Tuesday 30 September 2014

Jet lag and chestnuts

Jet lag is a funny thing. You can go to bed, exhausted, and wake up just a few hours later - still feeling exhausted, yet wide awake, feeling hungry despite it being the middle of the night, and wondering why on earth sleep is so elusive when you were struggling to keep your eyelids open just hours earlier.

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!

Monday 29 September 2014

Home at last!!

20 hours after leaving our hotel room in Seattle, we are home at last!! The cats were pleased to see us (well, pleased to be let out of the house and pleased to be given some food at least), but not anywhere near as pleased as we were to see them and to be back at home.

The house is immaculately clean and tidy thanks to our fantastic house guests, and there's even a loaf of bread for us.

Turns out it is still summer here - in the high 20s C (far too hot for the clothes we have been travelling in, making the last part of the journey quite uncomfortable), with brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies. What a welcome home!

Enormous thanks to Louise for filling in on the blog while we were away - it has been a real treat to read our blog from the "other" side! And even bigger thanks to both Louise and Dan for holding the fort, keeping the cats fed, the plants watered and the house lived-in. (Thanks also to Sue for filling in over the last couple of days!)

For now, bed calls - let's see how long it takes to shake the jet lag this end!

Pleased to see us? Or just pleased to have their bowls filled?

Yes, the view is still here!

Look at the colour of the sky. What a welcome home!

Friday 26 September 2014

Siesta time!

We still don't seem to have got the Italian siesta sussed. Helen and Stuart did warn us that most places close for a very long lunch but it has caught us out on most days this week and today was no exception. We were determined to go out for lunch and headed to Montecetini Terme in order to catch the funicular up to Montecetini Alto where we knew there was a piazza full of restaurants. Unfortunately we arrived just after the last funicular of the morning had left for the top of the hill and the staff were downing tools for an hour and a half for their own lunch.

However, the weather was hot and sunny and there looked to be a lovely park opposite the funicular station so we set about finding the entrance. It turned out to be the park containing most of the very exclusive spa resorts that Montecetini Terme is famous for. I believe that you can buy a day pass that will let you in to all the spas but that's not what we were there for so we amused ourselves nosing around the entrances.

Montecetini Alto in the distance

Believe it or not, this is a tennis club

See - told you!

After a stop for a drink in a local cafe (much more within our price range!) we took a short stroll around the surrounding streets which seemed to be full of very smart hotels and rather wealthy American and German tourists. It was with a group of the former that we ended up sharing the funicular up the hill.

We chose to sit outside the carriage and so had fantastic views of the town below as well as the rest of the valley - which I believe was known as Fog Valley and a major travel intersection in Roman times, which made Montecetini Alto a very important fort and town.

On our way up

Whilst others are going down

Still climbing

Nearly there 

And we've arrived!

The town sits on an M-shaped hill which can be seen from miles around and is really very charming. It must have a tiny population, reliant on tourists but it is very peaceful and a perfect setting for what ended up as a very late but delicious lunch. We explored the surrounding streets, which were almost deserted, before catching the funicular down at about 5pm.

The main piazza in Montecetini Alto

The deserted streets

The clock tower

The view whilst waiting for the funicular back down

We are now preparing to hand the house back to its rightful owners - the plants are watered and the cats fed. It will be really sad to say goodbye to our mini-foray into Tuscan life but a real treat to have been here. I hope it won't be too long before we are back again!

Thursday 25 September 2014

A visitor and a visit

We awoke relatively early this morning and couldn't resist catching up on last night's episode of The Great British Bake Off. It was therefore mid morning when I was getting properly up and dressed. The bathroom window is covered by what I can best describe as a louvred vent and has bobbled glass so it's impossible to see out of. However, it's the only window that faces the driveway and parking area and I thought I heard a car. I called out to Dan to ask if he'd heard anything but he hadn't. I then thought I heard someone say 'hello' but Dan said it was the radio. It wasn't until we both heard a car horn that Dan went out to investigate, swiftly returning to say that the Police had arrived.

If you are a regular reader, you may not be too alarmed to hear of our visitor since Helen and Stuart have been expecting such a call as part of their application for residency. We had therefore been left with a letter to hand over should this occasion arise. As soon as the officer realised we spoke no Italian we communicated briefly via smiles (us) and nods (him). He seemed happy with the letter we handed over and was soon on his way. Hopefully this means Helen and Stuart are one step closer to full residency!

After our visitor had left we decided to make a visit of our own - to Bagni di Lucca. This spa town to the north west of here hit its heyday in the 19th century. Not only did people flock here to take the thermal waters but it was also the site of the first licenced casino in Europe. It would seem that the town was so popular with the British that they built an Anglican church and some of the local walks are named after the more notable residents.

The Anglican Church

Sadly, the much-recommended local restaurant was closed so we settled for a coffee and pastry in the cafe opposite alongside the local seniors who were engrossed in various games of cards.

The closed restaurant

Next stop was a feat of medieval engineering, the Ponte di Maddalena, also known as the Devil's Bridge. Apparently, the engineer was behind schedule and was getting pretty stressed-out by the project when he was visited by the devil who offered to make a pact. The devil promised to finish the bridge overnight in return for the soul of the first person to cross. The devil lifted the main span with his pitchfork and the bridge was complete. However, the next day the engineer confessed all to the local priest and the villagers sent a pig (or a dog, depending on which version of the story you read) over the bridge first.

It's a very striking bridge with a steep crossing and a handy parking spot so we stopped to take a look from both sides (although I made sure Dan reached the other side a few steps ahead if me, just in case!)

