7 June 2022

There are days when you keep on learning surprising things. For example, a Ukrainian journalist asked to comment for the BBC World Service on her country’s football defeat at the hands of Wales noted that the beleaguered city of Donetsk was founded by the Welsh. That brought me up short as I chopped onions for dinner.

It’s not technically true, my research showed me. There was some kind of settlement quite a long time before John Hughes set up his coal mines and steel plant there in 1869. But this Welshman clearly made his mark because the place was rechristened Hughesovka (or Yuzovka, a Russian version thereof), a name that stuck until Soviet times.

That discovery followed hard on the heels of poison courgettes/zucchini. In an update on her micro vegetable production on her Athens terrace, C asked whether courgette plants which appeared spontaneously might be poisonous. I had no idea what she was talking about. At which point I discovered that the internet is full of people being amazed at the news that this very bland – but very versatile – veggie stalwart is far less dull than I thought.

It is possible, apparently, for very high levels of toxic cucurbitacin to accumulate in any member of the gourd family (courgettes but also cucumbers, melons, pumpkins etc) which has been accidentally cross-bred with a non-edible squash, and perhaps also in plants grown in severe-stress conditions. This toxin is thought to deter grazing animals from nibbling: it’s horribly bitter apparently, which is the sign to look out for if you’re starting to worry about what potential threats you may be raising in your vegetable garden beds.

Tales of ‘toxic squash syndrome’ abound: violent nausea, hair falling out, gastric upheavals, dizziness. There are rumours of fatalities, but I failed to find any hard and fast cases.

As for my poor zucchini seedlings for this year, they languished in my greenhouse, their little roots winding round and round and round the bottom of their tiny pots, for far longer than any plant deserves. Now that they’re in the ground, I creep up to the orto each evening to splosh extra water on them in a desperate attempt to assuage my guilt. As the season drags on I will no doubt find myself wondering why on earth they’re looking so lacklustre and producing such paltry fruit. Deep down, I know perfectly well.

With work building up in a very satisfying (but very time-consuming) fashion, I’m barely able to keep on top of my vegetable production, never mind the rest of my garden. My peas – planted too late – were such a disaster that I ripped them out, though the mangetouts are doing minimally better and so have been given a reprieve. In their fancy new growing medium the tomatoes are going crazy: if I don’t remove their laterals at least every second day, I have trouble making out which is the main vine and which offshoots are just going to mess up my neat rows.

At the risk of being very tedious indeed, I’m going to moan once again about the lack of rain. May: 7.6mm against my 2013-2021 average of 94mm. And yet and yet… when Giuseppe came round with his digger to tidy up the far end of the stream, and cut the grass on the banks, and fill in a large hole in the field (the result of his earlier work in which he dug a ditch, chucked unwanted vegetable matter in it and covered it over… knowing of course that as the biomass composted a depression would appear) and what have you, he too couldn’t quite reconcile the lack of rain with the unusually immense height of the grass in the fields. Giuseppe is the fount of all rural knowledge, so to see him nonplussed like this came as a shock.

Besides being dry, it is also hot. Like, very hot. When it doesn’t sail beyond 30° it hovers very little below it in the hottest hours of the day. In the first seven days of June 2021, daily maximum temps went from 24.3° to 28.5°; so far this June, on the other hand, we’ve ranged from 29.8° to 33.8°. And we – remember – are at just less than 500m above sea level: this is a nice cool area. It is truly worrying.

If I have to pinpoint a good thing about such heat so early in the season, it’s that we enjoy summer days but nights continue cool and the house really hasn’t heated up inside yet. The bad things – I mean, apart from the thought of the planet burning up – are manifold but one nags away at me particularly distressingly each time a darkish cloud moves across the sky. It’s difficult to imagine this hot&dry breaking in any way other than a cataclysmic storm, probably with hailstones the size of golf balls. In which case the rampant tomatoes and the swelling apricots would be mulched into the ground. When I’m not simply enjoying the glorious weather, I live in a state of dread.

We’re all out and all about and this return to things we always did naturally makes you notice things which before you took for granted. The mass academic-year-end shifting of school pupils of all ages and levels as they attend events and presentations and prize givings and whatnot in locations around town: I’m presuming that always went on though I can’t say I ever paid much attention before.

On one occasion I stepped off the pavement on corso Vannucci to make way for a long crocodile file of neatly-coiffed elementary school children, all in freshly pressed grembiuli (pinnies), all of them masked but clearly in festive mood nonetheless (yes: the two things are not mutually exclusive, even for 5/6/7 year olds). At the front of their line was a bright-eyed, dark-haired young teacher, urging on her charges with a smile while waving and greeting just about everyone who passed along the busy street.

Ma, come mai tutti la conoscono?” (How come everybody knows her?) gasped one little boy to his friend, clearly amazed that teachers have lives beyond the classroom. There was definitely a note of admiration in his voice.

A proposito di absolutely nothing, the third surprising thing I learnt in quick succession was the origin of the saying “living in cloud cuckoo land”. Am I the last mediumly well educated person in the world to discover that it comes from Aristophanes’ play The Birds? Νεφελοκοκκυγία – somehow that even looks cloud-cuckoo-like in Greek. Now I’ll have to read the crazy bird-brained play.

When the garden became a cinema…

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.