14 dicembre 2010

Just emerging

Just emerging from a few weeks of chaos. Alessio was off school for a week, which is the longest he's ever been ill for apart from chicken pox when he was little, and although he did nothing but lounge around all day keeping himself entertained on his PS3, for some reason just having him around was very time-consuming. At the same time, Cassie went badly lame. At the same, same time, the boiler started seriously malfunctioning, billowing out huge amounts of foul, acrid smoke, much of which got into the house via our bedroom (boiler room being under bedroom and apparently the floor isn't smoke-proof). At the same, same, same time our landline went down.

I got the vet out for Cassie because she was really limping in quite a frightening way and didn't want to put any weight on her foot. He said her front feet needed trimming and that the soles were bruised. He prescribed Bute (anti-inflammatory). This was a Friday evening. The farrier came out on the Sunday morning, trimmed her feet and put on a swanky pair of new shoes (normally she's barefoot). Alessio asked if they were made of silver and I said no, that's the wrong kind of metal and anyway it would be too expensive, and the vet said, titanium alloy, causing me to choke and wish they were silver. In the event he only charged €40 which considering it was a Sunday morning urgent callout I thought was jolly reasonable. Cassie carried on limping for another few days though, despite the Bute, and her leg started to swell up. The vet came out again and it turned out to be an abscess at the top of her hoof, and the swelling was the infection spreading up her leg. Nasty, but the abscess was a relief, because it's treatable. Since then I've been irrigating it with the hose and disinfecting with Betadine twice a day, and she's had five intramuscular injections of antibiotic administered bravely into the neck with a huge needle by John, who is needle-phobic despite being an insulin-injecting diabetic. Cass is much better now and hardly limping at all though the top of her hoof still hurts her when you press it. She's very sweet when I get the hose out and likes to suck water from it, but she hates it on her feet because it's so cold!

As for the boiler, I tracked down a chimney-sweep team and it turned out to be a hornets' nest blocking the chimney. Must have been in there since the summer, gradually getting more and more tarred up and eventually causing an almost total blockage. Boiler now working fine. Which is just as well, because it has now become very cold here, after weeks and weeks of mild, wet weather when the UK was under a foot of snow.

The problem with the landline was eventually solved after a week and was the fault of the kittens, who must have dislodged a wire in the phone socket. The Telecom engineer wasn't too pleased and we have yet to see if they send us a bill.

Luckily the kittens are unspeakably cute and so escaped all punishment.

30 ottobre 2010

Someone introduced me

Someone introduced me the other day as his English friend who writes a "blog bellissimo" (thanks, Sandro!) which was very nice but also made me realize how I haven't been keeping up with writing it recently. No excuse other than being busy, but I must try harder.

So a brief catch-up. After my last post about the horse fair we had a couple of weeks of truly miserable weather: cold and foggy, with constant rain alternating between downpour and drizzle. We had our final lot of guests in the apartment, a German family, who were here for ten days and really got the worst of the weather. Of course the day they left the sun came out and the fog lifted. Now we need to be getting on with the veg patch — this weekend is Ognissanti (all saints day) which is traditionally the date for sowing broad beans. We have to weed and rotavate or hoe before we start the planting so that's a lot of work and I don't know that we'll manage it. Last year we planted garlic and onions in the autumn as well, which I want to do again. The garlic was a spectacular success and we're still eating our own; the onions less so but we still have a few left.

The sheep that come on to the opposite field every autumn were here last week and the shepherd not only failed to fence them off but failed to stay and watch them, with the result that the sheep marauded all over the veg patch and ate all the cicoria, swiss chard, broccoli and sorrel. They left the turnip tops, cabbage and fennel, but what they didn't eat they trampled. I was incredibly angry and upset and phoned the shepherd, who came hurtling down and stood looking at the damage almost as sorrowful as I was. He offered me some money (which I accepted, though just a token) but I said what I'd really like as compensation, rather than money, was some of the pecorino cheese that he makes. He promised he'd bring me some, though so far there's no sign of it turning up. We'll see. I think the trampled stuff will grow up again and maybe some of the nibbled plants too, so maybe the damage won't be as bad as I at first thought. I haven't felt like going back to look as it was too distressing, but I'll grit my teeth and go down there today.

