Tuesday 18 December 2018

A cold week

Last week it felt as if winter had properly arrived in Tuscany - we had some overnight freezes and even some flakes of snow and we were very glad to have our wood burner kicking out enough heat to warm the house up every evening.

Monday was our appointment at the olive mill to have the olives we had picked at Paul and Kathy's at the weekend pressed. On top of very generously giving us their remaining olives, Paul and Kathy also very kindly transported said olives from their house to the mill (the 13 crates wouldn't have fitted in our little Panda in one go!), so we met them there for the pressing.

The final weigh-in of olives was 251kg. We waited while the machines washed and churned and spun and watched the stream of people in front of us each go and collect their liquid gold as it came flowing out of the tap at the end of the process. Finally we got the nod and it was our turn to put our container under the tap and wait for the oil to flow in. Stuart had bought a new container that morning - he had weighed up the pros and cons of a 30 litre versus 50 litre, and in the end had gone for the 50 litre, but only expecting to fill a little over half of it. We were a little perplexed to see the guy who runs the mill keep lifting the funnel out of the top of our container to peer inside - almost as if he was checking to make sure it wasn't going to overflow, but we thought that couldn't possibly be the reason. Only when the flow slowed to a dribble and we went over to take the container away at the end of our collection did we realise that the container really was almost full - 48 litres to be precise! The "resa" (the weight of oil out as a percentage of the weight of olives in) was 17.3%, which is high (our previous harvest in conjunction with David & Sarah had given us a resa of 12.9%). The high yield was likely because of the slightly later time frame of picking - lots of the olives had been wrinkly, showing that they had started losing water, giving a higher oil-to-weight ratio.

Certainly a bumper yield for us - so we have even more reason to be grateful to Paul & Kathy!

Reggie-approved oil.

Another reason to be grateful to Paul & Kathy is that they have already gone through the process of switching their UK driving licences to Italian ones - so, armed with the knowledge of the process that they went through, and all the different steps and forms that need to be completed, we were in a much better place to get the ball rolling on changing our own licences than if we had been going in blind.

We had already had the required medical forms signed off by our respective doctors, and on Wednesday we went to the office of an agency in the nearby town of Borgo a Buggiano that deals with all types of vehicle-related paperwork (driving licences, registration plates, etc.). We knew that the next part of the process was to have an eye test, which would be at the agency. We'd miscalculated our visit though, because we turned up on Wednesday morning only to find out that the doctor who does the eye tests comes in on Wednesday afternoon. So, we took the opportunity to have a cup of coffee in Borgo, to buy some chicken feed from the agricultural shop there, and then headed back home to get on with some work for a few hours before trying again in the afternoon.

The afternoon's visit was more successful - the doctor was in, and although there was a flurry of activity in the agency (which had been completely empty when we'd gone there in the morning), which meant we had to sit and wait for a good while, I did manage to fill in my paperwork and get to see the doctor. The eye test turned out to be more of a "let's check to make sure you aren't blind" test than an actual test of eyesight, and thankfully I passed that bit and got all my paperwork stamped and verified by the doctor.

Stuart's was a bit less successful - he had naturally filled out his medical form honestly, listing his thyroid condition and related medication, and his doctor had signed it. But when the doctor at the agency saw it he said there was a problem and strongly encouraged him to go back to his own doctor and ask him to sign a new form but this time without the condition being listed! Apparently having these things on the form would mean he would have to be seen by 3 separate doctors before being able to progress his application, and he would have to renew his licence every 2 years...

So, on Thursday, Stuart returned to his own doctor, who rolled his eyes, muttered something about bureaucracy and nobody even looking at the forms anyway, and signed a new form straight away. So back we went to the agency on Thursday afternoon - we already knew that the doctor didn't visit on a Thursday so Stuart wouldn't be able to have his eye test, but I had been told to come back on Thursday in order to sign some forms - and indeed there was a very Italian rigmarole of having to sign my name on about 7 different pieces of paper. As far as we knew, though, that was as much as needed to be done and it would now be a matter of waiting for the application to be processed. We will have to wait and see.

On Friday afternoon we went round to our neighbours' for a coffee and to exchange Christmas gifts, and for them to give us a beautiful bunch of holly from their spectacular tree. It was, as usual, very difficult to communicate with them at times (their local dialect and tendency to speak very quickly without making any allowances for slow foreigners sometimes makes it seem as if they are speaking another language that isn't even Italian), but they are very warm and very lovely people. Their friends turned up while we were there (we'd met them once before as well), and with all four of them jabbering at the same time it was totally impossible to follow a thing. I wonder whether we will EVER get to the stage of being able to understand everything. (It was a relief for me to find out that Stuart had also found it hard going yesterday, so not just me!)

