Clothes Shopping in 2018: what’s the answer?

TL;DR? These questions that I want answers for: What’s up with all the discounts? Are designer brands worth it? Is “Made in Italy” actually better than “Made in China”?


Since I hit 30, I’ve been trying to buy less but better. It would appear that, by the power of osmosis or some other form of wizardry, all those articles on “staple pieces” and “minimal wardrobes” have actually sunk in.

Not that I’m going to start harping on about the benefits of open wardrobes and whittling down to just 10 items. Don’t worry; there’s no chance of that! Because my clothes range from office suits to harvesting garb, Texas cowboy boots to cute shoe boots, plus all the beautiful scarves that I picked up while living in Paris, I need space… and because I’m not the tidiest of person, I need that space to be able to be closed off and hidden away.

I think my recent approach to clothes came from a more environmentally-conscientious place. I couldn’t – and still can’t – understand how shops like Primark and H&M are able to sell at such low prices without at least under-paying for the raw materials and exploiting their workforce.  Continue reading “Clothes Shopping in 2018: what’s the answer?”

How Is It February Already?

It’s now February. February! How did that happen? We’re already a good chunk into what I still think of as the new year. I think it’s because I am starting to feel increasingly settled here in Italy, the days are going faster, the evenings are getting longer but I sometimes feel that I let days slip by without accomplishing anything.

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Carnevale gets underway in Venice today.

I am ever more impatient for the house to be ready. It probably sounds pretty stupid but I can’t wait to put up bookshelves and to unpack my boxes. I’ve had my stuff in boxes now since July 2016 and I’m itching to be able to unpack. There are so many books and kitchenware – plates, serving dishes, glasses and so much more – that I haven’t seen in nearly two years. Another thing, I can’t wait to have a functional guest-room and be able to have friends from far away come and stay.

I shouldn’t get my hopes up too much. Everything is taking far longer than expected. The geometra has a way of keeping the whole project in limbo. Just when you think, “ok, so the windows have been cleaned up and ready to be put back in,” he comes up with a new hurdle: we need more insulation. The builders therefore had to come back, chip away the bottom brick under each window and install an extra layer of insulation. That’s finally finished and he decides that we need insulation on the sides too. At this point, the window people think he’s taking the piss (to use a good English expression) so call a general meeting (architect, builders, plasterers, the engineer, and us.) Some strong language is bandied around from all sides and the window people win out: no additional insulation, it’s decided. The plasterers are happy with this decision too because they’ll be able to press on more quickly.

Meanwhile though, it turns out that the plumber, whose starring role in this ongoing theatrical performance is about to resume with the installation of the hot water system, hasn’t ordered any of the pieces yet! Another delay, jeez!

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Because it’s so easy to let the days slip by, I’m setting myself targets: one post on this blog per week and likewise on the wine blog (this one.) Walk with the dog for at least an hour every day and don’t get lazy just because it’s raining. I need to be better at updating the Burnt Cream Facebook page, but quite honestly, I remain unconvinced about the purpose of social media, especially since the algorithms on Facebook and Instagram have become so biased. I should, though, make the most of my incredible surroundings and take every opportunity to go to local cities like Verona and Venice, even if it’s only for the day.

My work (yeah, that thing that pays the bills….) is going from strength to strength. I can’t believe that I’ve been freelancing for very nearly four years now. Even though it hasn’t always been easy, I don’t regret the decision to leave the traditional office environment one bit. The freedom to work on what I want to be working on is the most important thing. Speaking of which, I’m excited to have developed a new writing project, one that will take me at least a year to complete but that promises to be hugely rewarding. Watch this space!

Update on the Renovations

It’s been a little while since my last update on the building works. Unfortunately, the reason largely lies in the fact that, through no fault of our own, we’ve been at a standstill throughout most of November and December. On the plus side, we ran into our team of builders at the Befana bonfire in the local village last Saturday and the boss promised that they would be back at our place on Monday morning, bright and early.

Click on the photo to jump back and read my Befana blog post.

I’ve learnt not to get my expectations too high whenever a builder, electrician or other tradesman promises to show up. There are better odds on me being able to stop my exuberant 1 year old dog from chasing the neighbourhood cat as it risks life and limb crossing our garden on its daily promenade.

