Wednesday 29 November 2017

Put another log on

After a busy week and the excitement of our first olive pressing it was back to something approaching 'normal' for the most part of this week.

Monday morning, however, we first had to head in Pistoia to try out the newly built hospital. Nothing to be too alarmed about, just a routine examination, but for which there hadn't been any appointments available in Pescia.

It was something of a revelation all told - the hospital was signposted from the autostrada and not very far from the exit, was easy to get into, we found a parking space easily, and the parking didn't cost the earth either.

Upon arriving inside we were greeted by a wall of signage for the various departments housed inside the building, but couldn't see what we needed so approached the information desk to be told to head for 'accetazione' just down the corridor.

We found a rather full waiting room and a bank of desks behind screens, not unlike a post office. Just as our hearts were starting to sink at the sight of so many people, we were greeted by one of two young employees who were there to help people find their way around the system - using a touch screen she printed us a ticket for our turn and then showed us the machine to pay for the appointment.

We only had to wait ten minutes for our turn to roll around - despite the large number of people in the waiting room, the system proved to be satisfyingly efficient and a couple of ink stamps and staples later we were sent off to "waiting area number 18" with another numbered ticket. On arrival at the waiting area we found a screen displaying the numbers, showing whose turn was next and in which consulting room - a bit like a screen in the airport with flight departures listed.

Not only did this put the chaos at the old hospital in Pescia to shame (where we've often waited for ages not even knowing if we're in the right place and there being nobody around to ask) but also any hospital in the UK that either of us has had the pleasure of frequenting.

There was a wait of about 20 minutes then before being called, during which time Helen noticed a guy behind me with some odd English written across his chest on his sweatshirt (something that we see fairly often - it seems some of the cheaper fashion houses don't necessarily always do their homework before printing supposedly snappy English phrases on their garments), I turned to read it to see that it was Paolo, the gardener from the pool house that I had been looking after this summer.

We chatted for ten or fifteen minutes about various things, but of course the conversation started with the fiasco that had led to me handing in my notice at the pool house. To my relief, Paolo said he had no idea how either Samantha (who had done the job before me) or I had managed to last a full season working in the role that found us stuck forever in the middle between the very particular owner of the house and the holiday makers who were paying a substantial amount to rent it.

This was good to hear as, despite being comfortable with my decision to quit, there had still remained a bit of doubt as to whether I had given in too soon - now my mind is at rest!

We were soon on our way back to Pescia after a positive experience with the hospital, somewhere that as we get older we shall no doubt need to visit more often.

We stopped off for a late breakfast on our way back into Pescia - having not known how bad the traffic would be on the autostrada early in the morning, we had missed breakfast at the normal time, and once in the hospital there was no popping out for a coffee in case the appointment came around quicker than expected, so it was a much needed caffeine fix by the time we finally got it at close to 11am! We also stopped off at one of the agricultural shops on the outskirts of Pescia to buy a nice new shiny stainless steel oil container for our precious olive oil as well as a few smaller bottles for decanting into.

It was pretty much lunchtime by the time we got back, so Helen headed into the office to make up for a lost morning, while I sterilised the new 'fusto' and bottles for the oil and then transferred the lot from what had turned out to be a leaky plastic container into its new home.

On Tuesday morning we both headed up the valley to help with day one of our friends Paul and Kathy's olive harvest.

Last year we had also spent a day helping with Paul & Kathy's harvest, and had taken Reggie with us, but this time Helen put her foot down and decided that, for the sake of the olive nets and the pickers, Reggie would be staying at home and out of trouble. Helen had already walked him early that morning so we knew he would be fine for a few hours at home until Helen went back after lunch.

We arrived at the Edwards' property to find the harvesting underway: Paul and Kathy had been up and at it since early morning, David and Sarah were also already there as well as Donatella and an Australian couple from Lanciole, friends of Paul and Kathy's, who had wanted to join in.

The nine of us picked all morning with the aid of the air compressor powered olive shakers, kind of like a pair of clapping hands with fingers spread apart.

The tickle stick
This bit of kit significantly speeds up the harvesting time, and by lunchtime we had harvested around 170kg of fruit already.

As always Kathy put on an amazing spread for us: soup, cheese board, cured meat board, and two delicious different pasta dishes. It was the sort of lunch that could easily have stretched on until dusk, and part of what makes the olive picking such an enjoyable event, but with trees waiting to be picked, we had to call our lazy lunch to an end, and it was back to the trees for the afternoon and back to office work for Helen, who drove herself home, while I stayed and picked for another couple of hours before getting a lift back with Dave and Sarah.

