The odd little town of Chianciano Terme is, rather strangely, one of Italy's most popular spa towns. For most of the year it seems to stand forlornly empty and boarded up, a jumble of shabby 1960's hotels paying tribute to their 'international' heyday. A time when George Lazenby lookalikes would have strutted their lesser Bond-like stuff up and down the main street.
Surely the best day out you can have at this time of year has to be the Arezzo antique market. I know I have raved about it before, but it never fails to thrill me. It's the mix of clear blue skies and thin autumn sunshine, the Italian fashionista out in throngs displaying the new seasons ‘look’, the marvelous spectacle of all that junk and religious paraphernalia, as well as a chance to strut my stuff in new skinny jeans and boots.
One of my favourite things on offer is the Ex Voto. The word comes from the Latin, meaning ‘from the vow made’. These votive offerings were traditionally left to a saint or divinity, placed on the altar of a church, expressing a wish or desire or to give thanks for the fulfillment of a prayer.
How we regard illness and healing has changed drastically throughout the ages but our abiding hope that all will be well is wonderfully expressed by the ex voto. They were often left to give thanks after a successful operation, or survival of an accident and, although usually left anonymously, they are a touching mix of both public and personal faith.
Jumbled together in damp cardboard boxes or haphazardly displayed amongst all the other tawdry tat, they glint temptingly. I can never resist them and can spend endless time deliberating over body parts, often returning home with several comforting little packages containing disembodied limbs, eyes and torsos.
I would hate to be so presumptuous as to try to stop people doing what they have always done just because my suburban mentality finds it a little difficult to understand. The sight of men in camouflage gear, stalking around the woods with shotguns between the beginning of November and the end of January can be disconcerting, but their ready smiles and handsome companion dogs are reassuring signs of responsibility and a certain degree of humanity.
I have always tried to maintain this opinion.
But last week one of our cats, Melvin, disappeared. He isn't the sort of cat to go wandering, in fact he has spent the majority of his life applying for the position of 'house cat' - often found harmlessly chasing the sun patches in various places inside, rather than relentlessly and mercilessly chasing lizards like the others. His disappearance was, therefore, a bit of a mystery, especially as he is a big boy, unlikely to have succumbed to a fox or a pine-martin. The children and the grown-ups were, understandably, becoming more upset as each day passed.
Then, the other night, he reappeared after four long days away. He seemed ok at first; just a little hungry, tired and glad to be home. But a closer inspection betrayed a problem around his eyes and we took him to the vets. Tests showed that he had been shot by a hunter, and the shotgun pellets had lodged around his face and into his side, but one had pierced the centre of his left eye and he will, almost certainly, lose that eye.As with most animals he seems to be able to just get on with it despite all the serious medication he now has to take but I, on the other hand, find the whole thing very infuriating. To accept that grown men, desperate to kill something illegally before the hunting season starts, would be firing off shotguns at anything that moves in the woods, makes me very cross.
Our vain attempts at calling him the ''pirate cat' to the girls have fallen on sullen and deaf ears and the fact that he is probably lucky to be still alive is scant consolation.
So, despite our efforts at a perpetual optimistic blog about our new life here in the Italian countryside, there are some things it is hard to be cheery about and poor old Melvin is resigned to his fate as the new house cat; big, bolshy and now blinkered, but bravely unbowed.
He may, one day, think he's got a good deal out of it all, but I don't think I'll be waving so enthusiastically at the hunters come November.
There’s this old building.
It has been here since we arrived and for a long time before. It sits, hidden in the middle of a light industrial estate, in a small drive-through town a few miles from here and, despite all the pre-fabricated, non-descript, soulless monstrosities growing up all around it, it has always remained quietly there.
I have been meaning to photograph it, to make it into a sort of photo-essay, for a long time now and kept putting it off for one reason or another, and also because there was a rather high fence all round it.
Then, last week, things suddenly changed.
I noticed that the gate was open on Monday, nothing more on Tuesday, but by Wednesday morning someone had parked a bulldozer in the forecourt. It seems that this old boy has to come down to make way for something new.
So, in haste, I had to get myself in there and do my best. I’m not sure what it is about this building; perhaps the squareness, perhaps the fading stucco walls, the sense of what it was (and I still can’t figure that out), perhaps the fact that it is the last one standing, or just that I hoped it would make strong and striking images.
Anyway, as I write this, it’s still hanging on. The ground either side of it is now flat and prepared for something, and it looks even more exposed and under threat than before.
So, I have put a few examples of my (all too hasty) photos in the sidebar. Have a look before it's too late!
The sunflowers have pretty much come to an end round here. A few of the smaller ones are hanging on, but the vast majority have hung their heads, shed their yellow petals, and are silently waiting for the 'chop'.
I know they are spectacular whist in full bloom, they brilliantly colour the landscape for a few weeks but, soon after, when they begin to fade, there is a long, slow deterioration for at least a couple of months.
Sunflowers in full bloom.
I used to find this period a bit depressing, but I have been driving past a particular sunflower field almost every day this Summer, and have been looking at them a little more closely. I'm starting to think that I prefer them like this.
They are still, silent, solemn sculptures - still massive in the fields, but with their leaves drying and curling as they begin to brown up and their giant round heads going black and heavy with the weight of the oil.
They don't turn with the sun anymore, and their stems have become brittle and pale; bent, bowed and sometimes broken.
But what a powerful presence!
A little while ago we decided to run a course in Tempera painting. This is a traditional technique used extensively in Italy during the Renaissance and, in it's classical form, is called Egg tempera as the powdered pigments are bound together with egg yolks. After about 1500 oil painting took over in Italy and these days tempera has been transformed into what we now call poster paint or Gouache.
There was a wonderful moment in Florence in 1483 when a painting (The Portinari Altarpiece - Adoration of the Shepherds) was carried with much 'pomp' into the city all the way down from the Northern European city of Bruges. It had been painted by the Flemish master Hugo van der Goes in oil paint and it was a revelation.
People queued to marvel at the extraordinary realism and detail of this spectacular altarpiece and, amongst many other things, made particular mention of the dirt visible under the fingernails of the shepherds adoring the Christ child.
This was a real wake-up call to the painters of Florence who had always thought themselves and their techniques to be the best in the world and so was also a real threat to the method of tempera painting they used. One artist took up the challenge.
Determined to prove that Florentines were at least as good as the Flemish oil painters, Domenico Ghirlandaio produced an 'Adoration of the Shepherds' in Florentine style and in tempera, but with more than the occasional reference to the rival Flemish painting, including dirt under the fingernails of the shepherds, one of whom is Ghirlandaio himself, with breathtaking realism, stubble and watery eyes, showing us what he can do.
Detail of Ghirlandaio's Adoration, he is the handsome man on the bottom left!
Both paintings are still in Florence, one in the Ufizzi, carefully protected and preserved amongst all the other masterworks of Italy, and Ghirlandaio's in a dark corner of a comparatively small church called Santa Trinita, with a broken light, no entrance charge, no queue and no guard. You just have to walk in and admire.
Anyway, I want to try as many traditional methods as possible, so I went to Arezzo to do a little research into tempera. I can find the eggs myself, but dry powdered pigments and gold leaf may be a little harder to come by!
I found a workshop with a wonderful old man who restores and repairs all sorts of artwork, with paintings and frames piled up against the walls and hanging from the ceiling. So, I made myself a nuisance and tried to get as much information as I could out of him, wandering around the studio, staring at his brushes, pigments, mouldings, powders, pots and tins of strange mixtures of gesso, gold leaf, silver leaf, glues, sizes, boles etc.
In another life I would have jumped at the chance to become his (unpaid) apprentice. Not least because his knowledge and his recipes have been so carefully developed over 60 years and, when he goes, a lot goes
There are a lot of mysteries in those tins and jars.
But of the photos I took that day, one stands out. This one. I could look at it for hours. It is a picture of one part of one wall of his studio and it tells us so much about him, his family, his life and his career. Next week I might just have to go back to ask him a few more questions...
Perhaps I have metaphorically been holding my breath all this time and just praying everything will go well, or perhaps I’ve been too busy to write, but there’s no excuse really.
But however it all has gone (and it seems to have gone very well so far) there is still a need to write it down, and that’s what I will try to do to make up for all the missing posts…starting here.
Summer has been here for a long while already and the girl’s everlasting holidays are drifting along in the heat, neither of them able to do much homework during these long hot afternoons. In fact they’re not able to do much at all until the cooler evenings gradually re-energise them.
I wish we could teach ourselves to get in to that ‘siesta’ mode, but it seems impossible to recalibrate our body clocks to take advantage of a ‘cheeky sleep’ in the middle of the day. So I find myself out there, with my mad dog, doing precious little in the sun.
