Pipes and Pythagorus

The house renovations are moving ahead. Admittedly not as quickly as we had planned, but you can now finally see that progress is starting to being made.  Today the electricians finished laying down the tubes for our lighting, the burglar alarm, the solar panels and the different power sockets. For his part, the plumber has installed pipes leading to and from the two bathrooms and kitchen. Now the builders need to come back and lay the first layer of insulation and flooring.

We had thought it would take a maximum of one month, maybe six weeks, to reach this stage. We’re actually now a full three months later.

A Spaghetti Junction of tubes and pipes

Meanwhile, the bathroom people came yesterday to double-check their measurements. This is absolutely essential because if there’s anything I’ve learnt so far, it’s not to take anything for granted. Check, double-check and triple-check everything.

I’ve already written about the old goat house and how we’ve had to rebuild our new home exactly to the same specifications as the old one. (Did you miss it? Click here.) What I haven’t mentioned is that our house is actually made up of the old, historically-protected goat house and also a part of a more recent construction. I hadn’t talked about this other part of the house because it required far less structural work – just some new interior walls and changing of the doors and windows. It was much easier because it had already been rebuilt in the late 1980s.

Rebuilt. It’s a word that now brings fear. Because this 1980s house was rebuilt exactly to the specifications of the previous house, it is completely squiffy. The only corners which are actually at right angles are the walls that we’ve had the builders put up this summer.

As a result, I asked them to check the angles in the bathroom.

I had expected them to have a L shaped thingamabob. You know, a tool that tells you straight away if you’ve got 90 degrees. But no, the man wields his tape measure once again along one of the walls. He makes a little marking. He goes to the other wall and measures that. Nooooooooo, I think to myself as silently as possible…… I’m about to witness the first time I’ve ever seen a real life use for Pythagorus’ theorum!

“In mathematics, the Pythagorean theorem, also known as Pythagoras’s theorem, is a fundamental relation in Euclidean geometry among the three sides of a right triangle. It states that the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.” (Wikipedia)

I take a breath. This is 2000 year old mathematics put into practice in modern-day Italy! Whatever next……

 

November 11th is the Festa di San Martino

Whilst November 11th is Armistice Day in the UK and much of northern Europe (in memory to end of WW1) here in my corner of Italy, it’s the Festa di San Martino.

San Martino is one of the more important harvest festivals… at least, it was the case many moons ago. It depends where you are as to the particular significance. In most parts of Italy, it signifies the end of the agricultural year and, more precisely, is when farm labourers would move from one employer onto the next. In other parts, it marks the exact date by which you should have finished sowing wheat for the next year.  The tradition here (in wine country) says that it’s on the day of San Martino that the recently harvested grape juice finishes the alcoholic fermentation and turns into wine.

The feast day of San Martino, a Catholic saint, was imposed upon an existing pagan holiday (as nearly all of them were) and for them, it was apparently New Year’s Eve. Nowadays, if you live in a large town or city, children may go round asking for treats (much like our Hallowe’en.) In Sicily, but also to a certain extent in my area (because we also make passito wines and have our own Vin Santo DOC), we raise a glass of sweet wine to honour San Martin. In Sicily, they dip anise-flavoured biscuits into the wine. Where I am, we make a special biscuits (or cookies, if you prefer American-English) supposedly depicting San Martino, fully armed for battle, on his white horse.

If you want to try making it for yourself, the a cut-out of the traditional form can be downloaded here.

dolce di san Martino a forma di cavaliere a cavallo, con confetti colorati
(Photo from the Comune di Venezia)

In other news, the cold has hit. The outside temperature is lingering around 6 degrees right now which means that I’ve picked up the pace of my walks around the vineyard with the dog. No time for dawdling.

The temperatures in the cellar have fallen so whilst the wines are progressing nicely, we’re babysitting a demijohn of Cantillon beer yeasts and a small steel tank of fermenting beer. They need warmer temperatures or the yeasts will slow down and eventually stop.

Warmth is a relative concept; because we’d anticipated moving into the new house before winter, we made the (with hindsight) foolish decision to remove the central heating of the place we’re currently in. That means we’re entirely reliant upon a wood fired stove – called a stufa –  in the living room. It’s not so bad but I wasn’t planning on camping out in this room for the next three or four months. Let’s hope this winter is a mild one!

The Olive Harvest

You would have thought that after two months of vendemmia (grape harvest) that the work would be coming to an end by now. It’s far from true!