Since we'd missed lunch we decided to head home and pick up something to eat on route. With Dan at the wheel and me armed with our trusty road atlas Dan requested the 'most exciting route' so I picked out a tiny white road over the hill and down the valley which seems to run parallel to the one in which Helen and Stuart live. I'll admit to a bit of a false start but we were soon climbing up and through a wonderful wooded valley. The trees are beginning to hint at changing to their autumn colours and I imagine in a few weeks' time they will look simply stunning!

We were back at the house in time for a quick drink on the terrace before the sun dipped behind the hill opposite - perfect!

Wednesday 24 September 2014


Today we were somewhat anchored to the house dealing with admin stuff from home so the term 'housesitting' really summed us up.

We awoke to cloudy skies but the sun peeped through, sometimes very strongly, so I took up residence on the terrace with my book. I am finding it very engrossing but have to admit that the surroundings here are equally as interesting, if not more so. I therefore kept wandering off on mini-safaris.

They always say that you get more from a walking safari than from one where you sit in a jeep and are driven to stare at a cluster of big animals. You may have far less chance of seeing a big mammal but the immersion in the detail of flora and fauna is just as rewarding. And so I found things today as I took my own mini walking safari of 'Camp 182'.

We had encountered deer on the driveway again when we returned from Lucca yesterday, so I was really hoping for an encounter today. I therefore had my camera - well, my rather old Samsung Galaxy phone - to hand all day. Sadly the lack of a zoom and a very show shutter response did thwart me on many occasions but hopefully I succeeded enough times to give you an insight into the life of the smaller of the 182 residents.

I was delighted to find quite a few clumps of wild cyclamen on the edge of the lawn and the terrace immediately below. In my uneducated opinion it seems early for cyclamen, or at least it would be in the UK, so I'm hopeful that these clumps will only get bigger as the weeks pass. Not that we'll be here to enjoy them but it will provide Helen and Stuart with some splashes of colour to frame the lawn.

Mid-afternoon I decided to walk up the driveway to check the postbox, again hoping to see some deer. What a sight I must have looked, clutching the post box key in one hand and holding out my phone, camera app poised in the other, all the while trying to tread very lightly on the mix of gravel and crunchy fallen leaves. However quiet I thought I was being, I must have sounded like a heard of elephants to any deer in the locality, who should be rightly skittish since the hunting season has just begun. Alas, all I saw was a beetle, and not even a Stag Beetle!

Back at the ranch I finally spied my safari prize - yes, the Big Two. A sleeping tiger and an elusive panther!

Tuesday 23 September 2014

A lap of Lucca

We awoke to blue skies and blazing sunshine this morning so decided to make the most of it and head into Lucca. It is a simple drive of about 15km from the house and the route is well sign-posted. It was easy to find parking once we'd entered the city, via one of the arched gates through the old walls. and we quickly headed up onto the city walls, which are wide, tree-lined pedestrian/cycle paths. There was a refreshing breeze and the trees provided ample shade so we enjoyed a relaxing saunter.

As we walked, we noticed a metal plaque in the ground, which we stopped to read. It said '2800'. It meant nothing to us so we shrugged and moved on but were almost immediately stopped by an elderly local man on his bicycle who was very keen to explain the plaque. Since our Italian is non-existent, he managed in very broken English to tell us that a lap of the walls is 4800m and the plaque was telling us we were 2800m from the 'start'. We were charmed by how friendly he was but it also then made complete sense that we were continually being passed by lycra-clad locals running. If you lived here, why wouldn't you choose to run on an elevated, shady and car free path which had distance markers on it. We may have to pass on some Lucca-learned tips to the Mayor of Bristol when we get home!

We were taking occasional glances at our guide book which talked about a landmark tower with trees growing out of the top and it wasn't too long before we spotted it.  So, when we were approximately level with it, we took the ramp down off the walls and headed into the old city. It is almost car-free and cycling is clearly a popular mode of transport, for locals and tourists alike. Since our normal modes of transport back in the UK are walking and cycling we felt very much at home as we wondered around soaking up the atmosphere.

It wasn't too long before we decided that it was time for lunch so dived down a tiny side street and grabbed a table outside a restaurant. Our waitress was super-friendly and brought out a basket of the most amazing looking focaccia bread, drizzled with olive oil. Since I'm not allowed to eat wheat I instantly had food envy as Dan tucked in and declared that it tasted just as good as it looked. Our main courses also didn't disappoint and for all you foodies out there, here are some photos.  I had a side of polenta crudités with porcini mushroom topping and a salad of corn, tomatoes, egg and tuna, whilst Dan tucked into a very rich lasagne.

Re-fuelled we continued on our walk taking in the key churches, squares and the hugely impressive cathedral. It has much inlaid marble and a huge array of differently carved columns. I like to think that the stonemasons were each assigned a column and were let loose with their own imagination. If you know otherwise, please don't burst my romantic bubble!

The tower with the trees - Torre del Guinigi
We eventually ended up at the tower with the trees (Torre del Guinigi) which we felt it would be rude not to climb, but also because we'd still not found the Piazza del Mercato, which is oval and so we thought it may be easier to spot from a high vantage point. I have to admit I failed to count the number of steps to the top of the tower but the views from the top were very much worth the effort. We also spied a cluster of curved buildings so took a compass reading (the wonders of modern mobile phones!) so we could find it again once at ground level - which we did.

The Piazza owes its shape to the fact that the medieval houses surrounding it were built into the walls of the Roman amphitheatre - a reminder that the city was founded by the Romans in 180BC. It was drenched in sunshine so we stopped for a drink and to people-watch but all too soon it was time to head back to the car and back to Pescia.

As I type the cats are getting their dinner and we are preparing to settle down for the evening. Another lovely day.