Here are some images of the magnificence and colour of the 150 year old Westonbirt Arboretum in The Cotswolds UK...which more than satisfied my love of history and maples...
Stu will attest to the fact that I frequently get distracted. After raking the grass from The Big Mow yesterday, I gathered four wheelbarrow loads and filled the compost bins in no time at all. Realising that the remainder of the cut grass would have to be left to dry in the sun on the paddocks, I wandered over to our plum grove. We have a collection of young self-sown plum trees in the middle paddock. Before we left four years ago, I thinned them out in the hope that they would amount to something by the time we returned. They are now even more important because two of our neighbour's plum trees have fallen over and there is only one remaining which leans precariously over the driveway on a 45 degree angle! So you can imagine how happy I was to see them blossoming over recent weeks, then to see tiny fruit starting to form on them yesterday! In fact, I was SO happy that I burst into conversation with them. Suddenly I felt a shadow nearby and turned to find a local Italian man watching me. This man regularly walks up the valley so we know him well and I decided honesty was the best way. "I was talking to my trees", I blurted. Luckily this man is a spiritual sort of person. "Of course! It is important to talk to trees!", he replied. Allied in our shared love of nature, I took the opportunity to ask him if he knew anything about pruning plum trees. He explained that the tree should be kept short and developed into an open wineglass shape. Then he showed me where to cut on one of the trees. Even though it is too late for pruning (it means I will lose a lot of this year's fruit), I decided to do it anyway in the interest of future productivity. We now have half a plum grove pruned and I will get to the other half in the next few days.
Our property is a strange shape, typical of Italian properties that have been carved up over time due to complex inheritance laws. We have the area immediately around the house as well as four small paddocks. Three of these are on a lower level in front of the house and we call these the "front", "middle" and "back" paddocks. The fourth is on a higher level behind the house and we call this one the "upper" paddock. We have yet to uncover the fourth from its mess of 50 years but we do manage the three lower paddocks in terms of mowing. The heat and humidity of Spring here creates phenomenal growth. I swear if I look hard enough I can actually SEE things growing! We mowed 2 paddocks this week. Unfortunately I only managed to rake and dump 4 wheelbarrow loads into our compost bins before they were full. So we will have to leave the remaining grass to dry on the paddocks. Over the next month, we will start to mow the paddocks on a rotational basis which will optimise our mulching (one paddock a week). On the evening of The Big Mow, we went to a friends house for dinner, where conversation eventually made its way to our recent activities. I proudly described the "arms full" of cut grass that I had loaded into the wheelbarrow, to which they responded "Have you found any ticks on you yet?" I started scratching. My contribution to conversation for the remainder of the evening was negligent as all of my senses were directed to crawling and skin piercing sensations. Thus the evening was ruined and we had a fitful nights sleep...but woke (happily) in a tickless state.
Yesterday we spent a very enjoyable 6 hours at a small town just over the hill from us. "Sagra del Polentone" is an annual festival that has been held in Bubbio for the last 95 years. It re-enacts an event which occurred in the middle ages when the local populace sought the assistance of the local lord during a famine and were given maize. They cooked the maize in the village square and shared it amongst themselves. The re-enactment revolves around a giant copper pot which is heated on a fire of old grapevines. Polenta is slowly added to boiling water and the mixture is stirred constantly for 2 hours by 4 men holding wooden sticks. While the polenta is cooked, members of the local promotion society dress up in medieval costume and re-enact the events of the day. When the polenta is ready, the pot is lifted by winch and the contents poured onto a wooden frame where it is lifted and cheered, then blessed by a local priest before being handed out to the crowd with sausages in tomato sauce and egg fritters.
The historical procession through town
The polenta being stirred constantly with wooden sticks during cooking
The copper pot being returned after unloading the cooked polenta onto a wooden frame for serving
The meal of polenta, sausages in tomato sauce and fritters that was enjoyed by the crowd
After planting a sack of seed potatoes, we waited in anticipation for green leaves to appear above the soil. Since the planting, our friends have been telling us horror stories of cinghiale digging up entire paddocks of seed potatoes. After considering several ways of protecting our patch, including allocating nightshifts to watch over it, we decided to leave it to nature...and have now been rewarded with strong green leaves poking through the surface of our soil!