The next morning we got a message from Kathy to say that we had between us picked around 220kg - a great start to their harvest especially after some really strong winds last week that had resulted in a lot of windfall - it now looked as if they might equal last year's 380kg harvest after all.

Wednesday morning we had our usual Italian lesson with Johnny at our house with Dave and Sarah in which we re-addressed the difference between 'gia' (already) 'appena' (just) and ancora (still, yet).

After the lesson and lunch Helen went to work in the office while I sat at the computer opposite to make a start on a detailed quote for Mara and Franco's apartment renovation.

After an enjoyable dinner at their house on Monday evening, and another lengthy discussion while poring over the plans I had drawn and printed, I now had enough info to give them an idea of costs, but with my quoting muscle not having really been stretched since arriving here in Italy, it took some time to warm up and it took me the remainder of the day at the computer to get the quote 80% finished.

Thursday was a bit of a washout, as while Helen worked at her computer all morning I crawled back to bed just an hour after getting up and slept until 12:30, having something of a thyroidy relapse out of the blue.

After lunch Samantha arrived for our lesson with a chunk of prosciutto for Reggie and we spent a couple of hours in front of the fire correcting our translations that we had done as homework.

There had been many hands back up at Paul and Kathy's in Castlevecchio on Thursday to continue with the harvest, including a couple of friends of theirs from England who had come over to help out with the harvest, so it wasn't a huge surprise to find out that by the end of the day their harvest was all but finished - a whole day ahead of schedule - and that they had harvested a bumper 420kg this year (a quantity we can only dream of)! Just imagine the yield had the winds not come along and done its dirty work the week before!

On Friday morning, while Helen worked, I messed around with the TV aerial in the vain hope of restoring some of the recently disappeared TV channels. Each time I move the aerial position the TV requires a complete re-tune, which takes five or ten minutes, before I can see if I've improved the situation, so the morning passed by like this with little of interest in between - although happily, the one channel in particular that we were missing came back later that morning (while others remained missing in action).

After lunch we both headed into Pescia to do the weekly food shopping before going home to unpack and walk Reggie in the woods before the start of the rain that was forecast.

On Saturday morning, after Reggie had had his walk we escaped into Pescia for coffee and pastries before deciding on an impromptu walk through the village of Collodi.

We have visited Collodi numerous times but never made it beyond the bottom of the village, its rows of stalls selling Pinocchio paraphernalia (Carlo Collodi, author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, spent much of his childhood in Collodi, which was his mother's home town, and it is from this village that he took his pen name - hence the predilection for all things Pinocchio in this area, such as terrifying 10ft statues looming over you at all the roundabouts and Pinocchio on everything from keyrings to tea towels to fridge magnets...) and its imposing Villa Garzoni. Today, avoiding all things Pinocchio, we flanked the impressive Villa Garzoni and walked our way up and up through the narrow and incredibly steep village, all the way up to the church and fort at the very top of the village, a village that from a distance snakes its way up along the ridge behind the villa.

At the top, we were rewarded with impressive views and a deafening peal of bells from the church tower that rang out as we arrived - almost as if to announce to the world that someone else had made it to the top! With the sound of the bells still ringing in our ears we cautiously made our way back down the steep streets, thankful that the forecast rain had not yet arrived (we would certainly have been sliding down if the stones had been wet!), and headed home for a bit of lunch followed by a bit of work in the veg garden.

Thanks to a combination of factors this summer, I had turned my back on the veg garden in favour of getting some other jobs done around the house. Not only was the weather too hot to be outside over the summer, but the voles destroying almost half what we planted, the hail ripping the few plants that had survived the voles to shreds, and the deer destroying our precious sweet potato plants was all too much to bear and I could feel my mood starting to darken each time I thought about it, so I turned my back on it for everyone's sake.

We still harvested plenty from the garden as Helen has been going down to pick regularly, so all was not lost, but what we have lost are the beautiful clean, tidy beds that we had maintained so perfectly until mid-summer. Since we had a bag full of garlic ready to plant, we decided that it was time to go and clear these beds ready for winter, and to get the garlic in the ground.

What a mess it was down there! We toiled for about three hours and still felt as if we'd barely made a dent, finally throwing the towel in as the light faded so that Reggie could have another walk before yet more rain that was forecast.

