Thursday 17 January 2019

Low temperatures, high productivity

As I write this blog it's a damp scene outside the window, cloud hanging low over the hills opposite and the light decidedly dim. It's the first time we've seen rain in more than three weeks though, and what lovely winter weather we've had in that time: bright blue skies, blazing sun, crisp white frosts, coral pink sunsets - the sort of weather that makes everything seem quite magical and makes one wonder at the beauty of nature.

It has been the perfect weather for outdoor working - at times a touch on the chilly side, but with some extra layers and a bit of physical work we were soon comfortable enough to be in the great outdoors being productive. We never know when rain might be around the corner in the winter (and, more to the point, when it arrives how long it might stay around - last winter it felt as if it started raining on Boxing day and didn't stop until about April, such was the relentlessness of the wet weather), so we made a conscious effort to make the most of the dry, sunny weather, and to work outdoors every day.

Of course, for all its beauty, there are some downsides to the wintry weather and at least 5 times in the last few weeks we have woken up to frozen pipes and no water coming to the house. On two of those occasions the pipes have remained frozen almost day and we've been water-less until late evening. Thankfully we've been sufficiently prepared to have filled bottles of drinking water and a large 25 litre canister for using to flush the toilet. It makes it slightly more bearable when you're prepared for it, but it's still a bit miserable not being able to wash properly and the joy when you finally turn on the tap and water does finally come out is almost indescribable. It really makes you realise how important running water is, and what a luxury it is to be able to turn a tap and have water - hot or cold - come running out.

The pipes seem to be a lot quicker to freeze this year than last winter, when they really only froze when the temperature dipped to -5C or less. This year, it seems as if a night at -2C is enough to freeze it all up. Stuart spent a day lagging some of the pipes that are exposed near to the house, and burying another short section, but that doesn't seem to have done the trick, so there must be another part of the pipe that has become exposed somewhere along the line, or perhaps the freeze is being caused by offshoots that have been added for irrigation of the mushroom logs etc. For now it remains a mystery, but with more sub zero nights forecast in the coming week it will be something we have to investigate.

That'll mean the pipes are frozen then!

Pipes lagged, but still freezing.

It's very pretty though - Jack Frost is quite the artist.
We spent some time working in the woods trying to clear up the mess left after we'd logged a long-since fallen ash tree a few weeks' back. While I had a bonfire to try to clear some of the branches and brambles, Stuart turned his hand to building (or starting to build) a set of steps. The fallen ash tree previously lay right across the path of the route we take through the lower part of the woods when we take Reggie for a walk, meaning you had to clamber over it. Our friend Paul had cut a chunk out of it to clear the way while he and Kathy were dog sitting. With the rest of the tree now gone, there was room for a set of steps leading up the incline.

Stuart spent a fair bit of time chasing around after spare tractor parts and, in the end, buying a soldering kit to mend the poor broken tractor which, all of a sudden, had started billowing out smoke from the engine. He'd managed to get the young mechanic from the local garage to come out and have a look at it, who was able to diagnose the problem and tell Stuart what replacement part he would need to get hold of, also giving him the names of two places he thought might stock the part. After much chasing around, Stuart finally got the replacement part, only to find (when the mechanic came back to look at it) that it was a new version of the old part, and the mechanic thought it would be too complicated for him to fit. To cut a long story short, after receiving advice and instruction remotely from our friend Paul (aka Granville), Stuart was able to fit the new part himself. Tractor problem solved!

Last week we held a community day here with all our friends - Donatella, Paul & Kathy, David & Sarah - coming to put in a day's work in return for a meal. It had been a while since we'd done any work on our fencing project and, wanting to give it a kick start, we decided to concentrate efforts on that. With the weather still cold, we decided to break from community day tradition and instead of starting work early in the morning and working until lunchtime, we decided to delay the start until the sun had reached the terraces, starting at lunchtime and working until the light faded.

Paul, Kathy and David helped Stuart with putting in the fencing and the posts, while Sarah, Donatella and I dug the channel (which required some re-digging and deepening in places, thanks to the rain having washed the soil back into the previously dug parts), extending it now all the way across the top of the terraces.

By the end of the day we'd made great progress thanks to everyone's hard work, and we sat down to enjoy a well-earned feed up at the end of the day.

