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!