30 March 2016
29 March 2016
Well, I've made a rather large commitment designed to force me to sit for my Italian drivers licence.
I've already been studying for a year (reading the manual, doing quizzes and practice exams on my iPad at home) but have got to the point where I run the risk of becoming a permanent student, happy to tell people for the rest of my life that "I'm studying for my Italian drivers licence"!
So, this week I asked my driving school to set a date for my theory exam.
I asked for the end of April and even added a countdown to our wall calender so that I can be haunted by the threat of the exam every morning.
This pressure approach to study always works for me.
Unfortunately, doesn't work for my driving school!
The school requires me to do yet more electronic quizzes and practice exams IN THE CLASSROOM before they are prepared to book me in for the exam!
So...back to the drawing board...only now every day I'm driving half an hour over to Acqui Terme, sitting on their computers for 3 hours, then driving half an hour home.
While I am improving (current average error rate is 6 out of 40!), the travel is exhausting and the time out is seriously cramping my spring activity...
26 March 2016
This is the celebration of Good Friday, an important date in the Catholic year which also gives rise to some of Italy's most beautiful and moving ceremonies.
In Australia, Good Friday services commence at 3pm and involve veneration of the cross; in Italy, they start at 9pm and involve the 14 stations of the cross.
In our little town of Canelli, we are blessed with 3 Catholic churches, each of which has its own priest and congregations. We are also blessed with a hill in the centre of town. A single-lane, stone-paved track meanders up the hill. The track is lit by old-fashioned street lamps which glow a warm yellow. It is lined with quaint stone buildings. Only local traffic is permitted on the track. The area is deeply historical and carries with it a special sense of time and tradition.
This beautiful location served as our own "Golgotha", the hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.
It set the scene for a very real and moving Processione.
At 9pm, about 300 Catholics from the 3 churches gathered at the church at the base of the hill.
Three priests and a group of 6-8 altar boys walked out of the church in silence holding a large crucifix aloft.
The slow trek up the hill took a full hour, as the congregation was stopped at regular intervals to reflect on each of the 14 stations of the cross.
There was no music; just voice. I was humbled by the innocence and humility of voice alone. This is often lost when voice is paired with music or musical instruments.
We arrived at the church at the top of the hill just before 10pm, where we finished the last station. At exactly that moment, the town bells rang 10 times. It was as if the bells were pealing to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ.
The holiness, intimacy and silence with which this beautiful ceremony was conducted and the natural hill brought the events of the crucifixion to life for me for the very first time...
With all of our spring cleaning activity, I might be forgiven for forgetting to report on a particularly large hole in one of our paddocks.
At a recent dinner party, I told our friends about the hole and the general consensus was that we have a badger.
Well, I don't even know what a badger is, so on returning home I grabbed my iPad and looked up "badger hole photo" or something to that effect.
What appeared was a photo of a hole which had a remarkable similarity to ours.
Then I found a site that compared various animal holes (http://www.discoverwildlife.com/british-wildlife/how-identify-animal-holes).
This site described 6 types of animal holes and I was quickly able to reduce my options to 2.
Our hole belonged to a fox den or a badger sett...but that was as far as I got...
A badger sett can have up to 50 holes. Negative (we've seen only 1). The holes are 20-30cm in diameter and have an arched top and a flat bottom. Check (ours sort of looks like this).
By contrast, a fox den has only a few holes. Check (we've seen only 1). The holes are 20cm in diameter and are generally taller than broad. Negative (our hole is wider than it is tall).
There are other identifiers, such as the colour of fur around the hole (we can't find any), the odour around the hole (we can't detect any) and the detritus outside the hole (we can't see any).
One site suggested I get up close and personal to smell the hole (heaven forbid!) and even plunge my hand into the hole in a search for fur (!?)
Since the first may happen and the second will definitely never happen, we may never know what lurks in our paddock...unless we invest in an infra red camera...