Following the efforts of community day, a slightly less physical day was required, so for me it was a day of burning some of the cuttings that had been left on the terraces since October when our friend Allison had helped Stuart with clearing the edges of the terraces, while Stuart made a start at clearing the gully that runs along the opposite edge of the terraces in readiness for (eventually) running the fencing along it.

We had, let's say, a challenging evening last Saturday - we went to a surprise 60th birthday party for a really nice guy, Loris, who we know from the circolo (a friend of our friend Luca). After meeting up with about 3 other couples in a car park in the nearby town of Chiesina, we followed Luca in convoy to the house where the party was to be held. Here, there was some form of annex which consisted of an enormous kitchen (with the largest oven and the most enormous cooking pots I've seen outside of a professional kitchen), a large room which was laid out with a huge dining table and benches all around it, and a bathroom. When we arrived the cooking was in full swing - there was an enormous tray of potatoes roasting in the oven, trays of meat resting, trays of lasagne coming out of the oven, and packets of spaghetti being readied for when there came the nod that the birthday boy was on his way. More people soon arrived, and in the end there were 19 people there, most of whom seemed to know Loris from their school days. We were all ushered into the dining room and the lights turned off for the arrival of Loris, who seemed duly surprised and touched and when the surprise was unveiled. There was no messing around and as soon as the main guest had arrived we were served a large bowl of spaghetti with tomatoes, followed by a generous portion of lasagne, followed by a huge piece of pork shin with spinach, followed by slices of roast pork with roast potatoes, followed by a slice of cream cake. I struggled to eat anything beyond the lasagne and since I mainly stick to a vegetarian diet it was quite a challenge! Stuart was similarly challenged, but managed somehow to fit in second portions of almost everything! With 17 Italians sat around one table in a rather echoey room, all talking over each other at the tops of their voices, the evening was socially a little hard going - it was so loud that it was difficult to hear enough of what anyone said to be able to understand it, and even more difficult to speak loudly enough to respond. Nevertheless, it was lovely to see Loris surrounded by his friends and family and to have been part of his birthday celebration.

The following morning was a slow start and we decided to start the day with a drive around the hills, taking in some really stunning views on the road around Massa & Cozzile.

We've put a lot of work over the last couple of weeks into cutting, splitting and moving wood for next winter's woodpile. It's quite slow-going bringing the wood all the way up from the small quarry in the woods beneath the house, but it's satisfying work and it's something that is easy to do just a bit of each day.

Stuart has also been hard at work creating a workshop for himself in one section of the tractor park. All being well, he will soon take ownership of some of my Dad's wood turning tools, and he is preparing a decent work space in which to hone his wood-working skills.

Reggie rather likes the workshop as a sunbathing/sleeping space.

There is plenty of workspace and hopefully it should stay dry.

So, in the week ahead we are expecting some more unsettled weather, and a return to low temperatures as well - while I've been singing the virtues of the cold and dry weather, I'm a little less certain how I feel about the cold and wet weather that's in store next week!

From this... this... this.

Thursday 3 January 2019

Firewood following festivities

Let me start by wishing all those reading this a very happy, healthy and peaceful 2019. We have taken an (unplanned) break over recent weeks for the festivities of the holiday period - with friends visiting us for the Christmas week we were busy preparing for their arrival, celebrating with them, and since their departure we have taken full advantage of some crisp, sunny winter's days to put some serious effort into building our woodpile for next winter's burning.

For me, this year's festive period was a strange one, being so soon after the loss of my lovely Mum - tears were never far away and even the most festive days were accompanied by sadness and a heavy heart, but I guess that is to be expected, and having our dear friends Paul and Marie with us this year was lovely and made it feel more special.

The weather was decidedly grey and damp when Paul and Marie arrived on 20th December and we worried for a while that they weren't going to see any sunshine and that it would be a grey Christmas. Thankfully, things turned around and by Christmas we were treated to blue skies and sunshine, but for their first day it was umbrellas all round.

Damp day, damp dog.

After a late start (following a late and wine-fuelled evening spent catching up the night before), Stuart, Paul and Marie went out to do the supermarket shopping (and stopped for a coffee, and then stopped for a drink after the shopping, and also had a wander around town) while I stayed at home to do some office work. When they finally returned from their expedition (not quite having bought up the entire of the stock of the supermarket, but it was close), we all went on a trip to buy some wine from a guy who makes it at his house (and sells in bulk - you have to take your own container). Stuart had been there with our friend Luca while I was in England. 

