Tuscan Tales Chapter 29 – Fig Jam and Fennel Tea


I think that Liam should have been a fig tree farmer. For many years, in the height of summer and in the height of the fig season, he managed to find what must be the only fig tree right in the heart of the City of London. Every morning he would leave our house a little earlier, get off the underground a stop or two before his usual one, and break what was his normal fasting day. That was until his younger brother also began working in the City, and then the earlier bird got the fruit.

At Fontana we inherited one large fig tree at the gate, with delicious large white figs. Then, when we were restoring the olive grove, we uncovered a small but prolific fig tree in amongst the brambles. These ones are deep red, and with this one the race is now on between Liam and the birds. Our neighbours don’t seem to eat them, preferring to wait until the end of summer, and then they make jam. They are all great jam makers, and on a summer’s evening you can see both Manuela and Leila out with their straw baskets collecting blackberries along our bumpy track.

‘I’ll take Manuela some of my fig jam!’ I told my friends M&M who were visiting us from Venice.  ‘She won’t like it,’ M replied, ‘haven’t you noticed how M never eats your jam?’

‘Not really,’ I replied, ‘why not?’  ‘It’s got lumps!’ M said, ‘I can’t eat it.’  ‘Nonsense!’ I said, ‘those lumps are the fruit.’  And it turned out that most Italians only like smooth jam – you must mill it up until it resembles baby food.

‘Well I am not going to do that,’ I said, ‘Rather I wait until spring, when the first crop doesn’t ripen and I make fig konfyt – whole fig preserve in syrup.  ‘Nobody does that,’ said M.  ‘I bet they don’t even know about the first crop.’  And she was quite right. I asked around – nobody knew what I was talking about.  Here are my culinary neighbours living down this valley for generations, and not one of them uses the first unripe figs.  ‘Must be a South African thing,’ I thought, and went off to phone a faraway friend with a fig farm in a remote valley near Riebeek Kasteel in the Cape …

It turned out that for a fig to ripen it requires a certain wasp.  This wasp does not arrive in the early spring, and so the very first crop of figs do not ripen, but merely fall off the tree.  Then, when the next lot appear, the wasp has arrived, and gets busy fertilising the fig.

If you stand under the fig tree and reach up and press the unripe fig quite hard between your thumb and index finger, you need to feel a slight ‘give’.  If you can, then they are ready for the pot.  You pick them whole, scrape them and cut a cross in the bottom.  Then you cover them overnight in a solution of slaked lime. The next morning give them a good wash, and boil them in a sugar syrup solution until they are translucent and glossy. Absolutely delicious with cheese, and, with the Tuscan pecorino or sheep’s cheese in our area, mine do not last a nanosecond.

figs-stewing-fixed

Except this year.  We nearly lost the lot.  Arriving mid-May the first thing that Liam did was hop out of the car and walk down to his carefully planted ‘orchard’ … one apricot tree, one mulberry, and two wonderful new figs of a different variety.  ‘Oh NO!’ I heard a wail coming up from the garden.  ‘The deer have somehow got in and have eaten a ring of new leaves around each tree.  Crikey – as if that porcupine hasn’t done enough to our garden already.’

I had a look. ‘Wow.  These deer have a pretty good reach,’ I said, ‘they’ve practically got to the top – and just look at that – they’ve eaten the unripe figs too.
Just then Alessandro arrived for pranzo.  ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘The fence is too low and now that you have tasty trees the capriolo – the deer – will easily jump it.  Then they will be very happy.  You must make the fence higher.’  So, as fruit trees rate very highly in Liam’s life, down came the workers and up came the fence.  We raised it by a metre.

After that, and with no night terrors, the little figs grew beautifully.  Soon I had pots of them boiling away merrily on the stove.  ‘I’ll take these to Manuela,’ I told Liam, ‘maybe as the fruit is completely whole it won’t rate as jam?  Maybe they’ll start a whole new industry?’

I put some of the whole figs in a pretty glass bowl, walked up Manuela’s stairs and ducked under the washing.  Calling out ‘Permesso?’ I desperately thought of the word for fig jam, praying that I did not get it wrong, as one of my friend’s mother’s had done …

Her mother, coming to stay with her, now Italian, daughter, had been desperate to learn Italian and impress everyone.  Only trouble was that her language skills were appalling – she had no ear at all.  One evening they were invited to dinner with the smart ‘Chianti set’.  That afternoon my friend found her mum studying away at her books.  ‘I’m going to speak Italian all night’ her mother announced.  ‘Oh please don’t!’ begged her daughter, ‘I don’t think that will be at all wise.’

But some mothers don’t listen, and they duly arrived at their host’s house.  They were bearing a delicious gift of home-made fig jam and mother, waving the fig jam in the air announced to the entire assembly ‘Guarda, sono faccio marmalade di figha sensa preservitiva.

fig-jam-fixedYes, you and I might guess that she had said: ‘Look, I have made you some fig jam without any preservatives.’ But not so fast. What she had actually said to the hoity-toity group was: ‘Look, I have made you some fanny jam without any condoms.’ Language can be tricky at the best of times …

But now, getting the word for ‘fig jam’ – mamellata di fichi – right, I seated myself at the kitchen table. The old one, Flavia, never moves from her seat. She faces the door, and sits at the right hand corner of the old wooden table. Manuela and Flavia both peered dubiously at the whole figs in their syrup.  ‘Prova’ – try,’ I said. ‘I’ve brought a little pecorino to go with them.’  Out came plates and knives and on went the kettle.  Gingerly they tried a teeny weeny bit.

Buono!’ they chorused in unison, without one jot of conviction in it.  In fact their faces were the picture of misery.

By now the kettle was boiled, and Manuela had got out three mugs.  ‘Now for some proper Tuscan fare,’ she said, ‘At the end of summer we dried fennel from the slopes of the hillside, and maybe you would like a little fig jam made from the big tree on our terrace?

fennel-fixedUp from the steaming mugs wafted the amazing smell of fennel. I peered into the pot of mushy fig and looked across at these two old Tuscan treasures. Both seemed to be waiting anxiously for my verdict.

‘Wonderful!’ I said, ‘Fig jam and fennel tea! Let’s have it with the pecorino that I brought.’

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 28 – The Florentine Flop

To me the best day of the year is my birthday. The 22nd March … not the 21st March or the 23rd March. I am quite unable do that. For, as long as I can remember, my joy has been to celebrate my birthday in my home, surrounded by friends and family, and I cook. A sort of lousy Babette’s Feast, for I am no cook to write home about, but this is the day that I pull out all the stops.

This year for the first time we were in Tuscany. ‘I’ll feed them all here,’ I told my brother, who was visiting from the Cape.  ‘Us, Mila and Mauro from Venice, and Kira and Mirko from Florence. I’ll set the yellowwood table beautifully. I’ll use Ouma’s old dinner service and I’ll cook something nice – with a real Cape flavour’.

My brother, a long time sufferer of my culinary experiments, looked at me dubiously: ‘Wouldn’t it be better to just go to a restaurant?’ he said. ‘Nope!’ I said, ‘I’ll ring Kira and see if she can come’. Now Kira is a legendary cook of note. Liam would walk the 32 kilometres from our house to Florence simply to taste her risotto. ‘Oh oh,’ said my brother, ‘THAT Kira.’

