We had our first guests of the year at the Farm with a View last month, when Matt and Nat came over from Wales. They brought their weather with them, as while we visited relatives in a sunny UK, they fed the cats between welsh-style rain showers. Needless to say, the hot weather we had enjoyed just before their arrival resumed as soon as they left. It’s been hot ever since, climbing to 28 degrees yesterday.

Matt and Nat down at the river

Matt and Nat down at the river

They seem to have had a good time though. They managed a day in Rome by train, and bravely took the car into Siena without major incident. We had a few days with them too, covering some of the local walks, including a stroll down to our swimming spot on the river. While down there we saw what I think was a weasel – bobbing up for a couple of seconds from behind the tall grass. They had a lot of luck with the local fauna. I’ve known Tuscany for twenty years, and lived here for four. I think I’ve glimpsed wild boar two or three times, and always at a distance. Yet Matt and Nat almost bumped into one, late at night on the track back from the pizzeria.

There are quite a lot of beasts around here which you see signs of, but would be lucky to spot in the flesh. The boar dig up patches of ground, rummaging for tubers. They also have selected spots which they use as communal toilets. My non-scientific surveys suggest there must be loads of them about this year. Indeed, Franco the barber tells me they have come down from the mountain in search of food, as their favourite chestnut crop failed last autumn. Who knows.

 

It’s not what you’re thinking. I got this from Getty Images.

We also have resident porcupines, as evidenced by the odd spine which you find when wandering across the farm. One of our guests found a dead one a few years back; and we saw two of them cross the road in front of the car not long after we bought the place. They are not keen on posing for photography though. This may have something to do with the fact that some of the locals still eat them. Though a protected species, we have been told how the traps are set and how tasty they are. This is not a delicacy I will be indulging in, although the species was originally introduced from Africa by the Romans, for precisely that reason. As far as I am concerned, the ones that live up in my wood are entirely welcome. And for the record: no, they don’t have the ability to shoot their spines at passers by. I suppose that’s what one would call a rural myth. It can be safely filed under BS.

Of all the wildlife up here on the Amiata, one species always invokes strong sentiments. The apennine wolf is back, it seems. I would just love to catch sight of one of these top predators, hunted to extinction round here in the 1930’s, but hopefully now re-established on the mountain. I say hopefully, because different people tell you different things. There are certainly wolves in two or three locations in Tuscany, including one of the nature reserves in the far north, and in the Uccelina park down on the coast. The warden at the wildlife centre up here told me there was definitely a local wild pack; and he’s likely to know what he’s talking about. Yet they are controversial. A headline in one of the local papers a few years ago ran “Wolves: 200 businesses threatened”. I think we can tuck that one away in the BS file too.

A walk in the orchard

A walk in the orchard

 

Orchids and spring flowers

Orchids and spring flowers

So, unable to bring you pictures of wild boar or wolves, I have to resort to flowers, and the inevitable cats. This place does look gorgeous at this time of year. Lia and I stroll around, she trying to persuade me not to cut it all down with my highly entertaining sit-on mower. We reach an uneasy compromise.

Basta cosi,

Andrew

A week ago I took the old Panda and drove to a village I know about an hour from the Farm with a View. Deep in one of Tuscany’s protected regional parks, this is one of my favourite local spots. I have fond memories of camping up there, good eating and good friends. With spring definitely sprung and a day off from fence building (see below…),  I had packed my walking boots and decided to get out and enjoy our countryside.

My favourite swimming spot

My favourite swimming spot

From the village I strolled down through cool woodland, with a brook splashing among the trees to my right. At this time of year you are not assaulted by squadrons of insects and it is not too hot either. I had my water bottle and my thoughts. It was warm enough though, to strip off and go for a swim once I got down to the river. I was completely alone, even though in summer this place is a popular spot. As ever in Italy, I try to be aware of what the hordes will be doing. A Tuesday morning in mid-April was perfect for a secluded wild swim – my first of 2015.

Everything is waking up. All of the fruit trees are covered in blossom and Lia’s plants on the terrace now give it that Mediterranean look.

