26 October 2015

We are away...but you can still read about what we're up to!

We are away from our beautiful Italian home for a while...but you can still join us on my other blog, which is dedicated to a 5 month minimalist lifestyle in Australia!

Go to www.minimalmeblog.wordpress.com

See you there!


15 October 2015

Artists in Italy!

On our recent tour to Roccaverano, Calosso and Santo Stefano Belbo (see previous post), we had the pleasure of the company of two highly respected Australian artists...


"Born in New Zealand, Macleod moved to Australia in 1981 and won the prestigious Archibald Prize* for portraiture in 1999. His celebrated paintings and drawings feature in the pre-eminent public collections throughout Australia and overseas". (http://www.artistprofile.com.au/yfte-euan-macleod/)

*The "Archibald Prize is awarded annually to the best portrait, 'preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics'". (http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/)

Above: "Self Portrait/head like a hole", winner of the Archibald Prize 1999, by Euan Macleod


"Born in Sydney in 1971, Lopes trained in the UK, USA and Australia and has had over 20 solo exhibitions across Australia and the UK since 1996. He is a frequent finalist in national awards and was selected for the Salon des Refuses** in 2012. He is represented in important national and state collections". (http://www.artistprofile.com.au/yfte-steve-lopes/)

**The Salon des Refusés is an Australian art exhibition which shows some of the rejected works from the Archibald Prize for portraiture and the Wynne Prize for landscape & figure sculpture". (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salon_des_Refusés_(Archibald))

Above: "Asher Keddile", selected for the Salon des Refuses 2012, by Steve Lopes


14 October 2015

On tour again!

A good friend and I recently organised a local tour for some visiting friends from Australia.

Since our area is known for its wine, hazelnuts and robiola cheese, we try to include at least two of these in any tour we organise.

The recent tour included a visit to a goats cheese farm and factory, then visits to two wineries, one large and one small.

We met at a pretty stone village of Monastero Bormida, where we had a coffee while we waited to be met by the goat cheese farmer.

Marco guided our 4 cars up the narrow winding roads to his farm at Roccaverano. He then walked us to his goat shed and we watched as a shepherd brought the goats in from the paddocks. There were approximately 100 goats of all colours and sizes and Marco explained that some were segregated because they had been selected to appear at the Roccaverano cheese festival the following week. After watching some boisterous interplay between the goats and admiring Marco's prize billy goat, we wandered back to the farm buildings where the cheese is made. On the way we saw several pigs and a few donkeys. The tiny formaggeria could only take a third of our group at a time so our tours through there took some time. Marco showed us several robbiola rounds: one fresh, one aged and one coated in paprika. At the conclusion of the tour, Marco invited us into his old stone barn for a tasting where we savoured all 3 types of cheese. It was truly delicious and we quickly understood why all of Marco's produce is sold directly from the farm.

"Robiola of Roccaverano has very antique origins; testimonials date back to the celtic times and Its name recalls both the latin 'robium' (as reference to the reddish colour of the outside part of the paste) and the town of Roccaverano in the Asti province where this cheese originated.

Robiola of Roccaverano is the only Italian DOP cheese which can be produced exclusively with goats milk. It can also be made with cows or sheeps milk but at least 50% of the milk must be goats milk to be defined as Robiola of Roccaverano.

Robiola of Roccaverano is a fresh past cheese, maturation depends upon the milk microflora alive and present in the milk, exclusively processed raw without any added fermentation."

(Translation from http://www.robioladiroccaverano.com)

We said a very grateful goodbye to Marco and headed to a small hilltop stone village called Denice where we had a nice slow lunch before driving to the wine growing region of Calosso.

At Calosso we visited La Canova, a fairly large family vineyard with a large selection of all types of wine including spumante, whites, reds, sweets, grappas. After touring and tasting, we drove to Santo Stefano Belbo where we dropped into Beppe Marino, a familiar small winery which produces quality wines.

