9 April 2022

Finally we’ve had some rain. My March total went up to just below 50mm (all but 0.5mm in the final few days), since when a further 32mm has fallen. It doesn’t make up for our desperate shortfall of course, but save for a brief hail battering and a tiny bit of silly unseasonal snow, it has all been ‘good’ rain – the kind that falls gently and steadily, and soaks in.

The evening before the first drenching I hauled a shovel and a rake up to the culvert at the top of our dirt track, near Maria’s ex-agriturismo. The culvert passes beneath the road at the base of a steep, unkempt bank where leaves, branches and – at dry times of year – topsoil tumble down into the channel leading to the culvert, blocking the channel and the pipe at the point where it disappears beneath the road.

Various men passed by as I dug and raked. Some were in a hurry. Others stopped. The dog-walking man (the one that Maria, a tiny, wiry chain-smoking contadina who’s a mean tractor driver and olive pruner and has never not worked a day in her life calls a scansafatiche – a slacker – living off his wife) let his dog run ahead and positioned himself beneath the cypress tree, ready to exchange pleasantries.

“That’s quite a job you’re doing. Where are the menfolk?”

“If I waited for a man to do it,” I told him, “we risk being washed away down the valle di Tre Mulini.”

Hahaha. He found that very amusing.

“Well, you women! (chuckle chuckle chuckle) You wanted equality (chuckle). Now you have to work like we do (guffaw).”

He clearly didn’t realise how thin the ice was beneath his feet. I stopped raking, drew myself up to my full height (which is rather more than his) and gave him my hardest stare. “You really believe that women haven’t always done the hard work? (Long silence) You don’t think that throughout history, it’s been women who get things done.”

His chuckle turned to an embarrassed titter and I returned to my work. At which point he obviously thought he’d better make up for things by giving me some unsought advice. Man gotta ‘splain I guess, but this really was the pits.

“I don’t know whether it’ll do any good though, the way you’re doing it,” he commented, delving deep into his culvert-clearing know-how. “Look, the road slopes down towards the channel. When it rains, all those leaves will just go back in.”

I stopped, gave him what I hope was my most withering look. I mean, you’d have to be blind not to have noticed. I pointed to the stretch of track further down where the dug-out leaves and earth had been raked well away, into the field on the opposite side. “Yeah yeah,” I said wearily, “I managed to work that out.”

At which point, conveniently, he noticed that the dog had scampered off and followed in its tracks. I wasn’t entirely sorry to see him go.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of our Trattoria da Serenella – the wonderful, unchanging town canteen – CdP’s essential FB page interviewed the indefatigable Serenella who looks exactly the same as she did when we first set foot in the place c.2001. When she sold her wrinkles to the devil, she obviously persuaded him to throw in a slick tongue for good measure. She is the most astounding interviewee, a smooth talker with no hesitation and a surefire grasp of what her audience wants to hear. When I bumped into her in the street some days later and said that the only problem was the interviewer who kept interrupting her she said, coolly, “yes, everyone tells me the same thing.”

Before her mother and aunt persuaded her to take the space where she has been cooking up motherly stuff to hungry multitudes for 50 years, she worked, she said, at the maglificio (sweater factory). And here begins a completely different train of thought.

I’d known forever that there was a wool factory in CdP but it wasn’t until just before last Christmas that I finally rang the bell and went in to explore. While the lovely lady in the corner where they sell the few things that aren’t made for large fashion houses tried to persuade me that no! of course I didn’t want to give her lots of money for that cashmere sweater there when I could have this very slight second over here for less than half the price (that’s pievese salesmanship…) I was transfixed by the skeins of all colours and the gleaming machinery – much of it, however, sitting idle.

The maglificio has been going through generations, and used to employ dozens of people, including – more than half a century ago – our Serenella. Nowadays it’s manned by a handful of family members, labour requirements decimated by automation but also, at the current time, by difficulties in securing materials and/or orders. It’s limping, which is tragic.

But why, I wonder – L mused when we were discussing all this – is there such a big textile sector in Umbria? To which my response was “is there?” and then… “oh yes, I’d never really given it much thought.”

Much research later and I still don’t know the answer to the question “why?”, in the sense of “why here?” But I’ve certainly confirmed that there is, and that it’s been going on since the 12th century, with a bit of a hiatus between the 16-19th for reasons which remain unclear. Who knew? Francis of Assisi, everybody’s favourite Umbrian saint, famously came from a textile-producing family which presumably wasn’t too pleased when he threw off his fine garb and renounced wordly goods and pleasures.

