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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 28 – The Florentine Flop

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

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

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

And so the doubt set in …

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

duomo fixed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

backseat fixed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 22 – Fire!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so too, had the fire.


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 19 – Rolling Countryside

Old Cosimo is sitting on the stone wall on the other side of our fence, like an old lizard soaking up the sun. ‘Buongiorno’ he turns to me, gesturing with his hands for me to turn the on fountain. I flick the switch and the water leaps up. He grins with delight. ‘Time to practise my Italian,’ I think.
I flick the switch and the water leaps up
I flick the switch and the water leaps up …

Dove Tristin e Stella?’ I ask, pointing to the old stone house at the top of the hill. Ever since we arrived, a week back, the house has been firmly shut, all shutters closed. Tristin and Stella are an elderly couple, somewhat of an enigma and very often the talk of our valley.

Known as the ‘inglesi’ they’ve lived here for about forty years. I first met Stella wandering down our narrow dirt road one fine summer’s day. Hatless, her long grey hair streaming behind her, she had a pair of clippers in her hand and was gathering wild flowers. As my car drew close she turned, gave me a startled look, and Ophelia-like, disappeared into the nearest field.

It was after this that I asked Cosimo about them. As the oldest in our small hamlet, he prides himself on imparting any local titbits you wish to know. ‘Oh them,’ he said, ‘… the senora – she’s a poet … not too bad I hear, com si com sa. But Tristin – he’s molto intelligentsia … molto molto molto!’

Cosimo slapped his knees, emphasising this amazing phenomenon, and then leaning forward, he capped his hands to let me in on the secret … ‘Would you believe it? He translates Dante!’

‘Wow’ I said, suitably impressed. ‘So they both work from home in this beautiful place?’ ‘Non non, not so much these days,’ Cosimo leant back, using his arm to demonstrate. ‘Bevono molto molto vino … Chianti Classico – tutto! Guarda la macchina rossa?’ He pointed to the little red Fiat Panda parked at their front door. ‘Si!’ I said, ‘Yes’.

‘Well if you see that red car on the road from here to the village, you pull over and stop. That’s what we all do. That car is pericolosa … it is dangerous … to anything in its way.’ ‘OK,’ I said, ‘I’ll remember.’ And from time to time we did see the little red car out and about, but it seemed fine to me. Furthermore there was rumour in the village that they were both completely off the bottle, and had, instead, become addicted to tea.

That car is pericolosa ...
That car is pericolosa …

Our dirt road can only take one car, so if we meet another, one pulls over onto the edge of the olives. And that is how we met Tristin. ‘Hello’ he said winding down his window. ‘We’ve been watching your gardening with great interest.’ ‘Well, come and have tea with us.’ I said.

They arrived promptly at four o’clock, the little red car inching its way down the gravel. Both immensely tall and thin, they seemed quite frail, like fine fronds of willow that sway in the breeze. The conversation ranged widely over tea, from politics and books to music. Tristin used to play in the village band – I think he said the trumpet. ‘When it folded I wanted to play for the next village’ he said, ‘I loved it so. But such are the rivalries between villages that they wouldn’t have any of us!’

And yes, he did translate Dante.

A few months later we were invited to them for tea. Their stone house sits atop a ridge commanding a view of two valleys. ‘It surely must be one of the most spectacular sites in Tuscany,’ I thought as we trudged up the hill from our house.

‘Welcome, welcome!’ said Tristin. Stella has the kettle on to boil. We sat down under a giant mulberry tree, admiring the view. Then I went in to help Stella. ‘Oh dear oh dear’ she muttered, wandering around taking stabs at a few cups and saucers. ‘I never know how many teabags, do you?’ ‘Not really.’ I said. ‘Oh well, seven should do.’ She smiled and dropped them all into the teapot.