On a very chilly Saturday morning (so cold that the water in the pipes was frozen when we first got up), we made another pilgrimage to the state archive in Lucca in the hopes of finding something of interest about the history of our house.

Rather embarrassingly, we almost didn't even get to the archive because, despite having visited it not once but twice last year, neither of us could remember quite how to get there and we hadn't brought the address with us. We had a vague idea of the general area it was in, but wandered fruitlessly down countless back streets getting more and more lost and frustrated (and very cold). Just as we were at the point of giving up (or trying to find a cafe with Wi-Fi so that we could look up the address on the internet), we turned a corner and found ourselves right in front of it!

Once in the relative warmth of the reading room of the archive, we saw the same archivist as we'd seen last week when we had visited the secondary branch of the archive (and been told to come back here). She was able to help us a little, and found us one tome dating from 1835 in which we did actually find the name of the 1830 owner of our house - information which we already knew, but we hadn't managed to find reference to her when we visited the archives the last time. Unfortunately it didn't give us any further information (other than confirm what we already knew).

We did look through a tome from 1740 that lists property owners in our area and their respective property, but clearly the same lady wouldn't have been the owner at that point so we had no idea of what name to look for (if indeed the house was even built in 1740 - we know it existed in the 1780s as we have found it on old maps, and we are pretty certain it existed in 1774 as a note we found in the window lintel was dated 1774, but of course we don't know how much earlier than that it goes back). The index for the names of the property owners listed in the 1740 tome was listed alphabetically by first name so it was hard even to look and see if there had been a previous owner in the same family - we did our best but didn't spot anything.

In the end, as it seemed we had hit a brick wall, the archivists who were on duty suggested we go home and write an email explaining what we want to know and everything that we already know and everywhere we have already looked - it seems there is a senior archivist who is more knowledgeable/experienced, and they thought that he might have some suggestions as to where we might be able to look next, if anywhere - possibly even in Florence.

It seems very frustrating to have hit such a dead end - we really only want to know how old our house is (of course we'd like to know more but that's the most important question we want answering), so we hope that sending an email will bear fruit.

We were home from Lucca in time for lunch and we managed to get outside for a couple of hours after lunch to make a little more progress on our fencing project. Unfortunately with all the rain we've had in the last few weeks a lot of soil had washed back into the channel dug by our friends Steve and Kathryn - although it was a much easier job re-clearing it than digging it in the first place. We only managed to complete about another 9m, but we were pleased to have made some progress at least.

Sunday was once again cold and was also forecast to turn wet, so we wrote off the day in terms of doing any outdoor work. After a coffee in Pescia we decided to go in hunt of a Christmas tree. We ended up at a garden shop near to the Ipercoop complex in Montecatini, where they didn't have any cut trees but there was a large selection of trees in pots. We wandered round the trees in the perishing cold trying to find the right compromise between shape/size and price, before choosing one that we thought would actually fit in the car (and we were right - albeit with me having to sit in the back seat behind Stuart on the way home so that the tree could have the front passenger seat!).

After lunch we went up to Vellano to see David & Sarah in the afternoon as they wanted some of our eggs from us. We ended up staying for a lovely couple of hours and a mug of mulled cider, before coming home to decorate the Christmas tree.

We found that, during the last 12 months, the box of Christmas decorations had suffered a rodent infestation. Thankfully, by some amazing twist of good fortune, they seemed to have restricted their chewing to the things with less sentimental value, and my boxes of 'precious', sentimental decorations were untouched. The lights needed a bit of attention in places though, where the wire had been nibbled on.

And so we find ourselves within spitting distance of Christmas - not quite sure how that happened. Our great friends Paul and Marie will arrive this coming week to spend the festive period with us, so for the week ahead we will be on countdown to their arrival.

Monday 10 December 2018

Another autumnal fortnight

Last Monday evening we went to our local village club for a talk about wolves - and more specifically about wolves in the local area. As with so many things here, the start time of the talk was an "Italian" 9pm - as in, we arrived at 9pm on the nose, but the talk didn't start until 9:35pm. With an unknown (possibly large) number of attendees expected, the event had been set up in the semi-outdoor area at the circolo - a large covered terrace but with open sides which, over the winter, are closed with large sheets of thick plastic. The plastic certainly keeps some of the cold out, and acts against the wind, but it certainly doesn't make the area warm. There was a gas-fired patio heater doing its best to kick out heat, so we positioned ourselves as close as possible to that, but were very glad of having piled on our warm layers before coming out and we felt frozen to the core by the time we left at 11:30pm!