The girls have gone all 'euro-cool' these Summer days!
However, we feel like we’re at the end of the hard, ugly bit, so my thoughts turn to our still-toiling neighbours, getting up each day to face the cement mixer. They started before we did, and they’re not finished yet, but there’s a good reason for that – they’re doing it all themselves.
And you’ve got to respect that.
But it's not just the gardens that appeal to me, it's the spirit of Iris Origo which seems to have seeped into the old stucco walls of the villa.
You can sense her quiet, overseeing presence everywhere and, looking out at the incredible view from the gardens over the surreal and almost lunar landscape of the Val d'Orcia, you feel the passion and love that she must have felt for this wild and beautiful countryside.
On 4 March 1924, Iris married the charming Antonio Origo. They moved together to their new estate at La Foce, near Chianciano Terme in the Province of Siena. It was in a state of bad repair; the land around it arid and barren and the tenant farmers nearing starvation. But with great insight and a feeling for the landscape, and after much hard work, care and attention, they succeeded in transforming it.
Now the gardens are a truly magnificent mix of Italian formal garden and English country garden, gradually loosening up to meet with the surrounding wooded wilderness. I love a bit of box hedging, and the smell of an 80 year old wisteria in full bloom...
During the Second World War, the Origos remained at La Foce and looked after refugee children, who were housed there. Following the surrender of Italy, and the confused mayhem that swept through the country, Iris also sheltered or assisted many escaped Allied prisoners of war. Sometimes up to 30 people a day would arrive at La Foce; all on foot, many starving and ill, all seeking to make their way through the German lines, or simply to survive.
Her intellligent and level headed account of this time is recorded in her war diary, 'War in the Val D'Orcia'. It is one of my favourite books about this area.
As part of our recent Botanical Illustration courses we have visited Iris's gracious gardens at La Foce and it's a trip that really is balm for the soul, both uplifting and inspiring. So, with thanks to the lovely ladies on our recent Botanical Course 2nd to 9th May, I have included some photos of our wonderful day out there.
The best thing I ate:
At the moment, bunches of fresh, wet garlic are heaped on the market stalls, their skin is moist and beautiful, blushed with purple and pale green and, as the garlic gets older, the skin drys to the palest ivory and becomes dry and brittle. The flavour changes too.
New garlic is mild and sweet, the plump cloves beneath the skin are the brightest white and full of juice. The taste is subtle and, for those with no romantic rendezvous lined up, it is delicious eaten raw, sliced thinly into a fresh green salad. In fact I would encourage you to convince you lover to partake with you in an orgy of fresh garlic-eating - that way you can enjoy the fleeting moment together. Or rub a cut clove over a toasty piece of griddled bread, drizzle over the ubiquitous olive oil and enjoy the simplest form of bruschetta.
Goodness me, it’s been a month. I have no excuse except that real life seems to have stepped up a pace since the art courses started. Life at the moment seems like one big learning curve as each of the courses runs for the first time. It’s an exciting period, but not without a bit of nail biting too.
Now that the overall renovations of the apartments and studio are finished (nearly), it’s the details that begin to come into focus. This corkboard has been re-commissioned to organise our keys. My father made this board for me years ago out of the corks left over from bottles of wine that he had drunk, he only used the ones that he felt were particularly memorable, either because the wine or the company he drank with had moved him. He made one for me and one for my sister. Of the few things I have that were my dad’s, this is one of the most precious. The corks in the centre are from bottles of Cava that we drank together, to celebrate the stuff that families celebrate, each other. Now, it’s in use everyday and I think my dad would have liked that.
This is another detail that shouldn’t go unnoticed, the amount of wonderful artwork that has been produced in the studio, by visitors on the art courses. This table full of work is by one of our first ‘students’, I love looking at all these vibrant images and somehow it makes sense of what we have been doing for the last two and a half years.
Best thing I ate;
To celebrate the full on juicy lushness that is Umbria at this time of year, I made this verdant soup for the students on our recent botanical illustration course. They weren’t complaining.
The idea of this light soup is to keep it very fresh and green I like to make it, and eat it, within the hour as that is when the colour really zings. The clean, sweet taste of the zucchini (courgette) works really well with a pungent splash of basil oil, and a crunch of charred bread from the griddle.
Zuppa di Zucchini con Basilico or Courgette Soup with Basil
For the soup (serves 6)
1.5kg firm, shinny skinned medium sized zucchini, trimmed
Olive oil, large glug
3 gloves garlic peeled
1ltr good vegetable stock, a cube will do
Sea salt and black pepper
For the basil oil
1 large bunch of fresh basil
150ml olive oil
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large stock-pot and sweat the garlic gently without colouring it. Meanwhile chop the zucchini cross ways into coins and add to the pot, cover with the stock and bring to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes or until the courgettes are just tender. Blend the soup with a hand help blender, until smooth and green. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to your taste.
Take your bunch of basil and remove any coarse stems, puree the basil with the olive oil and a large pinch of sea salt until smooth and intense dark green.
Serve the soup with a large splash of the basil oil floating on top and a slice of coarse country bread charred on the griddle. Perfetto.
The last week or two have been a bit hectic around here as our first group of artists arrived. The last minute panic to get things ready gave way to a steady rhythm of activity as the workshop got underway. It seems, at last, we are beginning to do what we came here to do which is, of course, run painting holidays. After all the graft that has gone before, this seems somehow incredible to me. There is still, however, so much to be done that it seems there will be no time for resting on our laurels, at least not in this lifetime.
The most amazing thing to me was how the studio was transformed by the addition of the students. What they brought to what is, in fact, just a large, light space was all the atmosphere and vibrancy that made the place hum.
The start of the art courses seems to have shaken things up around here and change is definitely in the air, good change.
Despite my being one of those irritating people who appears to suffer from unusually high self-esteem, I have been left reeling from the fact that my eldest daughter, recently and at surprisingly close range, mistook me for one of the builders. It’s not that I have anything against the builders, but still it was quite a blow.
The last two years of living in rural Italy on what can only be described as a building site seems to have turned me from someone who used to look like a relatively well put together urbanite into, well, let’s be honest, someone who looks like a builder.
A Winter spent huddled by the stufa mainlining Gorgonzola hasn’t helped me much either and after an honest self-appraisal I think I have to call time on this particular look, it’s obviously not working for me anymore. Spring is here and I need to ‘re-glamourise’.
This afternoon I quit the building site, donned my Ipod and my running shoes and hit the white roads. I haven’t been running for a couple of weeks and the first kilometer felt so bad I almost gave up but, after a while, the music got to me and the old euphoria began to kick in. Anyone who runs regularly will tell you that it’s very addictive, in a good way. I came home on a high with plans for extensive surgery and a whole new wardrobe, or at least to go running regularly from now on and to stop wearing marito’s old clothes in public.
It occurs to me while writing this that if you ever see a woman in the supermarket, here in Italy, with dusty hair and paint splattered clothes, or a frazzled looking mother covered in cement at the school gates you can be 99 per cent certain she’s not Italian. They just don’t do ‘sloppy’, in fact most of the mothers at the school pick-up could give Victoria Beckham a run for her money.
The best thing I ate;
You would think that given my new regime I would be nibbling on a leaf or something, but actually I’m back on the bruschette. My latest addiction is bruschetta with cannellini beans and rosemary. There is something wholesome and comforting about creamy cannellini beans, here they are mashed into a coarse puree and perked up with the pungent oily taste of rosemary, a spritz of balsamic vinegar adds a slightly acid bite and the drizzle of good virgin olive oil transports it to sublime. Top lunch-time treat of the moment.
1 tin or jar good quality cannellini beans, drained
Large spring rosemary
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
2 cloves Garlic
Coarse country style bread, sliced
First grill your slices of bread. While they are still hot drizzle them with olive oil and rub them with a cut clove of garlic.
Pull all the spikey leaves from the rosemary spring and chop very, very finely until almost a powder. Fry one clove of chopped garlic in a little olive oil but be careful not to let it colour. Add the drained beans and continue to cook for about 5 minutes, add the rosemary, a little more oil and season well with salt and pepper and a spritz of balsamic vinegar. Mash everything together using the back of a wooden spoon until you have a coarse puree. Heap the beans onto the grilled bread and drizzle with more of the olive oil. This is delicious with a sharp green salad on the side and a glass of rough red wine to wash it down.
Italians believe that Spring begins on the morning of March 21st, the same way that they believe that as soon as August is over you need to begin to wrap up warm. It makes sense, it puts the seasons in their place.
I, on the other hand, believe that as soon as you feel that first burst of sunshine, the type that gives your face a fleeting reminder of last Summer, Spring has arrived. It’s irrational, a little desperate, but great for the soul.
