer with my simpler, less generous but more straightforward Italian retail arrangement. I remember being… disturbed? amused? by the relationship between vendors and purchasers when we first moved to Rome in the early 1980s. The power still lay firmly in the hands of the shopkeeper. You had the distinct feeling that the days when the grocer agreeing – or not – to a credit arrangement meant the difference between the family eating or starving were not nearly long enough ago for comfort. The shopkeeper called the shots; you kept your head down and accepted the conditions.

It has changed of course. Chains have replaced the individual corner shop, and competition between them gives the purchaser the upper hand. In that, Italy is no different from the rest of the developed world. But with variations. Italy is so (mercifully) atrocious at international-impersonal. Little supermarkets in small towns like ours tend to be family-run franchises of major national labels, managed by locals. Even at the Lidl down in the valley, shoppers greet the people on the cash desks by name. Fresh foods and the lower end of processing (pasta, coffee, bottled pulses) are everywhere; ready meals are banished to dark corners.

Other UK oddities? It struck me that the same kind of people who will stare resolutely at their shoes, ignoring your existence as they walk through town parks will greet you openly as they stride past you on a country footpath. Why? 

That same urban recalcitrance seemed to have gripped the man in a Chichester market stall selling a range of fat olives from big vats. He grunted when I stopped at his stall to examine the goods, and was clearly not about to offer any assistance. Can I mix them? I asked, switching to Italian. No surprise, no inquisitiveness – but the bolshy uncommunicativeness gave way to all the description I needed in some kind of southern Italian accent, the perfect clipped but informative Italian shopkeeper. 

There are various household items which have never worked for us – destined to fail from the word go. Salt was long a problem: every grinder we had swiftly rusted; every salt cellar silted up irrevocably. Now we’ve resorted to a big, canteen-style tin one. It seems ­– fingers crossed – to work.

Dishwashers, on the other hand, are a never-ending saga which shows no sign of ending. I’ve lost count of how many dishwashers we’ve had since we moved in here: five? six? Boh. It might be because they seize up due to under-use: more often than not, when there are just two of us (and there usually are), we wash up by hand. 

But all this is immaterial. What I really wanted to say was: when did repair men lose touch with spanners? In my most recent attempt to rescue the dishwasher, which was groaning to a halt about a quarter through the cycle, two men of few words turned up, pulled the machine out of its nook into the middle of the kitchen floor and stood looking at it. I described what it did and didn’t do. They shuffled about, one of them poking it a little.

They suggested pouring a barrage of toxic chemicals through it, at intervals. They had the chemicals in their van: they were expensive but they might do the trick. But that will destroy the delicate equilibrium in my perfectly balanced septic tank, right? I asked them. Yes, they agreed. Then no, I said. What now?

They wiggled assorted pipes in lacksadaisical fashion and advised running it empty a few times. Great. And that will be €50 please. Fine. They left and I began running the dishwater. A long slow snake of water made its way across the floor from beneath. Out of the frying pan. 

Thinking about the €50 tecnici it occurred to me: no tool bags, no tools. Clearly no intention of actually getting their hands dirty repairing the machine. 

There are fields where I revel in Italy’s wealth of craftsmen standing by to resolve any problem: the smiths and plumbers and artisan builders who’ll stick things back together for you at the drop of a hat. The moment anything approaching hi-tech is involved, forget it. My pre-call-out detaching of pipes and blowing down them was far more technical than anything those men did.

There’s nothing technical about a tecnico any more: he’ll sell you stuff; sometimes (but not this time) he’ll try to connect the machine’s motherboard to HQ for diagnosis which works solely on a cellphone signal which of course we don’t have in our secluded valley; or he’ll make wild theoretical stabs at things which might do something… anything. But he won’t, ever, unscrew bits and try to see what’s wrong.

Discarding and replacing is so massively taken for granted in our modern lives, it drives me to distraction. I’m going to start waving my flag for the Right to Repair movement. Fancy actually having to fight for the right not to have to chuck your electrical or electronic goods the moment they’re a trifle ropey. The EU is planning to put an end to built-in-obsolescence on its statute books some time next year. But will a generation of tecnici with spanners come to our aid?

This morning I had my third Covid jab. The latest omicron variant is pushing numbers up in Italy… though even as this country bursts through the 20K new cases a day barrier we can still smugly observe the UK with its almost-60K burden. (Fingers crossed that I don’t have to eat my words any time soon.)

The rules have been tightened slightly: interiors of bars and restaurants are only open to those who have been jabbed – repeat testing is no longer good enough. At the Caffè Matucci the other morning a woman ordering at the counter was complaining loudly about not being able to sit inside. “She does it every day,” the girl behind the bar told me. “She just wants to make a point. Then she sits outside.”

At some point, though, someone’s going to have to redefine ‘outside’. I mean, the thigh-height Corten planters defining the Matucci’s  ‘dehors‘ now have head-height perspex screens extending upwards. Huge white umbrellas cover the whole area and patio burners keep everything warm. For the latest in comfort, I see they’ve soldered a door to the planters on either side of the entry-gap. With icy winds and temps rarely going into double figures, it makes the outside more amenable to those unable or unwilling to go inside. But at what point does it stop being ‘outside’?

And moreover, how serious is this winter wave going to be? I asked myself this question as I gaily dismissed yet another request for a Pieve Suites New Year booking this afternoon. I’m completely full from 30th to 5th: it feels like old times. But… will regions be closed down if the situation gets out of hand? Will the bevvy of children who form part of the second party of guests fall prey to the contagion which is ripping through the youngest demographics? Will this bounce-back turn out to be a damp squib? We don’t plan these days, we dream.

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?