24 December 2014

Sometimes good ideas aren't that good

When we purchased the house, we found two new bathroom sinks and taps that had been purchased but never installed by the previous owner.

The sinks were hand made: very small and oval in shape, cream in colour with flowers painted on them. The taps were expensive and elegant: chrome with ceramic handles.

We loved these things...until we came to actually use them.

The sinks were curved at the waste so virtually impossible to install without leaks. They were also too small to do anything in so that whenever Stu had a shave the entire cabinet top would get wet! The plug had an old-fashioned insert which gathered all of the detritus that goes down a bathroom sink (yuck!)

The taps were curved everywhere which created perfect nooks and crannies for calcium buildup from our well water.

We tried hard but we are practical people and living with these high maintenance items finally got the better of us.

We pulled everything out and installed the exact opposite: large white sinks with easy to fit wastes that will keep clean and plain stainless steel mixer taps that will be easy to keep free calcium buildup.

Stu finished the installation this week and we are incredibly happy with our new bathroom.

The old sinks and taps are for sale.


23 December 2014

What would we do without our rubble?

When we did the major internal renovation work late last year, we kept all of our rubble, assuming that it might come in handy at some point.

For a year it's been sitting behind the house, "gathering dust" (?) as they say.

But no more...we have an urgent need for it now...

After the installation of the new septic system late this year the area around the house became dirt, soft newly disturbed dirt.

We dumped a load of gravel on the area in the hope that this would get us through the usual wet autumn and winter. But instead of staying ON the mud, the gravel has made its way INTO the mud.

Enter rubble.

We have placed rubble on the worst of the areas and will dump more this week until the area is again mud free and stable.


22 December 2014

I love Christmas markets!

I've been ranting for some time about the amount of rain we've had this year. The higher level of moisture is now creating a cold humidity that is hanging around us in the form of thick deep wet fog.

When this happens, Europeans tell you to go up. Up above the fog.

So this week seemed a perfect time to visit the Christmas market at Govone, a small hilltop town that is only half an hour away by car.

"Due to its proximity to trade routes Govone has always had a strategic importance for the rulers of southern Piedmont. In the 10th century AD it was a fiefdom of the Solaro family of Asti until 1792, when it became a Savoy possession after the male Solaro line became extinct.

The Royal Castle of Carlo Felice Savoy, a medieval fortress that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was renovated during the 18th century into a stately mansion. It was one of the hunting residences of the royal family and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site."


We had invited two friends to go with us and we needed all four pairs of eyes to make it safely through the fog to a large carpark at the base of the Govone hill. It is from this carpark that chartered coaches carry people up and down the hill while the popular Christmas event is on.

In our excitement we parked quickly and dived onto the first of several coaches waiting at the carpark. After the coach started moving we realised that there had been no signs confirming that the carpark was in fact the Govone Christmas market carpark. A few tense seconds followed during which we wondered if we were going to Govone at all!

Our concerns were allayed when we recognised an appropriate level of seasonal joy in our fellow passengers and felt the coach winding its way slowly uphill.

The road was typical of the region: narrow with steep sides. As we climbed higher and higher I hoped that we might break through the fog.

We didn't...but what I saw when we arrived made me forget the fog.

The Christmas market is set along a wide tree-lined walkway which starts at some lovely old gates, moves through a park and ends at the castle. The walkway is lined with little wooden alpine-style huts which are full of crafts by local artisans and produce from local farms.

Our first stop was lunch which was provided by the Govone Pro Loco in a huge covered area close to the market. The 4 course meal consisted of Insalata Russa, Pasta al Pomodoro, Polenta e Salciccia and Crostata di Marmellata. A glass of red wine gave us the warmth we needed to leave the temporary restaurant and embrace the market fully.

We were not disappointed and spent hours walking around, appreciating and tasting. The market had intimacy and warmth despite the weather and was very well organised...so well organised in fact that the fog lifted slightly when we reached the castle!

But only for a few minutes...





18 December 2014

The things we do to manage our mud

Today we managed to compound our mud problem by accepting a delivery of tiles and pavers that we had ordered some time ago.

There was simply no way that we could risk having the heavy delivery truck anywhere near the turnaround at the house so we had organised to meet the truck at the beginning of our road. The plan was to have the materials offloaded there and we would ferry the building materials up to the house ourselves using our car and trailer.