The light is the difference. Anyone who paints, photographs or just appreciates their surroundings, knows that light is everything and so, today, I got the uncontrollable urge to get the camera out and start photographing again.
I’m trying out a new technique, something introduced to me by a young American girl, Trisha, who was staying with some friends. It’s a great lesson, especially to a teacher, that often the best ideas come from students prepared to try something different.
This technique isn’t strictly new and is called ‘Through the viewfinder’ photography, defined as ‘taking a picture of any subject through the viewfinder of any camera with another camera.’
Sounds complicated, but in reality it’s just a little fiddly knowing what to do with two cameras and only two hands.
Anyway, I have made a tentative start to what looks like an exciting idea to pursue and I will pursue it, safe in the knowledge that a little Photoshop manipulation (colour and contrast) is also allowed. Fun, fun, fun!
The stupidest thing I did today;
Well, I was supposed to be painting the studio doors, amongst my list of a million other things to do, when I got this uncontrollable urge…
Sometimes, just by pressing ‘send’, you will connect with the right person at the right time. The possibilities are endless, and the opportunities priceless.
That is exactly what happened one starlit Autumn night nearly 6 months ago when I decided to send a link from this blog to as many British newspapers and magazines as I could think of, including the Observer, which, in case you don’t know, is one of the UK’s leading national Sunday papers.
The travel editor there turned out to be the right person at the right time and we are extremely grateful to have been featured in the Escape section on Sunday March 1st..
If you would like to read the feature and find out more about us please follow the link below:
I have already written to thank them but, as always, a huge thank you to all those of you who read and comment on these pages, it is your contributions that keep this blog ‘live’.
After a frantic week of lugging furniture around, painting, panicking and waxing and panicking again we can finally exhale.
The back apartment is finished and furnished, our first guests have come and gone and here are the 'after' photographs we promised. Sorry to have kept you waiting for a week but, to be fair, we have been waiting for nearly 2 years!
Of course we can't afford to slow down yet as there is still the front apartment and the studio to finish but they are oh-so-nearly there.
I'll post the results as soon as they are ready with maybe a little break for carnevale inbetween.
Have faith, we'll get there in the end...
The best thing I ate today:
You must be joking! No time for cooking, eating or sleeping!
Just before showing you the results of all our labours (which is what I wanted the 100th post to be about), I suddenly realised that it would be wiser to pause, take a deep breath, and remember what has been our daily reality for the last 18 months; building work, dust, plumbing, electrics, drains, mud, sweat, blood and tears.
Sounds a little dramatic, I know, but it's perhaps all to easy to move on now that it's pretty much done, and forget the stresses and strains it has put us all under. Proud as we are of the final result, I am much prouder of the struggle it has been and these photographs show a little of what we have been up against.
It's certainly not an opportunity for self-congratulation or gloating, because we have made countless mistakes (some we don't even know yet) and we've had a lot of help along the way, but I must admit to never expecting it to have been quite this hard, or to last this long.
Anyway, I promise that in a few days I'll get together some 'after' photos but, for now, you'll have to make do with the 'befores'
Here we go:
99 reasons to love Italy (in no particular order)
1. Coffee, from espresso to caffe latte. No other country does it better.
2. Ape, gorgeous little scooter-van-thingys, top of my wish list.
3. Vespas, in all their wonderful retro colours.
4. Opera under the stars on a balmy summer evening.
5. Perugino - our local hero.
7. Bruschetta - 101 delicious things you can do with a bit of stale bread.
8. Bar culture; the smell, the coffee paraphernalia, the old boys hanging out in the corner...
9. The Renaissance, an intoxicating mix of art and intrigue.
10. Florence. The glorious epicentre of the Rennaisance.
11. Aperitivo. Yes please and, although the Italians favour Campari, mine's an Aperol Spritz!
12. Sense of family; love, humour and pride bound together by blood, it’s a passionate combo.
13. Il Palio, the whole ‘contrade’ thing.
14. Olive oil, the peppery tang of the first pressing, grassy and green.
15. Sicily - beautiful and dangerous.
16. Markets - from bread to bras to broken chairs, everything under the sun.
17. Jovanotti, making beards look good.
18. Shoes and boots, not cheap, but oh so very lovely!
19. Passeggiata. Got the shoes, now walk the walk.
20. A Lagotto Romagnolo, more than just a dog...
21. The Medici, a bloody history of power, money, and art. These boys bank-rolled the Renaissance.
22. Parmigiano, the king of Italian cheese, intense and crumbling
23. Sex appeal, lets face it, most Italians have some.
24. Rome, home of Il Papa, the Colosseum and all-round shopping heaven.
25. Driving, face the fear!
26. Pasta, one of the world’s greatest carbohydrates.
27. The Crete Senese, a hauntingly beautiful landscape.
28. Wine, sniff it, sip it and swallow it. Italy gives great wine.
29. Mozzarella; drippingly fresh, clean and lactic. Lose your heart to this subtle cheese.
30. Sunflowers, a bit naff, but everyone loves them.
31. Siena, it’s all about Il Campo, which is perhaps the loveliest Italian piazza I have ever seen.
32. The porchetta van, you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a porchetta panino. The savoury highlight of every market place. Just remember to wipe your chin...
33. Language, “Ciao bella!”, what’s not to love?
34. Roadside Madonnas, they're everywhere; forgiving and serene.
35. Venice; the Grand canal, St Marks Square, the faded, shabby splendour - unforgettable.
36. Salsicce, the Italians know how to make a mighty fine sausage.
37. Italian nonnas; slow moving and dressed in black, God bless them all.
38. Amici, great reality TV, Italian style.
39. Dylan Dog, he just gets sexier. (It’s a comic)
40. Umbrella pines
41. Arezzo. The antiques market, Casa Vasari, Piero della Francesca’s ‘Legend of the True Cross’ fresco cycle and a Cimabue cross, make this laid back town perfetto.
42. Baci, Perugia’s little chocolate and hazelnut kisses.
43. Buh! An expression that defies translation and yet somehow seems fitting for almost every occasion.
44. Fiat cinquecento, in all it’s wonderful retro colours, top of marito’s wish list.
45. Naples, the dark heart of Italy.
46. Befana. Will she bring you sweets or coal? You’ve gotta love the Christmas witch.
47. Rolling wheat fields, changing with the light, a magical part of the landscape.
48. Pizza, peasant food made good, one of Italy’s finest exports.
49. Niccolo Ammaniti’s ‘I’m not Scared’ a great read.
50. Olive trees.
51. More gelato.
52. Elena Ferrante ‘Days of Abandonment’ another good read.
53. Siesta, everything stops from 1pm to 4pm, why fight it?
54. Body language; the shrugs, the gestures, the facial expressions, my children use them all!
55. Free food, the funghi, the truffles (I wish!), the wild herbs and salads, it’s a foragers paradise.
56. Fashionista, they are out there somewhere, though maybe not in Chiusi.
57. Churches, dimly lit, smelling of candle wax and polish.
58. Ferragosto, everything stops for the whole month of August, why fight it?
59. Tans. After April, somehow, everyone has one.
60. Italian beach culture, the kiosks, the loungers, the tightly fitting speedos...
61. Risotto, the ultimate comfort food. Even the ritual of stirring and pouring can soothe a savage soul.
62. Northern Italy, Liguria and Piemonte, the coast, the mountains, the polenta.
63. White roads, often unmarked, dusty and rutted, seemingly leading nowhere.
64. Ciambelle, (doughnuts), let’s not go there.
65. The men in tights, the processions and pageantry, the painstakingly made Renaissance costumes.
66. The mists in the valleys and the hilltop towns of Tuscany and Umbria.
67. The seasons, each very different, defined and extreme.
68. Frescoes. Yes, all of them.
69. Acqua Frizzante
70. Panettone, the gaudily packaged traditional Christmas cake. Vanilla scented and sweetly risen, these cakes are highly addictive and all too often on special offer way into the New Year!
71. Carnevale, the masks, the streamers. Oh come on, it’s a holiday!
72. “Permesso?” No Italian would ever cross your threshold without first uttering this word.
73. Architecture, apart from a bleak post war period lasting well into the 1970’s, Italian architecture is pretty damn fine.
74. Pecorino, a great cheese made from sheep’s milk. Sold here in many guises from young and wet, like a sharp tasting mozzarella, to mature and granular rather like a parmesan. Delicious, eaten with pears or fresh figs.
75. Pigs, what the Italians can’t do with pork is not worth knowing, think proscuitto, pancetta, speck, salami, salsicce (I know, we’ve been there already!)
