Monday 30 November 2015

Cold and frosty

Cold and frosty

This morning must easily have been the coldest we've had this week - which also means the coldest we've had yet this winter. There was a thick frost on the terraces and even the buckets of rainwater at the back of the house had frozen over. I was thankful for the relative shelter of the half-built shed for the half-hour I spent on the bike and turbo trainer this morning - or was I? I would far rather have been tucked up cosily in bed still, but I knew I would feel better for having done it, and in the end I was right. It was good to get back inside and warm up in a hot shower though.

After we had breakfasted, we sought out winter coats from the depths of the wardrobe that hadn't seen the light of day since perhaps February or March - or rather I did. Stuart decided it was actually cold enough to put a sweatshirt on over his t-shirt, and even went as far as taking a pair of gloves with him - it seems it will have to be Arctic weather before he concedes to wearing a coat! All dressed up against the cold, we bundled Reggie into the car and headed to Nerone's café in the village for a cappuccino to warm us up from the inside, before heading up the hill towards Vellano.

We decided we would do the Obaca walk again today - the walk we first did with David last Sunday. While this time around there were no snow-dusted hills in the distance, it was colder this time around, and a thick hoar frost coated every blade of grass, twig and leaf (at least all those in the shade).

Lovely in the sun; frosty in the shade!

The walk through the trees soon warmed us up though, and in the patches where the sun broke through it was beautiful.

Having finished our walk by 11am, we decided to get the supermarket shopping out the way, so we dropped Reggie back at the house before heading into Pescia. We only stopped at Esselunga today, and although it was busy it wasn't too tedious. We decided to stop off in town on our way back home - we wanted an oil dispenser for our fresh extra virgin olive oil and thought we would try one of the kitchenware shops in town. It being market day, everywhere was very busy. We tried the car park by the old flower market, which was rammed with cars parked in the most haphazard manner. There are no markings in this car park to indicate where the spaces are/should be, so it seems that when it is very busy, people just wing it and make it up as they go along. We found several spots that appeared to be free, but on assessing the parked vehicles surrounding them, realised that if we parked there we would either block someone in, or be blocked in ourselves. We eventually found a tight space that Stuart managed to squeeze the car into, and headed off on foot hoping that we'd still be able to get out again by the time we returned.

We managed to find an oil dispenser in the kitchenware shop and decided to swing by the fruit and veg market on our way back to the car, to see if there were any decent empty veg crates going spare. There are always plastic crates going spare at the end of the market - they simply get dumped in an enormous pile and taken away as rubbish once everyone has packed up and gone away - Stuart has now reached connoisseur status as far as plastic crates go, or perhaps I should say he has become a plastic crate snob. We could see the pile of crates as we crossed the middle of the small piazza, and even from there Stuart seemed excited by the fact that there were some of his favourite blue crates in the pile - "really good ones" (what has our life become?!). We duly stopped and picked up five blue plastic crates before heading back to the car. By this time, the morning's sunshine had long since disappeared behind a bank of cloud and it was feeling decided chilly, so we hurried back to the car and headed for home to unload our shopping and the crate 'treasure'.

We decided to have a hot pasta lunch today - something a little out of the ordinary for us, but the weather seemed to dictate that hot food was necessary and we fancied a change from soup.

Once we'd finished lunch I was sorely tempted to spend the rest of the chilly afternoon tucked up indoors by the fire, but instead we left Reggie in the house with a bone to keep him entertained while the pair of us headed up the terraces - together, for a change - to spend an afternoon clearing more ash trees and burning more enormous piles of bramble. While Stuart and his chainsaw made short work of the ash trees, I had one of the best bonfires I've had (yes, that's right, Stuart rates plastic crates while I rate bonfires...). The fire got going nice and easily, and quickly got hot and hungrily burned through the bramble - the novelty of seeing great big piles of waste being reduced to nothing has not yet worn off for me, and the satisfaction of seeing the troublesome brambles burn is quite something.

Stuart also cut off some acacia stumps (not before I tripped over one of them though, bruising my leg and grazing the skin as I did so - thankfully it wasn't too close to the fire!) and painted the cut stumps with some lethal (to acacias) systemic tree killing solution. While we don't like to use chemicals in general, and we don't use pesticides or weed killer on our veg or in the garden, the acacia trees have proved to be the bane of our lives. Only a couple of days ago I was looking at some photographs of the upper terraces that we'd taken just a few months back in the summer when you couldn't even see the terraces that we are now raking and burning on - they were forests of acacia. Since every time we cut an acacia, it springs back into life and sprouts back up again (growing at a rate of knots to boot), we decided to try a more drastic course of action. Hopefully, by painting the stumps with this solution, we will not get the same re-growth as we did this year - watch this space!

We burned bramble and cut trees for a solid few hours before the light started to dim and the temperature dropped again, at which point we brought our tools down, collected the day's eggs from the chickens (three today: two white, one brown), and came indoors to light the fire, roast some chestnuts and spend the evening relaxing.

Sunday morning started out fresh and chilly once again - it seemed a touch milder than Saturday had been, but there was still a hint of a frost on the rooftops in Pietrabuona, there was a wintry-looking sky and the air smelled cold. We took Reggie out for a walk first thing - stopping off for a coffee (of course) and today a pasty at Nerone's café as we hadn't yet had breakfast. We then made our way through Pescia to the part of the river that has become known as the 'chicken run' walk.

As we started out along the river bank, I wished I'd brought a thicker coat with me - with no sunshine on the river it felt decidedly chilly and as Reggie ran along we could see his breath coming out in great big puffs that made him look like a smoke-breathing dragon (albeit in dog form).

Today was the busiest we've ever seen this particular walk - we first met a jogger, followed by a man and a poor elderly-looking dog who Reggie was embarrassingly aggressive towards, followed by two more men and their respective dogs. Of course, we leashed Reggie up for the section of the walk past the 'chicken run house', so other than him trying to beat up the first dog we met, the walk was incident-free. By the time we turned around, the sun was just starting to make its way through the mist to the river bank, making an instant difference in the temperature.

We got back to the car just as it was coming up to 10.15am, and decided to stop for another morning coffee at the café that we recently found close to the end of the 'chicken run' walk.

Coffees warming us through, we headed back up the hill with one more stop to make - our weekly visit to Amanda's shop for our Sunday lunch and my Italian homework from Samantha. As is often the case, we found almost the entire family there: Amanda, Samantha and their Mum and Dad, so we had a good chat with them all and were even gifted two enormous grapefruits fresh from Amanda & Samatha's parents' garden - we will look forward to trying those!

It was 11am when we got home, so we decided to have an early lunch before a solid afternoon's work on the terraces. So, while Stuart spent an hour tinkering with the roofing on the shed, I wrapped some of the pot plants up in protective fleece for the winter (hoping the few frosts this week haven't already damaged them), put some washing on and heated up our lunch: pork escalopes with artichoke, rolls of pork stuffed with cheese, and of course some delicious roast potatoes.

