Monday 29 August 2016

Mainly about the beans

Many of you will have read about, seen pictures and watched news footage this week of the part of central Italy devastated by a strong earth quake that happened in the early hours of Wednesday morning, measuring more than 6.0 on the moment magnitude scale. We were touched by the number of messages we received from friends and family from all over the world on Wednesday morning, checking up on us after the terrible news. Fortunately for us, the affected area is around 3-4 hours away, and we didn't feel a thing (although there are reports of people having felt the quake and its after shocks as close to us as Florence). However, we are deeply saddened by the tragic events and, living here, it is only too easy to imagine the chaos, terror and devastation in the places affected. The villages most badly affected by the terramoto were little medieval mountain villages very similar to those in our valley, the usual populations of which had been swelled by summer visitors - grandchildren spending some of their summer holidays with grandparents, families from nearby cities spending time in their holiday homes, and foreign visitors exploring a lesser-known part of Italy for their summer vacations. One of the worst hit towns, Amatrice, was due to hold its annual festa this weekend celebrating the town's famous pasta dish, pasta amatriciana - all things that have become so familiar to us, making the news all so much more vivid and tragic.

Italy is one of the most tectonically active countries in Europe, with two major fault lines running through the country. Thankfully, our area is one of the more stable and while quakes can occasionally be felt in our locality, the area is generally considered to be lower risk than many.

Of course, donation centres were soon set up to send aid to the affected towns, and on Friday afternoon we took 8 packs of bottled water to the Circolo (the village club) in Pietrabuona where the guy who runs it, Emanuele, had set up a water collection point on behalf of the local AVIS group (the volunteer-run association that coordinates blood donation and collection) in advance of the Protezione Civile di Pescia taking a trip to the affected area with emergency supplies. We learned that Emanuele himself had been just 30km away from the epicentre of the quake, having been visiting his wife's family, and had woken to see the room shaking for more than two minutes. It's not hard to understand why he was so keen to do something to help.

We now know that close to 300 people were killed by the quake, well over 300 were injured, and 2,500 have been left homeless. An article here contains links and information on various ways in which anyone wishing to help - either in Italy or in the rest of the world - can do so.

Our week was fairly quiet, although we finished the weekend with a visit to one of our own local festas, the Sorana bean festa.

Sorana beans are small, white, thin-skinned cannellini-type beans. They have been famous for centuries and sought after for their delicate flavour, for the fact that they are easy to digest, rich in proteins and that they don't lose their nutritional properties during cooking. The Sorana bean is considered so special that it is designated as an IGP (Protected Geographic Indication) food - in the same way as champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, stilton cheese can only be labelled as such if it comes from one of three counties of England; roquefort cheese can only come from Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, and so on. Sorana beans can only be grown in a small area along the river in the vicinity of the village of Sorana - apparently the same beans grown elsewhere are just not as good, it being both the very special Sorana soil and the particular microclimate that make all the difference.

For the festa we'd arranged to meet up with our friends Paul & Kathy, so after picking them up we headed to Sandrino's bar just outside the village for a quick spritz to get into the party spirit before heading up the hill into the village where the main event was happening. Once in the village we ran into our mutual friend Carolyn and had a short catch up with her, as well as meeting and having a good chat with Paul & Kathy's friend and neighbour Kelly for the first time. We even won a pot plant on a game of 'corks' - pick 10 different corks, each of which has a number hidden on the bottom, and depending on the total scored when the numbers are all added together, you win a prize... We won the 'top' prize:

Ironically, by the time we all decided we were hungry enough to tuck into the local speciality, they had actually run out of the main white bean dish! After standing in the queue for a while wondering if any more plates of beans were going to arrive, we decided we would make do with a different, tomato-based bean dish, and we hungrily tucked into sausage and beans, and very tasty grilled salt cod.

We had a great time at the lively little event, and agreed that this was definitely one of the festas that we would make a point to come back to again next year.

Table football tournament outside the Circolo.

A stunning spot. The village festas are usually fund-raisers, often for the parochial society or else for the local misericordia - the volunteer-run ambulance service.

The party atmosphere continued long into the night.