We had a good crop of grapes this year — uva fragola, the amazing strawberry-flavoured grape. I made five jars of intense grape jelly and we're eating the rest as dessert grapes. I helped Mario with the vendemmia as usual, though this year in between showers of rain rather than the normal soft autumn sunshine. The harvest was poor, with a lot of spoilt grapes because of the poor summer and cold autumn; I'm not sure how that'll affect the commercial wineries. Managed to get out of the workers' lunch by saying I had to work for a deadline (which was true). 

The farmers have been busy ploughing and this year they've ploughed up a whole load of fields that have previously been fallow. It's amazing how that changes the look of the landscape. It has also substantially affected where we can walk, as we used to walk on paths through various pretty fields that are now ploughed over. Things change.

11 ottobre 2010

It turned out to be the last fine day

It turned out to be the last fine day of autumn yesterday, so I'm glad we spent it among horses (although other members of the family might disagree). We went up to Monte Catria, to the Cavallo del Catria horse fair, which we went to last year for the first time. The Cavallo del Catria is Cassie's breed and once again it was funny and delightful to see lots of Cassies all together. We watched a sort of obstacle-course competition, which was encouraging to me in the sense that although it was supposedly high level, many of the riders were having real problems in getting their horses to do things that I'm pretty sure I could get Cass to do fairly easily (walking over platforms etc). The immobility test would be a challenge for her though. The quality was notably lower than it would have been in the UK at a similar event, with very small jumps which despite their smallness a lot of the horses simply refused. I also watched a demonstration of people working with Parelli-trained horses and was hugely impressed and inspired by what these horses do and the relationship between them and their handlers. Cass only responds to me like that if she can actually smell the polo mints.

The country band with inscrutable line-dancing couple was an added bonus.

16 settembre 2010

Mario's latest weapon

Mario's latest weapon in his all-out war with the wild boar is a bright light attached to an apple tree and a badly tuned radio balanced on a fruit crate and turned up loud. He's hoping that this will keep the scavenging beasts away from his vineyard at night in these last few crucial days or weeks before the vendemmia. With my bedroom window open, all night long I can hear the tormented mix of Italian pop music and white noise just on the edge of my sound perception, and it stops me sleeping and drives me mad. In previous years Mario's boar-scaring methods have included miles and miles of white tape stretched along the edge of the wood, a gigantic stuffed-toy Tweetie-Pie, and a child's doll dangling at the edge of the vines, looking curiously terrifying and perverted, like something out of a David Lynch film. These things were all weird. But at least they were silent.

21 luglio 2010

After a slow start

After a slow start the veg patch has now gone crazy — I don't know why this still takes us by surprise, but it does, every year. We have a huge glut of courgettes and patty pan squashes, a goodly number of cucumbers, and lots of green beans — actually a rather spectacular dark purple green-bean, which sadly turns mud-coloured on cooking. The one thing that's not thriving is the tomatoes, rather oddly — they're just not growing well. This year we also have a good crop of soft fruit — gooseberries, raspberries and white currants.

Last week was unbearably hot — in the low 30s, and not much less at night, so it was hard to sleep. It was perfect weather for the splash pool but we were both working so hard that we didn't have time to set it up — it's far more complicated than I realized. But I managed to get to the pool-supply shop this week and we now have all the requisite chlorine tabs, pH testing kit and spare filters, so we're going to to set it up now. Our neighbours have just built a proper swimming pool and when the wind's in the right direction we can hear the happy cries of their kids having a great time in it. We're not jealous at all.

Right, I'm off to pickle some cucumbers now...

22 giugno 2010

The donkey is in love

The donkey is in love with Cassie and runs up and down the fence braying like crazy when we go past. She looks at him, gives a little neigh, and then strolls on. Tease.

We've had a miserable cold and rainy few days. The ducks have been happy, but no one else has. I'm off to England tomorrow with the boy and am looking forward to it, as apparently they've nicked our weather. Back next week, when I will have time to write a fuller update.