76. The smell of wood smoke in winter.
77. Roberto Saviano's ‘Gomorrah’ This book is both brilliant and terrifying in any language.
78. Sweet wine, Vin Santo, luscious and golden for dipping biscotti, and Marsala, the cook’s quick fix, for transforming pan-fried chicken or pork into something sublime.
79. The Equestrian Portrait of Guidoriccio da Fogliano, attributed by some to Simone Martini. This portrait of a knight setting forth from his battle camp to besiege a walled hill town is stunning, no matter who it’s by. It can be seen in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, and is one of my very favourite paintings.
80. An almost neverending 3 months off school for the summer holidays, according to my children it’s the very best thing about Italy, personally I’m not so sure.
81. Gennaro Gattuso, I just slipped him in for marito.
82. Pesto. Whoever first dreamt up this fragrant sauce was a culinary genius.
83. Gorgonzola, love it, love it, love it.
84. Ricotta, Mascarpone, Fontina, OK, OK, I just love cheese.
85. Taking the waters, a national pastime, those thermal spas are oh soooo good.
86. Riccardo Scamarcio, an Italian actor who is heartbreakingly gorgeous.
87. The tiny green lizards, I don’t know their proper name, but I love the way they smile and keep me company when I’m sitting on the steps.
88. Francesco Totti, making the beautiful game beautiful, apparently.
89. Piero della Francesca’s overwhelming fresco, the ‘Madonna del Parto’ located in the tiny village of Monterchi, near Arezzo. It is the only depiction of the pregnant Madonna in Renaissance art.
90. Cypress trees.
the 15th century mad monk of Florence, adversary to the Medici and
instigator of the purging frenzy that culminated in the colossal
‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. Some people just make great history.
92. Long lunches in a shady piazza.
93. The hot resinous smell of summer.
94. Tiziano Ferro, bellissimo.
95. Biscotti, dry and nutty Cantuccini for dipping, or sweet and squidgy Ricciarelli for pure indulgence, the Italians do make great biscotti.
96. Le Marche, Abruzzo, Calabria, all places I haven’t been to yet but have heard so much about that I just can’t wait to visit.
97. Regional food passion. In what other country would a group of grown men stand around naked in the football changing room discussing the merits of mozzarella? Thank you, marito, for that insight.
98. “Dai”, that a word so short can be so full of meaning, moaning and pleading is quite amazing.
99. Prosecco, fizzy and frivolous, the Italian answer to Champagne.
Phew! I think I need one!
I’m sure there are many, many more. After all, these are just my reasons based on the Italy that I know so, whether you agree or disagree, please feel free to add a few of your own in the comments. As for number 100 well, I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait…
The hidden junkyards of Umbria are not really a secret, but I always feel a kind of furtive excitement whenever I come across one, as if somehow I have outwitted the wily dealers at the antique markets and found their precious source. My favourite is on a scrappy bit of farmland nearby, former barns and pig stys stand full of treasure whilst chickens peck amongst the remnants of a much harsher rural life. The owner is locally known by the nickname ‘il Tarlo’, the woodworm.
It may look like an unkempt jumble of damp wood and rusting metal but if you have ‘the eye’ it is so much more. ‘The eye’ is a term that causes much bickering between me and marito as each of us would be loathed to admit that the other one has ‘it’ if, indeed, either of us does. I suppose it simply means seeing potential in something that even Mr Woodworm would be hard pressed to understand, and even harder pressed to try to charge you much for.
As marito points out a beautifully worn metal tabletop, I nod in agreement. It is round and mottled with the oxide colours of rust like an August moon. “That would look great on the wall” he says, I nod again, then he boasts (and I know it’s coming), “You see, I’ve got the eye!”
Of course he may think he has ‘the eye’, but not for long. In one of the dimly lit, corrugated iron sheds, behind a pile of peeling white1960’s hospital doors I glimpse something interesting. We lug it out and, in the light, can see it’s an old red door, the pigment faded to a glorious rosy orange, its bolted together with metal straps and to me seems like the perfect find. “That would make a fantastic table top”, I venture. Marito nods and, quick as a flash, I claim back ‘the eye’!
It’s sad, I know, but we can play this game all day.
I love the way that things can be salvaged, that they can evolve and a door can become a table and a table become a piece of art.
Sometimes, of course, it goes completely wrong and Il Tarlo has the last laugh. I imagine he thinks he's got 'the eye' too.
The best thing I ate today;
Once you have eaten pici, all other pasta seems to pale. The thick, chewy, almost nutty strands of pasta rather like a superior kind of fat spaghetti can carry almost any sauce. It is as good slicked with oil and peperoncini as it is with something more robust.
I think it may be a Tuscan/Umbrian thing but every local menu seems to boast a ‘pici al ragu’ or a 'pici all'anatra' or 'pici al pomodoro' and so on. Traditionally it is made without the addition of egg and I’m sure the very best is hand rolled on the thigh of an ancient Italian Nonna, but luckily there are some surprisingly good varieties available in the local supermarket too!
Where to get it:
At every restaurant in the region of Tuscany and Umbria, also available in most supermarkets and ‘alimentari’. Especially good, both fresh and dried, from COOP Castiglione del Lago.
There's a lot to be said for taking a break, recharging our flagging batteries, and getting a little distance and perspective on things. Our New Year break was to see some very old friends who have made their home in the South of France.
Italy may be the home of
Michelangelo and the Renaissance greats, but the South of France was
the part of the world favoured in the 19th Century by Van Gogh and
Cezanne, the 'father' of Modern Art.
Simply driving around the beautiful scenery, with it's colours just as striking in Winter as in the height of Summer, the paintings just pop out at you. It is an overwhelmingly beautiful place.
Isle sur la Sorgues
There is Mont Ventoux, painted by the artists who chose to break with tradition and paint for the first time 'en plein air', and famously climbed by Petrarch one morning in 1336 'just to watch the sun rise'.
Old door in Maubec, Provence
There is the imposing mountain range of the Luberon, changing quite dramatically as each hour passes, and there are the old towns and villages of Provence, painted in colours now beautifully faded and bleached by the sun.
But perhaps most of all, New Year is about old friends, and nothing recharges my batteries as fast as they do.
On the drive home, I began making a list of 'Great films I have never seen for one reason or another', and it is beginning to get long and a little embarassing, it includes Star Wars, Casablanca, ET, Gandhi, Schlindler's List, Bridget Jones' Diary, Nixon, Clockwork Orange, Annie Hall, West Side Story...
Don't laugh, try it yourself.
This is one of those times of the year when life takes over and blogging simply has to take a back seat for a little while, so this is just a quickie to wish you all a wonderful Christmas, to thank you all for reading, commenting, supporting and encouraging us during the year, and to hope that you all have a happy and healthy 2009. xx
It has rained for 3 weeks, 5 days and 8 hours - almost non-stop and almost biblical - and the sound of ‘rain on roof’ is becoming strangely hypnotic. However, despite flood warnings from our Italian neighbours and the sight of the eco warriors on the hill building what looks like an ark, we decide to pop into Arezzo to look at the Christmas lights and do a spot of shopping. We put a bucket under the drip that’s coming in from the bedroom ceiling and head off.
It’s late afternoon and Arezzo is ablaze with festive cheer and, despite the rain, a good old-fashioned Christmas passeggiata is in full swing. White lights are strung across the narrow streets leading up to the main Piazza Grande and, while the lower town is buzzing with activity, Vasari’s loggia and the beautiful square up in the old town are strangely deserted. The flagstones gleam wetly in the lamplight and footsteps echo in the chilly dusk.
Traders, who have spent the day setting up for the weekend’s antique fair, have bundled up their treasures under drab tarpaulin wraps and gone to ground. The last, and most conscientious, check the ties and straps for security before heading silently to the bar.
That this vast array of antiquities is left untended overnight is amazing, but there is something quite forlorn about it too, with the empty darkening square and the unattended tables waiting, solemn and sodden, in the rain.
Back on Corso Italia, gifts are carefully chosen and lavishly wrapped. Little hands clutch warm paper cones of roasted chestnuts and, although the rain comes and goes in fierce gusts, all seems well with the world. Unless the bedroom ceiling’s fallen in, that is.
Best thing I ate:
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
I have to say that there is something wonderfully ‘winter wonderland’ about buying roast chestnuts from a street vendor’s blazing brazier, although the ones we bought were mighty expensive. Far cheaper and much more fun is to invest in a traditional chestnut roasting pan (a frying pan with holes in the bottom) and then, providing you have an open fire or wood burning stove, you can while away the cosy winter evenings roasting your own.