I'll leave you with a small pictorial round-up of the rest of the week:

One day's worth of tomato crop sorted.
Black figs - tiny but oh so sweet and delicious. Picked from the small tree that we only planted 17 months ago.
We started work on clearing a section of terracing beneath the car park. This is going to be designated as a composting area, with several more composting stations yet to be constructed. Despite already having a three-bin composting station above the house, and the chickens making compost and the worms making compost, we still need more. This is the start of project compost-in-earnest.

Last week's guests had only booked to stay for three nights but ended up staying for a whole week because they liked it so much! They even left us a gift.

Reggie enjoyed splashing about in the river on Saturday morning - we found a lovely quiet, cool, shady spot where he splashed around while we sat on the rocks being entertained by his antics.

The boys.

Monday 22 August 2016

Francigena in flip flops

It was something of a subdued end to the week following the departure of Stuart's Mum, Kerys and Ben. It's always something of a shock to the system (albeit a pleasant one) when friends and family arrive as for so much of the time it's just the two of us here (plus animals), but we soon settle into things and the second shock comes when they then leave again - the house seems quiet and empty and the exuberance of the last week (or fortnight in this case) has evaporated. It usually takes only a day or so for us to readjust and slip back into our normal routine, but for whatever reason it seemed extra-quiet this time around, and even Reggie looked forlornly at us, as if he was accusing us of having sent his playmates away.

It was a relief to get to the weekend, by which time we were starting get into the swing of things again, and we spent a few hours on Saturday afternoon (after the obligatory Reggie walk in the morning) in the orto, planting out a few new things for the coming seasons (beetroot, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli) and harvesting yet more abundant crops. After our sweaty couple of hours in the veg beds we headed straight to Amanda's to offer her the pick of the crop and earned a whopping €9.50 for our efforts - our biggest single haul to date.

For me, the most exciting element of this year's crops are the melons. For some reason I find it incredible that we've actually grown our very own melons. Delicious melons at that! This weekend was the first time we've been able to pick fully ripe ones, and we devoured one ourselves and gave the other to Amanda.

Beans, aubergines, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and two melons.

Look at the size of those! Deliciously sweet beef tomatoes grown from seeds given to us by Donatella.

Pumpkins and squashes coming along.

Sweetness and sunshine on a plate - our first ripe melon tasted like nectar.

On Sunday, we decided to take it easy and after our Reggie walk and a light lunch, we headed out for some sight-seeing.

The small town of Vinci is about 45 minutes' drive away from our house, and we'd been meaning to visit it for a while. Vinci is of course famous for lending its name to the world famous Renaissance artist-sculptor-engineer-scientist-inventor (all-round genius) Leonardo da Vinci, who was born there in April 1452.

We were surprised to find that within 30 minutes we were in countryside more reminiscent of 'classic Tuscany' - rolling hills covered in grape vines, with grand farmhouses and villas sitting atop the hills and cypress trees lining their driveways. We also noticed that we were already in Chianti countryside - the vines all belonging to producers all making the famous Tuscan red. Definitely an area to return to for some wine tasting now we know we're so close!

Once we arrived in Vinci, we wandered around the pretty streets of the town and soon spotted a footpath sign for a path to the birthplace of Leonardo - which was in fact just outside the town in a small hamlet called Anchiano. About 3km to be precise. We decided to make the mini-pilgrimage on foot despite ridiculously inappropriate footwear (flip flops on my part) and despite a searing heat that had us both sporting the particularly attractive 'wet-look'. Inappropriate footwear and sizzling temperatures aside, the walk was very pleasant, along a wide, easy track, with lovely views over the rolling Tuscan hills as we went, and we felt smug when we finally hit the road and saw other tourists rolling up in their cars (a little less smug when they stepped out of their air conditioned cars without a bead of sweat on them, but that's a different matter!). The footpath to Leo's house happened to be a tiny section of the famous via Francigena - the ancient pilgrimage route that in medieval times connected Canterbury, in England, to Rome. We've come across the route in our area many times, but this was the first time we'd actually walked any (tiny) part of it.

As seems to be our way, we avoided the museums of Vinci - on this occasion at least. We agreed that these would be fascinating museums to come back to another day - perhaps on a slightly cooler day and with an earlier start to fit everything in. Definitely somewhere to bring our guests, and to recommend as a day trip for holidaymakers using our apartment.


Leonardo's birthplace in Anchiano.