Above: A badger sett hole (https://badgerwatcher.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/badger-sett-entrance-2.jpg)
Above: A fox den hole (http://tracksandsigns.blogspot.it/2011/01/red-fox-den.html)
Above: Our hole
Above: Our hole in perspective
24 March 2016
I have often referred to the jungle that surrounded the house when we purchased the place.
The main paddocks had been mowed once or twice a year by an industrial tractor but still suffered from a lack of attention. The steeper areas where the vineyards used to be had been left to disintegrate into scrub and weed. Blackberry had a very good command of these areas, throwing out long strong canes to root down and ensure that they thrived. The old grapevines had a similar approach to neglect and survival. Their neglected canes from one year would root down just like the blackberry and make a new sad little grapevine the next year.
We have spent the last 8 years giving the land our full attention. We've been clearing, cleaning and shaping it into a beautiful landscape.
We like trees so we've tried to keep any attractive tree. We have removed any tree that was dead, dying or leaning. We have removed a lot of strange viney growths that seem to sucker along the ground and grow into very ugly weak tree bushes. We have cut lower branches off trees to facilitate easier maintenance of the property. We have removed blackberry and grapevines.
At the beginning, we focused on the 3 main paddocks. After initial clearing and cleaning, we focused on pruning and shaping the trees in the existing apple and plum orchards and and in the hazelnut grove.
Last year, we exposed paddock 4 which we had never seen before! This paddock is now an accessible shady oasis in the valley. We also worked on paddock 5, clearing and cleaning bamboo and large leaning trees that might become a problem for the house in the future.
This year, we have been focusing on the top of the old vineyard. We have removed a lot of sucker trees and the blackberry in its entirety, revealing a path that travels along the top of the vineyard. This spot will be the perfect place to put a seat, as it looks down over most of our property and the stream which can be seen glistening at the bottom as it winds its way past the paddocks...
19 March 2016
Ever since we've lived here we've struggled with storage.
We came here with 2 old Ikea wardrobes that we bought 10 years ago. Stu cut these down to fit in the dark narrow space that was our laundry for a while. But then we did the laundry/bathroom renovation and we had to move this cupboard into the cellar where the linen was often damp and smelly.
During the months of really high humidity, I would have to walk all of our linen upstairs and store it on the bed in the spare bedroom instead!
It seems that our linen has kept me constantly engaged!
With the downstairs laundry/bathroom renovation now finished (well, almost!), Stu has turned his attention to the space which is to be designated as our new linen cupboard.
The old Ikea shelving was again dismantled, cut down and fitted into the new smaller space and we now have a permanent linen cupboard where our sheets and towels will not get damp!
16 March 2016
We took the challenge rather seriously...but not too seriously...
To ensure a smooth flow, we specified our tasks beforehand. Since I got us into this mess in the first place, I would plan and organise food/drink combinations, wash plates, polish cutlery, set the table, prepare, cook and plate up the food.
Stu would sweep, vacuum and dust the house, prepare and present the wine and manage the heating and music.
We shared the serving and presentation of plates and the cleanup afterwards.
Our table was simple and elegant. We had a white tablecloth in the centre of which stood 7 tealights in small glass holders and 2 filled water jugs (one natural and the other frizzante). Each place setting had a cork placemat on which a silver napkin ring sat. Inside the napkin ring, a dark blue napkin and the menu were rolled. Each setting had 4 sets of cutlery (salad, soup, entree, main) and 3 glasses (white wine, red wine, water). A bread plate with a white bread roll, a square of butter and a butter knife sat to the left of each setting.
On arrival, coats were taken and guests were seated. The head chef (me!) wecomed them, then explained the name of the "restaurant" ("The Dusty Fork") and the menu for the evening ("a 6 course menu which pays tribute to the name of the restaurant by ensuring that every course arrives at the table with "dust" on the plate"). I also explained the restaurant's mission to showcase quality local produce and our vast experience in 3 Michelin Star dining and sommeliering (!?).