Cut a little slash in the skins of your chestnuts, fill the pan with a single layer and roast them amongst the glowing embers. They will take approximately 10-15 minutes, depending on the heat of your fire. Remember to give the pan a good shake every now and then to avoid too much charring. They make a fantastically seasonal fireside snack or a fine dessert, paired with a slab of Gorgonzola and a glass of luscious Vin Santo which seems to intensify the sweet, smoky flavour.
Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain…
I read last week that the famous bronze David by Donatello has finally been finished after an 18 month restoration involving the use of lasers normally employed to treat glaucoma. A normal 'mechanical' restoration had not been possible when an x-ray in 2006 discovered the presence of precious and delicate gold leaf on parts of the statue.
The forward-thinking curators of the Bargello museum decided that it would be interesting for the public to be able to see the work in progress and so the whole thing has been on show in the museum as it progressed. I'm not suggesting that the watchful eyes of the public had anything to do with it, but the restoration finished exactly on time, and the resulting statue is now back on display in it's full glory.
I had been to see it many times previously and it is a wonderful piece of work but, many years ago, when it was kept at the Ufizzi, it had been covered with a mixture of oil, wax and pigment to make it look consistent with all the other dark bronzes in their collection. Now that this grimy layer has been carefully removed, it has become clear that David had been intended to be in a light, polished bronze. Now, back to it's former glory, it takes your breath away.
As the director of the Bargello put it, “he is incomparably more beautiful now than ever before, even though it would seem impossible”. I know it's her museum, but she's right.
And maybe I shouldn't grumble, especially given the wonderful other works of art available at this seminal museum for just 4 euros, but I do have a couple of slight gripes.
The museum has tried something new in terms of a restoration. Rather than turning David back into what he would have looked like by replacing the lost gold leaf it has, instead, recreated a second version standing just behind the original. It has been made to appear new, as the Medici would have wanted to see it, in the courtyard of their palace a stone's throw from the Duomo in Florence. There is bright, shiny gold leaf all over David's hair and sandals and all over Goliath's helmet. It is also on a rather elaborate plinth, a little higher than the original, probably at the height it was supposed to be.
I can see what they are trying to do, the intention is to inform and to educate, but I really wish it wasn't there. The visual impact of the original David is enough. You walk into this wonderful, majestic room on the first floor of the museum and are drawn straight to it, 580 years old and perfect. Now, instead, there is a visual confusion of the two and other visitors to the museum were asking each other in embarassed whispers which was the real one!
My other gripe is about photography. It's an old chestnut, but it does upset me when, in a museum of bronze and marble sculpture which cannot possible be damaged by photographs, you are told off for trying. I get particularly annoyed as seeing and appreciating sculpture is all about going around it, seeing the forms and shapes from all it's angles, and choosing your own favourite, not just the one the postcard photo guy in 1965 thought you should have.
That's why I have nothing of the beautiful new David, just a couple of shots of the ceilings. taken whilst pretending to put my lens cap back on...
Anyway, I suppose you're just going to have to take my word for it and put it on your list of must-sees the next time you're in Florence. It's worth every cent.
The stupidest thing I did today;
Got caught (and told off) trying to take a photograph of a statue.
A couple of questions have come up this last week, as we dodged the rainstorms and planned a trip to Florence for potential students. I remember helping to organise a similar visit about 13 years ago, in which we had booked a tour along the Vasari Corridor. It's an amazing place to see, as it spans a length of about a kilometre above the busy city of Florence from the Uffizi gallery to the Pitti Palace, crossing the river Arno by way of the Ponte Vecchio.
It was designed to allow the Medici family who ruled Florence at that time to be able to go from 'home to the office' untroubled by the peasants in the streets. I read that, despite this amazing construction, the Medici still had all the butchers' stalls removed to another part of town because of the smells wafting up to their lofty and secret passageway. On that trip many years ago we had had to cancel our visit, and I felt that now would be a good time to go, as it has been used to house an eclectic collection of self portraits, including Vasari's himself.
Now here comes the question. Many people had spoken about it being quite hard to get into the corridor because of the rather old-fashioned booking system, but no-one had prepared me for the price, the cheapest ticket seems to be around €100 and the standard price €150 per person, bookable ages in advance and cancellable at short notice by the Ufizzi if they haven't got enough people for each visit.
So my question is, simply, why?
Next. I was in a small town the other day and came across this in the main square. There was no-one around to ask what it was and there is presumably a very simple explanation to its purpose, but I like to title my photographs...
So, any ideas?
The stupidest thing I did yesterday.
Thinking I might need a little, light lunch before my first ever Thanksgiving dinner, hosted by a genuine American and his genuine Italian wife.
And, on that subject, Happy Thanksgiving! (albeit a bit late)
Having to get the car fixed is never a good thing. We end up stranded and a little helpless. However, when you get it fixed at a garage with a sign like this one, it makes it all seem worthwhile, to me at least.
My casual obsession with typography meant that I spent quite a few minutes waiting for the light to catch this sign ‘just right’, much to the amusement of the mechanic, who now joins the ever-increasing number of Italians who think I'm a buffoon...
The stupidest thing I did today;
Allowing a friend to introduce the children to the wonderful world of ponies.
All the feedback for the website was so helpful and, as this is my first (and probably my last) appearance on film, it seems right to pass it by you guys first.
We dodged rainstorms and pestered the butcher, we struggled through muddy fields with a tripod and a dog, I messed up my lines, my dialogue is a little clumsy at times and I know it looks like the biggest meme in blog history - but we needed to do it and so, here it is (if you can spare 4 minutes and 32 seconds)...be kind!
The stupidest thing I did today;
It might well be posting this...
During our time in Italy focusing on this project, we have had a lot of help from a lot of people. We know we’re really lucky to have some wonderful friends, people who have been extremely generous with their time and their talent.
This week, just after we decided we needed to make a promotional video without spending any money, who better to turn up from London than Rupert; old friend/editor/producer and film maker who was willing to give up a week of his time to help us.
Rupert, our hero.
The hastily assembled crew, which consisted of me (tripods, umbrellas, dialogue coach, hair and makeup), marito (a star is born!) Martyn (another old friend on stills) and the girls (annoying sound effects) were unflagging despite the rain and the wise words of yet another old friend ringing in our ears, “you should have done it in the summer”. We think we got enough film ‘in the can’ for a four minute video (with marito secretly hoping for a mini series!)
Working with a professional filmmaker was a fascinating experience; someone who can walk down an unfamiliar street and instantly see ‘the shot’, who can judge light and atmosphere with a glance. The creative process that goes into making a short film is astounding, the ability to encapsulate and distil all that visual information.
So, although marito may think he was the ‘star’, the real star of this whole production was Rupert, he even managed to coax ‘Big Al’ out of the butcher’s for a cameo role!
Now we have to wait for the final cut but, rest assured, the ‘premiere’ will be right here for your amusement. Until then, it’s back to the daily grind for marito I’m afraid, apart from the occasional starry tantrum!
The star, struggling with his lines...
The best thing I ate;
Penne con zucca et salvo arrosta
(Penne with roast pumpkin and sage)
Well, goodness me, in honour of Halloween, marito brought home quite the most enormous pumkin I have ever seen. Extremely beautiful it was too but, waste not want not, I have risen to the challenge and we have been feasting on it ever since. With a nod to Judith in Umbria, my fellow blogger and culinary muse, I have been refining my recipe for roast pumpkin and penne, quite delicious in a very savoury, sweet, ‘pumpkiny’ kind of way. It’s quite a rich dish and would go well with an astringent green salad on the side, not the Italian way, I know, but here goes anyway…
About 1kg pumpkin skinned and cut into small chunks
3 or 4 whole cloves of garlic (in their skins)
2 peperoncini, finely chopped
a teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves
a large handful of sage leaves (left whole)
150ml of good olive oil
Ground black pepper
freshly grated parmesan cheese
Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees. Put the pumpkin, garlic, peperoncino, thyme and sage into a bowl, then pour over the olive oil and season generously with the salt and pepper. Mix the whole lot together (being careful not to break up the sage leaves). Tip into a roasting tin and roast for about 30 minutes or so. Different types of pumpkin (and there are many) have different cooking times so it’s best to check after half an hour, what you’re looking for is a melting texture with slightly caramelised edges.
Meanwhile cook your pasta until ‘al dente’. When your pumpkin is cooked, remove it from the roasting pan with a slotted spoon and keep it somewhere warm, while you pop the garlic out of it’s skin and mash it into the sweet oily pan juices. Tip the pan juices into the pasta and mix thoroughly. Pile the pumpkin on top of the pasta making sure everyone gets some of the lovely crispy sage leaves. Add a grating of parmesan if you wish. Serves 4 to 6 people depending on the ‘greed factor’.