View from Anchiano.
Few weeks seem to go by at the moment without our car throwing a spanner in the works (did I mention that while Stuart's family were here, on Sheila's birthday itself, Sheila, Kerys, Ben and I had to push the car out of a space in Montecarlo so it could be turned around and bump started?), and Saturday was no exception. We got back to the car hot and bothered, got in, turned the ignition, and nothing. We had to laugh (thankfully we could laugh because we were in a large, flat car park with space enough to push). After Stuart had pushed and heaved the car backwards out of its space, he took over in the driver's seat while I went to give it a push - and was very kindly joined in my endeavours by a German(?) holiday maker and his young son who had spotted our trials from the other side of the car park and offered to lend a hand.

Once we were motoring and had yelled a quick thank you to the benevolent tourists, we headed back out of town for another quick stop, this time in the small town of Cerreto Guidi, another Renaissance Tuscan village, but this time dominated by the enormous Medici villa at its centre. This particular villa was built in 1555 by order of Cosimo I dei Medici (of the famous Medici dynasty) who used it mainly as a hunting residence for the family. The imposing building now houses a collection of hunting weaponry.

Medici Villa in Cerreto Guidi.

After a quick look around the outside of the villa, we headed back to the car to continue our journey home. Thankfully, the car started when we went back to it this time, so feeling hot and weary, we wended our way back to more familiar territory and stopped off in the square in Pescia for some light refreshments at Bar Pulter before continuing our way home after a great afternoon of exploratory sightseeing.

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Smith family holiday - week 2

The second week of the Smith family holiday was a mixture of work, rest and play - for everyone!

Project: stair gate

When we first got Reggie, we put in place what was always intended to be temporary stair gate - in our naive minds, we thought that Reggie and our two cats would soon get used to each other, and we would be able to remove the stair gate, safe in the knowledge that the three animals would get on with each other - or at least tolerate each other and act civilly around each other. Over time it became abundantly clear that the stair gate would have to become a permanent fixture. The cats (sadly now just Florence) were terrified of Reggie, and Reggie would probably like cat for his dinner - or at least as a toy to play with, and despite some apparent civility and restraint on his part under controlled conditions (when one of us stands at the stairs between dog and cat with a bag of treats for each), we simply can't take the risk of Reggie finding his way upstairs to terrorise Florence. Therefore, after 21 months it was finally time for the temporary structure to come down - to be replaced with something more permanent, sturdier and more in keeping with the rest of the furniture. Who better to help build it than a pair of holidaying teenagers a dab hand with a paint brush and a hammer?

Staining the poles.
Adding the mesh.

Ready for a gate
Finito! (As you might have guessed, the gate closes with an upcycled washing machine spring).

Apprentice farmers

Both Kerys and Ben did plenty to help out during their stay with us, both keeping on top of the daily watering of the seedlings in the poly tunnel, while Kerys turned her hand to chicken husbandry, doing a daily check for eggs and checking their water and food supplies, as well as bee keeping, joining Stuart for the weekly check of the bee hive. She did a sterling job, and they even managed to find the elusive queen.

Meanwhile, both Kerys and Ben tried their hand at driving the tractor up and down the drive - we'll make farmers of them both yet!

Learner tractor driver #1.
Learner tractor driver #2.
Almost a pro.
Novice bee-keeper.
First bee inspection done - they even found the elusive queen! 
Another birthday

After having celebrated my birthday during the first week of their holiday, the second week saw the second birthday of the trip when we celebrated Sheila's birthday. Stuart, Sheila, Kerys and Ben started the day with a Reggie walk along the river, followed by a brunch on the apartment lawn, and later in the afternoon, after I had finished my office work, we all headed to Montecarlo for a round of birthday drinks.

A hot walk along the river...
...but at least one of the party got to cool off in the water.

Happy birthday Mom/Sheila/Nan! 
Birthday brunch.
Birthday drinks in beautiful Montecarlo.
Project: cultivator

One of the many pieces of broken equipment we inherited from our predecessors was an intriguing three-wheeled cultivator - which somehow had made its way here after having been manufactured originally in Wolverhampton, UK!