The day was hectic but joyfilled and relaxing...







11 September 2015

Clearing paddock 5

Over the last 5 years, we have been slowly "discovering" our land amid the jungle here.

A few years ago we "freed" paddocks 1, 2 and 3 and this year we "found" paddocks 4 and 5!

This week we have spent quite a few hours in paddock 5, cutting cane and clearing a row of bent trees that hang over the house. Although it's only a small area, it's important that we keep it tidy to allow better air circulation around the house and have a clear firebreak.

Our objective is to remove the blackberry, retain the tall acacia trees and encourage smaller birch and oak seedlings. We want to get it to a condition which will allow us to add it to the regular mowing/whipper snippering program.

Today we found several wild roses and we can only assume that these flowers grew at the end of each row of grapevines when the paddock was a glorious vineyard. Unfortunately, blackberry and other creepers had smothered this year's canes so we had to cut them back but I am confident that these roses will throw more canes next year.

After all, it seems only logical that (if they are still surviving after 50 years of neglect), they will thrive again in the new broad sunlight that will bathe the paddock in Spring...

Above: Stu clearing


10 September 2015

The best harvest for many years?

We live in a most beautiful area. The hills are high and rolling. The roads are narrow and winding. The slopes of the hills are covered in grapevines, rows of parallel green patterning the earth.

We've watched the farmers all year...pruning, lifting, tidying, cutting and generally tending their vines. We've watched the skies anxiously for them, worried that too much rain, wind or hail might ruin the crops in one foul sweep.

Vendemmia is always a special time...but this year there has been an extra buzz about the place, a frizzon of excitement and anticipation. After two very dry months during the July/August heatwave and no damaging storms, this year's harvest is proving to be bountiful.

Wine makers are saying that initial sampling of the grapes and their juice promises the sweetest wine for many years...

With such joy hanging in the air, we love to see slow tractors on the roads pulling heavily laden carts...


29 August 2015

Hair trauma

Those of you who know me will know that I have a "hate" relationship with my hair.

Hair has always annoyed me, simply because it keeps growing. Having to go to the hairdresser is a gross inconvenience and a waste of my precious time.

With this attitude, I generally last about 6 weeks after a haircut before I take to myself with the scissors. I figure that I can never go too wrong; it will never take too long for it to grow back.

This has never been much of a problem in Australia. I butcher myself in the endless hope that I can avoid a trip to the hairdresser, end up at the hairdresser 2 weeks later, the hairdresser notices my foolishness and she/he and I have a good belly laugh over it.

Basically, Australia lets me butcher my hair if I want to; it's my hair and I'll do what I want with it, etc.

Well, it seems that this self-cut (self-harm?) behaviour is completely unacceptable in Italy.

Today I learned this lesson the hard (embarrassing!) way.

I cut the sides of my hair a week ago (the sides always seem to grow faster than the rest so they have the capacity to turn me into a desperate scissor-wielding lunatic earlier than the rest of my hair). At the time, I decided to delay a trip to the hairdresser even longer and be more drastic than normal.

Everything was going well and to plan until, immediately after my scissor job, I noticed that I'd given myself The Triple Stripe treatment on one side. This occurs when one cuts a little too severely and creates three distinct lines where there is no hair at all!

Clearly, immediate rectification was required so I attempted to create The Triple Stripe on the other side.

While this was a sudden and desperate decision, it was not a sensible decision as I now had two sides with bald stripes at different angles. I kept butchering away in a desperate and oblivious manner to make myself (if not actually look better) at least look "even".

Thankfully, many years of such behaviour has left me highly skilled at hiding these sorts of mishaps. For the next 2 weeks, I moussed, gelled and dragged the hair onto my face to hide my new very radical "soccer hero" hairstyle.

After 2 weeks, I decided that the sides had grown enough to fool the hairdresser.


The hairdresser immediately found my botch job.