Early this morning a phone call from the building supplies company advised that the truck would arrive within 10 minutes. We dashed around getting dressed, brushing teeth and grabbing car keys and were out of the house and driving down our track in no time at all only to find the truck already waiting for us at the start of our road. We discussed the exact location and process of unloading with the driver then stood and watched as he operated the truck's hydraulic crane to set down the 4 pallets of materials.

We had believed our plan was a good one but after watching the truck amble away and leave us with 3 tonne of materials to move by hand, a worried silence fell over us.

But this was not a time for wallowing. We had an expensive delivery that needed to be secured back at the house so we cut the plastic shrinkwrap off the first pallet and started to load our little trailer.

We worked continuously for 6 hours.

We moved 10 trailer loads, each weighing 300kg.

We handled 3 tonne of product twice...loading it and unloading it...a total of 6 tonne of "weight lifting"...

I wonder how my arms will feel tomorrow?





Dirt + rain = mud

With an incredible amount of almost continuous rain this year the area around the house is quickly turning to mud.

We have loamy soil which is great for growing grapes but makes mud that is thick, dense and oozey.

The entire area was dug up only a few months ago for the installation of our new septic system. Autumn is a little late to be doing such a messy job but we had hoped that the huge load of gravel that was spread over the area afterwards would be enough to cover the dirt and get us through winter.

Unfortunately, it wasn't.

Every time we take the car out the tyres massage, push and squelch every little piece of our precious gravel yet deeper into the mire.

This week we've gone into damage control and laid wheelbarrow loads of our renovation rubble over the muddier parts. Stu loaded and emptied the wheelbarrow while I crushed the larger pieces of rubble with the sledge hammer.

My arms were warm and fuzzy afterwards...but progressively deteriorated to hot and sore within hours...


14 December 2014

O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?

I discovered the wonder of German-style Christmas markets when I lived in Switzerland.

I now fear a Christmas without them.

It's not about the shopping. It's about the atmosphere...the twinkling lights, the wooden huts, the clever crafts, the warm food, the hot spiced red wine. It's about wearing a hat and scarf, a down coat and boots. It's about promenading in the streets of beautiful historic old towns.

The best Christmas markets in Italy tend to be in the north of the country, where regions share borders with Austria or Switzerland.

After reading "The Top Ten Christmas Markets in Italy" (http://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/top-ten-christmas-markets-italy), we decided to visit Verona, which promised "a German-style market (that is) elegantly illuminated and decorated (with) traditional wooden huts". At this market, visitors can buy "regional foods, handicrafts and Christmas tree decorations (and) taste specialties such as mulled wine, bratwurst, stollen fruit cake and lebkuchen biscuits that are similar to gingerbread".

It was our first visit to this beautiful city. The historic centre provided a dramatic backdrop to the Christmas market, with the elegant and narrow streets of the old town merging into the beautiful Piazza delle Erbe and eventually the impressive Piazza Bra.

On one side of the Piazza Bra stands a well-preserved stone arena from the Roman Empire. This ancient piece of architecture provides a shapely theatre for the Christmas lights as well as a quiet space for the exhibition of cribs which have been crafted by communities all over Italy.

We had left home at 10am and eventually returned at midnight, after a precious Christmas experience which was worth every bit of the 6 hour drive!

Above: Piazza delle Erbe in Verona (photo courtesy of salvophoto.com)





09 December 2014

The fleeting return of the object

Yesterday that glowing object in the sky returned long enough for us to believe that it was actually the sun.

It sent temperature skyrocketing to 10 degrees and I spent a cool hour pruning roses and fruit trees. I also dug wood ash into the soil around the roses and mulched around the fruit trees.

Above: An Autumnal thing of beauty backlit by the white glow of a cold sun

Hocus pocus

Since I had my gallbladder removed earlier this year and was also diagnosed with liver issues, I've been utterly committed to better care of my digestive system.

I've learned that the liver "is the largest internal organ in the human body and weighs up to 2kg. It performs several critical functions including fighting infection, neutralising toxins, controlling blood sugar, and manufacturing proteins and hormones. About 1.4 litres of blood pump through the liver per minute" (http://www.liver.ca/liver-health/liver-facts.aspx)

So I now drink a lemon water first thing in the morning and my meals consist of a lot more raw food, nuts and yoghurt.

I'd also like to make fermented vegetables are regular part of my diet because of their probiotic value.

So this week I took the plunge and bought a cabbage.

I cut the cabbage, massaged it with salt and let it rest for a few hours. Then I added some yoghurt whey, squashed the mix into a jar and pushed it down with a granite pestle until the liquid covered the vegetable.