And so the doubt set in …

‘Kira,’ I said on the phone, ‘do you perhaps know of a nice cosy off-the-tourist-track restaurant in Florence where we can go for my birthday?’

duomo fixed

The nice cosy off-the-tourist-track restaurant lay just behind the Duomo. It was packed to the brim with locals enjoying good Tuscan fare. Doors and windows were closed against the March chill, scented waves of ribollita, lasagne and pasta competed with the chat and general laughter of people simply having a seriously good time. The local Tuscan red flowed and our table was enjoying it all immensely. ‘No matter that I did not cook,’ I thought, ‘I feel as happy as I have on every birthday.’ My brother glanced across the table at me, lowered his eyes and smiled gratefully at his plate.

It was late afternoon by the time we walked out of the door of the restaurant. The men walked ahead while us women set a more leisurely pace, strolling down the narrow cobbled streets and gazing at the beautiful displays in each window that we passed. Every now and then we stopped to talk about owning one of the stunning Florentine creations on show.

We were almost at the parking garage where we had parked the car when another and different window display sprang to light – it was a bicycle shop. On display were beautiful gleaming bikes of all shapes and designs … pedal, electric, fold-up … Fold-up? ‘Just the thing!’ I cried, ‘Let’s go in and have a look.’

Full of red wine and bonhomie we very soon forged an excellent friendship with the owner of the shop. ‘What I need,’ I said, ‘is a fold-up bike that would fit into Campari. Then I can come into Florence on a Sunday and I can simply park anywhere, get the bike out, and off I go.’

‘Sure!’ said the owner – he was so nice – ‘but you don’t want an ordinary little one. You want one with style’.

‘Style, that’s it exactly!’ chorused the three of us, ‘It simply won’t do without style.’ And then he produced it. A magnificent white, gleaming charge ready to do battle with any of the rough cobbled streets and traffic jams of Florence. ‘Oooooh!’ we gasped.

By this time the men had doubled back to find us, and they were much more critical, if not a tad sceptical. ‘But how does it work?’ asked Liam. ‘Oh that’s easy’ said the lovely man ‘You just snap-click and the handle bars and front wheel fold back to double the bike back onto itself.’ The men walked around it. Finally Liam, with a twinkle in his eye, said ‘Well, if it can fit into the back of Campari you can have it. It’s your birthday present.’

backseat fixed

Campari was duly fetched from the parking garage and positioned on the pavement outside the bicycle shop door. ‘Snap-click’ went the man and onto the back seat of Campari went the bicycle. A perfect fit, and a perfect end to a perfect day.

The next Sunday Liam folded my gleaming new toy onto the back seat of Campari and off I set for Florence. ‘Enjoy’ he cried as he waved good-bye from our wooden gate at the bottom of our valley, ‘Explore Florence and come back to tell me all about it’.

Passing Pasquale in his orto I called out to him. ‘Buongiorno … I’m going riding in the streets of Florence. ‘Let me see,’ he replied and came up to the car, ‘Oh, one of those’ he said. ‘Better you take the bus’. And muttering something suspiciously like ‘new fangled rubbish’, he set off back to his vegetable patch.

I decided to park Campari just in front of the American Embassy. ‘It’ll be a nice ride along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio,’ I thought, ‘and then I’ll take it from there’.

I got the bike out and set off. I crossed the Arno at the Ponte Amerigo Vespuci and cruised slowly along the south bank of the river. A light breeze played softly in my hair. ‘Oh this is the life’ I thought, ‘so step it up girl.’ I pedalled faster. In front of me I could see the Ponte Vecchio, its beautiful medieval shops basking in the morning sunlight. I headed for it.

Just about at the corner of Ponte Santa Trinita and Via Maggio there is a row of dust bins – those funny big grey ones on four little wheels. It was there that I heard a snap, but no click. With that the handle bars and front wheel folded in on me and I found myself airborne. With an unceremonious flop I landed on top of the dust bin with the broken lid. Tourists gasped, onlookers gazed … and I?

Dustbins fixedIgnoring my grazed elbows, and not even attempting the ‘snap-click’ I lifted the awkward beast up and beat a hasty retreat down the narrow side road running towards the Santo Spirito.

 

 

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 27 – A New Year … and Spring is in the Air

Spring is in the air ...
Spring is in the air …

 

All though the long winter months Fontana has stood cold and closed. Did the house miss us, and what have our neighbours been up to? I imagine the warmth of winter fires, snowy nights … when friends ask me where our house in Tuscany is I always say, ‘You don’t have to die to go to heaven, because paradise is right there’.

‘Right there’ is about half an hour due south of Florence. It is in the middle of Chianti, but contrary to the idea of an anglicised ‘Chiantishire’ we are at the bottom of a valley that seems to have stood still in time. Our neighbours still till the land, and three different families live under one big roof of a sprawling 17th century farmhouse. We bought the cattle wing. And so, by ancient stone, terracotta tiles, and the intricate balance that extended Italian groups need in order to co-exist, we are tied to them.

For me there is another factor: here I feel intricately linked to the place of my birth: the blue skies of the Cape, the olives and the vines, and above all the friendliness of the people. When I first arrived at this big stone house our neighbour Manuela was perched high on her steps hanging out the washing. I spoke no Italian. None of our neighbours speak English.

Bourngiorno’ I said praying that would be enough. ‘Brava!’ she laughed, ‘You see, you are talking Italian already.’ I could make that out. They liked me, and I liked them.

Now, after an interminably long winter, we are back. I step out of the aeroplane door and walk down the steps. My feet touch the tarmac. They are on Italian soil and I have arrived!

The Sita bus leaves Florence and starts to wind through the hills surrounding Florence and I sit back and smile. There seems to be a parallel action going on. As the bus climbs the hills, so my shoulders drop.

We hop off at our village and head straight across the road for the café. The owner Santino is inside and throws his arms out in delight. I get two kisses, a hug and a cappuccino. ‘The winter has been so-so,’ he says. ‘Lots of rain and no snow at all.’ ‘Oh – mi dispiace, I’m sorry’ I say. This does not bode well for the farmers as the vines and the olives like the deep snow – as it lies thick on the ground it slowly feeds the water deep down into their roots.

Very soon we are on our way, and as we walk down the bumpy road, pulling our aeroplane wheelie bags behind us, that feeling of being rooted between the two hemispheres returns. The view is simply stunning – the depths of the hills clearly visible through the sparseness of early spring. The little stream, so terribly dry in summer, rushes over rocks as it tumbles its way to Lucarelli, the Arno and finally the sea. We draw closer to the house, walking through Pasquale’s mess of rusty cars, abandoned tools, chickens and the odd pigeon or two. Manuela’s washing hangs stiffly in the crisp air. I stand at the old wooden gate and look across the terrace and into our garden …

Sandro Botticelli’s painting of ‘Primavera’
Sandro Botticelli’s painting of ‘Primavera’

In the Uffizi gallery in Florence is Sandro Botticelli’s painting of ‘Primavera’, or ‘Spring’ and I, along with so many tourists, have stood in front of it transfixed. But what draws me in are the flowers. Beautiful bare feet rest gently amongst the daintiest flowers of a spring meadow. Then look closer – there are the pinks, reds and whites of every kind of delicate flower imaginable. I read somewhere that there are over 500 plant species in this masterpiece. I could stand there for the rest of my days …

Yet here, at my very own gate, appears the riot in real life: a heady mass of tiny field flowers against the hit of blue rosemary and white viburnum. ‘Wow!’ I say to my husband, ‘Let’s leave the house and just wander around outside, it looks too good to be true.’ And it is. In amongst all the beds, winding through the still dormant lavender and other bushes are deep holes. ‘Something’s been sleeping here!’ I say to Liam.