If I had stripped naked and danced around the salon she couldn't have looked more appalled. I did my usual thing and had a little giggle at myself before realising that she wasn't giggling with me. This was not a laughing matter. She thought I was completely ridiculous! I suspect that, if I had a greater grasp of Italian, she might have told me never to return!

I was suitably subdued. Sorry, I said, I will never do it again.

After she fixed me up, I left the salon thinking that I will never do that again...at least not in Italy...at least not in the next month...after all, 40 years of behaviour is a hard habit to break...


22 August 2015

This 6 year old job is now finished...properly...

When we purchased the property 6 years ago, we had a swamp around the back of the house which was contributing to damp within the house. The improvement of this situation was a high priority and, since we were living and working in Switzerland at the time, we had to engage a contractor to do the work.

The scope of the job included digging out the swamp, gluing a thick membrane against the house, putting steel reinforcing down, pouring concrete, spreading sand and laying concrete pavers.

When we finally managed to get to Italy to view the work, we noticed that the contractor had stopped short of the required area by about 1 metre, which meant that the edge of the pavers stopped halfway across our pizza oven!

This has annoyed us for 6 years so a few months ago we decided to correct it.

We started by purchasing another 2 pallets of concrete pavers and transporting them up our little valley. We don't have the most efficient of logistic solutions here. Delivery trucks are too large and heavy to turn around at the house so we ask them to drop off at the beginning of the driveway. Then we attach our unregistered trailer to our car and drive down the driveway. We load the trailer by hand, then unload it by hand when we get back to the house. Grossly inefficient and exhausting but good for our fitness!

This lovely pile of concrete pavers has been waiting to be laid all summer...but a 2 month heatwave has procluded us from doing anything with them!

This week we have had the most glorious days; cool early mornings, sunny later, mid 20 temperatures, no humidity. Perfect for heavy activity.

When you're an amateur, digging and flattening out, spreading and smoothing sand, laying and tapping pavers and measuring levels on two dimensions takes forever! After an 8 hour day, we still hadn't finished and had to return to it the following day. By the end of that day, we had everything laid but had to go back for a third day to build a stone wall to support the path, cut pavers for the edges of the path and concrete the perimeter.

While we were at it, we laid a whole new path in front of the fienile and re-laid one of 2 stone walls that needed to be elevated.

Tonight we celebrate the end of a job that has taken 6 years.




20 August 2015

Retaining the tastes of summer...

This week our friends Mardee and Mal gave us a bag of figs from their organic trees. Neither Stu nor I had ever eaten a fresh fig but we are now converts!

But we already had a house full of fresh fruit, including 2 crates of organic peaches that we had purchased from a little roadside hut near us!

So I turned to my cook books for inspiration and found several interesting recipes which would allow us to retain the taste of these summer treats and enjoy them in winter.

Over the last few days I have made 4 jars of spiced fig chutney, 6 jars of spiced plum chutney, 10 jars of plum jam and 4 jars of pickled cucumbers!

Even after all this cooking we still have heaps of peaches left over for our bircher muesli during the week...


11 August 2015

Dangerous work

My oldest climbing rose is proving unstoppable.

The little plastic tag that was attached to it five years ago stated that it would reach a maximum of 6 feet.

But it apparently doesn't know this...it's at 15 feet and still climbing!

And while I don't have the heart to cut it short of what it believes it can achieve (who am I to destroy dreams!?), it is making pruning quite a challenge...


08 August 2015

The painting "expert" leaves a mark

Before Dad started work on the new pergola, he warmed up on garden bed borders.

Behind the house, we have maintained a stack of old timber, hoping one day to do something more useful with it than burn it as firewood!

Enter Dad.

While we were working inside one day, Dad sneaked out to play with the stack of timber. Before long he had pulled down several chosen logs. We had heard dull thumps as they fell to the ground and immediately went out to assist with carting the logs to the garden. Then the three of us spent an hour or two flattening the ground around the garden bed, selecting logs and placing them. We also put a border along the edge of our driveway turnaround area which will now encourage us to create a lawn beyond the logs.