31 maggio 2010

We've had a week of gorgeous weather

We've had a week of gorgeous weather and have finally been able to get on with planting up the veg patch. Thirty tomato plants, three rows of green beans and two of borlotti, 20 lettuces, six courgettes, four patty-pan squashes, eight cucumbers, some aubergines and peppers, and more to come: we still need to plant out the autumn squashes. The broad beans are ready to crop and are doing really well, though only a single pea plant germinated in the two rows we sowed. The garlic and onions we planted at the same time as the broad beans are also doing well. We also have raspberry canes (given as cuttings two years ago by a friend), gooseberry bushes and a whitecurrant bush, all flourishing. It's all looking especially neat this year because John's been asked to take some photographs for a book on growing your own food, so he's been weeding it ferociously.

There's bad news on the ducks: just a day or two after my last post, four of them disappeared in broad daylight, and we later found some feathers and a bit of blood — a fox must have got them, though it's odd that there weren't more signs of an evident massacre. Unfortunately it managed to take four females, leaving us with two males and a female, not a sustainable threesome at all. After a few days of dithering we decided to get rid of the older male, so John summarily despatched it and cremated it on the bonfire! We're now left with a a male/female pair, which is fine and might lead to some ducklings later this summer. In the meantime for our egg supply we'll need to buy some point-of-lay chickens (you can't buy point-of-lay ducks here, as no one keeps ducks for eggs), which is okay by me as I'd wanted some hens anyway, to make a change from duck eggs.

Cassie has now finished moulting and looks lovely and sleek and elegant (as elegant as a stocky little mountain horse can look — but beautiful). I've walked her up a few times to look at Mario's donkey, who brays like crazy and gets very excited, running up and down the fence and practically scrambling over it in his eagerness to say hello; the first time she saw him Cass looked astonished and somewhat alarmed, but now she neighs back to him and then just puts her head down to eat. I don't think she's that impressed with him really. Yesterday I rode her for the first time in ages and apart from some jumpy behaviour because of the wind and a moment of recalcitrance in not wanting to leave the yard, she was pretty good.

The caterpillars are into their third instar but I'll post on that tomorrow.

21 maggio 2010

The ducks are

The ducks are about the only ones having fun in this weather. Yet another cold and rainy day, in one of the coldest and rainiest springs we can remember in all the time we've been here. This photo shows one of the ducks the other day just after she'd laid an egg outside the pen, in the yard. We have five female ducks at the moment and usually we get four or five eggs every morning. This morning I found six. Ducks' capacity for mystery grows ever more profound.

20 maggio 2010

Wildlife report

Wildlife report. Fifteen or so wild boar rootling about in the valley early in the morning — several big adults and a load of piglets. A large deer in the top field, grazing. A hare nibbling shoots in a ploughed field when I was bringing Alessio home from a friend's house. Four or five Little Owls (Athene noctua) on the road home at dusk the other evening. Hoopoes, a nesting pair of redstarts in the garden, kestrels, a cuckoo (heard all through the day but never seen), swallows everywhere and the usual pair nesting in John's workroom. Lots of different interesting caterpillars!

18 maggio 2010

The caterpillars are starting

The caterpillars are starting to evolve into their next stage (or instar, as we caterpillar scientists call it). It's been one week since they hatched. Three or four of them have shed their old skin and now look like this little guy, about 1cm long (its head is at the left). The others have gone very still, as if frozen, and I think will moult overnight or tomorrow. Hard to overestimate the excitement this is causing around the kitchen table.

11 maggio 2010

The eggs have hatched

The eggs have hatched! I now have eight tiny baby puss moth caterpillars. They look like something Doctor Who would be proud to defeat, though they're only about 7mm long. They have these whip-like forked tails that they thrash around if they get annoyed. At the moment they're living in a tupperware box munching through a pile of willow leaves and when they get bigger I'll transfer them to their deluxe accommodation.

3 maggio 2010

Caterpillar season

Caterpillar season is upon us! The puss moth chrysalis that was fixed to the bottom of a pallet next to the haybales evidently overwintered successfully, as when I checked it the other day there was a hole in it where the moth had broken through and crawled out – sadly no sign of the moth itself, which was a shame because I spent all winter protecting that chrysalis and had hoped to see the moth. Never mind: because...