Spring at the Farm with a View

Spring at the Farm with a View

As in previous years, we see a lot of slow worms. Generally, they seem a bit smaller than their UK counterparts, and I’m wondering whether they are a different species. Unfortunately, we generally encounter them only when the cats bring them indoors. I’m way beyond panicking about this. (OK, there may have been the odd panic a few years back. I never screamed though.)

A tiny Tuscan slow worm

A tiny Tuscan slow worm

I carefully check that they are what they seem and are not – to pluck an example from thin air – an adder, and then I cup them in my hands and place them on our compost heap. It’s interesting that as soon as you enclose them in darkness, they seem to feel safe and stop wriggling. Most survive the cat attacks, often shedding their tails in self-defence. They are certainly welcome here, though I wish they were more savvy when it comes to our feline friends.

Looking down on a sea of cloud from our postbox

Looking down on a sea of cloud from our postbox

We are getting some wonderful weather effects this year, too. Stupendous rainbows when the showers blow through. And just the other day, we were enjoying hot sunshine alongside the slightly odd view of a sea of cloud in the val d’orcia, way below us. It was like being on an aircraft. I suppose this may not seem peculiar to mountain folk, but it sure looked weird to me.

It’s not all glorious views and skinny dipping though. Frankly, I have had just about enough of fence building. After three years of temporary fencing round my veg plot, I finally got round to building something more substantial this year. It has taken me a lot longer than I had hoped, and if I’m honest it looks a bit naff in places. But it’s two metres tall and I think would stand an attack by a panzer division. That should keep the deer and wild boar off my tomatoes.

The fence project underway

The fence project underway

Finally, a reader who wishes to remain anonymous has told me that I should have more cats in my blog. Well there are plenty of cats around here, that’s for sure. I think we are feeding twelve at the moment, of whom some seven or eight come into the house regularly. I haven’t got any pictures of them dancing or wearing clothes, but for the sake of my readership I will include a cat picture with this post. Actually, I could probably write a whole blog about the cats – but we won’t go there.

Competition: how many cats can you spot?

Competition: how many cats can you see?

Basta cosi,

Andrew

Elba is only a couple of hours from the Farm with a View. You tootle up the motorway to the frankly ugly port of Piombino and take one of the regular ferries across to what is Italy’s third largest island. About the size of Jersey, Elba was the tiny kingdom offered to Napoleon as a consolation for having lost his empire to the Sixth Coalition in 1814. He famously escaped, to wind up after Waterloo on the distinctly less comfortable island of St Helena, in the South Atlantic. Elba is noted for its scenery and beaches, as well as a couple of museums devoted to Big N himself. I’d long wanted to go.

Arriving at Portoferraio, Elba's tiny capital

Arriving at Portoferraio, Elba’s tiny capital

As it happens, the museums were a bit of a let down. It turns out that nearly all of Big N’s possessions have been dispersed, with the result that we are left with a couple of houses which have been sparsely furnished with some pieces which are typical of the era, rather than from his stay. There is not a lot of information available; one does not get much sense of the man. Anyone with an interest in the military history should proceed directly to the Musee de l’Armee in Paris, instead. Still, it was pleasant enough to poke around. In both cases we were on our own, which typified the trip.

As I’ve said before, the Italians do things en masse. We were comfortably out of season, meaning that there were no crowds and the hotels were cheap; but understandably, many of the museums and restaurants were closed. This is very much an economy driven by summer tourism. The ironworks which dominated for much of the island’s history have long gone the way of British Steel. I have concluded though, given the absence of tourists, (apart from me) the truly splendid countryside and brilliant sunshine, that for an irritable old git such as myself, this was a good time to visit.

