27 novembre 2011

The biggest surprise

The biggest surprise was that nasturtium leaves and stalks are really delicious when cooked. (No, really.) Steamed and then tossed in olive oil with garlic. So the free food's going well! On top of all the veggies and numerous ways of eating home-grown mushrooms, we had (well, the blokes had) wild boar sausages the other night, courtesy of Mario. He and his posse spent last weekend conducting a concerted campaign against the boar that are ravaging not only our veg patch but also the just-sown fields of the farmers round here. They ended up with three boar. In the case of wild boar my normally strongly anti-hunting ethic goes into reverse, as these are animals that have no natural predators here and the population has just gone crazy since they were reintroduced a while back. They do a huge amount of agricultural damage. My hopes that Mario's efforts would end the digging-up of our garden were dashed, however, as this week the beasties dug over the broad bean bed and trampled much of the broccoli and greens. Deeply upsetting. I'm setting up an electric fence round the veg patch now, and if that doesn't keep them off it'll be watchtowers, searchlights and landmines.

11 novembre 2011

In these hard and gloomy times

nasturtium salad
In these hard and gloomy times I'm thinking it will be fun to try for a while to eat as much as possible from our own production or even wild food. Fun, plus a relief for the bank balance. We've got a freezer packed with food from the summer, we have veggies coming along in the veg patch (if we can save them from the wild boar), and there are still a few (very few) edible wild plants to pick. In fact, if I remembered anything I learnt from the mushroom course I did a few years ago (to gather mushrooms in Italy you officially have to have a 'patentino' or licence, which you get by attending a course and then renewing it yearly) then I'd go mushrooming, but what I principally recall is how frighteningly similar the edible ones look to the deadly poisonous ones. Oh, and how one toxic mushroom tricks you before killing you, giving you immediate and severe symptoms of food-poisoning from which you quickly recover, only to be struck down a few weeks later, by which time you have multiple organ failure and you — die. Which celestial joker thought that one up?

But I digress. For we do have mushrooms — home-grown ones, real beauties. I bought a kit, basically a sort of spore-impregnated bale, and it sits in the cantina putting out amazing growths of pleurotus (oyster mushrooms). Far too many, in fact, as we can't get through them all (the Boy doesn't even like them) and I don't know how to preserve mushrooms. For now I've decided to head back to the 1970s and make cream of mushroom soup, and if it's nice then I'll make a load and freeze it.

And speaking of soup, the warm autumn has given us a good crop of nettles in the hedgerows, and as everyone knows, nettle soup is The Best. Tasty, health-giving and absolutely free. Some people may mock (and you know who you are) but they obviously need a little help in appreciating the finer things in life. I can give that help. Nettle risotto, anyone?

27 ottobre 2011

The duck is sad

The duck is sad. Since the male duck died during the night last week, cause of death unknown but at least it wasn't the usual violent fox event, the female has been all alone and lonely. I hoped she'd make friends with the new hens, but although they seem to cohabit quite peacefully they don't hang out together outside the run. Last time we had a single duck, she became an inseparable companion to the dogs, but this duck doesn't seem keen on doing that either. She and Mr Duck were such a funny and definite couple that although I know it's wrong to attribute human emotions to critters, it's hard not to imagine Mrs as suffering a little now, in her own inscrutable duck way.

Meanwhile the chickens are thriving but are not laying yet. They're very beautiful, and fairly tame. Quite often we find them sitting halfway up the steps to the front door and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before they venture into the house...

20 settembre 2011

I found a tortoise

I found a tortoise whilst out riding the other day. The tortoise was just wandering across the field, headed for the woods. I took it home and phoned the vet to ask about tortoise-keeping, who reacted as if it was a normal occurrence to find a tortoise in the fields, and told me tortoise-keeping was easy, just don't feed it too much lettuce. We left it overnight in the duck house and spent half the next, very hot, day constructing it a state-of-the-art compound with a low wall built of rocks. Apparently tortoises can dig, so we had to bury the base of the rocks so that it couldn't dig its way out. This was hard labour, and I have to admit it was principally carried out by John. I personally made the tortoise a stylish shelter out of an upturned plastic fruit crate though. When we put the tortoise in its new home, it crawled under the shelter and started digging. Feeling smug — no way out there, matey! — I left it some lettuce and various other tempting morsels, and turned to that day's other main project...