Wool, lace, cashmere, embroidery, tapestry, linen. Big names like Brunello Cucinelli, Luisa Spagnoli, Ellesse (which is now British-owned but it’s still here) plus over 250 others, mostly hiring labour and churning out profits… at least up to 2019 which is the last year I can find data for. It’s amazing the things that go on around you without you even noticing.

Of all the things I turned up as I delved into Umbria’s textile and clothing sector, my very favourite has to be the Hemp (Cannabis) Museum in the brilliantly and fittingly named Sant’Anatolia di Narco. It’s way, way across the far side of Umbria, beyond Spoleto, but one day I will definitely venture over.

Talking of FB pages – which I was, quite far back – I was bemused the other day to receive a triumphalistic email from the Umbrian cell of the Ordine dei Giornalisti announcing that they now had – mirabule dictu! – a Facebook page. It was a long email, explaining what Facebook was, and what it was used for, and what could be done on this page, and what a fine means of expressing personal thoughts and opinions it was – and on and on for several thousand words. And then, lo and behold!, came another version of the same email, with corrections.

It wasn’t April 1. It wasn’t something out of The Onion (though it certainly read like it). I still can’t quite work it out.

Elderflower cordial (again)

It’s not the first time I’ve posted this recipe (here slightly tweaked, as always). It probably won’t be the last. Making elderflower cordial is an essential spring rite.

There are a few scents/tastes which for me encapsulate delicious old-fashioned-ness: medlar in jelly form, home-made rose water and elderflower as cordial. The hedgerows around our house in Umbria bulge with elderflower for a few weeks from mid-May. Transforming these abundant blooms into cordial which will infuse your whole summer with the taste of spring is ludicrously simple.

Elderflower corymbs – 25-30
Sugar – 1.5 kg
Lemons – 4 or 5
Water – 1.5 litres

Put the water in a saucepan and bring it to the boil.

Grate the rind (but not the pith) off the lemons which should be unwaxed and scrubbed well. Now cut them in half and squeeze them. 

It pays to gather your elderflowers as soon as they come out: the more recently they have opened, the sweeter they will be: as they age, they become slightly bitter. Unless you have picked your elderflowers from the side of a dusty road or they are full of insects, there’s no real need to wash them (I don’t, as a rule, bother). If you do wash them, pat them dry very gently on a clean tea towel. Over a bowl, rake the tines of a fork through the elderflower corymbs to pop the tiny flower heads off; alternative just pull them off the stems with your fingers. Add the lemon juice.

Put the sugar into a large mixing bowl, and pour the boiling water into it, stirring it until the sugar dissolves completely. Leave this syrup to stand until it cools to lukewarm. 

As you wait, you can ponder the conundrum of preservation. Many people will tell you that you need to add about 75 g of citric or tartaric acid now (these will make the end result tarter) or even a Camden tablet which contains sulphur dioxide. I don’t. If I want it to taste sharper, I add another lemon (which does nothing towards preservation, admittedly). I bridle at the thought of sulphur being added to wine and I’m certainly not going to put it in my cordial.

When the syrup is cool, mix in the elderflower and lemon, stir the mixture, put a teatowel over the bowl and set it aside in a cool corner for 24-36 hours, stirring it occasionally. And that’s all there is to it. It’s best to keep the cordial in swing-top glass bottles with a rubber seal, which should be rinsed, then put in the oven at 150°C for 15 minutes or so to sterilise. Line a colander with a piece of muslin and ladle the cordial into this, through a funnel, into the hand-hot bottles. You should get 2.5 litres with these quantities.

For longer-lasting cordial, I used to put the resulting bottles in a big saucepan of water and boil them gently for 30 minutes, which is a perfectly good method. Now I save one-litre plastic milk bottles and scrub them out well under a hot tap, fill them with the cordial and keep them in the freezer. Strong plastic freezer bags do just as well. Remember though that it take a long long time for such a density of sugar to freeze: don’t put the cordial in anything that can leak while the freezing process is going on.

The cordial has a couple-of-weeks lifespan in the fridge once it has been defrosted and/or opened.

A dash of this in a glass of cold fizzy water is the most refreshing thing imaginable on a hot summer’s day.