We invested in 30 tomato plants this week. This is no mean feat in Italy. On a visit to our local nursery, we were shocked to discover how many varieties of tomatoes existed. And I guess they are just the ones they stock! After spending far too long reading labels to make sure that we didn't buy anything genetically modified, we finally settled on a "Datterino" (which looked like an Australian "Roma", a hardy elongated tomato) and had a "no OGM" label on them. We took our thirty plants home but couldn't plant them immediately because we had yet to install their trellis and drip watering system. That night, I dreamed that we had purchased OGM tomatoes! Horror of horrors! I lay awake tossing and turning, wracked with guilt that we had supported the corruption of our food supply. As soon as my eyes opened the following morning, I rushed like a possessed person to check the label. Phew. Later on that day, Stu set up the trellis and watering system and planted them while I weeded around the area. Since each plant will yield 10kg, Stu will soon present me with 300 kg of tomatoes! Guaranteed to place me in a situation far worse than a mere crate of oranges...
A few days ago I posted about our water tank. I mentioned that it is underground and deep and a wonderful source of water but I didn't mention how we actually get it out! Well, Stu recently bought a second hand submersible pump from a friend and he used this to remove the putrid water. However, it had no pressure and took all day to empty the tank. So this week we went to our plumber for advice. We explained that we had this pump, which had a label that promised to be capable of pumping out of a tank like ours at a rate of 7,000 litres an hour...but didn't. She said one word: "plastica". So I took pen to paper and scribbled a picture of our tank for her, adding a few vital dimensions. She showed us two options, which were German manufactured and of stainless steel construction. We took a leap of faith and purchased one of them. The installation of the new pump became a priority for Stu that day. When he called me over to the tank, I guessed what he wanted to show me...but I hadn't anticipated the joy I would see on his face as he stood there with water gushing out of our hose!
After a day of rain this week, everything looked somehow even better. The water droplets on the irises and tulips stayed until the sun's warmth came into the valley to evaporate them. The lilac flowers are emerging with their beautiful graduations of white, pinks and, well, lilac.
I was flailing against my weeds yesterday when I heard a bell. Bells are generally disturbing because they mean hunters are in the valley. I straightened my back, which is no small feat when I've been bent over for an hour, and looked down the rise towards the sound. Nothing. So once again I bent my spine to tackle the weeds. Half an hour later the bell tingled again. I straightened my back once more and focused on the direction of the sound. Nothing. I began to worry about my hearing...or perhaps my sanity. The next time I heard the bell, I asked Stu if he could hear it too. He couldn't. But this time I could SMELL animal. I called Stu. We peered amongst the trees to find a small nanny goat walking through our middle paddock in a very purposeful manner! Oh joy of joys! Here was the "stray" animal that I'd been praying would walk onto our property and into our lives! I ran towards it with arms outstretched, jabbering away at it in English. It came to a sudden halt, stared at us for a split second, then turned on its heel and fled in shock. We could hear its panicked bell tingling for many minutes after as it made its escape from two desperate foreigners.
After spending most (me) or at least many (Stu) years in a country frequently beset by drought, it is fair to say that we are obsessed with water. Our water supply comes from our own well, which is about 100 metres from the house. The water in the well can be reached at a depth of about 7 metres. We installed a heavy duty submersible pump four years ago which has served us well. However, we constantly conserve water anyway. We wash our dishes in a small dish in the kitchen sink. We keep non-soapy water from this dish and water the garden with it. We keep a bucket in the shower to catch the cold water coming through the pipes until it gets warm. We use this water to flush the toilet and water the garden. However, these efforts are insufficient when the hot weather comes. Enter the underground water tank. This tank is situated just outside our side door and has a capacity of 7,000 litres. It is filled by stormwater from one side of our house roof. In the mid term, we plan to direct the other side of the roof and the fienile roof into it. In the short term, we are working towards making it useable. The tank has not been utilised for many years. It had a lid that didn't seal which made it a potential breeding ground for insects. It also had a layer of dirt and gravel at the bottom and various scum including dead bodies (ghiri?) floating on the top. Stu has recently sealed the lid and drained its putrid contents. We have purchased a rain gauge and are monitoring the water level and smell in the tank as it refills. So far, it seems that Stu's "cleansing by dilution" theory is working!