... the chickens. The hen house is finally ready and we now have three gorgeous black, ginger-speckled hens. They seem remarkably well adjusted compared to the rest of our animals and, after spending their first day inside the hen house (perhaps just because it's so nice), they now come out and peck around in the run in a satisfyingly chicken-like way. The run is actually the duck run, and we weren't sure how the ducks would react, but in fact they all managed to co-exist quite happily together the first night, so I was confident that all would be well. My main worry remained the tortoise, who didn't want to eat anything but lettuce and alternated between digging in the far corner of its shelter and then sitting there half-buried and catatonic for hours, or roaming round its walled compound like a caged tiger, only slower. But then...

... the ducks failed to come home the second night, and nor did they show up the following morning. We decided that either a fox had got them or they had run away, believing we were replacing them with updated fowl. I felt very sad and guilty, though who'd have thought ducks were capable of such sensitivity? Anyway, yesterday morning the ducks turned up again — on the pond, hidden among the bulrushes. The male came up from the pond to get his feed and basically started behaving normally — and living with the hens — while the female remained in the middle of the pond and refused to come off, even when we brandished a broom at her. That was yesterday. She's still there today. The male calls to her and she replies: but she's not coming off that pond. Isn't she hungry? She's been floating there for at least 24 hours and maybe a lot more. At least she's safe from the fox. Meanwhile...

... the tortoise has escaped. Who knew tortoises were so good at rock-climbing? Inscrutable though it was, it didn't seem happy in captivity and I only hope that this time it makes it all the way to the far side of the field and into the woods, where it can hibernate in peace.

14 settembre 2011

The Canadair flew over

The Canadair flew over four times yesterday afternoon, four times the day before, carrying the huge tanks of water that it would empty out above Fiuminata, in the hills to the west of us, to try to quench the wildfire started by an arsonist. The helicopter was getting the water from the lake at Fiastra, where on Sunday we whiled away the afternoon in the hottest of hot sun; fire and panic far from our minds. On each run it flew low over our house, so low that you looked up and wanted to wave to the pilot, before realizing how stupid an impulse that was, and, squinting against the sun, watched it clatter into the distance leaving behind the renewed silence of the day and a feeling of unfocused agitation. 

I haven't written my blog for ages, so a summary (summery?) will have to do to bring us up to date. The summer was up and down until July, downright cold with rain for ten days or so then, and since has been hot. Heatwave hot. Two months with temperatures in the 30s and no rain have left the countryside crisped-up and gasping. We managed to keep the veg patch watered with a drip-feed system, and some of the harvest has been good – tomatoes, beans of various types, cucumbers; but the courgettes and autumn squashes were destroyed right at the beginning of the summer by marauding porcupines, and what remained was severely damaged by an enormous hailstorm in July. So this has been our first summer without being courgetted to death, which is actually a bit sad. Two big butternut squashes sit down there now, ripening, and will be ready to pick in just a few days...terrifying to think what destruction a porcupine or a baby wild boar can wreak in just one hour overnight...I don't know how long I can hold out in the battle of nerves and may end up picking them tomorrow. 

The indian summer has been gorgeous despite the parching. Extra days at the beach and the lake are like a gift. And at this time of year the nights are cool and you can sleep. The mornings are cool to cold and going out at 7am to feed the critters I shiver a little, but I'm still only in a t-shirt and that's pretty amazing for the middle of September. On Monday the forecast is for the weather to break definitively and drop 10 degrees, which will be the start of autumn and, however correct for the time of year, will send me into an immediate slough of despond. All of the winter stretches ahead, and the fact that autumn precedes it, with its mists and mellow fruitfulness, is no consolation.