Towards the end of October, in this area of the Veneto, all the local farmers stand on the side of the road, peering up into an olive tree. Yep, it’s olive oil season!


Hallowe’en is not a particularly big thing in Italy. You see orange and black decorations in the seasonal section of the big supermarkets and if you’re lucky you’ll come across a witch’s hat or a large pumpkin, but that’s about it.

Last night, we went to a friend’s house for a low-key dinner. I did some ghoulish make-up and the host put a pumpkin’s face on the cake but nobody dressed up.

Today, the 1st November is a bank/public holiday in Italy. It’s Ognisanti / All Saints’ Day. In reality, it just means that the shops have reduced opening hours and some restaurants will be shuttered up for the day, but for us, it’s business as usual.

Alessandro and his family have around 30 olive trees acting as borders to their vineyards. An olive tree is “un olivo” in Italian, or “una olivara” in my local dialect. “Una oliva” – feminine – is an olive. Anyway, for us, it’s a very small, sideline operation – some years, we don’t even bother picking the olives; this year, the crop is more abundant so it’s all hands on deck!

 


So how do you pick olives, you might be wondering?

Necessary precautions to stop the olives from rolling down the hill…

You wrap a large net around the trunk of the olive tree, much like how a Frenchman traditionally tucks his napkin around his neck. If you’re on a slope (when aren’t you?) secure the netting to make sure that the olives won’t roll off down the hill.

One person then climbs up the tree and lops off some branches while the other people stay on the ground and brush off the olives from each fallen branch using a wide tooth comb.

I’ve seen and heard of other people using an electric tool which shakes the tree and causes the olives to fall off of their own accord. I suggest that it might be less labour-intensive but Alessandro raises and eyebrow and simply shrugs, “we’d need a bigger net.”

Spot Alessandro!

The olives fall into the netting and when the tree has been more or less relieved of its crop, we jiggle the netting until all the olives are in one selected corner. From there, they’ll be put into plastic boxes (which, when full, weighs about 12-13 kg) and brought home.

A decent yield.

On average, this year, we’re getting 2 boxes of olives from each tree. It’s not much for such painstakingly tedious work but it’s pleasant being outside in the sunshine and knowing that you’ll be tasting the fruits of this labour shortly enough.

As I’m writing this, the brothers are outside gradually feeding the olives into a machine which removes any left-over leaves and cleans off some of the dust. Tomorrow morning, we take the olives down to the frantoia to be pressed and made into oil.

Sexual Harassment – it doesn’t have to be this way…

I want to take a second from my usual food-related ramblings to talk about something more serious: harassment on the streets of Paris.

The wave of women posting #MeToo statuses has meant that journalists are getting the green light to publish articles which state the bleeding obvious.

The Local, for example, recently published a piece detailing the experiences of women in Paris. It’s a sad state of affairs that the only woman they could find who hadn’t experienced any kind of harassment was a 19 year old student who only moved to Paris “a few weeks ago.”

My experience is much the same. On a daily basis, I was made to feel uncomfortable, being subjected to looks, calls, whistles… all of which were supposed to be taken as compliments.

I tried to change my habits. I would wear jeans rather than a skirt. That didn’t stop the harassment.

I chose to Vélib rather than take the métro. That didn’t always work because on several occasions, a car would follow/keep pace with my bike just to check out my ass or proposition me. On another occasion, the man also took a Vélib bike himself and chased me down the street to my house.

I took a taxi a short distance to go home late at night… and that got me nothing but a black eye when the driver assaulted me.

I got cat-called and mocked by the vigileat Monoprix. They are supposed to be the ones who help and keep you safe and yet they failed desperately. Their head office subsequently received a strongly-worded letter.


Women should not be told: “you live in a big city, you should expect this.” 

Let’s hope that the next generation of boys will grow up knowing that this behaviour is unacceptable and the next generation of girls will no longer be afraid of speaking out.

In the meantime, we’re in this transitional period in which we know it’s wrong, we’ve had enough but we need to speak up and take back control of our streets.

That’s the key word: control. What’s most hurtful and traumatic in these harassment situations is your sudden lack of control. That someone else has the upper hand, that you are being objectified.

False. False. False! Legally, you CANNOT do this.

Number 1: please, take a self-defense class. I cannot recommend highly enough Ladies System Defense in Paris but there must be others too.

