Tuesday 30 May 2017

Voracious voles and vertiginous views

After a lovely weekend and a day feeling like a tourist at the nearby wine festival, it was back to earth on Monday morning: office work, work in the orto, and the usual day-to-day tasks. After lunch, I joined Stuart in the orto for a while before deciding to head out and try to find something to help with our increasingly destructive underground veg bed dweller. Having by now lost the vast majority of our lettuces, a distressing number of beetroot and garlics to the tunnelling beastie that likes to feast on plant roots, we decided that some form of evasive action had to be tried. We first went to the agricultural shop, where we managed to buy some mole/vole deterring granules. On reading the ingredients, we discovered that this deterrent was composed of clay and garlic oil (apparently they don't like the smell). Hmm, considering that our visitor had already munched through around 30 garlic bulbs, we weren't convinced that the smell of garlic was going to put him/her off!

Arghhh! MORE vole damage.

M/Vole deterrent.

We then stopped off in the main square in Pescia to visit the Erborista - a shop full of lotions and potions and all things herbal. We were after a bottle of castor oil and, though doubtful as to whether we were in the right place to find one, we were pleased when the shop assistant reached under the counter and brought one out for us. The recipe for this form of vole deterrent is a delightful concoction of castor oil, dish washing detergent, cayenne pepper and water. With nothing to lose, we thought we might as well try both forms of deterrent!

Castor oil.

After getting back from our mini shopping trip it was time to shower and change as Hugh and Donna had very generously offered to take us out for dinner. We decided to take them to Da Carla restaurant in Sorana as it's one of the prettier spots around here - not that we could really have gone wrong with any of our local eateries, but Da Carla always seems to offer a nice ambience and attractive surroundings. We had a lovely evening, great food and great company, and came home feeling full of good food and good spirit.

Tuesday of course was more work for us both - today, Stuart headed up to Vellano for a morning's work with David, while I manned my desk. After lunch, we both strapped on the strimmers and headed up the terraces. While we would usually steer away from the use of power tools while we have guests downstairs, we knew that Hugh and Donna were amenable and Donna, who is no stranger to the strimmer herself back at home in Wales, even said the sound of the engines was music to her ears. We duly finished off the month's strimming above the house, with Stuart and the louder of the two strimmers taking the very topmost terraces, while I did those closer to the house.

Strimming done, we turned our attentions to the quieter tasks in the orto - earthing up the potatoes that were shooting up out of the tyres they'd been planted in, erecting more canes for the beans, and general plant-tending.

We finished the day with a couple of drinks with Hugh and Donna on their patio for a change - it was nice to have a different perspective on things and sit in a different spot from normal, with a slightly different view.

Wednesday saw our weekly Italian lesson with Johnny, this time at David's house in Vellano (Sarah still being away). For the first time, we decided to leave Reggie to roam free, with the front door open and access to the garden. Of course we'd checked with Hugh and Donna first, to make sure that they didn't mind, and to make sure that they didn't have plans to go out, and they were happy to keep an eye out and have him for company. In fact, they said he seemed far more relaxed when out in the garden with them (behind their respective fences, of course) than when we'd left him in the house briefly a couple of days previously when he'd barked at various noises obviously not being aware that it was just his friends below.

The rest of the day was pretty mundane - office work, household chores, etc. - although we did have one new experience. Stuart harvested the garlic scapes - the shoots the plant sends up with the intention of putting out a flower. The idea is that you take these off before the plant has a chance to flower... and we had read that the scapes are delicious to eat. We found one particular recipe for garlic scape pesto, which Stuart rustled up while I was working. Well. It was delicious... but WOW talk about potent!!! Apparently it mellows with time in the freezer, so we have boxed it all up and put it in the freezer. If no mellowing happens then at least we know we will be vampire-free for a while!!

Garlic scapes.

Vampires beware: garlic scape pesto.

For me, Thursday was a pretty intense day of work at the computer interrupted just for the hour and half's lesson with Samantha before getting back to the work again. Stuart, meanwhile, busied himself with more pointing of the garden wall, attempting to do some more securing of the chicken enclosure but getting dive bombed (and stung) by our bees who weren't too happy about him being in the proximity of their hive!

