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!

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!

The Second Sunday in September

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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!

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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….

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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. 🙂

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

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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”

Fortune Favours The Bold

Setting up life in a new country is never simple. That said, it’s been almost exactly one year since I made the decision to move and I don’t regret it at all. For every “that didn’t work out the way I thought it would” set-back (I wouldn’t go so far as to say failure, although some ideas did fail), I’ve made a huge, astronomical leap forward.

What is rather strange, when I reflect on it, is how the best things to have occurred to me didn’t happen because of or due to any of my own calculations. They occurred purely by chance.

My four-legged companion, who is currently snoozing by my side, found me. She had been abandoned one night on the top of a hill, aged just two and a half or three months, and she sniffed out the winery where I was staying. She announced her presence by, unwittingly, causing a huge fray with the winemaker’s (rather aggressive) German Shepherd. By the time we took her to the vet the next morning, it was too late – love at first sight!

People said, “are you really going to keep her? What will you do when you travel? What about that wild nomadic lifestyle you have? You don’t even have a proper house to call your own.”

I will admit that I woke up at 4am the morning after making the decision in a cold sweat. I grew up with dogs and I knew that I wanted them in my future too, but this was much sooner than planned. Wasn’t I supposed to be settled first? “What have I done?! They’re right. Oh ****!”

The man then lying next to me (fast asleep) still doesn’t know the important role he played in those deliberations that night.

He too was a chance encounter. We came across each other three times (we both work in the same industry, in a part of Italy that’s as big as the back of an envelope) before he asked me out.

For him as well, it turns out, I was completely unexpected but happened to arrive at a fortuitous moment. He had recently come out of a very long relationship, a partnership so established that it seemed unfathomable to me. (See “wild nomadic lifestyle” above!)

“You’re the first girl I’ve been on a date with since breaking up…”

After our second date, I initiate a heart-to-heart conversation about if he wanted to jump straight into another relationship. “With you, yes.”

We’d only been seeing each other for a month or two when I wake up in that panic. It was my gut feeling as I watched him sleeping which convinced me to keep the dog. I could see a future here with those two in the leading roles.

I would have had neither the man nor the dog had I not left everything behind and made a leap of faith. Having been single or chasing after the wrong men for most of my twenties, permanently renting apartments, this feels like a very healthy step to have made.

I knew what I wanted: to leave France, to leave the city and to settle down in a rural region, where I could continue to work in wine. I was fully expecting to have to go it alone – I was looking at houses to buy, wondering how I would set myself up and if I could make it all work despite Brexit. But just this once, life played me a good card.

audentes Fortuna iuvat.

Some Like It Hot

It’s been really boiling hot this week and often without as much as the slightest breeze. Temperatures will easily soar above 30 degrees (86F) every day… and what makes it particularly unbearable is that it doesn’t start getting cool until at least 10pm at night.

Normally I like standing in the kitchen, spatula in hand, stirring, tasting, seasoning… but in this past week, I have not wanted to spend any time near any sort of heating element. Therefore, on the menu this week have been quick, easy, healthy meals – packed full of fresh vegetables – which I can prepare in advance. (Thereby getting any cooking done before the heat of the day.)

June is one of the most exciting months for food, in my opinion, as it is the most plentiful. It is the perfect time for courgettes, peppers, beans – runner, broad and green beans – aubergine, lettuce, fresh garlic, tomatoes… and there are still a few good peas to be had. For fruit – it’s even better: strawberries, cherries, plums (especially for a particular, very small, variety called susine in Italian and mirabelle, in French), apricots are all in season…

In the garden, my mint and oregano plants are going crazy. My basil is crying for more water and a little less heat.

I’ve just come back from a week in Paris and my choices reflect that. On the dining table this week have been:

  • tarte fine (using puff pastry) with the thinnest of layers of Dijon mustard and thinly sliced, ripe tomatoes. Baked – first blind, then with all the toppings – in the oven for 15-20 mins. So simple but really tasty.
  • salade niçoise – this French classic requires no introduction.
  • soupe au pistou – using David Lebovitz’s recipe as my inspiration but adapted to what was in my cupboard, I made enough of this soup to last us several days. I prefer to serve it warm, rather than boiling.
  • panzanella: this is an Italian summer dish, composed of stale bread, pickled red onions, basil and lots of tomatoes. Fresh, tasty and filling.

 

I’ve promised the boy that, throughout the summer, there will always been something cold in the freezer. This week I made a granita (think of it as somewhere between a sorbet and an ice slush) and super-easy to make.

  • lemon and raki granita. I love citrus flavours because they’re so refreshing. I’ve made Diana Henry’s pink grapefruit and Campari version many times, but it’s easy to change the ingredients depending on your mood. This time, lemon juice and lemon peel were mixed with a little sugar and heated until melted. I added a small amount of water and a generous glug of raki (an anise spirit very popular in Turkey) to give it a bitter kick on the finish.

