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.’

 

© 2016 hemispheresapart.com

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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!

 

© 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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