Lia down at the coast

Lia down at the coast

We spent a lot of time driving about. We had actually lucked in with the map, which was not only accurate, but at a large scale and replete with old churches, castles and so forth. Usually Italian maps are more confusing than informative, so I don’t know what went wrong there. On the Thursday we headed for Volterraio, a Medici fortress dizzyingly high up on a bluff above the coast. Volterraio means vulture, BTW. I think one could say that the ‘footpath’ was a bit of a challenge for those of us without wings. Quite a few stretches were near vertical and frankly dangerous, requiring hands as well as feet. But it was well worth it. Spectacular views and a truly enchanted spot. Amazingly, I met a construction team up there, complete with cement mixers and huge piles of bricks. It’s great that the structure is being preserved and made safe – let’s hope they consider a few handrails; but how the hell did these guys got up there with their gear? Helicopter?

The 'footpath' up to the impressive  castle at Volterraio

The ‘footpath’ up to the impressive castle at Volterraio

Meanwhile, back at the farm… We were pleased to get home late that night and find that the cats hadn’t trashed the place. Our friend Rodica pops in to feed them, but they can get quite bored on their own. Since our spell of spring sunshine on Elba, we have been inundated with rain and hammered by gales. Consequently, one of the old telephone poles outside our place had tilted over at a drunken angle across the track. Now, these are owned by Telecom Italia, who used to provide us with a phone and internet ‘service’.

A fireman doing Telecom Italia's job

A fireman doing Telecom Italia’s job

Having sacked TI for sustained incompetence, we currently receive our internet from a radio beacon on the hill opposite. But it was TI’s job to remove their dangerous pole. We were told that it was a priority, and would therefore be resolved within 48 hours. Fat chance. From one of the worst organisations in Italy to one of the best: step forward, the Vigili del Fuoco. These boys (and girls) not only deal with routine house fires, but they put out an alarming number of bush-fires during the summer. Twice, they’ve been to our farm to destroy hornets’ nests. There’s nothing they can’t do! Within an hour they had come round and removed the pole.

Basta cosi,

Andrew

During my last blog, I forgot to mention one of the more charming snippets of winter life here on the Farm with a View: the nativity festival in CDP. I was downloading some pictures from my phone, when I came across tell-tale images of Italians wearing tea towels on their heads. Yup, I am now able to reveal exactly what we get up to on our mountain during the winter.

Plenty of tea towels in evidence

Plenty of tea towels in evidence

It was actually one of the coldest nights to date when Lia and I drove up to see the festival. Thus the blazing log fires set up on the narrow streets of the old town were more than welcome, as was the readily available mulled wine. I may have had a glass too much of that. Held between Christmas and New Year, this little gig is great fun. It is the kind of thing they would get up to in the ‘Archers’, as the whole ‘town’ (village, really) reinvents itself as the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago. We get the inevitable stable – but with real animals – as well as Roman soldiers, hostelries and crafts of all sorts. This year entrance was free, though you were encouraged to make donations as you wandered round. Inevitably, you bump into lots of people you half recognise, swathed as they are in old blankets and so forth. The German lady from down the road, proudly displaying her highly skilled basket-work, had me completely fooled. I only found out afterwards that it was her. I did miss Mr. Vannuzzi though, one of our neighbouring farmers. Usually he is three sheets to the wind, dispensing his rather tasty red wine. The poor chap is not supposed to drink normally, but he makes an exception for the nativity. Perhaps his doctor banned him completely this year. It’s easy to laugh at all of this, but it is a genuine community effort. I like it a lot.

Mr. and Mrs. Christ at the Bethlehem gig

Mr. and Mrs. Christ at the Bethlehem gig

Although the evening up at the nativity was nippy, winter didn’t finally come for real until early February. It was with a mixture of relief and anxiety that we woke to a hefty dollop of snow on the 6th. Relief because we needed the cold weather to kill off the olive fly and other nasties, and anxiety because of all days, this was the one on which I absolutely had to drive. Normally, when it snows we can hunker down at the farm, light the log fire, and sit it out. The track up to the main road is so steep that it doesn’t take much to make it impassable. If we really are desperate for supplies, we can walk into town, which can be enjoyable. But Lia needed to get to the airport.

Snow at last. But it didn't stay for long.

Snow at last. But it didn’t stay for long.