‘And something’s eaten every single iris bulb – now there really is nothing left,’ he replies. We gaze at the devastation. Porcupine. All last summer we had tried to catch him, but with no success. We had even bought a trap and put in a tasty potato, but no go. When we left, we’d hoped he had left too, but that was mere optimism. Quite obviously he had decided to spend the winter in our garden, with a ready larder at hand.

On the east side of the house we hear our other neighbours. Elena is there walking the two dogs Beethoven and Lily. ‘It is a huge porcupine,’ she says, ‘I saw it the other day. In fact, there seem to be two, one on the inside of your garden, and one on the outside. Come and see what they are doing.’

Some time ago, in order to protect our domestic garden from wild boar, deer and porcupine we had erected a wire fence. On the advice of our neighbours we had run it about a metre deep under the ground to keep the porcupine out. ‘Porcupine will go mad for iris bulbs they had told us they will travel miles for bulbs, and for a potato.’

‘Well Elena,’ I say ‘This one, trapped in our domestic garden for most of the summer and all of the winter, must be the wild card, for nothing we try seems to get him out’.

‘Nothing?’ laughs Elena ‘You forget about Primavera. Spring. Amore. Love. Just look at your fence.’

And all along the base of the fence, like a long trench, our porcupine has been digging to get out. But why, when there remain other tasty bulbs in our garden? Then we look through the fence. And all along the base on the other side of the fence runs the same trench. ‘You see’ says Elena ‘there is a man and his ladylove and they cannot get to one another’.

‘Well,’ says my husband with a smile, ‘Let’s help love find a way. Tonight we leave the gate open. If he’s so keen to get to her, he’ll push off’.

‘But what if he’s not too keen on her – or worse still – he invites her back into our garden?’ I ask. ‘After all he likes it here, and what’s more the digging seems to be more furious from the outside. She’s quite obviously one of those pushy girls.’

‘Well, to be sure to tempt him out, we’ll put the trap outside the gate too. Then we’ll place a nice tasty potato back in the trap and see if he falls for it this time. Liam smiles ‘ … Just maybe he’ll invite her over for dinner!’

A potato love-letter? Call it Spring, Primavera or what-ever … wouldn’t work for me!

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 26 – ‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …’

‘Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we’ve no place to go – let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.’ Not quite so fast, Dean Martin! For as far back as I can remember, while the battery operated radio belted out tinkly stuff of reindeers racing over snowy roofs, our family was perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. This is in the Cape, where the hot sun shines down on a sparkly sea.

... the bontebok in the veld ...
… the bontebok in the veld …

Our reindeers were the bontebok in the veld, and thanks to a very old fashioned mum, we bravely tackled an enormous Christmas day meal right slap bang in the middle of the day. Turkey, suckling pig, chicken, brandy butter and fruit pudding all swallowed down in the boiling midsummer heat. ‘It must be so easy in the cold,’ we kids would gasp, as we tottered from table back to beach.

So imagine my excitement when we planned our first Christmas in our very own piece of rural Tuscany. Some children could make it, and some precious cousins too. ‘We’ll buy a tree and put it near the arched door in the dining room,’ I said, ‘and we’ll decorate it beautifully. We’ll have stockings hanging from the mantel piece above the fire, and serve mulled wine to all who come through our door.’

‘At long last we’ll tackle that wretched roast turkey in a proper climate,’ I thought, ‘and finally I won’t feel as if that stuffed bird has transferred its aggression to me.’

‘I really hope it snows,’ I said to Liam, ‘… we’ll have walks in the snowy woods and on Christmas Day we’ll walk up the steep chalk road to the little church and sing hymns – it doesn’t matter if we’re not Catholic.’ ‘If it snows like that,’ laughed Liam, ‘no-one will get up our road – and I am not sure how easy it will be to have a traditional English Christmas. In the first place I bet you won’t find brussels sprouts, and thank heavens for that. Come to think of it – what do Italians eat for Christmas?’

Very soon our family had flown in, and our cousins had flown in, and the house was filled with laughter and expectation. One morning we slipped and slid up the rainy road and managed to get to the butcher in Greve. It’s a wonderful place with hams hanging tightly from the ceiling, and meat and sausages and cheeses wherever you look.

It’s a wonderful place with hams hanging tightly from the ceiling
It’s a wonderful place with hams hanging tightly from the ceiling …

‘Buongiorno!’ I said to the man serving, ‘We would like a smoked gammon and a turkey please.’ ‘Why?’ asked the man. ‘Well, it’s Christmas in a few days and I want to cook them.’ I said. ‘Why you want to cook them?’ he asked.

Wondering if they had got extra staff in for Christmas I decided to spell it out, patiently: ‘Well, my grandmother taught me how to cook the smoked gammon.’ I said. ‘I do it with beer and mustard and it is delicious … and as for the turkey, well nobody actually likes it but it’s traditional.’ ‘No, no, no,’ he said, ‘You don’t understand! In Italy, I cook. You eat. You must tell me what you want and I cook it for you and you fetch it.’

‘Done deal!’ I said, happily dismissing hours of work in the kitchen. ‘You don’t’ by any chance mean the turkey too?’ By this time Liam had gotten interested. ‘Actually I was thinking of a chicken and a duck as well,’ he said.

‘I will prepare them for you,’ the man replied. I will roll the turkey and the chicken in one, and for you I will also roll a guinea fowl and a duck together. You can put both rolls in the oven at the same time.’ ‘Let’s leave the oven out of this,’ said Liam, ‘I think we’ll barbecue them.’ We had used the oven once or twice but it seemed to make funny bomb-like noises and nobody really trusted it.

‘No meat to prepare or cook.’ I thought, ‘How wonderful.’

piled high with box upon box of panettone
… piled high with box upon box of panettone …

‘Shall we head for the supermarket and see if we can buy a Christmas pudding?’ I said. ‘Nobody likes that either.’ said Liam, who had clearly put it in the turkey category. He was in luck. The supermarket was piled high with box upon box of panettone.

This is what we have for Christmas.’ said the teller, ‘It’s light and fluffy and just the thing after a big meal. Serve it with a bit of vin santo or limoncello and just relax.’

Relax? On Christmas Day? How wonderful.

Back home I ducked under our neighbour Manuela’s cold damp washing and climbed the steep stairs to Manuela and Pasquale’s. I love it up there – there’s a middle room as you enter, and all other rooms lead off from this. In the wintertime Manuela and her mother-in-law sit around the kitchen drawing warmth from the ancient wood stove. There’s generally an old relative nodding in a corner rocker and Pasquale beetles in and out bringing in the cold, the wet and the mud.

‘Where do I buy a Christmas tree?’ I asked. The assembled aged looked at me curiously. ‘You can’t plant a tree now.’ they said, ‘The ground is too cold and it will die.’ ‘No,’ I explained, ‘I want a pine tree that is chopped down – a ‘Christmas tree’ – one that I buy in order to decorate.’ ‘Not here,’ they said, ‘that would be a waste of the tree. Here we buy some outside lights, and then we find our best tree closest to the house and put the lights in it.’

‘That tree with the blue trunk, the one on the terrace that old Enzio painted for you, that is the tree to choose.’ came the advice from the old boy on the rocker.

‘No meat to cook, no pudding to make – and now no decorations to bother about.’ I called as I came back through our door. ‘How simply unbelievable. All we need to do is concentrate on the real meaning of Christmas.’