Anyway, the first half of the talk, given by a lady who studies the local wolf population, was the same as we saw at a very similar talk last year in San Quirico - although we were pleased to find that we understood a lot more of what she said this time. The second part of the evening was a talk given by a man who has been studying ways of defending livestock against wolves (looking at different types of fencing, and various other deterrents). In contrast to his colleague, this guy spoke at a million miles an hour and mumbled a lot, so we didn't grasp quite as much of what he said. There were some interesting facts and figures though. Dogs (of a certain type) are one of the best defences, which is interesting because one of the problems caused by wolves is that they prey on domestic dogs (those that are left to wander around alone outside at night, that is). There has also been some interesting research into different types of fencing, playing noises that the wolves don't like (he described the noises as being to wolves the same as someone scraping their nails down a blackboard is to humans), and using various different scents that are off-putting to them.

The talk was aptly timed as that very afternoon Reggie had come out of the woods proudly carrying a deer spine with two legs attached (which subsequently dropped off). He brought the spine all the way back to the house with him, whereupon he sat himself down and started to eat it. It's very likely that the deer remains were the leftovers of a recent wolf meal.

Monday's wolf talk at the circolo.
We had intended to do some more work on our fencing project at the weekend, but despite it being perfect weather for it, our plans were foiled by the local hunters. In our area wild boar are hunted in squads with dogs - and the hunters and their dogs can cover quite an area in the course of a hunt. It was just as we were about to start our afternoon's work when we heard the tell-tale noise of dogs barking and bells (which the dogs wear around their necks). They weren't immediately close, but close enough for us to be wary about letting Reggie out (and close enough for Reggie to get himself worked up), and since we didn't want to go up on the terraces leaving Reggie on his own in the garden (giving him even more to be worked up about), we reluctantly decided to change our plans. 

Instead of fencing, we took the opportunity to do some more work on building up the garden wall, getting us a step closer to (at some point finally)being able to finish the pergola floor.

Reggie did his best to help.

Later in the afternoon, we went to visit our "new neighbours", Gianni and Serena, who we had met (in fact we were introduced to them by our friend Emanuele) at the wolf talk at the circolo on Monday. While they could be classed as neighbours when going as the crow flies (they are just across the hillside from us, and we even realised that we can hear their dogs barking from our house), actually getting to their house involves a long trek all the way into Pescia and then back out again, heading up our valley but on the opposite side of the river.

When Gianni sent directions to get to their house, he said "you pass a house with lots of ducks outside". I imagined maybe 4 or 5 ducks - and possibly even plastic ones rather than real ones - but in fact we came to a point on the road where we simply couldn't pass because there were so many ducks in the road! Stuart started crawling along in the car, but it was impossible to see whether they had actually moved out the way or were just squatting low down beneath bonnet level, so in the end I got out of the car and walked (squelched) ahead of it to make sure they were all shooed out of the way. Gianni and Serena said that the man who lives in that house is a bit of a recluse - clearly he loves ducks!
So many ducks!

We very much enjoyed meeting Gianni and Serena properly, and seeing around their lovely home and the amazing artwork that Serena produces for a living. They seem lovely people, very friendly and very much on our wavelength in terms of living the same lifestyle. They have two enormous dogs (Reggie looked positively small to us when we got home!), two turkeys, some chickens, some fish and seven cats! I had animal envy, and came very close to smuggling one of the cats home with me.

It was the first time I'd had any cat snuggles since losing our dear little Florence. I very nearly smuggled this one home.
On Sunday we headed up the road to Vellano to help our friends David and Sarah with the last of their second olive pick of the year. After having had so many olive-laden trees left unpicked at the end of the harvest they did in collaboration with us, they decided they would like to pick the rest of the trees and do a press of their own. By the time we lent a hand it was already their third day of picking and they had been going great guns! It was just a morning's work, therefore, to lend a hand in the final push for them to reach their required weight of olives - indeed it was a good job it wasn't an all-day job as the rain came in halfway through the afternoon.

The amazing ginko tree that belongs to David & Sarah's neighbours looked particularly stunning against the darkening sky.
The olive/leaf sorter proved to be effective.
David & Sarah's cachi (persimmon) tree always looks so beautiful, as if it's adorned with Christmas baubles.

