Wednesday 25 November 2020

More things that go bump in the night

In  this case, perhaps it was less of a "bump" in the night and more of a "creaking slide" down the hill.

When we first moved here, at the edge of the garden there was a shed, which quickly became affectionately known as the sh*t shed. It was a pretty old, barn-like construction (decades old, if not more) with a corrugated tin roof, and it housed all manner of rubbish and clutter - when we arrived it was literally full to the rafters with rubbish that we had inherited from the previous owners.

The first of our many concerted attempts at clearing it out was in November 2014, when we had our HelpX friends Nick and Tess with us and Nick spent a grubby afternoon amassing piles and piles of rubbish that he had extracted from the shed.

The removal of some of the rubbish and clutter allowed us to use a small section of the shed as overflow storage for our own things - tools and various items that didn't fit into the other storage areas we had set aside. So the sh*t shed briefly became a useful storage space for us until, in late July 2015, we received the bombshell from our geometra (architect/surveyor) that we needed to take the shed down.

This was all due to the fact that we were applying for planning permission to build a new tool shed (as well as erect a pergola and erect a polytunnel), and in order for permission to be granted for these things, we would first need to be visited by an inspector from Florence, and... because technically one is only allowed to have one outbuilding (the shed for which we were applying for permission), the geometra advised us that we would need to dismantle the poor old sh*t shed (he didn't call it that), as well as the chicken house (which, at the time, was a goose house). The full story is here.

When we reacted with alarm at the news that we needed to dismantle the shed (and would need to do so in double-quick time, as the news came just a week before the visit from the inspector was due to happen), our geometra relented, and said that maybe if we just took the roof off it, it would appear as if we were in the process of dismantling it, and that would probably be sufficient. So we opted for the less destructive (and less disruptive) approach, cleared out as many of our own things from the shed as possible, and prepared ourselves for the roof-removing task.

New homes were needed for our items.

The shed was mostly cleared out.

And so it was that a week later, our friends, the Phillips family, came to our aid and spent the afternoon helping us to remove the roof from the shed (as well as the sides from the chicken house).

And thus the sh*t shed was rendered bare. The inspector from Florence was seemingly appeased by what he saw and didn't raise it as an issue, and so there the shed stood, and continued to stand, in skeletal form, for several years, a reminder of times gone by, a nod to the past history of the house.

The shed continued to gift us more finds along the way. In April 2017 we unearthed more, er, "treasure" from in and around the shed:

The gift that kept on giving.

And even in April 2019, there was still rubbish to be pulled out, as well as the rusty pieces of corrugated roofing to dispose of, until finally the shed was clear:

Over the years we came up with a few different thoughts and ideas as to what to do with the shed. We loved it as an old agricultural structure, and we considered putting the roof back on, shoring it up, re-building it, turning it into an indoor gym area, and various other ideas.

In recent months we noticed that the uprights were no longer entirely upright and a bit of a lean had developed on the whole structure and we realised that we would need to do something with it soon if we were to keep it standing.

Then, one morning a few weeks ago, Stuart said "OH! look!" and I looked and said "What?", completely mystified as to what he was trying to show me... until a few seconds later my brain clicked in and I registered that where once had stood the skeleton of the sh*t shed, there was now an empty space.

Peering over the edge of the garden fence we saw the sad collapsed heap of the old shed. It had finally succumbed to gravity and the elements and had quietly slid down the hill.

Something's missing!

A different view.

A sad heap.

We were saddened by the loss of the shed, but Stuart had already begun thinking of how we could re-purpose it to give at least the sturdier elements of it a new lease of life in a completely different form. So, chainsaw in hand, I began cutting free the flat beams and we began constructing a form of raised bed at the edge of the lawn (just outside the fencing), using the beams - held in place between pieces of rebar - as edging. We then added some wire fencing to the top of the edging (in an attempt to keep wildlife out), planted the cypress tree that Dean & Gavin had bought us back in August(!), re-sited the bird feeder to the new bed, then mulched the entire area with wood chippings.

