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 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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A WEST COAST FARM PART EIGHT – A PERFECT DAY (November 2015)

... to wake up to this view every morning ...
… to wake up to this view every morning …

In the early morning the sun rises from behind our row of houses, sending rays of light across the lagoon. Finally the rays come to rest over the hills opposite, painting patterns of hazy pink across the horizon. I stand on the terrace with a cup of tea: ‘I wonder what it must be like to wake up to this view every morning?’ I think. Utter peace. I turn back into the house, for here is someone who woke up every morning on a West Coast farm, and she is ninety today, and we are all going back …

Betty Hare, ninety years old. The last owner of the farm Geelbek to have lived in that great house. No parents in law left, no strong hunting, fishing brothers-in-law left, and no husband left. They’ve all gone. But in her heart she holds a myriad of memories of life on that farm. Some of my older cousins do too, and they’ll all be there today.

Alongside the old veranda with its curved tin roof, the marque is decorated fit for a queen. The past few days have been spent working on the blue and white theme, balloons are everywhere. The tables are set for a hundred guests. Friendly neighbours at Langebaan have practically denuded their gardens of blue and white agapanthus. The promised ‘west coast’ fare of a selection of bredies is bubbling away on the kitchen stoves.

Last minute checks and the bus from Cape Town arrives. My cousins spill out, already in a party mood. They have had a whale of a time on the two hours journey, singing all the old songs we used to love as children …. She’ll be coming round the Mountain, Daar le die Ding, Emma Kalemma … all those old coconuts from our childhood. No matter that most of them are in their seventies, if not older. Welcome drinks are out on the lawn, under the palm trees and overlooking the lagoon.

... the long jetty stretching way out through the wetlands ...

… the long jetty stretching way out through the wetlands …

From this vantage point you can see the long jetty stretching way out through the wetlands and into the water. It needs to be that long for the rises and fall of the tidal drop on the lagoon is huge. Today it is used as part of a bird hide, but when my grandfather lived here this was the jetty for his speedboat. The Century. I can remember the novelty of it, the thrill of sitting safely between my mother and my grandmother on the wooden back seat. The quiet hum of the engine as we sped across the flat waters of the lagoon towards Churchaven way and the sheltered white beach of Kraalbaai.

I remember the story of how grandfather got it, but not enough … did it come from America? Was it really the first speedboat ever to be imported into South Africa? Did my grandfather really tell me that such was the difficulty with customs that they had to bring it in as ‘machine parts’? Two of my cousins have just turned eighty. They came to Geelbek, they stayed here and played here, and they’re here today. They’ll know …

As luck will have it I find the two oldest ones together. ‘Yes, I remember it well!’ they say in unison. ‘No you don’t’ says the one to the other, ‘you’ll just make it up.’ Some things never change. But it turns out that I was wrong. The Century was bought in South Africa.

... the Canadian canoe ...
… the Canadian canoe …

‘It was the Canadian canoe that was imported,’ they agree. Grandfather and Granny were great travellers, and on a trip to Canada Grandfather fell in love with it, bought it and had it imported for Geelbek.’

By now the drinks on the lawn are over. Our mum is sitting in her wheelchair surrounded by family and loving it.

He stops at her wheelchair ...
He stops at her wheelchair …

Suddenly as if from nowhere the sound of a bagpiper is heard. It is my son. The sound of the pipes draws nearer. He stops at her wheelchair; old blue eyes look back at him. Still piping, he turns and starts walking slowly towards the marquee. John and I walk on either side, holding her hand. From behind Kathy starts pushing the chair.

Elmarie Leonard (left) with Kathy ('Klein Kat') Blaauw, who was born on Geelbek
Elmarie Leonard (left) with Kathy (‘Klein Kat’) Blaauw, who was born on Geelbek

Kathy Blaauw, the only person here to have been actually born on Geelbek. What is she thinking today? When the great gables were taken away from Geelbek all the workers cottages were demolished. Kathy’s home gone …

Tiny great grandchildren run in and out of the marquee. At some stage I join them. They have run under the eucalyptus trees, and around to the back where the old fence was and the way through to the farmyard. I stand watching them go through the gate, thinking back …

In my mind there’s a terrific squealing and some small piglets career past. They have somehow got loose. One has been caught and as he wriggles and kicks his little black hooves he screams as if he is about to be murdered. I never knew a piglet could squeal like that.