After Dad returned to Australia, I took to a rather huge tin of stain and treated the timbers against wood-eating insects and harsh weather.

The pergola and borders really enhance the property and will last for years...



02 August 2015

Much more than a "helping hand" from an expert...

For the last two wonderful weeks, my father has been with us.

At 79 years of age, he's a ball of enthusiasm and energy.

During the first four or five years of his life, my grandfather worked on the construction of the coastal railway north of Christchurch in New Zealand. My grandmother had to make do with a very rustic life in temporary bush camps...but those times were always some of her happiest memories. Dad has a similar leaning towards nature and minimalism and I suspect that our simple non-consumerist life here in the valley reminded him of his earliest days.

He was relaxed, happy and very active. He walked everywhere. Fast. He absorbed everything. Sponge. He looked for opportunities to experience something new. Discovered.

But nothing prepared us for his utter commitment to a building project while he was here! Our heating room, which contains the caldaia equipment (used for heating and circulating warm water to our radiators in winter) had started to "move" a few months ago and we needed to shore it up quite urgently. For this purpose, we had gratefully accepted some old roof timber from a friend and we had been storing this lovely old cedar behind the house specifically for this project.

Enter Dad, who took an instant liking to the timber and couldnt wait to "play" with it!

During one hot afternoon, Dad designed a pergola arrangement which will hug the heating room, thus support it. Dad is a professional draftsman and carpenter/builder and he normally uses CAD so it was lovely to see him switch easily to the old-fashioned drafting tools of pencil and paper.

The next day, we dropped into a hardware shop to buy threaded rod, plates, nuts and washers for the building project and early the following morning, Dad, Stu and I were up and ready to work.

Dad was chief designer and tradesman, Stu was a tradesman and I was a labourer.

In a few short hours, I watched (and laboured, of course!) as Dad carried wood, climbed ladders and bent over to measure, saw and chisel like a young thing!

We now have a beautiful and strong framework, which is a lovely reminder of Dad's holiday as well as his capability, enthusiasm and energy...






13 July 2015

The tiles are on the floor!

We've finally finished laying the floor tiles in the downstairs bathroom!

Stu has also been building the laundry walls while I've been grouting the floor.

During this heatwave, we've had to adjust our schedule to enable us to continue working. We get up at 6am, drink our freshly squeezed lemon juice in warm water, then start work immediately. Usually we get carried away and eventually come to breakfast at about 9am. It works well because we then have a late lunch and a short siesta before settling in the cool lounge to watch the start of the Tour de France. We return to work in the afternoon but regularly check the TV for progress of the race until (with an hour or so to go) we finish work and again settle in the lounge to watch the last kilometres.

With the race over, we have showers then prepare dinner.

As the sun goes down and a long twilight settles over us, we head off to the fienile with our meal and a book to do some serious relaxation. There is no greater reward for our day's work than resting our eyes on the cool greens of the forest and listening to the songs of birds who are grateful for the end of a hot day...




08 July 2015

The tiles have been cut and we're now laying them!

The past week has been hot.

Temperatures have been between 33 and 35 degrees consistently and humidity has been 60-70%.

Our house's 60cm thick stone walls mean that it's cooler inside than outside by 8-10 degrees so it has been good to have an inside task to keep us busy during the heatwave.

In the first half of the week, Stu cut tiles and for the last few days we've worked together to lay them. It's exhausting, mixing a very heavy and gooey glue that seems to have weird sticking power, then getting up and down off the floor for hours. It's especially hard as we're trying to get the floor level with the rest of the house.

Stu has also covered the utility wall, behind which all of the piping is hidden.

Once we finish tiling the floor, I will start grouting while Stu commences the upright tiling on the wall.

Above: The bathroom half tiled

Above: The entry passage tiled and ready to be tidied around the walls and grouted

Above: The utility wall lined...a trial positioning confirms that the toilet and bidet will fit!


