Monday 27 June 2016

Sun finds hat

This week it feels as if a true Tuscan summer has finally arrived - temperatures have soared into the 30sC and the sun has has his hat on non-stop.

This was perfect timing for us (other than the fact that we would have quite liked some more stable weather sooner than this, of course), as it meant that I could get all the terraces strimmed over the course of the week, and we could empty the contents of the office out onto the patio for a few days while Stuart laid a sound-insulating layer of cork on the office and utility room floors.

The layer of cork is the solution we have come up with to solve a problem we hadn't anticipated when we renovated the apartment ceiling. Prior to us digging out the concrete floor in the office, there was a roughly 10-inch thick layer of concrete on the floor, the main reason for this being that the beams on the ceiling beneath are not uniform thickness and as they bend and bow so the floor had been levelled simply by adding more and more concrete. Post-renovation, there is only a 2-inch layer of concrete as the levelling has been done on the other side, by building up the height of the beams where they need it with additional blocks of wood. One of the consequences of this was that the floor no longer had the same sound-damping qualities as it had done before. In fact, when I sat in the office at my desk and Stuart was in the apartment beneath, he could hear an email arrive on my computer. Meanwhile I could hear him sniffing in the apartment below.

Clearly this wasn't a good situation for having guests staying in the apartment, and each time we've had guests stay since the ceiling renovation, I have had to move my computer out of the office and set up a temporary workstation on the dining room table, Reggie has had to relocate his sleeping quarters to the living room, and we've had to bolt both office and utility room doors on the outside to remind ourselves not to go into the rooms. This has worked in the short term but clearly isn't sustainable for the long term.

We remembered that we'd seen a stand at the local agricultural fete advertising cork insulation materials for building, and after a little searching around we managed to find the company just on the other side of Pescia and Stuart duly went to visit them and find out whether they could help. They recommended and priced up three different options for us: a thin layer of cork, a 3-inch thick layer of cork, or a product that consists of two thin layers of cork sandwiched together with a layer of rubber - which, depending on who you ask between ourselves and our friends, looks a little like a liquorice allsort... or a fig roll... or a filled flapjack. This was the option they said had the best sound-absorbing qualities, and after some consideration we decided to go for the liquorice allsort option.   

Liquorice allsort? Fig roll? Filled flapjack? You decide:

So the laying of the liquorice/flapjack/fig roll cork was a simple case of gluing it down onto the concrete. Once that had dried (after 24 hours), it was to be covered with a layer of OSB to protect it. We eventually plan to put a layer of wood on top of the OSB, using the wooden slats from pallets - but that is a project for another day!

Cork material

Utility room started.

Utility room corked.

Temporary home for the contents of the office.

Office floor started.

Office floor corked.

Terraces strimmed.
The hot weather came just days after Stuart had put the finishing touches to the pergola and it has been an absolute godsend having the shade to shelter beneath, making outdoor dining a pleasure rather than the alternative which might well have been being chased indoors by the searing heat.

Reggie has found the heat challenging, and he's spent most days lying flat out on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor. We've tried to walk him first thing in the morning where possible, and always in the woods where it's a shade cooler under the cover of the trees.

We've had another bumper harvest from our veg garden this week, as well as a few delicious soft fruits from the plants kindly given to us by our friend Claudia a couple of months ago - hopefully the size of the fruit crop will grow as the years go by!

We ended the week with a hectic day on Saturday getting ready for the arrival of our friends Paul and Marie - we walked Reggie, then set to finishing putting down the office floor, moving furniture back in, cleaning the apartment, mowing lawns, finishing the strimming and tidying our own house before heading to the airport in time for 9.20pm. On arriving at the airport we found that Paul & Marie's flight was delayed and wasn't due to get in until 10.15 - so what else to do but to have a quiet glass of wine while we waited?

Every cloud has a silver lining.
It was lovely to see Paul & Marie's faces walking towards us in the arrivals hall and we headed straight home to open a bottle of wine (and the rest!) and catch up. The hot, sunny weather has arrived just in time for Paul & Marie's visit - they have only ever visited us in winter before, so we are pleased that they will have the full Tuscan summer experience for their holiday this time around and we're really looking forward to the time we'll spend with them in the week ahead.

Monday 20 June 2016

Is 'real' summer on the horizon?