After lunch it was straight up the terraces for both of us with our respective sets of hedge cutters. For a while we both attacked an enormous bank of 6ft bramble covering a terrace towards the top of where we have cleared (I would say 'towards the top of our terraces', but we know for a fact that our terraces go on, and on, further up the hill - it's just that they are currently hidden in bramble). A few weeks ago we'd spotted a large olive tree deep amongst the bramble and I, along with  Allison's help, had cleared the terrace to reach the tree. At the same time, Stuart had started clearing further along the left of some of the current terraces, in an attempt to uncover them to their full width. This left us with a single terrace (this one covered in 6ft bramble) between the one I had cleared and the ones Stuart had cleared - so this afternoon, we both attacked the bramble with our blades to break through, giving us a clear run of terraces. Once we'd done that, I turned my attention to raking and then yet more burning - we had effectively created about 5 days worth of burning in about 40 minutes of work, so I decided I ought to get on with burning through some of the stuff that was already piled up awaiting a bonfire!

While I tended the fire, Stuart continued with his hedge cutters, this time working his way to the right of each of the uppermost terraces. By the time he'd finished we had 15 clear terraces from the house upwards. That is 'clear'  but for several ash/hazel trees that will need clearing, and 'clear' but for the piles and piles of bramble that will need burning over the course of the winter.

Come 4.30pm we decided to call it a day so retired indoors to light the fire, shower and change and share a bowl of hot roasted chestnuts. Rather than spending the whole evening by the fire though, we were out the door again at 6.45, heading up the road in the dark towards Vellano to meet up with David and Donatella for pizza at the Bistrot. We had a lovely evening - delicious pizza and great company, a perfect way to round off the weekend.

Friday 27 November 2015

First frosts

Monday was decidedly cold, colder than it's been since last winter left us but that didn't stop Helen getting up to exercise in the section of shed that seems to have become her temporary gym area now that the roof keeps the rain off.

Once I'd had breakfast I decided that, as much as I'd like to continue working on the shed, the cold weather dictated that I turn my attention to somehow protecting the 'agrumi' citrus trees that we bought back in April with the help of Helen's parents - especially as the orange tree has more than half a dozen little oranges ripening and both the lime and lemon are flowering ready for another crop (the lemon abundantly so, with maybe 30 or more flowers on it), it would be a shame to lose out by not taking care of them now, so I took to turning the hazy idea of a greenhouse-come-orangery that was in my head into a reality.

I have been giving this project some thought over recent weeks, mainly when we've been sitting outside eating lunch on the patio where the citrus trees live. The basic shape of the structure has been decided on for a while and the way we are (pruning skills permitting) planning to train the lemon and orange (the lemon as an espalier up the wall adjacent to the front door and the orange in the same fashion along the fence which runs at 90 degrees to it) dictates a certain shape as a minimum.

So after using up all the old wooden batten I'd reclaimed from the old rood of the firewood shelter, I headed out to OBI in Montecatini to buy more of the same as well as a few other bits while there.

By the time I got home it was approaching midday so after another half hour's sawing and screwing it was time for lunch.

Time to get the citrus under cover!
Mini orangery taking form

Once lunch was eaten we hastened to head into town with Reggie to give him a walk before we headed up to Vellano to David and Sarah's to meet Johnny for our weekly Italian lesson.

After a very chilly walk along the Pescia river (although not so cold as to stop Reggie charging into the river on more than one occasion) we headed home to grab our notebooks, leaving Reggie and the cats at home while we headed up the valley.

We arrived and walked into a toasty house and were greeted with coconut cake and a mug of hot coffee as darkness fell outside and with it the temperature even further. This week Johnny gave us all a worksheet based around verbs, but this time focusing mainly on irregular verbs - verbs that throw out half of the rules that we all grasp desperately onto as we fumble our way around this new (to us) language, so a slow hour and a half ensued as we ploughed through the lesson.

Before we knew it, and with the worksheet completed, it was five o'clock already and time to head home to shut the chickens in for the evening and get the fire lit before the temperature indoors dropped much further.

As the fire got going we sipped a glass of wine and caught up on some emails before cooking a dinner of what we now call 'Christmas pasta' - it has a couple of versions but always includes a generous amount of pan-fried sprouts of the brussels variety (home grown) and some pancetta interspersed with either a salty cubed cheese or roughly chopped chestnuts.

Tuesday started a bit wetter than the weather man had promised, but not so much that it stopped either Helen exercising or me loading the car to head up to Vellano to do some more land clearing with David - clearing that today definitely required a nice toasty bonfire!

David working in the new clearing at Vellano.

As the morning drew on, the skies cleared to a beautiful blue while David and I burnt as much bramble and detritus as the space allowed before retiring to the Bistrot in the village for a glass of wine. We sat on the narrow balcony at the rear of the restaurant which affords wonderful views down the valley towards Pescia in what was now very warm sunshine indeed before we each headed to our respective homes for lunch.

After lunch on the patio I continued with the citrus greenhouse while Helen went up the terraces to light a fire of her own.
Yet another fire up on the terraces.

By the time darkness fell I had run out of plastic to cover the greenery and, frankly, enthusiasm for the project - which I had now decided was something of a folly constructed as it was in wood and plastic. Reflecting on just how strong the winds can be here, and have been just in the last week, I will be surprised if it lasts more than a couple of weeks before I need to tear it down and start work on version two (after all, we are now on version 6 of the wood shelter, for those not keeping up, and I suspect another version or two more will be needed before we arrive at a fully Tuscan weather-proof version). Feeling thororughly deflated and as if I'd wasted precious hours on this folly I headed for the luxury of a hot shower (this time last year the water was tepid or nothing, so it stilll feels like luxury to get hot water from the tap in the bathroom), during which I had a sort of epiphany, realising that even if I woke tomorrow to find the thing blown to bits, I had now worked out how to build the structure of what we needed, and I could use what I had built to measure how much material of a stronger sort we would need to re-build it.

Right, that's the basic shape sorted, now to cover it.
Out of plastic and not convinced this is up to our weather.
Reggie 'helping' cover the orangery

I honestly feel like sometimes I'm walking in the footsteps of the three little pigs and the weather is my own personal wolf, huffing and puffing its way through all my work, except on this occasion I think I will go straight from house or version one, made of metaphorical straw, to what I hope will be the final version (which I think needs to be a steel frame contruction). For now at least the precious citrus trees have a little more protection against the cold than they did have, so I can park the project for a few days but must make sure I don't get caught out by the weather!

As Helen watched the bonfire die out, I collected not only wood for the evening's fire but two beautiful white hens eggs from the nest boxes in the chicken house before closing the birds in for the night and heading indoors for another of those hot showers to wash the smell of burnt bramble off me and lighting yet another fire, this time though for the purposes of keeping us all warm!