We were lucky. We had only a couple of centimetres, and our faithful Fiat Panda – which is a four wheel drive of sorts – took it in its stride. I have actually got a snow plough attachment for my pedestrian tractor; but I am not exactly confident that I can remember how to fit the damned thing, let alone use it. Perhaps I should practice with some sand in the summer. Sadly, the snow had melted by the time I got back a couple of hours later.

One less pleasing development recently has been courtesy of the cats. When I was a boy, we would have ‘crazes’, that would last for a couple of weeks or more. ‘Dinks’ (toy cars, for the uninitiated) maybe, or tree climbing. Cats are the the same: this week it’s rat catching.

The cats' latest craze

The cats’ latest craze

I’m not sure which is worse, having to deal with a live rat scampering round the living room or the gory remnants of one which our feline friends have actually managed to despatch. I don’t know where these blighters are coming from, either. Perhaps this is yet another by-product of the thus far mild winter. I just wish the cats would move on to a new craze. It’s all part of rural life.

Basta cosi,

Andrew

Its New Year on the Farm with a View, or rather, we are at the end of January already, and I realise I haven’t posted on here for quite some time. OK, I’m really going to make an effort this year to post at least monthly. So what’s been happening? Well, another disastrous olive crop, continued weird weather, and various farming projects undertaken with more enthusiasm than expertise.

Ramaglie!

Ramaglie!

The whole of Italy suffered something like a 45% reduction in its olive oil production last year. I thought I should get that excuse in early. The problem has been the olive fly, whose lives have been made simply idyllic by the extraordinarily mild weather this year. Almost unheard of up here at 470 metres, the flies lay their eggs in the fruit and then the larvae do their thing. Most of the fruit will drop off the tree, the remainder being shrivelled and maggoty. But here’s a secret for you: as far as I can make out (I don’t want to be sued here…), a lot of farmers process the oil anyway, which means that the product contains plenty of squashed maggots. That’s what we did. The presence of the flies changes the acidity of the oil, which means it cannot be described as ‘extra virgin’. Taste-wise ours has been remarkably good; but you have been warned – it is full of extra meat.

We did take precautions – sort of. There is a pheromone-based attractant and insecticide which you can hang from the trees in plastic bottles. Either we didn’t use sufficient bottles or we didn’t do it early enough. Most of the farmers round here were blitzed by the fly and have lost a lot of money. One exception was our neighbour Bruno, who sprayed his with agent orange or similar, from the back of his huge tractor. We are told that strategy will only work for a couple of years, before the local fly community develops a resistance. It is of course expensive, time consuming and it invalidates any organic aspirations one may have. So we won’t be doing it ourselves and like most on the mountain, we long for a week or so of heavy frost, or maybe even some snow. That should kill off the flies before they can begin the cycle again in 2015. Fat chance of that so far, it would seem.

One crop that did turn out well was the medlars. We only have two trees, but with those we made nearly a hundred jars of medlar jam, jelly and cheese. It all got a bit competitive in the kitchen, as we fiddled around with different recipes and got in each other’s way. I think Lia’s efforts far surpassed mine. If you haven’t tried medlar jelly with roast meat or cheese, you should. Wilkinson’s make it in the UK, or if you swing past the farm Lia won’t let you leave without a jar or two.

Medlars

Medlars

The so called winter continues to be astonishingly mild, the upside being that conditions are pleasant and sunny for outside work. When I open the shutters in the morning I can usually see several thin columns of whitish smoke spiralling up from the valley floor. These are the real early birds, engaged in the local pastime of ramaglie. Olive cuttings and other farm debris are burnt, as the farmers use these short winter days to tidy up. In fact, as my friend Sergio tells me, most of farming seems to be about tidying up. Having had tendencies to pyromania since boyhood, I enjoy a bit of ramaglie myself.

I also have a new toy this year. Michael/Maico came up from his farm supply shop down the road to deliver and instruct me on the intricacies of the chipper cum rotivator cum snow plough. Technically, I think this thing is a two wheel tractor. It not much more than a small power plant, onto which you can attach a whole array of interesting appliances. You can get a water pump for it, or various types of mower or plough. I’ve long wanted to use some of the spare wood I gather round the place for mulch, informal paths and also, for fuel. The chipper, it seems, is the solution. Rotivation speaks for itself and should help me with an expanded veg plot this year, as well as turning the soil over round the olive trees. My early adventure in this mode did almost result in a capsize when cornering, however. I clearly need a bit of practice.