If you are physically attacked – like the British woman in the supermarket in the Local article – kick the fucking man in the balls. Men have never been particularly good at listening… but they do remember acute pain. Put your two hands on his left shoulder and drive your right knee up where it hurts. (The same movement can also be used on women too… if need be.) Incidentally, this technique worked wonderfully on that aforementioned taxi driver (read my piece on Medium below.)

That said, if the initial attack is verbal, you must remain verbal. If the attack is physical, you can get physical as long as your reaction is APPROPRIATE, TIMELY and ALLOWS YOU TO GET AWAY.

If you slap someone for having said something, according to French law, you are in the wrong. Please, please read this (written by the same French police officers who take time off work to teach self-defence) to know your rights.

View at Medium.com


Number 2: Speak out or step in when you see it happening to another person. Always consider your personal safety but if you can intervene or take a photo – or better still, a video – it may well become the most valuable piece of evidence to take to the police and result in a conviction.

The points at the end of this Guardian article are worth remembering.


Number 3: If you have evidence, or you’re worried for your safety, go to the police station. I will most likely write something about the inner workings of the French justice system, of the differences between a main courante and a plainte but that’s for later.

View at Medium.com


Finally, I want to end on a positive note.

I moved to Italy – a country with a reputation for dark-haired Lotharios calling out ciao bellissimaaaa – but I’ve been here for over a year now and I have had just two such experiences:

I’m sitting outside a café, writing the address on an envelope that I’m about to send. Suddenly, breaking my concentration, a car pulls up, with the window down and the man calls out: “hey girl, come stai?” … I give him a filthy look… He continues “how’s Alessandro?” Oh shit, I realise: this is Alessandro’s cousin, a guy I’d met once before and he’s just being friendly.

Secondly, walking along the pavement with my dog… and a guy on a bike cycles past and calls out, “ciao bello” to which I realise (because he’s used the masculine) that he is actually addressing my dog!! Yes, my dog got cat-called! He gives me a courteous nod and says “buona giornata / have a good day” before cycling on.

Ok, I’m in a small town in the north of Italy where people generally mind their own business. But street harassment does not have to be part of your daily life and nor should you accept it as such.

So You Think You Speak Italian?

So you’ve taken a couple of classes, downloaded Duolingo and bought a hefty dictionary. You can breeze through conversations with natives and even answering the phone to an unknown number is no longer intimidating.

You’re ready to move onto the next level. The next three phrases are not the Italian that you learn in a classroom, but the kind of language you hear on the street.

“È un botto e mezzo.” (origin: Veneto.)

Meaning: “It’s one thirty.” Literally “it’s one bang and a half,” it refers to the church bells which ring out over the hills.

 

Battoro (origin: Sardinia)

Meaning: Four. To go from quattro to quattoro to finally battoro is not a straightforward leap but you can just about nod and go, ah yes, that makes sense. Still, the first time you hear it, it sounds really strange.

 

Xareza (origin: Veneto)

Pronunciation: sa-reza

Meaning: cherry. Xareza is the word in Veronese/Vicentino dialect for cherry and there sure are a whole lot of cherries in this part of the world (especially the Val d’Alpone.) I’ve found that many words in dialect are somewhat similar to the French equivalent, and this, cerise, is no exception. Remember that when this dialect is written down, an “s” sound becomes an “x.”


As a side-note, the Sicilian electrician currently drilling away in the house next-door has a wonderful way of speaking. He came a couple of weeks ago for a meeting with the architect and the plumber and when asked when he would start work, he replied “un lunedi.” Monday came and went with no sign of him. When we phoned a couple of days afterwards, his reply was so good I will remember it for the rest of my days: “no, I said I would start on a Monday.”

A Perfect Autumnal Plum Pie

pie

Mother Nature has changed direction. After the balmy summer nights of July and August, September has arrived. The crisp, damp mornings. Even though now it is accompanied by the sound of tractors heading off to the vineyards and the smell of wine fermenting in the town’s cooperative, it still vividly reminds me of pulling up my knee-length red socks and going off to school.

Right now, it’s only a subtle shift. We’re not even halfway through September yet but already you can spot a change in hue. The piercing sunshine of the summer months has been painted over with a wide brushstroke of grey. Even last night, on the way home from the pizzeria (did you read about my recent kitchen woes?) the fog phenomenon found in northern Italy, la nebbia, made its first appearance of the season. It’s remarkably early.  Continue reading “A Perfect Autumnal Plum Pie”

The Second Sunday in September

scott-umstattd-89611

The second Sunday in September will go down as the day in which both the oven and the dishwasher broke down.