Before I escaped to the kitchen, I gave them some words of wisdom to ponder:
"Life is not a thing to consume; life is a creative project"
The sommelier (Stu!) then prepared a cocktail of spumante and vermouth on ice. The drink was served in martini glasses with a strawberry on the side and looked very elegant!
Then we started the meal in ernest...
For salad, we had a fresh salad of fava beans and baby peas with rocket, pancetta and grana padano in a lemon, honey, olive oil and apple cider vinegar dressing. The plate was garnished with crispy pancetta, pea mash, coconut oil fava bean husks and dried pea "dust". This was served with a chardonnay from a vineyard directly above our house (Cerutti di Cassinasco).
For soup, we had a creamy ciabatta soup of roasted garlic and almonds, drizzled in extra virgin olive oil. The plate was garnished with fresh parsley, an orange segment, blanched almonds and almond "dust". This was served with a sauvignon from a small town a few kilometres away (Tenute dei Vallerino di San Marzano Oliveto).
For entree, we had poached chicken breast with roasted beetroot, charred sweet potato, fresh mozzarella cheese, drizzled in fig balsamic vinegar. The plate was garnished with fresh thyme leaves and pepper "dust". This was served with 2 bottles of Barbera d'Asti (one from a small town a few kilometres above and behind us - Azienda Agricole Pianbello di Cirio Loazzolo - and the other from another small town a few kilometres away - Cento Ceppi di Tenuta La Mano Verde di San Marzano Oliveto).
For main, we had an eye fillet steak medallion poached in wooded Barbera d'Asti served on a crispy lard wrapped celeriac and quartirolo smash, topped with a dried bay leaf and drizzled with red wine jus. The plate was garnished with fig chutney, sauerkraut and bay leaf "dust". This was served with 2 bottles of Barbera d'Asti (one from a slightly larger winery about 20 minutes away - Cascina Castlet di Costigliole d'Asti - and the other from a vineyard directly above our house - Cerrutti di Cassinasco).
Dessert was a trio of fresh ricotta mousse (pistachio and white chocolate, hazelnut and milk chocolate, walnut and dark chocolate). The plate was garnished with a plum coulis smear, swollen kirsch cherries, a chocolate shard, a glass of cherry liqueur and nut "dust". This was to be served with a moscato from a small town a few kilometres away (Beppe Marino di Santo Stefano Belbo) but enough wine had been had by then (!) so the dessert glasses remained empty.
The cheese course was to be a trio of cheeses (pecorino, stilton, robiola) served with burnt marmalade, acacia honey and coffee grain "dust". This was to be served with a selection of 3 liqueuers: Genepi from Canelli, Spingitutto from Murialdo and Grappa di Moscato from Valle Belbo. However, my portioning throughout the meal had been a bit on the large side (!) so the cheese course was not served.
At the end of the meal, guests were offered coffee.
Our guests are great conversationalists so entertainment wasn't necessary.
However, some spontaneous and spasmodic entertainment did occur...
On one occasion, in his enthusiasm to demonstrate his new skills as a sommelier, Stu pulled the cork on one of the wine bottles with slightly more strength than required and managed to splash half a bottle of wine around the room!
On another occasion, I was plating up in the kitchen, when I heard the conversation turn to the matter of warm underwear amidst raucous laughter. Later, I learned that Stu, in his keenness to increase sales of long-johns, had "dropped his dacks" to display his own striped and colourful apparel!
Just before midnight we all started to fade and our guests quietly took their leave before pumpkin time.
We were left to do the final cleanup before finally falling into bed at 1.30am.
13 March 2016
We and two other couples have decided to challenge ourselves to a whole new level of dining experience.
We have created the "3 Star Michelin Restaurant Challenge"!
The idea is that each couple creates and delivers a top class dining experience for the other two couples. The dinners must demonstrate quality food, wine, service and plating. The "competition" (which, in the interest of remaining friends, will be a "non-competition") will take place over a 3 week period, with 1 dinner a week.