‘Let me do the decorations.’ said my daughter in law, and she put on her wellington boots and headed for the woods. Soon she was back with an armful of woodland magic … the brown leaves of the oaks, the fallen acorns, the orange berries of the pyracanthus and the dark blue berries of the juniper bush. She placed them in the middle of the long dining room table, winding some in and around the plates and cutlery.

‘It’s as if the woods have come in to dine with us!’ I said. ‘How wonderful.’

In the evening we put our names in a hat and chose our stocking. We hung them on the mantel piece. Then Liam and our son hung the lights in the blue-trunked tree. ‘Not too early tomorrow morning!’ I said to Angela, a young of heart cousin of barely contained excitement.

It seemed as if I had barely closed my eyes when there was a tap on my door and a quiet voice was saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ ‘Oh Angela, it’s too too early.’ I said ‘Do go back to bed and try and sleep just a little longer.’ ‘I can’t.’ came the voice, ‘You must get up. You simply must come and see.’ I threw on my gown and she took my hand and led me down the steep winding stairs. Downstairs with the huge arched windows all around us, we stood, transfixed …

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow ...
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …

‘Oh the weather outside is frightful but the fire is so, delightful, and since we’ve no place to go – let it snow let it snow let it snow …’

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 25 – Let the Light Eternal …

splashing in and out of the Atlantic sea
… splashing in and out of the Atlantic sea …

Born firmly on African soil, we grew up as African children do, running through wild acres of the veld and splashing in and out of the Atlantic sea. The languages, culture and experience of Europe passed us by. Totally. We learnt no French, no Spanish and no Italian. There was little chance of classical music, opera or art museums.

As the South African comedian Pieter Dirk Uys once explained ‘Africa was our whole world and it engrossed us completely. As a child I had a map of Africa on the wall next to my bed, and if I turned it upside down, then South Africa was on the top, and Europe stayed under the duvet. That was good.’

‘I’m going to learn French!’ I announced to Liam when I first arrived in London. ‘I know that it is at a very late age indeed, but I think my brain can take it.’ ‘Excellent,’ he said ‘go off and learn French so that you can speak Italian.’ ‘How odd is that?’ I thought. The French and all they stand for had long been a romantic dream of mine. At university I crooned away to Edith Piaf’s Milord, and smoked French cheroots. ‘Now I can go to Paris and sit in a night club and be – oh so – oh la la — French!’ I thought. So, for about three years, I battled through acres of French verbs never really knowing what was potting.

Then we bought Fontana. Out went the French and in came the most beautiful language in the world. The language of opera, of friendship and of love. From the gentle dialect of the Florentines to the more guttural Tuscans in our valley – those of the ‘ghasa and ghoco-ghola’ fame – I love it. And I fell in love with Europe and all it has to offer too.

There can be nothing more exciting than packing your car outside your home in London, and getting it ready to drive right across Europe. Once the picnic basket goes in, with its thermos flasks of coffee and snacks for the road, you’re set. ‘Let’s not go the same way every time,’ I said to Liam ‘let’s go the scenic route. Let’s spend a couple of nights on the road each time we go. Let’s go up through the Swiss lakes, or down to the Mediterranean, or even through Spain. Let’s do what we never did as children.’

And so we did, and it was wonderful. Yet every time that we reached our final destination, and we bumped down our perilous and familiar road I would think ‘Can there be a better place than this anywhere else on earth?’

‘You know, you don’t have to die and go to heaven,’ I said to Liam, ‘because paradise is right here.’ ‘That may be’ replied Liam but each time I arrive back I wonder if our old boys will still be there. They may be tough and wiry but they are really getting very frail.’

Then one day it happened. We arrived back fairly late in the evening. In the morning I threw open the shutters. The early morning sunlight streamed in and as I leaned out of the window to savour the moment I saw Leila down at the chooks. Alone. ‘That’s funny, where is old Enzio?’ I wondered, and I leaned out further. ‘Buongiorno,’ I called out, ‘Come stai? How are you?’ ‘Non cosi bene – not so good.’ came the reply. ‘I’ll come down,’ I said.

It transpired that a few weeks back old Enzio had had a heart attack. He had landed up in the hospital at Poggibonsi, and was now at home recovering. He is impossible,’ Leila told me, ‘he listens to nothing and will not rest even though the doctors have told him to.’

‘Well thank heavens he has the spirit to recover.’ I said.

 

the walking of Beethoven
… the walking of Beethoven …

Over the summer he did just that. Every day the old boy was up at the crack of dawn. Then Leila would take him by the hand, and with her help and the help of a stick, he insisted on slowly taking charge of all his old chores. One by one he achieved them, starting with the care of his beloved chooks and the walking of Beethoven, and slowly progressing to the more arduous tasks of strimming and gardening.

Everybody admired him, and especially old Cosimo, who seemed to do less and less himself and become more and more reliant on sitting on his upturned bucket offering words of encouragement. ‘Bravo!’ I would hear him call, ‘just a little more and you have done it.’

‘I don’t think old Enzio is the one to worry about’ I said to Liam one day. ‘Rather it is old Cosimo … he is getting less and less mobile and he’s a frightful colour.’ I had been over chatting to his daughter Manuela and his wife Flavia. ‘The women tell me that he won’t listen to a thing either … he eats and drinks what he fancies, and then sits in the sun.’

Not too long after that we managed another road trip. This time we decided to drive back to Italy through the Rhone valley, passing Dijon and Lyon, and overnighting along the way. On the final day we happened to be driving by the outskirts of Portofino.

‘We’ve got a little time – I reckon we are about 5 hours from Fontana – so why not pop in and have a cup of tea with Leo and Nell?’ I said. These friends of ours had just bought a house on the hills above Portofino and were anxious to show us what they had found. ‘Good idea,’ said Liam, ‘let’s do it.’

looking down on the bay of Portofino
… looking down on the bay of Portofino …

Leo and Nell were in and very soon the kettle was on the boil. We sat out on the terrace looking down on the bay of Portofino, entranced by what they had bought. Nell was getting to know the neighbours and Leo had taken to getting up every morning at 6am and exploring the countryside. ‘Stay for the night’ they begged, but we decided not to. ‘We need to get home’ said Liam, ‘we have already taken four hours out of our journey and we really should go.’

By the time we bumped down our stony road it was at about ten in the evening. Not a light shone in the big old stone house, for these are working people, field workers, who get up at the crack of dawn and work to the hours of the sun. We unpacked as quietly as we could and went to bed.

The next morning I ducked under Manuela’s washing and climbed her rickety stairs. I am in the habit of doing this when I arrive and it helps me to settle back. We usually have a little chat. Manuela feeds me shockingly strong espresso and her mother-in-law Flavia starts to frown in preparation of trying to understand my Italian.

But not this time.

‘Permesso’ I called knocking on their old brown door. The old fashioned courtesies still exist here. Manuela came to the door ‘Entra’ she said. Her face was swollen and puffy. Seated at the table beyond her was the large form of Flavia. Dressed entirely in black she was rocking backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Pasquale stood behind her his hands resting gently on her shoulders. He seemed at a loss to know what to do. ‘Che e’ successo? – what’s the matter?’ I asked.

But I knew. Old Cosimo was dead.