And now, the view from the garden looks like this:

There still remains the large part of the shed in, shall we say, "flat pack" form, halfway down the hillside. We intend to rescue it all and sort through the pieces, keeping aside the sturdy beams to be used in future projects (let us know if you have any ideas!), while those in more of a sorry state will be added to the winter wood pile. 

So, a bit of a sad tale, but the sh*t shed lives on, just in a different form and different location(s). 

Friday 13 November 2020

Things that go bump in the night

One Saturday morning a few weeks ago, I got up, I did my regular daily exercise routine, I went back to the house to collect Reggie and my coat, and we set off on our daily walking route - up to the top of the terraces behind the house, cutting through the woods to join the top of the upper donkey track, then dropping down onto the drive.

As I walked, Reggie ran on ahead of me and I pondered the day ahead, I was planning to try to finish off the strimming of the upper terraces (cutting the grass to make the upcoming olive harvest easier, as well as it being the last grass cut of the year).

As I descended the donkey track Reggie, who was by now way ahead of me on the drive, broke into a volley of angry barking. I assumed (as is often the case) that he had reached the gate and found a car parked up on the tarmac outside (and very often with an Italian, er, gentleman relieving himself next to the car). I quickened my pace to go and make a half-hearted attempt at telling him to be quiet (in fact, we usually secretly praise him for barking at people having wee-stops at our gate).

As I got to the bottom of the donkey track to join the drive, something didn't quite look right, and the barking wasn't coming from the gate, but closer to me. As my brain whirred and computed the images I was seeing, I realised that we had a bit of a problem. Reggie was outraged not at someone having stopped near our gates, but at something else that shouldn't be there: an enormous chestnut tree that was now lying across the driveway and completely blocking all access to or from the end of the drive.

Well, that was the end of my strimming plans!

Reggie and I hurried back to the house. Knowing that our friends Paul & Kathy are often out and about on a Saturday morning and that, like us, they also pick up a weekly bread order at Amanda's local shop in the village, I quickly sent a message to them to ask if they would mind collecting our bread and dropping it off for us as we wouldn't be able to get out to go and collect it ourselves. I sent them a photo to explain the situation we had found ourselves in.

I then went to deliver the news to Stuart, who was only just coming round from sleep - and in the space of 5 minutes of opening his eyes I had blurted out "we've got a problem", our friend Jude had messaged him to say "we just drove past your house, did you know that there's a huge tree down, next to your gate?", and Paul & Kathy had messaged to say "we're coming to help!".

Still rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Stuart got up and while we were still sipping the first coffee of the day and shovelling pieces of toast into our mouths the gate buzzer rang to announce the arrival of the cavalry in the form of Paul & Kathy equipped with gloves and chainsaws. Since they couldn't easily get past the tree, they turned down the offer of a coffee and instead set straight to work, so by the time Stuart, Reggie and I had walked to the end of the drive to join them we were greeted by the noise of Paul's chainsaw, while Kathy was busy clearing away the large branches and stacking the logs Paul had cut.

We quickly got to work with them, and after just a couple of hours, between the four of us we had managed to clear the drive, pile up all the loose branches and stack up all the logs. 

Teamwork certainly does make the dream work!

Superstars Paul and Kathy had to rush off to go and help some other friends out (this time with taking their olive harvest to the mill), so we weren't able to thank them for their efforts by providing them with lunch, but they did stay for a coffee once we had managed to clear the drive, and we were joined by Jude and Carl (who live a little further up the road from us), who had been the ones to send the concerned message earlier in the day and, on their return had seen us and Paul & Kathy just finishing the clear-up.

Once everyone had departed, we were left with some more clearing up to do, but without the pressure of needing to get the driveway clear we were able to work at a comfortable pace.