Kathy comes up behind me. Together we watch the children running across the farmyard to where the stables were. It’s West Coast accommodation now. Kathy is silent. ‘What are you thinking Kat?’ I ask. ‘I’m thinking about Sakkie the snake catcher,’ she says, ‘I think he was my mother Lena’s brother.’

I have a photo of him somewhere,’ I say, ‘tell me about him.’

... Sakkie the snake catcher ...
… Sakkie the snake catcher …

‘Sakkie was a quiet, gentle man’ she says ‘he wasn’t very good at much, but the one thing he could do really well was catch snakes. As quick as lightning he would have them in the bag, and as far as I know he was never bitten. My mother Lena told me that when your grandfather heard of his skill, he got him to come to the garden in front of the house on regular inspections. In the summertime there are snakes everywhere at Geelbek and Sakkie used to catch them in order to keep you children safe.’

By now we have strolled back to the marquee, and finally the party is over.

Cousins pile back on the bus, and we wheel my mum out of the marquee to wave good-bye. I turn back to the house, thinking about something Elmarie told me over our cup of tea.

When I mentioned how sad I felt that nobody lived in this great house anymore she had replied: ‘This house is not lonely – the restaurant, and especially weddings, have breathed a new life into it. Just think of all the couples that have married here over the past years … so many dreams coming true, so many memories that they will hold in their hands forever.’ She’s right.

Very soon we are back at our house in Langebaan. We open the garage door to allow our mum’s wheelchair through. There’s the speedboat, the Century from all those years ago. It hardly ever goes on the water, but sleeps peacefully in the safety and shelter of the garage. We wheel my mum through to her room and help her lie down. She’s very tired now. Gently we cover her with a blanket.

Almost immediately her eyes close and she is asleep. I stand watching over her.

‘Yes,’ I think, ‘Time to put the whole thing to bed.’

She kicked the gate open with her foot fixed

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A WEST COAST FARM PART SIX – GEELBEK RESTAURANT (November 2014)

Once more I am sitting on the side veranda with my mother and my brother John. Once more I hear those bright yellow finches chatter as they hop from branch to branch in the eucalyptus trees above. I know the dam is just beyond those trees, but it is obscured by a large marquee. I know too that those great Dutch gables, the ones that that housed my grandparents have gone. So too have my grandparents and my father. And old Leah, and kind simple Mot. All gone, well nearly all gone …

"now where have those gables gone?"
“now where have those gables gone?”

I turn back to the table. My mother is sitting in her wheelchair, blue eyes, snow white hair. Kathy sits in the chair next to her, watching her, caring for her. Klein Kat – the very same little one that crawled around the kitchen floor. She’s listening intently as my mother chats to Elmarie.  ‘That will be simply wonderful,’ my mother is telling Elmarie, ‘So it’s all settled now – on the actual day, Saturday 15 November, we’ll have my 90th birthday in the marquee.’

For the past ten years Elmarie Leonard has run the Geelbek Restaurant. ‘Ever since National Parks bought the farm I’ve been passionate about the place,’ she tells us. Elmarie and her family live in the farm manager’s house … I wonder if she bakes bread for her children in that little kitchen of Mrs Ferreira? I must ask her sometime …

I come back to the matters at hand. ‘We’ll have West Coast bredie,’ my mother is telling Elmarie. ‘Lovely!’ says Elmarie, ‘… and what else?’ ‘Just bredies!’ says my mother settling back into her wheelchair. ‘Just bredies?’ gasps Elmarie, ‘… er – nothing else?’

‘Nothing else,’ says my mum. ‘Tomato bredie, green bean bredie, fish bredie and my favourite, sousboontjie bredie. It should come with yellow rice, sweet potato, pumpkin fritters and chutney.’