The man also raises pigs (six of them - he explained he keeps one for himself and sells the others, but six is the maximum number he can have without things getting complicated in terms of bureaucracy) and produces cured pork-based products. When we went into what was effectively a garage or large shed containing all the vats of wine, there on a slab in the middle of the room were laid out two legs of prosciutto, some pancetta and two shoulders, all packed under layers of salt. Apparently the prosciutto takes a minimum of 12 months for it to be ready, the pancetta only takes a month, and the shoulders take about 4 months (the animal had been slaughtered last Sunday). All interesting to see.

After having rather generous measures of the red, the white and the rose wine to taste, we opted to take 5 litres of the red wine and 3 litres of the rose. All at €1.60 per litre. 

Fuelled with festive spirit, it was back home for another evening of making a serious dent in the wine we'd just bought, and for Paul and Stuart to turn their hand to making Scotch eggs.

The boys hard at work (and Reggie checking up on them).

Spot the accidental vegetarian Scotch eggs?

Perfect runny egg.
After the third night in a row of staying up late and revelling in the fact that it's cheaper to buy decent wine here than it is to buy water... the following day was rather slower. We did eventually make it out and about, and we spent a couple of hours in the late afternoon, along with our friend Sue, at the living crib event along the river in Pescia. The living crib involves a nativity scene recreated alongside the river under the arches of the main bridge in town, featuring locals dressed as the main characters from the nativity story (baby included), a cow, some sheep and of course a donkey. Then, all along the river bank there are stalls selling hot chestnuts, mulled wine, etc. and craftsmen and women, all dressed in medieval costume, doing basket weaving, smithying, carpentry and the like.

After walking the length of the riverside event, and having a cup of hot wine at Amanda's stall, we moved on into the square in Pescia, where we stopped for a drink in a bar before heading home for a much more restrained and sensible evening than those preceding it, as well as a much needed early night.

Christmas Eve started out grey and cloudy, with cloud hanging over the hills around us, but it didn't rain, and things improved as the day went on.

A misty morning on Christmas Eve.

Medicina in the mist.

Beautiful holly spray given to us by our neighbours Rossanna and Valerio.

After I'd done a small amount of office work in the morning, we all hopped in the car ready to head into Lucca for a Christmassy wander. We started out walking around the walls of the town before dropping down into the middle to find somewhere to have lunch.

An impressive crib outside a bar/restaurant on the walls of Lucca.

I was particularly taken with the miniature tools - rake, broom, etc.

Our plans were somewhat scuppered when we eventually found the restaurant we had been heading for, only to find a notice outside saying that it would be closed on Christmas Eve in order to allow its staff time to celebrate with their families. A lovely sentiment, but it left us stumped as to where to eat!

We wandered around the streets looking in restaurant windows and at menus and eventually plumped for a brasserie style establishment that was hidden away off one of the less busy streets. It proved to be an excellent choice - the food was delicious, the wine was excellent, the atmosphere was lovely, and the staff were friendly.

Cheers from the girls.

Cheers from the boys.
 After lunch we had a slow wander back through the streets to the car park and headed home.

Christmas Eve sunset in Lucca.
Once home, we had a break for a couple of hours - time to rest and refresh, before regrouping to head up to Castelvecchio later in the evening.

The small village of Castelvecchio has its own version of a living crib every year on Christmas Eve. Villagers dress up as inn keepers, blacksmiths, carpenters etc., and one lucky(?) couple get to be Mary and Joseph (the baby wasn't real this time though). As you wander through the streets of the little village, there are braziers burning on corners, people doing craftwork in cellars, and hot food and drink aplenty. Indeed, this year our friends Paul and Kathy were dressed in costume and manning a stall serving hot chocolate. We all agreed that it was a nicer, cosier and overall more Christmassy event than the one in Pescia, and after a couple of hours wandering the village, chatting with friends and supping mulled wine, we headed home feeling full of the Christmas spirit.


The beautiful fresco'ed chapel in Castelvecchio.

Night-time view of the valley from Castelvecchio.

Christmas morning dawned bright and clear - not a cloud in the sky.

If you look closely you can see the moon in the sky above Medicina.
The sun comes up from behind the hill around mid-morning at this time of year.