Last week was another busy one here at numero 182 (at this time of year, I'm not sure that it ever isn't busy).

With our apartment guests still with us until the middle of the week, Stuart helped them out on Monday by taking them to a bicycle hire shop in Pieve a Nievole on the other side of Montecatini. We are surprised not to have found anywhere closer by that offers cycle hire (that's not saying that there isn't anywhere closer by, of course, just nowhere that advertises itself well enough for us to have found it!). We do offer our own road bikes (or mountain bikes) for guests to hire when they are here, but of course their suitability depends on how similar in height our guests are to us, and in this case, with Lisa being petite and me being taller than average, and Stuart also being taller than Colin, that just wasn't going to work.

I'm pleased to say that despite some torrential rain at times (interspersed with lovely warm sunshine), our guests made the most of their two-day bike hire and tackled all the hills in our valley, managing to get around all 10 of the dieci castella and enjoying both the cycling and the views.

Our bike rack hadn't seen any action in a while!

As a thank you for helping them out with a few things during their stay, Colin and Lisa very generously offered to take us out for dinner on Monday evening - and of course we said yes! We had a good meal and a very enjoyable evening at Ristorante Da Carla in Sorana - another opportunity to spend time chatting with them both, feeling lucky to have yet another set of really lovely apartment guests that we've genuinely very much enjoyed meeting and getting to know.

Lisa and Colin left us on Wednesday morning - shortly before the water in our pipes dried up. Again. To be fair, it had been a whole six months since we last had problems with our water supply, so perhaps it was too much to expect things to continue to flow problem-free...

Thankfully, we were without water for only around 5.5 hours this time - and judging by the amount of shouting and general noise going on in the woods to the side of the house, we think that some work must have been going on on the supply pipe. Theoretically, when work is going on, we should be notified of any outages, and the work should at least be listed on the water company's website - neither of these things had happened, which left us in a state of uncertainty, but thankfully when the noises and shouting abated at around 5.30pm, so the water returned to the pipes. Relief all round!

Thinking that we may be facing an undetermined period without water, Stuart went to fill up some canisters from the local fountain. It seems that these plastic water canisters are not resistant to UV rays - this is what happens if you leave one out in the sun for too long!

On Wednesday and Thursday, Stuart constructed our long-awaited pergola - the pergola for which we had to have permission to build from the superintendent in Florence. He bought chestnut poles from an agraria near Chiesina Uzzanese, and almost lost them (and possibly the car as well) when on the way home they decided they didn't like being on the roof rack and as as he took a corner near home the whole lot slipped from the roof to the side of the car:

Thankfully he was almost home at this point, and thankfully Stuart, the beams and the car all made it home in one piece - without even a mark on the car (which is more than can be said for later in the week, but more about that in a minute).

Following a technique he'd seen on the internet, Stuart dug holes for the poles, concreted in a section of leftover soil stack pipe into each, then once that was dry, put a couple of inches of gravel inside each pipe, before putting the posts in place. The theory is that the gravel in the bottom of the pipes should allow water to drain away easily, and when the poles eventually need replacing, they will be easy to remove without having to dig out all the concrete. To finish the job, he will fill the pipe with mortar in order to stabilise the poles.

Reggie shows exactly where he would like the pergola to be.
Waste pipe concreted into hole.

Waste pipes awaiting poles.



And now the pergola is built, Reggie sits on the patio...
For the time being, the roof of the pergola is covered with some old olive netting - we are trying to decide whether we will try to grow something over the roof or whether we want a solid, water-proof covering.

So anyway, back to the car. Whereas it survived the chestnut pole exodus of Wednesday unscathed, the same could not be said for the strimming incident of Thursday. On Thursday morning, Stuart and David headed up to Lanciole to do a much needed morning of strimming at the house up there that Stuart helps out with. When they came back, the poor car was somewhat worse for wear. While strimming in the car parking area, a piece of gravel had been kicked up by the strimmer, hit the car and shattered the back window:

A sorry state.
I suppose you could hardly blame the car for subsequently having had two more episodes of not starting in the days that followed. Thankfully, on one occasion we were just leaving Donatella's house and David and I were able to push the car a short distance to start it off on a roll down the slope of her drive so that Stuart could bump start it. On the second occasion, we were just leaving Mara and Franco's house and we had to ask Franco to tow the car backwards up their short driveway so that Stuart could roll it down and bump start it again. Needless to say, the tow rope doesn't leave the car these days!

