Wednesday 28 December 2016

The run-up to Christmas

Still feeling fired up from our community day on Friday, and a weekend pushing on with the tidying on the upper terraces, Monday saw another day's work up at the top. Our dear friends David and Sarah had offered to come and do another day's work with us, so in return we offered them lunch, dinner, and a bed for the night so that we could all relax at the end of a hard day's work without having to worry about driving anywhere.

The day saw two more bonfires, with Sarah and me burning through piles and piles of debris, more raking, the construction of a leaf/compost bin so that the smaller, leafier rakings could be tipped into that to start a long composting process, and of course more chainsawing and wood cutting.

We worked until the daylight had not only faded but actually disappeared, finally picking our way carefully down the terraces by the lights of our mobile phones.

 At the end of a hard day's work, after showering and changing, we settled down to a long and fun evening of eating, drinking, and playing board games until well into the small hours of the following morning.

The physical efforts of Monday, combined with the 3am bedtime, left us all feeling somewhat bleary-eyed on Tuesday - which turned out to be a wet day, the first in a long time. After joining us for a damp tramp around the woods with Reggie, David & Sarah headed home, and we took the rest of the day at an easy pace, glad to have an excuse to stay indoors.

Wednesday saw more eating and drinking - after a group Italian lesson with David & Sarah at their house in Vellano, we all headed down the road to their favourite restaurant in the village, Maneros, for a celebratory Christmas lunch with our teacher Johnny and with Donatella joining us as an honorary member of the group.

As usual at Manero's, we ate in style (huge antipasti plates followed by pasta, followed by an enormous plate of mixed grilled meats for the table to share), and had a great time in great company.


Such a great bunch of people.
Thursday was back to a little more normal, with work in the morning for me, and our Italian lesson with Samantha in the afternoon. Stuart surprised me after Samantha had left with the creation he had made while Samantha and I were going over the finer points of the use of the congiuntivo in Italian. He had only gone and knocked together a Christmas tree for us - from a pallet.

We'd seen similar pallet-creations around and about recently, but I don't think any of those we saw were quite as beautiful as the one Stuart made. It's not quite a real Christmas tree, but it's very beautiful - and it's Reggie-proof!

On Friday, after various chores and errands, we hit the supermarket for our 'Christmas' food shopping. It was certainly busier than usual at lunchtime on a Friday, but not unbearable - we definitely did well to stick to our lunchtime slot, and it was with a sigh of relief that we exited the car park and headed home, knowing the most painful of pre-Christmas chores was out of the way,

On Saturday - Christmas Eve - we started the day by calling in at our neighbours' house on the road below us. We have met Valerio and Rossana on a few occasions and they have always exuded warmth and friendliness - and had repeatedly asked us to pop in to their house for a coffee some time when we were passing. So we finally got around to popping in to see them on Christmas Eve.

As a Christmas gift, we took with us a small bottle of the mirto liqueur that we had made:

We were invited straight into the house (it was a cold morning - frost still at 11am covering the entirety of their garden, which sits in the shady bottom of the valley), plied with coffees and biscuits (befanotti: biscuits made for Befana, the day on which the benevolent witch, Befana, gives biscuits and goodies to the good children and coal to the naughty ones - which isn't until the 6th January, but Rossana assured us befanotti are biscuits 'of the season'), and together we talked for nearly two hours. Our Italian held up relatively well, although the speed at which Valerio and Rossana occasionally slipped into had us struggling at times - nevertheless our hosts and kind neighbours were patient and nothing but warm and welcoming, and by the time we said our goodbyes, we were leaving with arms laden: two bottles of wine (one white, one red) to try, to see if we like the wine they buy in bulk, a beautifully wrapped Christmas present for us, and an enormous bunch of beautiful holly from the tree in their garden!

Christmas greenery on the gate/outside of the house seems to be something of a tradition in these parts, so we decided to join in.

We came away from Rossana and Valerio's house feeling full of Christmas spirit and really happy to have found ourselves with such lovely neighbours. We resolved not to leave it so long before our next visit.

In the evening of Christmas Eve, we headed over to Castelvecchio. We first called in at our friends Paul & Kathy's house, where we were treated to Christmas drinks, and where their neighbour Kelly joined us, before we all drove over to the village where they were having a 'living crib'.

Not only was there a living crib (real people acting out the parts of the nativity story), but the entire village had been transformed into a medieval village, with cobblers, blacksmiths, people spinning wool and weavers, a tavern selling medieval food, the old bakery with the bread oven fired up and making hot breads, chestnuts roasting on open fires (what could be more Christmassy?) and all the locals walking through the streets dressed in period style.

We spent a delightful couple of hours walking around the village, sampling vin brulee, hot chestnuts, the food in the medieval tavern and pieces of bread hot from the oven, before finally saying our Christmas tidings and heading home to light the fire to try to get some warmth into the house ready for the "big day".