Wednesday morning gave us the first real frost of the winter and temperatures to match, so I was glad to be starting a fire again this morning up in Vellano with David while Helen retreated to the office with a hot water bottle to do some VB work.

The day remained cold all day, unlike yesterday, and when David and I finished working at lunch time and headed for a glass of wine at the Bistrot, it was too cold to sit outside to appreciate the view.

After lunch at home I lit the fire for the benefit of both Helen and Samantha, who was due at two for another Italian lesson, and once the fire was raging I unloaded the car of tools so that there would be room for Reggie.

When Samantha arrived we gave him a few minutes in her company again, as this seemed to help improve his relationship with her last week and on her arrival this week he seemed slightly less agitated. This week it seemed to do the same again, he even stopped barking for a few short periods and took a treat from her hand - a huge leap forwards. Whatever it was about poor Samantha that he  decided he didn't like initially, it now seems we can work towards fixing it, piano, piano as they say in Italy.

Reggie and I left the ladies to their Italian prepositions and went into town for a much needed walk, he missed out yeterday and that had apparently manifested itself in a very barky dog this morning while Helen was trying to work.

I decided that it was time to repeat the 'chicken run' walk along the river that had ended in a dead chicken last week and duly leashed Reggie as we approached the house of the chickens. He didn't make much fuss about being taken past on the lead, so thankfully without incident we got to the point of turning around and then again back to the car death-free with only two short stretches on the leash. It's a shame that the entire stretch of the river bank will no longer be safe to do off leash, but it's a small price to pay for such a good, flat and quiet stretch of river walking.

On the way home I stopped at Frateschi to collect a parcel. Yesterday, the driver of the GLS courier firm that couldn't be bothered to deliver my wormery earlier in the year called me to ask if he could leave a parcel for me at Frateschi. Suspecting it was our little poly-tunnel and knowing that they just pile parcels in the shop by the till in Frateschi, I was keen to get it out of their way - as little as our poly-tunnel was going to be, it was going to be no envelope and therefore would be in their way.

A sizeabale and heavy item it was too I can't quite believe it made it all the way here from Devon in such a timely fashion for the paltry fee of around £25.

Thursday it was back to 'normal', by which I mean I was working at home all day - except it wasn't completely normal as David had offered a couple of hours of his time to us today (in return for feeding him lunch) to help finish burying the mains water pipe that we dug up in the summer.

Another cold, frosty morning greeted both Helen and me this morning, as Helen got her bike and kit outside for her exercie session I let the cats out, let the chickens out and finally let Reggie out before putting coffee on while I checked emails.

After breakfast I dashed to Amanda's to buy some bread and a pudding for lunch before going home to make a long awaited start on the new shed doors.

When the sun finally peeped above the hill to the south of us mid-morning it was time to remove my jacket as it was just warm enough to work in a t-shirt to the sound of chickens clucking behind me while Helen wrangled with VB work indoors.

After a productive morning of cladding the first two doors and making adjustments to their swing, David arrived so we sat down for a coffee, which we quickly followed with lunch. It wasn't quite warm enough to dine out - working and moving in it waround outdoors was fine but I think sitting still in it when the odd cloud passed over was too much to ask.

We tucked into a relatively lavish lunch, starting with fresh bread (that had been cooked in a wood-fired oven) drizzled with our fresh hand picked extra virgin olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and fresh black pepper - it doesn't get much simpler than that. We followed that with pasta with Helen's lentil ragu and rounded the event off with a piece of Amanda's blueberry crostata, a sweet shortcrust pastry tart, and finally more coffee.

After the extravagant lunch, David and I headed down the terraces to pick up where Helen and I left off the other day and started burying the water pipe under piles of stone.

An hour and a half later the job was done - a fantastic but tedious job to have ticked off the list. We just hope the measures we've gone to will stand up to what this winter has to throw at us (stay tuned for frozen pipe dramas!).

When we'd finished, Dave and I sat on the patio with a cold beer, having worked up something of a sweat, while Helen emerged from the office and headed off up the terraces to start yet another fire, one of many more we'll need to have before the burning season is out.

While Helen burned, David left, I collected two more pristine white eggs from our Leghorns (the white chickens) and then loaded Reggie into the car for a walk.

I decided to head into Pescia to try and catch the last of the sun along the river. It seemed as if everyone else had done the same, but thankfully it wasn't so busy as to freak out Reggie, in fact he seemed almost more calm than usual, even allowing a jogger to sneak up from behind and letting him pass without a second glance.

As I approached the later stage of the walk, I bumped into three older Italians that I've now met a couple of times before - the first of which was when walking with Allison and Q in October - lovely people who spoke NO English but who generously made allowance for my poor Italian. We had a nice but short chat that first time, when they were particularly taken with 'bello' Reggie. Being a distinctive-coloured dog, Reggie allowed them to identify me from the opposite side of the river a week or so ago, when they had shouted and waved at us and wished us a good evening.

So this afternoon when I ran into the same trio, my walked slowed right down as the four of us and three dogs ambled slowly along the river, chatting about this and that. We parted company at the railway bridge where they wished Reggie and me a good evening and declared themselves to be our first Italian friends, despite not even having met Helen yet!

It was half four when I got home so I spent half an hour or so working on the shed as the last of the daylight faded, at which point the temperature dropped quite rapidly so I packed up my tools and headed in to light the fire for the evening, Helen having put her bonfire out a little while before and headed indoors.

Friday arrived in the blink of an eye it seemed, and it was another morning on which I was up and out of bed before Helen, albeit only by a few seconds. It has felt good to feel back on form this week, and to be feeling ready for the day - I'm sure it won't last, but while it does I'm enjoying the change.

Yet another cold morning greeted me as I went out to open the chicken house. I could hear the chickens chattering away the house, and the moment I opened the door they came straight out and started pecking at the ground - they are certainly getting more comfortable around us, although approaching them directly is still some way off.

I made a quick check of the nest boxes: no eggs, but it seems they don't lay until around mid-morning so it wasn't really a surprise. We weren't sure how many eggs to expect today - it was white eggs only yesterday (two of them), so maybe one would be taking the day off today and the red one would start up again, we'd have to wait and find out later.

While Helen exercised outside, I sat on the sofa and checked email while Reggie had a snooze next to me. Once Helen had finished and showered and we'd both had breakfast, Helen left in the car to head into Pescia to meet Sue for coffee, leaving me to the first full day's work on the shed that I think I've had.

It was quite bitter this morning, although the sky promised sunshine by mid-morning, so I opted to start my day with some work on the electrics in the shed - not only to get a little shelter from the cold breeze but also because it was the perfect opportunity to be switching on and off trip switches on the consumer unit while Helen was out rather than trying to work in the office.

Electrics isn't my forte, but what was required was strightforward enough for me so I plodded along running cables and fixing boxes then finally connecting the sockets to form a unit of light switch and two sockets in each of the three shed sections, wiring up the last as Helen returned home just before midday.