Where to get it;
Make it yourself
I feel like my wheelbarrow. I used to be slightly embarassed of its green, shiny newness amongst all the battle-hardened others. It's now had two new wheels, needs rewelding, has been repaired countless times with wire and steel rods, and it still doesn't work very well. (It's actually a better analogy than I was expecting, now I write it down.)
Another sign that the building work has become so all consuming was when my youngest daughter gazed up at the sky on a cloudless night and said, "Look daddy, the moon looks just like concrete" - and, to be fair, it did.
So I’ve decided to do two things; firstly look the other way, and start to appreciate the changing landscape whenever I take the dog for a walk (while we pretend to look for truffles), and secondly get back to painting. It's a good thing too, as I'm running a Botanical Illustration course next Spring.
Last year I was able to visit a group of experts in this field and, to my surprise, some of the most interesting work seemed to focus on plants in the process of turning from green to brown as they dried and decayed. There was something mesmeric about watching these painters so focused and concentrated on their subjects, sometimes working through magnifying glasses, and often using lamps fitted with special daylight bulbs to allow them to continue working through into the night. I knew immediately that this was an area I would be foolish to ignore, especially living here, literally tripping over so much flora and fauna.
Some botanical illustrators work in a true, scientific way, documenting and recording the exactitude of the species and giving notes and measurements on the page very precisely. Others, like this particular group, have also developed this type of illustration into a true art form and the images are stunning, plants so real you can almost touch and smell them. You can see their work at www.amicusbotanicus.com
During my Art degree we never spent much time on this area of study but, as I’ve become older, I’ve started to appreciate more the subtlety of this exacting discipline and, living here, you've got no choice. You have to love nature.
Anyway, here’s my early offering of the season, it’s called ‘Parthenocissus quinquefolia’ (or Virginia Creeper to you and me).
The stupidest thing I did today;
This is perhaps the stupidest thing I’ve done all year and I can hardly bring myself to write it down, so all I’ll say is that it involves seeing a poor abandoned kitten one morning outside a bar …
Around here the best (and most economical) way to buy wine, from ordinary table wine to the posh stuff, is to buy it from a ‘cantina’ (cellar or winery). You can buy it by the bottle, and in many cases you can also buy it ‘sfuso’ or loose. A visit to one of these places is a treat in itself, especially if it’s one near the wine heaven, Montepulciano.
There is something rarified about this noble little town, high on it’s ridge, midway between Florence and Rome. Flurries of classical music escaping from the Accademia della Musica echo through the alleyways and the air is diffused with the aroma of fermentation as thousands of barrels ‘cook’ gently in the vast cellars below the streets.
I grew up around wine. My dad was a wine importer and it was both his business and his pleasure. Most of our family holidays were based around the wine regions that interested him, be they France, Spain or Italy. It was normal for us, as children, to play ‘catch’ amongst the vines or hide-and-seek down in the musty cellars. I remember my sister and I giggling and lunging at each other from behind the barrels as my mum and dad talked earnestly with wine producers, sniffing and slurping, dad taking notes and swapping cards, loading the samples and freebies into the back of the car. Later, as surly teenagers, we were allowed to join in those exquisite tastings, a privilege that was always guaranteed to lighten the mood.
The smell and atmosphere of a wine cellar, whether full of ageing oak or shiny stainless steel is intrinsically woven through my memories of my father. As with so many things, I wish I had listened more intently and asked more questions. My knowledge of wine is now, sadly, missing my ‘personal expert’ but my enthusiasm, which I inherited from him, remains undimmed.
One of the things my dad was best at was sniffing out a good affordable wine. He wasn’t a wine snob, he loved it all. During the 60’s and 70’s it was buyers like my father who expanded the English palate for wine by importing drinkable, but inexpensive, table wines from France, Spain and Italy and gradually pushed the ubiquitous sweet German white wines to the back of the supermarket shelves. He liked to buy wine from small, creative, independent producers who grew wines with ‘personalities’ imparted by a combination of climate, soil and grape variety. “Wine”, he liked to say, “is alive”. One of the only things we can consume after 200 years, still changing and evolving, waiting for the pull of the cork. In one sense it’s just a drink, and yet it is capable of engaging our senses and imagination, it’s depths and complexities can communicate something intense and beautiful.
The ‘cantina’ that we visited was Ercolani located just outside the walls of Montepulciano. We tried some wonderfully plush vintages of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano before opting for the youngest (and cheapest) one which we bought ‘sfuso’ in large 5 litre demijohns. We also tried their deliciously sticky Vin Santo and some mind-bending Grappa, but that’s another story.
The hills around here are full of ruinous houses, sometimes complete hamlets have been left to rot, organic beauties, slowly changing with decay. Remote and isolated, choked with brambles they stand at the end of rutted tracks, their vacant windows gaping. They may be wrecked and wretched but to me each one seems like an opportunity.
To celebrate my birthday earlier this week, marito took me out for lunch not, as you might expect, to some ‘fancypants’ expensive restaurant but on a picnic jaunt high up in the Umbrian hills. The sky was clear, hard enamel blue and the sun low and hot, a runaway Summer’s day.
One of my favourite things to do is drive the rough white roads, with no particular destination in mind, looking for things. Maybe another Madonna or an unexpected view but, as we drive, I am always aware that just over the hill or around the corner might be the thing that thrills me most, an abandoned house.
Usually, my curiosity is restricted to a brief glimpse and a craning neck but it was my day and I got to choose the picnic spot. This time I was going in.
Crouching amongst ragged grasses was a small stone house. I felt the baked dryness of the door and the old wood split and broke away as I forced it open to reveal a single square room.
Weeds billowed in through broken shutters and hazy dust clouds hung suspended in slants of sunlight. Rubble covered a floor of crude terracotta tiles that were laid directly to the earth, in the centre was an up turned wormy table blanched to the colour of ash and along one wall a row of empty bottles.
Old sacks, parts of a broken iron bed, some kind of sieve and a long handled spade were all that remained of someone else’s life. In the heady silence of the afternoon I felt it would be easy to inhabit that room. To clear away the rubble, right the table and mend the bed, to spend an evening drinking rough red wine with the ghosts, as bats swooped in and out of the open rafters and cold moonlight crept into the corners.
Luckily marito is not so romantic. ‘What do you think’? I asked, as he blundered in with the dog. I won’t repeat his answer in its entirety but the phrase ‘totally insane’ featured prominently.
Best thing I ate today:
Calming, comforting carbonara; basically a pasta sauce made with eggs, cream and parmesan. Soothing and somewhat soporific, it’s a delicious supper dish now that there’s a faint chill in the evening air. You can make endless variations on this theme by adding handfuls of this or that. Just make sure that you don’t overwhelm the creamy sauce. Some of my favourite additions are: small chunks of crispy pancetta, or crumbled Italian salsiccie and a few green peas, or maybe a scant handful of pre-cooked purple sprouting broccoli. Here it is in a simple form with just the added heat of peperoncino.
Kinda carbonara con peperoncino
Pasta – Penne is good, approx 300gm
4 large organic egg yolks
2 large handfuls of freshly grated parmesan cheese
100ml thick cream
2 small peperoncini, chopped
2 gloves of garlic chopped
Sea salt and ground black pepper
1 small handful of finely chopped flatleaf parsley
Cook the pasta until 'al dente' and, while its cooking, make the sauce. Put the egg yolks and cream into a bowl and mix together with half the parmesan. Season with salt and pepper.
Then in a heavy based frying pan gently sauté the garlic and peperoncino for about 5 minutes and take care not to colour the garlic. As soon as the pasta is done drain it and put it back into the, still hot, pasta pan, then mix in the garlic and peperoncino followed by the sauce. Toss it all together until the sauce is glossy and silky looking, you may need to heat the pan up a little bit more but be careful not to scramble the eggs. Add the rest of the parmesan and the parsley and give it another stir. Heap it into a bowl and serve.
In Italy they sell a lovely mix of peperoncino, garlic and herbs called, 'Erbe piccante per spaghetti' in little packets at the supermarket. They don't cost much and last for months...
Where to get it;
You've probably already got it all in the fridge, waiting.
Even Italian summer holidays have to come to an end and, last week, that end finally came. The girls went back to school. Half-days only at first, to help them get over the shock, I suppose. We had a 'last supper' under the twinkling fairy lights marito has rigged up in the pine tree and talked about the highlights of the Summer, “getting my arm back” for the small one and “going to the sea’ for the tall one. So that’s that. The long holiday is over for another year.
Whooping with delight (they really were that bored), and dressed in clean ‘grembiulis’ (a kind of apron favoured by all Italian schools) and loaded down by the obligatory enormous ‘zainos’ (rucksacks), the girls fairly ran into school that first morning. They left us light with relief and freed of responsibility, a celebratory cappuccino was definitely in order.
