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!

 

© 2016 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 16 – ‘Bottle of wine …’

We are to have a summer party. Reiner, who knows everyone in our village, is leaning over his spade chatting to Liam. He’s found some good Chianti wine at a local vineyard of a friend of his. ‘Guido has produced too much for his registered quota,’ he tells Liam, ‘and I think we should go and have a look this afternoon. He has a small winery called le Fonti.’

It’s traditional in our area to throw a party for all builders and helpers once your house is finished. We’ve been here for over a year now, and as our house seems as if it will never quite be finished, we’ve decided right now will be just fine. Yesterday, Umberto, our electrician, was up a ladder fixing lights along the old beams in the apartment, and I chatted to him. ‘Yes, I’d love to come’ he said gazing down at me. ‘Do you know that it will be the first time I have come to a party at Fontana since I was a young boy?’

‘What do you mean, what parties were here?’ I asked, and he settled back to tell me. As a boy he lived in the old stone house at the top of the hill near the Madonnina

‘There were three farms across our valley – the great old Villa you can see from your garden, at the top of the vineyards, Fontana in the middle, and the farm in the next valley, to the east. At the end of each summer the bringing in of the harvest was celebrated at Fontana. Then the abandoned olive grove that we are busy restoring was up and running, and the wild section below was used for growing corn. The harvest party was held on what is now your west terrace, where there was a large threshing stone. My wife will just love seeing Fontana,’ said Umberto, ‘and all our children.’

Later I speak to Alfio, the builder who has just finished the buttressing of the southern wall of the house … the bit that has been threatening to slide down the hill and into the swimming pool. He’s a great bear of a chap, with huge shoulders and rough calloused hands, red and angry from constant contact with raw cement. ‘I’m too busy to do any of the finishing off, and Reiner can cope with it’ he says.

‘I hope you’re not too busy to come to our party?’ I say innocently. ‘When?’ he says. ‘Next week, on Saturday’ I say. ‘Lovely! I’ll be there – and my wife, and the children’ he says.

And so it has gone: all will bring their wives and children. ‘I think we can multiply each adult by 4’ I tell Reiner. ‘Don’t have the party at lunchtime’ Reiner advises. ‘They’ll all stay until late anyway. Start at 6.’

We’ll have trestle tables under the tree on the west terrace and traditional Italian fare. I dream ….

‘The wine’ says Reiner ‘buy it from Guido and bottle it yourself. It’s good wine, and will be very reasonable …’

... could be a medieval scene ...
… could be a medieval scene …

Guido’s small winery nestles directly below the church in old Panzano. He and his wife Vicky have spent many years perfecting what seems to me was already Paradise. The farm land is perched high on the hill with sweeping views over what could be a medieval scene … patches of olive grove lie alongside terraced vineyards, all in between soft hills and diverse greens of natural forest. And here, between the church steeple and the river below, Guido has not only restored the family’s 17th century farmhouse but has also built a state of the art modern winery. Old stone harmonises with the new. Great stainless steel vats line the walls making the red of the terracotta floor glisten where the taps wash off spillage.

Guido’s young, with fine olive green eyes. He has a kind of sensitivity about him that is difficult to pin point, but I am not surprised when Vicky tells me later that he used to be a professional photographer. He moves between the different vintages, chatting as he goes. ‘This is my life’ he says ‘and it’s a good one. I have my wife working with me in the sales, and my children run in and out all day. Every year my wine is improving and I am beginning to see the fruits of years of hard labour.’

... the fruits of this hard labour ...
… the fruits of this hard labour …

We taste the fruits of this hard labour, savouring the richness of the full bodied Sangiovese grape. We’re to buy a classic Chianti Classico, and it’s delicious – easy on the palate with about 13% alcoholic content. Not too strong – or our guests will not be able to negotiate our pot-bellied road back up the hill.

Guido sells us a ‘damigiana’ – one of those great bulbous green bottles with basket weave at the base. This one holds 55 litres. The wine is lifted in and the car sinks under the heavy load. ‘Come again.’ he says ‘Come and have a barbecue in the summer.’ He hands us a large packet of corks as a present.

... a large green grasshopper on spidery legs ...
… a large green grasshopper on spidery legs …

We stop at the hardware store. Lucio only has 30 green wine bottles left, he’ll order some more. He, Reiner and Liam chat about the best corking machine to buy. They finally decide on a good solid one. It’s an intricate contraption and looks to me like a large green grasshopper on spidery legs – complete with proboscis sticking out the top. There’s an art to bottling – somehow the cork needs to be squeezed, and once in, the gap between the cork and the top of the wine is to be no more than 2cm.

With the bottles, the machine and the wine on board, Liam negotiates the potholes carefully. He and Reiner chat happily about the price of the wine and the mechanics of the bottling machine.

And I?

I am sitting in the back seat dreaming. We’ve wine to bottle from the surrounding hills. It’s unbelievable. Next we’ll have the old olives bearing again, and I’ll have my beehives producing honey. I’ve always had labels for my honey, even in London and I’ll have them here at Fontana too …

But what about a wine label? Now that’s something new …

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

 

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