We spent a lovely evening on Thursday once again on Hugh and Donna's patio, under their pergola. It was their last night with us, so it felt appropriate to share a drink or two, and Donna and I rustled up a pasta dish for us all to share as well. It was a balmy evening, only turning cooler after dark, and we whiled the night away with great company, lots of laughs and probably a little more wine than was wise to drink on a school night!

Good wine, good food, great company.

On Friday morning it was time to say a fond farewell to Hugh and Donna at the end of their 11-day stay here with us. It's been great having them here and they really seemed to have enjoyed our little spot on our hill, barely even leaving the lawn outside the apartment - what better compliment for us than guests who simply don't want/need to go out exploring because they like it here so much?! Of course, the 10 days of warm summer sunshine helped with that! We were sad to wave them off, but it was nice to know that, rather than returning straight home, they had another couple of weeks' holiday in France to look forward to - and they left with promises of coming back to see us again next year.

After that, Friday became the normal end-of-week routine, with office work for me, work on the veg beds for Stuart, and the weekly supermarket shopping trip. The day was nicely rounded off with a trip up the valley first to spend an hour with David at his house before taking him on to Paul & Veronica's for a couple of drinks before all of us heading up to Macchino for a lovely meal at the restaurant there. Paul & Veronica had just got back from a trek across the alps following the ancient pilgrim route the Via Francigena, so it was great to hear all about how they had got on, as well as catch up with them before they headed back to the UK.

Saturday started out with the promise of another hot day to come - even at 8am it was warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt, and as we took Reggie for a run around the woods at around 9am it was already verging on too hot for that sort of activity for anyone, let alone a thickly-furred dog.

After our weekly stop off at Amanda's shop to collect bread, it was back to the house to get down to work for an hour or so before lunch. I duly got out the strimmer and started attempting to tame the terraces below the house. While we'd done some strimming while Hugh and Donna were with us, as we knew they didn't mind the distant sound of a four-stroke engine, the strimming of the terraces below the house would be more than we could ask anyone to put up with while trying to relax on the lawn above, so we had put the job off until we were between visitors. As it was, the four stroke strimmer suffered a bit of trigger damage (loss of a spring), so I had to switch to the noisier, heavier, more cumbersome two-stroke strimmer. Meanwhile, Stuart busied himself in the orto, weeding veg beds, harvesting and putting up bamboo cane supports for the beans and tomatoes.

100 garlic bulbs. Pulled early to save as many as possible from the tunnelling beast! Final score, Smiths: 100 Voles: 47. 

Ha! Take that, voles.

Today's harvest: chard, rocket, spinach and garlic.

After about an hour of working my way up the long, steep, uneven bank that runs from the lawn level to the first of the terraces below the house, I have to admit to feeling mightily relieved when the strimmer finally ran out of fuel, signalling time to stop for lunch. I trudged back to the house, relieved my back and shoulders of the weight of the engine, rolled up my long trousers and released my feet from my hot, heavy boots and socks.

We had a lovely lunch of salad, anchovies, bread and - a real treat - a bottle of Jaipur ale from the Thornbridge brewery, which had cost us the shocking sum of €9 from the restaurant the night before. A shocking price, given that we usually spend less than €1.80 on a litre of wine, but it was well worth it for a special treat, and we savoured the flavour.

Worth every cent for a special treat.

After lunch, it was back to the graft, and I immediately regretted having taken off my work boots when I reached for my socks and boots and found them both soaking wet and slightly cold. Yeuucch. I steeled myself to apply mind over matter and stuck my feet back into the damp socks and boots, and within minutes I'd forgotten how revolting it had felt.

I duly returned to the strimming, making my way down the edges of the veg terraces and to the bottom terrace while Stuart made more progress in the orto, but after about another hour, I was starting to flag - the two-stroke engine is much heavier to lug around than the four-stroke that I'm used to using, and in the heat it was all getting a bit wearing. So, after a stop for a drink of water, Stuart offered to swap jobs with me, and he took on the strimming baton while I finished off weeding and tidying in the orto.

We finally called it a day some time around 5:30pm and, after showering, we sat under the pergola in the still scorching heat of the sun, marvelling at how hot it still felt at gone 6pm, before heading in to finish our day's work by making batches of blanched home-grown spinach for the freezer, and a large batch of home-grown rocket pesto for dinner, with the remainder going in the freezer.