No more runnign extension leads out from the house, we have power!

On her return, she went up to see the chickens and returned with three eggs (two white, one brown)! I think there is still one red hen not laying but it's still early, and today's three took us up to 11 home-produced eggs in the fridge plus what we had bought last week, so it was egg mayo sandwiches for lunch! We ate on the patio in the glorious and even quite warm sunshine, it was quite a tear for us to leave the table after lunch and get back to work but work we must!

The golden yolks of our very own free range eggs!

As I went back to the shed and back to cladding doors and fitting the cat flap as well as having a little bit of a tidy up behind the house, Helen checked email and then headed off up the terraces to set to work on clearing some of the coppiced ash trees we have up there.

Really starting to look the part now but LOTS still to do.
We had agreed at lucnhtime that we should head into town around 4pm to walk Reggie, this would give us the chance to try the offices of Coldiretti (the local agricultural organisation) again to talk about the tractor and then while we were in town do the weekly food shop, clearing the day tomorrow.

As four o'clock approached and I climbed the terraces to see how Helen was done, having packed up my own tools for the day. It was clear that any enthusiasm for the idea of going out had vanished from us both so promising Reggie an extra long walk tomorrow morning, we trudged down to the house to collect the evening's firewood before retiring indoors for a long relaxing evening - although as I sit here on the sofa tapping ot this part of the blog, Reggie is snoring next to me and Helen is back in the office tying up loose ends before the end of the working week.

Sunday 22 November 2015

The arrival of winter!

Winter finally seems to have put in an appearance on our hillside this weekend - although whether it is here to stay remains to be seen.

Saturday - forced indoors by the weather.

We both woke early on Saturday after a fitful night's sleep disturbed by the sound of rain and high winds. We'd both lain awake during the night wondering what damage the wind was doing outside, and what devastation we would be greeted by in the morning. Since the rain had temporarily abated when we woke up, I suggested we get up there and then and go and give Reggie a walk as I was sure the rain would be coming back before long and we wouldn't feel like going out later.

And so it was that we were pulling on wellies and leaving the house before 8am on Saturday! We found a lot of bits and pieces from the back of the house had been blown around, but there was no damage as such - thankfully Stuart's brand new shed doors were still on their hinges, and the wood pile was still covered by the banner material he'd bought and set up a couple of weeks ago. It was still wet and windy as we left the house, but as we got further along the road it dried up and by the time we reached Pescia the rain had stopped and it was remarkably still.

We walked Reggie along the river - at that time of the morning it was pretty quiet, and we encountered only two groups of people with their respective dogs. On completing the walk, we headed back up the murky cloud-covered hill for a well deserved breakfast: a cappuccino and a pastry at Nerone's in Pietrabuona.

By the time we got home, the rain had started up again, so we felt pleased with ourselves for having got the dog walk under our belts so early in the day.

We got the cats in out of the rain (although both had been sheltering in the new shed - Lucca choosing to sit in a pile of freshly made sawdust underneath Stuart's workbench, so he came in adorned with bits of sawdust), and went to check for eggs. Chickens usually lay in the early morning, but our only (so far) layer - who has given us an egg every day since Wednesday - hasn't usually produced the goods until around 8.30-9am, so when we first go up to let them out in the morning there isn't any egg yet. Today, when Stuart went up, he found not just the usual one white egg in one of the nesting boxes, but also a brown egg in the sawdust on the floor! Clearly one of the red chickens has joined the party on the egg-laying front, and for the first time we had not one but two eggs in our day's collection.

We spent the morning listening to the rain and wind whipping around outside and doing admin tasks on our computers - it was the first time in a very long time that the weather had forced us indoors for the day.

We did venture out once again though - after lunch, we went to Montecatini to visit the pet shop to buy Reggie a bumper pack of chews, popped into Obi to buy some bolts for the shed doors, then  into Euronics to buy a Google Chromecast device to enable us to watch TV via the internet without having to have the laptop constantly plugged into the TV. This hadn't been a problem at all until Stuart built a neat little shelf for the laptop a few weeks ago - the shelf got the laptop and its cables out of the way, tidying up the living room nicely, and we controlled the laptop from a separate keyboard in the living room. The difficulties started when Florence discovered the shelf and the fact that not only does the laptop act as a nice little cat-sized electric blanket safely out of the way of barky dogs, but the shelf itself also benefits from the heat rising from the fire - a truly cosy little spot, perfect for a little tabby cat to spend her evenings. This wouldn't have been a problem but for the fact that Florence soon started taking control of the laptop - typing nonsense into the search bar, sitting on the space bar when we were trying to log in, turning the entire screen upside down, playing with the volume control when were trying to watch things, and even attempting to buy things (the final straw was when she somehow managed to bring up a page on which she was about to buy a One Direction album - at which point we decided enough was enough!). The Chromecast device allows us to control the TV without needing the laptop to be plugged into it - which effectively means it no longer needs to sit on its shelf, so we can have it safely down in the living room with us, and Florence can have the whole shelf to herself, albeit without the electric blanket she was enjoying.

When we got back from our shopping trip we spent the rest of the afternoon doing more admin jobs in the dry indoors (yes, I am delighted to say that we started out Christmas shopping!!), after which we roasted some chestnuts in the oven (not our own chestnuts, I'm afraid, but local Tuscan ones bought from the supermarket) and enjoyed them with a glass of wine in front of the fire. We will definitely be collecting and roasting our own chestnuts next year, as this is such a lovely way to eat them.

As we listened to the rain beating down both on the skylight at the top of the stairs and on the newly erected canopy above our front door - and even heard a rumble or two of thunder in the distance - we struggled to imagine that the next day would be bright and clear. Not only that, but there had been several rumours around the valley that Sunday would bring the first snow of the winter to the valley - well, with the rain pelting down, we discounted those rumours once and for all!

Sunday - the arrival of winter.

We had an altogether more restful night's sleep on Saturday night, and were quite shocked to find it was almost 9am when we finally woke up - it's been a while since we slept in for that long! The weather appeared to have done a complete 360 degree about turn overnight, and we awoke to clear skies, sunshine and distinctly chilly air. Keen not to waste any more of the day, we quickly dispatched breakfast before heading out with Reggie.

We were halfway along the drive when we caught a glimpse through the trees of the view up the valley above us - could that be a dusting of snow on the hills? When we got to the end of the drive we confirmed that, yes, there was snow on the hills up the valley! The very same hills that Mum and Dad had climbed just a few weeks ago were now covered in the cold stuff. It felt as if someone had simply flipped a switch during the night from 'autumn' to 'winter'.