What I did not know, was that the funeral had been the afternoon before. Had we not decided to take a break for tea with our friends we would have been there …

Sitting atop the spine of one of the hills surrounding Panzano is a small cemetery of the utmost charm. I like to wander around it, for on all the graves, in good Catholic fashion, there is a picture of the person buried there. It sets my imagination going … who were they? Who was this young or old person?
Did they live a good life, or was it once of hardship and toil? If you pass this cemetery at night, every single grave, and the niches in the wall, are lit up. This is for 365 days of the year, through the heat of the summer, and through the cold dark days of the wintertime. They never go out.

Now the time has come for the eternal lights of that small cemetery to shine down on old Cosimo. No more will we see the familiar old figure toddling from plastic chair to upturned bucket to swing seat. No more will he weave fantastic stories around small events. No more will we see Manuela scolding him while she marches him through our wooden gate to return one of Liam’s tools that he has somehow ‘borrowed’.

A lovable, feisty, cheeky and simple rascal has gone, and quite simply, our little valley will never be the same.

our little valley will never be the same
… our little valley will never be the same.

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 24 – Hedging your bets …

It’s early morning. The time that I like best. The house is fast asleep and all is quiet. Our house guests will wake late – all our visitors do as they settle into this lovely stone house at the bottom of the Tuscan valley. They can be the movers and shakers of the world, these friends of ours, but when they take their luggage out of the car, and walk through the old wooden gate they simply stop and stare. Then I watch … I see the beauty of the valley, with its vineyards, its olive groves and the dense forest below slowly wrap its arms around them and hold them there. A deep and soporific peace envelops them and from then on they don’t move much.

I get out of bed, open the curtains and look at the hill opposite. Normally long rows of vines run upwards from the stream below, following the curve of the hill until they reach the line where the forest begins. But this year, just at the beginning of summer, machines arrived and pulled out the vines. Then they pulled out the trellis and laid them neatly to one side, and then they left.

Now the ground will lie fallow ...
Now the ground will lie fallow …

Here in the heart of Chianti, it seems commonplace to renew vineyards on a regular basis. Now the ground will lie fallow and they’ll be back at the beginning of next summer to plant the new vines. This summer we’ve had good rains and everything is green, almost lush. The huge old Cyprus tree next to my window is alive with small birds chattering away at the break of day.

‘Time for a swim.’ I say to myself. I walk down the steep terracotta stairs, across the hallway and out onto the breakfast terrace. The light is extra-ordinary – a soft translucent glow seems to be spreading itself softly through the branches of the trees … under and over it goes, winding its way through the lavender and wisteria, on through the olives and out past the rose climbing over the wrought iron gate.

I stand at the edge of the pool, just drinking all this in. Down below I hear our neighbour, old Enzio, letting his chickens out. Better get in before the house wakes … I put on my goggles and go straight in. ‘Twenty lengths, that’s the minimum …’ I tell myself as my body hits the cool of the water.

My goggles are old and I cannot see anything outside of the water, but with my head under the water they’re OK. I strike out .. ten laps, eleven laps, twelve … I’m at the deep end and about to turn. Suddenly there is an awful scratching on my right arm. Something is trying to claw its way up it. I try to shake it off, but I’m too ungainly in the water. It moves further up my arm, and then there’s a loud hiss in my ear.

My first thought is a viper – in our part of Chianti it is the only snake that is pretty deadly, and we have had one in the garden before. I can’t see through my ancient goggles but I manage to shake it loose and strike out for the shallow end. It takes a lot to frighten me, a tough South African background sorted that out, but right now I am simply terrified. As I swim I am yelling loudly, simply shattering the calm of the morning. ‘Help! help!’ I call, ‘Help! Something’s in the pool and it’s following me!’ But no-one comes. I seem to take forever to reach the shallow end, where I risk looking behind me.

... swimming bravely after the only raft it can see ...
… swimming bravely after the only raft it can see …

And there, swimming bravely after the only raft it can see, which is me, is a tiny hedgehog. Its dark little eyes are wide with terror as its little paws strike out bravely towards it’s perceived salvation. But this saviour has lost all sense of humanity. ‘Help! Help!’ I yell again ‘It’s a hedgehog and it’s after me.’

By this time I have managed to wake the house, well some of it. Liam comes, my nephew comes. ‘Oh my word!’ they cry. How did the little thing get into the pool? It must have been in most of the night, and it looks so frightened. ‘No, no!’ I yell, ‘You don’t understand. It’s me that is frightened. It jumped on me. It ran up my arm. It hissed in my ear. Oh oh oh.’

They look at me in astonishment. What’s happened to the tough South African, the brave wife, the plucky aunt they know? Who is this jabbering wreck?

‘There, there,’ they say, ‘you get out slowly and we’ll fetch a net for the poor little thing.’ ‘What will you do with it?’ I ask. ‘Please take it far, far away where it can’t see me and I can’t see it.’ ‘Calm down aunt,’ says my nephew, ‘it is perfectly harmless, and is more frightened than you.’ ‘Go and make her some tea,’ says Liam, ‘and I will take it far down into the wild olive grove.’

And that I thought was that.

The next morning I deliberated long and hard before deciding to swim. ‘Better just do it.’ I finally decided. Once again the house was quiet, and once again the early morning magic down at the pool made me glad that I was up. I checked the skimmers carefully – for when the little thing had fallen in during previous night the pool motor would have been off. He had probably spent the night balanced on a skimmer. My turbulence in the water must have flushed him out. ‘Ready as I’ll ever be!’ I thought and dived in.

... this shower ... is tucked away on an old stone wall ...
… this shower … is tucked away on an old stone wall …

I had a wonderful swim, then headed for our outside shower. When our guests first arrive, I show them this shower. It is tucked away on an old stone wall and it is completely private. As we stand there I say, ‘The water is the same borehole water that is in the house, the pressure is wonderful and I cannot imagine standing looking at a tiled wall when you can look down on this incredible view. In fact I do not think that I have showered in the house once since we arrived.’

Then I watch their reaction. They look at me dubiously, and I can see what is running through their minds. ‘She’s crazy, and we would never do that.’ That lasts for about two days, and after that, they give it a little try. Then the warmth of the shower, the sunshine on their tired city bodies and the sheer magic of the surroundings does its work. They are hooked.

After my shower, and feeling a million dollars, I walked around the garden, just taking in the little things … hundreds of brown furry bees were busy on the lavender and a lean hungry wild cat was stealthily licking water from the fountain. With the house still asleep I moved towards my bee and butterfly garden. ‘I’ll sit on the swing seat for a while, perhaps fetch a coffee?’ I thought.

From the swing seat I looked around the garden. I like what I call ‘rooms’ in a garden. When the surrounding hedge grows up I am hoping that you will have to push your way in here, and nobody will be able to find you. The hedge is pittosporum tobira, chosen for its sweet smelling flowers that attract bees. An empty hive stands under a rosemary bush in expectation, but no luck so far.

‘Another few years and this hedge will have matured,’ I thought. Some weeks before, when the porcupine set about devouring our irises, Liam had put a trap under it. He checked it every morning but nothing seemed in the least bit interested in it.

Or not?

... curled up fast asleep ... Nothing would budge him.
… curled up fast asleep … Nothing would budge him.

This time the trap seemed to have a dark shadow toward the back. I moved closer, and pulled the trap out from under the hedge. There, curled up fast asleep was a little hedgehog. Nothing would budge him. We had to tip him out.

 

Now I am sure that there are dozens of tiny hedgehogs all over our valley, but I am absolutely convinced that this particular little fellow was the swimmer of the night before. He seemed utterly exhausted.