After exchanging Christmas greetings and tucking into a breakfast of poached eggs and bacon/smoked salmon on toast, we grabbed our coats and headed out. Our first stop was our local shop to wish Amanda and Samantha a happy Christmas. Next, we stopped at Da Nerone, our local pizzeria, for Stuart to dash in and hand over a box of Yorkshire tea bags to the boss, Mr Nerone himself, who had recently let on that he's a fan of a cup of tea. Stuart dashed in while the rest of us waited in the car, and waited, and waited. He eventually came running back out after having been "made" to drink a cup of punch while he chatted to all the staff in there...

With all the local greetings done, we headed off up the hill towards Medicina. We hadn't taken Paul and Marie to this little village before, and thought it would be as good a place as any for a Christmas morning wobble around the streets. It was so mild in the sunshine that we barely needed coats on, although cooler in the shade.

View from Medicina back down the valley.


Buon Natale plastic cup tree in Medicina.

Pretty Medicina.
After a slow circuit around the village, we headed back to the car to make our way back down the hill, stopping halfway down to drive partway along the road to Mara & Franco's house so that we could show Paul and Marie a different view of the valley, and a different view of our house.

Numero 182 bathed in sunshine.

Pietrabuona from above.
Once back home it was all hands on deck to start the cooking of Christmas lunch (I say "lunch", "meal" (or "feast") might be a better way of putting it!). We had Paul and Marie running up and down to the apartment with various dishes (turkey, yorkshire puddings, stuffing balls) being cooked in the oven down there, while up in the house there were sprouts, carrots, potatoes, vegetarian stuffing on the go. 
Christmas dinner table - when it all still looked pretty!

We finally sat down to a starter of mushroom pate some time around 4.45pm, and the main meal came at a little after 5pm. Needless to say, there was so much food we barely made a dent in it all before all feeling stuffed to the gills.

As the evening drew in, we settled down to watch a couple of films - The Life of Brian and Little Miss Sunshine, both of which really hit the spot. And of course as the night drew on, we picked at cold roast potatoes, turkey, cheese and all the usual Christmas fayre.

Reggie checks out the Christmas sunset.

Christmas sunset.

We finally all headed to bed sometime around 2.30am. It was a chilly night and we were all tired. Even Reggie was so worn out that he didn't budge from the sofa when we told him it was bedtime. We decided to leave him there, certain that he was so pooped he would sleep peacefully there... WRONG! Just as we were drifting off to sleep upstairs there came a volley of barking from the living room - this was about 3am.

I pulled on my cosy dressing gown and blearily hurried downstairs. Reggie was standing at the front door barking. So I unlocked the door to let him out - he hurtled out the door and ran into the garden barking at full volume, where he did several laps of the garden (barking all the time). I bravely stepped out into the chilly night air (I could see the frost sparkling on the lawn) to see what he was up to and realised that I could hear a yapping on the hillside opposite us. There was clearly a dog running through the woods (probably a lost hunting dog), which is what had upset Reggie so much.

I eventually managed to persuade Reggie to come in, and this time put him in his own bedroom in the hopes that he might settle a bit easier in there. I headed back to my own bed, but even from inside the house I could still hear the dog yapping in the woods so I didn't hold out much hope for sleep. I was right. About 10 minutes later Reggie started up barking again. This time, with him being in his bedroom directly above where Paul and Marie were sleeping, I hurtled downstairs to get him further away from their earshot. Once again he went out into the garden barking.

I didn't think I would end up getting any sleep at all, but when I persuaded Reggie to come in this time, he went straight to the bottom of the stairs, so I decided to let him come upstairs with me and into our bedroom. So Stuart and I eventually got to sleep at around 4:15am on Christmas night (well, Boxing Day morning), with me leaning with my arm out of bed so that I could stroke Reggie to try and get him to settle and go to sleep. Not really what you'd call a Silent Night.

Having stood outside in my dressing gown twice in the early hours, it came as no surprise to me that the terraces were covered in frost when Reggie and I went out for our walk on Boxing Day morning.

Frosty morning.
Thankfully, Paul and Marie didn't seem to have been too disturbed by Reggie during the night, and so by mid-morning we were all ready to head off for our planned visit to Montecarlo for lunch.

On the way to Montecarlo we stopped to show Paul and Marie the "witches' oak" - a very large, very old (~600 years) oak tree just outside the town - and the tiny hamlet of San Martino in Colle.