But something else had happened, something subtle, a slight shift of sensibilities. At the school gates we were no longer known as ‘stranieri’ (foreigners - that strange and wary word), but with some slight affection we seem to have become ‘Inglesi’ (English) and that, for me at least, is triumph enough. Because I know what the locals have always known: that no matter how wide our vocabulary, how good our accent, what team we choose to support or the depth of our tans, deep in our souls we will never be Italian.
But that’s OK by me, just give me a cappuccino and I’m happy to watch. After all, they are so much better at it.
The best thing I ate today;
More bruschette! Yes I know I’ve been banging on about bruschette all Summer and, if truth be told, I am a little obsessive when it comes to food. I get kind of stuck in a groove, the impulse to keep on perfecting a recipe takes over and, before I know it, we are eating bruschette every day of the week.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s delicious in all its forms and makes a perfect, healthy lunch, or antipasti, or breakfast, or dinner… midnight snack anyone?
Here they are, the last of the Summer season, until next year.
3 red peppers
Sea salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon good balsamic vinegar (but there’s no need to take out a loan)
A teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves
1 glove of garlic peeled and cut in half
6 slices of country bread
De-seed the peppers and cut them into strips. Heat some olive oil in a heavy based pan and sauté the peppers until they begin to soften, then add the balsamic vinegar and the thyme leaves. Continue to cook on a low heat for about 10 minutes (the idea is that the peppers begin to caramelize) but add a little water if they get too dry. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Meanwhile toast your bread (try and use a griddle if possible because I’m sure it tastes better) rub one side of the toast lightly with the garlic, pile on the peppers and drizzle over with a little more olive oil.
Bruschette con spinaci
3 handfuls of left over spinach
Sea salt and ground black pepper
1 glove of garlic peeled and cut in half
6 slices of country bread
Re-heat the spinach in a heavy based pan, stir in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and add a good grating of nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Toast bread as before and rub lightly with the garlic. Pile on the spinach and drizzle with more olive oil.
Bruschette con pomodori
Surely everyone knows how to make this. If not, email me.
I know it shouldn't happen like this, I ought to know what's going on, but every so often you visit a town by chance in the Summer, and you get an immediate sense that something is about to happen. Call it intuition, a sixth sense, or maybe it's just because a couple of thousand locals in medieval costumes are marching up the street towards you with drums beating, dragging ludicrously large cannons to the main square.
The festas here are great, and they just keep on relentlessly throughout July and August and even into September. Each one has its own historical charm and, more importantly, each one is taken quite seriously by the participants, even those given the minor supporting roles of 'common soldier' or 'wench'.
So we found ourselves in Citta della Pieve, wondering again what was going on. But this occasion seemed a little different from the others, something was definitely building up, and the mood in the crowd was quite excitable, there were chants and taunts towards the other groups of the town and all three; Castello, Casalino and Borgo Centro were definitely going to meet at the top for something.
We began to see people in the crowd putting plastic bags on their heads, some covering up their mouths and noses with their bandiere (normally tied around their necks) and others with cameras putting them in plastic bags too.
Then it began, the 'infarinata'.
From out of nowhere, hundreds, perhaps thousands of bags of flour suddenly came flying through the air from all directions, landing and exploding with some force all around the square. It was absolute chaos and mayhem. Everyone was at it, for about 15 minutes, until one of the groups, Castello, who had arrived in an enormous wooden castle for the fight, seemed to claim victory over the others, and the weary flour covered soldiers and wenches began to dissipate.
The Castello Terziere claim victory
But that wasn't the end of it, because that's the cue for the crowd to get stuck in, and so hundreds more people then ran into the square and took up the fight, this time with anyone and everyone.
Well, this was also my cue. I have always fancied myself as an intrepid war reporter type, so as soon as the small children began to scoop up the last bits of flour from unexploded bags, I finally emerged from my hiding place in a shop doorway and tried to take some dramatic shots. Suddenly realising why the other photographers had plastic bags over their cameras, I once again retreated to my shop doorway. Sorry.
It wouldn’t be a true Italian Summer without a trip to the beach (well, not in this house anyway). So, making good on a promise made to the small one, we pack the car with all our junk, our picnic and our plastic bags and head for the coast. (Not to be misleading, I have to admit that the nearest beach is a 2 and a half hour drive away, but I also have to say that it’s worth every minute).
We head towards Grosetto, taking the ‘short cut’ which winds up into the hills of Tuscany, past vineyards and castles and drops breathtakingly into the stunning Val D’Orcia before crossing the scorched coastal plain of the Maremma. This is cattle country, the wild west of Tuscany. Years ago the rich Sienese would pay the rough and fearless cowboys of the Maremma to ride bareback in the Palio. Today, the dusty plain is divided into huge ranches and long-horned cattle slumber under the wide blue sky.
Our destination is the Marina di Alberese, part of the Maremma’s preserved seashore and, I think, the only stretch of raw, untamed coastline left in Tuscany (the rest being part of the true Italian tradition of beach culture; a haven of bright umbrellas, and kitsch beach bars).
At the sleepy little town of Alberese we stop for breakfast and buy yellow spades and spindly green shrimping nets. In the bar, behind the glass front of a cabinet containing cornetti and pizette, I spot a tray of freshly made focaccia. It’s soft and oily and seared with a light salt crust. Four large wedges wrapped in wax paper complete our picnic and we are on our way.
Almost the best part of this trip is the drive on a long straight road through an imposing forest of umbrella pines, the hot resinous smell is almost overwhelming and wild rosemary grows along sandy pathways. Past the corrals of white cattle and chestnut horses, on and on through the trees until, at last, you leave the car and walk to where the forest ends and the trees grow into the sea.
The narrow beach curves gently round and, in the distance, you can see bruised mountains against the cobalt sky and a spit of land jutting out towards the Island of Argentario. Today the sea is light clear celestial blue, tipped with tiny silver waves and strewn along the beach are the pale bones of bleached driftwood. People before us have built these smooth wooden carcasses into strange shelters, wigwams and sculptures, and they are left to stand and weather until they are claimed by the waves.
There are no umbrellas or sun loungers, the nearest loos are a 10 minute walk back through the trees. All you have is what you take, I love that.
You can find out a lot more about Italian beach culture with a guide to Italy’s top ten beaches over at Italyville, one of my favourite blogs and, while you’re there, check out the other stuff too. Joe is a first generation Italian American, his blog is beautifully written, funny and intuitive. He comes from a family of butchers, bakers and pasta makers, what more could you want?
The best thing I ate:
Fig, ricotta and honey bruschette.
Throughout the whole month of August I have been silently stalking our fig trees, waiting for the first ‘Settembrini’ to ripen. For some reason they are late this year and I had begun to get impatient, but at last they are here and almost all at once. A huge, greedy glut of them.
Ripe fresh figs,
Fresh ricotta cheese
Toast your bread, I use a griddle because I think I’m posh, and I like the griddle marks. Spread the bruschette thickly with the ricotta, top with a torn ripe fig and drizzle over with the honey. If you are in company make plenty of them, if you are alone sit on the step in the sun and scoff the lot yourself.
Where to get them:
Make them yourself
With the football season just kicking off here, and without any English football to watch, I have decided that it's time to get myself an Italian team to support. Also, I've been told on more than one occasion that a man in Italy isn't fully dressed without the 'pink paper' under his arm and, at 1 euro, it represents a very affordable fashion statement.
Where I spent my first few years, in Malta (a tiny island 50 miles south of Sicily) everyone supported Juventus - I'm not sure why. Perhaps there was a certain magic or mystique or simply a natural appeal to one of the oldest clubs in Italy, set up by a bunch of English, Italian and Swiss lads who used the latin word for 'youth' to name their team and played in their, now legendary, black and white vertical stripes. I remember my brother and I collecting the stickers for our Panini football albums, always happiest when unpeeling a Juventus player. Their first Championship winning team in 1905 was, apparently, made up of a mixture of painters, poets and factory workers - wow, that's my kind of team!
However, living in Italy (but not in Turin where Juventus are based) it won't be easy to become one of the 'juventini' as all over the rest of Italy there exist a vast majority of 'anti-juventini' who have no time at all for 'la Vecchia Donna' (the old lady) of Italian football.
So, after a lot of soul-searching, I have decided to turn instead to my 'local' team, Siena, who have come good in the last few years and play in the top division. The advantage is that they are a smallish team who play in a smallish stadium near the city, less than an hour from here, and so I might be able to get a ticket to a game.