Amazingly, the tree that fell was one that Stuart had had his eye on for quite a while - he had identified it as being one that could potentially cause a lot of damage should it fall, and thus had mentally noted it and planned to fell it at the earliest possible opportunity. As it turned out, the tree did the job for us, and it couldn't have come down in a better position (indeed, Stuart acknowledges that even if he had felled it, it would have been unlikely that it would have come down in such a perfect position). Most importantly, it missed the gate and didn't do any damage to the driveway itself, and it also somehow managed to miss falling on the little three-wheel cultivator that stands just inside the gate.

The tree didn't appear to be dead or rotten in any way -  it seems it just got a bit top heavy, and uprooted itself in the soil that had become very soft due to a lot of recent rain. Thus we had been "gifted" an entire chestnut tree's worth of firewood for next winter. 

The whole experience left us feel very fortunate, for the friends who are willing to jump to the rescue (and we know other friends would also have done the same), as well as for the lack of damage, the ticking off of a job on the to-do list (without having to do it) and the addition of firewood to our pile!

All that remains of the tree.

After counting the growth rings, we reckoned the tree was around 45-50 years old - about the same age as us! 

Thursday 12 November 2020

Three giant pumpkins and not a golden carriage in sight

Earlier in the spring, we emptied one of our compost bays and used the contents to fill the new veg bed that we had just erected. A couple of weeks later, two little shoots came up from the compost, looking like something from the squash/pumpkin family. 

Stuart transplanted them into the newly created raised terraces and we waited to see what they would turn into.

Well, they grew, they spread across the entirety of the terrace (and then some), and then they produced some fruit. Which grew, and grew, and grew. 

Eventually, we were left with three monster pumpkins (actually with four, but the fourth was a smaller monster than the other three).

Now, we all know the story of Cinderella, her fairy godmother and the pumpkin that was turned into a golden carriage. To remind ourselves, the Ladybird Easy-Reading book (hat tip to our friend Marie for sending us this excerpt) recounts: "First, I want you to go into the garden and bring me the biggest pumpkin you can find," said the fairy godmother... She picked the biggest pumpkin she could find and took it to her fairy godmother."

She picked the biggest pumpkin she could find and took it to her fairy godmother.

I'm sorry to say (sorry Ladybird books) that there are two main things wrong with this imagery. 

1. Cinderella is running.

The giant pumpkins that grew in our garden were so enormous and so heavy that even between two of us we couldn't carry a single one back to the house, let alone run while carrying one. (We reckoned they averaged about 40kg each.)

2. Cinderella is smiling.

We had to resort to cutting our giant pumpkins into halves in situ in the veg garden, and then struggling back up the hill carrying just a half piece each. There was certainly no smiling going on even when carrying just a half piece (each of which weighed in at around 20kg). Grimacing, yes. Smiling, no.

Even the half pieces were a struggle to carry.

After much huffing and puffing and straining and struggling, we managed to get all three monsters back up to the house (in pieces) and just about managed to find enough space to lay them out across all available kitchen surfaces.

We then set about prepping them for the freezer. Under normal circumstances, with a normal sized pumpkin (or squash), we would store it whole in our utility room until we wanted to use it - in the past we've kept squashes for over a year like that, still perfectly usable and tasty a year later. However, thanks to the having-to-cut-them-in-half-in-order-to-carry-them issue, we were faced with needing to preserve them in some way, and cutting them up and bagging them up for the freezer was the only real option. 

Three hours later, we had managed to scoop out and dice just two of the enormous beasts, and we had bagged up over 50kg of pumpkin flesh and filled every last millimetre of freezer space. Poor Reggie was going to have to wait some time before we managed to order him another bulk delivery of his raw food and we joked that he might have to settle for eating pumpkin for the next 3 months. As if to prove a point, while we sat and prepped, Reggie sat at the end of the kitchen table and drooled on the floor, and begged for pumpkin scraps. So it appears he does actually like pumpkin, which we duly noted for future information!

With no more freezer space available, we decided to offer the last of the monster pumpkins to our friend Amanda, and were relived that she accepted it - although she was somewhat taken aback when she saw the size of it!