We sat down under a giant mulberry tree
We sat down under a giant mulberry tree …

I glanced around. The kitchen area was a vast space with a vaulted brick ceiling, but what held me spellbound was the use of that space. It seemed that forty years of living had just been plonked down, year after year, and then never been touched. Pots and pans hung from beams, shelving belched books, crockery, clocks … anything and everything. And as for floor space … well, you would need a GPS to navigate across it.

Again the conversation was engrossing, this time encompassing their love of plants, and Stella’s vast knowledge of the history of religion. ‘I feel that everything has a karma,’ she said, ‘a reason for being and a reason not to be disturbed.’ ‘Yes,’ said Tristin, ‘it even includes my computer. I need it for translating and it does bring in very welcome work, but Stella will not have it visible, or turned on unnecessarily – it lives in a small room out the back.’ ‘I don’t like it one bit’ she smiled.

After that it was a very long time that we did not see them. The winter bites in hard in the hills around Florence, and people keep indoors, using up the vast stores of wood that they have collected in the summer. But now it was warm, and everyone was out and about, the noise of strimmers incessant as the field workers cut the grasses around the olives in the bright sunshine.

In our little hamlet our neighbours would come out in the evening glow, and chat while they waited for their pots to boil, and although Tristin and Stella, both immensely shy and formal, were never part of any informal ‘passegiata’ or evening stroll, it worried me that there had been no sign of them at all.

Even more worrying was that on the way back from the village we had noticed a red Fiat Panda halfway down the hill. It seemed to have tumbled off the road, through a vineyard and finally come to rest jammed up against the trunk of a chestnut tree. The drivers’ side window was staved in and there were numerous nasty dents in the side and the top.

‘Goodness,’ I had said to Liam, ‘that looks like Tristin and Stella’s car.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘it’s too red and shiny, too new.’ But I wasn’t so sure, and certainly there was no little red car parked at their house. Now I waited apprehensively for Cosimo’s reply …

‘Tristin,’ said Cosimo, shaking his head, ‘Tristin is in hospital. He drove his red car right off the road, rolling all the way down through the vines. He’s broken both his legs, right here’ and he drew a line half way across his thighs. ‘Ouch.’ I said, ‘That means he may not even be able to walk again?’ ‘No,’ sighed Cosimo mournfully.

‘And where is Stella?’ I asked. ‘She cannot stay at home on her own as she is too frail’ he replied. ‘She’s staying with her daughter, Sarah. Every now and then I see Sarah’s car at the house. She goes there to open up and air it.’ I fell silent, trying to imagine what it would be like to live down our valley with no eccentrics at the top of the hill. ‘Awful’ I said, ‘I wonder if he had some sort of a heart attack or stroke?’

‘No no’ said Cosimo. ‘It was the vino. People say that it was not the drink but I know that it was. That’s what happens to the inglesi in Italy … la dolce vita, il vino buono … it gets them all.’ And from under his grubby peaked hat, his ruddy old face for all the world a mirror image of a good bottle laid down for decades, he shot me a mischievous grin.

But old men ... have ages to weave stories ...
But old men … have ages to weave stories …

But old men, with time to sit in the sun, have ages to weave stories around and around, until finessing them becomes a fine art. For the next day I saw Sarah’s car up at the house on the hill, and I walked up to find out how these two special people were doing. ‘Come in, come in,’ said Sarah ‘they’re both here and would like to see you. They’re only using the eastern side of the house at the moment, as it is easier for them to get around.

And there, in the higgeldy-piggeldy kitchen, stood Tristin, as tall as a tree and walking towards me. One of his long arms was covered in plaster, and he had a nasty knock on his head. ‘I remember nothing’ he said. ‘It’s a complete blank. When I came too, the car and I were at the bottom of the vineyard. Luckily I had collapsed across the front and had wedged my head in a sort of vice, in one corner. Rather like wearing a crash helmet.’

Then all of a sudden there was Stella, peering out cautiously from behind one of the cupboards. ‘Would you like some real Nescafe coffee?’ she asked brightly.
But, remembering the tea, I beat a hasty retreat, down the western side of the valley, to our house at the bottom of the hill.