Our first stop was a quick pit stop at Nerone's café in the village for a cappuccino to set us up for the day. While there, we browsed through the local newspaper - something we usually do, with varying degrees of success in understanding the stories. The front page of today's edition was all about the arrival of snow and the consequent plans to open up the services at the Abetone ski resort next week. Abetone (which is about 50km north of us) had a dumping of 10cm of snow yesterday afternoon (while we were being deluged with rain), and more overnight, which sets the resort up nicely for the start of the season, with the snow cannons ready to step in and add more to what nature has provided if necessary. Anyway, not only were we interested to find out about Abetone's ski season, but we were pretty chuffed with ourselves that we had managed to read most of a newspaper article and understand it!

Coffees dispatched, we returned to Reggie, who was waiting patiently in the car, and headed back up the hill, passing our gate and carrying on up to Vellano where we were meeting David. We found David waiting for us by the side of the road in the village, so he hopped into the car and took us once again to the start of the 'Obaca' walk - we planned to do the walk that Stuart and David had failed to do during the week due to having come across an ongoing hunt. This time, the track was deserted so the three of us and Reggie all headed off into the crisp morning air.

The distant hills of Abetone covered in snow.

The walk was lovely - it was a beautiful morning for a walk in the cold winter sunshine, and the path took us through part of the local landscape that has been completely unknown to us until now. We had heard about 'Obaca' being a flat piece of land with large open spaces in which a lot of fruit used to be grown, but we simply couldn't picture it, despite vaguely knowing its whereabouts. Once we'd passed the flat piece of ground, which was as lovely as we had been led to believe, we headed up into the trees and Reggie tore around, disappearing up through the trees only to reappear minutes later further along the track from us, his return heralded by the sound of paws crashing through the leaves.

The path eventually joined up with the cava track that we often use, so we picked up that track, walked back to the road and then completed the loop back to the car. Feeling as if we'd all had a good amount of fresh air and exercise, we decided we'd stop for another coffee before going our separate ways, this time at the Bistrot in Vellano. When we arrived, we found Donatella there, just about to leave after having been dropped there by her Mum earlier. Donatella stopped to have a quick fuss with Reggie before her Mum appeared with the car to take her home, leaving Stuart, David and me to sit and have a coffee on the terrace at the Bistrot. One thing was sure, it really felt like winter this morning - even in the warmth of the sun, the air felt cold on our faces and there was a distinctly wintry smell of wood smoke in the air.

When we finished our coffees, we bade farewell to David, thanking him for being our guide on what may well now be our new favourite walk, and headed back down the hill. We had one more stop to make before heading home, which was for what is rapidly becoming our weekly habit of buying Sunday lunch from Amanda's shop - and collecting the homework that Samantha has set for me. Today, we chose seafood skewers (prawns, squid and octopus), roast potatoes and peas cooked with pancetta.

We headed straight home from there to heat our goodies up in the oven and enjoy a delicious lunch before turning our attentions to our afternoon's work.

Now that the weather has taken a turn for the chilly side, and with temperatures forecast to dip close to freezing (at night) during the coming week, we have been forced to move one job that we've been putting off since early June to the top of our priority list. You may remember that, back in June, we had a nightmare 21 hours with no water in the house at all - and in trying to remedy the situation, we were forced to dig up our entire water pipe (which comes all the way from the bottom of the hill up the terraces to the house). Of course, as soon as water started flowing again, we breathed an enormous sigh of relief and moved on to the next job on our list, saying that we must remember to re-cover the pipe at some point before winter. Well, of course, job after job has taken priority since then, and we now find ourselves on the brink of winter and in the rather vulnerable position of having our mains water pipe over ground!

Not wanting to get caught out with frozen pipes, we therefore dedicated this afternoon to covering the water pipe. We started by digging a small channel for the pipe, and then laid stones over it, covering the pipe with stones both (hopefully) to keep it frost-free and to clearly mark the line of the pipe so that, should we ever have any more problems with it, it will be very easy to find and check - we decided we quite liked the overall effect, creating an interesting 'feature' on the landscape of the terraces as well.

Having spent many a frustrating day over the past year of so cursing the stony nature of our ground when attempting to dig in fence posts and the like, today that very characteristic came as a blessing - just when we thought we were going to run out of stones to cover the pipe we'd spot another little pile of stones sticking out from the ground and with only the slightest amount of digging at the soil we'd find even more.

In the end, we got about halfway down the pipe before deciding to call it a day for now - Stuart wanted to spend some time on the shed, fitting some bolts to stop the doors flailing around in the wind, so we climbed back up to the house and while Stuart worked on the shed I carried on splitting some chestnut logs from the tree that Stuart had felled last week.

By the time I'd finished splitting the logs the light was beginning to fade, even though we'd had more daylight today than we've had recently, with few clouds to darken the sky prematurely. With the temperature dropping quickly though, it was soon time for Stuart to come indoors as well and for us to light a fire, put some chestnuts in the oven to roast and to spend another evening by the fire with a glass of wine and a bowl of piping hot chestnuts.

Saturday 21 November 2015

Chickens and eggs

It has been another busy and productive week here on our hill, the mild autumn weather making it a pleasure to be working outdoors even in late November.


With olive picking at the Phillips's off the cards for the time being at least, thanks to poor Chris's black and blue ankle, on Monday it was 'business as usual' for us - whatever that means! What with Helen having been away in Prague, and then having had a string of guests, with our brief mini-holiday in between, followed by olive picking, it seems like it's been months since we had a 'business as usual' type of day!

While Helen booted up her computer up for the day I headed out to buy some materials that would enable me to continue to make progress with our new shed - which is slowly heading in the right direction after having spent the weekend working on it.

After making a quick stop at our local village farmacia to order another box of heart worm tablets for Reggie (here, all animal-related drugs are bought from the chemist, just as people medicines are), I headed to Montecatini for a change. Number one on my shopping list was a dozen hinges so that I could start making the shed doors, but I also wanted to get some electrical bits and pieces, switches etc, which are things that I know our local builder's merchant doesn't stock, so OBI it was.

The shopping in OBI took rather a long time - it seemed that Monday morning was the day all the staff went around the store on their cherry pickers, clogging up every aisle (or at least every aisle I needed). Unlike in the UK, they don't cordon off aisles when they need to use equipment like this, but instead just drive around you and shout at you to move if you're in their way - this meant that I could get the items I needed so long as I was quick on my feet!

After failing to find the hinges (it seems that 12 hinges of the same type is too much to expect from OBI's stock control system), but finally finding some replacement staples for my staple gun (which has been empty for a couple of months now) and getting all the sockets and switches I needed, I headed home making a pit stop at Frateschi's to see if Paolo could help me with the hinges... Fortunately, Paolo came up with the goods, so I was home in time for coffee with Helen just after 11am on the patio in the glorious autumn sunshine.

After coffee Helen went back to the office while I made a start on the shed doors. This proved to be slow work despite having been careful to make the framework of the structure as plumb and level as possible (it's not far out at all), but by lunchtime we had the first two of six doors hanging and swinging! I say "doors", but they are just empty timber rectangles - frames, if you like - that need boarding with tongue and groove to finish the job.