The following Monday we had our English evening at the circolo. Just four people came (all the regular faces: Roberto & Vikki, Daniele, and Luca), although with just the two of us native English speakers present that was just about the right number to be comfortable. We had made a "swear jar" to take this time - something we'd been talking about for a while as several people (of whom Stuart is one of the worst offenders) have a tendency to lapse into speaking Italian (which, of course, would be fine if it wasn't specifically intended as an opportunity for people to practise their English.). The idea of the swear jar is that if anyone speaks too much Italian they have to pay into the jar, with the proceeds going to the charity that deals with blood donations (which Emanuele, the owner of the circolo, is heavily involved in). It seemed the perfect use for a piggy bank in the form of E.T. that used to belong to Stuart when he was a boy. It has been sitting in the cupboard for a few months (freaking me out and taking me by surprise every time I opened the cupboard) so we stuck a sticker on the front of it (saying "if you speak too much Italian you pay me €1"). We only collected about 1.50, but it did seem to concentrate people's minds as to why we were all there!

On Monday evening our friend Luca invited us to go along to the surprise birthday party he was throwing for his wife, Anna Livia, at a pizzeria the next day. We've met Anna Livia on a few occasions, and were touched that Luca had thought to invite us, so how could we refuse? I have to say that it was a little of an assault on the senses - still feeling a little on the sensitive side after the events of recent months, being immersed in a large echo-y pizzeria at the end of a table of 25 or so loudly gabbering, jabbering, gesticulating and pontificating Italians was something of a test of endurance, but we sat with the one other person we knew there, along with a couple of other guys who were friendly enough to include us in their conversation, and overall it was a very jolly affair.

On Friday morning, we got up and out the house nice and early and headed for Lucca. We had finally got around to making an appointment at a secondary branch of the state archive in order to try and continue our research on the history of our house that we had begun almost exactly a year ago. (Unlike the main branch that we visited before, this branch is only open on Fridays, by appointment only - and only 10 people each time.) We weren't sure what we might find, but it had been suggested to us last year that we should visit this branch for more information - so perhaps at the very least there might be some older maps we could look at to see whether or not the house was marked on them, or some older land registry archives.

In the end, it turned out to be a bit of a wild goose chase - having found our way to the archive, gone through the process of re-registering our details with them (our previous registration had just expired after 12 months) and sat down to explain to one of the archivists why we were there and what we were hoping to look at, it turned out that they didn't have anything relevant to us there at all. And in fact, after a brief discussion between all the archivists in a huddle, they suggested we go back to the original (central) branch that we went to and have another look through the tomes that we looked at before. They also said something along the lines of if you want to know more about the house you have to engage a solicitor to do the research(?!).

So it was a disappointing morning (although the one part that wasn't disappointing was the fact that we didn't have to stay in the archive all morning - it was freezing in there - even all the staff were wearing coats and scarves - so it was quite a relief to leave after about 20 minutes!). We think we will make a return visit to the central archive at some point to have another look at the huge tome we looked at last year - there must be some record of our house/its owners in the there, we think we might have missed it the last time and that a bit more of a concerted, concentrated effort is required.

Friday afternoon was spent prepping, cooking and cleaning in anticipation of a visit from our friends Mara and Franco in the evening. It's been about 6 months since we last had them over for dinner and I hadn't seen them since August, so it was a long overdue social. I have to say that I was a bit apprehensive at the start - I feel as if both my Italian and my social skills (or sociability) have suffered a little in recent months - but I was relieved to find that after a little while (or maybe more accurately after a little wine) I relaxed enough to enjoy the evening and participate in the conversation.

Saturday was forecast to be clear and sunny (despite it having tipped down with rain throughout the night), so we had arranged to go to our friends Paul and Kathy's in Castelvecchio to pick their remaining olive trees. Very kindly, they had offered us their remaining olives - having already done two harvests this year themselves and having more than enough oil for their own needs. So first thing on Saturday morning, we all (Reggie included) hopped into the car and headed up the valley.

Reggie was first to be ready for the off!
We spent a lovely day in the fresh air picking olives with Paul and Kathy, and by the end of the day had racked up almost 13 crates' worth - certainly enough for a pressing. Reggie had a great day running around Paul and Kathy's garden and terraces and was suitably exhausted at the end of the day - he did lots of snoozing in the evening!