Bredies ... tomato ... green bean ... fish ... and my favourite, sousboontjies
Bredies … tomato … green bean … fish … and my favourite, sousboontjies

‘What about a little salad or green vegetables?’ asks my brother John hopefully. There’s a definite shake of the head. Negative.

‘Well then, what about desert?’ asks Elmarie brightly. ‘Ice cream,’ comes the reply. ‘Just ice cream. Lots of it.’ I look at my brother and we smile. It’s her party. A little while ago she told the two of us that her time living at Geelbek was one of the happiest times of her life.

Elmarie gets up to leave. The Restaurant is popular and she is always busy. ‘Let’s push mum around inside the house for a little,’ I say. I want to see what she can remember …

We enter the house from the veranda door. The long passage still runs down this side of the house, and the old kitchen is still in the same place. In the dining room sunbeams are slanting through the great sash windows. Kaleidoscope patterns form on the polished floor. Small square tables dot around, with bright yellow cloths. No great rectangular table any more. No head of the table, no cousins visiting …

I walk over to the window, and look out. ‘Remember?’ I say to my mother, ‘Remember, Granny’s garden was here? Now it’s just lawn and the new entrance comes in here.’ My mother looks at me. ‘I remember your khaki sun hat,’ she replies.

Remember, Granny's garden was here ...
Remember, Granny’s garden was here …

She’s tired now. I look at Kathy. ‘Kathy, would you like to take her home – she’s had enough,’ I say. John’s already gone ahead. ‘I’d like to chat with Elmarie for a bit.’ Kathy drives our mum everywhere, and together they form a marvellous team.
Like me, Elmarie shares a love of history. She’s made some time for me and we settle down over a strong West Coast coffee. We chat about the decision of SA Heritage to pull down the great gables facing the lagoon. ‘It’s a decision I will never understand.’ I say, ‘This desire to get back to the original core of the house, to tear down significant wings like that. After all, they too are part of history. What would have happened in England if they had demolished the Tudor wing, the Edwardian wing etc – you’d be left with a Norman keep!’

‘An interesting thought,’ says Elmarie, ‘… and on that note tell me about the entrance gates. I believe your grandfather built them?’ ‘He did,’ I reply, ‘in the 1950’s. Now if you are going to be a purist those really should have come down. Playing with history is a dangerous thing.’

Elmarie smiles: ‘Still, I love Geelbek, and even though the manager’s house is small I cannot imagine living anywhere else.’

‘Ummm … it saddens me to feel that after we left no one ever lived in the farmhouse again’ I say. ‘No children running in and out, no family to breathe life into the place. Yes it’s a beautiful restaurant, a perfect place for weddings in the marquee, but it seems so, well, alone.’

Elmarie gives me a measured look. ‘Oh, that’s where you are wrong.’ she says slowly, ‘You see, I work here in the farmhouse at night. My study and all my papers are here. So, after supper and in the cool of the evening I come back. Sometimes I work until well after midnight, and it’s many an evening that, once I have settled down quietly, I know that I am not alone.’

With that she glances at her watch. ‘Oh help!’ she exclaims, ‘My next appointment is here. It’s a wedding the Saturday after your mums party. Come back tomorrow and we’ll have breakfast under the trees …’

Geelbek ... a perfect place for weddings ...
Geelbek … a perfect place for weddings …

 

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A WEST COAST FARM PART FIVE : NO TURNING BACK (February 1985)

For some time I’ve needed to go back. Go back to the place that held my girlish dreams in the palm of its hand. ‘I’ll grow up and make lots and lots of money, I’ll buy it back. I’ll do anything, anything that it takes.’ Geelbek. Isolated peace. One foot in the Langebaan lagoon – in the world of salt marshes, wild pigs, flamingos and fishing, and one foot in the dry arid scrubland that is so much part of the desert waste of the western Cape coast …

there are two small windows on the veranda side
there are two small windows on the veranda side

The house runs down towards the Langebaan lagoon. There are two small windows on the veranda side, facing away from the lagoon. One of them is ajar, loose hinges swaying in the breeze, I turn to the friend I have brought with me. ‘Look, we can get in there. If you lift me up, I’ll lower myself in.’

