“Uffa” – essential vocabulary when renovating in Italy

According to Word Reference, the Italian word “uffa” means “what a bore!” But, as you most probably already know, Italians have their own body language too and when uffa is accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders, maybe a pair of eyes darting up to the heavens, a helluva lot more can be conveyed in those two short syllables. I’ve heard it being used to signify a whole range of emotions from boredom to dejection but also desperation.

As the house renovation progresses, I have found myself using uffa more than I would have liked over the last two weeks.

The first time was finding out that our made-to-measure bathtub had actually been made to the wrong measurements!

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Though it is a decent size (9 sq m), our bathroom doesn’t have a single corner at 90° (do you remember my post about Pythagorus?), it has a sliding door in the centre stopping us from using that part of it (i.e. no tubes or toilets) and on the only really good wall, there has two windows which categorically rule out any other kind of sanitary artifice. All this adds a certain je ne sais quoi when you’re trying to add elements which are – generally speaking – square or requiring privacy.

Consequently, our bathtub was going to be made to spec – with a rounded finish compensating for the the lack of right angles. The shower unit is already installed and when we inquired when the bathtub might be arriving and received that email above…… our reaction was a simultaneous: “uffa!”


If only it were just the bathroom people who are making mistakes.

On Saturday, the carpenters came to fit the shutters that they’d been cleaned up and restored….. only to find that as a result of some really shoddy workmanship from Tweedledum and Tweedledee (our two insulation fitters / painters / buffoons) the outside walls are very visibly not straight.

The shutters were taken straight back to the carpentry workshop for more adjustments. Uffa. 


Today, I’ve just shown the boss of the flooring company that two of the four tiles that were fitted just over a month ago have come loose.

It was little short of a miracle that the plumber came this morning to fit our boiler…… but he left after just a few minutes having made this unfortunate discovery. This then meant calling the flooring company who came round to take a look. Fortunately the boss has promised that, this evening, a workman will come to glue down the tiles once again….. but we’ve lost valuable time because of all these incompetencies. Now, we’ll cross our fingers and pray to the powers-that-be that the plumber comes back again before the end of the week. Uffa. 


Despite all this doom and gloom, the word uffa has a pretty interesting origin. It dates back to around the 14th century when the Vatican State was building St Peter’s cathedral. Because it was for the Pope, all the necessary goods which arrived (stones, sand, sacks, sheep, mules) were stamped with the Latin abbreviation “A.U.F.” which stands for “Ad Usum Fabricae” and gave all these goods total tax exemption. Because there were so many of these items needed for the construction project, the customs officers spent their days saying “auf! auf!” and over time, that morphed into uffa.

Similarly when work started on the Duomo in Florence, all the materials were stamped with: “A U.F.O” meaning “Ad usum Florentinae Operae” and were therefore exempt from the city taxes. Even to this day, “a ufo” means “free” i.e. mangiare a ufo = to eat for free.

Problems On The Horizon

A man turned up on my doorstep earlier today and he asked “is Alessandro home?”

“No, he’s not back yet,” I reply.

“Ok, then I’ll tell you. Your dog has destroyed my vegetable patch. I saw with my own eyes that your dog was at the vineyard this morning and now I come home and find that he has walked all over the patch of land where yesterday I’d sown some beans.”


So, to give some background to this story, this man owns a house which neighbours on one of our vineyards. He actually lives down in the centre of town but has this rural house high up on the hill which he uses for its vegetable patch and for the occasional party.


I say I’m very sorry about the dog, that I’ll tell Alessandro to be more careful and that it won’t happen again.

An hour or so later, Alessandro comes home and I ask him, “Ale, is that man – y’know, probably about 70 years old, full head of white hair, yay high, rather tanned – is he the same man that you had problems with a couple of days ago?”

Oh no, my heart sinks.

This man is the father of the boss of the electrical company that’s been contracted to do our house renovation.

It’s also the same man who had a rather heated dispute with Alessandro’s father just two days ago.


You see, a couple of days ago, Alessandro and his father got a call from their manure guy – yes, it appears that most organic farmers round here have a manure guy – and the guy says that he has a truckload of manure that nobody wants. Would you take it? I’ll leave it, if you like, on that vineyard up on the hill, just as we’ve done in the past, he suggests.

Alessandro and his father accept this kind offer, “yes, we’ll take it.”

“Would you like two truckloads of manure?” the manure guy clearly has a lot of the stinky stuff to shift.

He’s in luck. “Yeah, sure, no problem,” is the reply.

Unfortunately on that same Friday night that the white-haired electrician is preparing to entertain guests at his rustic retreat, what can only be described as a mountain of manure is unloaded right next to his house!!