The first couple launched their "restaurant" this week, with a 6-course tasting menu. They had gone to a lot of trouble making special aprons with the restaurant name on them, setting the table and making little signs that explained each course. The evening was full of oohs, aahs, laughs, insults and tantrums. It was a perfect evening, made even better by a temperamental chef, a lazy waiter and several difficult clients.
We are the second couple and our "restaurant" will be launched in a few days.
Over recent weeks, we have been having a wonderful time playing with possible restaurant names and themes, thinking up dishes, pairing foods with wines and using our creative energies to make pretty plating up designs.
Our "restaurant" is called "The Dusty Fork" in honour of the constant dust that we manage to create here as part of our renovations. The name is a combination of Stu's preferred choice "Dine in the Dust" and my preferred choice "Fork in the Forest". Our restaurant will serve "quality local food delivered in a rustic natural environment".
Our invitations have been issued to the other couples, who will play the role of "highly respected food critics of discerning taste and international standing".
With only a few days to go, preparations are well underway. Plates have been washed (42 of them!), glasses have been polished (36 of them!) and 8 hours has been spent making garnishes!
Here are a few photos showing the food from the first event...
12 March 2016
It is not yet Spring of course, not for another week and a bit, but it feels as if Winter is quickly slinking off.
Today's temperatures were so warm (15-18 degrees?) that I had to strip all the way down to a shirt. It is a lovely thing to feel "light" after all those layers of thin inner wear and bulky outer wear.
Stu and I both launched on the garden to tidy it up before the insanely rigorous growth really begins.
I finished the main wisteria, which ended up being a far bigger job than first expected! When I started to prune it a couple of weeks ago, I quickly revealed a confused, twisted mess. While there is certainly some charm in this, it means that the poor vine is putting a lot of energy into too many thin branches. I prefer fewer larger branches which will thicken into mysterious gnarled fingers. So I climbed up and down the ladder too many times: up to cut a branch, down to view it, up to cut another branch, down to view it. Once I'd cut the excess out, I set about untwisting the remaining branches so that they all stretch across the pergola in the same direction. Annual pruning will be a pleasure from now on!
Then I took to the house garden in an attempt to release my plants from the clutches of a very invasive blue and white flowered weed. I suspect this weed is something called Germander Speedwell. It is quite pretty...but so are my plants!
Finally, I emptied the old dense potting mix from 6 of last year's potplants into the wheelbarrow, loosened it and mixed it with leaves and compost, before re-filling the potplants and placing a new little geranium in each. I will protect them until I can be sure that frosts are unlikely, then I will place them around the pergola and fienile to provide bright colour during the warmer months.
Stu extended the woodpile. Again. He is constantly challenged by the excessive amount of wood here. We have a deep respect for nature, so when our little valley gives up its trees for us, we feel compelled to appreciate them and use their wood responsibly.
So we spend many of our days cutting it to use as firewood.
We had 2 or 3 trees fall under the weight of snow last week and this has meant yet more wood to cut and store!
Enter Stu. He extended the woodpile by another bay and linked it to the structure over the compost heap, which also doubles as a support for our kiwi vines. It will be very pretty when the vines take off this year and stretch across the structure, as it will create an inviting entry way through to the vegetable garden.
He also tidied an area to the side of the fienile and created a garden seat by laying 2 pieces of beautiful aged chestnut wood on supports. These beams were removed from the house when we renovated the loungeroom a few years ago and we wanted them to remain a feature of the property. They will definitely not make it into the woodpile or our fireplaces!
06 March 2016
I woke slowly yesterday morning. The sky was lighting up and rumbling outside the bedroom window and the forecast promised a day of rain.
When I eventually made it to the kitchen, I took the opportunity of a wet day to phone my parents in Australia.
We were chatting for a while before Mum asked how the weather was.
"Oh it's going to rain all day...and there is lightening and thunder outside at the moment", I said, taking a quick glance out of the window.