... Even more excitingly, I then scoured the willow for signs of caterpillars and found some small, shiny, almost spherical dark-red eggs. These are definitely puss moth eggs. I broke the twig off and brought it indoors, and John is knocking up a deluxe caterpillar-rearing home so that we can rear them. There are seven or eight eggs. The puss moth caterpillar is that enormous one I found last June and posted a photo of on the blog (http://fourseasonsatpalomba.blogspot.com/2009/06/and-this-is-another.html), so it will be a lot of fun seeing how it goes from tiny egg to monstrous caterpillar over the space of a couple of weeks. And with any luck we'll get to see the puss moths themselves this time too. 

The photo of the eggs was taken on 1 May, though I found them on 30 April. I'll post updates, as even the tiny caterpillars are pretty amazing looking.

19 aprile 2010

I got back

I got back from the UK last weekend, enjoyed a day of hot sunshine and woke up the next day to a heavy snowfall. Haven't had time to post pictures since then but the snow did a lot of damage because of the trees being in leaf – the branches were weighed down and a lot of them split or broke. Our beautiful willow in Cass's field is broken in several places and we'll have to take the top branches down, pretty much wrecking the tree. This is really sad. The elm outside the kitchen window split and the minor trunk broke off. And there was a lot of minor damage. Last week was wet and rainy but yesterday a bit brighter so John spent the day clearing the elm away from the path and sawing up branches. 

Today is a lovely morning and I hope spring will stay now and not pull any more unpleasant tricks like that. We need to get the veg patch going. The broad beans (sown last autumn) are growing strongly, even after the snow, though the peas didn't germinate – I think we could sow some more now, it's probably not too late. Unfortunately I am chained to my desk at the moment.

23 marzo 2010

Two nights ago a loud

Two nights ago a loud, screeching, otherworldly noise rang out as I was getting ready to go to bed. It sounded like a donkey. We don't have donkeys near us, so I sent John out to see if anything weird was going on outside. He checked the animals and came back in: nothing. An hour later the noise came again, and an hour later again, and so on pretty much all through the night. John got up at one point and turned off any electronic device that might have been emitting eerie braying noises. To me it still sounded like a donkey.

In the morning after waving goodbye to Alessio on the schoolbus I squinted up towards Mario's house and through the trees, still leafless, I saw a little silhouette. It was a donkey.

I grabbed some carrots and took Maxim off in that direction for his walk. In the steep, scrubby field below Mario's house a very small donkey was standing looking forlorn. I climbed the bank, dragging Maxim (who doesn't like equines), and called to the donkey. It came timidly over and I poked a bit of carrot through the wire. Obviously it wasn't used to being fed carrot, as it took a while to register that this was a nice donkey treat — give Cass a carrot and she has your hand off looking for the next one. This donkey munched the carrot and then just stood there sadly. 

In the afternoon I went up with Alessio and asked Mario what he was doing with a donkey — he used to keep goats and then sheep on that field and had talked of getting geese next, to keep the scrub down. Apparently a friend has dumped this donkey on him. We went down to talk to it in the field. It's not in very good condition and is a sad little thing, with its headcollar practically welded to its face and its coat all matted; and although it didn't actually look frightened of humans it certainly didn't look used to receiving love and affection. When I've got some time I'll take an old horse brush up and clean it up a bit and try to persuade Mario to take its headcollar off and see if we can perk it up a bit. Donkeys pine if they're kept alone, so somehow we need to get it and Cassie together.

Last night it brayed less and I got a bit more sleep. This morning I drove out at about 8am and the donkey came trotting down the slope to the fence, so I stopped the car and wound down the window and Alessio and I said nice things to it, and then as I drove off slowly it followed for as long as it could till the fence ended. Who knows what was going on in its little donkey head, but it looked like it wanted to be friends.

16 marzo 2010

I'm finally starting to

I'm finally starting to get a bit more energy after my long and (for me) unusual bout of illness and ailment. Today was sunny but cold, but in any case I was inside chained to my computer, looking somewhat longingly out at the fields. At 4.30 I went out to take Maxim for his walk before the sun disappeared behind the hills. First time I've been out for ages without my woolly hat! That felt good.