Together with David, we spent a lovely day on Friday at Donatella's, doing our best to try and help her out with a few things around the place in memory of Alex, the great friend we lost a year ago, and hopefully giving her some support and friendship and even laughter on a difficult day. Donatella had made us a delicious lunch, after which we set to with our tools, David mowing grass and cutting trees, me cutting hedges and cutting back overgrown acacia and brambles, Stuart putting up a beautiful shelf that Alex had made but had never got around to putting up in the kitchen, and cutting trees. By the time we finished it appeared as if we'd left more mess than anything - in the form of hedge clippings and logged wood - but hopefully what we'd done was some help!

We'd intended to dedicate Saturday to our own garden, but we spent less time in the garden than planned as we ended up going over to our friends Mara and Franco's to give them some advice about worms.. and ended up staying for lunch and most of the afternoon. Mara has just got herself a wormery for composting and, as we have had one for a little while (we are by no means experts!) she had asked for some advice. Mara's wormery is ingeniously made from a very standard set of plastic drawers, with a tap put in the bottom of the bottom drawer, and holes drilled in the bottom of all the drawers above it, allowing the worms to move between the levels and creating exactly the same sort of environment as our purpose-built wormery.

After some worm-talk, and showing us the stall that Franco is in the process of building for the two 'nano' sheep they are soon to acquire, Mara cooked us a delicious lunch and we spent a leisurely few hours eating, drinking and talking with them both - flexing our (rather weak) Italian muscles as Franco insisted we stick to Italian (quite rightly!), and even gave us a mini-lesson himself (the more lessons the better!).

We are so pleased to have met Mara and Franco - not only are they warm, generous and friendly people, but they are also interested in the same things as we are and an absolute fount of knowledge. One of the many interesting topics we talked about was the infestation currently affecting the sweet chestnut trees in the area.

When out and about on our walks we'd noticed a large number of chestnut trees with strange swellings in their leaves and had wondered what that was all about. It turns out that, for several years, the chestnut trees in the area have suffered with an infestation of a Chinese gall wasp. The chestnut crop for the last few years has been very poor indeed, and in an area in which sweet chestnut has such historical, economic and cultural importance, this is quite a crisis.

Chestnut infected with gall wasp.
We had heard that last year's harvest had been an improvement on the previous few years and Franco explained that last year, for the first time, a form of biological warfare had been attempted with the introduction of the Torymus wasp - a parasitic wasp that attacks the problem-causing gall wasp. Only a small number of these parasitic wasps were introduced, and only in a very small area, because it's quite a costly process and funding only comes from apiculture groups (as chestnut flowers are important for bees), hunting groups (as wild boar feed on chestnuts), artisans who make chestnut flour and other chestnut products, and a few environmentalists. Time will tell how successful the introduction of Torymus has been as it is likely to take up to ten years for the full benefit to be seen, but hopefully it will be a success story.

We did eventually make it to our vegetable garden - which is now protected by an all-new uprated fence energizer: 8000v should keep our potatoes safe from thieving creatures now we're mains powered!

Hopefully it works for more species than shown on the box...
We harvested our garlic this weekend - our first attempt at growing it, and we seem to have a good crop. As long as we can get them dried properly, they should keep us going for a long while.

Garlic harvest.
Once this is dried it should be enough to keep us going for a few months.

Zucchini, nasturtiums, tomatoes, artichokes all doing well.

Bean corridor.
After putting in some hard graft in the garden on Sunday, we finished the weekend with what felt like a well earned pizza at the Circolo in Vellano with David and Donatella.

The forecast for the week ahead finally looks as if some more settled weather might be coming our way - and a sustained rise in temperature with it. We've had some lovely weather intermittently in recent weeks, it just hasn't really stayed around for very long, and this has been the wettest and windiest spring in the area for a long time, so some warm, dry, settled weather will be welcomed by many people - we'll wait and see how long it is before we all start complaining about the heat!

Monday 13 June 2016

Back in bees-iness

Last week started with an anniversary. Not only was it our fourth wedding anniversary, but also the second anniversary of us having completed the purchase of our house here in Italy. How time flies!