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 18 – Concerto della Tempesta

I’m out in the garden by seven, after the scorching heat of the day. I’m bending over some weeds in the bee and butterfly garden when I hear the horses in the next valley start to whinny. Suddenly there is a huge clap of thunder, and lightning streaks across the sky. It is in the far hills over Lamole way and I doubt that it will get here, but I put the umbrellas down and tie them fast anyway.

It's in the far hills over Lamole
“It’s in the far hills over Lamole …”

More lightning and another clap of thunder. The dogs up at Sala start to bark. I glance up, puzzled. Sala is on the opposite side to the horses. The storm seems to be closing in, surrounding us. One or two huge raindrops land on my feet and the wind picks up in gusts. I go inside, start closing the windows downstairs.

Sala is on the opposite side ...
“Sala is on the opposite side …”

Then all hell lets loose: the wind careers up the valley like a mad thing, and it looks as if a mean hungry dog has got hold of the olive trees in its teeth and is shaking them to bits. As I bolt the arched window in the sitting room closed I see a particular vicious gust trying to split our cypress in two.


a particular vicious gust trying to split our cypress in two
a particular vicious gust trying to split our cypress in two

I shoot upstairs to close my bedroom windows. The outer gauze netting is shut and there’s a cacophony of sound and a constant hammering as if a flock of woodpeckers are chopping down a tree. It’s the little swallows: about 20 of them are hammering and shrieking at the gauze. They’re wet and are being wind-battered. I go up to the window and tiny black eyes look back at me, unafraid.

‘Please please please let us in’ they are saying. ‘Sorry girls’ I say and shut the window. Still they don’t go away, but huddle into the sill seeking as best protection as they can get.

Downstairs the roof over the dining room and lounge has turned into a sieve. Rivulets of water are running down the connecting house wall, and more is flowing onto the floor. I fetch buckets and basins and place them in strategic places. Plop plop, it’s a different cacophony of sound: a concerto della tempesta. There’s more water running in through the front door and I fetch a bucket and start mopping.

Then it is all over. The sun comes out and a light drizzle lingers momentarily. I go outside: the upper terrace umbrella has been blown flat, and the swimming pool chairs have gone off down the garden for a stroll. Somehow the olives are still on the trees. Everything is glistening green and smells wonderful. From both sides of the big old house the neighbours come out.

‘Fantastico,’ chorus the two ancients, Cosimo and Enzio … ‘Both streams are running!’ Leila and Marzia wave their hands in the air.  They smile at one another. ‘Una nuova parola per lei!’ … a new word for you. They are pointing to an enormous rainbow that seems to be holding the gleaming Tuscan vineyards and olive groves in a cupped hand. I gaze transfixed. The colours of the land and the sky seem to be bouncing back and forth off each other, just for the sheer joy of it.

ARCOBALENO! … Ora non dimenticar!’    Rainbow! … Now don’t you forget it!

How could I??



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Tuscan Tales Chapter 17 – ‘… fruit of the vine.’

Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine, when you gonna let me get sober? Let me alone, let me go home … let me go back and start over …’ So goes the song of the sixties, and for some, so accurate are the lyrics that I wonder if the composer, Tom Paxton, was perhaps in Chianti when he wrote it? Was he perhaps sitting right in the middle of one of these wonderful vineyards?

For right now the grapes are simply bursting off the vines, the pickers are at the ready, and the farmers are anxiously watching the skies. They don’t want rain … that’ll ruin that little round purple ball of a Sangiovese grape. That’s the hero of the bottle: that’s what makes the Chianti Classico, the Super Tuscan and anything else … the drinking wine, the rosato and even the vin santo. It is quite simply the workhorse of the whole thing.

the harvest coming in
The harvest coming in …

I looked it up. The name ‘sangiovese’ comes from the Latin ‘sanguis jovis’ meaning the blood of Jove. By the 16th century it was well known, but today’s DNA testing traces it to an ancient Tuscan grape called ‘ciliegiolo’ and another variety ‘calabrese montenuovo’ further south. It’s had its ups and downs, and certainly so in the mid-20th century: By the 1950’s the bulbous raffia Chianti wine bottle was well known … a tad too well known. Its reputation as a good wine had taken a dive and the quality was in low regard. Wines were being added to the Chianti mix from all over – right down to Sicily and Puglia.

