And so it was that we climbed into bed at 6pm last night - we had tried to stay up as late as possible, but after having been awake for 27 hours, we just couldn't put it off any longer. I woke again at 10.30pm, 11.45pm, 2.30am, and then woke up properly at around 3.30am. I soon realised that Stuart was also awake, so we decided to try reading for a bit to see if that would help encourage sleep once again. I eventually nodded off again at around 4.30am, but poor Stuart stayed awake until gone 6.30am. Of course, by the time the clock ticked around to a respectable getting-up time, we could both have happily slept on. I got up at around 7.50am to feed the cats and put the first load of washing on, and Stuart slept on until 9.30am.
We both felt strangely detached and somewhat dazed and confused for most of the day. Despite having had such a long sleep, it was impossible to shake the fuzzy-headed feeling and we didn't really know what to do with ourselves.
We decided to take a trip to Montecatini to visit the large pet shop there to stock up on cat litter and cat food, before hitting Esselunga to re-stock our cupboards, so off we set in the car, Montecatini bound.
As we were driving along, it struck us both that it felt as if we had been away for longer than a week - some small and subtle changes have happened, such as the river banks near to the bins having been completely cut back and strimmed, the leaves on some of the trees having turned a fraction of a shade browner, the position of the sun in the sky having moved a degree lower and the length of the shadows having grown a smidgen longer, but in reality nothing has really changed. I think a week immersed in city-centre corporate-land had simply re-set our brains to a very different kind of normality, and our return to this beautiful piece of the world today was a bit of a journey of re-discovery!
Thankfully, we remembered to way to Montecatini without any problems, and after stocking up on some extra-large bags of cat litter and boxes of cat food, we were back on our way towards Pescia. More through luck than by judgement, we arrived at Esselunga at 12.50pm - the perfect time for supermarket shopping, when queues at the tills are virtually non-existent and the aisles are blissfully empty. This was particularly fortunate today, as we were both still in such a daze that we struggled to put together a sensible trolley-load of shopping - had we been faced with people getting in our way and blocking the aisles, I'm not sure what disparate array of items we would have left with (or whether we would even have made it as far as the tills before abandoning the expedition altogether).
By the time we arrived home, the sun was blazing hot, so up went the garden umbrella, and after unpacking the shopping I whizzed up a pot of home-made hummus and we ate in the shade of the umbrella, staring in wonderment at the view we have been missing for the last week and appreciating our wider vista, post oak tree cutting.
Once lunch had been cleared away, we turned our attention to chestnuts.
Our house sits amongst 12 acres of land, approximately 10 acres of which is woodland. The woodland is made up largely of sweet chestnut, as well as oak, pine, acacia (er.. and bramble...). Roughly 35-40% of the trees are chestnut. That means we have a lot of chestnuts - all over the drive, all over Goose Island and throughout the woods. We can hear them falling from the trees and in fact working on Goose Island in the week before we left for Seattle had become a bit of a game of Dodge-The-Falling-Chestnut.
We had collected a few of the fallen chestnuts over the last couple of weeks. I say 'a few', but in fact we'd filled a whole wicker basket (and that barely scratches the surface of what is still lying on the ground).
Keen to make use of our bounty, we'd spotted a recipe for chestnut liqueur in 'The River Cottage Booze Handbook', and had decided to give it a whirl.
We thus sat down to an afternoon of chestnut prepping: first removing the shiny brown nuts from their prickly cases (gloves definitely required!), then (after boiling the nuts for 10 minutes to soften the skins) painstakingly peeling off both the shiny outer skin and the thin inner layer.
|Chestnut liqueur Step 1.
Chestnuts are an important part of the heritage of this part of the world - chestnut trees are protected in this area (it's illegal to cut one down without having applied for (and having been granted) permission from the council), and you see many tiny little 'chestnut houses' dotted around the countryside, usually close to a larger farmhouse. The chestnut houses were used to dry the chestnuts before they were ground into chestnut flour - which was then used to make all sorts of food stuffs including pasta, cakes, pancakes and so more, all of which were important staples for the winter diet of those living in the mountains. Indeed, later in the month there is a chestnut festival being held in Vellano - to which we hope to pay a visit.
As we sat peeling the chestnuts, we realised that those mountain folk must have been very dedicated to their chestnut diets and have the patience of saints. Or maybe they only removed the outer skins, leaving the paper-thin inner skins intact. Either way, we both soon became significantly less enamoured with the romantic notion of peeling chestnuts in the sunshine, and we were soon looking at a discard rate of more than 50%. Not only was peeling off the thin inner coating incredibly fiddly and frustrating, but we opened up nut after nut to find that we had not been the first to reach them: chestnut weevils had already been in, laid their eggs, and the grubs were smugly snuggled up inside (although they were perhaps not quite so smug after having spent 10 minutes in boiling water...). We soon realised that we had made a rookie error in leaving it too long before picking the chestnuts up off the ground - and we have now learned (thanks to the wonders of Google) that picking them up soon after they have fallen can significantly reduce their rate of infestation by chestnut weevils. Next year we will know better!
Still, determined to finish what we had set out to achieve, we continued peeling chestnuts until the sun had dropped below the mountain opposite and the air had turned cool. We finally amassed the 325g of peeled chestnuts we required at around 6.30pm.
The rest of the recipe was a piece of cake (not literally): put the chestnuts in a Kilner jar, add 175g sugar, 700ml brandy, and shake. It will take a few weeks (and daily shaking) for the liqueur to infuse and mature, and we understand that it will need straining when it is ready - but we look forward to some wintry tastings (watch this space)!
Despite being fiddly and slightly on the frustrating side, the chestnut shelling and peeling was, in fact, just about the perfect activity for a jet lagged day - minimal brain power required, and the gorgeous warm September sunshine (I can't believe that it will be October tomorrow - it still feels like summer here!) as well as beautiful surroundings felt like balm for our completely baffled circadian rhythms.
The only other excitement for the day was a walk along the drive to the post box, during which I came across a red squirrel. Sadly, once again my camera was too quick to autofocus on the wrong thing (although had it been in manual mode I think I would have been too slow to focus it on the squirrel in any case!), but hopefully you get the general impression:
|No, REALLY. It's a squirrel...
On my return from the post box, Stuart revealed his own discovery: next to the car were some enormous mushrooms. These may or may not be porcini, but since the family mushroom experts (Mum and Dad) have been unable to say categorically (from photographic evidence alone) whether or not they were edible, we chose to play it safe and leave them out of our mushroom risotto for now:
|To eat, or not to eat? That is the question!
Before I leave this post for the day, I wanted to share with you the details of the beautiful belated birthday present Louise brought me last week. As well as being the perfect house-sitter and cat-sitter, the perfect guest blogger and an all-round lovely person and great friend, Louise is incredibly talented when it comes to all forms of craft and sewing. The stunning appliqued blanket she made for me (yes MADE for me) is detailed - and pictured - in her latest blog post 'Blanket three revealed'. Please read it - I've stolen a photo from it to show you here, but there are more detailed pictures of the beautiful blanket on her blog post. I highly recommend her blog for anyone interested in sewing, cooking, gardening - anything creative, really. She is an inspiration (and I am insanely jealous of her talent!).
|I was overwhelmed by this gorgeous, hand made gift.
I think Stuart and I are both hoping that our body clocks will be a little more in tune with Italian time tomorrow - and hopefully we will start to get back into a bit more of our usual routine. We have apartment guests arriving a week tomorrow, so there is plenty of tidying, cleaning and cutting to be done over the next few days!