The "quercione".

View from San Martino in Colle.

San Martino in Colle.
Lunch was very enjoyable - it has become something of a tradition for us to go for a Boxing Day pizza with Paul and Marie at this lovely restaurant, and the staff there are always very friendly.

After lunch we headed back into Pescia and had a quick wander around the antiques/bric-a-brac market. At times like these I do wish I had even a hint of my dear Mum's expertise! While the vast majority of stuff for sale is clearly little more than jumble sale grade junk, there is the odd thing or two that looks really interesting.

We didn't stay long in Pescia though, as the sun was going down and it was getting very cold, so we came home, lit the wood burner, played a few rounds of Cluedo and watched a film. 

Sadly the following day was time for Paul and Marie to head back to the UK. All of a sudden the week seemed to have disappeared in a blur. We managed to fit in a coffee in Pescia and a stop at the supermarket for Marie to buy cheese to take home before having to head towards Pisa and the airport. We said sad farewells to our lovely friends, but happy in the knowledge that we will be seeing them again in June!

For the rest of the afternoon, we simply relaxed on the sofa, read some books, watched some tv and at the first "normal" meal (pasta) we'd had in quite a while!

With the weather forecast showing bright, clear, dry days for at least the coming 10 days, our plan was to get outdoors as soon as possible and start to work off those Christmas over-indulgences!

We headed down the terraces to the woods below the house where there is an old quarry and where last winter we had begun cutting up some of the many fallen chestnut trees down there. We had left piles of logs down there, so the main priority was to split those and get them up the hill before they started to rot. Surprisingly the wood was in very good condition, and while I got stuck into splitting the logs, Stuart pushed on forwards through the fallen trees in the quarry, creating yet more piles of logs that will need splitting. 

These were left from last year.

More trees to cut.

A bit more clearing done.
Of course, having such a stash of firewood is fantastic - and there is plenty more to come from down there - but the problem (and the reason it had remained down there for a year) is getting it up the hill to where we need it. In the end, it took us three days to get all the wood up to the car park and stacked, throwing all the split logs piece by piece up the terraces, step by step.

There were also a few acacia logs to cut halfway up the terraces.

Throwing the split wood, piece by piece, step by step up the hill.

The rapidly dropping sun.

The wood finally makes it to the top of the hill.

But there's all this yet to come.

Stacking begins.

9 quintali of chestnut.

We had a quiet New Year's Eve at home on our own with Reggie after having done a good day's work of cutting and moving wood. We cooked salmon en croute with horseradish mashed potatoes and pan fried Brussels sprouts, and we watched a film on TV. By the time it was close to midnight we'd somewhat lost our sparkle and if it weren't for the fact that we knew there would be fireworks at midnight that Reggie would kick off about, we would have gone to bed! Instead, we stayed up, Reggie duly barked at all the fireworks (we couldn't see any from here, but could hear plenty of them), and we eventually went to bed once things had quietened down, ready for another day of outdoor work in the morning.

On New Year's Day, we turned our attention to a large ash tree that had fallen in the woods 3 years ago. This one was about halfway up the hill, so moving the pieces was a quicker process, although not much less arduous!

Reggie "helped" with the splitting of the logs.

Ash on top; chestnut on the bottom.

And there's still more to come...

Is that a cloud or is it Santa on his way home?
As we slowly creep into January, the weather here is still bright, clear, and -now- perishingly cold. While I know that 2nd January really ought to be "back to work", I've decided to work just half-days for the rest of this first week of January, and start back properly on the 8th, thus allowing me time to get outdoors and make the most of working outdoors in the lovely wintry weather.

Stuart and I have both come round to the idea of winter being possibly one of our favourite seasons (that is, when the weather is bright and clear - not so much when it's wet and grey). Talk about things you never thought you'd hear yourself say!!!

We experienced one of the downsides of the winter weather this morning though - the temperature dipped to -3C here in the early hours of this morning, and our water pipes froze (despite having left the bathroom tap running overnight). We were prepared enough to have filled up buckets and canisters of water yesterday though, so we had drinking water and water to flush the loo with.. but it's not quite the same as turning on the tap and getting hot water out! After the chilliest morning we've had yet this winter (and having to break the ice on the chickens' water bowl), the water finally came back into the pipes at about 1pm this afternoon. We expect a repeat run tomorrow.

Happy new year everyone!