20 marzo 2011

The sun broke through for, oh,

The sun broke through for, oh, several whole hours yesterday but we're back to cold grey skies again today. In the past two or three weeks we've had torrential rainfall followed by a massive snowfall which prompted the Region to declare a state of emergency. Floods, landslips, trees down, the works. We were snowed in for several days, two of them without electricity thanks to a burnt-out cable. We actually saw the cable in flames, which was pretty frightening, and the two days it took for the electricity company to get a team out to us made me wonder how long we'd have been without power in a non-emergency... Anyway, the snow has finally gone and I noticed tiny broad-bean shoots starting to poke through in the veg patch, so that's cheering at least. 

John managed to catch and summarily despatch two of our huge overpopulation of pigeons yesterday and rather than just chuck the bodies into the woods I said why don't we eat them? (These pigeons are the ones the locals breed specifically to eat.) He replied, not unreasonably: "But you are vegetarian." Nonetheless, I was on a sustainable-eating roll, and so we (well, he) plucked the pigeons (easy) while I watched a little film on YouTube of a frigheningly competent hunter/chef chopping the limbs and other identifying bodily parts off a recently shot wood-pigeon and then frying it up for dinner. It's important, apparently, to finish it off in a barely warm oven for 10 minutes to "relax" the meat.

Having studied the video assiduously, later that afternoon we performed the same depersonalizing operation on our naked pigeon corpses, with Alessio watching in admiration at the blood on the chopping board (not that there was much blood, despite what he later put in his Facebook entry) and me going all farmhouse-wife and picking out the last of the quills from the legs. We pan-fried them, relaxed them nicely in the oven, and ate them for supper with black rice and home-grown cavolo nero. The meat looked like beef, was fairly tender, and tasted strong and gamy. I had been hugely looking forward to eating it, but in the event I didn't really like it – too strong and too, well, meaty. Luckily for dessert I'd made fantastic melting-chocolate-puddings, which made up for my disappointment at not being able to throw myself fully into pigeon fancying. Will probably stay properly vegetarian for a while again now.

28 febbraio 2011

After a few balmy weeks

After several balmy weeks that were so blissfully springlike for there to be no question that it was a cosmic trick, we were reliably plunged into subzero temps and had quite a bit of snow dumped on us on Saturday. Luckily the 4x4 Panda came into its own so that we were not marooned. All gone now, and we're just festering in an English kind of cold, damp, grim fogginess and longing for summer. 

Maxim is living chained up again after his homicidal rampage through the village a few weeks ago during which he and Mario's horrid terrier indulged in at least one known rabbit-massacre and maybe more. Walking him yesterday evening it was late and dark, and although I took a torch with me I kept it switched off to see how dark-adapted my sight would get, and also as a test of character to see how long I could remain without light in the scary nighttime countryside. Because the countryside at night is scary, full of monsters and potential axe-murderers lurking in the shadows. I walked up through the grass field where the spring is, which sounds nice but actually at the place where the spring comes out Mario has built a sort of brick and cement construction, marked with some sticking-up poles. I could just make out the tractor tracks in the grass so I followed these ("Keep to the path!!"), which led directly towards the spring. In the near-dark this looked like the mouth of a hell devised for Harry Potter and I tensed myself for an enormous raging batwinged creature with evil red eyes to leap out, fang-laden mouth dripping with gore from its last unfinished meal of sheep, dog or human... I was prepared to sacrifice Maxim to the vile creature and in fact that would have solved quite a number of problems for us, but in fact the well of hideous darkness remained resoundingly silent as we slunk past, so I guess I'll have to think of some other way to sort out the dog.

I made it all the way home without switching on the torch.

7 febbraio 2011

We took the donkey

We took the donkey out for a walk yesterday. Mario had all his family round for lunch (turned out to be his birthday), so they all gathered round to watch the crazy English woman provide some entertainment. Which I duly provided, as the donkey didn't want to be caught and I had to spent 15 minutes stalking it round the field holding out a handful of carrot pieces. When I finally got the headcollar on it, it dug in its feet and refused to move. This all went down very well with the crowd. Finally Mario stomped over and waved a stick behind the donkey, so it shot forward a few paces, dragging me with it before stopping dead again, and in this manner we gradually got it out of the field. 

