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)!