Sunday 23 April 2017

Long weekend, short week

It was with heavy hearts that we waved goodbye to our good friends Paul and Marie last Saturday morning. Fitting in perfectly with the mood of the morning, the skies were grey and heavy and there was the smell of rain in the air - after a week of glorious weather with the Smiths, it seemed befitting for their departure.

With both of us up early, we decided to try and make the most of the situation, and after having taken Reggie for a run around in the woods we headed out to Pescia for a coffee to lighten the mood, then picked up eight more bags of compost from the garden shop before heading up the valley to Donatella's house in order to deliver the 18 eggs she'd requested from us and to pick up as many more used tyres as would fit in the car.

By this time it was raining, and over lunch we wondered what we could usefully do with the rest of the damp day, but as luck would have it, by the time we'd cleared away the dishes the rain itself had stopped (even though the skies remained grey), so we gave up trying to think of indoor jobs and went back to the great outdoors, spending the afternoon cutting up more firewood, building and fitting the pedestrian gate at the end of the drive, moving the collection of tyres we'd brought back from Donatella's to their new home on the potato terrace and carrying the bags of compost down to the veg terraces.

On Sunday we woke up to clear skies and sunshine once again, which seemed to refuel our get-up-and-go, so we got up and went... to the veg garden. We spent the day planting out broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower, more lettuce, more chard and leeks as well as constructing hoops (using metal re-bars and lengths of plastic water pipe) and covering the beds with butterfly netting. We also collected our first harvest of the year: 350g of red lettuce and cos lettuce.

Stunning sage flowers.

350g of lovely lettuce!

Bird-scarer CD line protecting the chard.
Overall it was a very satisfying if slightly tiring day. And, yes, we did eat lettuce for dinner!

With Monday a bank holiday here in Italy as well as in the UK (and all the other countries in which my work colleagues hang out), I decided to take the day off office work as well, which meant a third day of outdoor productivity.

We started the day with Stuart heading up to the topmost terraces with the strimmer to finish off the job that I'd started the day before of strimming the terraces that we'd cleared and raked over winter. The terraces that were barren just a couple of weeks ago but by now were covered in bracken standing two foot high and new bramble that seemed to be growing in every available space. While he did that, I headed down to the lowermost terraces - the ones below the veg garden - with the hedge cutters to try get the acacia and bramble into check down there.

Having done an hour or so in our respective vegetation battles, we reconvened at the house and decided to do a spot of wall repointing before lunch. So Stuart mixed up a bucket of mortar and the two of us spent an hour filling more of the gaps in the garden wall.

After that we stopped for a spot of lunch (featuring more lettuce) before trying to decide what to do with the afternoon. We were torn between going out somewhere (sightseeing) and staying at home to do something more productive. After a considerable amount of indecision, we plumped for the idea of staying at home and moving the old compost station in order to prepare a space for the base to be laid for our solar panel. It felt like a good compromise - we weren't exactly getting a change of scene, but it was a different type of job from those we'd been doing recently and sufficiently inspiring for us to both feel motivated and happy to get on with it!

We'd worked out that the best spot for our solar thermal panel would be on the corner of the first terrace above the house. However, very cleverly, Stuart had placed a couple of planks of wood in said spot in order to see whether it would be able to be seen clearly from the road (while we have official permission to have a solar panel, we are officially meant to put it on the rood of our shed - which, thanks to the shade of the house, doesn't actually get enough sunlight to be fully effective - we therefore have decided to try putting it behind the house on the terrace, a much sunnier spot, but not officially allowed). Having realised that the planks of wood were fully visible from quite a distance away, we did some more thinking and decided that the next best spot would be exactly where our original 3-station compost bins were standing. This meant the compost would need to be moved!

While Stuart dismantled the frame of the compost stations, I set about shovelling and sifting compost, using the sides of the frame - which had been covered with chicken wire - as a sifting device.

By the end of the process we had filled one of the new "tombola"-style composting bins with some of the fresher pieces that had yet to decompose, created a lovely deep bed of compost ready for planting up with something (we have yet to decide on) and another large pile of compost ready to use where we need it, as well as treated the chickens to some exciting bits of compost to scratch through and peck on.

These need moving!

Compost sifting device.

After all that, we ended a busy day in the perfect way with a short visit to our friends David and Sarah and sat with them in the sunshine on their terrace enjoying the beautiful view and great company - a fitting way to end the long weekend.