It will come as little surprise that we ate pumpkin soup for three days in a row the following week, and then made more pumpkin soup to feed to our friends when they came to help us with our olive harvest (slowly, slowly, Reggie is regaining a bit of space in the freezer for his food!). Unfortunately after being frozen the pumpkin flesh isn't up to using in whole pieces, but it is excellent for soups and purees.

Our recipe for spicy pumpkin soup is as follows:

1.5kg pumpkin, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
1 large potato, cubed
1 stock cube
2 apples
A teaspoon of fenugreek
A pinch of chilli powder (or more, depending on how spicy you like it)
Salt & pepper

Soften onion in a large pan, then add all the other ingredients and cook it down. Once it has all cooked down, use a hand blender to blend it into a thick, nourishing soup.

Friday 6 November 2020

Chestnut preserving

October is harvest time for sweet chestnuts and for us, living surrounded by a sweet chestnut wood, they are not in short supply.

The sweet chestnut has an important role in the history of our area. In the absence of wheat/cereal crops (which wouldn't have grown up in the hills), chestnuts were ground to make flour and were a staple food - so much so that they became known as il pane dei poveri - poor man's bread.

Sweet chestnut trees would have populated most of the mountain areas, up to about 900m, and in autumn they were collected, before being dried and eventually ground into flour.

You can still find the small chestnut houses (metati) all around our region - usually adjacent to the house itself (indeed, we think that the sort of agricultural extension that once stood to the end of our house would have been a metato). In these buildings there would be a mezzanine floor, on which the chestnuts would be laid out, then a fire would be lit on the floor below, which would be kept burning for around 40 days in order to slowly dry the chestnuts. At the end of the drying period the chestnuts would be beaten by the hammers of a special machine, which separated the chestnuts from their shells. The chestnuts would then be sent to be milled into flour, while the shells would be stored until the following year and used to feed the fire.

Of course, with such a strong tradition of chestnuts here, there are plenty of different ways in which they are eaten, some of which include: castagnaccio (a sort of cake, made with chestnut flour and water, with optional raisins, pine nuts and rosemary), necci (pancakes made with chestnut flour and eaten with either sweet (ricotta, Nutella) or savoury (cured meats, sausage) fillings), fritelle (a type of sweet fried doughnut made with chestnut flour and sometimes pine nuts and raisins), or simply roasted over coals (frugiate) or boiled, often with wild fennel (ballotte).

There are plenty of traditions and celebrations that surround the chestnut picking and eating season - our neighbouring village of Vellano usually plays host to a chestnut festival, or sagra, in early October, at which you can buy and eat chestnuts in almost any form imaginable. Sadly, of course, this year things have been very different and the festival was not able to go ahead.

That didn't stop the locals foraging for chestnuts - over a two to three week period in the autumn every year it's common to find cars parked at the side of the road and families out with thick gloves (if you've ever tried to pick up a chestnut that's still in its spiky outer casing you will understand why) and carrier bags, collecting chestnuts from the trees at the side of the road.

For us, we don't need to go very far at all. Our 12 acres of land includes around 8 acres of woodland, a large part of which is chestnut. Even a short walk from the house to the gate can yield more chestnuts than will fit in our pockets! This year we were struck by the very generous size of many of the chestnuts on our land, in particular those from a tree growing on one of our upper terraces. We could easily have collected sackloads, but since we didn't have grand plans for making chestnut flour or selling chestnuts and only intended to collect for our own consumption, we settled for just filling a bucket.

This year's crop included some whoppers.

One perhaps slightly less traditional recipe that we stumbled across (certainly more luxurious than would have been the norm for peasant farmers of days gone by) was for chestnuts preserved in rum and honey. We were suitably intrigued and so set about gathering the necessary ingredients. Honey we have plenty of, thanks to the arrangement we have with our beekeeper friend who brings his hives to our property for the acacia flowering season and gives us jars of honey in return. So it was just rum and sugar that we needed to buy.

