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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The Bravery of the Cape Bee – Part 2

Another trip to these incredible small, brave survivors clinging to life after the devastating Cape Town bushfires of 2015 …

If you sail into the City of Cape Town, dominating the landscape will be the majesty of Table Mountain.  But behind the famous ‘Table Top’ the scenery is equally spectacular. Here the mountain ranges in folds down towards the south, crossing deep ravines and skirting above the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. In winter these ravines turn into spectacular waterfalls, rushing and tumbling headfirst towards the sea. In summer the mountain does not lose its greenness, but all is quiet and still under the heat of the African sun.

I was sitting on the terrace of the Vineyard Hotel having breakfast with my cousin Suzanne when she looked up at the mountain. “Funny,” she said, “looking at this spectacular sight it is hard to believe that, just a little further along this mountain range, it all is charred and blackened.” Last week’s ravaging fires were still uppermost in our minds.

“Yes,” I replied, “we have all heard the experts telling us how every fifteen years or so we need these veld fires – that the protea bushes need the heat for the seeds to regenerate, that the indigenous bulbs will soon spring up and that in eighteen months or so the entire mountain will look like a garden. But what about the ‘urban fringe’ – those people who lost their houses, and what about the little things – the tortoises, the snakes, the small insects, and so on?”

“What about your bees?” Suzanne asked. So I told her.

I told her how the previous week, the day after the fire, I had found a small nucleus of melted brood frames and dead bees. How I had lifted the congealed mess up and examined it closely, feeling utterly devastated for my once healthy, busy hive. Then, how I had almost unbelievably seen one whole and traumatised bee climb through the charred brood and into the sunlight. My only thought was that these tiny creatures had fought a long and brave battle against the heat – fanning their queen and protecting their last bit of honey around her. Then a few drops of honey dropped onto the sand and I was convinced. Where there was one bee there must be others. So I took a giant leap and re-hived the congealed mess, put the hive stand in tins of oil for the black ants, tied it down for the baboons and put a heavy rock on the top for the raging south-easter. Then I had to leave.

“Trouble is,” I said to Suzanne, “I am running out of time to get back there. I leave for London in a few days and I would give anything to have just one look, and to see what is happening.”

“I’m free until 4 this afternoon!” said Suzanne “Let’s go!”. I have always liked this cousin. It would take well over two hours to get there and back. I looked at her, put my car keys on the table, and said “You’re on.”

The drive down took us over mountains, through valleys and along the sea Most of area was charred and blackened, simply ravaged by the worst veld fire imaginable. We were silent as we drove, each immersed in thoughts of the suffering that it had brought with it. Community spirit in the Cape has been high. Someone I know even took his prized rugby tickets for an important game to the local fire station. There he offered them to the brave firemen who had fought day and night for seven days. Sadly, one of our most experienced helicopter pilots tragically lost his life when his helicopter malfunctioned and plunged earthwards while water-bombing the blaze.

“And here I am worrying about a bee.” I thought. It did seem out of proportion, but by this time we had arrived. It was a simply stunning day … one of these days that are few and far between … for on this battered tip of Africa winds can range from a 60 knot off-shore southeaster to a 60 knot on-shore northwester.  As we walked through the charred and desolate veld the still calm was almost eerie: the peace of today, and the raging crackle and power of last week, contrasting starkly in our minds.

Within sight of the hive we stopped short, not believing what we saw. There was huge activity around the hive. We walked closer – buzzy bees were everywhere, all around the hive. “Better kit up.” I said, and we walked back to the house. Kitted up in our bee suits we went closer.

Huge activity – bees coming and going through both entrances. What an incredible change from the last visit!

“I don’t like it.” I said to Suzanne, “These bees are too many, and too active”. I sat down to watch them, but could see no pollen on their legs – not that there was much around in the veld anyway. “I fear that these are other bees, ones that have found the hive’s honey and have come to rob.” I said. “Oh dear!” said Suzanne, “Well let’s go for a walk on the beach before we head back.”

“You go,” I said, “I’ll stay here a little longer”.

I settled back on my haunches and watched the movement in and out of the hive, trying to work out some sort of pattern. It was then that I noticed a bit of fighting.  Or did I? This particular brood box has two openings and a solid centre. I took my bee tool and slid it across the one opening and watched. Yes, more intense fighting was happening on the only entrance available … I thought, but was it just optimism on my part?

In one of my beekeeping books I remember reading that if you have robbers and a weakened swarm you need to close up half the entrance to give the bees a chance to concentrate their defence. Rather like an army that cannot fight effectively on two fronts.

I walked back to my store room. Once again I took a leap of faith – for was this my ever optimistic nature willing there to be bees in my hive ready to start again, or were these just wild robber bees trying to find feed as best they could?  I do not know, but once again it seemed worth a try. I found a piece of wood and two panel-pin nails and a hammer.