It turns out that I got 1 out of 3 on Monday morning; the surveyors were the only ones to show up, two and a half hours late but it’s got to the stage where I’ll take that.

Tuesday, however, was a different story! I was savouring those last precious moments snuggled up under the duvet when I was roused from my slumber by that distinctive burrrrrr-clunk-burrrrrr-beep noise which can only come from the crane. (Yes, the crane is still up. It’s been nine months now. Babies have been born in less time.)

Like a kid waking up and seeing the snow, I had my own version of a white Christmas: seeing that all four builders had arrived and were churning the cement mixer, starting to hammer and generally do what they do best – creating a ton of dust! What they were doing was actually finishing off some preparation work, like filling in any holes in the brickwork and building a double wall in the bathroom to give enough space for the toilet tank.

Wednesday, another team of builders came to lay the first layer of cement flooring. This essentially is supposed to cover up the tubes laid down for the plumbing and electrics, insulate, and give an level surface for the plumber to then install the underfloor heating. (Yes, I fell in love with the only winemaker I know who has underfloor heating!!)

Today, I’m going to Genova for the day for work. I took this photo quickly just before leaving but the cement is still setting so you’re going to have to make do with this rather rushed peek over the barrier for now.

Next week, the builders should be back to finish off the window structures and within a couple of days start plastering the walls! Fingers crossed!

Burning “La Befana” – Very Much A Local Tradition

One of the things that I try really hard to impress upon visitors is how divided Italy is. Until very recently it was not one country and mobility between towns, cities and across mountain ranges was limited. As a result, regional traditions are more localised than you may have first imagined and remain very much undiluted.

I’m in the Veneto, up in the north east between Lake Garda and Venice. More precisely, my town lies on the boundary between two provinces – Verona and Vicenza. When I first moved to Italy, I was staying on the Verona side; now I’ve moved over to Vicenza. The two places are only a 15 min drive away but there are many differences.

Firstly the dialect is different:

‘What shall we do?’ is Cosa facciamo? in Italian. “cosa faemo?” and “cosa fazemo?” in dialetto vicentino. Not huge differences but enough for it to be obvious where you come from.

Similarly, you may well know that “a glass” is “un bicchiere” in Italian. In vicentino, I hear “biccher” quite commonly, while back on the other hill, it was “un goto.”

Finally “cucchiaio” (“a spoon”) becomes “cuchar” or “cucharo” if you’re in the province of Verona… but if you get closer to Vicenza and across to Padova, it’s “scugliero!

It’s not just the language; there are many cultural differences too.

In the province of Verona, the most important celebration over the Christmas period is the Festa della Santa Lucia on December 13th. It is traditionally on this date that the families get together and presents are exchanged. In Vicenza, however, Santa Lucia is not recognised, nor is Christmas particularly, and we have another important date instead: the 6th January.

You may know that date as being Epiphany, y’know, the three kings, twelfth night, end of the festivities… Not so. Here it’s called La Befana.

La Befana is a old woman or a witch who would fly across the sky at night, delivering presents and treats to children. (Haven’t I heard this story before…….?) In this case, there’s a slight twist because she’s supposedly searching for baby Jesus…. here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the legend:

“The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.”

You might think it’s all hullabaloo and old folklore but several of my local friends got stockings full of presents from La Befana yesterday and this seems true in other regions throughout the boot.


There’s a second thing though and this seems more localised. On Jan 6th in the evening, all our neighbouring towns hold bonfires, upon which they have an effigy of La Befana who gets burned (yes, very much like the story of Guy Fawkes in England.) I’ve heard it explained that it’s the occasion to get rid of or burn anything from the previous year that you don’t want to take with you into the new.

As for us, well, we had gone to a small town called Valeggio sul Mincio (between Verona and Mantova) for a long lunch with a dear friend (more about that soon) and then came back to watch the bonfire. Most of the town’s population turned out for the event, which was washed down with plenty of mulled wine, sausages, polenta and prosecco.

New Year’s Eve in Italy… and the importance of lentils!

Happy New Year’s Eve! Or “la notte di San Silvestro” in Italian.