Despite a couple of attempts in the past to get the engine running - once with our friend Paul (Granville) and once with Stuart's uncle John (both mechanically minded) - it seemed doomed to stay immobile, but Stuart had an idea as to how to give it a new purpose and a new lease of life.

After towing the cultivator to the end of the drive with the tractor, Stuart rallied his troop of workers and set them to work refurbishing the sad old cultivator.

By the end of the project, we had a very smart and shiny three-wheeled agricultural machine ready to greet visitors to our property. The project wasn't quite finished this week though, as Stuart's plan is to plant geraniums in the back, giving an added splash of colour - watch this space!

Work begins.
Preparing the base.
Cutting the wood.

Staining the wood.
Preparing a stencil.
More painting...
... and some more.
Final touches.
A Medieval festa

At the weekend, we headed to what is fast becoming one of our favourite local spots: the village of Lanciole. For the last couple of years, Lanciole has put on a medieval festival during the summer, complete with sword fighting, archery, medieval costumes and plenty of food and drink - it sounded right up our street.

As with most days this week, the heat was punishing, so we wandered around a bit, Stuart and Ben had a go at archery, and then we retired to the shade of a bench outside the circolo for a refreshment stop.

After that, we wandered around the village a bit more and somehow found ourselves in the house of one of the village summer residents, with glasses of beer being thrust upon us! The very friendly lady who owned the house (and who comes to the village with her husband for two months every summer, outside of which they live in Florence) showed us around her entire house (every room, even apologising for the state of the storage cupboard), pointing out all of its original features, and then invited us to sit in her kitchen with a glass of beer – people really are incredibly welcoming here, but this seemed to take things to a whole new level! Stuart and I were thrilled to find that we understood roughly 85-90% of what the lady said, although poor Sheila, Kerys and Ben were left flummoxed and bemused. We managed to extricate ourselves after just the one glass of beer and after promising to look her up when we next go to Florence, and after another short circuit of the village we called time on the visit, leaving the sword fighters and archers to carry on into the evening.

What it says on the banner!

Not exactly medieval, but an interesting collection of beautifully restored radios from the 1930s.

Lovely views.
Three hot Smiths.
That pool looked SO inviting.
Once again, Stuart impressed the locals with his archery skills - not bad for a foreigner!

The target.
Ben's turn.

The sword fight begins.

A refreshment stop in the shade.
Beautiful Lanciole.

Monday was ferragosto - the big summer bank holiday here in Italy, for which most businesses close, with many closing for 1, 2, or 3 weeks, and every man and his dog heading either for the sea or the mountains. I decided that since it was both a bank holiday and the last full day of the Smiths' holiday, I would take the day off work and treat it as a holiday too.

After scratching our heads as to what to do with the day, we decided to attempt to find a picnic spot somewhere in the Padule di Fucecchio - a wetland area to the south of us which is the largest inland marsh area in Italy, covering 2,000 hectares. At that size, it ought to be easy to find, right?!

Having attempted to visit the Padule once before, but failed to find our way in, we hoped that this time would be easier. Unfortunately it wasn't. Thanks perhaps to our confusingly laid out AA map of Tuscany (on which entire communities are left out, roads are missing, and the names of places that do make it onto the map are aligned so as to make it impossible to tell where exactly they are positioned), we ended up on a magical mystery tour. That wasn't really all that magical, but more hot and sweaty and stressy.

We DID, however, eventually find the right spot, and we all tumbled out of the car and headed straight for the shade of the nearest tree to lay down our picnic blanket and spread of food. It was a very pretty spot, but next time we will try cycling - the path next to the river in Pescia eventually ends up in the Padule, so there shouldn't be any chance of going wrong!
Padule di Fucecchio.

Other than that, we had a lovely evening meal at Da Nerone for Sheila's birthday, some more stop-offs at Sandrino's cafe for light refreshments and table football, a visit to a Bonsai museum, ice creams, and lots of time enjoying everyone's company.

Birthday meal.

View from Sandrino's cafe.
Bonsai museum - a 250-year-old tree.

We finally had to say goodbye to Sheila, Kerys and Ben on Tuesday evening, when we drove them to the airport for their evening flight back to the UK. The two weeks have flown by, and we have loved having them here. Reggie has been in his element with a constant supply of play mates and source of treats and fuss. We were all sad to see them leave, and we are already looking forward to their next visits.