07 July 2015

Hovering around our lavender

The life we have here in Italy is precious.

We are often reminded of the vast differences between Italy and Australia, as nature is always revealing something new to we foreigners.

Our little valley is protected from the vines above us by a thick forest, which means that our environment is free from any chemicals that may occasionally be used in the vineyards.

This purity means that we host an amazingly diverse collection of birds and insects.

At dawn and dusk, we are woken by birdsong which reminds us to appreciate the new day. During breakfast, we sit and watch the birds as they hop around our grass, finding insects and items for nest building. At night, we turn off our lights and venture outside in the pitch black to see the lucciole (fireflies) that light our valley. During the day, we watch vast numbers of bees as they hover around our spring wildflowers and lavender.

This is how we live our days normally...but sometimes nature reveals something new and special to us...and today was one such day.

We were outside with some friends when we noticed a strange humming noise coming from our flowering lavender.

Closer inspection revealed a very unusual insect, one that we hadn't seen before. It was large and furry and had a very long proboscis. Its wings were flapping so fast that it was able to hover above each lavender stem much like a hummingbird.

We watched this beautiful creature hover and hum from flower to flower until our friends left and the heat sent us indoors, where an internet search revealed that our new little friend was a "bee moth" or a hummingbird hawk-moth.

Another new experience for we foreigners...

"The hummingbird hawk-moth has a long proboscis and its hovering behaviour, accompanied by an audible humming noise, make it look like a hummingbird while feeding on flowers.

It is distributed throughout the northern Old World from Portugal to Japan, but is resident only in warmer climates (southern Europe, North Africa, and points east).

The bee moth is a strong flier and can be found virtually anywhere in the hemisphere in the summer. However it rarely survives the winter in northern latitudes (e.g. north of the Alps in Europe).

It flies during the day, especially in bright sunshine, but also at dusk, dawn, and even in the rain, which is unusual for even diurnal hawkmoths. It has a relatively good ability to learn colours.

It is highly active even when temperatures are high, and thoracic temperatures above 45 °C have been measured. This is among the highest recorded for hawk-moths, and near the limit for insect muscle activity.

The hummingbird hawk-moth can be easily seen in gardens, parks, meadows, bushes, and woodland edge, where the preferred food plants grow (honeysuckle, red valerian and many others).

Adults are particularly fond of nectar-rich flowers with a long and narrow calyx, since they can then take advantage of their long proboscis and avoid competition from other insects. They are reported to trap-line, that is, to return to the same flower beds at about the same time each day."


Above: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hummingbird_hawk-moth


05 July 2015

It's thrown its toys out of the cot!

Australians use some colourful phrases and some of my favourites are those used to describe someone who is bad-tempered. We say that they have "spat the dummy" or "thrown their toys out of the cot".

Well, today I saw something here that reminded me of the second of these phrases.

Yesterday I posted about our resident pine marten and the fact that these animals have "den sites, which...include rock crevices, tree cavities, subterranean burrows, buildings, old bird nests, squirrel dreys and log piles".

Since we have all of the above, we expect our pine marten to breed happily here.

The weather over the last few days has been excruciating (35 degrees) so I ventured out early this morning to weed and water the gardens. I did the house garden first, then headed past the woodpile to the vege garden. At the woodpile, I noticed about 20 pieces of wood lying in a heap on the ground.

It looked as if the woodpile had "thrown its toys out of the cot" and I had a little smile at the thought before making a mental note to re-stack them once I'd finished weeding and watering.

A few minutes later, I heard a very strong movement coming from inside the woodpile. Whatever had made the sound was big and heavy and I suspect that it was our pine marten. It seems it may have been "throwing its toys out of the cot" in order to make a den in the woodpile...


04 July 2015

Our furry friend

One early morning this month, I heard a scrapping noise outside. I dived out of bed to look out of the window where I saw two animals leaping and jumping around my lavender plants outside the front fienile window. They were beautiful to watch. They leaped with the slow-motion grace of a circus trapeze act.