The process starts with making an incision in the skins of the chestnuts (for which we found a handy device at the supermarket) then boiling them for 10-15 minutes. After that, you simply peel them. Ha! Peeling chestnuts is well and truly a labour of love. Thankfully it is quite meditative and slightly addictive - if it had been any less enjoyable we might have been in danger of throwing the whole lot away! We worked out that it took us 2-3 hours to peel just enough chestnuts for one jar. And we had planned to fill 12 jars!

A labour of love.

The tradition of eating chestnuts is so strong here that the supermarkets sell specialised devices for making incisions in the skins.

Once the chestnuts have been painstakingly peeled, you heat sugar with a little water in a pan, before adding honey, and finally the rum. You then pour the liquid over the chestnuts in the (sterilised) jar, put the lids on and then place them in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes - to create the vacuum seal on the jars. 

The recipe states that you should then leave the chestnuts at room temperature for 15 days before trying them. So, we await to taste the result! 

We calculated that for the number of hours of labour it took to peel the chestnuts, each jar is worth around €35-40!!! With that in mind, we hope they pass the taste test!

Thursday 5 November 2020

Olive harvest 2020

In Tuscany, the tradition of harvesting olives begins in late October/early November and usually continues until mid-December, some people (although these days a minority) even holding out until January.

Although our olive trees are what you might call 'productively challenged' (of all the people we know our trees are the smallest, weakest, least productive), we were keen to do a harvest this year.

When we arrived here at our property 6 years ago our olive trees were all in a pretty sorry state and only three of them bore fruit. The story we have been told is that several (tens of) years ago, someone cut them all down for firewood, and since then the trees have slowly been re-growing (and are therefore very small and spindly compared with many others in the area). In addition to that, there was a very hard winter during the 1980s, which badly affected many of the olive trees in the region - so we guess that it may have been the combination of the hard winter in the 80s with the firewood-obsessed occupant that led our trees to the sorry state in which we found them. Over the last six years we have done our best to give the trees some TLC - clearing the grass and bramble from around them and giving them an annual pruning. We have watched them slowly start to gather strength year on year, and this year there were more trees bearing olives (although not necessarily more than a handful per tree) than ever before since we arrived.

Last year, there was no olive harvest at all - an olive fly problem caused the fruit to drop from the trees before harvesting could even get started. Very few people locally had a harvest and only the few that had used insecticides had any fruit to pick and press. The olive fly is a species of fruit fly that lays its eggs during the summer (when the olive has reached 7–8 mm in diameter), the female making a puncture in the skin of the olive, and depositing an egg inside. When they hatch, the larvae feed on the flesh of the olive. The population of olive fly (and thus the degree of damage caused) varies from year to year, with various environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, etc. impacting the numbers.

This year things looked promising - the olive trees were full of their delicate white flowers in the spring, which duly turned into fruits over the course of summer - and, having missed the harvest last year, we wanted to maximise our chances of having some form of harvest this year, so we experimented with spraying our olive trees with kaolin - a basic solution of clay mixed with water (which then dries on the tree) - to protect them from the olive fly. Supposedly the light coating of clay is enough to deter the fly from puncturing the olive to lay her eggs (at least that's the theory).

In previous years we have combined forces with our friends David & Sarah and done a joint harvest, but this year our calendars didn't quite match up and with our olive trees starting to show signs of dropping fruit, we were keen to get ours picked and pressed as soon as possible, even though it would mean having a very small yield. Stuart booked an appointment at the olive mill and was told that the minimum pressing weight was 250kg of olives. Well, we knew that would be impossible to reach, but we wanted to pick our olives to see how much we had, and we hoped we would be able to sneak in at the mill with a smaller volume that officially allowed.

So we started picking on 31 October, our friends Paul & Kathy coming along to help, but leaving Stuart on catering duties due to his injured elbow and hip. The three of us started from the very top of the terraces, carefully seeking out every single olive (and on some of the trees it really was a case of finding a single olive, or maybe 4 or 5 max). With such small yields we picked into upturned umbrellas or straight into the olive crate, there being no need to use nets, and before lunchtime we had reached more than halfway down the terraces towards the house. This was a bit worrying, but picking rate soon slowed down as we reached some of the larger trees that actually had a fairly decent crop, and we even needed to get the nets out.