Maico sets up my new chipper/rotivator/snow plough/thingy

Maico sets up my new chipper/rotivator/snow plough/thingy

The snow plough? Not much scope for that this winter. We’ve barely dipped below freezing and consequently, the olive fly sleep soundly in their beds.

Basta cosi,

Andrew

In no particular order, here are some other local features that I’ve come to enjoy since moving to the Farm with a View. This time I’ll try to stay away from the cliches and pick out a few of the less obvious gems.

Wild swimming. Ever seen that documentary on the subject with Alice Roberts? Or read the brilliant ‘Waterlog’ by Roger Deakin? They are both charming. Yet while I like the idea of wild swimming, I am just not made of the right stuff when it comes to the British climate. I am not one for jumping in to the Serpentine at seven o’clock on New Year’s Day. I prefer a quieter scene for a start, and I would rather avoid air ambulances.

Swimming in the Ente, near the Farm with a View.

Swimming in the Ente, near the Farm with a View.

In Tuscany we have hundreds of sites for secluded wild swimming, with the added bonus that the water temperature won’t send you into immediate cardiac arrest. I just love it. There are lakes, rivers, and many hot springs and spas too. One lake I know remains at a balmy blood-heat all year round, due to the thermal springs that feed it. A hundred yards back from the shore there are the extensive ruins of a roman town to snoop around, and in the nearby village you can get honest tuscan food in the trattoria. Even in mid-August, you will only be sharing the lake with two or three other families. About a mile from my farm you can spend the day reading your novel and swimming in the mountain torrent to cool off. Or over on the Farma, where the Appenine trout get as big as salmon, and they flick between your legs as you tread water. That’s Tuscan wild swimming.

I also like the Val D’Orcia – and a great way to appreciate it is by train. Those who saw Harvey Keitel doing his Ernest Hemingway bit in ‘Shadows in the Sun’ may have wondered what the heck was going on when the dashing Joshua Jackson attempts to leave the tuscan village by steam train. Yeah, but this was supposed to be 2005, right? Actually, Tuscans don’t generally travel about by donkey and steam train these days. But we have got a great preservation railway here in the trenonatura (‘nature train’), which was used in the film. This standard gauge line runs from Siena, for forty miles down the valley to Paganico. As well as wonderful scenery, many of the trips take in local festivals – with the inevitable big meal included. It’s an excellent day out and a reminder that it is not just us Brits who like steam trains. There are plenty of anoraks in Italy.

Live steam in the val d'orcia

Live steam in the val d’orcia

Before leaving trains, I should add that steam or otherwise, they represent the best way of moving about the country. In recent years, Italy has made a ridiculous attempt to emulate Britain’s semi-privatised rail network. This is like Britain deciding to copy Italy’s bureaucracy. Why would you do that, exactly? Despite that, for now, the railways here remain cheap, efficient and safe. I don’t know how long that will last.

I think I should end with a note on my local town, CDP. It’s easy to laugh at. Think ‘Camberwick Green’ in a mountain setting, but in Italian. There’s Mr Arrezzini, the pork butcher, who only yesterday I saw standing outside his shop in his white apron, arms crossed, talking to passers by. There’s our Christmas fair, when the old town is turned into a mock-up of Bethlehem, the locals wearing dressing gowns and tea towels in an approximation of the clothes worn in the middle east two thousand years ago. We have sheep and shepherds, even an impressive ‘Herod’s palace’. We have a mini-palio  (horse race) too, a privilege granted to the town by Siena, which was formerly its colonial ruler. Bareback riders thunder round our tiny town square, itself a miniature replica of the one in Siena.

Our local 'palio'.

Our local ‘palio’.