After all, wouldn’t you be after two all-night sessions in a row? First, a night in the pool, and second, a very long trip indeed, all the way back up the hill, just to get home?

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 23 – Hystrix Cristata

The gentle rolling hills surrounding Florence may look utterly beautiful – but don’t try to garden them. Full of enthusiasm when we first arrived, we bought every plant we set eyes upon. Then practically everything died … daphne, roses, three wisteria and even an oleander. Too high at 550 metres, with hard packed hillside clay and stones, it is also ‘off the wall’ alkaline. Then there is the harsh month of August where the temperatures soar into the 40s and our entire house and garden are reliant on one temperamental borehole. So we’ve battled and battled.

‘Look over your neighbour’s fence’ advised Liam’s mother, who at 90 was still an excellent botanist ‘What grows for them will grow for you.’ So I did. Over our stone wall towards Manuela and Pasquale’s grow broken tiles, rusty cars and washing. Then again over our fence towards Leila and old Enzo’s grow chickens and rabbits in hutches. In summer though, they put out bright red geraniums in terracotta pots. ‘OK,’ we said, ‘we’ll go simple.’

From the old stone house, on the right hand side of the path we planted lavender and a few hardy horizontal icebergs. The bank on the left hand side of the path we decided to keep even more simple. We planted it with the tough local cistus or ‘rock rose’ and in between the cistus we planted iris.

The pale blue iris ... has done us proud ...
The pale blue iris … has done us proud …

The pale blue iris is the city flower of Florence and for the past five years it has done us proud, multiplying nicely. In spring they put on a wonderful show. ‘Finally,’ I said to Liam, ‘finally we are getting a garden.’ So inspired were we that back in London we spent a good deal of time at the Chelsea Flower Show chatting to the expert at the stall of the Irises. We even arranged, at the end of the summer, to buy more exotic colours from him and see if they would take. He thought they would, and so did we …

Hystrix Cristata
Common name: the Crested Porcupine, found in most parts of Italy.
Average head and body length: 60-83cm (24-33”)
Weight: 13-27kg (29-60lbs)

So right now, something a little shorter, but as heavy as my six year old grandsons, is romping through our garden at night, causing about as much damage as the children in Lord of the Flies.

something ... as heavy as my six year old grandsons
something … as heavy as my six year old grandsons

At first we were not sure what it was. One beautiful clear morning we took our mugs of coffee and wandered down stony the path, simply savouring that time when the light is soft and the birds chatter in the tops of the Cyprus trees. ‘Utterly wonderful,’ I said to Liam, ‘Aren’t we just the luckiest people on earth.’ Then we looked down.

Great tufts of leaves had been tossed around like hapless craft on a stormy sea. At the base of these leaves, where the green turns to white, that’s where the bulb should be. All that remained were the serrated ends where some sharp teeth had been working overtime. The surrounding soil looked as if a bobcat digger had started a new excavation project.

Great tufts of leaves had been tossed around like hapless craft on a stormy sea
Great tufts of leaves had been tossed around like hapless craft on a stormy sea

‘Crikey!’ I said, ‘What’s going on here?’

The first one to volunteer was old Enzio. ‘l’istricci – porcupine,’ he said, ‘Mangia tutto – it will eat everything.’ He and Liam walked around our perimeter fence. When we had erected it we had purposely buried about a third of it into the soil to prevent any animal entering our domestic garden. They found nothing alarming. Then old Enzio’s daughter, Elena, arrived. ‘Possibly it can fit between the struts of the pool fencing’ she volunteered. But old Enzio was adamant. ‘It won’t fit!’ he said, ‘The struts are too narrow.’ And off he went back to his chooks.

Next in was Manuela. ‘You must buy a trappo.’ she said. ‘Porcupine will do anything for a potato. They will walk miles to find one. Put the potato in the trap and you will catch him.’ ‘Then what?’ said Liam ‘What do I do with him once I’ve got him?’ ‘You must take him seven miles away, over the hills to Lamole,’ said Manuela, ‘because once a porcupine has found a place for a good meal he becomes totally single minded and he will always come back to your garden.’

‘No he won’t!’ came the answer from down at the pool, where Michele our pool man was busy cleaning. ‘He won’t come back Liam, because I will eat him. You catch him, I eat him. Simple.’

... and I have one big black dog full of spikes.
… and I have one big black dog full of spikes.

A few nights later, the damage was even worse. This time our immediate neighbour Alessandro came to have a look. ‘I think he can climb quite high’ said Alessandra. ‘You need to barricade the part of the stone wall where there is a gap in the rosemary’. ‘A climbing porcupine?’ said Liam dubiously. ‘Rather, I borrow your dog, Pedro, and shut him in our garden for the night.’ ‘No! No! Liam!’ cried Alessandro, ‘Then, in the morning you have a naked porcupine, and I have one big black dog full of spikes.’

Giuseppe, who owns the tiny shop at the top of our hill, gave us some bright blue liquid with a ghastly smell. ‘He’ll never come back’ he said. ‘Just put this down.’ But our porcupine was made of sterner stuff. The damage carried on unabated. ‘I think there is a small problem with a trap,’ I said to Liam, ‘I think they could be illegal, but let’s go and find out.’

In the local agricultural shop nobody mentioned the word illegal. ‘Catch it’ they said ‘They taste a bit like chicken.’ So we bought a trap … a rectangular wire trap with a raised end for the potato and a fierce snap-door to close once the unsuspecting porcupine was inside.

But somehow, we have attracted the most suspicious porcupine in Tuscany. Night after night the damage continues and right now he has worked his way through about 80% of our beautiful irises.

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 22 – Fire!

Right now it is as dry as dry can be. There’s been no rain since I cannot remember when. The earth and our two tiny streams stretch out their arms to a merciless god. ‘When will the rains come?’ is a question on everyone’s lips. Old Enzio shrugs, ‘The moon’s too full,’ he tells me, ‘the rain will come with the new moon.’
‘Two weeks?’ I gasp, ‘Can the garden wait?’

Conscious that our borehole dried up last summer, we water plants selectively. The favoured and the fittest cling on, the weaker do not survive. The ‘favoured’ include geraniums – for what is Tuscany without geraniums? And equally so, what is Tuscany without olives? Despite the searing heat and the temperature soaring towards the forties Pasquale is working the olive groves around us. Up and down the steep lines he goes, working our neighbours’ olives as well his own. He seems to take enormous risks on the steep hillsides, and I often fear for him.

For Pasquale has macular degeneration. He has about 25% vision left in one eye, nothing in the other. Fortunately the noise of his tractor, an ancient Lamborghini, is completely overshadowed by its squeak. As long as I can hear a soft steady hum accompanied by a shrill rusty squeak, I know that he is safe.

... an ancient Lamborghini ...
… an ancient Lamborghini …

Sometimes our hills prove too steep, even for Pasquale’s abject lack of judgement, and then he has to strim the grasses down by hand. All this is in preparation for the olive harvest next month, when huge nets need to be placed below the trees. But the strimming is also to prevent fire, as right now the grass is crackly dry and as brown as a Highveld winter.

One morning I walked up our hill to meet my friend Jazz, who was coming over from Castellina-in-Chianti for lunch. I’d seen Pasquale strimming the olive grove of Sebastiano, although from any distance he wouldn’t really be able to see me. After lunch we’d planned to fetch Jazz’s daughter Giovanna from school.