Home grown spinach for the freezer.

(I know it looks identical to the garlic scape one, but this is a milder rocket pesto.)

After our hard day's grafting in the heat on Saturday, we woke up feeling a little weary on Sunday morning - especially once we (quickly) realised the temperature was going to equal, if not exceed, Saturday's temperatures. We therefore took it slowly at the start of the day: a run around the woods with Reggie before the sunshine got too hot to handle, before heading out for a cappuccino and pastry at our favourite coffee spot: the bar at Da Sandrino.

The little bar that is attached to the very popular Da Sandrino restaurant first opens up at Easter time, with phased opening times. At first it is only open on Sundays, then it opens up for the whole weekend and then - from 2 June, we are told - it opens up for the whole week (with the exception of the restaurant and its staff's day off on Tuesday), all the way through until late summer, after which it closes for the winter. It's a shame it isn't open year-round, but easy to understand why - all the seating is outdoors either outside the front of the cafe, on the roadside, or in the pretty garden area adjacent to it. Anyway, for us, this is our favourite coffee spot - tranquil, pretty, outdoorsy and with great coffee and good pastries.

Having enjoyed our morning coffee, we didn't quite feel ready to head home and be faced with chores, so we decided to take the scenic route home around the valley. On the spur of the moment, as we were approaching the very next restaurant, Da Carla, we decided to stop and call in for our second coffee of the morning - we felt the need for an extra caffeine boost and had never stopped here for coffee before, so we sat and read the paper in the new outdoor seating area there.

Two coffees down, it was time to head home, so we took the pretty road around the valley and back to the house.

First priority was to re-fill the water tanks that feed the watering system for the veg garden. These collect rain water from the roof of the house, but after several weeks with next to no rain, they were running on empty - time to reluctantly fill the tanks from the mains water. Costly, but at least we've had a good few weeks' worth of free water for the veg garden, and now we just have to hope for the odd day or two of rain over the summer to help keep things topped up.

While Stuart played around with hosepipes and connectors, I went down to the orto to sow a couple more trays of lettuce and chard - two types of each - and to plant out the borlotti beans that were fast outgrowing the module units in which they had been planted.

Borlotti beans in.

By the time I'd finished I felt as if I'd been in the shower - working in the orto in the searing hot sunshine feels like being on the surface of the sun, with the black ground cover absorbing the heat and making everything feel even hotter.

Just as I'd made it back up to the house, Reggie kicked off a volley of barking. Puzzled I asked Stuart what was wrong and he explained that Paul & Kathy had just rung the buzzer! Sure enough, a couple of minutes later the car pulled up and Paul, Kathy, their friend Simon and their neighbour Kelly appeared, bearing a plate of cakes fresh from the pasticceria in town. They had spent the morning looking around the monthly antiques/bric-a-brac market and were calling in on their way home. We spent a very welcome hour or so catching up with them all over a cold drink before they headed back up the valley to Castelvecchio.

By this time it was lunchtime, so we stopped for a beetroot carpaccio salad (home grown beetroots) with a side of cheese and a glass of wine, and over lunch we decided that we would officially declare the rest of the day a holiday (hence the glass of wine).

Pretty in pink - home grown beetroot carpaccio.

What do you do on holiday in Tuscany? You go sightseeing and go and find an old mediaeval tower to climb, of course!

We had decided to head out towards the Montalbano hills that lie to the south east of us, about 30km west of Florence. We headed for the small town of Larciano, from where we pointed the car towards the hills to see what we could find.

First, we found Larciano. That is, Larciano Castello. We had thought we were already in Larciano, so when we headed out of the town up a winding road and then saw signs for 'Larciano Centro', we thought it must be a mistake - perhaps the sign had been turned around, or perhaps the road was just going to take us back on ourselves and we were going to end up where we'd started out. But it soon became clear that 'Larciano Centro' referred to the delightful little hamlet of Castello above the main town.

We parked the car and started to wander through the deserted streets of the little hamlet. Deserted no doubt because it was 30C and only a fool (mad dogs and Englishmen) would venture out unless strictly necessary.