Above all, everybody knows everybody else, and they always have time for a word. It’s an intimate feeling, and you have to change gear if you are going to enjoy it. It won’t do to rush into town hoping to get your shopping done in fifteen minutes flat. Mr Arrezini simply won’t allow that.

So that’s it from me on the charms of this area. All very subjective, most of it more to do with this mountain than Tuscany as a whole; it is a big region. Overall, I hope I have been able to show why I don’t really miss the 06.37 from Letchworth.

Basta cosi,

Andrew

OK, a couple of posts ago on the Farm with a View blog I moaned about some of the irritations I’ve encountered in living up here. Justice demands redress, and so it is only fitting that I should jot down some of the great things Tuscany has to offer.

First, the cliches. The funny thing about cliches is that they have a habit of being true; that’s why you’ve heard them so many times. With Tuscany, most of the cliches are true and inevitably, you will recognise much of what I have to say here.

The river just down from the farm

The river just down from the farm

The landscape is the big one. Let’s face it, it is beautiful. After three years in residence, I try not to take this manicured countryside for granted. The signature rows of cedars along the crest-lines, the pristine vineyards, the castles on the hilltops – they do look pretty much like the postcards. Ditto for the mediaeval towns and villages, with flowers tumbling over balconies and fig trees sprouting through the city walls. All are offset by the fantastic light you get here, even in midwinter. So the painters and those on the Grand Tour were on to something with that.

The Tuscan landscape

The Tuscan landscape

Alright, cliche number two: food. It’s true that Tuscany offers some of the best food and wine in Italy. Indeed, I have written about it a few times on here. For the Tuscans of course, theirs is the best food in the world, never mind Italy. Erm, well – it’s jolly good. That said, a man can grow tired of even the best things in life. The fact is that it is really quite difficult to find any food other than Tuscan round here, unless you cook it yourself; even then, you may be struggling for ingredients. For sure, some of the Tuscan reds are outstanding – widely recognised as world class wines. Their soups are under-rated, and always something to go for in a Tuscan restaurant. But if you’re not into meat in a big way you might be struggling in Tuscany. What they do, they do well – they are great at simple peasant synergies with powerful flavours. Yet I’d plump for Sicily if I had to choose the best cuisine in Italy.

The "grigliata" - typical Tuscan eating

The “grigliata” – typical Tuscan eating

My final Tuscan cliche is the people. Here’s where it gets a little more complicated, however. The British stereotype ascribes a warmth and friendliness to the entire peninsula. Oh, and to that notion we can add the love of children and perhaps, a slightly ‘manyana‘ attitude to timing and organisation. Perhaps also to compliance and tax-paying. Us Brits can’t help loving the Italians, even though they have a mickey mouse economy and government, all run by the mafia.

To some extent this is true. The warm if over-casual culture in Italy, whereby your plumber is a fantastic bloke but he arrives two days late, does exist. Corruption and organised crime exist, too.

Apart from being huge generalisations though, these would be caricatures that northern Italians would immediately identify with the south. So would many southerners. Other Italians would hotly deny that they had any meaning at all. It is a bit politically incorrect here to suggest that there may be a significant cultural difference between north and south, but it seems to me to be the elephant in the room. Milanese financiers are not known for being ‘warm but unreliable’. You make a mistake if you turn up late for your meetings in Milan.

What does all of this mean for Tuscany? Situated halfway down the boot, we tend to get the best of both worlds. On average, people here seem to have closer communities and a friendlier demeanour than is typically the case up north. Yet things are organised in Tuscany – plumbers turn up and you can’t bribe the officials, even if you wanted to. If people give you an undertaking, they mean it.

Tuscans in their natural habitat

Tuscans in their natural habitat

Up here on the mountain, the values are old fashioned and charming. My wife at the petrol station, late one summer evening: she can’t work the stupid self-service payment system (nor can I, BTW). A group of lads are hanging around showing off, messing about with a noisy motorbike. Then one of them comes over and with a smile, offers to fill her car for her. So yes, the Tuscans are, by and large, civilised and wonderful.

That’s it for now. Fewer cliches, and more nice things about Tuscany next time.

Basta cosi,

Andrew