Sunday 25 December 2016

Buon Natale!

Wishing all our family, our friends both near and far, and everyone who reads our blog a very merry Christmas and a wonderful happy and healthy new year. Thank you for reading, and for your ongoing love, support and encouragement.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Nearly Christmas but no sign of slowing down

Monday picked up where Sunday had left off, with more work on covering the chickens. Before that, though, my first job was to go and buy a little more of the netting as we were slightly short to finish the job. So after another trip through Pescia to the Agraria di Vita, and a subsequent stop at Frateschi for more cable ties and reels of wire, I headed home to attempt to finish the job.

Well, I didn’t quite finish the job, even with Helen’s help in the afternoon. We had clearly underestimated just how long stitching the edges of net together would take (with cold, stiff fingers working way above our heads in a working position that gave us both dead arms and cricked necks), although by the time darkness fell the chickens were at least completely covered and there was just a couple of edges to finish stitching together at the next available opportunity.

On Tuesday I headed up to Vellano to put in a morning's work with David, leaving Helen to work in front of her computer amidst the cosy glow of the office wood burner.

After a late lunch I headed back out to bother the chickens again and to do some more finger-numbing stitching, which involves twisting narrow gauge wire through the holes of each net to create a seam. The technique works remarkably well but as I’ve already said, is somewhat time consuming and as such, by the end of the day I had once again failed to finish the job - although not by a lot and we did at least now had the piece of mind that any potential carriers of bird flu would not find easy entry into the chickens' enclosure to spread disease and death.

On Wednesday, after a walk in the woods with Reggie I spent yet more time twiddling wire as well as doing a few odd jobs around the place. On my wanders with Reggie I stopped to pick some Brussels sprouts from our veg beds and was surprised and delighted to find tiny, perfect little cauliflowers starting to take shape, and our garlics - planted just a few weeks ago - really shooting up.

On Thursday morning, Helen hopped into the car and headed into Pescia to meet Sue for coffee and a catch-up, leaving me to work on the upper terraces in readiness for our gang of friends to descend the following day - Friday was to be our turn to benefit from their hard work in the latest of our 'community days' and I wanted to be as prepared as possible for when they got here.

I spent the morning cutting through the gnarly, twisty tree heathers that seem to edge the upper terraces along both sides, in the process freeing up a corbezzolo (strawberry tree) which we will of course be keeping and pruning into something of a better habit.

We’ve yet to try the fruit of a strawberry tree but we’ve been told that they’re perfectly edible little fruits that ripen in autumn, a whole year after flowering. As such, the trees bear both clusters of delicate white bell-shaped flowers and ripe strawberry-coloured fruits in late autumn. The fruits are used for jams, tarts, cakes and preserves, while honey from the flowers is a delicacy in Sardinia but seemingly something of an acquired taste, known as 'bitter honey' for its unusual bitter-sweet flavour. This tree in particular seemed to be quite popular with the local bumblebees.

Helen came back from Pescia just as I was heading out with Reggie so that he could let off some steam ahead of the afternoon when Samantha was due for our weekly Italian lesson. Samantha arrived at 2pm, as usual, but once she had marked my homework, I excused myself and dashed straight out to the supermarket to buy a few things for lunch on Friday, leaving Helen and Samantha to continue reading articles about current Italian politics. After Samantha had left, I spent a couple of hours preparing food for Friday's lunch: a starter of mushroom & chestnut pate and a pudding of chocolate pots, while Helen dashed back into Pescia to run another errand.

Friday was yet another cold and frosty start, and while Helen headed into the woods with Reggie for a quick stretch of his legs ahead of the influx of visitors, I went and started a fire on the terraces to try and make a dent in what needed burning this morning. As 8.30am approached I headed back to the house for some breakfast and coffee while we waited for everyone to arrive.

First to arrive was Donatella, followed by Paul and Kathy, and then David and Sarah who had been delayed by having to scrape ice of their car window - something we’ve not yet had to do since we moved here (the benefit of parking beneath huge fir trees, I guess).

After a quick coffee and chat, we all grabbed tools and stomped off up the terraces to get started. Kathy took over fire duty while Paul and David set to work pruning the hugely over grown olive trees that were now full of bramble, and Sarah and Helen took a rake each to start clearing the upper three terraces with the aim of moving everything closer to the fire and to make space for the strimmers to follow to cut down any last bits of stubble that had been missed in the first pass with the hedge trimmers. Meanwhile, Donatella worked just below Kathy with her new pruning chainsaw, sorting through a load of young ash trees I had cut down, and I switched between tasks, doing some raking, some wood cutting and some pruning.

Before everyone arrived.

And so the morning went until we gathered around the bonfire for a coffee break just as the sun was reaching a high enough point in the sky to start bathing us all in glorious winter sun.