It’s unusual for anyone to be out and about at this time unless they have to – it’s far too hot, and it is siesta time. But once we got to the fork of our small track, it seemed that siesta time had been forgotten. Just above the road Pasquale was halfway up Sebastiano’s grove, fire all around him and spreading rapidly as the dry grasses caught alight. Jazz and I looked in horror, for instead of beating at the top of the ring of fire, Pasquale was banging away at the bottom. And with an upturned fork.

From the top terrace of the house old Cosimo had seen him and with all good intentions had grabbed his stick and hobbled up the road to help. Well in his eighties and with a pacemaker, the uphill hobble had proved too much for him, and he had collapsed on a nearby rock. ‘Aiuta, aiuta! Subito!’ he said to us. ‘Fetch help! Quickly!’

... old Cosimo on his rock ...
… old Cosimo on his rock …

Now in our valley on a boiling midsummer’s day between two and four, that is simply not possible. Leaving old Cosimo on his rock and Pasquale beating against alarming odds with his fork, we tried the easiest first – Liam. With good South African roots and born on the Highveld he’d know what to do. What’s more he wasn’t sleeping. He was reading. ‘Right.’ he said, and taking two sturdy spades, he set up off up the hill.

Then Jazz and I rushed from door to door. Forgetting the obligatory polite greeting of the big old house, we abandoned the ‘permesso’ part. ‘Sebastiano!’ we yelled, thumping on his front door, ‘Come quickly your olives are on fire!’ No answer. More banging brought his wife Mirella to the window. ‘He’s fast asleep,’ she called, ‘but I’ll try!’ Next on to Matteo – with the same results. Do Italian men sleep while their women watch? Next on – old Enzio. ‘Oh forget him,’ I said to Jazz, ‘Leila’s out and he’s stone deaf, we’d have to tip the bed over to raise him.’

Making our way back we saw Liam, Matteo still in his vest, and Sebastiano, all firefighting on the hill. Each had a spade and a workable system had been set up – Pasquale being placed where he could do the least harm. ‘You see if old Cosimo is ok,’ Jazz said, ‘I’ll go and see if I can help, although they seem to be getting the flames under control now.’

... firefighting on the hill ...
… firefighting on the hill …

But old Cosimo was far from under control. Bent over his rock, hatless and in the blazing sun, he had both his hands clasped to his chest and was gasping for breath in an alarming manner. His face, normally a sort of unhealthy chianti-wine colour, had turned purple, and his eyes were afraid.

Kneeling down on the rough grass in front of him I looked into his eyes. Frightened, with his heart rate probably soaring, he clearly needed air badly, but with his hands in a vice-like grip over his chest, and bent double, he was unlikely to get any. ‘Look at me!’ I said, ‘Keep looking straight into my eyes.’ And taking his hands gently in mine, I tried to raise them up, away from his chest. No luck.

Now here’s where I need more Italian lessons … or is it the pronunciation? ‘Pieno, pieno,’ I said in my best speaking voice.

Piano, piano!’ came from the hillside above me.

What on earth was Jazz on about? And still Cosimo would not part his hands from his chest. ‘Pieno, pieno, Cosimo,’ I said, ‘Trust me. Look into my eyes.’

PIANO! PIANO!’ Came the echo back from the hillside. That was enough.

‘All very well for you,’ I yelled back up the hill, ‘having a good time fire fighting with the boys while I battle away here between life and death. And what on earth are you wittering on about anyway?!’

‘Trust me, trust me!’ mocked Jazz from her lofty perch. ‘He’s never going to trust you, he hasn’t a bloody clue what you are saying!’ And roaring with laughter she delivered her master blow – ‘You’re telling him ‘Full, full’ instead of ‘Slowly, slowly.’ ‘And he’s full of fear anyway, so he probably thinks you’re a right idiot.’

Chastened, I turned to look at him, but by this time, what with all the backchat and the laughter, old Cosimo had calmed down.

And so too, had the fire.

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 21 – High Hopes

Pasquale has a problem. The simplest of souls, there are two tasks he cannot resist. Firstly he enjoys nothing better than setting himself a simply enormous project, and then starting it – the end of which in all the years we have been here, I have never seen. Then again he seems fascinated by taking things apart, but the getting it back together bit, why that seldom happens. Rusty tools, electrical wires, old beds, broken farm implements … Tracey Emin of the unmade bed fame need have looked no further. It all lies here. A photograph or two and she would have immediately shot to fame.

It all lies here
It all lies here.

Close to Pasquale and Manuela’s section of the house is a verdant piece of land, stretching from the white gravel road downhill towards his borehole. It flattens out a bit as it goes and this summer Pasquale decided to enclose this huge area for a vegetable garden – an ‘orto’. First he would fell some trees, and then sink the poles deep into the ground, possibly with cement. Then he would twine wire between the poles thus keeping the porcupines at bay. And finally he would plough and plant.

… perilously close to the road …

We arrived down our hill a quarter of the way through the pole stage. Wooden poles lay entwined with spades, rolls of wire and a pick-axe or two. The cement mixer waited expectantly in the background. As he had started at the hillside end of his project he was standing on the road to greet us. The holes he had dug for the first two poles were perilously close to the road, and the soil was already starting to shift off down the hill. ‘Buongiorno!’ he said, ‘Bienvenuto – welcome back.’

The soil was starting to shift downhill
the soil was already starting to shift off down the hill …

Buongiorno,’ said Liam, ‘I do hope these holes are not going to erode the road away?’

‘Never!’ said Pasquale. ‘I am going to make a new little muro by packing stones up to form a small wall.’ As he had hectares on his side, we could not quite see the point of all this extra woe. The poles could simply have been set two metres further down the hill. ‘Well, it is all going to be lovely.’ we said, our hearts dropping.

... the deer will stay out ...
… the deer will stay out …

‘Yes.’ he said. ‘Not only the porcupine, but the deer will stay out and I will bring you tomatoes and beans.’

We left Fontana after a fortnight, and once more drove past the poles, wire, spades and a pick-axe or two. The cement mixer remained at the ready. But by then he had tired somewhat and in the centre of the land small rows of tomato plants were springing up, surrounded by a much simpler protection of canes and wire. How far do you think he will have got in a month’s time when we are back? I asked Liam. ‘I am afraid the task is greater than the man.’ Liam answered sombrely.

And sure enough, when we returned a few weeks later there it all lay – the spades, the axe the whole lot. ‘I wonder where he can be?’ I asked. ‘Oo Oo, just look!’ said Liam as we drove past Manuela’s washing. And there on the narrow road lay heaps of scaffolding.

Old Cosimo, forever at the ready to offer news, called out from his swing seat … ‘Look at Pasquale – there he is! He’s putting up the scaffolding so that we can have a new roof. The section above their bedroom is leaky, it’s ‘rotto’. It needs to be fixed before the winter rains. ‘Which winter?’ muttered Liam under his breath.

But Pasquale stuck to his task. Day after day the searing heat shimmered down and up the scaffolding he went. He refused any help from anyone, and all day long he clambered down to mix more cement. The whirring of the little machine that pulled the bucket up for him became the noise of the summer. ‘Come down,’ we would call, ‘It is far too hot.’ ‘No, rimango qui! – I stay here!’ he would call.
‘Maybe he is in such a hurry as while they have no roof they have no bedroom of their own,’ smiled Leila, our neighbour on the other side. ‘We Italian families all live together, but sharing a room with your parents-in-law, even for Pasquale, is a bit too close for comfort …’

I stay here
No, rimango qui!

