28 novembre 2012

At a fair recently

At a fair recently I was given some saffron crocuses. Mauve flowers, growing in a pot. They're lovely, but even better, each crocus contains three strands of saffron. You pick the crocus in the morning and pinch out the red saffron strands (which are not the same as the pollen-covered pistils) in a haze of gorgeous scent, and then let them dry for two or three days. I harvested about 12 strands and while they were drying, the kitchen was full of wafts of the smell — sweet and pungent at the same time. Now my saffron is in a tiny jar and the pot of crocus bulbs is set outside to overwinter. Next summer I'll unearth and re-pot the bulbs — they may even have multiplied, like other bulbs do — and in the autumn I should have new flowers and new saffron.

At three strands per person in a dish, right now I have about enough to make a saffron risotto (risotto alla milanese). Watch this space.

30 settembre 2012

At the end of the big heat

At the end of the big heat we harvested a basket full of wild fennel flowerheads, and these have been drying in my room ever since, giving off a scent of sweet curry. What you do then is rub them between your fingers and thumb to detach the tiny flowers with their load of fragrant pollen from the stalks, and it's the resulting powder that we're after — a flavoursome spice that weight for weight is (allegedly) more expensive than gold. It smells of curry but tastes a bit like aniseed, a bit like fennel itself. Delicious sprinkled into an omelette or onto roasted tomatoes or a fried egg.

In other veg-patch news: We have now harvested all the winter squash (butternut, buttercup and a huge crop of self-seeded jack-be-littles) and the remains of most of the summer veg. A few tomatoes are hanging on so if we get any sunshine they may ripen, otherwise I guess we'll make green tomato jam again. That seems to be highly trendy at the moment as we saw it at several market stalls over the summer, though I didn't like it very much. Weird flavour. I spent this morning picking the last of the green beans and then pulling up the rows and rows of green and borlotti beans in ever more frantic haste as the Rotovator Man got closer and closer. The veg patch is now nicely dug over so it's time to plant up for winter. In fact a bit late, as usual.

I noticed out on my ride afterwards a lot of mushrooms in the woods which I'm pretty sure are edible, but didn't pick any because, well, I was on a horse... Plus, "pretty sure" isn't quite "dead cert". A few years ago I went on a mushroom course, which is technically a requirement now if you want to gather wild mushrooms — you have to attend a course in mushroom recognition and then apply for a patentino (licence). It's not a bad idea in that its aim is to avoid fatalities; but naturally I remember virtually nothing of what I learnt,  mainly  that most of the real nasties look practically identical to innocuous or edible ones, which is enough to put you off mushroom hunting for ever.

8 settembre 2012

I solved the mystery

I solved the mystery of where the rogue hen was holing up overnight by wriggling on my stomach underneath Mario's trailer in the haybarn and squinting between the big round bales. We'd found several eggs in the vicinity so I figured she must be in there somewhere. Sure enough, I could just make out a chicken-shape at the end of a narrow dark tunnel between two bales, too far away for me to reach. But not exactly fox-proof. Plus — all those eggs? Waste of time being broody, chicken, with no cockerel around.

Well I just left her there, but later John chased her out with a broom handle, and later still Alessio managed to retrieve the eggs by pulling them out one by one using an ingenious tool he made by banging two nails into the end of a long stick. Completely ridiculous idea, we scoffed, but he got them all out and only broke two. And the chicken  had been sitting on a stash of 18 eggs!

Most of them were off, but we had an omelette for supper. The chicken seems untraumatized and doesn't show any signs of trying to re-make her nest. At least not in the bales. We're still getting only one or two eggs a day from three hens, so who knows whether one of them is making a hoard somewhere else?

23 agosto 2012

The tremendous heat

The tremendous heat continues. Temperatures are in the mid- to high 30s, with not much respite at night. The cats lie around in shady corners barely breathing and Maxim has dug himself a cool pit in the bank. In the hottest hours after lunch the whole countryside has a stunned air. It's almost impossible to work in such heat but here I am, chained to my computer and attempting to edit a book on design. Not getting very far.

The drought has reached emergency levels and the Comune are cutting off the town's water supply from 5pm to 9am every day. Our own mains water cuts off during the morning, when the main tank that serves our area has run out, and starts again sometime in the middle of the night, when the main tank has filled up again. This is enough time to fill up our holding tank — 1,000 litres of water, enough for a day if we (and the rental guests) aren't bothered, two days if we're careful. Today the water never came back and we were down to our last couple of hundred litres, so I phoned the Comune, who said the main tank must be empty. They fiddled around diverting some pipes or something and later told me that our water was back on. It wasn't, and we were starting to get alarmed about how much longer we could feasibly go without flushing the loo or washing. So they sent a very charming man from the Protezione Civile with a just-big-enough tank in the back of a pickup!

Luckily for the veg patch we have access to the spring water that collects in Mario's troughs, though there's less of it this year and Mario uses most of it on his own veg patch via a Heath Robinson system of pumps, cables and hoses plus extensive use of duct tape. Whereas I lug watering cans about and manage to be the only person to have muddy feet in a drought.

15 agosto 2012


Now that we've had the barn fixed up, Cassie has her feed in there and from my studio with the window open I can hear her munching her hay. A comforting sound, if surprisingly loud. The other side of the barn is now the games room, with ping pong table and darts board, not nearly so interesting to me as the dirt floor and profumo di cavallo of the horse's side, but that's probably just me.

We're in the middle of the hottest summer for about a thousand years, hot on the heels of the coldest winter. I haven't blogged for months and months for a variety of reasons but mainly because I've been busy and because the longer I left it the harder it was to recommence, but here I am now. I'll keep it short and sweet. More tomorrow!