It was a short week to follow the long weekend, but we still packed enough in, with office work, strimming work, Italian lessons, an enjoyable evening spent catching up with friends Paul & Veronica at the end of their week-long stay at their place in Vellano, preparation of a base for the solar panel (to be filled with concrete), the arrival and setting up of our new weather station, and on Friday we spent a great day with 'the gang' doing a community day's work at David & Sarah's place.

Frame for the solar panel base.

Base ready for concreting.

Heavy-looking skies.

What's the weather like, you ask?

On the agenda for Community Day on Friday was the building of a fence to enclose the area David & Sarah have set aside for growing vegetables (their orto); the cutting (for firewood) of a large pile of olive branches that had been left over after the pruning of the olive trees on their land; the jet washing of the large patio area outside the house; and the taming of some of the brambles at the bottom edge of their terraces below the orto. While Sarah spread herself around between jobs and making sure everyone was OK and had everything they needed, the boys (David, Paul and Stuart) took on the fencing challenge, while Kathy wielded the jet washer like a pro, and Donatella and I tackled the pile of olive wood with our chainsaws - at least that was until my chainsaw decided it had had enough (a dodgy spark plug, it turns out), at which point I had to leave Donatella to finish the pile of wood while I swapped to the hedge cutters and went and did battle with the brambles.

After a hard morning's work there was a beautiful pile of cut olive wood, a fully functioning fence around the orto (complete with gate fashioned from a pallet), a sparkling patio and some progress made into the brambles below. We were rewarded with an amazing spread of delicious salads made by Sarah to accompany meat (and veggie burgers) expertly cooked on the BBQ by David, with Eton mess to follow. By the time we realised the day had marched on into late afternoon and it was time to wend our way home, I for one could barely move for feeling so stuffed with good food.

This orto needs a fence!

Men at work.

Women at work.

Finally secured against hungry wildlife!
The Community Day gang (missing Sarah, who took the photo - thanks Sarah :-) ).

After Friday's busy day, the weekend started a little stiffly for some of us. That is to say I couldn't bend down and even walking was pretty uncomfortable, with the muscles in my back telling me in no uncertain terms that they weren't happy with what I'd asked of them the day before. That scuppered our plans to complete the concrete base for the solar panel, the plan having been for Stuart to mix up buckets of concrete and pass them up to me on the terrace to pour into the base - it definitely wasn't a bucket-of-concrete-lifting kind of day for me.

Instead, we headed out for a coffee then on to the discount houseware shop Maury's to buy a large picture frame for a poster we have put together for the apartment. We'd been meaning to put this together for a while and finally managed to do it this week, ahead of the first guests of the spring/summer season. The hope is that it both works as a little bit of PR for Reggie and that it helps people understand how best to interact with him to minimise his stress. We'll see!

PR for Reggie.

After that, we picked up twenty 50-litre sacks of bio compost from Frateschi, which should be enough to finish off the veg beds for this year.

The afternoon was spent cleaning the apartment and sprucing up the outside area - mowing the lawn, strimming the edges and weeding the gravelled area - in preparation for guests arriving on Sunday.

On Sunday while we waited in for the arrival of our guests, we spent most of the day concentrating on the veg beds - earthing up the potatoes, planting out spinach, climbing beans and celeriac, and sowing parsnips, as well as general weeding, tidying and spreading compost on the beds. By my estimates, this brings the running total of different types of vegetables planted out to 16: lettuce, beetroot, chard, onions, garlic, potatoes, leeks, broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, celeriac, spinach, carrots, parsnips, beans. Of course there are more (aubergine, squash, courgettes, melon, celery, fennel, tomatoes, peppers, artichokes...) still growing in the polytunnel that will be planted out in a week or two's time once they have reached the appropriate size.

The weather for the week ahead doesn't look the best for our guests' holiday, with rain forecast, although it should at least be a little warmer than last week, when we suddenly found ourselves plunged back into the depths of winter, with overnight temperatures dipping close to zero - something of a shock after several weeks of very warm spring-like weather. With our new weather station now in place we should be able to keep accurate records of temperatures, rainfall and wind speeds, which will be interesting and will give us plenty more facts to bore you with!