It's been fermenting for 4 days now. I open the jar every morning to let any accumulating gas out, then push the cabbage down again. Yesterday the contents were bubbling away happily which caused me to panic-type into google: "I have bubbles in my sauerkraut"! Apparently these little air pockets are an indication of an alive and healthy fermentation.

When I opened the jar this morning, Stu said something about the smell being "a bit rich but not revolting".

Tomorrow I'll "test" it on his tastebuds...


07 December 2014

There's a distinct possibility

A slight glow was apparent in the air today.

It seemed to be caused by a large fuzzy white ball-shaped object in the sky.

After 5 weeks of overcast weather, can someone please confirm that this may have been the sun?


04 December 2014

Buds that will never bloom

I'm not sure how I feel about a rose bush that buds in mid-late Autumn.

About 4 weeks ago, my bright red rose sent out a single bud and my vivid orange rose five buds.

They were perfectly formed and promised colour but failed to bloom in the ever-cooling temperatures. They are still standing strong and hopeful on their stems.

There is something both sad and joyful about these buds. It is true that they will die having never achieved their potential...but it is also true that, as skies darken and temperatures plummet, they serve as brave reminders of what will come after winter...



03 December 2014

Too much rain = muddy landslides

We have had an incredible amount of rain in Italy this year but this Autumn has been something else!

As I write it has been raining fairly continuously for almost 5 weeks. On the rare ocassion when it is not raining, it is foggy. Whether it is rainy or foggy, it is always damp.

We've had the de-humidifier on in the house to keep mould away and fires are required to dry tea towels and washing.

Landslides ("le franne") have been very common in Piemonte and Liguria and we frequently come across subsided areas when we're driving around our area.

When we ventured out yesterday we found that a cliff beside our driveway had succumbed. Luckily the slide didn't obstruct the road but it did leave several muddy streaks that look like liquid but are actually thick and goody like cooling lava flows.

Above: The landslide beside our driveway


02 December 2014

It was a white one!

It turns out that our little tartufo was a WHITE one...my gourmet readers will understand what this means...





01 December 2014

Thanks for Thanksgiving!

Yesterday we were treated to a Thanksgiving feast!

Our wonderful American friends had spent days planning and creating a luncheon for a group of their Italian and expat friends.

Turkey-shaped dishes and pumpkin ornaments decorated the table along with colourful Autumn maple leaves.

The 4 course menu included Italian specialties (focaccia, ravioli and pannetone) as well as seasonal flavours (pumpkin and tartufo).

While I'm sure our hosts wanted a successful event, I'm not sure they expected their guests to be there until 7pm!



30 November 2014

It was good...very good...

I posted a few days ago about a truffle that had been given to us by a hunter who frequents our valley with his truffle dog...

Well, today we partook in this little treasure.

I washed it, dried it, shaved it and we ate it on fried eggs for lunch (the traditional contadini way).

It was good...very good...



28 November 2014

Autumn's bounty

Yesterday our kind neighbour, Renzo, invited me to walk our paddocks with him in search of mushrooms and weeds (!?). I have always wanted to learn about the mushrooms that thrive in our valley, hoping that one day I might be confident enough to identify the safe ones then actually pick, cook and eat them. I have also often watched elderly locals bending over in our wet grass to pick green leaves and wanted to know what I was missing out on.

So I dropped what I was doing, dashed into the house to change my slippers for outside shoes and grabbed a bag and knife as instructed by my neighbour. Within seconds I was chasing Renzo down the hill where he was already stooping to look at the ground with great interest.

He explained that the safest mushrooms for me to identify myself are the ones that grow in clusters around the base of dead tree trunks, especially cherry and hazelnut trees. These mushrooms have a little collar on the stem which would help me to identify them from poisonous ones.

Unfortunately we only found one edible mushroom amongst the hundreds of poison ones that were poking up through the grass to tempt us.

Next, Renzo started picking green leaves and telling me to eat them as salad. He explain that "tarrasacco" is very good for the "bladder". I wondered how frequently this salad might send me to the toilet in a rush.

However, since I am constantly on the lookout for healthy and organic eating options, I picked an entire bagful of these leaves and determined to eat them for dinner.

I thanked Renzo for sharing his knowledge and traditions, then took my bounty inside to wash and dress it with olive oil and apple cider vinegar as suggested by my neighbour.

It turns out that the leaves were Dandelion, a common weed that is apparently very good for the gallbladder and liver!

Since they were delicious and also healthy I've already braved the rain today to pick some more for tonight's dinner...