We sat on the patio to eat lunch in what was now the hot sun - hot enough for to me consider changing into shorts, although knowing that an hour after lunch I'd be in the shade behind the house, I decided against the wardrobe change.

We didn't take much time over lunch as we are both only too aware of the shortness of the days now that the clocks have changed and we wanted to get a bit more outdoor work done before the light faded. Helen changed into work clothes and donned the strimmer to make a start on the final cut of the terraces for the year now that all the wild flowers have gone over (which were supporting the honey bees until recently).

So while I continued to construct wooden doors, Helen strimmed her way down the terraces behind the house. We were both so absorbed in what we were doing that we missed our window to get out with Reggie for a walk today so, feeling guilty, we continued to work until the daylight disappeared, promising to take him out tomorrow.


Tuesday was a relatively uneventful affair - I spent the morning in Vellano working with David while Helen set herself to office work.

After lunch we gave Reggie his much needed walk along the river in Pescia before dashing home to grab our stuff for our Italian lesson back in Vellano.

With Sarah away this week, there were only the four of us (us, David and our teacher Johnny), so rather than continue working our way through the Italian grammar book (supposedly 'basic' - ha!) and leaving Sarah to catch up, we agreed to work at verb practice, something I think I could spend the rest of my days doing and still not getting it all!

After Dave had furnished us all with a good strong cup of coffee and a slice of his delicious banana and fig cake we got started with this week's 'esercizio' prepared by Johnny. He told us this was an 'easy' one, but we spent the next hour making it look anything but (although I think Helen struggled less than the boys did) - it very much seems as if one week can be a confidence booster, when you think you can feel it all 'clicking', and the very next week it feels as if you're starting from scratch again and nothing makes sense, to say it's frustrating is putting it mildly.

With the days all of a sudden shorter and our lesson being an hour later than usual, we left Vellano in the dark to go home and put the chickens to bed. Before we left for our lesson, the chickens had had no interest in going indoors, so we had no choice but to leave them out while were out. However, when I approached the shelter, or pollaio (apparently the correct term for what we have), it turned out that they had not only taken themselves indoors but all five of them were lined up on the top roost ready for sleep - only two weeks in and they are already much better behaved than the geese ever were!


Wednesday started out with a little bit of excitement in the shape of a small, but perfectly formed egg from one of our Livornese/Leghorn hens (we know it was from one of these because it was white)! Helen made the exciting discovery when doing her animal rounds before exercising and left it in the kitchen for me to find when I came down. It came as a huge surprise as I'd read that when hens are only just reaching maturity when the weather gets colder, egg laying can be delayed until the following spring, so I had pretty much expected not to see any eggs until after Christmas - this was definitely the happiest I've been to see a chicken egg!

Small. but perfectly formed.

After the early excitement I spent the morning working in Vellano with David again before heading home for lunch before Samantha arrived for Helen's second Italian lesson of the week.

When I got home I learned that the Phillips' Panda had refused to start this morning, preventing Sue from visiting Helen for coffee, and they were in need of a tow to the garage later that day, so soon after Samantha arrived, Reggie and I headed for Vellano again, this time to meet David to find the mythical Obaca walk - a walk we've heard a lot about (the Obaca area being a rare flat piece of land in the Vellano area), but have not yet found for ourselves.

As the three of us walked onto the track we passed a couple of parked cars, one of which had a high viz jacket draped over the seat, hunters maybe? Hunters it was, and we soon came across a guy in cammo gear and a high viz jacket carrying a shotgun - he was below us and shouted something up to us but we could only grasp the word 'posto', so we assumed he meant that they were finished. As we stood trying to decide whether to carry on or not, a loud bang from a nearby gun rang around us, making our decision for us! We headed back to the road and decided to use a different track to take us back into the village before going back to the car, so the Obaca walk remains elusive but we plan to remedy that this weekend.

After a quick glass of wine in the Bistrot in the village, Reggie and I left David and headed home to find Helen who, having finished her lesson, was ready to jump into the car to head to the rescue of the Phillipses.

Helen and Sue stayed indoors and drank coffee while Chris and I hooked the Panda up to the back of our car with a tow rope and took the now familiar slow tow route down to the garage in Pescia to dump the Panda before they closed. The daylight was fast disappearing by the time we rolled into Pescia so we had to be extra careful not to trip up any pedestrians trying to cross the road in between us! We arrived safely, abandoned the Panda at the garage before heading back to the Phillips house where I swapped Chris for Helen and we returned to Pietrabuona to light the fire.


Another day, another trip to Vellano! I headed up to the village to meet Dave at the Bistrot for an early morning coffee, but primarily to help the manager, Serena, with a phone call to the people who supply us with our satellite internet.

Connecting to the internet in our valley can be a hit-and-miss affair, and currently Serena uses a radio wireless service at the Bistrot, which is the only real alternative for most when the ADSL from Telecom Italia is too slow - we almost opted for the radio wireless service ourselves when our own satellite service stopped months back, just before we signed up with Europasat. However, it seems from Serena's rant the day before that the wireless service is prone to halting in bad weather - or even in not so bad weather - and it was during this rant that Dave told her that Helen and I use a satellite service.

I'd given Serena the details for Europasat, but it turned out when she called their local office in Lucca that the woman there only spoke English so communication had faltered very quickly and Serena had asked if I would make the call for her to get a quote for installation (what a turnaround in affairs - it's usually us needing help with making telephone calls for services!). Anyhow, by the time I arrived this morning it turned out that Serena had managed to speak to someone herself, so Dave and I just sat and drank cappucini.

After coffee I headed into Pescia to order my next batch of wood for the shed from the wood yard and then went to do the supermarket shopping (well done to those of you paying attention that this is happening on Thursday and not Saturday!). With Sarah away at the moment, we had invited David to come for dinner, as they had kindly done the same for me when Helen was away, and we had also invited Donatella and her Mum. So, with three shopping lists in hand, one for Lidl, and two for Esselunga (one for the ingredients for dinner and one for our own weekly supplies), I made a late morning dash around the stores before heading home for lunch.

The afternoon saw something of a role reversal: Helen, dressed in dirty work attire, went out to strim the terraces and split firewood while I stayed indoors to cook while wearing civvies.

Tidy terraces.

As the light faded, dinner was under control, the house had been made ready to seat five (by moving the sofa and dining table into the office and replacing them with the larger garden patio table, covered with a table cloth), and Helen came indoors to shower while I lit the fire.

Ready for dinner for five!

Our guests arrived around half seven, David having acted as taxi driver and collected Donatella and her Mum on his way down the hill. Reggie's mind was blown by having so many of his favourite people in the room all at the same time, and while he was wary around Donatella's Mum at first (not having met her before, he gave her a good barking at), he soon worked out that she was a soft touch and spent much of the evening seated at her feet waiting for table scraps. We all thoroughly enjoyed the evening together, managing a little Italian between us for the benefit of Donatella's Mum.