Wednesday 19 April 2017

2+2=a hill full of Smiths

As our last blog post was being edited and published there was a ridiculous air of optimism from my part of the camp, I had unrealistically decided that later that day I would churn out the majority of the current week's post so that when our friends arrived on Saturday there would be little to do and we could get back on track... clearly that optimism didn't last long and the fact I'm here making excuses means that I failed pretty much 100% on that front, but we'll fill in with a few photos and hope that suffices:

The final bits of skirting were put on in the apartment.

The winter "orangery" was dismantled and put away for the warmer months.

Olive prunings were gathered and piled up ready for burning.

Two truckloads of gravel were delivered...

... and wheel barrowed to the guest pergola.

Ready for guests!

So... on Saturday it was time to get the apartment spick and span in time for the arrival of our good friends Mr and Mrs Smith, a.k.a. Paul and Marie, a.k.a. Granville and Marie.

As the apartment was in pretty good order after having had our German guests only a couple of weeks ago, only the regular clean was required. I say 'only', but we have a rigorous checklist to work our way through each time we have new guests to ensure that everyone gets our best offering - not only a thorough clean of the rooms, vacuuming of the ceilings and changing of laundry but also checking the batteries in the torch, checking each and every light bulb, topping up the tea, coffee and sugar jars, and making sure there are matches in the kitchen drawer just in case the gas hob lighter runs out of gas.

We decided that I would see to the apartment while Helen went outdoors with the strimmer strapped to her back to tackle the taming of the terraces behind the house, this being the second cutting of the grass since spring began (and maybe the second of 6 or 7 this year).

By the time the day was out, Helen had done 4.5 hours with the strimmer and trimmed two thirds of the terraces above the house and we were able to sit under the pergola in the evening sun with a glass of wine and bask in not only the warmth of the sun but in a feeling of accomplishment at seeing just how far we have come at this point - and although we are far from finished, we will be feeling proud this spring and summer to welcome visitors to our house on our hill.

Paul and Marie arrived at 7:40pm, having driven from near Lichfield in 'Lui', their new sporty Spider car, a Fiat actually that probably hadn't expected to see his native homeland so early in his life, if at all.

They're here!!!
Work horse vs power house.

After the relief of finding they had got from the gate to the car park without any damage to the undercarriage of the car along the uneven surface of the drive, we got stuck straight into some Aperol spritzs, a dinner of antipasti, and chit-chat that went on late into the night and then the early hours of the morning. It was lovely to have them back again!

We had planned a slow start to the morning Sunday - not much of a plan I admit, but the plan for the rest of the day was to visit the local agricultural school as it was their annual fete which we've yet to miss. We got the the school just before midday, and after finding a choice parking spot near to the gates we headed into a very quiet festa, soon realising that we had hit the lunchtime spot, when 99% of Italians will be eating.

It made for a nice unhindered amble around the various areas of the school and the stands and displays, holding off on any purchases until we'd seen the entirety of the offerings and then making less rash, more studied purchases. That still meant that with 'monopoly' money burning a hole in his pocket (or should I say Marie's purse) and the enthusiasm of the first day of holiday and a side of hunger thrown in for good measure, we ended up leaving two hours later with, two types of gorgonzola, a wedge of fontina, two tomino cheeses (which got lost in the fridge, we ate them for lunch today Marie, sorry), a huge piece of pecorino, dried porcini mushrooms, 500g of salumi, salami sausage in oil and pickled sweet chillies, not to mention another hand made basket to add to our collection - a much smaller one this time for collecting eggs and which the old chap that made the basket ensured me was 'born' to hold eggs (who were we to refuse?).

After a thoroughly enjoyable few hours, which included a final purchase of a new design of strimmer head that Donatella had told us about when we bumped into her, and a couple of cold beers in the glorious sunshine, we headed to the supermarket to do some food shopping for the week.

With a boot full of grub loaded into the car we headed home to light the new BBQ for the first time - what else? The sun was blazing, our guests' holiday was underway, and we could make a little more progress on the relationship building between Paul and Reggie. (To make clear, it was Reggie that had the problem here, not Paul, although already after one night Reggie was much better with Paul than many other men in his life, Marie on the other hand was getting kisses within an hour of arriving!).

Mr and Mrs Smith seem to enjoy our little piece of Italy as much as we do, and having visited a good number of local 'attractions' now (this being their fourth visit), they seem to want for little other than to enjoy the views and the sunshine. Not only do we love having them around, but they make it so easy for us to be flexible with getting done all the essential tasks that still need to get done, guests or no guests. So, with no sightseeing agenda to adhere to the general plan for the week was to leave them to sleep until they wanted to, to gather for coffee once we were all up, and then to lazily decide upon something vaguely resembling a plan for the day.