So not only has my dog damaged his vegetable patch but the poor man has had to have a party with the equivalent of Vesuvius smouldering away right next door. I have a feeling that our electrics might be rather compromised after these two incidents……

Pavimento alla Veneziana – the local handmade flooring option

Venice is famous for so many things: the canals, its once massive maritime empire, Piazza San Marco, the bronze horses stolen from Byzantium, the Harry’s Bar, Murano glass, its overpriced restaurants…. but did you know it also has its own traditional type of flooring?

Pavimento alla Veneziana, or sometimes also known as terrazzo, started in the 16th century. In its most primitive state, small bits of broken marble (there’s quite a lot of marble in this area) were scattered upon the floor and then bound with a resinous material to form a durable and resistant surface.

For our house renovation, we chose wooden (dark oak) floors for the bedrooms but decided to put down Veneziana in the living areas.

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Before….

In the 1950s-1990s, bold terracotta colours were particularly popular but that’s gone out of style now in favour of a very minimalist plain white.

The wonderful thing about Veneziana flooring is that it’s made to order. Each one is completely unique and you can choose the exact composition of the stones. In our case, we went for an off-white base with red gems from China, dark green stones from Portugal, and a little bit of mother of pearl (but that’s the most expensive) and some caramel coloured stones to break it up.

All the stones arrived in their raw state and are laid on-site, all by hand.

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White stones for the base layer

First, they create a base layer (in our case, white) upon which they’ll randomly scatter the decorative stones (for us: mainly red, green and mother of pearl.) It’s all down to the skill and experience of the workmen to make sure that there’s not an area with too much of any particular colour.

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They use these very attractive waders as they’re laying down the floor.

When they’ve finished laying the stones, they set the whole thing with another hefty layer of lime and you have no idea what the finished floor will look like!

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During….

The flooring is left to set for about a month, when the workmen come back again to start shaving off the top coat. Before you think, “oh, it’s practically finished” – no, our guys will go over each square centimetre of flooring 7 times before they call it a day.

Essentially, with the machine below, they remove the top coat and shave off the almost half of the stones so you have a totally smooth, shiny surface.

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Treating the floor with linseed oil

We’ve now got to the stage (six weeks after they first laid the stones) where the decorative stone layer is now visible but there’s still one last polishing treatment needed.

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Just the outer edges of the rooms are ready…

*Almost* finished!

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Onwards And Upwards: The Roof And The Walls

IMG_20180327_152045_667.jpgWe’re moving forward with the house renovation!

It’s all getting rather exciting. As of today, the roof is now finished – new layer of insulation underneath, new tiles, a couple more windows to bring in more light, and the solar panels…. It’s taken a while but it’s finished and finally the builders are starting to take some of the scaffolding down.

Next up is the insulation around the walls of the house – called “cappotto” in Italian, the same word you would use for a “coat.” We should have started this quite a while back, but because the panels are held on with glue (at least provisionally) we couldn’t do it when there was a risk of frost.

Basically this insulation consists of putting 10cm-thick insulating panels all the way around the house. These are being glued on for now but later, will be drilled into the brickwork. On top of this, we’ll put a finishing coat and then the paint of our choice.

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It’s kind of weird to think of a house have a insulating coat on top of the bricks but it’s apparently widely recommended in these parts to save energy.

In the photo below, which hasn’t had its cladding installed yet, do you see how the door frame is standing completely unattached from the rest of the house?

Yep, well when they get round it to that part of the house, that gap will be completely filled in!

We also need to put some insulation on the left-hand-side wall, because even though it’s an internal wall, it borders onto the wine cellar and therefore needs something more substantial…. apparently. I’m still learning!

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“How’s The House Coming Along?”

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“Slowly but surely,” is the answer.

At the beginning stages of a house renovation, it’s completely linear. Just bricks and mortar; walls and a roof. There’s nothing else. It becomes frustrating because you can’t say “well, these guys for X have been held up on another project so let’s do Y, while we’re waiting…”

Now we’re at a stage where the house is essentially built so we can start working on different elements simultaneously. It’s more satisfying, even if it does make you a little bit more crazy trying to keep all the plates spinning.

The electricians cannot be relied upon to do anything correctly by themselves.

Underneath is a photo of our bathroom-to-be. WC and bidet on the right, washbasin on the left by the window. We’ll have a small electric plug (the empty socket on the far left) and a light above the mirror (the tube sticking out of the wall.)

Now if you’re not familiar with the mechanics of wiring a house (I wasn’t until a couple of months ago….) you may not know that there’s a whole spider’s web of tubes and cables which run under the floorboards. They all have to be connected up and obviously linked to the mains entrance point. In this case, a tube is supposed to run along the floor to the socket and then up from the socket to the light.

It turns out though, that they’d put in the tube from the socket to the light but had forgotten to put in the tube which goes from the socket to the mains. We had a suspicion that they’d forgotten, so even though the walls had already been plastered and the floor was already filled in, we called them back and they were able to rectify it. (Hence why the passageway along the floor and up the wall is a different colour.) Imagine if we hadn’t spotted their error!