I stand on my friend’s back, twist diagonally across the small square window frame. Once through I rest my hands on the cement floor, letting my body follow. ‘I’m in!’ The inside of my head seems to be swelling and I put my finger on my forehead, trying to help force my memory back. What do I know, and what have I been told?

I know that the small side room that I am standing in was my bedroom as a child. There’s nothing in it now. Cement floor, exposed tin curving in an arc above me. I think my father and grandfather bricked in this section of the long stoep once my brother was born. Where was my bed? I don’t know, can’t remember. I pad down the long passage towards the kitchen, looking for the outer door onto the verandah. Dust and cobwebs everywhere, the smell of must.

‘I’ll open up.’ I yell. ‘The key’s on the inside.’ The old stinkwood door creaks, sticks. I give it a kick. Suddenly light floods in, lighting up the yellowwood beams above, the terracotta floors below. I follow a dusty ray, along the passage. To the left, the dining room, to the right the kitchen. Long wooden stairs rise steeply to the loft.

The old range stands empty. No fires now. A blackened chain hangs down one side. Where’s old Leah, her gentle face reddened by the heat, an old apron wound around her ample middle? ‘Kom binne my kind, daar’s lekker koffie in die kan.’ Come inside my child, there’s delicious coffee in the pot.’

And where’s my grandmother’s garden? I can see her now – large rush basket under her arm, hatless despite the relentless African sun. Her clippers are in her gloved hands, and she’s in amongst her favourites … foxgloves, carnations, roses and lupins. She loved that garden. The house formed two sides of the square, and a low curved limestone wall the other two sides. There was a sundial in the middle and a small wooden gate opposite, leading out towards the eucalyptus trees.

Here it is, the door from the house leading into the walled garden …

Courtyard garden showing back of the gabled wing … the front faced the lagoon.
Courtyard garden showing back of the gabled wing … the front faced the lagoon.

I push it open and stand, transfixed. Raw grey-white sand looks back at me. There is not one single plant, not even a weed. The sundial is lying in pieces in the centre. There’s no gate. A sheet of rusty tin has been nailed across the gap in the wall. Three ostriches stand and look at me. ‘Get out,’ they seem to hiss, ‘This is not your place any more. You have no business here. Shove off.’ I close the door, turn my back on them.

Slowly I move back down the passage, past my bedroom, and my brother’s. Here’s my parents’ room. It is in the first wing of the gabled section, and I don’t remember any of it. Only the long wooden sash windows reaching right down to the floor and the palm tree outside …

Lena stands under the palm, the fronds sheltering her from the heat. She’s old Leah’s daughter. ‘Don’t cry, come sit under the tree. Your mummy’s gone on the horses with your daddy, she’ll be back soon.’ I sit in between Lena and her small daughter, ‘Klein Kat’ – little Kathy. Klein Kat smiles, her small hand picks up the first of the bright orange palm nuts from the grass. Together we start to build.

The interleading door from my parent’s room to the great verandha is missing and I can see across the huge covered space that bridges the two Cape Dutch gables. The coir matting is still on the floor and the view from here is magnificent. I look through the big picture windows, out through the two palms flanking each gable, and across the lawn to the gate in the long low hedge.

Out and across the tidal marshes that edge the lagoon. I can just see the line of the old jetty. ‘Come on’ my grandfather is saying, ‘Pack that picnic basket, we’re going to give this new speedboat a run for its money. It’s called a Century, one of the finest makes you can get. She’s come all the way from America, one of the first to be imported into South Africa. Let’s see if the Yanks are up to it.’

... let’s see if the Yanks are up to it ...

… let’s see if the Yanks are up to it …

Hop, skip, jump along the jetty. Miss the rotting planks. Grandmother’s got her scarf wrapped tightly round her blue rinse curls, my mother, beautiful, swings her long legs easily over the side of the Century.