We wended our way to the tower at the top of the town, where we stumbled across a museum modestly hidden away down some steps. It was manned by a lady who seemed to be whiling away the afternoon waiting for someone to visit - although it seemed highly unlikely that she would be seeing anybody else that day! We asked if we could go in and she hurried us down the steps to the lovely cool subterranean room that housed the museum exhibits.

The museum showcased a range of fascinating archaeological finds, from Etruscan to Roman to mediaeval, all of which had come from the immediately surrounding area. Unusually for a museum in this region, all of the descriptions were provided in both Italian and English, and very good English at that. We were very impressed for such a tiny, hidden-away museum. We thanked the lady and were about to leave, when she asked us if we were interested in going up the tower. Well... it's been a while since we did a Tuscan tower, so of course we said yes!

As she unlocked the door and switched the light on, I wondered what I'd let myself in for, looking at the wooden open tread steps and wishing I'd got something more secure on my feet than a pair of flip flops! Nevertheless, we set off, going up, and up, and up. At least we didn't have the added complication of any other visitors to negotiate on the stairs! As is often the way with these towers, the final climb was up more of a ladder, and we had to slide the door open above our heads to climb out onto the top.

The views from the top were stunning and we felt privileged to be in such a stunning spot and all alone - the feeling marred only slightly by the anxiety of knowing we had yet to make our way back down the stairs, inappropriate footwear and all.

I didn't quite get the camera angle right (because I was too busy worrying about falling down the stair well) but you could see daylight through those holes in the floorboards... that the ladder was resting on.

Nevertheless, the climb back down was significantly easier than the way up (mainly because the open tread wasn't visible) and we were soon back at the bottom, thanking the curator once again and planning the next stop on our mini-tour.

Next up on our sightseeing tour was the next mediaeval village in the area, Cecina. Pretty. And tiny.

Having completed the tour of this village in about 10 minutes, we hopped back in the car and drove to the next one... Montevettolini. This village had a bit more going for it (there was even an enoteca - wine bar - in the main square, although at 5pm on a Sunday it was closed, which you might think was a good thing, other than for the fact that by this stage we were both gasping for just a drink of water), and there was plenty of interest, even though the streets were deserted.

Check out the scaffold on that!
With the time nearing 5:30pm, we decided to call time on our sightseeing for the day and return home to the more mundane tasks of watering the veg garden, watering the pot plants, feeding the animals and feeding ourselves. In a final nod to the idea of a holiday day, though, we lit the barbecue, and grilled slices of courgette and pepper to add to a big, tasty salad with a glass of wine. A fitting end to a relaxing day at the end of a long week!

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Scotch eggs and Italian wines

Monday morning started with a clean of the apartment having decided to avoid the job Sunday in favour of getting some work done outside together.

Helen exercised as usual and headed into the office while I took Reggie out for a walk before grabbing the box of cleaning supplies and heading downstairs for the morning.

Early morning as the sun rises to warm the terraces
Hugh and Donna were due to arrive around lunchtime having made better than expected progress on their drive over from Wales over the weekend, and as such had spent the night in Marina di Carrara, about an hour and a half away. That meant there could be no hanging around with the apartment turnaround and having our trusty checklist made it easy for me to get through the jobs without missing anything - and so I even had time just before they arrived to cut some wild flowers to welcome them.

Weeds or flowers?
Hugh and Donna arrived on the dot of 13:00, as they had estimated they would, and it was nice to welcome them under glorious sunny skies and to see them again - it had been a number of years since we last met at Le Manoir restaurant as guests of my old friend Chris Perkins.

We had a lot to catch up on, and Donna having read the entirety of our blog was thrilled to actually be here and had a head full of questions. As such it was two o'clock before we paused to unload their car.

I suggested that we should maybe all pop out for a workers' lunch somewhere as, having arrived in their Audi TT, they hadn't had space to bring anything in the way of food items. So, after making a couple of calls and finding somewhere that was still happy to do some food for us as late as 14:30, we bundled into our car and headed up the valley to Macchino.

We enjoyed a 'light' and lazy 'lunch' of antipasti and a pasta course, finally leaving the restaurant not long before 17:00! What happened to the afternoon?

On Tuesday morning I headed off up to Vellano to do a bit of deck staining with David in the 26 degree heat of the Tuscan sun - I was fortunate to at least have a roof over my head to shade me for the most part.