I walked back through the desolate veld and hammered half the entrance closed. “There you are bees” I said, “I have done the best that I can. If you are inside there, may the Cape winter be mild to you, may the winter bulbs spring up and feed you, and may your queen, new or old, be fertile and produce lots of tiny furry bees for the spring.”

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Robber barricade securely in place.

“See you in September.” I whispered.

 

(Missed part 1?  Read it here …)

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The Bravery of the Cape Bee

Ever since I discovered my grandfather’s abandoned hive in the veld I have kept bees. This has been just a small hobby, the least hives I have had being two and the most five. I have often thought that the most depressing experience a beekeeper can have is to arrive at the hive one day and find there are no bees coming in or out of it. The fires that have raged through the Cape Peninsula in South Africa this week have proved me wrong.

Bees will do anything to protect their hive and their queen – as we know only too well, if there is a predator from outside they will attack. But what happens when the predator is fierce, hot and fast – a veld fire fanned by gale-force winds and fed by the dry crackling bush of summer’s end? Bees will then go into panic mode. They will cluster around the queen and fan her constantly, remaining at their posts and doing their duty until they die.

The day after the veld fire that raged at the back of our house I walked through the charcoal sticks and white sand towards my hive. Smouldering patches of fynbos were still sending puffs of grey smoke into the air and there was a suffocating smell of ash and burnt wood. Within sight of the hive I stopped. The two supers had burnt out completely. The metal lid was in bits nearby and the outer walls of the brood box had gone. Remaining on the metal stand were about five brood frames, totally charred and balanced at a crazy angle across the bottom of the stand. I went closer. The five blackened frames were stuck together, and hundreds of dead bees lay all across the top. Although the brood was there it was fairly solid and unrecognisable.

Hive box burnt away, a few brood frames remain
Hive box burnt away, a few brood frames remain

‘What happened here’ I wondered ‘did the bees fan to such an extent that these centre brood frames could not actually burn?’ Almost too incredible to believe as everything in the surrounding veld had gone. I lifted the charred mass, peering closer at the dead bees – some had lost their wings, some looked more like oval toffee.

Valiant bees burned at their posts
Valiant bees burned at their posts

Then I saw a tiny flutter, and to my utter amazement one whole bee crawled out of the charcoal brood and towards my hand. No more than one. But, as I kept holding the five frames, a few small drops of golden honey dropped onto the white sand.

Some honey in the middle of the combs
Some honey in the middle of the combs

The Cape honeybee has an almost unbelievable ability. Under extreme circumstances, and if they lose their queen, they are able to ‘morph’ a new queen from a worker bee. Now I don’t know if they have lost their queen, and I don’t know how many bees there are to help that one survivor. But I do know that it was quite the most depressing and humbling sight I have ever seen. How those bees must have fought to survive the extreme heat and smoke inhalation is beyond me.

With a probable failure risk of about 90%, I have now taken a leap of faith. I happened to have a spare super and a couple of unwaxed but wired frames in my storeroom. (Wax moth is prevalent here and I have just lost my other hive to it). I put the new brood box on the stand, placed the charred stuck-together mess of frames into the centre, and a few new frames into the brood box with them.  I stood the feet of the stands in tins filled with oil (black ants are ferocious here). I tied the box and lid together and staked it down into the sand (baboons are also prevalent here). I even put a little dog’s bowl of water down, although the wind and the sun will drain that pretty quickly.

Re-hived and battened down - can the hive recover?
Re-hived and battened down – can the hive recover?

Then I stood by and watched the entrance. Two bees crawled out, both wingless and too pathetic to watch. Then one more, whole, traumatised bee crawled out, fell onto the sand, crept around for a bit and finally flew off to a nearby patch of tiny unburned veld. I waited and watched for some time, but saw no more.

I do not live in that isolated place and so have had to leave. The earliest I can go back is in a week’s time. Will that one bee have others trying to eat their way out of the charcoal to join it? Is there a queen in the middle, still protected? Are there any eggs? What can they possibly do with that charcoaled brood, which should be thrown away but contains their only honey store? I do not know, but like any rescue operation, if you can help even one survivor then you have at least done the very best that you can do.

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A Bee Glossary: Very simply a beehive works as follows …

Brood: young bees at various stages of development - eggs, larvae, and pupae

Brood box:  where the queen bee and the brood live (the bigger box at the bottom of the hive)

Supers: the bees’ pantry (smaller boxes on top of the brood box where the bees store honey

Wax Moth: a brownish moth that lays its eggs in beehive - its destructive caterpillars cover the combs with silken tunnels and feed on the beeswax

‘Veld’: a loose term for uncultivated land in South Africa.

 

Read part 2 here

 

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