I move away, crossing the vast expanse and up the steps into the final gabled wing, my grandparents wing. ‘Whatever happened to those feather eiderdowns?’ I wonder, ‘The ones with the pink English rose pattern?’ Granny loved pink. ‘Who’s got them now?’ I wonder. ‘One of my cousins I suppose.’ It’s a pity feather eiderdowns can’t talk …. ‘Snuggle in, snuggle in – it’s Sunday morning and we’re not going anywhere. Now where’s the story today? Who’s going first?’ ‘Well,’ says Grandfather ‘The higher up the mountain, the greener grows the ….’

‘Oh no you don’t!’ says my Grandmother, ‘you can stop right there.’ Grandfather was naughty. We loved that.

It’s full circle now. Nothing more in the house. I retrace my steps until I get to the side stoep door. Just off the veranda the big old brass tap is still there. I look at it hard. ‘She’s too lively.’ My grandmother’s voice comes floating though from the kitchen. ‘Lena can’t cope with John as a baby and also watch her, keep her safe. Thank heavens for Mot, even if he is a bit simple, he seems to follow her everywhere, he just loves her.’

Mot’s waiting by the brass tap. His hat’s on his head at a crazy angle and his shirt is torn. He’s rubbing his eyes with his fists … ‘What’s the matter Mot? Are the other children teasing you again? What have they done now? Did they take your little draad-karretjie – wire car – that you made so carefully? Did they throw it in the reeds again? Come Mot, come, don’t cry. You’re here, I’m here. Let’s go past the dam and through the farmyard gate. If we hold hands tight the geese won’t get us, won’t peck our eyes out. Then we can go to Louise, the farm manager’s daughter. Her mum will give us kaaings and butter on hot white bread.’

I move across to the dam and climb onto the raised flower bed that runs around it. I pull myself up onto the wall and look down. Green slimy water lies halfway down, dragonflies busily skimming the water. Helicopters, we used to call them.

I perch on top of the wall and look around. Enormous eucalyptus trees tower above me, their branches bowed by finches’ nests. The sound is almost deafening as their busy green and yellow bodies dart in and out of their upside down homes.

I peer through one of the thickest trees. I can just see the start of the long stable wing, all doors barred shut. No horses now. I look further down the line of trees and the tall entrance gates come into view.

I remember my grandfather and one of my uncles building them … ‘this is a good place to teach her to drive, nothing can go wrong’ said my grandfather …

How we loved that story! My aunt bravely boarded the old Chevrolet and inched slowly from the farmhouse door towards the new gates. Closer and closer she got, somehow mesmerized by the black wrought iron – until it enfolded her and the Chevrolet in a tight embrace. ‘I’ll never drive again!’ she announced, and fled back to the safety of the house.

Once more I look beyond the last eucalyptus tree, on towards the white pillars. In my minds eye I see some cousins lolling around the wrought iron, waiting and watching for a speck of dust far, far away as visitors battle down the hump-back dirt road with its eighteen gates. But no visitors will be coming here now. No-one will be watching out for the name ‘Geelbek‘ written on the white pillars.

...cousins ... waiting and watching ...
…cousins … waiting and watching …

A stiff breeze has come up, and I hear those huge gates starting to creek forlornly on their rusty hinges. There’s nothing here for me now. No turning back. And finally, it is time to leave.

I jump down, off the dam wall, pick a cutting from the wild red pelargonium that has surrounded the dam forever. I turn, and move towards the gates and the long white chalk road that stretches beyond.

 

© 2016 hemispheresapart.com

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A WEST COAST FARM – PART FOUR – DUST TO DUST (circa the 1950s)

When I was about six, and my brother John about three, my grandfather fell ill. When I think back on it now I am not really surprised, but in those days we did not know. My grandfather smoked more cigarettes than anyone I have ever known. Every Friday we would drive away from the farm, and risk the eighteen gates and the car-sickness, so that we could get to the little town of Darling to buy stores. But now I think it was maybe to buy cigarettes.

Grandfather used to start getting into a panic on about Wednesday, and I can remember it well. Then he used to scratch the little pieces of tobacco out of the ‘stompies‘ –the stumps – that he had smoked, and save this tobacco. By Friday morning he had truly run out of cigarettes, and he used to roll this stompie tobacco up in lavatory paper and make do, smoking it until we got to the general dealer in Darling.