We went along above the vineyard and up the track, where we came upon a small wizened contadino halfway up a tree at the edge of the field. He was pruning, on a ladder in fact, not actually in the tree. I greeted him cautiously because he couldn't see me coming and I didn't want to make him fall off. He answered without mishap and we had a chat about dog-walking and dogs running away and dogs being chained, most of which I followed despite the thick dialect. No idea who this guy is, but he knew me. 

Walking on, it was nice to see the signs of spring — primroses, daffodils, one huge purple crocus, and several other small wizened contadini doing their stuff up trees, in veg patches or with chainsaws. The air rings with the sound of flirting birds and diesel motors. And it still doesn't feel exactly warm, there's still snow in places, reminding us that we're only in the middle of March and it's early to count our chickens, springwise...

Talking of which, the ducks are laying three eggs a day now. Time to make lemon curd.

25 febbraio 2010

When I walk

When I walk Maxim in the mornings I've been seeing, as well as the usual wild boar diggings, a lot of deer tracks. This morning there were three little deer down in the field below Cassie, and Alessio said he sees a little group of them every morning from the school bus. A male and several females, he said, and informed me that he's waiting for the mating season.

The weather's mild now but wet. The first signs of spring are tentatively appearing. Primroses in the woods, and those strange green bell-like flowers, the name of which I can't remember. There's noticeably more birdsong in the mornings too, along with the wonderful feeling of the evenings getting lighter and the even more wonderful feeling of the morning not being absolutely pitch dark when I get up.

15 febbraio 2010

Collapsed barn roof

Collapsed barn roof. Bad news. At least it didn't fall in on the hay, or hit Cassie with flying rocks, for that matter. Thinking of starting a fund for the barn repair (estimated last year at €20,000) or would that be very bad form? Yes. Okay. :)

28 gennaio 2010

Down on the ranch

Down on the ranch things have been quiet recently. Wet and mild, until a couple of days ago, when we had about a foot of snow dumped on us. It's thawing now but our steep lane is still icy enough to mean that the school bus won't come down to fetch Alessio in the mornings so we have to ferry him up to the main road. The first day of snow, he had to walk up — at 7.00am when the sun wasn't even over the hill yet — he was NOT pleased, and I think would prefer the UK approach to snow — shut down and wait for spring. 

Maxim has been in trouble for running off round the countryside in the company of Mario's two little terrier-type dogs, so we've been keeping him on the chain. Which means we have to walk him regularly, something we're not used to doing but I quite like it (as it seems to be me that's principally walking him, so far). I take him for half an hour in the morning after feeding the animals and before my own breakfast. This morning I went round the huge field below the veg patch, still deep in snow, and watched the sun come over the hill and light up the icy trees and fields from the top down. Very pretty. There's a lot of evidence of wild boar activity — the photo shows where they've been digging under an oak tree to get at the acorns. They've been up very near the house, too: under the enormous oak they've snaffled most of the acorns (poor Cass! she likes acorns) and have cleared part of the bank of brambles — I was going to take a picture but it's covered in snow now. Alessio wants to install a webcam to try to catch the wild boar on film!

7 gennaio 2010

We've been enjoying the spectacle

We've been enjoying the spectacle of the UK grinding to a halt in the big freeze — a fate that befalls us more usually than them, although things don't grind to a halt here, it's just that life becomes more difficult, and unpleasantly cold. Here by contrast it's been bizarrely warm (relatively speaking), though very wet. Lots of flooding and the ground is saturated and swampy. Today it seems almost springlike, with a soft sun and long shadows, but the forecast is for snow at the weekend and then pretty much the foreseeable future. 

We realized our sansa (the residue of crushed olive stones that we use for fuel) wasn't going to last out much longer, and if the road freezes up next week the lorry won't be able to make a delivery, so I called the driver early this morning and he heroically rushed off to fetch a few tonnes for us and arrived after lunch. It's a big job getting it loaded into the storage container — the lorry dumps the sansa on on to a huge archimedes screw, which takes it up and in and then drops it in the storage room — like a grain elevator. It's such a slow process that John and Luigi help it along manually, using buckets; the original idea was to let the machinery do the work, but Luigi is impatient. We get about 60 quintali, a quintale being 100 kg, so that's, er, 6 tonnes. A couple of years ago the archimedes screw was broken and John and I loaded it all in manually. Now that was hard work.