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!

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.”

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.

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.

Taking a Tart for Labour Day

“Hey Emma, you remember we’re leaving at 10am….” whispers the boy, “… well, it’s almost 9am and you still have that cake to do!”


The done thing in Italy on the 1st May (Labour Day) is to organise a day-out in the countryside. It doesn’t matter if you’re already living in rural countryside, surrounded by vineyards…. there’s always somewhere more remote for you to escape to.

Most days I’m up by 8am but we’d been at the Gusto Nudo festival in Bologna the day before and had only got home in the early hours of Monday morning.

For the holiday, we were going up into the mountains above Vicenza (where Asiago cheese is made) to a friend’s house. It may just be in this particular area of Italy, but holidays and special occasions here are often marked by a grigliata or BBQ.

In the UK, when someone organises a BBQ, you expect an outdoor charcoal grill, an undercooked sausage and, if you’re lucky, some red peppers and halloumi on a kebab stick. Almost inevitably, a rain shower will also be on the menu.

Here in Italy, a grigliata is most often cooked on a large indoor fireplace. Old country houses are equipped with a wood-burning hearth on which you can cook all manner of meats – spare ribs, chicken, pancetta – and, of course, polenta. Polenta is everywhere in the Veneto.

Two other girls were bringing savoury sides; we took wine (you never run dry with a winemaker) and I had been put forward for making a dessert.

I’m really bad at cakes. I find them way too stressful. I prefer the kind of dishes that you can adjust during the cooking process rather than putting a mixture into the oven and praying to the gods of baking.

As a compromise (and also because I had very limited ingredients at home) I decided upon a Bakewell Tart.

If you’re not familiar with a Bakewell Tart, it’s a traditional English cake, made of shortcrust pastry, jam and an almond sponge.

I used Mary Berry’s recipe for the shortcrust pastry, used a mixture of different jams (predominantly blackberry, made from the brambles surrounding our vineyards) and an almond-heavy sponge on top.

I didn’t have time to fuss around with icing…. I just scattered some sliced almonds on top of the filling before it went into the oven. Considering I was so rushed, I was rather pleased with how it turned out.

I learnt the Italian way of indicating “it’s tasty”: to put your index finger on your cheek and turn it back and forth!

From the Transparent Language blog