One particular day the heat seemed to go crazy. The temperature seared to forty, and all you wanted to do was stay inside the house, protected by the thick stone walls that those Tuscans of long ago so wisely built. Around about lunch time we heard a tremendous crash Then silence. We hurried outside. Pasquale had fallen off the top section of scaffolding and landed on the middle section. Up Liam shot, and, helping him up, said ‘Now you simply must come down.’ ‘Never! Not until it is finished’ said Pasquale, and with that he promptly climbed back up again.

‘What on earth can we do?’ asked Liam, turning to the small crowd of gathering neighbours. They glanced back up at Pasquale and then looked at Manuela. ‘Absolutely nothing’ said his long suffering wife. ‘I can only threaten him with hospital – he is simply terrified of that. He has only been admitted once in his life and vows never to go again.’

‘Oh, what happened? Did he have a bad experience? I asked.

‘Terrible!’ came a voice from up high. ‘You know how sometimes everyone likes a bit of a party? Well one night I had a good few glasses of red, and went to bed. In the middle of the night I woke up with the most unbelievable thirst. My head was banging and I had to have water. So I leant over, and, in the pitch dark I felt for the bottle of water on the floor. To my relief I found it, and drunk the whole lot – in one gulp.’

‘Only trouble was it was floor cleaner.’

Unfinished fencing, half-finished roof, one eye and a floor-cleaner drinker. What ever could he do possibly do next??

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 20 – Campari

Beryl Fawcett. I’ll never forget her name. She’d come from Malaysia and I met her at a party in Cape Town. It was 1961 and I was about fifteen, just ready to leave school. ‘What do you do?’ I asked. ‘I’m a social worker.’ she answered. I’d never heard of one. ‘Tell me about it.’ I said. Beryl worked among the rubber plantations, tending to the desperately poor and needy. She seemed exotic and well heeled, but had a deep commitment to society. I was hooked.

Back home I faced my father in his study. ‘I want to go to the University of Cape Town next year.’ I said. ‘What on earth is this about? he said, ‘Your academic track record’s bad, and as far as I can see, you have spent most of the past two years on Clifton beach!’ My father was incredulous. Girl cousins in my family leave school, and very soon marry nice suitable husbands.

But, I knew my father valued education. I knew that eight years of war had caught him. He’d wanted to study engineering, but by the time the war was over he had my mother and me to support.

I also knew that he wanted me to study further, but he was also right. Up to now I had paid far more attention to parties, the beach and the razzmatazz crowd of the Cape than to any studies. I could see him mulling it over. ‘Well,’ he said at last, ‘This is the deal. I’ll give you one year at the University of Cape Town. Pass everything and I’ll give you a car. Fail even one subject and you’re out.’ ‘Deals on!’ I said happily and bounced out of the study.

I'll give you one year at UCT ...
I’ll give you one year at UCT …

The University of Cape Town’s results come out in December. They post them on boards outside the Administration Department and you have to go and look them up. In front of everyone. It’s nerve-racking. Searching, searching for your name you go … Social Anthropology? Yes! Political Philosophy? Yes! Social Work? Yes! Social Administration? Yes!

‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it!’ I yelled through the front door. Celebrations all round. The weeks passed, then the months, but no car. Then, six months into the new academic year, I came home to find a small bubble on four wheels standing outside our front door. What on earth was it? I walked around it curiously. I’m not tall, but I could see right over the top, and I could definitely see a sun roof. I opened the front door … nice little dash, gears. I opened the boot – crikey, that’s the engine. Puzzled, I glanced up, only to see my father’s amused face looking at me through his study window.

"Its a Fiat 500"
“Its a Fiat 500”

‘It’s yours,’ he said coming out the front door. ‘It’s a Fiat 500. ‘Now let me tell you about it. It’s Italian. They were launched about five years ago. It was a time when Italy was still suffering economic shock waves from the aftermath of war, and this little car was said to bring wheels to the masses. They’ve had wonderful write-ups in all the car magazines. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about the Italians. When you were born I was given special leave. But the very next day I was sent back to Italy. I stayed there long after armistice, as part of the mopping up operations.’

My father doesn’t talk about the war, I thought, so why’s he telling me this? ‘Well,’ he continued, ‘Every Italian family that we came across, whether in the country or the small towns, welcomed us. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The warmth and hospitality made a bloody awful job bearable. And what really impressed me was that they’ve got style – they can’t make a garden without a fountain, and they can’t build a bridge without an arch. So when I read about this little Fiat 500 I thought … That’s the car for my daughter. It’s got style, it’s got panache, and it is virtually indestructible. Now go and enjoy it.’

Enjoy it? From the very first drive around the block I was in love with it. This was the ultimate fun car of the sixties, and as students we were there to have fun. I have no idea how many friends I stuffed into my little Fiat, but it was akin to sardines lined up in a tin. The sun roof open, the tallest friend would stick her head out like a giraffe. ‘Left, left!’ she’d yell from her lofty perch, ‘Oops, no, right, right!’ The petrol lasted forever, and so I’m sure did the car. But there came a day when we had to part. Married and with a small baby, my beloved Fiat had to go. Safety and sobriety won the day.

It’s forty years later now, and no, I’m not old. I don’t feel as if I have adult children. I don’t feel as if I am about to become a grandmother in six months time. Rather, as I sit here in the peace of the Italian countryside, with the noise of the tractor running up the vineyards behind me, and the fountain playing on the terrace, I feel exactly the same as I did when I got home that day in Cape Town -the day that that tiny Fiat 500 stood outside the front door, with my father hiding behind his study window. For … I am waiting for my Fiat 500 to come driving down our bumpy track.

How did this come about?

It’s three years since we bought the wing of the old farmhouse in a beautiful Tuscan valley, and we love it. Living in London, up to now we have hired a car at Pisa airport. It’s easier, and my husband’s quite right – we have no worries of lifts to and fro from the airport, of batteries running flat, or dirty cars. And, yes, rental cars are the answer, but where’s the soul?

Last year I found a new friend. She lives in the village of Castellina nearby and she is a gardener. I met her in the nursery near Poggibonsi and very soon we were chatting plants. When we parted I followed her out to the car park. And there, in front of my eyes, was a little Fiat 500. A bright mustard colour Fiat 500 …  station wagon! I’d never seen that before. ‘Where did you get it?’ I gasped.

‘Oh, I’ve had it for ages,’ she said. ‘I love it. The station wagon version was built especially to take a 55 litre demijohn of wine in the back. Only in Italy! It’s my baby. Because of its colour I call it the Baked Bean.’

I call it the Baked Bean …
I call it the Baked Bean …

Well, I felt exactly as Toad of Toad Hall felt when he set sight of his first car. ‘Poop poop,’ he said, ‘Poop poop! Ratty, I must have this!’ From then on every time I saw Jazz I dreamed about the possibility of owning one. ‘I’ll have a look,’ she said. But Fiat 500’s are prized these days, the prices go up, and who is a reliable dealer? The months ticked by. Then came the phone call. ‘My sister’s got a Fiat 500 that she’s thinking of selling,’ my friend said. ‘They live in the UK and she feels that she’s just not over here enough to warrant keeping it. Are you interested? ‘Am I indeed!’ I say, ‘What’s the colour?’

‘It’s red, with a sun roof, and we all love it,’ she said. ‘It’s called Campari.’

It’s called Campari.
It’s called Campari.

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Hi - if you enjoyed this, I would REALLY appreciate if you shared it on one of the social media links - thanks! :-)