Post work beer with David on his terrace.
After lunch and a trip into Pescia with Hugh, Donna and Helen to do some food shopping, I spent the afternoon in the veg garden hoeing and weeding all of the beds and laying out the first of the drip hoses onto the squash bed.

I arrived eventually at the lettuce bed to find we had lost another three to whatever varmint is tunnelling around beneath the surface and munching on the roots from below - they, or it, had even demolished half a dozen beetroots further along the bed and a cornflower and celeriac in the adjacent beds, it's starting to feel a little ominous in this part of the veg garden now as we have no effective way of dealing with a family of critters.

Tell-tale hole bottom centre.

Lettuce without roots in the centre.

Happy cabbages and mustard lettuce.
On Tuesday evening we invited Hugh and Donna up for pre-dinner drinks under the pergola, which then turned into a plate of pasta to follow once the sun had gone down, cooked by Helen and Donna while Hugh and I chewed the fat at the table over a glass of wine.

A lovely evening was had by all and we retired to bed before midnight feeling sated, Hugh being particularly impressed with the pasta dish served up for dinner.

On Wednesday I was up early enough to harvest the lettuce and chard before it got warm as we were keen to bag up the harvest in prime condition today to give it a good shelf life of a week in the new ziplock bags we ordered and received last week.

5th and biggest harvest to date.
After the harvest it was time for our group lesson with Johnny, but without Sarah this week who is back in the UK for a few weeks doing some work.

After a fun lesson learning some local slang and swear words, Johnny left with a sample bag of our salad and headed up the valley to Castelvecchio to Paul and Kathy's, giving me enough time to weigh and bag the produce before lunch - a mundane task I'm sure once you've done any amount of it, but it being the first time was an enjoyable half hour which made me somehow feel like the real deal - although I know the real deal is someway off yet it was a nice little step in the right direction.

Bagged and ready for sale... we hope!
Wednesday afternoon was pretty much spent dealing with my thyroid, in that I had an appointment with an endocrinologist in Pescia.

Having had a tough couple of weeks lately, operating on 60% energy, I went for a blood test last week to check my levels to find out that there had been a significant change in one of the readings. TSH was up by 50%, which was enough for me to increase my own dosage at the weekend, knowing I had an appointment booked a few days later. Sure enough, within 36 hours I felt back to normal and all was well, but this afternoon I had the appointment that had been made for me by Samantha, herself a sufferer with a lazy thyroid who knew all too well why I hadn't been able to do my homework for the last few weeks or even fully participate in recent lessons (even walking out on one lesson in total frustration).

Back in the UK I had never been offered a visit to a thyroid specialist - all the treatment was managed by my GP, and having only developed the problem in the nine months leading up to our move to Italy, I had only just got myself onto the correct dosage of medication (after various blood tests and dosage adjustments) in the weeks before moving here. Anyway, given my recent struggles, the offer of a visit to a specialist, which would involve an ultrasound scan of the thyroid as well as some specialist advice, was too good an opportunity to pass up, and so it was that at 15:15, we found ourselves sitting in a very hot a waiting room with about 6 or 7 other people but no hospital staff - just a huge list of room numbers and timetables, none of which seemed to quite correspond with our appointment details.

We were sure we'd followed the directions correctly to get to this waiting room, after having paid the fee for the appointment to the receptionist in the adjacent building, but as 15:20 (the appointment time) came and went, we started to doubt ourselves. From time to time a nurse or doctor would appear from one of these rooms and call in the next person, but my name wasn't called.

We eventually reached the point at which all of the people who had been in the waiting room when we arrived had been called in to be seen, and left again, so we figured we'd soon see if there was a problem.

Around 16:00 a doctor came out that we'd seen come out once about twenty minutes earlier, but had gone back to her room patientless, before coming out and calling another name. It turned out that the first time she came out it should have been my turn, but as I hadn't made the appointment myself, she didn't have my full details and wasn't sure of my name! She was very apologetic when she realised we had been there the whole time and that she had seen the next patient on the list before us!