For those interested in the food elements of the evening (hi Carolyn!), we started with a very good bottle of Prosecco supplied by Donatella along with some fresh bread and a bowl of our own hand-picked fresh extra virgin olive oil (that is, 3% our own olives, 97% Phillips oil, but 100% our own sweat and effort). We accompanied this with some fett'unta (basically toast rubbed with garlic and drizzled with oil) and a pot of seasonal mushroom and chestnut paté. The oil was met with high praise from all, David confirming his order for 10 litres right there and then.

After that, we turned to red wine and chicken chiantigiana - chicken cooked in red wine with sultanas and pine nuts - along with boiled potatoes 'prezzemolata' (drizzled in more of the special oil, seasoned and with a large handful of parsley thrown in).

Finally, we despatched almost an entire Tunisian cake - a cake made with ground almonds, polenta and citrus zest, drizzled with a syrup made from the orange and lemon fruits and served a quenelle of Mascarpone.

I was pleased my afternoon's cooking had gone down well, and after finishing the evening with coffee and limoncello, our guests left sometime after eleven, leaving us to head to bed to sleep off the belly full of food.


Despite a relatively late night for us on Thursday (not having got to bed until midnight once all the washing up was done), on Friday I was awake with Helen and feeling ready for the day - more so than I had done in months. I'm not sure why this was the case, and I think that, if pushed, I could have rolled over and slept some more, but I didn't want to - what I wanted to do was get up early, walk Reggie and then collect the wood from the yard to make a start on covering the exterior of the shed before the rain that was forecast to arrive later on.

I decided a good walk was in order for Reggie, as he had missed out again the day before, so I drove a little way out of town to the quiet section of river we often use these days. This section of the river is almost always devoid of others, which means that Reggie can have a good run around, in fact I think this is his favourite walk of all.

We walked south away from Pescia as the sun tried its hardest to push through the cloud along a blissfully quiet riverside.

Along the way, Reggie couldn't help but run down from the high bank down to a building which, to all intents and purposes, looks abandoned except for the chicken coop attached to it (which is full of chickens). It's a long steep bank leading down to the house, something like 8 metres at a gradient steeper than 45 degrees - not a problem for a 17-month-old juvenile canine with four legs and boundless energy, but not something I'd want to tackle unless it was an emergency.

Fortunately there was no emergency, we've passed this place countless times now and Reggie likes to go to see the chickens, have a little bounce and growl around their fence, before joining us back on the path - all part of the walk and the chickens seem unfazed behind their secure fence so we don't feel we need to change the routine. Or we didn't.

When we approached the same house on the return leg of the walk, I saw Reggie look at the chickens, then look at me as if to ask 'can I?' I told him to stay where he was, which he did for a few seconds, but then the urge overcame him and he went down the bank to say hello again. I called him back and he came straight away with barely enough time to finish a growl. However, on his way back to me he passed a clump of bamboo that made a loud hissing sound - which shocked Reggie as much as it did me.

He stopped for a second and ran back to where the sound came from. I could now see a tabby cat sitting amongst the bamboo. Reggie found the cat and for a second there was a stand-off until the cat ran deeper into the bamboo. Reggie gave chase, running out of my sight and around the bamboo, presumably in the hope of finding the cat exiting the other side.

I did as I always do in these circumstances: I gave him his "come here" whistle and kept walking - he's very good at coming when whistled, and when he also realises you are leaving him behind he comes running very quickly.

It worked a treat and he came bounding up the bank - but something wasn't quite right and as he hurtled past me I realised he had a chicken in his mouth! He kept running until he got far enough away from me so as not to be disturbed or have his treasure taken from him prematurely. I couldn't quite believe what had just happened in the short few seconds between him running down to the house and him coming back.

As I stood there trying to make sense of it and waiting to see if anyone was going to give chase so that I could at least apologise and give them 10 euros for a new bird, Reggie disappeared down the bank towards the river.

After a while it was clear nobody was at the house (why would there be? It doesn't even have windows in some of the frames), so I continued walking to find Reggie, who appeared on the path as I approached with a white feather sticking out of his mouth, and down below in the river was the poor dead chicken.

I put a clearly very-pleased-with-himself Reggie into the car (surely now this was his favourite walk of all time), although he clearly doesn't yet realise that a chunk of this walk will have to be done with him on the lead from now on!

We headed to the wood yard to pick up the huge pile of tongue and groove (or perlinato as they call it here) I'd ordered. After loading only half of the wood onto the roof it was clear I'd need to do a second trip - 150 meters of wood is more than the roof of a Fiat Doblo can take!

It was late morning by the time we got home, and still dry, so while Helen continued to work in the office, I set straight to work on the shed until lunch, at which point I'd managed to cover one end wall. While I was working, I suddenly heard a flapping of wings above my head and was joined by the two white chickens (the Livornese). While it was one of them (we don't know which) that laid us our first egg - and has continued to lay an egg every morning since then - it also seems to be the white ones that are a bit of a handful and a bit too free range. This is now the third time one of them has escaped (the first time it's been both of them!). Given Reggie's little escapade this morning, they must have a death wish!

Spot the chickens.

Thankfully, it wasn't difficult for me to usher them back into their enclosure, and they pottered back in through the gate quite happily.

After lunch, it was back to the shed for me while Helen donned her farm attire to go and start a bonfire on the terraces and burn bramble clippings.

The rain started around mid afternoon, albeit very pathetically, so we both worked on through with only a brief interruption when Sue came to deliver the 20 litres of oil that we had sold on their behalf.

Shortly after Sue left I went back to the wood yard to collect the remainder of the wood, bade the guys in the yard 'buon fine settimana' and headed home to unload the wood as the rain got heavier and the light faded, signalling an end to our week up on the hill.

Sunday 15 November 2015

20 litres of extra virgin

Saturday was the scheduled day for taking the olives we'd helped pick during the week down to the olive mill - the appointment for the pressing wasn't until 6.30pm though, so we had enough time to do a few other things earlier in the day.

First on our to-do list was to give Reggie a good walk in the morning. He has been very patient throughout the week, being left in the house on his own for long stretches of time and not always getting a decent walk each day, so we owed him a good run around somewhere leafy. Of course, we had to stop at our local café, Da Nerone, first to give ourselves a quick injection of caffeine ready to wake us up for the day. After that, we headed up the hill through Vellano to the cava (quarry) track, and let Reggie run around off the lead, crunching through fallen leaves and clambering the steep banks either side of the path.

Once back from our dog walk, I set to updating the blog for the past week while Stuart drilled and hammered making some more progress on the shed.

