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. 

Quince compote

1025AOnce again, I’m overwhelmed by quinces. My one little tree is groaning under the weight. I’ve succeeded in giving a fair amount away, but am loathe to leave those that haven’t already gone into chutney, jelly and cotognata to rot on the tree. So I’ve been busy devising other uses. I love having a pot of this compote in the fridge, to eat a spoonful as fruit whenever I need a snack. But it’s good as an icecream topping or with a big dollop of plain yoghurt too: it’s very versatile.

Quinces – 8 large
Orange – 1
Lemon – 1
Sugar – 2 tbps

Scrub a large orange well and grate off the peel. Squeeze the juice from the orange and lemon and place it, and the grated peel, in a saucepan large enough to hold the quinces.

Now the arduous bit begins. Quinces are the hardest fruit: cutting them up will tone your arm muscles beautifully. Peel the fruit, cut it into quarters with the largest, sharpest knife you possess; then with a smaller but equally sharp knife, remove the core and cut the cleaned fruit into something between slices and chunks, straight into the orange and lemon juice. Stir the fruit from time to time to coat it with the citrus juice: this will stop it from going brown.

You can begin cooking the fruit over a lowish heat when you’ve cleaned about half of it, adding the rest to the saucepan as you go. Remember to stir the fruit from time to time: quince is quick to stick to the bottom. You’ll probably need to add some water as you cook; add it gradually and don’t make the mix too liquid.

It shouldn’t take too long for the fruit to go soft: maybe 20 minutes, depending on your quinces. When the pieces disintegrate if you push them against the side of the saucepan with a wooden spoon, add the sugar and continue cooking for a few minutes until it has dissolved. (I’ve said two tablespoons of sugar, but this is a matter of taste: you may prefer the fruit with none at all, or you may prefer it far sweeter.)

Off the heat, whizz the fruit to a smooth paste with a stick blender. The compote should stand in a peak, rather than ooze about, when you drop a lump on to a plate – then again it’s all a matter of taste and, of course, intended use. If it comes out runny, you can put the saucepan back on the heat and reduce it slowly to the required thickness but don’t forget: stir it constantly, otherwise you’ll find yourself with charred quince toffee.

©Anne Hanley, 2015