But what I saw was a very pleasant surprise...it was snowing!
"Ooh Mum! It's snowing!" I cried as I leaped off my chair.
Snow always makes me cry. Literally. I suspect this may be because I come from "the sunburnt country" and view snow as a gift from the heavens.
I spent the next few hours doing nothing much because snow is such a dreadful but enjoyable distraction. I posted the snow news on Facebook. I stood at the window watching the snow. I wandered from window to window taking photos of the snow. I stepped outside in the snow.
Eventually I settled but not until we'd lost power.
Yes, we lost electricity.
Everything went out and off.
Hoping that it might come back on within a short time, we started a game of scrabble...a good old fashioned game of board scrabble. However, half an hour later, after a few turns and the power still off, we started to worry that a tree may have fallen across our power line... a constant threat when you live in a forest.
I texted a couple of friends in town to ask if they had also lost power but the texts wouldn't send because the atmosphere was too thick with snow.
So we ventured out to check the power line ourselves. We donned coats, scarves, hats, gloves and gumboots and set off over the neighbours fence and up the hill, struggling over mossy branches and slipping and sliding on the snow.
When we finally found the line it had not been cut by a fallen tree so we decided to wander into town to see if we could understand what had happened.
On the way, we shook the snow-laden branches that hung low over our driveway. After lessening the weight, we would step back before releasing them and watching them fling up free of the weight.
Town was quiet as it always is when it snows. People hadn't yet ventured out of their homes but had instead been waiting for streets and driveways to be cleared by snowploughs and shovels.
Power was on in the centre of town so we ordered aperitivi at our local cafe and warmed up over a lunchtime glass of the best local spumante (Contratto).
After the snow had stopped, we set off back home where we were relieved to find the power back on. The atmosphere had also cleared enough for my texts to send and for replies to be received. What precious friends we have in this little community! Both offered to phone the power company for us and one offered to come and get us if we couldn't get down our snowed-in driveway!
The 4km walk into and out of town had exhausted us. It's not easy walking in fresh 10cm deep snow.
Unfortunately, upon reaching home we had noticed a fallen tree balancing precariously in the branches of another tree and threatening to crush our well!
So, after a few minutes of drying out and warming up, we were again outside in our coats, scarves, hats, gloves and gumboots.
This time we were also armed with a chainsaw.
There followed a good 2 hours of solid activity.
Stu cut the branches that had already fallen into moveable pieces, which I then dragged to a composting pile.
Then Stu started on the main trunk. He would cut the trunk until it started cracking then step back. The cracking told us that the wooden fibres of the trunk were slowly ripping apart by themselves and that there was danger. Once the cracking had stopped, Stu would move in again, cut, then step back and wait for the cracking to stop.
This process continued until finally the tree rolled out of the other tree and down onto the snow-covered ground with a soft thud...a safe distance from our precious water supply.
I woke easily this morning after a deep sleep.
The snow was beckoning me again...only this morning it was white ice that glistened in the morning sun...
Above: The fallen tree balancing in the branches of another tree
Above: Stu cutting the fallen tree with the chainsaw
Above: The fallen tree on the ground
02 March 2016
We walked into our local cafe late morning for a quick coffee before returning home after shopping.
The cafe was unusually quiet but in the corner sat two men. One was noticeable by the thin moustache he wore which had been dramatically twisted at the ends. The other had his back towards us but I noticed his style and his elegant grey hair.
They were having aperitivi, an Italian tradition where alcohol is served with bites of food pre lunch or dinner.
We ordered our coffee and talked about other things before I glanced back at the men and noticed that they were more interested in their wine than their food.
There were 2 bottles of wine. There was a spittoon.
They spent an inordinate amount of time swirling and smelling before eventually drinking just a little of the wine and spitting out the rest.
Another bottle was called to the table and I continued to watch fascinated as they swirled yet more wine before lifting it to their noses, then their lips.
It is this sort of intimacy in a local bar that tells us how special the wines from our region are...