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…


6 September 2015


The odd thing about the tail end of this longest hottest summer on record is that it looks like spring. We’ve had just enough pounding downpours – here, thankfully, without a side dish of hail – to keep roots unseasonably happy. My unirrigated so-called lawn – generally a sad dust bowl at this point – is juicy green; the perovskia is still superb; the Rosa Felicia has suddenly burst out into bloom as if it thinks it’s May, not September.

The fruit is in that grey area between bonanza and headache.

0906F0906EWe’ve eaten huge quantities of sweet, snappy gala apples from the big tree, but the birds and bees are now working hard at what’s left. The cookers on the renetta (Canada pippin) and the limoncella (if that’s what it really is: it was sold to me as such but in fact bears little resemblance to that ancient variety) are less successful and more insect-ridden which if nothing else gives me an excuse to do nothing with them.

I couldn’t think what to do with all the wonderful aromatic uva fragola grape (Vitis labrusca – a north American native, I have just learned, and possibly responsible for bringing the phylloxera bug to Europe… and there was I, convinced that it was a muscat). I was given huge amounts by friends last year and proceeded to make a jelly, most of which is still sitting on the larder shelves. I have turned some of this year’s crop into sorbet but how much sorbet can we eat now that the flood of summer guests has receded? Some I picked and put through the centrifuge and drank: very labour intensive, if only because my old centrifuge is a complicated beast to wash up. Mind you, the solution I went for wasn’t much better***. Now we have cloudy and just slightly lumpy grape juice to consume whenever.

The peaches are growing. And growing. And growing. They’re huge but still hard, and though I keep thinning them out to help the poor old trees, they are pulling branches so far down that I shudder each time I pass, terrified that another of the long spreading branches might have cracked off under the weight. These too will go into jars, bottled according to my making-life-as-easy-as-possible method (works just as well for peaches as apricots). But they still need to be peeled and sliced: the preparation is endless and infinitely dull, and with summer still playing out outside, it’s difficult to make it seem worthwhile by summoning up that joyous feeling of breaking open a jar and smelling warm sunshine when winter’s got a grip on everything else.

What I still don’t have, most peculiarly, is passata. This is becoming worrying now: what am I going to do if my recalcitrant tomatoes really don’t do what they should? There’s quite a bit of fruit on the plants but it’s mostly green. And it has been that way all summer: by now I should have 30-odd half-litre jars sitting in the larder to keep us supplied all through the winter. To date I have… one. (There were two, but one precious jar I gave to C.) Only one time through the whole summer did the number of tomatoes that ripened outnumber the (modest) number of tomatoes we needed for salads. This is just plain weird. And rather worrying because I refuse to buy the tasteless things you find in the shops. We will end up having a very tomato-less winter.


As the weeds grow and the produce piles up, what have I been doing? Restoring chairs. The comfortable old chairs that L bought so long ago from a junk shop – their metal frames painted chipping dark red and dark green and some still with little slips of paper bearing the seat numbers of the old outdoor theatre or cinema to which they belonged glued to the back – reached the end of their useful life in that form some time ago. This was partly due to neglect, and leaving them out in the elements year round. But it was partly due to age too: many of the wooden slats were bits of any old wood, of any size and thickness, screwed in place over the years in a very approximative fashion when one of the original pieces gave out.

So they have now taken on a new lease of life in a painstaking and painfully slow process which was left (as often happens) to me. There are ten chairs; each has 11 wooden slats on the backrest and 11 wooden slats on the seat; on these latter, the end two had to be individually shaped because the metal frames all curve at different angles. Each slat had to have its splintery edges sanded off and be given a coat of sealant (these new ones are beautiful hard oak, and it would be a crime to colour them). It was fiddly and long-winded and quite frankly the whole thing bored me to tears.

The end result, though, is worth it. We opted for a startling acqua-blue-green of fairground intensity. Each time I look over towards the barbeque area where they’re sitting and catch a glimpse of the freshly painted frames, it makes my heart sing. Next up, the table. And then of course a smart re-landscaping of the whole barbeque area which this summer we have used… not a single time.

*** First I put the grapes in one large saucepan and added sufficient water to almost cover them. Then I poured off that water into another large saucepan and brought it to the boil. At that point, I plunged the grapes into the water, brought it all back to the boil, then turned off the heat and went at it with a stick blender. I was too lazy to strain this through my jelly bag, which would of course have given me a lovely clear juice. I couldn’t even be bothered to locate a piece of muslin. I simply strained it through a fine sieve into sterilised bottles, screwed the lids on tight, placed them in a big pot and boiled it for sufficiently long to pasteurise the lot. For clearer instructions about this process, see here.