It being a 'school day', most of the day was spent doing office work and chores. We had been due to go and see Andrea, our geometra, in the morning, and we duly traipsed into town to call in at his office - only to find that he wasn't there. Still, it wasn't an entirely wasted journey as we managed to call in at the bank and treat ourselves to a quick coffee at Franco's bar. We found the bank full of workmen and with a security guard on the door showing people the right way in - it seems to be undergoing a re-fit at the moment, meaning that the usual airlock/fingerprint pod for entering and exiting the bank one person at a time is out of action. I am pinning my hopes on the airlock pod being decommissioned for good - the last two times we've visited the bank it has spat me back out onto the pavement after my attempts to get in, and with other people waiting their turn to get in (and out) I can always feel panic rising as I step into the pod, playing the guessing game as to whether or not it will decide it can scan my fingerprint and let me in!

Anyway, with all the day's work and chores done, we relaxed on the patio with a glass of prosecco and enjoyed our view, after which I was treated to a delicious meal prepared by my husband, which was a lovely surprise. It's not a surprise that he can cook, not a surprise that he can cook well, nor even a surprise that he did cook, but he threw together the sort of meal we haven't eaten together for a long time: rocket salad with a balsamic dressing, a delicious white bean and garlic mash, salmon fillets gently roasted with honey and mustard, and boiled new potatoes with olives and capers. Culinary genius.

On Tuesday, Stuart took our car to a mechanic recommended to us by our friends Chris and Sue. The problem with the car is an intermittent issue, and in fact, since it had its most recent episode of non-compliance a couple of weeks ago (when we couldn't start it for three days and ended up having to tow it along the drive with the tractor then bump start it), it has started every time. Of course, the fact that it's an intermittent issue makes it very difficult for mechanics to find/fix - and after having had the car for two days, the mechanic told us to come and pick it up: he couldn't find a problem, because it started every time he tried it. He advised Stuart to bring it back when the problem comes back... er, but the whole point is that we can't bring it in when it won't start, and when we can bring it in, by definition it means it's starting! It seem this Doblò is intent on leading us a merry dance.

We had more car issues later in the week - not ours this time, but unfortunately that of our current set of apartment guests, who had arrived late on Wednesday night. Friday was only the second day of their holiday, and they were due to head off into Florence for the day, but didn't even make it as far as Pescia before having a bump in their car. We were gutted for them - they are a lovely couple, who we've been getting on with really well, and what a thing to happen on the second day of their holiday! We helped out as much as we could: as soon as we found out what had happened, Stuart headed down the road to pick them up, arriving just as the police were finishing taking statements and their hire car was being towed away by Enrico and his colleague, mechanics who we've used in the past. Stuart was bemused by the fact that, on arriving at the scene, he knew all parties. As mentioned, he knows Enrico and his colleague, who were taking the car away; he also recognised the driver of the other vehicle (a local bread van); and the owner of the van, who had also turned up to find out what was going on, is also a lady we know from Vellano.

We tried to make the best of a bad situation and took Lisa and Colin out with us for a walk around the woods with Reggie (not quite what they had intended for their day, but hopefully it was an improvement on being stranded at the apartment with no means of getting about), then Stuart helped them with telephoning the hire car company and finding out how they could get a replacement. It turned out that, while it was no problem for them to get a replacement, it would have to be from the Hertz office at Pisa airport - so on Sunday we drove them there where, happily they managed to sort everything out quite easily and get back on the road.

We had our friends Paul & Kathy round on Friday evening - while they've been over here a couple of times recently, it has been when we have been in a state of chaos and they have been coming as the cavalry - we felt we owed them a more relaxed evening meal with no paint brushes or work clothes required! We'd decided to cook the first of the curries from the curry club subscription ( I gave Stuart for his birthday (there may have been some vested interest on my part...), and we were pleased with the results! While we love the food here in Tuscany, it can, for those of us living here year round, get somewhat samey and one thing we really miss is interesting spices and flavours. The Spicery provided us this time around with everything we needed (and step-by-step instructions) to make: murgh mahkani, potato biryani, chilli chutney and raita. It was a delicious and very flavourful change, and we had a lovely evening catching up with Paul and Kathy.

Saturday morning saw us getting back on our metaphorical horses: we returned to the bee hive. This time, however, we took the precaution of a. wearing two pairs of trousers each (as well as the rest of the protective clothing) and b. asking the lovely Mara to come and show us how it's meant to be done!