So on Monday we slipped into a bit of manual labour between us. Once Helen had finished her office work for the day, she yet again strapped the strimmer to her back and headed for the terraces above the house - time to try out the new strimmer head.

Time to give this beauty a whirl.

Meanwhile, Marie took a roll of fencing and some snips and set to work on making some cylindrical cages that will protect our new artichoke plants that will be planted, somewhat riskily, outside of the electric fence. The hope is that the cages will protect the young plants from being eaten by deer, and once the plants are large and established, the deer will leave the thistly plants well alone.

That left Paul and me to head along the drive to the gate with a tractor full of tools to prepare for a new gate post, that will support a small pedestrian gate next to the vehicle gate.

Until now we have been using a piece of steel reinforcing sheet to cover the gap between the gate post and the edge of the drive - not much of a deterrent as it was just leaning up against the post, but enough to look fence-like from a distance and enough to stop Reggie escaping through the gap when on our walks.

Historically, in early May we have had a category 2 car rally pass the gates, and our driveway (being on a hairpin bend) has been a favoured spot for marshals to park up to record times... along with a dozen or more spectators - one of whom had actually parked within our gates last year, and the rest of whom made themselves at home sitting on our grass, picnicking under our trees and leaving their associated litter behind them. Italians certainly seem to have a different idea altogether about personal space, beaches are the same!

So, with this in mind (and after finding out that this year the rally was going to be at the end of April), we wanted to finally get a working gate built that we can close properly.

I did a great job of supervising Paul while he dug a hole for the post, and after a sweaty half hour we had a cavity that we could then concrete a length of soil pipe into to receive the post itself (yet to be found).

With the concrete in and setting we went in search of gate post - living surrounded by woodland means you don't have to look very far! In fact, we found the top half of an acacia (Robinia) that I'd felled next to the driveway a week ago which had a suitably straight length, so we cut the limbs off and yanked it back up onto the driveway towards the gate with the tractor before Paul set his hands to stripping the bark with the draw knife - sweaty work in a black t-shirt and 22C heat.

With that done and the detritus tidied we headed back to the house as there was no more we could do until the concrete set. We were just about to quench our thirst with a cold beer when the gate buzzer rang, heralding the arrival of our friends David and Sarah. So at that point we all convened under the pergola and enjoyed cold drinks and a happy catch-up with our friends before David and Sarah headed home, leaving the rest of us to hit the showers and make ourselves look beautiful for a rare trip out for dinner - rare for poor Tuscan farmers at least!

Visiting the pizzeria 'La Terrazza' in Montecarlo has become something of a tradition with Paul and Marie, and we weren't about to break that tradition on this occasion. When we arrived in Montecarlo the sun was setting and the moon was full in the sky above the Porta Fiorentina in the village, a sight that mobile phone photos won't do justice to but we all stopped to take photos nonetheless.

On arriving at the restaurant we were greeted extremely warmly by Matteo, the young guy that waits the tables - he clearly hadn't forgotten us despite it being many month since our last visit, and he even made his dad come out of the kitchen to say hello as well.

It was the usual feast of antipasti and pizza, leaving us no room for puddings, and after I'd explained to Matteo that Marie had said theirs was the best gluten-free pizza she had ever eaten, we wobbled off to the car and went directly to our respective beds for an early night.

The next day was my birthday, my 42nd to be precise, and so started with opening a few cards and presents (thank you all, you lovely people, for taking the time and effort of sending me something).

After the initial excitement, the daily chores had to be done, so I popped down to the veg terraces to do a bit of weeding and watering before it was time to smarten up again - the restaurant in Vellano was calling and Paul (the other one) and Kathy were picking the four of us up at midday!

We had a fantastic lunch Trattoria Manero, for which we were joined by David & Sarah, Donatella and Paul & Kathy. We devoured heaps of antipasti, a selection of pasta and risotto dishes and then a mixture of grilled meats (grilled on the fire), even ordering a second steak to finish rather than pudding.

Quasi vegetarian. Honestly...

It was a long, lazy affair that stretched on into most of the afternoon, at the end of which we were invited to David and Sarah's for a couple of hours to enjoy their patio at sunset before finally being taken home for a few more hours' celebrations with a fire pit lit and music blazing.