We have one big regret. That we didn't plant more trees when we lived here four years ago. We have wasted valuable growing time. Applying the "it's never too late" philosophy, we are now utterly focused on planting several colourful trees around the house. Planting now will mean that they have three seasons during which to get comfortable before winter arrives. We have an ornamental plum tree just outside the kitchen which we DID have the foresight to plant when we last lived here. It is now an established tree that has red foliage which provides welcome relief from the greens of our valley. It also blossoms beautifully pink in spring and will provide shade in summer as it grows. This week we planted two new trees with red foliage on a terrace near the house. They are Japanese maples, named "Fire Glow" because of their red foliage. Next week we will plant a larger Japanese maple ("Seiryu") near the main gate which will colour our world in Autumn with brilliant reds and oranges.
The ornamental plum tree that we planted four years ago
The Japanese maples that we planted this week
My marmalade challenge has been surmounted! At yesterday's egg painting event, I sought the opinion of friends regarding my non-setting marmalade. Several of my friends suggested adding pectin while others suggested adding lemon juice or apple and still more suggested boiling it longer. When I got home, there was some email advice from Dad: "Boil it longer". Determined (and desperate!) to consider all ideas, I went to a grocery shop to check the ingredients list of the pectin additive. While it seems that this option is fairly natural, I don't think this powdered stuff would have been used by my ancestors. So I left it on the shelf and purchased a bag of lemons instead. This morning I woke bright and early, squeezed the lemons, decanted four of the jars of unset marmalade from two days ago into my jam-making pot again, added the lemon juice and boiled it longer. The first batch certainly set...into something akin to toffee ("toffee orange marmalade"?). The second batch burnt ("burnt orange marmalade"?). The third batch actually set! Not wanting to lose the momentum, I continued to make more marmalade using the new orange mix that I had soaked overnight. This made up batches four, five and six. Although each batch was a slightly different colour, they all set! Thanks family and friends for giving me hope...
Runny stuff (on left) with burnt stuff (on right)
Perfect stuff (on left) with burnt stuff (on right)
I didn't progress on my latest marmalade today because we simply had to be away from home instead. We were scheduled to attend The Annual Easter Egg Painting Event with a group of our friends. On arrival at Julia and Ron's home we found a very colourful table awaiting us. On the checked tablecloth lay the stuff of artists dreams: a collection of drained eggs, several inspirational books and magazines, bottles of coloured paints, nail polishes, stickers, transfers and brushes. A variety of egg-holding gadgets were also available, said to ensure full release of our artistic brilliance. The two hour painting session was followed by a delicious luncheon. After a tour of the spring garden, we departed with our colourful eggs in hand ready to place them on our Easter Sunday tables.
Sadly, my marmalade didn't set so I am now thinking of imaginative ways to use 14 jars of runny marmalade. All visitors will eat marmalade for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My dinner offerings will be along the lines of "roast pork with orange marmalade sauce" and "crepes with orange marmalade glaze" etc. On the upside, I will not be beaten and have taken another 6 oranges out of my crate to try again. This time I am using the pith as well as the seeds. I soaked the entire orange detritus overnight before killing it in the blender this morning. This afternoon I will again hover over my cauldron...
The Sicilian orange trucks have been in the area for weeks now. This means that citrus season is on us. So yesterday I made a rather huge purchase...one whole crate of oranges! This morning when I arrived in the kitchen and saw my "little" stash I admit to hearing a little voice inside me which said "What was I thinking!?". However, after a breakfast of porridge which allowed me to procrastinate sufficiently enough to read recipes, I tackled my challenge. While the 14 jars look good, I have not had a reputation for making produce involving fruit and sugar that actually sets! So my fingers are crossed. A bigger problem is that I still have 3/4 of a crate of oranges left! I suspect I'll be making marmalade for days!
The wisteria is on the change again. The flowers are past their best and paling into a cream. The first fragile leaves are forming. In honour of this year's splendid display, here are the flowers again in all their dappled glory. The next photo of the wisteria that I post will be green, green, green...