Everyone worked flat out from then on until gone 1:15pm, when they arrived back at the house thirsty, hungry and aching from a morning's hard work. We were thrilled with the amount we got done, which really goes a long way to getting these new terraces and trees in order so that next year they can be easily maintained with the strimmer without a worry that half-finished clearing will re-grow as it has done in places we have attempted to clear over winter in the previous two years.

We enjoyed a substantial lunch of the mushroom & chestnut pate I'd made the night before, followed by more rounds of pizza than I can remember - basically cooking two different varieties at a time using freshly made dough that we'd bought that morning from Amanda -  and finally the chocolate pots I'd made the night before. As always seems to be the way with our community days, there was something of a party spirit around the table - everyone satisfied with their hard morning's work and relieved to be able to sit down and relax and properly enjoy each other's company.

The merriment went on until about 4pm, when our weary friends packed up their tools to head home - once we had parted company darkness wasn’t far away so we locked the coldness out and threw more wood in the burner before crashing on the sofa for a couple of hours followed by an early night.

On Saturday we had a list of errands to run so we headed out promptly in the direction of Montecatini. Our first stop was one of our favourite caf├ęs for cappucini and breakfast in the form of pastries.

Next was Maury’s, the household store, to try and find some small glass bottles into which we hoped to decant a little of our homemade Mirto as gifts for our neighbours, and to find a new set of Christmas lights to replace the old set that had finally stopped working in our bedroom.

Having failed on the bottle front we left empty handed and headed instead to Altopascio to try Mercatone Uno - the furniture store that featured so regularly in our early blogs - to see if we couldn’t get both bottles and lights in one place.

After some rummaging around the shelves, we did eventually leave with what we needed and headed back up the valley towards home - but not before taking a little detour up the road to Medicina in order to look back across the valley to our house. From a certain point in the road you get an excellent view of our house and all of our terraces - and therefore a full appreciation of the work that went on not only yesterday but in recent weeks too.

Once home we took Reggie for a walk in the woods as per usual. Today, while on the lower donkey track he disappeared into the trees, shortly after which out popped a deer. Clearly feeling in peril, the the deer didn’t so much as stop to look at us, instead darting off uphill towards the driveway and beyond, quickly followed by Reggie giving chase. We walked on a few metres before stopping to start the process of calling Reggie back - but when we heard a rustle in the undergrowth in answer to our calls and whistles, instead of Reggie appearing, another three deer appeared from the same spot as the first one and ran off in the same direction, presumably in pursuit of their family member... and Reggie.

This could have been a recipe for disaster, and we braced ourselves for half an hour or so of traipsing through the woods trying to find Reggie and encourage him back to us, but thankfully he reappeared five minutes later, his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth and looking in need of water, so we headed back to the house.

After a couple more rounds of pizza for lunch, we headed back to the upper terraces to continue some of the work from the day before, lighting another couple of bonfires and doing some more tidying. It really does look like a different place up there now - it feels as if we are in someone else's olive grove!

On Sunday, as is our custom, we had a much needed lie-in and didn’t head downstairs to get Reggie out of bed until around 9.30am, after which Helen made some porridge to fuel us for yet another few hours' work on the terraces - but not before  a walk in the woods with our furry four-legged friend.

After a few hours' work, Helen burning and me moving a heap of firewood down the terraces towards the driveway, we stopped for a late lunch, lighting the fire to warm the house up before showering off the morning's work and dressing in civvies for a change.

After spending a couple of hours doing some admin tasks at home, we headed out at around 5:45pm in freezing temperatures. Our first stop was at the Circolo in Pietrabuona to see our friend Mara who had spent the afternoon manning a stall selling her honey at a mini 'market' (around five stalls) on the outdoor terrace at the club. The rood of the terrace would have protected the stall holders from rain had there been any, but did nothing to help with the bitter cold, and poor Mara looked frozen to the core by the time we arrived.

After a chat with Mara, Franco (who had just arrived with their dog, Snoopy) and Emanuele, who runs the Circolo, we waved goodbye and headed on into Pescia. Our next stop was at the supermarket for a few items we needed, before parking the car at the old flower market so that we could walk into town along the river where this year's ‘living crib’ was taking place.

A combination of poor timing on our part and the cold, cold wind meant that by the time we reached the river, most of the stalls and indeed the crib itself, were already being packed away. However, we had come with the purpose of dropping by the stall being run by Amanda and Samantha outside Giannino’s department store, so we carried on until we found them. Unlike the others, they were still braving the cold weather to give away medieval-themed food and mulled wine - made by Amanda & Samantha but paid for by the store they were outside.

We spent a while chatting to Amanda & Samantha and sampling their vin brulee (mulled wine), two bowls of delicious hot soup (squash & almond milk; and farro & chick pea) and a handful of crostini with various sauces, before leaving them to start packing up and hurrying back to the car so that we could head home to get the fire roaring for the evening in readiness for a busy week leading into Christmas - which would start with... a load more work on the upper terraces!