The weather was a lot warmer, sunnier and calmer this time around, but the real difference was having an expert onboard! Mara helped us light the smoker more effectively (having brought some hessian sacking for us to use, which worked better than the pine cone we'd used last time), and prompted us when and where and how much to puff, while she carefully lifted the frames out to check them. We fairly quickly found the queen, which was good news, and there were plenty of larvae in evidence. We learned that when we take frames out of the hive we need to put them back in the same position as we found them in, and it's important not to leave a gap between them. In our haste to get away from the hive last time, we'd not taken the time to put the frames back in close together, and the bees had started building a large lump of wax in the space created. This needed to be removed.

If you look closely you can see larvae in some of the cells.

Stuart and I admitted to each other later on that we'd both felt a little panicky when watching Mara - while we each got away with no stings (that's 26 last time versus zero this time for me - what a result!), poor Mara did get a couple and the bees really were pretty grumpy. We were being bombarded by them and even Mara admitted that they were a little arrabiate (angry). Nevertheless, the inspection was a success.

Mara has recommended that we try moving the hive away from the shade of the tree (it's currently beneath a large chestnut tree, which gives it a lot of shade; possibly too much) and onto the sunnier terraces above it. This will have to be done very gradually though, moving the hive a cm or two at a time, taking account of the the "three feet or three mile" phenomenon. The saying goes that you can move a beehive three feet or three miles - but nothing in between, the logic being that a hive is moved up to 3 feet from its original site, the bees will still be able to find it, but if it's moved more than this, there is a risk of the bees trying to return to the old site and getting lost. The '3-3-3' rule suggests that, if it is necessary to move the hive more than three feet, then it should be moved at least three miles away, left for three weeks, before being returned to its new location. (Three miles being far enough away for the bees not to try to find their way back to the old site, and three weeks being long enough for most of the original flying bees to have been replaced by new ones.) Of course, there is disagreement in the bee-keeping community as to exactly how hard and fast a rule this is. For us, for example, the site of the original swarm (and the hive Mara moved it into) can only be a mile from its new site - and we don't appear to have lost any bees. Nevertheless, we will be following the advice we are given!

Mara also suggests turning the hive to face east (which gives the bees an earlier wake-up call in the morning), but doesn't think we should do this until after the summer.

We were all a little disappointed to find that the frames from our own hive (our Flowhive) didn't fit into the polystyrene temporary hive, so we aren't able to put our frames into the hive in order to gradually transfer them to ours. However, Mara has taken one of our frames away with her to see if it will fit in one of her wooden frames, and if it does, she will lend us one. Unfortunately for Mara, she has spare hives this year - it is proving to be a disastrous year for bees and honey production thanks to the unsettled weather, the wind and rain having battered the spring blossom from the trees. She and Franco managed to harvest two buckets of acacia honey from their 30 hives - a very low yield.

We had our own first harvest of the year this week: we harvested artichokes and this year's first crop of courgettes. Beetroot and beans are not far behind. After spending a few hours in the orto both Saturday and Sunday, things are starting to look a lot tidier and we are starting to feel more positive about this year's veg crops.

Saturday night saw us heading up to Vellano to a pizza party at Paul and Veronica's house. Paul and Veronica, who don't live here full-time, had been here for the week with a party of fellow walkers, who had all spent the week exploring the walks and countryside in our area. As a finale to their week, Paul & Veronica had laid on a party for the walkers and were kind enough to invite us to go along as well. We also caught up with another ex-pat couple from Vellano there, Jim and Judy, and of course our close friends David, Sarah and Donatella were all there, making it a night to remember. I quite honestly can't remember the last time I laughed as long or as hard, and a great time was had by all.

I have no words...

... still laughing.

Amici! David, Veronica, Donatella, Paul and us. (Photo courtesy of Sarah.)

After all the fun of Saturday night, Sunday was an altogether quieter end to the week (and it needed to be!). We drove our guests, Lisa and Colin, to Pisa to collect their replacement hire car (and got stuck waiting for a bike race to pass us on the way back into Pescia), made a fresh quinoa salad for lunch with courgettes straight from the garden, took Reggie for a good walk on a new track we tried between Sorana and Castelvecchio, and spent the afternoon tending to the veg beds. The end of a fun-filled week.