Sunday 25 September 2016

(Wood) chips and eating our way through the EU butter mountain

Ever wonder what happened to the EU butter mountain? Last night we found it. In Vellano. And we ate most of it.

But more of that later.

Much of the past week has been a bit of a non-event, thanks largely to the tracheal infection that Stuart managed to pick up on his travels to/around the UK. He was so poorly last Saturday that we ended up going to the Guardia Medica - an out-of-hours doctor service in Pescia where we saw a very nice and helpful doctor and came away with a prescription for antibiotics and a very favourable impression of the service. Of course, it was lunchtime when we went, and perhaps it wouldn't always be the case that you'd turn up and be seen immediately, as we were, but it's good to know the services is there nevertheless. The service runs every night throughout the night and all day at the weekends.

Stuart spend the early part of the week lying prostrate on the sofa feeling terrible and coughing, but very slowly and gradually started to improve as the days went on. The week picked up a bit on Thursday when he took delivery of the wood chipper he had ordered the previous week, and David came round to help him put it together and fit it to the back of the tractor.

Could have been anything in the box.

Luckily it was the wood chipper we were expecting.

.. And it works!

Come Saturday, while still a way off feeling 100%, Stuart was feeling sufficiently improved to tackle some outdoor jobs and we were both itching to put the chipper properly to the test. So, while I did the work of cutting acacias and clearing around the car park area with the hedge trimmers and raking it all up, Stuart babysat the chipper, feeding it pieces of wood, acacia branches, bramble and everything I could cut and throw at it. We were delighted with the results - a tidy car park/drive area and two piles of chipping all ready to be composted and/or used to put on beds or around the bottom of the fruit trees. A win-win!




Chipper at work.

The result. Ready to be composted.

Now, back to that butter mountain.

The occasion (on Saturday night) was our friend Mara's 40th birthday party, which was held at the circolo in Vellano. Mara originally comes from Lombardy (the Italian Lakes), and she had invited some of her friends from home to the party. As a special surprise for her guests, she had invited some friends who are experts in the cooking of 'toc'. Toc is a polenta-based dish which, as far as we can tell contains polenta, the entire EU butter mountain, and at least half of the EU cheese mountain (if there even is such a thing).

Helpfully, there were handouts for everyone, describing the history and traditions of "il toc".

Although its precise origins are unknown, what is known is that the dish is at least 500 years old and comes originally from Bellagio, Lombardy. It used to be prepared by families for special occasions such as christenings and weddings.

There is a certain skill to cooking the dish - which takes 2.5-3 hours to make - and if you get it wrong, it splits, just like mayonnaise has a tendency to do. The dish is cooked in a pan on the fire - first creating a fairly traditional polenta mix, with maize, water, salt and pepper, and then very gradually adding a mountain of butter and a mountain of cheese, stirring all the while.

Once cooked, the pan is placed in the centre of the room and the dish is eaten with wooden spoons - no plates or other cutlery is used, only the wooden spoon, from which you use your hands to take the delicious gooey mixture and eat it (never put the spoon in your mouth or lick it, or else you won't be able to go back for more!). Traditionally, the dish is served simply either with slices of cured meat or with missoltini, another speciality from Lake Como: cured shad (a close relative to herring), which is caught in Lake Como during the month of May, is gutted and sun dried before being pressed and cured for six months in salt and bay leaves. The fish we had was doused in oil and vinegar before being heated up and served whole - and you eat it whole. We were absolutely blown away by its amazing flavour - simply delicious.

The toc experts tending their pan.

Mara and Franco explaining the story behind toc and how to eat it. (This would probably be a good point to point out that the party was fancy dress, with a hippy theme...)

Once all of the polenta has been eaten from the pan (or in this case the leftovers had been boxed up for guests to take away), the pan goes back on the fire (note that it hasn't been cleaned - the remainders of the polenta are still at this point stuck to the sides of the pan). This time, the pan is filled with red wine, cinnamon, cloves, oranges, lemons and several spirits (we saw grappa, limoncello and cognac in the mix) and gently heated before being set alight. We like to think that "most" of the alcohol was burned off at that point, but I'm not so sure! Apparently the leftover polenta imparts a particular flavour to the beverage - it certainly was a tasty hot punch!

Thankfully, after all of that, there was lots of dancing and we must have danced most of the calories off. Actually, no, that's a little optimistic: we may have burnt off some of the calories.

All in all it was a lovely evening - not to mention fascinating and delicious! David and Sarah joined the party about halfway through, having just come back from the airport with Sarah's niece and her boyfriend, so it was lovely to catch up with them and to meet Taylor and Marek. Besides them, we caught up with lots of Mara and Franco's friends who we'd met at the party at their house earlier in the summer, as well as some whom we'd met when we first went to their house for dinner back in January. We were reminded of what an absolutely lovely, fun-loving and welcoming group of people they are - we feel very lucky to have been invited into their circle of friends!