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Meanwhile, the plumber has started laying down giant blocks of Lego, which apparently will become the underfloor heating. I had no idea that’s what underfloor heating looked like!

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There was also a pretty funny moment when my kitchen supplier came over to check the last of the details before putting in the order. We had our technical drawing out and were measuring the distances for each of the sockets, the extraction fan and the cupboards now that the walls have been plastered to make sure it will all eventually fit.  We were going through the electric sockets step by step, counting, “1, the plug socket… 2, for the induction…. 3, another plug socket…. and 4, where’s 4??”

It turns out that the team who did the plastering inside forgot about the fourth and most essential socket. It’s clearly much easier for them to plaster over the entire wall, rather than work around the fiddly little electric sockets…. but it’s also their job to remember how many there were in the first place!

Fortunately, she and I borrowed a hammer from some of the other builders and, through trial and error, figured out where that hidden socket was located. Phew!

Lesson learnt: you really do have to check and double-check the builders’ work. Had we not, we wouldn’t have had any electricity in the bathroom nor any going to the fridge and oven!

“The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray”

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Just one quick look at the calendar and you know this week is going to be amazing. I mean, it’s not even once every hundred years that Valentine’s Day and Pancake Day/Mardi Gras land on the very same day.

I could have gone full out on the heart-shaped American style pancakes with maple syrup and caramelised bananas…. I could also have made kitschy, French crepes with chocolate sauce and strawberries (a bit like in the photo below.)

Unfortunately, however, a work meeting meant that we had to move any romantic plans that we might have had scheduled for the 14th and then the flu bug wiped us out for the rest of the week. If it was at all ambiguous, let it be known that the words “tesoro, where’s the thermometer?” coming from behind a mountain of tissues, and spoken by someone with puffy eyes whose just recovered from a sneezing fit, are not in any way erotic.

Even the best made plans can come to naught…..

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We spent a few days shuffling back and forth between the bedroom and the sofa but today, we’re feeling better. My temperature is still stupidly low at 35 degrees C but that’s become my new normal. (Any ideas why my body temperature is so low, please share…) Still, I had a bit more energy this morning and we had some milk that was about to go off so I fulfilled my initial idea and made crepes. Nothing fancy and certainly nothing that would have its place in a Mills and Boon novel… just quickly whipped up crepes with a simple lemon juice and sugar topping. Lesson learnt: sometimes spontaneity is the best!

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In the afternoon we took the car and the dog to explore a nearby town called Valdagno. It’s the town that gives its name to the valley so I was expecting something of a hub with a bustling main square. I got that one wrong. Besides one determined jogger, there was absolutely no one out. Admittedly the weather didn’t help much – a constant drizzle that never quite allowed you to decide conclusively if an umbrella is essential or excessive. We walked through the pedestrianised centre but being Sunday afternoon, nothing much was open. The one interesting find was stumbling across a small museum in a park, dedicated to all the different rocks or layers of them that had been found locally.

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I’m supposed to be going to a wine tasting tomorrow. If you didn’t know, my day job mainly consists of writing about wine, talking about agriculture and tasting as much grape juice as I can get my hands on. The only problem is that with a blocked nose and a raspy throat, tasting wine and talking to producers is next to impossible. I might, errr, “stop off” to browse the winter sales instead.

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!

Frittelle for Carnevale

After the month-long festivities to celebrate Santa Lucia, then Christmas, New Year’s Eve and finally la Befana (don’t know who La Befana is? click here and read my last blog post) you would probably expect me to say that things were starting to quieten down and for this frigid winter to be tightening its icy grip. If only! We’re now starting to revv up for Carnevale!


Find out more about the Carnevale di Venezia, which officially starts on Jan 27th this year and runs until Shrove Tuesday, on the official website here.

I also heartily recommend checking out the Venice Insider website which has painstakingly listed all of this year’s events and much of the history.


Anyway, this morning, coming back from a meeting to decide upon a new marble staircase for the house (yay!) I popped into my local bakery for a caffè-brioche and saw these on the counter….

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Frittelle!

Frittelle, fritole or fritoe (depending on which accent or dialect you’re speaking with) are small, fried balls of dough. They’re about the size of a walnut but it’s quite easy to tell that these particular ones have been handmade because they are all different shapes and sizes. At my bakery, there was the choice of frittelle studded with raisins (uvette) or filled with pastry cream. In other parts, I’ve seen apple and pine nut frittelle as well as with lemon peel or chestnuts. Once they come out of the oven, they get generously sprinkled with sugar (just as you would with a doughnut) and are best eaten still slightly warm.

Like most things in Italy, there’s a certain time and place for everything and even these (otherwise pretty nondescript) treats are actually highly seasonal. The one and only season for frittelle, as you may have guessed, is during Carnevale.

If you want to try your hand at making them, the recipe on “I Love You More Than Food” looks solid but I admit that I haven’t tried it. Link here. Good luck!

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.