The other advantage is that they also play in black and white vertical stripes, so I can buy the shirt, wear it and yet continue to secretly still support Juventus, on the inside. You see, there is a saying in football which goes something like, '...you can change your job, your car, your name, your religion, your partner, even your sex, but you can't change your football team...'
The stupidest thing I did today;
Probably deciding to get involved in the murky world of Italian football - great players, financial corruption, violent fans, drugs, the Mafia, the World Cup. It's an opera played out every weekend and the obsession of every Italian.
August in Italy is a strange month, it has its own lazy charm but life, as we know it, shuts down. It packs it’s bags and clears off to the coast, or the mountains, or ‘nonna’s farm’ in Puglia. One by one the builders and the plumbers disappear into thin, hot August air until they are all gone.
For a while the cement mixer continues it’s lonely lament with only Marito for company until he too throws in the trowel and accepts that everyone needs a break. My excuse for lack of blogging is simple, ‘ferragosto’.
You start to notice the mass exodus at the beginning of the month as the discrete and irritating little sign ‘Chiuso per ferie’ appears more and more frequently; the barbers, the forno, the take-away pizza place, one by one they all succumb.
The motorways are suddenly filled with small Italian cars packed with people and their plastic bags all desperately heading for somewhere else and, quietly watching all this summer mayhem, quite still on her plinth or in her niche, stands the serene and ubiquitous Madonna of the roadside.
There are some more of these marvellous Madonnas in the sidebar, I hope you like them as much as I do.
The best thing I ate:
Succo di Mele
On the way to Castiglione del Lago is an apple farm, Az Agr. Mele del Trasimeno. The fruit, glowing rosily between dark leaves, can be seen on the beautiful espaliered trees from the roadside. It’s a small organic concern, they grow apples and they sell apples and, as luck would have it, they sell apple juice too.
But this is no ordinary juice, it can be quite changeable, sometimes clear and golden and at other times almost pink and cloudy. It’s aromatic and full of lovely old-fashioned apple flavours; a heady mix of sunny fruit with a hint of aniseed and almonds. It is as deep and rich and sweetly complicated as any wine might be. I like it best after lunch, give me a small cold glass of succo di mele with a crumbly wedge of parmesan and I’ll happily pass on dessert.
Where to get it;
Az Agr Mele del Trasimeno
SS71 Umbro Casentinese
Loc. San Fatucchio
Castiglione Del Lago
PG. Tel 075 9589722
I suspect that one of his many harmonicas is always lurking never more than a few feet away at any given time, ready to spring into action.
And so, with him firmly in mind, and accompanied by a bevvy of Zimbabwean beauties, the Mrs and two over-excited little girls (lucky me!) we headed off to the Trasimeno Blues festival in a local town on the edge of the lake. It's hard to imagine a more beautiful location for an evening concert; inside a medieval fort, surrounded by crumbling walls and ancient olive trees, with a small bar, a cool breeze off the lake and an atmosphere that's just so laid back.
Shemekia Copeland (never heard of her), daughter of the legendary Johnny 'Clyde' Copeland (never heard of him either), was heading the bill, direct from Brooklyn, New York.
They said her voice, even without a microphone, would be enough to crumble the walls and, when she eventually got on stage, you knew that she was the real deal; big, black and beautiful.
The truth is that none of us really knew much about the blues but, equally, none of us really had to. It was all about being there, sitting on the grass and waiting for Shemekia to crumble something.
I soon discovered that the Blues is all about 'love gone wrong' and Shemekia's 500 previous boyfriends all seemed to have a song written about them; vain, mean, lazy, no good hustlers and tramps. For some reason my 'posse' of girls found the whole thing very amusing...
The stupidest thing I did today;
Perhaps should have gone to see John Lee Hooker Jnr. the day before - I bet he's got a few choice numbers about previous girlfriends!
The first coat of calce (lime-wash paint) is diluted to the consistency of milk. As I slosh it on to the walls it streams down my arms and splashes on my feet. It barely covers the newly finished plaster in a thin pale wash. This is the ‘primo mano’ or undercoat in pure chalk white.
The idea of calce is that it breathes.
I love that idea, a house with a soul and walls that breathe.
After the primo mano you can choose a colour, if you wish, to add to the chalk base. You are given a tin of pigment, which you mix in, and the broken colour is achieved in 3 coats each diluted to a lesser degree with water. The end result is a colour that appears to move in and out of its own intensity, changing with the light and the undulations of the walls. Well, that’s the aim anyway.
Since I first visited Italy, years ago, I have been infatuated with its colours; the warm rosy apricots and rich terracottas of the peeling stucco in the piazzas. Faded frescos with the soft tinctures of the Renaissance, ghosts of vivid lapis blues and true clear reds.
In the countryside, the ever-changing grey green olives and inky dark cypresses stand against the ripened gold of wheat. And the land itself, its ploughed and fallow fields with great clods of soil like raw siena, the fertile colour of earth.
In the cavernous warehouse where we have come to buy the paint I feel suddenly nervous, almost overwhelmed by colour, but I know I haven’t come this far to paint yet another stark white wall, so I hold my breath and choose…
The best thing I ate;
Bruschette con pomodorini e ricotta or (less romantically) tomatoes on toast!
I have been making these a lot recently. They are great for lunch but even better as the sun sinks behind the hills, served with a gently fizzing glass of chilled prosecco. I think it is the intense tomato taste of summer, the piquant edge of the peperoncino, or maybe the mellow sweetness of the balsamic contrasting with the crumbling cool ricotta that really gets me. Enough already! Just try it.
cherry tomatoes (about 30)
Balsamic vinegar (1 and a half tablespoons)
Extra virgin olive oil
A peperoncino chopped really finely
Sea salt and ground black pepper
Country bread sliced about 1cm thick
Fresh ricotta cheese (try and get the good stuff made of sheep’s milk from the deli counter)
Leave the tomatoes whole and put them in an ovenproof dish and spread them out in a single layer. Season them with a little salt and pepper and drizzle generously with olive oil and half a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. Roast them in a hot oven for about 10 minutes or until the skins have burst and the juices started to caramelise. Take them out of the oven and add the peperoncino, then add another tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and stir gently to mingle the flavours.
Meanwhile, slice your bread and toast it on a hot griddle until it is crisp on both sides. Rub each slice a couple of times with a cut glove of garlic. Drizzle with some olive oil and sprinkle with a little sea salt.
To assemble your bruschette, spoon the tomatoes on to the toasted bread and top with a little ricotta. Serve on a large white platter with some torn basil strewn around.
So much to look forward to here when Summer arrives, as it finally did
a few weeks ago. We endured a long Winter this year and it was
difficult to imagine the heat, as today it is difficult to imagine
pulling on a second pair of trousers as a brace against the freezing
cold. But a part of this Summer has been put on hold and tempered by
the fact that our youngest child, the (not-so-small) small one, fell
off her bicycle and broke both bones in her right arm.
She knew, we all knew, just by looking at it.
took a tearful drive to the hospital and then had to make a longer
journey to Perugia, as the nearest orthopaedic specialist was there on
duty that afternoon.
The afternoon soon became the evening and we finally emerged, bleary eyed and blinking into the dark carpark, one of us wearing a heavy plastercast all the way up to the shoulder, set for 40 long days. Our little girl had no idea at the time what lay in store as the Summer began to take it's toll, but as we have now arrived at the 40th day, we are all at the end of our proverbial tethers.
I have been fortunate to have been otherwise preoccupied of late.
Not surprisingly, things of a building nature are my immediate concern
and it's a little like firefighting as I lurch from one emergency
deadline to another. The stress of that is, though, tempered by
allowing myself time every so often to go out in the car and 'discover'
new and interesting places to draw and paint.
I call it research, and it is, but it also gives me a chance to stop for a time and focus on something other than power tools.
I just do quick sketches or small paintings to get a true sense of what it would be like for a group, then move on. So far I have a little 'library' of good places for morning painting, good places for afternoon painting, and loads of good places for lunch.
I've been busy.
For the patient back at home, unfortunately it's not quite as simple as just 'taking it off' today. You see, the bone hasn't quite set correctly and we will have to wait for the results of a final x-ray to confirm that she is now free to swim, ride her bicycle, draw, and do homework with her right hand. Our supportive, collective family-ban on all such activities seemed like a good idea at the time, but 40 days is a long time for anyone, certainly long enough for our wheatfields to turn from vivid green to golden brown.
So today has been a long time coming and, hopefully, the real Summer will start, for one little girl at least, very soon afterwards. We'll see.
The stupidest thing I did today;
I said, rather foolishly, as we went in to see the specialist, "I'm sure it'll be alright, then we can go swimming this afternoon!". Not according to the doctor.
He simply shook his head and said, "...ancora 20 giorni..." Aaaaaagh!