Friday 16 September 2016


Today, it seems as if the long and glorious summer has finally packed its bags and said its goodbyes. After more or less three months solid of temperatures in the 30sC, and little to no rain, today the heavens well and truly opened. For the first time in well over 12 weeks, the 10-day weather forecast doesn't show any daytime temperatures above 25C, and in fact today has been a chilly 20C - long trousers and a cardigan for me! I guess it is the middle of September, and although I know that autumn can bring some stunning days and beautiful weather - gentle warmth without the extreme energy-sapping intensity of the summer sun - there's a stubborn Britishness in me that panics, thinking we won't ever see the sun again (I wonder how long it will take for that to disappear or whether it's too deeply ingrained for me to re-learn)!!

Hello autumn?

After three months of it being too hot to go outside, it's now too wet! Poor Reggie. It's a dog's life.

Anyway, you may have noticed that there has been something of a hiatus in blog posting recently. We have both been busy - as well as having been more or less 1,000 miles apart! There now follows a somewhat disjointed blog post (sorry about that) bringing us more or less up to date.

Last week, Stuart took an 8-day trip back to the UK, to visit friends and family, as well as celebrate his Mum's 65th and his brother's 40th birthdays, while I stayed at home to (wo)man the fort here.

The evening before his departure to England, we spent a lovely and very delicious few hours at our friends Paul & Veronica's house in Vellano. Poor Paul and Veronica had arrived at their holiday home in Vellano for a short stay, only to find that no water was running - not what you want for the start of your holiday! Knowing only too well what it's like to have no running water, Stuart offered to help Paul and David sort the problem out - a process that involved chasing a water pipe through trees, bramble and undergrowth to its source, about a kilometre from the house. After a long, hot and sweaty morning chasing and replacing sections of pipe, they had managed to resolve the problem, the water flowed once more and Paul and Veronica could get on with their week safe in the knowledge that they would be able to shower, wash clothes and do the dishes. As a thank you, we were invited to theirs for dinner. Not just any dinner, but a roast lamb dinner, complete with mint sauce and Yorkshire puddings. We were also joined by Donatella for the evening, and had a lovely time, stuffing ourselves full of the delicious food served up by Paul. By the end of the evening we virtually rolled out of the house - it was a good job our journey home was downhill as I'm not sure the car would have coped with lugging our combined weight uphill!

The eight days apart started far too early the next morning, with a 6am alarm and trip to the airport. As I blinked back my tears and concentrated on navigating my way out of the airport car park and onto the autostrada, I realised that it had been more than a year since I last did any motorway driving. I decided it was probably best not to dwell on that fact, and instead just got on with it, soon feeling comfortable behind the wheel as if it was second nature.

When I came back to the house alone, Reggie looked a little disappointed, but he must have thought that Stuart was just out working for a few hours. He did a double take when I picked up his lead and suggested that he and I go for a walk alone, but he wasn't going to argue - a walk is a walk!!

We had a nice walk together, then came back to the house to get on with the day's work. Aside from playing hard to get when it came to bedtime, Reggie seemed relatively relaxed on the first day - but when, the next morning, I let him upstairs and he couldn't find Stuart, he started to give me looks that said "what have you done with him?", "why have you sent him away?" He searched every room looking for Stuart:

Thereafter, the overriding theme of the week as far as Reggie was concerned was quite a lot of whining and even one day of howling. Like a wolf.

That being said, I couldn't really have wished for a better behaved dog and companion - when we went on walks alone, Reggie seemed to sense that it wasn't quite the same as going for a walk with Stuart or the two of us, and that he shouldn't disappear off into the woods for quite as long as normal, and every time he ran ahead of me, he would stop and wait to make sure I was coming, almost never leaving my sight.

We had a few walks with friends - Sarah came with us on one walk, both David and Sarah on another, and Paul & Kathy came on two walks. Reggie really seemed to appreciate the extra company (as did I) and seemed to feel more relaxed and free to charge around and disappear off into the undergrowth than when it was just him and me.

Being home alone proved to be a pretty exhausting time. Between daily dog walks, checking the chickens, watering plants, harvesting vegetables, doing the grocery shopping and other daily chores, I found I barely had time to fit in my office work, let alone the 100 things I thought I would do while Stuart was away!

I did have a couple of (mini)dramas during the week.

On the Saturday night, David, Sarah and Donatella came round for some dinner - it was a lovely evening with them all, but just as I was about to serve the food, the electricity cut out.

To cut a long story short, between us, by flipping the trip switches on the consumer unit, we worked out that one circuit was tripping the whole lot. The circuit included: the outside lights on the pergola, the lights in the shed, the sockets in our bedroom, the electric gates and the heat pump (hot water heater). Since there wasn't anything we could do at the time, we switched everything else back on and got on with the rest of the evening.

The next morning, I relayed the situation to Stuart over the phone and he talked me through a few things to try and work out what was going on. We worked out that it definitely wasn’t the gate, and then by cutting the wires to the heat pump and the pergola lights, we worked out it wasn’t those either. A mystery. This left me in a bit of a tricky situation in that there were still 5 days until Stuart got home and could check things out for himself - but with the heat pump out of action, I (and more importantly Hilary, our apartment guest) wouldn’t be getting any hot water all week! After some head scratching, Stuart came up with a plan and the lovely David came to my rescue to help put a plug onto the loose wires of the heat pump, then run an extension lead from it to an outside socket on a different circuit. Problem somewhat solved: for the rest of the week I had hot water, but the gates, pergola lights, shed lights and bedroom sockets remained out of action and the gates permanently open. Not ideal, but it could have been worse!