The calendula flowers are still going strong, adding a stunning splash of colour to the winter veg-garden-scape.

Some of the canes had started sprouting in the ground!

What a mess! :-/

On Sunday we afforded ourselves a lie-in, which was aided by the pouring rain that had started up in the early hours - why is it bed feels that much more comfortable when you can hear rain and wind outside?

By mid-morning the rain had gone and the skies were clearing, so we walked Reggie and headed out for coffee again before returning home late morning.

After lunch we decided, after much deliberation, not to return to the veg garden (a decision helped in no small part by the very cold wind outside) and instead to make a start on some Christmas shopping, but not before finishing Reggie's new "snuffle mat" - a mat designed to encourage Reggie's natural sniffing/snuffling behaviour and engage his mind in sniffing out treats/his dinner. The mat took one pair of (ripped) trousers, two gym vests (no longer worn), half a fleece dog blanket (ripped), two thirds of a blanket (not used), four of my t-shirts (with holes in them) and 3 of Helen's tops (also with holes in them/not used) to create, not to mention the hours of work spent cutting and threading the strips of material through the mat.

Thankfully Reggie loves his new toy and with biscuits hidden amongst it he spent quite a while snuffling around in it, as was the response we hoped for.

We are going to have to hide it from him when not in use, though, as he very quickly worked out that he also loves to tear off the strips of fabric with his teeth, so to save the hours of work very quickly going to waste, this will be a toy for meal times and/or a distraction on a rainy day only!

The weather was forecast to drop below freezing for the first time this winter on Sunday evening, and we watched as our weather station lost a degree of temperature every 20 minutes or so. To keep the house nice and warm we had lit the fire at lunchtime, and it ticked over nicely, keeping the living room at just over 20 degrees - we've realised it's important to stay on the ball in cold spells like this and make sure we keep the house toasty by keeping on top of the fire, lighting it nice and early and making sure it keeps ticking over through the day so that the temperature of the house stays nice and constant - easier said than done, however, when the it isn't controlled by a timer or thermostat!! Which reminds me... time to put another log on the fire...!

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Olives and bonfires

(This blog post covers the week 13-19 November 2017.) 

Just like the Ronseal advert from the early-mid 1990s ("does exactly what it says on the tin"), this blog post covers exactly what it says in the title: olives (lots of them) and bonfires (actually one very large one).

This year is the first time we have thought about picking our own olives in earnest. When we arrived here, our olive trees were all in a pretty sorry state and only three of them bore fruit. The story we have been told is that, several (tens of) years ago, someone cut them all down for firewood, and since then the trees have slowly been re-growing (and are therefore very small and spindly compared with many others in the area). Of course, since being here ourselves, we have done our best to give the trees some TLC - clearing the grass and bramble from around them and giving them an annual pruning. We have watched them slowly start to gather strength and, after counting 17 trees bearing fruit last year, we were delighted to find that almost 30 trees had some fruit on them this year. We knew that we wouldn't have enough for our own olive pressing, but were keen to pick them anyway, to gain an idea of just how much we had.

Our friends David and Sarah were in a similar position - the trees at their house had been given a hard prune this year, and didn't seem like they were bearing enough fruit for a pressing from their fruit alone. 

And so it was that a plan was hatched with David and Sarah to combine forces in a joint olive picking and pressing adventure, with the aim to pick their olives, our olives, some olives from a holiday house that David and Sarah look after in the village of Marliana, and then see whether we needed any topping up from a variety of other possible sources available to us.

Last week David and Stuart had gone to the olive mill to book a pressing for 5:30pm on Friday, and to pick up some olive crates - so the plan was to pick all week, and go to the mill on Friday.

The week didn't get off to a great start thanks to rain (some of which fell as snow as nearby as Vellano) and strong winds on Monday - but we decided we would be OK to postpone the start of picking until Tuesday, and on Monday we sat indoors feeling relieved not to be facing the elements outside, which were doing their best to knock off as many olives as they could from the trees.

Picking started in earnest on Tuesday, when we wrapped up warm and headed up to David & Sarah's house where we transferred to their car and headed on to the village of Marliana, just over the top and on the other side of the hill from Vellano.

We knew that there were only 4 trees at the property in Marliana, so we thought we would have finished the picking there by lunchtime. Come 2pm we were still picking olives from the first tree we had started. The trees were burgeoning with fruit and it almost seemed as if every time we turned around more olives would magically pop out on the branches.