Before we knew it, it was lunchtime, so we had a quick lunch (egg mayonnaise sandwiches in the warm sunshine on the patio) before getting back to it. Immediately after lunch, I helped Stuart fix the new perspex canopy above the front door - we already have a canopy similar to this above the apartment door, its purpose being to protect our beautiful handmade chestnut doors from the elements. Despite their obvious purpose, though, these canopies are officially not allowed - when The-Man-From-Florence came for his inspection we had to make sure that the one above the apartment had been taken down and hidden away, which is why we haven't got around to putting one above our own front door until now (as we understand -hopefully correctly- that we will not be subject to any further official inspections). We think it actually looks quite nice - and it serves a purpose.

Once that was done, Stuart got back to work on the shed while I busied myself moving some logs (which Mum and Dad had brought down from further up the terraces) down from the first terrace to the wood pile area, with the intention of splitting them. However, by the time I'd finished moving them, time had marched on and we were soon due to leave for the Phillipses. We'd offered to go and help continue picking olives for the afternoon and help with the bagging up etc., so while I secured the chickens in their house, Stuart put away his tools and we headed off down the hill to Pescia.

On arrival at the Phillips house, we walked in to find Chris laid up on the sofa with a bag of ice on his ankle - that didn't look good! Just minutes before we arrived he had hobbled into the house after having fallen a very short distance from one of the olive trees, landing awkwardly on his ankle. He was in a lot of pain and the jury was out on just how much damage he had done. So, leaving Chris languishing on the sofa, Stuart, Sue and I headed up to the olive trees. There would be no more picking with Chris out of action but there were a few cut branches still to strip, after which we sorted through the pile of olives, picking out leaves and twigs and bits of moss before loading up crates and sacks and heaving them all back down the terraces. Never mind going to a gym for weight training - all you need to do is fill a crate or sack full of olives and you have a full-on workout!

Once all the crates and sacks were assembled on the terrace outside Chris and Sue's house, we went indoors to check on the invalid and drink well-earned cups of tea/coffee.

This is what 322kg of olives looks like.

The next job was to cart all of the crates and sacks down the hill as far as the cars, so once we had regrouped and gathered our strength, we started lugging the 322kg of olives down to the cars. Despite all of our protests, Chris decided to attempt to stand on his swollen ankle and like a true warrior he hobbled slowly down the hill with sacks of olives on his shoulders while the rest of us ferried the rest of the crates and sacks down to the cars.

With the cars loaded and the sun setting, we felt a celebration was in order, so a quick glass of prosecco was dispatched before it was time to head to the mill in our heavily olive-laden cars.

Sunset over Pescia.

On arrival at the mill, we unloaded the contents of the cars onto two pallets, which were then taken to be weighed before we emptied all the sacks and crates into a large hopper. From the hopper, the olives went off up a conveyor belt to be shaken, for the leaves and debris to be removed via a suction pipe, and to pass through a water bath to be washed.

After the washing process, the olives were piped via a hammer crusher to what looked like a giant mixing machine for the 'kneading' part of the process - we could see in through the glass lid and watch the brown olivey sludge being churned around.

This part of the process lasted around 40 minutes, at the end of which the sludgey mixture was piped into another huge machine, the centrifugal extractor, before being piped to the final part of the processing machinery, the separator, and finally pouring out as liquid green gold - our hard earned extra virgin olive oil (of which about 3% came from our own olives)!!

When our oil had all poured into the large steel container, it was weighed again: we had 51kg, giving us an oil-to-olives ratio of around 15.5% - pretty good!

It was then up to us to use the funnels and jugs to fill up our own containers with our oil. Chris and Sue calculated that Stuart and I had picked enough olives to have around 20 litres for ourselves, so we bought a 25 litre container from the mill and filled it with our oil, after which we helped pour all of the rest into Chris and Sue's containers.

51kg of oil.

By the time we'd finished the whole process it was around 8pm and we were all feeling weary, so we said our goodbyes and thanked Chris and Sue for involving us in the whole process and headed home with our precious canister of oil.

Of course, the first thing we did when we got home (after feeding Lucca, Florence and Reggie) was to slice some bread and pour some oil into a saucer to taste it. While the oil is so green and thick it could almost be mistaken for stagnant pond water, the taste is delicious: very peppery and fresh, and far better than anything we've ever tasted from a supermarket. Of course, it tastes all the better for knowing that we'd help pick the olives ourselves.

Liquid gold.
After that, we lit the fire, cooked some dinner and sat down with a glass of wine to reflect on our long and tiring but enjoyable day.

Sunday started bright and early with the all-new animal rounds: let the cats out (which entails holding the cat flap open for them while they gingerly sniff around it before they eventually decide they feel brave enough to exit through it), go up to the chicken enclosure to open the door to the chicken house so they can come out, and then go back to the house to get Reggie up, letting him out of his crate and into the garden for a quick circuit of the lawn before he comes running back in for his breakfast.

After we'd had a leisurely breakfast ourselves, Stuart set to work on the shed roof while I spent a while trying to split the logs that I'd moved from the terrace yesterday - with varying degrees of success.

We headed to Amanda's at around midday to pick up some food for lunch - today we chose to sample three very different dishes featuring enormous prawns, pork meatballs and calves liver - then came back home to heat the dishes through before enjoying them in the sunshine and fresh air on the patio.

After lunch, Stuart headed up the drive to cut down an old chestnut tree that he'd had his eye on for firewood for a while, following which I spent a couple of hours ferrying all the logs back down the driveway to the woodpile and then splitting them. Chestnut is a very axe-friendly wood, and when it comes to log splitting the axe goes through it almost like a knife through butter, with even the very knotty pieces easier to split than many of the rock hard acacia logs that I'd been battling with earlier in the morning, all of which meant that I had a far more productive afternoon than the morning.

While I split wood, Stuart turned his attention back to the roof of the shed, and by 4pm we had an almost complete and almost water-tight roof on our shed, complete with brown felt covering to keep the comune happy.

We packed away our tools just before 4pm so that we could take Reggie out for a walk before the daylight faded. We headed up the road to the track by the quarry above Vellano and had a nice quiet walk there - noticing how much the landscape is changing now that a lot of the leaves have come off the trees, exposing views that we haven't seen since last winter.

The whole footpath is a russet-coloured carpet of crunchy leaves.
When we got to the end of our walk, we headed back down the hill but instead of going straight home we took a turn off the road to go to Donatella's house. Since poor Donatella broke her ankle almost 5 weeks ago, we've constantly been on the go with olive picking, shed building, visitors and more visitors, and we haven't had a chance to pay her a proper visit. We called in today for just a flying visit, but it was good to see both Donatella and her Mum, and hopefully now that things are starting to slow down a bit for us we will be able to see more of her. We were treated to a coffee and a delicious slice of crostata while we had an all-too-brief catch-up with Donatella before leaving to rescue poor Reggie who was waiting patiently in the car.

By the time we left Donatella's darkness had fallen, so it was straight home to pour a glass of wine and spend an evening relaxing by the fire.