A day's pickings.
It was pretty wet first thing on Sunday, and what with the weather and feeling a little tired after a day in the fresh air on Saturday, we had made up our minds that it would be an indoors day - but of course, by the time we got back to the house after our morning coffee in Pescia, it was starting to brighten up. And then the sun came out. So, somewhat reluctantly, we decided to get ourselves into gear to do some fencing... . We got changed, went outside... only to find that there was a hunting dog on the nearby hillside (we think it must have been lost because there was just one and no apparent hunters with it), which was driving Reggie to distraction. So once again, we couldn't risk letting Reggie out on the terraces with us for fear that he would tear off and try and find the dog (or indeed that other dogs with or without associated hunters might appear). So our plans were foiled by the hunters once again!

Instead, we took the opportunity to rake the drive. Paul & Kathy had raked it while they were dog-sitting for us when we were in Bristol at the start of November, but since then a lot more leaves have fallen from the trees, and with the wet weather we've had in recent weeks the drive has just started to become a bit slippery when going up in the car. So instead of building fencing we spent a couple of hours raking all the leaves off the drive before finally coming in for a late lunch and lighting the wood burner.

A low visibility day.

One minute you're in the sunshine, the next you can't see a thing.. and then this happens.

A porcupine quill - we haven't found one of these on our property since the year we moved in.

Fungi standing to attention.

Rain on gaura

Mist and cloud above Pietrabuona.

Monday 26 November 2018

A quiet week.

Last week, we made such a concerted attempt to get back to normal that we almost managed to edit out of the week anything even remotely of interest to write about.

With a short cold snap at the start of the week (the first overnight ground frost of the winter), and wet weather (including thunder and lightning) for most of the rest of the week, there wasn't much opportunity to do any outdoor work, and so it was that the two of us spent each day in the office - Stuart working on various admin tasks while I worked on, well, getting back to paid work.

The highlights of the week were the car having a new cam belt fitted (complete with the mechanic bringing the car back to the house for us at the end of the day, all (including parts, labour and dropping the car off) for the princely sum of €35) and me re-starting the teaching of English lessons. I use the word "teaching" in the loosest of senses here, as it turns out that as well as forgetting how to speak Italian I've also forgotten most of the rules of English grammar that I'd been learning how to teach prior to going to the UK at the end of August).

We even started a strict "diet" during the week, the basis of which is that we have pledged to consume no alcoholic drinks from Sunday-Thursday, so a glass of wine at our local circolo was a real treat on Friday evening.

Emanuele pours large measures for the poor English folk who haven't had a sip of wine all week...

The weekend started out disappointingly wet and miserable (at one point our weather station recorded 50mm of rainfall in 24 hours), so there was no chance of continuing with the fencing project.

More rain.

Instead, after having spent the morning doing our supermarket shopping and other errands in Pescia, we spent most of Saturday afternoon brushing up on our Italian comprehension by watching episodes of 'Columbo' and 'House' in Italian (yes, that's Peter Falk and Hugh Laurie dubbed into Italian) while Reggie looked at us accusingly, seemingly convinced that it was us that had made it rain.

We had been expecting brighter weather on Sunday, but we woke up to yet more rain so after a coffee in Pescia, we decided to go and have a walk - the only problem being that we hadn't brought an umbrella out with us, so we headed for Lucca, stopping off at the large Carrefour store on the way to pick up a cheap umbrella.

At the entrance to the shop we were somewhat side-tracked by the novelty presentation bottles of grappa (clearly a "buy your Christmas gifts here" display) - it seemed to us a strange combination of the sort of wooden toy you might give a small child to play with and a glass vessel containing hard liquor.

We somehow managed to resist the urge to buy a wooden steam roller with a side of grappa though, and instead just selected ourselves a new umbrella, made our purchase and left the shop.

When we got to Lucca we parked the car, found our way up onto the old city walls and embarked on a circuit of the walls which encircle the city, covering a distance of 4.2km in their entirety.

It was lovely being in Lucca at this time of year - there were far fewer tourists, and with the leaves dropping from the trees there was more to see, plus we realised it was a joy to be walking around without feeling uncomfortably hot (unlike in the summer). The walls were pretty much full of locals jogging, cycling or walking their dogs. It felt like a treat and a very relaxing way to spent the morning gently stretching our legs in the fresh autumn air.

And we didn't put the umbrella up once!

Lucca's city walls are the second longest in Europe.

The walls are popular with joggers, cyclists, dog walkers and of course tourists.