Then, around about the early 1980s, the outstanding quality of the sangiovese grape was re-discovered and it has been all go from there. Strict regulations are now applied, and only a certain percentage of other wines may be mixed in order to form the authentic ‘Chianti Classico’ and earn the DOC … the coveted stamp of approval.

What’s more the area around us is simply excellent for production – we have the height – 150m- 550m, we have the mix of ‘shale-clay soil called the ‘galestro’ and we have the hills – masses of them, dipping and diving from peak to riverbed.

But, interesting as the history is, we’re into the drinking of it. And we don’t have to worry if it will rain tomorrow as we have some utterly delicious looking Chianti Classico squashed into a 55 litre damigiana. What’s more we have the bottles, we have the corks, and we even have the extraordinary looking corking machine. Now all we have to do is get the contents of the big bottle into the smaller bottles, and cork it.

Should be easy.

... several friends are here to help ...
… several friends are here to help …

Several friends are here to help and none of them have ever done this before. In fact, the collective lack of experience should be off-putting, but it’s not. First, the easy part: we stand the empty and expectant bottles on the table. (Better idea – next time remove the pretty market tablecloth.)

Then we put the bag of corks next to the corking monster. Now to lift the 55 litre demigiana onto the table … heavy and likely to tip. Done it! It’s clearly going to be a doddle.

... a pre-run of the corking monster ...
… a pre-run of the corking monster …

‘Just so that we know exactly what we are doing’ says a helpful friend ‘Let’s have a pre-run of the corking monster. Let’s cork a bottle and see.’ ‘Good plan,’ says Liam, ‘we can just uncork it again.’ We set the monster up. We place the bottle on a tiny stand just under the hole in the front, and place the cork in the hole. Liam grabs the handle, and pulls – it is rather like the action of a hand-held water pump. Oops, bottle not aligned with cork-hole. ‘Now we know.’ says Liam.

Should be easy, too.

Along with the bottles and the corks from Lucio came a strange looking two-way transparent pipe with a sort of tap on the top. ‘It’s simple,’ I tell Liam, ‘it’s just a matter of the law of gravity. You put the one bit of pipe into the damigiana and the other into the waiting bottle below. Then the law of gravity takes over .. . er, perhaps turn the tap on …’ I add, as nothing happens.

‘I know’ says Liam ‘I need to suck the air out of the pipe so that the wine flows through. The trick is to get the wine flowing, and as it begins to flow, to transfer the plastic tube from mouth to bottle in one action. ‘Sis’ I say ‘spit into every bottle?’ ‘No’ he laughs ‘you do it like this.’ And he gives a good suck. We watch the red wine flow through the transparent pipe. ‘It’s a bit like having your blood taken at the Royal Free Hospital,’ I joke, ‘Only I look the other way!’

Cosimo bottling fixedBut Liam is not in a joking mood. For how to stop the wine once you’ve reached the ‘critical gap’ at the neck of the bottle? Chianti wine is simply flowing everywhere and the tap does not seem to have an ‘off’. It is too good to waste and we have not thought of having a basin at the ready.

So Liam drinks, and he drinks, and our friends? Well they are simply in hysterics. They are also busy forming a queue. ‘Me next!’ comes the chorus.