The little village of Darling
… the little town of Darling …

So my grandfather coughed. He coughed and coughed and coughed. Yet I do not remember anyone telling him to give up cigarettes, or suggesting that he stopped smoking. All I remember is that he became very ill and he had to go back to the city, and we all packed up and left for Cape Town.

We stayed with one of my uncles in a house with a long, long passage from the front door to the back door, and my grandfather lay ill in the room leading off from the middle of the passage. My cousins and I would run, and then stop still and slide on the mat. ‘Shh,’ my mother would say, ‘your grandfather is not well’.

And we would hear the coughing and go outside and feel hollow inside.

Then one morning my father came to my bedroom and sat down on my bed and ruffled my head. ‘Just a little while ago your grandfather died,’ he said, ‘and you’re not to be sad. You’ve got a lively mind and I think you can understand these things. Think of all the lovely things you’ve done with him on the farm, and all the stories he’s told you and his special naughty poems that you loved. Be happy that he was alive, not sad that he’s dead.’

But all I could think of was the coughing and coughing and that I wouldn’t see him anymore, and I didn’t know where he had gone, and that worried me a lot.

Long, long after that I used to wake up in a panic, not knowing where my place in the universe was, and terrified because I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. This lasted until Uncle Chips died, when I was about twelve, and my mother got one of the first of her very bad migraines and could not go his funeral.

Uncle Chips was one of her favourite uncles. A real ‘Mr Chips’, he had been a school master all his life. He was devoted to teaching and the funeral was to be an enormous one. ‘Don’t worry,’ my father told my mother, ‘I’ll take her, she’s old enough to go and must learn about these things’.

We stood in the second pew and I remember watching everything that my father did, and trying to copy. He didn’t seem to worry that the coffin was coming soon, and that Uncle Chips was going to be inside. He greeted family and friends and I felt smaller and smaller. Then the organist started and slowly slowly the pall bearers came towards us, and I couldn’t look.

Then he bent down to me. ‘That’s not Uncle Chips in there.’ he said, ‘It’s just his shell. He needed it to live here on this earth, but now he’s gone to heaven and he doesn’t need that old shell anymore. Just like a tortoise’. Somehow that seemed alright, and more and more after that, when my mother could not bring herself to face funerals, my father and I would go along, silently drawing support from one another.

‘… sell it.’ he begged …
‘… sell it.’ he begged …

After my grandfather died I don’t ever remember going back to the farm, but we must have gone back in order to pack our personal belongings. My grandfather had not had this farm for very long, and he was not happy with it as a going financial concern. He left many assets, and good businesses, more than enough for his four sons to carve out a comfortable living for themselves, but while he was dying he worried about the farm.

‘Sell it!’ he begged them, ‘And let me die knowing that I have not burdened you with a potential loss loser.’ The four sons panicked, and within ten days they had found a buyer and signed the deed of sale, and they were able to tell him the good news before he died.

Much later on my father, and I think my uncles, felt that they had made a tremendous mistake, and that they should rather have told him that it was sold, for his peace of mind, and kept it. My grandfather’s worry was that the horses were not a good financial bet. He had tried several times to run sheep on the farm but they just would not do. Not long after this the farmer who bought the farm discovered that there was some kind of deficiency in the veld, and one injection a year sorted out the sheep, as well as the financial viability of the farm as a going concern.

Once we were gone nobody ever lived in that great gabled farmhouse again. The new owner had other farms, and other places to live. No tall farming men strode out onto the veranda and reached for their brown felt hats before they ventured into the heat of the African sun. No small children ran in and out of the gauze swing doors, no cousins ran out onto the tin covered veranda, ducking under those giant blue gum trees, and on towards the dam. For decades the house stood silent, and empty.

No small children ran in and out ... and on towards the dam ...
No small children ran in and out … and on towards the dam …

 

© 2016 hemispheresapart.com

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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?

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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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.

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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