23 ottobre 2008

Every autumn a shepherd

Every autumn a shepherd from across the valley brings his flock over to our side to graze the fields that had hay on over the summer. It’s a nice custom and one of the ways in which traditional farming is still carried on here – the fields benefit from fresh fertilizer and the sheep get some good end-of-season grazing before the winter sets in. These sheep are a thin, black, rather goatlike local breed used for milking, and Misici, the shepherd, is well known round here for his superb pecorino cheese.

The sheep have been in the top field opposite our house for a week or so, being moved about by the shepherd on a daily basis, and attended by four or five of the usual enormous white Maremmano dogs. We hear the sheepbells tinkling as the flock pours from one field to another. When they’re on the move, Teo goes mad with barking and makes forays towards them, but not near enough to let the dogs get him. When they come into the field just below the house, the horse can hear them but not see them and she starts to fret, staring in horror in the direction of the scary noises and periodically setting off round her field at a frantic trot in, I suppose, an expression of the flight part of her fight or flight instinct. (The horse is definitely a flight animal. Especially this horse.)

Yesterday morning the shepherd brought the flock into the field below the house for a couple of hours and then took them away again, hidden up over the brow of the hill. Teo barked solidly for the two hours that they were visible. After lunch I happened to be gazing out of the kitchen window and spied a tiny black shape in the grass. It was a lamb, and through binoculars I could see that it was a very small lamb with two or three very big black crows hanging round it. As I watched, one of the crows hopped right up to the lamb and pecked around it threateningly; the lamb scrambled to its feet and the crow moved off, but not very far.

It took about five seconds to decide to rescue the lamb. By the time we got out into the field the crows were gone. The lamb was lying down but it got up as we approached and staggered about a bit in that funny, unsteady, sweet, lamblike way that’s part of what people like about very young lambs. I grabbed hold of it fairly easily and we carried it back to the house. We put some hay down in one of the old store-rooms and put it in there. It didn’t seem very distressed, and let itself be cuddled, but it did seem hungry – tried to suck the hay, but refused to suck water off my finger. Occasionally it said “baa”, in a heart-melting kind of way.

I went inside to track down the shepherd and reached him on only the third phonecall. “Have you found my dog?” he said. “No,” I told him, “but I’ve got one of your lambs.” He promised to come and get it. I promised to look for his dog. Alessio came home from school on the bus and fell in love with the lamb. I got into trouble for half-saying we could keep it if the shepherd thought the mother wouldn’t accept it back. Luckily when the shepherd turned up, he had no such worries and carted it off in his van. Alessio was devastated, and I was pretty sad too. There’s something about lambs.

Please, no one mention mint sauce.

22 ottobre 2008

We have a new duck

We have a new duck. This duck is one of a pair that were won as ducklings at a fair by a schoolfriend of Alessio’s, whose family were able to keep both ducklings over the summer in their small apartment garden, but who don’t have the facilities to keep them over the winter. We agreed to take both ducks, but sadly one of them escaped and was run over on the road (few ducks come to a happy end round here), so in the end we’ve just got the one.

She’s the same age as our other four and is another dark-coloured one. We put her in the pen when she arrived, with the others outside, and after a few minutes of looking at one another through the wire and quacking excitedly, it became clear that they weren’t going to be able to work out how to actually get together, either by means of our ducks going into the pen or the new duck going out. Ducks can never cease to amaze by their sheer dimness. So we lifted her out and plonked her down among the resident ducks, and they made friends pretty much straight away. There was a bit of pecking of the new duck, but nothing major or really vicious. I knew they’d be all right when I checked on them after a couple of hours and they were all looking in the same direction, whereas initially our four would face one way and the new one would face them. They all survived overnight okay and now are inseparable, doing everything and going everywhere together in the way that we’ve come to know and love in ducks.

And with any luck they’ll start laying soon.

14 ottobre 2008

After an uncharacteristically cold and wet

After an uncharacteristically cold and wet second half of September – the worst of which I was lucky enough to avoid because I was having a very lovely time in sunny London – the Italian autumn has reverted to type and we’re enjoying days of beautiful warm, balmy weather, soft sunshine and hazy mornings, temperatures in the high teens/low 20s and a general feeling of nature at its most benign and gentle. We will almost certainly pay for this later, but right now it feels good. The summer ended this year with such brutal suddenness – going from 30 degrees to 15 degrees within a matter of days – that it was difficult to feel positive about anything much. Amazing the difference some sunshine makes.

In my absence the veg patch has flourished, with John and Alessio planting up a whole load more green leafy things as well as fennel and (late) leeks. We now have an endless supply of cime di rapa (turnip tops) and swiss chard, and will have broccoli, savoy cabbage, cauliflower and green-leafed chicory. So we won’t go short of folic acid this winter; nor iron – the uptake of which by our bodies is greatly aided by eating your green leafy veg in the company of something containing vitamin C, otherwise known as a glass of red wine (oh yes, and lemons have it too). The red onions I planted too late are still not really ready but I guess we’ll have to pull them once the weather turns again; the tomatoes are still hanging in there, but are green and not really ripening now. Last year we ate fried green tomatoes once or twice, which were quite nice, but once or twice was probably enough. Sadly, not that keen on green tomato chutney or that would be the answer to the glut. Most of them we will throw away (in the new compost bin the council gave us for free, of course).

The September rain greened up the countryside almost overnight, but didn’t deflect the resident hornets from their purpose. The nest is now enormous and fantastic and resembles some kind of weird alien space pod, gradually taking over the host birdbox around which it is built. A friend whose husband is a naturalist told me that the hornets will be laying eggs now, for the larvae to overwinter in the nest and then hatch out next spring. Or perhaps it’s the eggs that overwinter and will hatch out into larvae next spring. The point being, the hornets are not crazy or indulging in unseasonal behaviour, the nest will not be abandoned in the winter, and we will have a huge live hornets’ nest very near our house next spring. Must find a way to deal with it that doesn’t involve wholesale destruction, either of us or of the nest.