While the city dates back to Roman times, the present city walls are from the Renaissance period.

After we'd completed the circuit of the walls we made our way back to the car and then we were homeward bound. We'd panicked slightly that the weather in Lucca had dried up almost completely and were worried that we might have squandered valuable fencing time/weather - but the closer we got to Pescia the darker the sky and the wetter it got, and by the time we reached our house we were well and truly back up in the clouds and rain.

So it was another afternoon spent indoors for us - Christmas shopping, admin, and staring out the window at the rain. Here's hoping for a drier week ahead.

Tuesday 20 November 2018

A slow return to normal

As I write, I'm on the sofa with the wood burner lit, the dog next to me snoring on his back, and the sound of a conference call happening in the office next door.

Today is the first day of us getting back to 'normal' for what must be almost three months, two of which Helen spent in the UK helping her Dad (Mike) and sister (Rachel) care for my dear Mother-in Law (Jill) during the final weeks of her life at their family home in Bristol.

A couple of weeks ago I flew back to England to join the family for Jill's funeral, which was held at a beautiful woodland cemetery just north of Bristol. It was lovely to feel the warmth and love of everyone who had come to pay their respects to a lady who had clearly meant so much to so many, and on a personal note to finally meet family friends about whom I had heard much, but had never met (hello Heulwen & Nev; Jean & Martin). The day could not have been a more fitting tribute to an amazing lady who I now understand (after hearing more about her life and interests and passions in the touching and emotional eulogy) was even more of a force of nature than I had realised. She is greatly missed by us all.

A short couple of days later Helen and I flew back home together. For Helen in particular it was hard to leave Mike, as well as to be putting such a distance between us and Rachel and her family, after having been so close with them for such an intense and challenging period, but we had to get home to relieve our dog-sitters of their duty. Our friends Paul & Kathy had very kindly moved into our house to look after our hound for the 5 days we were both away, and when we got back it was clear that Reggie had enjoyed his time with them and all of the exercise that they gave him.

Without the support of our incredible friends here in Italy, who on two occasions during these difficult months (first David & Sarah and then Paul & Kathy) selflessly moved out of their own homes and into ours to look after Reggie, I would not have been able to join the rest of the family in Bristol at this important and difficult time, and for that I am hugely grateful - we both are.

Needless to say we were very early to bed the night we got home, and the next day we did very little other than the unavoidable supermarket shopping and treat ourselves to a coffee and pastry at our favourite coffee bar. We needed to take the day to rest as the following day we were due to take Reggie up the valley with us to see Paul & Kathy again but this time at their house as they had started their olive harvest and we had offered some help with the picking (I'm not sure how much help Reggie was with the harvest, but Helen and I did our bit). 

While picking olives is some level of hard work (especially straight after rain, when the olives and the branches are soaked and water runs down your sleeves as you reach up to pick), it's never a hardship when we are treated to one of Kathy's superb lunches. Reggie thoroughly enjoyed his day running around on their terraces, doling out kisses to all his favourite people (not only did he get to see Paul & Kathy but also Donatella, David & Sarah - a full house of all his favourite humans) and was absolutely shattered when we finally got home, flaking out on the sofa after demolishing his dinner.

Low cloud above the Edwards' olive grove.

First pick of the season.

As much as we were tempted to join Reggie flaked out on the sofa, it was a shower, a change of clothes and then back up the valley to Castelvecchio once again, but this time to the house of our great friend Amanda. It was Amanda's birthday and she had invited us to a small gathering - just us, her son Edoardo and her friends Massimo and Paola. She kept stressing that she hadn't done anything special, but we were treated to our second absolutely delicious meal of the day and spent a very enjoyable evening in great company.

The following morning we were up bright and early for more olive picking - but this time at our house, along with the help of David & Sarah, with whom we were once again (as last year) joining forces to pick enough of our and their olives for a joint press. The weather was perfectly autumnal - bright sunshine and blue sky, and lovely and warm in the sun, and we were thrilled to find that by the end of the day we had harvested roughly 130kg of olives in total from our very own trees - 80kg more than last year. This year does seem to be a bumper year for olive harvests all round (to give an idea, Paul & Kathy's harvest from just 26 of their 100 trees was greater than what they got from all 100 of their trees last year), and while that almost certainly played some part in the increase, it does seem as if our trees are becoming more productive year on year (three years ago we harvested just 10kg from our trees) and it's a huge boost to know that all of the effort pruning them each winter is seemingly paying off.