 

P.S. Pimms! It’s a lifesaver in moments like these. I leave the Pimms to macerate in fruit (lemon, apple, cherry) and mint for a couple of hours and then when the boy gets back from work, I fill up the jug with lemonade… and we go onto the half-finished house, once the builders have gone, and raise a glass to the future!

Renovating A House In Italy Is Nothing Like “Under The Tuscan Sun”

Picture an old house, on a hill, in the lush Italian countryside, completely surrounded by vineyards. Sounds idyllic, right?

Especially if you’ve seen or read “Under The Tuscan Sun” you’ll already have indulged yourself in a fantasy of doing up a house in Italy. Read this superb article in The New Yorker if you’re under any doubt of the power of this perceived paradise.

My move to Italy was nothing like that. I arrived, knowing only that a winemaker would be putting me up for a few months. I knew nobody else in the area but when you are working harvest, you don’t have time to be bored! I had thrown caution to the wind and let fate decide my future.

As it happens, the order in which things worked out for me is very different from that commonly portrayed in the films: only once I was here, did I meet the dream man (meaning that I chose to stay in Italy.) Then the puppy arrived (she found us) and that prompted me to settle down but she now rewards me daily with her company and then the house, which is our current project and the point of today’s blog post.

For the sake of keeping Under The Tuscan Sun film within two hours, no mention was made of the hurdles of legislation that you’re going to have to jump through when renovating a house in Italy.


Let’s do a quick quiz to see how realistic you are!

So imagine that you are the new owner of this dream-house. Because it is actually close to falling down, you have to do some renovation works on it. You have an architect, engineer and a trusted workforce. However, the local comune has decided that this old house has “historical value” and therefore must be protected.

Question 1: What can or can’t you do with this house?

a. Because the house is protected, there’s nothing much more you can do than a few cosmetic touch-ups. It’s protected after all.

b. You can restore the existing structure and build a relatively large extension for your guests once they come to stay in the finished house.

c. Demolish the building completely but you have to build it again to the exact, same, precise dimensions.


Question 2: There are tons of building regulations in Italy and an expert from the comune will come to check that the works have followed the proposal to the last square centimeter. What changes or exceptions are allowed?

a. You can use these renovation works to put a door where there was previously a window and vice versa…

b. Ok, you don’t want a really large extension… but you would like to put in another couple of rooms, which would correspond to an increase of roughly 25% in terms of surface area.

c. When rebuilding your protected-but-demolished house, you can raise the height of the roof a certain amount but only to put in earthquake protection measures and isolation panels.


Question 3: In Under The Tuscan Sun, Frances Meyer found a wonderful, original fresco in her villa. In this old country house, what did we find?

a. Authentic mosaic flooring.

b. Absolutely nothing exciting.

c. A dead goat’s skull.


ANSWERS: In all three questions, the answer is the final option. You can demolish an old house as long as it is rebuilt to spec; we’ve only been able to raise the roof for the cement anti-earthquake structure and, yes, we found a goat’s skull!!


Previous posts about this renovation: “Building a Life” and “Shaky Foundations.

On Shaky Foundations?

You may remember from my post ten days ago (Building A Life) that building works have started recently on the house next-door.

Consequently, my daily routine has now been set to a soundtrack of drilling, banging and grinding of heavy machinery. It starts at 7am and plays on loop until 5pm, with just one hour of respite.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the sun has recently revved into gear and it’s now blasting us with temperatures which reach 30 degrees (86 Fahrenheit) by lunchtime. Have you ever been in a sauna while thrash metal music is playing? It’s not pleasant, let me tell you.

In these sultry conditions, the English idea of pudding is just far too much. Instead, the end of a lunch is signaled by a coffee (espresso, of course) and a tablespoon of ice cream. This is definitely something I could get used to.

Harder, however, is the daily decision of what to wear. My loose linen trousers are already too heavy for the midday heat. I really need to make an appointment to be able to bare my legs in public.

Another daily challenge is our Internet connection. It has become so slow that Spotify can’t even stream my playlists anymore. I’ve resorted to listening to CDs from the early Naughties in order to drown out the builders.

It’s not even just our builders. It turns out that the owners of the house across the way have been inspired by our works to finish their own. In true Italian style, their house was completely renovated not so long ago but came to an abrupt halt. Word at the local café says that the two couples who wanted to live together ran out of money and started arguing. (Before you raise an eyebrow, this seems to be a relatively common living arrangement here in Italy…) So just in terms of heavy machinery in my immediate vicinity, there are four diggers, one roller and countless trucks…

This makes my situation all the more precarious because the conclusion of the hole in the wall (see previous post) and the incessant digging of next-door’s foundations has revealed that the house that I’m currently living in and working from has been built without any foundations! It’s just sitting upon a large slab of hard volcanic rock! Not entirely reassuring….. but then again, everything in Italy is somewhat of a gamble!