Looks like we are in for one hell of an afternoon ahead …


... it's been a good year ...
… it’s been a good year …


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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 …


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 15 – Sausage Thief

There’s a little fat pig local to our area, and it’s delicious. Its name is ‘Cinta Senese’.  TheSenese’ part of the name stands for Siena, and you can see the first painting of it in the Palazzo Comunale in Siena, dating back to 1338. There it is, sporting a beautiful black coat and a white belt, or ‘cinta’. Hardy little thing, it clung on through the centuries, through thick and thin, and was in real danger of extinction just after World War Two. But above all it is tasty, and so farmers are breeding it again, and it is on the way up.


Cinta Senese pigs near Castellina
Cinta Senese pigs near Castellina

It is not as plentifully available to buy as the salsiccia toscana, but our butcher has it, and we have bought some as a special treat. Fabiana and her friend are coming over for supper and we want to thank her for all her help when we moved in.

It’s a lovely evening … warm on the terrace, and we tell Fabiana of our water problems. It seems we are sharing a dysfunctional borehole and the future looks bleak and unfriendly. ‘We are having an important meeting here tomorrow morning,’ I say. ‘Our neighbour Marciano is coming, and the new person who has just bought Stefan’s family’s little house above us. It is the three of us that will share this problem, and we simply have to sort it out.’

Fabiana tells us of the water diviner from Lamole. He is an old man, about 85, and so skilled at his job that French television did a documentary on him. ‘He will come to you,’ she says, ‘He won’t charge – it’s the love of his life.’

While we are chatting we hear a noise. ‘Don’t worry, it’s Cosimo’s cat!’ I say.

Later we hear it again … and turning around to the barbecue I see the most extra-ordinary looking dog. He’s light brindle, with Jack Russell legs and the low-slung body of a Bassett Hound. His face is the size of a soup plate and it is too large for his body.

The Sausage Thief
The Sausage Thief

He has a string of our precious ‘cinta senese’ sausages in his mouth and he shoots off through the old wooden gate with Liam in pursuit.  ‘Ahhhhhh!!’ shouts Liam, and the dog drops the sausages. But instead of running off, he turns in mid-flight, and, teeth bared, he goes for Liam. Liam stands his ground. ‘Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr!’ Liam yells at the dog, baring his teeth. With that the dog, with his teeth still bared, slinks off.

There’s a bite or two in a sausage, which we avoid, and Liam eats …

I must learn to make coffee. The whole group has arrived for todays ‘water crises meeting’  … Marciano, Susanna, who will help us translate, us and our new neighbour, Sebastiano. They have all asked for coffee. Sebastiano beams when introduced to me. He is in love with South Africa. ‘Ah … Stellenbosch,’ he says, ‘and Pinotage’. He speaks a smattering of English, very very little, but he tells Liam we are to come and dine in his restaurant. ‘Just for you, I will close my restaurant,’ he says, ‘I will cook you a wonderful meal, my speciality, myself, for free, and you will bring the wine from South Africa.’

The meeting starts well, and finally everyone is sitting around drinking my instant coffee – except for Marciano who shakes his head mournfully and says ‘Non, mi recordo!’ (No, I remember!) This is from the last time. I try to concoct an espresso in a small cup. It looks black and dubious but I put it in front of him anyway.

I hear a noise and get up and go out onto the terrace. The strange dog is back sniffing around the barbecue. I go to the door thinking what can I lob at him so that he never returns? I see the heavy rubberised door mat and I pick it up and lob it. As it sails through the air I feel some-one at my shoulder. It’s Sebastiano! It’s his dog!

‘Oops. Scusi,’ I say, ‘I thought it was a wild dog.’ ‘Didi Didi’ he yells. Didi stops in his tracks. Strange, slanty eyes look at me. I’m with Sebastiano now, I’m brave. ‘Didi Didi’ I say, moving closer. And Didi promptly rolls on his back to be tickled. Sebastiano is devastated by the tale of the three sausages. ‘I will buy you more’ he says.

But Sebastiano’s misery doesn’t end there. As they walk up the hill past Cosimo he gets short shrift from the old man … for Didi, on the way down to his master, has bitten old Cosimo on the arm.