So with faith in the health service restored, we went in and had the consultation. The ultrasound scan of my neck confirmed I had a 'lazy' thyroid, but showed no signs of any nodules or other issues, which was good to know. After a discussion of my test results and my dosage history (and after having had to convince her that, no, this wasn't a flare up of tiredness caused by the change in seasons and that, no, this was something more than the tiredness caused by having a physical job), she suggested that I remain for the time being on the higher dosage of tablets and repeat the blood tests in July. She gave me her mobile number so that I can simply call her when I need to.

Wednesday evening Hugh and Donna invited us downstairs to return the offer of pre-dinner drinks, which of course we gladly accepted and we enjoyed a couple of cold glasses of bubbles together before leaving them to their dinner that evening.

Thursday was another morning of wood staining in Vellano before heading home for lunch in yet another glorious day of Italian sunshine.

Nice fresh coat of wood stain.
After lunch I went back to the veg garden to finish the tidying that I had started earlier in the week. We are determined to stay fully on top of the veg garden this year, which does mean I sometimes have to ignore a long list of other jobs, but I'm always pleased when I leave the lower terracing knowing how nice, tidy and weed-free it is down there.

New compost pile nice and hot.
After her stint in the office, Helen went back out on to the terraces to do another few hours of strimming on the upper terracing.

Over the weekend we had, between us, made a huge dent in this month's grass cutting, having done five hours between us, but that still left roughly 3-4 hours to do. We estimate that with the recent winter's clearing we now have 10-12 hours of strimming to cut the entirety of the upper terracing behind the house - a job that needs doing roughly once a every four weeks from April to October, and one that will be much easier now that we can share the burden with two strimmers.
More strimming but almost finished the May strim now. 

Around 5pm, I was invited over to Franco and Mara's to look at and try out the second-hand two-stroke powered winch that Franco was looking to purchase (from a friend) together with us, so once showered, Helen and I hopped into the car and headed across the valley. A trip to their part of the valley is always a good opportunity to see our house and the terracing from a similar level of elevation.

Our house in the empty patch of woodland mid picture.

The two-stroke powered winch. 
We duly inspected the winch and Franco set it up for a demonstration, anchoring it to the tow bar of our car and attaching the cable to the small tractor they currently had on loan from Franco's Dad. After a few false starts due to the cable being a little jammed, the little power tool dragged the tractor back up to the car with relative ease. We were impressed with the winch and said we'd be happy to go ahead with the purchase, although Franco thinks there's still some negotiating to do on the price, as well as insisting on a new cable.

On Friday morning I cleaned up the 750g of beetroots I'd harvested and saved from the jaws of the varmints in the garden and added some to the leftover of yesterday's salad to bulk it up for Friday's lunch, and what a pretty addition! Matchsticks of stripey tondo beetroot.

Beautiful 'Tondo' beetroot
For those of you paying attention, we didn't have our usual lesson with Samantha on Thursday this week, it had been changed to Friday for this week only, so after lunch she arrived, and we went through the usual games with Reggie who barked at her before settling down and taking a few cheesy crisps from her.

Having felt much better since tweaking my dosage, I had even managed to do my homework this week which I had marked before leaving Helen and Samantha to the rest of their lesson.

The gate buzzer rang as Samantha was readying to leave, it was Mario the courier delivering my new safety boots.

I pretty much live in my safety boots here, I have very little cause to wear anything else on my feet these days, and as such they have a hard life. Since being here, I have destroyed the work boots I was using in England, the new pair of work boots that were still in their box from England, two pairs of Italian work boots, and finally the pair that I had on my feet at that point, which after a tough winter on the hill had split open all down the side of the left boot after just 6 months of wear. Helen doesn't put her work boots through quite as much as I do, but similarly, she has managed to get through two pairs here. As such, I have been determined to try and find the very best safety boots I can, and to make an attempt at buying quality over quantity. My first experiment arrived in the form of a pair of DeWalt boots, which, at less than €100 delivered, were not much more expensive than what I had been buying here - but these boots had achieved a 4.5 out of 5 rating from 150 or so online reviews, (the best score I could find of any safety boot). Of course, the proof will be in the pudding (or the wearing).

Enough with the cheap work boots! Ever hopeful that these will be up to the task.
After the lesson, Helen helped me finish off some tidying down in the veg garden and we soaked everything in water as the day upon day of relentless sun was starting to show in some of the plants.