Once it was up in Mario's yard it was more tractable (is that a word?) and allowed the official photographer to take its photo with the entire family, though it turned its back at the crucial moment. You could see it must have been mistreated in its former life as it was incredibly nervous and you only had to raise an arm for it to back away with its ears flattened. It's also really not used to being handled, and wasn't at all keen on being led. Once Mario's family had all dispersed we were left (me, Alessio and a friend, and John) to lead it down the road to our house, and this was accomplished in a series of stops and starts with the donkey alternately shooting ahead or grinding to a halt. He's a tiny donkey and it's like leading a very large dog, but he's pretty strong and if he'd tried to run off I don't think I'd have been able to hold him. When we got him down to our yard, the kids brushed him for a bit and then got bored and went off to play with something more interesting (guns, I think). We led him around for a while and eventually took him back to his field. He liked being out a lot and really didn't want to go back in — re-entry was achieved with me tugging on the rope at the front and John at the back end brandishing a broom.

So this was step 1 of the donkey project. Who knows where it will lead?

9 gennaio 2011

In a list of the scariest creatures

In a list of the scariest creatures in the known universe, I wouldn't have fingered sheep and kittens as high-up contenders, or even put them on the list at all, actually; but Cassie's list is all her own work and sheep and kittens are up there fighting it out for first place (closely followed by the monster that lives in piles of wood, which even if it has never been seen, doesn't necessarily not exist and is therefore really, really scary). The sheep are back in the field again and Cassie can glimpse them through the trees, or see them properly when they come round the other side and right next to her paddock. She's in a permanent state of high alert, so much so that yesterday I decided not to take her out because she was so jittery. Today I was feeling braver and led her up to the yard and tried to get her circling on the long rein. No waaay. She was constantly trying to see what the sheep were up to, in case they were creeping up on her I guess, and leaping out of her skin at the smallest noise; and when they unexpectedly turned up practically in our garden I just gave up. I decided to change the schooling lesson into sheep habituation practice. I led her towards the sheep and she blew and snorted and pranced, but she did get there and managed not to shoot off in the opposite direction. I led her up and down the lane with the sheep very close on one side till she felt a little less like an unexploded bomb. Then, lulled into a false sense of security, I tried a bit more circling, which is where the kittens came in. The kittens tiptoed up to Cassie with big, you-look-interesting-please-don't-hurt-me eyes, and she put her head down to sniff them, and they ran away. This was fine and Cass liked the kittens when they did this. The problem was the kittens getting bored with being chased by a horse, and going off to play by the corner of the barn in amongst a tarpaulin, a post and a pile of bricks. And that was very very scary indeed.

8 gennaio 2011

Alessio and I stopped off

Alessio and I stopped off at Maria's on the way back from walking Maxim yesterday afternoon to try the new olive oil from some trees they own down in the valley. Mario had been waxing lyrical about it and wanted to sell us a few litres. Maria decanted some into a serving bottle and cut up some white bread and laid out squares of kitchen towel for us to eat off. The oil was thick and viscous and greenish, opaque. We drizzled it on to the bread with a teaspoon and sprinkled a little salt on. We took tentative bites, expecting it to be strong and explosive and for it to strip the back of our throat. Instead it was fresh and mild, delicious. We drizzled and munched some more. Maria delved under the sink and brought out an old Coke bottle filled with their home-made wine, and I was in such a good mood from the nice oil that I willingly poured myself half a glass to wash it down with. She then brought out some bean-like things to snack on called lupini, which look a bit like yellow broad beans. Sprinkled with salt, they were tasty, and apparently are a traditional snack at fairs. I remember them from the south of Italy. A neighbour came round and produced from his pocket a small plastic bag containing five or six small black truffles, covered with mud, that he and his faithful truffle-hound had dug out. He presented them to Maria as he'd found them on their land. After he'd gone, she gave two to me. 

At home I cleaned off the truffles and we ate one for supper, shaved into melted butter with nutmeg and parmesan and tossed into linguine. Well, it was nice enough but I don't totally see what all the fuss is with truffles.