A couple of nights later (6 nights down with two more to go), I woke up at 2.30am to the smell of smoke wafting through the window. Burning is illegal at this time of year, and it probably shouldn’t have been happening at 2.30am regardless of the time of year. Knowing that, after weeks and weeks of hot, dry weather, there have been a few forest/terrace fires in the area recently, I got up and went outside with a torch. I had a good look around in the garden, looked up the terraces behind the house, down the terraces in front of the house, walked all around the house and partway up the drive, but I couldn't see anything, so I reluctantly came back in and got back into bed, still with the strong smell of smoke in the air. Not more than 10 minutes later I heard the distinctive sounds of a fire engine in the distance and I got up to watch from the window as it tanked up the main road. I tried to convince myself that it was OK to go back to sleep, safe in the knowledge that the vigili were on the case, but it was a somewhat restless sleep after that!

Having driven up to Vellano the next morning with Reggie to meet David and Sarah for a walk, and not having seen any evidence of burning, I convinced myself that the fire must have been a fair way further up the valley, the smoke having drifted down on the wind. However, later that afternoon, David & Sarah messaged me to tell me they'd found the source of the smoke - it seems that the fire had been on the roadside on the bend in the road just below our drive! Their description of the location had me wondering if it might had even been on the edge of our land, so I jumped in the car and drove down to have a look - it wasn't on our land, but I was glad I hadn't realised at the time how close it really was!

Of course, Reggie and I were both thrilled and relieved to have Stuart back home at the end of the 8 days - we'd coped well with our time alone, but nothing beats having the family together. As they say, a picture(s) speaks a thousand words:

Is it really you? Are you really home???
Since Stuart's homecoming he has been somewhat hampered by a cough and cold picked up during all the travelling, while I have more or less been glued to my computer screen, with this being the very busiest time of year for my office work.

We did manage to take the time to introduce curry to the Italians though. Yes, we bravely (or foolishly) offered to cook a curry for our friends Mara and Franco. Franco, whose preferred form of pasta is pasta in bianco (pasta served plain with oil and seasoning, no sauce). Yikes.

For Stuart's birthday back in April I'd signed us up for a subscription from the amazing Spicery. If you like international foods (Mexcian, Thai, Indian, Ghanaian, Turkish, Moroccan...) and you enjoy cooking, we cannot recommend The Spicery highly enough, Each month you get a different set of carefully blended and measured spices along with a shopping list for the fresh ingredients and a step by step recipe to create what, for us, has never failed to be an amazing taste sensation of a meal. This month's recipe was "Jungle curry with son-in-law eggs and nam prik". We were pretty clueless as to what that would turn out to be, but we knew it would be good!

We duly set about preparing the dishes, using fresh coriander brought to us straight from the Sri Lankan shop in Lucca by our friends Paul & Kathy, eggs, of course, straight from our own hens, and vegetables from our own garden.

The dishes smelled incredible as we cooked, but there was still a niggling worry as to what our friends' Italian palates would make of dishes that were so different from the Italian norm. Italian food is delicious, but our experience is that there is very little deviation from tradition - "if it's not what Nonna made, in the way that Nonna made it, then we're not interested". We were hopeful that Mara and Franco would be up for trying something new (and of course they had said they were), but there was a worry as to how spicy they would find the dishes, whether they would even like the taste of fresh coriander (we know it's not everyone's cup of tea), and whether they would either go home hungry or we would end up cooking pasta!

We needn't have worried (either that, or they are both very good actors)! Both Mara and Franco loved the food, with Franco even going back for seconds and even helping himself to extra spoonfuls of the fiery 'nam prik' sauce! We were very relieved, and we had a really lovely evening catching up with our friends - what with visits from family and trips away, it had been far too long since we'd last socialised with them, and it felt good to get back on track.

The week since then has really been a week of little to report - although Stuart has identified the mysterious and prolific larvae inhabiting our wormery (look away now if you are squeamish) as the larvae of the Black Soldier Fly. After doing some research, he has learned that these insects (or their larvae) are super-composters - better, even, than the tiger worms that inhabit the wormery, as well as being excellent food for chickens! As you might imagine, he has added yet another job to his to-do list: build a better home for the soldier flies, move them in and increase their numbers.

So, as the weather looks like it is settling into more of an autumnal theme (I have to keep reminding myself that temperatures in the mid-20s are the sort of 'lovely summer's day' I used to get excited about when living in the UK), and with some damp days ahead, we will have to turn our attentions to more indoor activities. This weekend's list of activities includes making some chilli oil and finally getting around to ordering a few essential items for the house and farm: a new fridge that doesn't constantly leak, a new stove for the winter (not only one with a door that actually closes properly, but a state-of-the-art Ecco stove that promises to distribute heat evenly through the house), and a wood chipper to help in our quest to make more compost.