I try and introduce them, pointing out that Sebastiano has bought Stefan’s family’s house and so is now part of our small commune. But the old boy is clearly put out, and is barely civil to Sebastiano. He shows us the Didi’s teeth marks, shaking his head and pointing at the dog. Didi is going to be penned in …

Will Didi be penned in? With old Cosimo and Sebastiano getting off on such a bad footing will there be more bad blood? And what about me? After lobbing a very heavy mat at the precious Didi … will we ever get a restaurant closed, just for us, while the owner cooks? Clearly living in commune is far more complicated than I thought.


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 14 – Country Cacophony

Nights in the countryside take on a rhythm of their own.  In our valley, in the evening time when the long shadows start to fall, and the heat begins to wane a little, doors begin to open and our neighbours appear.  Manuela, on the west side, will call to Pasquale still working in the fields, and on the eastern side Leila will take the two dogs, Lily and Beethoven, for a walk.  At the moment Lily is on a long piece of rag so that she cannot stray far.  She is wearing socks on her back paws and is a sorry sight.  Some hunter has put poison down in our woods and Lily has trodden in it.

Beethoven and Lily are tied up at night, each to their own tree, below our bedroom window. They have to be. For in the middle of the night both the deer and a large herd of wild pigs, or ‘cinghiali’, come through, foraging along the hillside and down towards the stream. The dogs would be after them like a shot, and the enormous tusks of a cinghiale would do more damage than even the hunter’s poison. Once Leila has tied up the dogs, and we’ve had a little chat in my experimental Italian, she disappears back inside. Then old Enzio locks up his beloved fowls and follows Leila indoors. All around the old house you can hear doors closing and shutters being secured, for there is a nasty little Tiger mosquito around at the moment.

"She is wearing socks on her back paws ..."
“She is wearing socks on her back paws …”

So, as the darkness settles around the valley, you might think a blessed peacefulness would too. But right now the nights are not peaceful. In the early hours of the morning, as the cinghiali move through, Beethoven sets up a steady bark. Lily accompanies him with an incessant whine, no doubt a lament on dogs compelled to wear bootie-socks. Last night a cat joined the chorus – to such a pitch that for the first time ever, old Enzio, who is as deaf as a post, suddenly appeared at the dogs’ tree using some Italian words that have not been in my weekly Italian vocabulary lessons. And then there’s the cock.

It was one of our visitors, earlier on in the summer, who came down to the kitchen one morning in a state of apoplectic shock.

‘Morning Marion, sleep well?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’ she replied. ‘It’s that b—– cock. I think I’m going to wring its b—– neck.’

I was mildly surprised. We’ve sort of got used to Enzio’s cock – a tiny, colourful Chianti cock who struts around his hens with the air of an Italian gigolo surrounded by pretty girls in a small piazza. Sure, Enzio’s cock crows every morning at about sunrise, but it’s all part of the Tuscan country dream, or so we thought. Not so Marion.

"... a tiny, colourful Chianti cock ..."
“… a tiny, colourful Chianti cock …”

‘We all know our nursery rhymes,’ she said ‘and we all know our animal sounds. That’s elementary. Now this b—– cock doesn’t. It’s left off the ‘doo!’

‘What on earth are you on about?’ I asked.

‘Well it does,’ she said. ‘It’s supposed to say Cock – a – doo – dle – DO. Five syllables. And it only says Cock – a – doo – dle. Four syllables. It leaves off the DO every time, and I’ve had no sleep at all, waiting for the wretched DO and I’m fed up with it.

So right now in the heart of a peaceful Tuscan valley the nights are not for sleeping. Once the deer, the cinghiali, the cats and the foxes have done their bit to keep us awake, we have to listen carefully. And my Italian vocabulary lessons are at stake. For I have learnt that Italian cocks say ‘chicchirichi’.

Chi – cchi – ri – chi?  It seems like four syllables to me.

Does this mean that Italian cocks are different from English cocks … four syllables and not five syllables? And for that matter, between cocks, does a syllable matter?


gallo nero


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