On closer inspection, I realised that one was trying to catch the other. I continued to watch as the larger animal finally caught the smaller animal before crouching down to wait for its prey to cease struggling. When the larger animal stretched up, I got a clear view of its long body, bushy tail, cat-like face and white neck.

It was in these few short seconds that I realised that the captured animal was a dormouse....but I had no idea what the other animal was! I had never before seen such an animal in my life!

It turns out that this beautiful, graceful specimen is a pine marten!

Our neighbour tells us that it is a wonderful thing to have a pine marten. Apparently these animals hunt and eat dormouse and rats so they keep vermin populations down.

Indeed, this spring we have had far less vermin in our roof and shed than usual...and we've been noticing some unusual excrement around the place that contains cherry seeds!

"The pine marten...is related to wildlife such as the stoat, otter and badger. Because de-forestation and hunting significantly reduced its population in the 19th century it has been classified as a protected species in Europe since 1992.

The adult pine marten is about the size of a domestic cat and has a long tail that can be half the length of its body. It has a rich fur coat, typically dark brown in colour and a distinguishing creamy-yellow throat patch.

Pine marten require forest or scrub habitat to exist in an area. They are adept at climbing trees as they have powerful non-retractable claws. The species is primarily active at night and individuals live in territories that can vary in size from 60 hectares to 430 hectares. Life expectancy can be up to 10 years, although the majority of individuals are unlikely to survive past 5 years in the wild.

Pine martens eat berries, fruits, small mammals, invertebrates, birds and amphibians.

Den sites, which are only occupied during the breeding season, include rock crevices, tree cavities, subterranean burrows, buildings (abandoned or occupied), old bird nests, squirrel dreys and log piles.

Pine marten are solitary and adults avoid contact with each other throughout most of the year.

The species only breeds once, with mating occurring in early summer between adults that are at least 2 years old. Fertilised eggs are not implanted in the uterus until the following January ("delayed implantation"). In March or April, 2-3 kits will be born and they will stay with their mother until they are between 6 and 16 months old.


Above: http://www.wildlifearticles.co.uk/pine-martens-return-to-cornwall/
Above: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_pine_marten#


30 June 2015

The white night of gongs, togas and wreaths...

Canelli is well situated, halfway between Asti (the historical centre of the province of Asti) and Acqui Terme (a beautiful Roman spa town).

Last weekend, we drove the 30 minutes to Acqui Terme for their Notte Bianca festival.

This annual event commemorates the influence of the Roman Empire on the town. The museums are open and there is a Gallic village. There is also a craft village where stall owners demonstrate and sell traditional crafts. Music can be heard on every corner, there is dancing as well as traditional food and wine from stalls and bars/cafes.

It was a perfect summer evening, one of those in which the clear sky became a deep indigo blue during twilight.

The festival commenced with a traditional Roman play during which a huge golden gong is played. The musician spins in slow circles as he plays the gong. This artistry adds drama to the music and creates a mesmorising and haunting sensory experience. The pure meditational sounds emanating from the polished metal disk echo eerily off the stone walls in the narrow streets of the old town.

I closed my eyes and was easily transported back a couple of thousand years.

After the play, we wandered through the streets of the old town, where we found hundreds of locals decked out in white togas. This is a tradition that particularly lends atmosphere to the festival. The locals take their costuming very seriously. Men wear centurion helmets or laurel wreaths. Women wear their hair curled into ringlets and decorated with gold, beads or veils. Everyone wears Roman sandals.

We purchased laurel wreaths for our foreign heads and found an outdoor table at a bar/cafe where we sat (crowned in our leaves) to enjoy a plate of farinata, a huge pork shank, roast potatoes and several glasses of wine.

When we left at midnight, feeling and looking as wilted as our laurel wreaths, the party was only just starting...