A great celebration enjoyed by all - but by some more than others... me having enjoyed it rather more than anyone else, and by that I mean too much. The following day was something of a total write-off, but I'll spare you the details...

Moving swiftly onto Thursday... the other Smiths and I left Helen in the office to get some office work under her belt while we went into Pescia to try out a new pasticceria we had been told about that reportedly had a good selection of gluten-free pastries - exciting news for Marie.

We were not disappointed! Half of the contents of the glass display counter turned out to be gluten-free, and when I say half, that equates to about a three metre length of cakes, six cakes deep! It was a dizzying display for a gluten eater, never mind someone who usually has to put up with second-rate gluten-free offerings! After we had each dispatched a cake and cappuccino, we headed back to the counter to ask for 'one of everything', which the lady behind the counter struggled to comprehend - not for my lack of Italian this time (for a change) but because she thought we were crazy! She just wouldn't do what we asked and instead took a large tray and pointed at each cake, waiting for a yes or no from us, until she'd filled the tray, this was only half the counter but we decided it wise to stop there and come back for more another day.

Once home we had coffee and yet more cake so that we could include Helen in the finds of the morning before heading in the general direction of Pistoia - a city which is technically the capital of our province and as well as the European City of Culture this year, but one we've not yet visited. Having heard several good reviews from recent apartment guests we decided we ought to go and take a peek at the place with our friends - but not before a spot of lunch at a pizzeria en route! This time we tried a restaurant that we hadn't tried before, but had passed many times on the way to Montecatini called 'La Fiamma' (the flame).

Once again I was asked to tell the staff that Marie had just eaten the best gluten-free pizza of her life, and I can testify (having finished the last third for her on account of everyone else being stuffed) that I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.

By the time we left the restaurant we had little more time in Pistoia than to afford us taster, but the bit we did see was pleasant enough, the old piazza in the historic centre being worthy of a spritz stop before heading back to the car and our valley to collect Reggie and head to Paul and Kathy's for aperitvi.

As always, Reggie loved the freedom he gets at Paul and Kathy's and charged around the garden barking his head off at cars and the neighbouring dogs for a couple of hours while we devoured a delicious selection of snacks including crostini with four different toppings and amazing potato curry-filled filo pastry parcels - Granville and Marie even left with a precious litre of Paul and Kathy's own olive oil.

The end of the week and the last day of the other Mr and Mrs Smith's holiday arrived all too soon for everyone. Once we were all up and awake we convened under the pergola with coffee while waiting for a courier who had called saying that he would be here with a parcel around 11am.

11am turned into 12pm, at which point I started doubting whether I'd understood his arrival time - having missed our slot to head for coffee and gluten-free pastries in Pescia (probably not an entirely bad thing), we decided to do something useful while we waited for the courier to arrive.

That something useful was a bit of re-pointing of the stone wall beneath the pergola and to the left and right of the new BBQ. The wall first needed weeding again as my beautifully weed-free wall of two weeks ago had once again become a weedy wall so while Granville went to work with implements to remove the green growth, Helen and Marie followed behind with the mortar and trowels while I followed them brushing the mortar and lighting the BBQ for lunch.

Reggie's turn to supervise.

Once the mortar was finished we set about making a large salad to accompany the chicken that went onto the grill, dressed in lime and olive oil, and washed down with a cold beer (and prosecco for the girls of course).

With lunch finished we all made ourselves town-ready and headed off in the car to the supermarket, where Helen and I did a quick circuit to collect the basics we needed for the weekend ahead and our friends made the obligatory travellers' purchases of cheese and other Italian goodies.

On returning home it was time for our friends to embark on the sad job of packing and loading up the car ready for an early getaway in the morning, while I went to buy some of the building materials I thought Helen and I would need over the long weekend (knowing that the builder's merchant would be closed for the next three days). Once those chores were done we reconvened in the kitchen to make a start on cooking up a curry kit from The Spicery that Paul& Marie had bought with them. Having eaten the chicken at lunchtime, the curry became a vegetarian affair: sweet potato and cauliflower madras with accompanying poppadoms, spiced potato and peas, rice, and yoghurt raita, and was as delicious as the curry kits always are.

Once the food had been dispatched it was a sensible bedtime for us all as Paul and Marie had an early start ahead of them - and indeed it was with heavy hearts that we waved them off just after 7:30am the next morning on the start of their 1,000+ mile drive back home. Come back soon Paul & Marie!