Of course, an oven never fails when you’re not trying to use it. I had made a plum pie (see here) and was halfway through cooking the roast chicken and potatoes when it conked out.

We knew we were living on borrowed time because we’ve already bade farewell to the kettle, the toaster, the DVD player and a second kettle… but I really did believe that the larger appliances would make it through another six months before we move into the new house.

I’m now waiting for the electrician to come over and assess the extent of the damage. Now if there’s any universal truth which always – and I mean, always – proves correct it’s that electricians, plumbers and delivery guys don’t show up on time. Our guy was supposed to come yesterday… he didn’t… if he comes today, well, let’s hope so but I’m not holding my breath.

What Would Be Your Dream Kitchen?

The boy and I got hit with a stomach bug this weekend.  After just a half-day in the vineyards, we came home and he camped out on the sofa because it was closer to the bathroom whilst I battled a fever from underneath the duvet. Whoever said romance is dead!

By the next day, some paracetamol had helped the fever and the aches but it was still too early to venture out. It’s at times like these that I miss having a TV; to be curled up on the sofa watching a film or some silly television would be perfect. I’ve been TV-free for the best part of 6 years. I occasionally miss BBC Breakfast, but fortunately hearing the clipped accents on BBC World Service sees off any homesickness.

As it is, the boy pulls out his magazine of choice “Tractor People” and I set about googling “kitchen design.”

At the beginning of the building works, I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted the kitchen to be and what sort of appliances, finishes and features it should have. As time goes on, that dream is slipping away. I seem unable to convey those desires in a way that the kitchen designer in front of me is able to transform them successfully. This isn’t necessarily because of any limited language skills, more that these people have selected suppliers that they work with and I haven’t yet found the right person who can source the right kind of elements for me.

As I was browsing online, to find images to show the designers, it became very clear what I don’t want!

flaunter-com-237602

Ok, yes, the above photo is beautiful (in its way) but as a room in my house, it would drive me mental. It’s too quaint and too busy. I love some of the old pieces of furniture and want to use some of those touches but give me something more sleek….

liliane-limpens-17371

This however, is totally unfeasible. As a living space, it’s very elegant but if I’m being realistic, after a couple of months and once everything has been unpacked, the room is actually going to look like this. 🙂

eaters-collective-109606

How is it so difficult to have something discreet and functional yet also pretty… a little bit like this?

simple-322427

On a more serious note, I’m waiting to hear back from a couple of new people. Let’s see if either of them are able to capture my idea and turn it into something that we can use. Watch this space.

What kind of living space would you love to call home?

The Return of the Goat

“What do you mean, the old men of the village don’t come over to take a look at a building site in the UK?” asked my Italian friend, bewildered.

I was asking why, over the last month or so, a stream of people have walked, driven and peered over at our ongoing – and increasing – collection of bricks and dust. It would appear that putting up a crane is the equivalent of sending out a round of party invitations.

“But you’ve put up a wall?” this grey-haired, heavily-accented villager exclaimed disappointedly, having stepped across the threshold into what will become our new home. “Before it was all open-plan: entrance, kitchen, living room, all together…”

I briefly run him through the plans: this downstairs area will become a hidden laundry room, wine cellar and additional food storage space. I conveniently leave out the fact that the architect had initially wanted to put in another dividing wall to make this space even more fragmented. Continue reading “The Return of the Goat”

Casu Marzu – the “maggot cheese” from Sardinia

[August 2018]

I wrote about my experience of trying casu marzu for the travel site Bookmundi.com. You’ll find it, under the “Unconventional Foods” section, here.


[July 2017]

I’ve already talked about mimolette (the cheese-mite / bed-bug cheese) which is often banned by the FDA in the USA for its high levels of *cough* “residual protein.” But mimolette is a walk in the park compared to its Sardinian cousin, casu marzu.

Casu marzu translates into English as the “rotten cheese” but it’s more commonly known outside of Sardinia by its nickname the “maggot cheese.” To the Sardinian people, however, it’s a symbol of national pride and of their cultural heritage.

Only a handful of people know how to make this sheep milk cheese (pecorino, in Italian) because, after a month of ageing, they make some long incisions into the cheese which encourages flies to lay their eggs in the very centre of the cheese. Continue reading “Casu Marzu – the “maggot cheese” from Sardinia”