"Dandelion Leaf (Taraxacum officinale) offers a number of benefits for the liver and gallbladder.

It promotes optimal digestive function, supports normal bile production (cholagogue), nourishes and boosts overall liver (hepatic) performance and protects the liver from damage.

It is a natural source of minerals such as calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and iron and provides vitamins A, B, C, and D.

It acts as a blood purifying agent, is a mild laxative for constipation symptoms and stimulates urinary function to help flush out toxins.

It contains the antioxidant luteolin.

It stimulates a sluggish digestive system which aids the body in removing toxins and other waste and means that the liver does not have to work as hard to remove toxins that remain in the body.

It helps maintain normal blood sugar levels which also aids the liver so it doesn’t have to filter out excess glucose in the blood.

It contains a special sugar (inulin) which promotes the growth of healthy intestinal bacteria which reduces the amount of harmful bacteria in the body so the liver can focus on the process of toxin removal."


Above: Autumn's bounty


26 November 2014

A gift from nature and a kind hunter

The day had smothered us in thick fog from dawn to dusk.

We had been out all afternoon and were opening our barrier to enter our property when we spotted a man and his dog walking across our misty apple orchard.

We have seen this man many times before. He wears the garb of a tartufo hunter: trousers, jacket, hat and gumboots. Clothes to protect against the damp. His dog also has the appearance of a truffle hunter. It has a loping stride, a nose that is constantly in touch with the ground and an excited and expectant air about it.

We had just closed the barrier when we heard the man call to us.

As he approached our car, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a black truffle that he'd just found in our valley. We took the little hard black lump from him, held it, smelled it, congratulated him and returned it.

My nose was still tingling from the aroma of the truffle, a complex mix of garlic, mushroom, compost and earth, when the man gave it back to us with instructions to wait 2 days before eating it!

He smiled and moved off amid our shocked thankyous and goodbyes.

We were left standing in the fog and mist holding a precious 20 gram piece of nature that will give us an exquisite sensory experience when we shave it over fried egg on the weekend...

"Truffles (tartufi) are related to mushrooms. They have a system of root-like structures but unlike mushrooms never emerge from the surface. Instead truffles are formed below the soil close to a tree's root systems and are the "fruit" of another fungus/tree relationship. The fungus that makes truffles can only survive in certain soil conditions such as those created in stands of oak, beech, poplar, birch, hazel, and pine.

Once attached to a root, the fungus will produce one truffle per year, with each type of tree lending a distinctive aroma and flavor to the truffle.

Truffles are usually too expensive for most consumers, except in parts of Northern Italy where they are a key ingredient in local dishes. They are harvested using dogs or pigs in a time-honored tradition. In Piedmonte and Umbria, harvest season is a time of celebration for both truffle harvesters (trifolau) and the towns that host truffle festivals.

The black truffle (tartufo nero) is found in Piedmonte, but also as far south as Umbria. Tartufo nero can withstand the stress of cooking and is often found incorporated into sauces, or spread for bruschetta or crostini. Black truffle omelets are a favorite of Assisi and they can also be sliced raw and served with carpaccio or bresaola."


Above: Our little piece of flavour


24 November 2014

My rose fetish continues

I've waited a long time for Autumn and now it's finally here I can play with roses! And boy did I play! I spent several enjoyable hours this week pruning, trellising and planting roses.

Roses tell you when they're not happy. They rarely die; they simply don't thrive.

One of my bush roses has been moved twice since its original planting and is very happy in its current location, throwing out long healthy canes and blooming profusely.

One of my climbing roses failed to thrive in what I had hoped was a prime position on a garden arch so I have now moved it to a nice warm stone wall.

Another climbing rose thrived beyond belief a couple of years ago but withdrew into itself this year, curling its leaves up and refusing to bloom. Its location simply couldn't be the problem since it had been happy in the past. However a wisteria vine that had been growing across the balcony rail above it had thickened over the last season and stolen sunlight from the rose. A critical inspection revealed that the rose had thrown out two lengthy canes that had penetrated through the wisteria in an attempt to reach sunlight.

I felt incredibly guilty. I had been fostering my wisteria at the cost of my rose.

I decided to cut back the wisteria and trellis the rose along the balcony instead!

Plants tell you how they feel; they talk to you. A good gardener knows to listen...

Above: My four happy roses

Above: The two happy bush roses and one soon-to-be happy climbing rose

Above: The climbing rose now out from under the wisteria, trellised off the wall and up to the balcony

Above: The first bush rose on the fienile