We had a quick change of plan and once we had filled three crates worth of olives (roughly 75kg) from just one tree - and in doing so had run out of empty crates into which we could load olives - we decided to call time on Marliana for the day, head back to David & Sarah's for a spot of lunch and start picking there in the afternoon.

The magic Marliana tree.

Thanks to the strong wind it felt perishingly cold first thing in the morning.

While Sarah quickly put together some lunch, David, Stuart and I laid the nets out under the first couple of trees and picked a handful of olives, before heading indoors for a delicious and well-earned lunch. We then headed back outdoors and picked olives until the light started to dim, at which point Stuart and I hopped in the car and dashed down the hill just in time to let Reggie out to stretch his legs before it got too dark. After a full day in the cold and open air, we both felt ready for bed at 6pm, but we managed to stay awake until a more respectable bedtime, and went to bed dreaming of olives.

Was Reggie dreaming of olives too? Probably not.

Wednesday morning would usually be our joint Italian lesson with David & Sarah, but this week olive picking took precedence so instead we met our fellow pickers at their house at 08:30 and picked up breakfast en route to Marliana, arriving back with the bountiful trees just after 9am.

Once again, we spent the whole morning picking, and were surprised to find that by the time we finally finished the job, having picked all olives from the 3 remaining trees, it was once again nearly 2pm.

This time, Stuart and I headed straight home, and while Stuart put some pasta on for lunch, I took Reggie out for a walk in the woods. We then wolfed our plates of pasta before heading back to reconvene at David and Sarah's house to spend the rest of the afternoon picking their olives. This time we were also joined by Paul and Kathy, and the six of us picked until it was literally too dark to see the olives - by happy coincidence that was also the point at which we had finished picking all of the trees, so we retired indoors for a drink before saying our goodbyes and heading home.

Thursday was a day off olive picking for Stuart and me, while David and Sarah picked at the property next to theirs, joined this time by Donatella. It felt strange not to be heading out to stand in trees and fill crates with olives, but there was good reason for putting it on hold for the day: I needed to do some office work and to participate in my team's fortnightly team meeting, we needed to tidy the house and, in the afternoon, we were due to drive to the airport to meet our friends Kathryn and Steve.

Kathryn and Steve had paid us a flying visit back in the summer, together with their teenage children Jasmin and Alex - they had only been with us a little over 12 hours on that occasion (being on their way to a family holiday in the Garfagnana valley), but we'd had a great time with them, and when Kathryn suggested that she and Steve might like to come out in the autumn to help with olive picking, we were really pleased. There was always a chance that olive picking might have already happened by the time Kathryn and Steve came to stay, or even that it might not happen at all, so it was a happy coincidence that our week of olive picking coincided with their visit.

Having picked our friends up from Pisa, we came home to spend the evening cooking, eating and catching up over a few glasses of wine before retiring to bed - hoping that we wouldn't be regretting the glasses of wine when we got up early the next morning!

After breakfast on Friday morning  David and Sarah joined us at our house, bringing with them the olive nets, and while Steve, Kathryn, Stuart and I started picking the tree on our lawn, David and Sarah busied themselves with walking the upper terraces, finding all the trees with olives on them and picking as they went.

We were thrilled to find that the tree on the lawn was a little "Marliana-esque" (had many more fruit than we thought at first) and we ended up filling an entire crate (25kg) just from the one tree - small fry compared with the Marliana trees, but we were delighted.

By lunchtime we had finished picking all of our olives and were pleased to find that the Numero 182 trees had yielded two full crates, or around 50kg of olives.

We stopped for a lunch in the sunshine, before cleaning out the olive oil containers then heading up to David & Sarah's house to collect the other 8 crates of picked olives that they had kept dry in their metato (outhouse).

A whopper!

Coffee break.

Folding the nets.

Numero 182 olives - all 50kg of them.

The Oxfordshire/ex-Oxfordshire picking team.

All picked in time for lunch: boys.

All picked in time for lunch: girls.

Cleaning out the oil containers.

Pretty persimmons at David & Sarah's house. 
251kg of olives (five crates from Marliana, two crates from David & Sarah's olive trees, two crates from Numero 182's trees and one crate from the property next to David & Sarah's house).

Almost too pretty to press.

Before we knew it, it was time to head into Pescia to the olive mill. We were joined by Paul and Kathy, who took some of the crates in their car, and we drove in convoy to the mill.