Watering the precious veg.
The evening was fairly uneventful, being interrupted only by Reggie finding a huge toad outside and going nuts in its general direction. Thankfully we intervened in time to save Mr Toad before he was squashed or worse eaten.
Mr Toad.
On Saturday morning we walked Reggie together in the woods before hopping into the car with Hugh and Donna, Pescia bound for coffee before dropping them at the train station for a day in Montecatini. Today, the famous Mille Miglia vintage car race was passing through Montecatini before heading north, and Hugh and Donna were keen to go and have a look.

After helping them navigate the automatic ticket machine and making sure they validated their tickets we headed off home to do some work in the form of making a start on upgrading the chicken fencing by cutting sheets of rebar into panels and burying them into the ground 12-18 inches to stop predators digging... we hope.

Having played with the idea of changing to a movable electric fence set-up that could be moved, along with chickens, around the terraces thus helping keep the grass down, fertilising, as well as potentially helping with the olive fly problem beneath the trees (the chickens eating the flies/larvae), we decided on keeping the existing set-up and reinforcing the existing fence. While this still wasn't a quick job (or indeed pleasant in 27-28 degrees of heat), it means that, confined within the current enclosure, we can better protect future chickens against disease spread by wild birds than if they were free(er) roaming on the terraces, as well as being a lot easier to manage Reggie around them.

We toiled away for about three hours, calling it a day when the sky suddenly darkened and the claps of thunder that had been rolling around the hills started to get closer and closer. By the time we came in, we had stripped all of the previous anti-dig netting from the bottom of the fence and dug in almost half of the new steel mesh. If we can find another afternoon together this week we'll hopefully be in a position to get new chickens very soon indeed. (We then just have to hope that it was indeed a fox and not a smaller beasty like a ferret/weasel that got in, although from research we're still sure it was a fox as the chickens had their necks broken and nothing more.)

The hole used by Mr Fox for his/her murder spree.
Digging trenches.

Anti-fox... we hope.
Here comes the rain...

As the much-needed rain fell outside, we made a start on the scotch eggs we had decided to make for a brunch party at Mara and Franco's on Sunday morning. We used a recipe that we'd cut out of a foodie magazine and kept for many years, but had not ever cooked. They seemed like the ideal food to take to a brunch, culturally educational, and most importantly something we could cook on the hob as we are still without a working oven.

By the time six o'clock arrived, we had got the eggs boiled and wrapped in sausage meat at which point we had to put them safely in the fridge and head into town to collect Hugh and Donna from the station. The plan was to take them to the wine bar in town on the way home to introduce them to aperitivi and the obligatory Aperol spritz.

One spritz of course turned into two so that we could finish the platter of snacks that accompanied the first round of drinks, and we had a very pleasant couple of hours chatting and snacking. By the time we got home we were all too full of snacks for any dinner - but that in turn meant I could concentrate on finishing the scotch eggs.

As is often the case with recipes, this one seemed to have understated the amount of time required to complete the dish. As it was, I didn't finish the frying the 12 eggs until 10:30pm!

The fry-athon commences.

Scotch eggs!

Shame they are not our own eggs.
After something of a late night we rose as late as we dared on Sunday before getting up to walk Reggie, locking him in the house for the morning and then dashing up the road to collect David who had also been invited to the brunch party at Mara and Franco's.

When we accepted the invite to the party, we did so with the caveat that we could only stay for a couple of hours as we had previously promised to take Hugh and Donna to the Montecarlo wine festival after lunch. When we arrived at 11am, along with Mara and Franco's German neighbours, we sniffed the faint aroma of a delay in the near future.

As it was, no Italians arrived until around midday, an hour after us, and it was only then that the party got started. It seemed unlikely we were going to get away when planned, but we didn't worry too much as we were enjoying the huge amount of food on offer that constituted both breakfast and lunch for us (...as I guess brunch should do!). People had brought lasagne, frittata, pizza, couscous salad, quiche, savoury tarts, there were different breads, dips... all of which were delicious. It was a challenge to get round to trying everything, but we did our best! (And, by the way, the Scotch eggs went down very well with those who tried them!)