It felt as if we were picking lots, so to end the day with just two full crates (~50kg) was a bit of a disappointment - but, reflecting on it later that evening we realised that the first time we picked our olives (back in 2017) we had harvested a total of 50kg, so to have got that amount from the poorer-producing trees, with the bigger yielding trees yet to be started, was actually not so bad after all.

The next morning we were joined by Paul, Kathy, Donatella, David and Sarah, and with an army of pickers we quickly stripped the remaining trees - including our star-producer on the lawn - before lunchtime, allowing us to enjoy a leisurely lunch (the catering department (Stuart) had made a delicious spicy pumpkin soup followed by rounds of pizza in the pizza oven).

By the end of the day we had a total of just under five full crates, which we calculated left us at around 120kg. I was a little disappointed, having hoped that we would at least reach 150kg, as we had done the last time we picked in 2018 (which was a bumper year for absolutely everybody, so likely that such a high yield two years ago was unrepresentative), but on reflection it was good to have picked all the trees and positive to have had olives on many more trees than previously.

All that the numero 182 olive trees could give.

We finished picking on 1st November, but our appointment at the mill wasn't until 3rd November and, having mulled things over the next day, and admitted that we were a little disappointed, we took up the kind offer of our friend Sue to go and pick some of her olives to top things up. So, after a morning in the office, we had an early lunch and headed over to Sue's in Pescia with our nets and rakes. After just three hours of two of us picking we had filled two crates (compare that with the first day of our harvest when it took a whole day with three of us picking to fill two crates and you get some idea of the yield on Sue's trees - it wasn't a case of Paul, Kathy and me picking slowly at ours but rather a reflection of how much more difficult and time consuming it is to pick when yields are low, whereas when the trees are literally dripping in olives they can be stripped off very quickly and efficiently). So, happy with the addition, we thanked Sue and took our extra olives home, calculating that we now would have around 175kg of olives.

The following day was (as forecast) wet - so we were glad we had gone to Sue's when we did. With our appointment at the olive mill at 5:15PM, we loaded the crates into the car, Stuart spent the afternoon washing out the oil canister, and then we set off, unsure but hopeful that they would press our paltry offering.

Ready for the off.

On arrival at the mill, the young lad who works there looked at our crates and said "is that it?". We ashamedly confirmed that we didn't have any more than that, and he duly took them off to be weighed. He came back to us with a weight of 165kg and explained that we would have to pay the same as for the minimum weight, which we readily agreed to, just relieved that he wasn't going to send us and our olives away.

We tipped our meagre load into the hopper and watched as they bounced off up the conveyor belt to be washed and then on to the masher.

The olive mill was quieter than in previous years, but we were allowed to wait while the olives were pressed, just being careful to stand a respectable distance away from other people, and when the oil was ready to be collected only one of us was allowed to go and stand by the tap to fill our container.

The olive mill was quieter than we've seen it before. (Sadly those are not our heap of olives in the almost-overflowing hopper.)

As we waited we watched other people come and go with sackloads of olives and I found myself feeling quite downhearted and somewhat embarrassed at our seven measly crateloads. Nevertheless, an hour and 20 minutes later we were leaving the mill with 18.6 litres of fully organic extra virgin olive oil, fresh off the press. The resa - the figure that everyone here is keen to compare (weight of oil produced as a percentage of the weight of olives that went in) - was 10.3%. Not great, but we had heard that it has been quite low across the board this year, so not too disappointing either. Besides which, unless you are mass-producing oil for sale, the resa really isn't terribly important (although that doesn't stop the locals asking and comparing figures). For us, the important thing is that we have 18.6 litres of our own olive oil to enjoy through the year, and that we like the taste of it. Of course, we rushed home to get the bread out and try it - still warm from the press - and I can confirm that it passed the taste test!

Liquid green/gold.