Groaning with olives!

The tree on the front lawn is particularly bountiful.

A perfect day for picking.

Too high to reach!


Reggie lent a hand/paw.

Pietrabuona picking.
Another fruit-laden tree.

This year's revelation was picking into an umbrella - suggested by Sarah after a friend told her about the handy technique, and an explanation as to why we found a very old umbrella hanging from one of our trees a few years ago!

Reggie keeps watch.
Five full crates from our trees, whereas last year there were just two crates.

The following morning we were up early once again, this time to head up to Vellano to make a start on picking David & Sarah's olives. It was yet another long day broken only by another lovely lunch and another 150 kg of olives - a huge increase for them as well this year, with still lots of fully laden unpicked trees.

David & Sarah's persimmon (cacchi) tree.

Not a bad view for a morning's work.

225kg from David and Sarah's trees.

Wednesday was the day of the pressing in which we again would combine our olives with those of Dave and Sarah and split the spoils, very generously on their behalf 50/50. We picked during the morning another four crates, taking their haul up to 225kg (with still more trees left unpicked), and loaded their car before we headed home to see Reggie for a couple of hours before heading to the mill.

Although the yield (amount of oil to weight of olives) was seemingly down this year for everyone due to a lot of rain swelling the olives just before picking, we were overjoyed not only to have pressed an extra 80kg this year but to have done so from just our own olives (ours and David & Sarah's), whereas last year we had added in some fruit from three other properties to make up the minimum pressing weight.

This year's harvest - entirely from trees at numero 182 and David & Sarah's house.

Off they go.

After a celebratory glass of wine in Pescia, the four of us headed home to try the new oil and wow, was it peppery! According to information in the mill and something I read online, the earlier in the year you pick, generally the lower the yield but the better the oil and the greater its health benefits as it will be higher in polyphenols, which is reflected in the green and peppery flavour - a later harvest gives you a more mellow and buttery oil with a higher yield but and oil that is lower in polyphenols.

Either way, for us it was a huge success and a tasty oil that we'll be enjoying for the next 12 months (although that peppery flavour we love so much will lessen over time).

Now, if you remember, last year we had some friends, Kathryn and Steve, come and visit to help us with the olive harvest. They were due to come to see us again, but this year nature had decided they would miss the harvest by two days - as such, they had offered to help us make a start on our anti-boar fencing, a.k.a. the Great Fencing Project (or rather they had told us they were game to pitch in and help with other projects, and we decided it was a good opportunity to get the fencing project started with the extra labour on offer).

Every time we have friends come and stay who want to get their hands dirty we can hardly believe it - despite these people all being repeat visitors we are still surprised that the novelty hasn't yet worn off, and we feel incredibly lucky to have them. The extra boost it gives us to have some extra hands around the place really is hugely appreciated as not only do we get a lot of extra work done, and enjoy the company, but we don't have to down tools ourselves to entertain and end up having had a lovely time with friends without having had to stop our own work.

I should interject here, to say a huge thank you to Allison for her hard graft when she and Q came to stay towards the end of October. Helen was still in the UK at that point, meaning that it was left to just me (and Reggie) to entertain them on their visit, but Allison was still as keen as ever to don her work clothes and get out on the terraces for some hard graft every single day. A large part of the work that Allison ploughed through during the week here was helping to clear to the edges of the upper terraces of tree heather and bramble - something we had never quite got around to doing and which needed to happen before we could embark on the Great Fencing Project.

Land clearing.

Allison chips the wood.

More clearing and chipping in the woods.

Back to Kathryn and Steve's visit. Having collected them from the airport on Thursday late afternoon and spent an enjoyable evening catching up over a plate of pasta and a bottle (or two, or was it three?) of wine, Friday morning was time to get stuck into work. 

Having picked up half of the fencing materials some weeks back we were ready on Friday morning to head out into the autumn sun to start a job that had been daunting us from the moment we decided it needed to be done. Fencing in the terraces has been something we have talked about doing for a long time, but always talking about it as being something we would like to do eventually - maybe in 5 to 10 years time when all the other jobs have been done (ha ha!). But, after having seen the size and proximity to the house of the boar that visited us recently and which, during one of his visits snapped clean off at the base of the trunk our little apple tree that we had carefully planted three years ago and that was for the first time fruiting this year, the job suddenly and dramatically rose to the top of our to-do list. Needless to say, we never got to taste the apples on our little apple tree, but the boar did, and clearly loved them as he kept returning to the same spot in the hope of another meal. Wild boar do tremendous damage to the ground, to young fruit trees, and are a big danger to dogs, so if we are to have any hope of keeping healthy fruit trees and undamaged terrain, we need to keep the boar out (not to mention for the sake of Reggie's safety).