As one o'clock (the time we had planned to leave the party) came and went, people were just starting to clear the table for puddings, and it also became evident that this "impromptu" little gathering had not only one but two hidden agendas: it had been Franco's 50th birthday the day before the party and also Mara and Franco's 6th wedding anniversary, and as the special cakes arrived (all four of them!), we felt it wasn't quite the right time to be party poopers, so I messaged Hugh, Donna, Paul and Kathy to say we'd be half hour late and as soon as we could got stuck into a slab of delicious strawberry cheesecake so that we could then make our excuses and leave, an hour later than planned... (I guess we forget we are in Italy at times and that Italians work on a different clock).

Birthday brunch.

Mara and David enjoying our scotch eggs.


6 years married.
Party people.

Franco, Mara and Snoopy.

It was a lovely gathering of people.

We love these people!

Having parked the car someway along the track between Mara and Franco's house and the road (to avoid utter chaos at the house), we started the ten minute walk back to the car. Mara and Franco's little dog, Snoopy, seemed determined to accompany us. At first this just made us smile, but as we got further and further away from the house, we started to get a little concerned: Did Snoopy know where he was? Did he usually roam this far from home? Could he find his was back? Would he chase after us in the car, getting even further away from home?

In the end, despite time ticking rapidly on, we decided we had no choice but to turn the car around and drive Snoopy back to Mara and Franco's house, before turning the car around for the second time.

Snoopy the escapee going home.
We arrived home at 14:20 (having planned - that is to say re-planned - to leave for the wine festival at 14:30), and Paul & Kathy arrived about five minute later, so it was all a bit of a rush to get ready to head back out while also giving Reggie time to empty his bladder and have a sniff of fresh air in the garden before an afternoon in the house again - although with all the people in the house he could barely think about anything but barking.

We eventually locked the poor puppy indoors again and headed over to Montecarlo in a two-car convoy to sample the delights of the wine festival that Helen and I dipped our toes into two years ago but which was new to all of the rest of our party.

After each paying our €15 entrance fee (which gave us a map, a wine glass, a holder for the glass to hang around your neck, and a bottle of wine), we hopped onto the first shuttle bus that arrived at the terminus, one of five that spent the day repeating the same colour-coded route to drop off and pick up wine tasters from the various vineyards around the town of Montecarlo.

After clambering off the very hot, very bouncy bus at the first vineyard, we decided to go it on foot the the next two vineyards.

At each vineyard we sampled a couple of wines - red and white - and filled up on pieces of cheese, bread and salamis. The vineyards were absolutely beautiful - there are some really beautiful little spots tucked away that you'd never know were there unless you knew to look for them, and for us it was such a change of scenery (and activity) that it felt a bit like being on holiday!

After the first three vineyards, we picked up a less bouncy and better air conditioned shuttle bus back to the town where we waited at the pick-up spot for another bus doing a different route. After a wait of around 20 minutes, and then realising that everyone else was waiting for the same bus, we decided we would do the next route by car and clocked up another four beautiful wineries before finally calling it time on festivities after almost four hours of wine sampling. It was a fantastic way to spend a sunny afternoon in Tuscany, a real treat that we all enjoyed - it was just shame we were missing a couple of the gang... but there's always next year!

Wine tour started here.

Tuscan cypress trees.

This vineyard is arranging an English Sunday Roast in the coming weeks.

Vines and Cypress, quintessential Tuscany.
Mountains of the Garfagnana in the distance.

More vines.

A VERY old olive tree at one of the vineyards.

Free wine buses included.

Bottling and labelling machine.

Looking back towards our valley, the 'Valleriana'.

Our favourite vineyard of the trip.

A room with a view.

Another bottling and labelling machine.

Infinity pool at the winery for its agriturismo guests.

A beautiful spot.

Each winery was staffed with a sommelier.

The owner at this one was very friendly and chatty - and loved talking about English roast!

There were cheeses to sample here too.

Excellent white wines here in particular.

"I'll have what he's having."

Happy wine tasters. Cheers!
By the time we got home, we were all a little weary from an afternoon on our feet, so Hugh and Donna joined us for a seat under our pergola before Donna and Helen put together a meal of pasta with what Helen and I call "red sauce" - aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes and some secret ingredients to give it extra depth of flavour - and we shared a tasty dinner together with one of the wines Hugh had liked enough to buy from one of the wineries. A lovely way to end a lovely weekend.