Whether it’s out partying or staying in wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa, I hope you’re spending the last few hours of 2017 exactly as you want to spend them. I’m personally not much of a fan of New Year’s Eve. There seems to be so much hype about what really is just another day. Many moons ago, I would choose to take a shift working in a bar or restaurant on NYE. That way, I was at least in a festive ambiance but I wasn’t spending stupid amounts of money on a set meal and a bottle of over-priced Champagne.

More recently, I’ve preferred hosting friends for a dinner and drinks party and that’s exactly what we did this year – just a small dinner party for some local friends. To lighten the load, it was agreed that they would bring the appetisers, cheese course and the dessert, and that I’d cook the main course.

The traditional main course over the winter festivities in Italy is a type of sausage called cotechino. It’s a large pork sausage, originally hailing from Modena but even my local butchers make a pretty good version.

I’m not sure why, but I always feel a little uneasy about cooking classic Italian foods for Italians. I suppose I fear that whatever I serve couldn’t possibly live up to whatever their mamma or nonna used to make.

As a result, I resort to typical English or French dishes, with which I’m fairly confident there won’t already be ridiculously high expectations. For tonight, I’ve decided to cook Beef Wellington. If you’re not familiar with this antiquated-but-undeservedly-so English speciality, it’s essentially about a kilo of beef sirloin, wrapped in finely chopped mushrooms, wrapped again speck (I chose speck ham for the smokey flavour over the more traditional prosciutto crudo) and all of that wrapped in puff pastry! I’m going to be serving it with roast potatoes (requested by the boys) and two cold side salads – red cabbage and orange (inspired by BBC Good Food) and kisir (a Turkish salad mainly of bulghur wheat and tomatoes) – and a warm side: lentils!

When I was running through my proposed menu with the boy, “yes, but you must also cook lentils,” was his advice. Lentils are a bearer of good luck and prosperity, apparently.

 

It would appear that in Ancient Rome, there was a tradition to give a leather bag filled with lentils as a gift. You would attach this bag to your belt and apparently (but I mean this is rather a stretch of the imagination!) the lentils would transform into coins!

So there you have it, a bowl of lentils is going to be on my table this evening…. just in case! Happy New Year, one and all!

Waiting for Advent

The final days of November always feel strange to me. It’s this weird time of year when you’re in limbo. My American friends have already made me hungry for turkey but yet it’s still too early to really start the Christmas countdown: mince pies, festive music and twinkling lights.

I don’t recognise the Thanksgiving holiday but I may have indulged in a little Black Friday shopping anyway (*slinks away guiltily…*) I love London in the run up to Christmas; it’s my favourite time of year to see the city. The lights in the commercial heart (Oxford Street, New Bond Street, Regent Street) are far better than anything on the Champs-Elysees and Avenue Montaigne.

Here in Italy, I’m out in the countryside so Christmas lights are few and far between. That said, the 8th December is a bank holiday (la Festa della Madonna, apparently) and it’s on that precise date when they put up and decorate the Christmas trees.

When I was told about this tradition, I looked at the boy excitedly, eyes wide open like a kid on Christmas morning. “Oh no! You don’t have a tree amongst all that stuff, do you?” he asks worriedly….

— Short aside: Most of my stuff is still in boxes. A whole room at the back of our house has been given over to the contents of the removal truck from Paris! :/ As we’ll be moving into the new house in a few months and there’s simply not space nor need in his place for me to unpack, it was decided that they would be put out of the way for the time being. The boy has clearly but wisely decided to consider that area potentially contaminated with nuclear something or other and not to go anywhere near it! It’s for that reason that he is still blissfully unaware of the presence of two large Christmas boxes! —

I’m feeling particularly festive this year; full of good cheer and all that malarkey. It’s rather out of character.

We’re going to a panettone party tonight. Yes, it appears that’s a thing. It’s held in a local restaurant and we’ll testing all the best artisanal panettoni from the region.

All this premature festivity is getting to me. The problem, though, is that December is looking decidedly busy; I’m in France for five days and then back in the UK on the 18th until at least after the holidays. If I put up the tree on the 8th, it will essentially be uniquely for the dog’s benefit. I’m sure she will enjoy tearing it to pieces in my absence! I’m wondering if it would be acceptable to put up the tree a few days before…. I wonder…

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.

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.”