Our crates were weighed, and we were delighted to find that we had a total of 251kg. We needed 150kg to make the minimum weight for a pressing (and at the start of the week we were unsure as to whether we would even be able to reach 150), and the maximum amount that we could press without having to pay extra for the pressing was 260kg, so 251kg was just about perfect.

After a short wait for our turn, we poured our crates of carefully picked olives into the large collecting bin at the start of the pressing process and watched our olives go on their way - first to be washed and for any remaining leaves to be shaken out, then to go to the masher, centrifuge and eventually to come out as liquid green-gold.

The "magic number" that everyone is eager to find out for their own pressing and that of others is called the resa, and is the percentage of weight of oil coming out to weight of olives going in. The average seems to be around 13-16%, but it can vary a lot with climatic conditions, picking conditions, how much detritus (leaves etc.) is left in the crates with the olives when they are picked, geographic location of the trees and all sorts of other factors. We had heard stories of people getting an incredibly high resa this year, with our friends Julia & Vittorio (parents of Amanda and Samantha) having helped friends pick over at Monte a Pescia and having had two pressings, one at 19% and the second at 21%.

We ended up with a resa of 13.5% - decent, if not outstanding, and certainly something to be pleased with for our first ever harvest. It worked out at about 36 litres of oil which, split between David & Sarah and us, will be plenty to keep us going for the next 12 months.

First-time oil producers.

And there's the proof - 251kg.

36 litres.
We celebrated our first pressing by heading for the enoteca (wine bar) in Pescia for a round of celebratory drinks before saying goodbye to Paul & Kathy then heading up the hill with Kathryn, Steve, David & Sarah, stopping off at our local restaurant Nerone to buy pizzas that we could then take home and devour in front of the fire while we divvied up - and, more importantly, tasted, our olio novo. It was delicious - very fresh and peppery tasting - and we all agreed it was something to be pleased with and proud of.

It was a long and tiring day, but very satisfying and we said a slightly sad farewell to our fellow oil producers David & Sarah - it seemed odd that we weren't going to meet up with them again the next day to pick more olives.

As tired as we were, Saturday was a new day and the second full day with Kathryn and Steve on board. We started the day by taking them for our traditional weekend breakfast (coffee and pastry), before stopping off to buy chicken food then heading back up the hill to start the day's work.

The main aim of the day's work was to continue clearing and tidying the gully that runs along the left-hand side of the terraces (as you look up at them from the house). Stuart also took the opportunity to give the very tall olive trees up there a very hard pruning to try and bring them to more easily pickable height.

So, while Kathryn raked and gathered foliage to burn, Steve cut up felled trees with one chainsaw and Stuart and I swapped between chainsaw and hedge cutters to prune trees, log more wood and clear bramble.

We stopped work for a sunny lunch on the patio before heading back up the terraces to do more cutting, start an enormous bonfire, and generally tidy things up at the top of the terraces.

By the time we'd finished and let the fire die down, Kathryn and Steve had managed to burn all of the prunings - an impressive feat - they are master bonfire managers!

After everyone had showered and changed, we reconvened in our living room for Steve to watch the rugby while we also all chatted, and Steve helped Stuart with a plumbing conundrum he'd been mulling over for a while.

We then all headed for the car and up the road to Ponte di Castelvecchio for dinner at the Da Carla restaurant. We had a great feed-up and virtually rolled out of the restaurant to the car and back home for a final few drinks with our friends before it was time to head for bed.

Cheers to a great few days!


All too soon, Sunday morning came around and it was time for Kathryn and Steve to load their bags into the car and for us to take them to the airport - but not before a Sunday morning cappuccino and pastry on the way. In some ways it felt (in a good way) as if our friends had been with us for longer than just 3 nights - I guess we had accomplished so much with them that it seemed as if they must have been here for longer! But it still felt too soon to say goodbye - what easy and delightful company they are, not to mention how hard working! We do hope they will come our way again soon. (I should also say a huge thank you to Kathryn for the majority of the photos in this blog post!) 

Breakfast selfie.

After dropping Kathryn and Steve at the airport, we made an unscheduled stop at Ikea (which is next to the airport) - thinking that we might be able to find a few odd bits that we needed, and indeed we left with brand new sets of linen for the apartment for next season, several jars and containers, and some hooks for hanging the pans in the kitchen.

When we finally made it home, we really were whacked from our busy week and treated ourselves to an afternoon and evening of doing really very little at all - we caught up on Bake Off Italia, had an early dinner and headed for bed nice and early for what felt like a well earned sleep!