Having had a long chat with Paolo at the builders' yard about this fencing project we both agreed that we really need to bury the bottom 20-30cm of fencing into the ground in order to stop the beasts from getting in underneath. After having seen plenty of evidence of this behaviour at other houses, and even having repaired a good number of fences after exactly this had happened, I needed little convincing that we needed to go the extra effort to bury ours, albeit with the consequence that we would have to dig a trench or channel in the ground that would be in total 250 metres long on often 45-degree terrain that is full of stone.

By lunchtime on Friday morning, Helen and Kathryn had made a great start in the first 10 metres of digging, and after a stop for some light refreshments, Steve (having done a bit of plumbing for us during the morning) joined in the digging fun with Kathryn, heading up the hill, while Helen and I worked at erecting the first run of fencing.

The trench digging begins.

The fence posts start going in.

Kathryn and Steve forge ahead with the trench going uphill.

Laying out the fencing.

First section of fencing completed!

It was a slow start as it seemed almost everywhere we started hammering posts in they were met with sandstone! Nevertheless, by the end of the day we had honed our method, and managed to get the first setion of fencing in the ground, while Steve and Kathryn had progressed the trench about 5 terraces up - a fantastic start!

We rewarded our friends and ourselves for our hard labours with necci (chestnut pancakes) for dinner, along with plentiful wine, cheese and cured meats, and had another great evening in the company of our friends - although, after a long day in the fresh air with lots of physical work, we were all pretty tired and after just about managing to stay awake through Bake Off  Italia (which Kathryn and Steve very patiently sat through, despite not being able to understand it), we all headed to our beds.

After a slightly slower, slightly achier, slightly more thick-headed start on Saturday morning, we got ourselves outdoors and were able to get straight back to it, working our way up hill. This time, Steve ploughed on up the terraces digging the trench, with Helen making a start on the trench further towards the top of the terraces and working her way down. Meanwhile, Kathryn and I tackled the first section of fencing that would have to go uphill.

By the time we clocked off mid-afternoon, I think we may have finished around 30-40 metres of fencing with the digging pretty much completed all the way up one side of the terraces - something like 100 metres of the 250 needed. It was no mean feat and a great effort by our "holiday" makers again this year. Once again, we count ourselves incredibly lucky for the help, and we are thrilled the find that having started and now completed a little bit, the job, while still enormous, seems a bit less daunting.

The trench goes almost to the top of the terraces.

Thanks mainly to Steve's Herculean efforts cutting through rocky and root-filled ground.

And now the fence goes uphill too!

After having downed our fencing tools, we decided to take Steve and Kathryn for a very brief bit of sightseeing - it seemed such a shame that they had come all this way and not seen any of our lovely local area. We decided to take them to our favourite spot, Montecarlo, which they were duly impressed by - it's such a lovely little town that it's hard not to love it! After having walked the streets of Montecarlo we stopped for a drink (and a chance to warm up!) in one of the bars, before heading back to the car and into Pescia so that we could find a suitable spot for Steve to satisfy his craving for a real Italian ice cream! It being such a chilly evening, we decided to head to the main piazza to one of the gelaterie that has indoor seating, and Steve got his ice cream (as did I!).


Evening sunshine.

The digging and fencing gang (relieved to have finished digging!).

It was then back home for hot showers, to change out of work clothes, and then a little later on to head up the hill to the village of Macchino where we had booked a table for dinner at Trattoria Lina. We had a delicious meal - a very generous treat from Kathryn and Steve - and yet another great evening spent enjoying the company of our friends.

All too quickly it was time on Sunday morning for the trip to the airport (after sneaking in time for a coffee and pastry in Pescia) to drop off Kathryn and Steve for their return to the UK and to say a fond farewell to our very lovely and hard-working friends.

After having had such a busy week, we chose to take it relatively easy for the rest of the day on Sunday, in an attempt to charge our batteries for the week ahead, and for the start of the return to something resembling more normal.

Shaggy parasol, Macrolepiota rhacoides (?).

Pleated ink-cap, Coprinus plicatilis.
Magpie ink-cap, Coprinopsis picacea.

Red-cracking bolete, Xerocomus chrysenteron.

...and these ones are cultivated (shiitake)!