Wine-ing in the Spring

I was never much of a fan of Wet, Wet, Wet: Marti Pellow was just not my kind of heart throb. And I am definitely not a fan of Wet, Wet, Wet when it comes to the weather.

April has been a month of damp, mizzle, drizzle, showers, rain, torrential downpours, thunderstorms, hail, and even days when it rained cats and dogs. I’ve blooming hated it, and I have had enough. Now that it is May, I would really like the Italian climate to make a return, please.

Outdoors, as a consequence of the weather, we are getting really rather behind. The pruning that should have taken place in March, and then in April has been constantly hampered by wet weather (our Proper Agricultural Workers do not go outdoors in the rain) or by wet trees (you can’t prune a wet tree). On a positive note though, the mild(ish) winter and wet spring has induced an incredible abundance of olive flowers, even on the damaged trees! Of course yesterday’s hailstones and gale force winds may have destroyed them completely but I don’t know yet, I’m on my early morning commuter train to Rome …

The orto (veg plot) has been taken over by us this year. Lovely Indispensable Neighbour (LIN) finally admitted that she really couldn’t face the work. I’ve planted tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, Chillis, three types of lettuce, spinach, beetroot, onions and courgettes so far. And just the other day, a special delivery of dwarf French bean seeds arrived from my dad in France.

My officer training of, ahem, thirty years ago came back to the fore, as I made tripod after tripod from bamboo stakes, all lashed together to withstand any weather, and any weight of crop. If I’m honest, unless each plant produces a crop weighing around 75 kilos, I may have overdone it with the lashing together bit, but old habits die hard. In support of the Great Orto Effort, Scott has bought Yet More Power Tools, as apparently, I will drown in the mud between the rows of heavily cropping vegetables without paths made from wood chippings, and that meant we had a suddenly urgent need for a wood chipper …

Anyway, it all looks very pretty (photo is pre wood chips and minus several tripods). LIN has come over to supervise several times, and has declared my work “buon lavoro” and prettier than her efforts. I am sure that this can only be a good thing.

The vines have nearly all recovered from their abandonment, and are mostly growing beautifully. Scott has mowed between the rows, and is currently strimming between the vines. A fly, or possibly a moth or butterfly (yup, I have no idea) is laying eggs on the leaves of some of the red grapes, and we noticed the first hints of mildew on some white leaves this weekend (not surprising after all the rain!), so we are probably going to do an initial spray this week, weather permitting. We are in the process of organic conversion on the farm, and so are very limited with what we can spray, but we do have a few weapons up our sleeves.

We are also agonising over whether to make “raw wine” again this autumn, having bottled 200 litres of last year’s “vino contadino”.

Raw wine is made without the addition of anything except fresh air to crushed grapes, a method that is fairly standard locally, and relies on natural “good yeast” in the air causing spontaneous fermentation. After the harvest, the used grape skins and stalks are taken back to the vineyard and dumped, year after year, so that gradually, over a number of years, the good yeast multiply, and the wine gets better and better year after year.

But.

When this method is not followed, “bad yeast” quickly take over the air. Bad yeast make bad, maybe even dangerous wine. LIN and her husband were using our grapes, and the raw method for a number of years, but prior to that, the large quantities of out of date chemicals we have found in the cantina would rather suggest that the owners were making commercial wine, which relies on killing all the natural yeast with sulphites, then the addition of yeast that is guaranteed to be only good, then killing that off with yet more sulphites when fermentation is complete.

We think that the wine we have made tastes pretty good. We’ve fed it to a number of guests and they have managed to smile as they have drunk it. It has been variously described as anything from “not dreadful” to “bloody awesome”. Nobody has died (yet), and the amazing gift of raw wine is that it doesn’t give you a hangover like that sulphity stuff you buy in shops does. But it’s a highly fragile process, fraught with the danger of producing vinegar.

So was this beginner’s luck?

So what to do next year?

What would YOU do???

Commemorations at Montebuono

I really don’t know why I haven’t sat down and written about last week’s commemoration at Montebuono. I have done literally nothing but talk about it ever since the event, but I’ve struggled to find a way to describe it coherently .

Just in case you have no idea what I am talking about, I suggest that you read this blog post, describing the story of eight young American soldiers, shot by the SS at a local monastery in April 1944. Along with the local expat and Italian communities, we have spent the last couple of months helping to plan a ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of this event, as well as trying to find relatives of the eight, and fund raising for a new commemoration plaque to be erected on the site of the tragedy. This excellent news article describes the day far better than I could ever hope to, but I would still like to record my feelings about having been involved (in a very small way) in something of which we are both very, very proud.

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Unusually for me, at this point, I find myself lost for words. So I think that I’ll focus on the extraordinary people that I met over the weekend, and the stories that they told me.

Before the service, as we all waited to be served an enormous breakfast in the town hall, an elderly gentleman called Tomasso introduced himself to me, and we chatted the normal, every day small talk that one does in these parts: how many olive trees we have, the fly, the frost from last year etc etc. I then asked him how he came to be at the ceremony. “Because I met the soldiers” he told me. He then went on to describe the evening when, as a ten year old boy, the soldiers knocked on his front door in the centre of the village. He talked about being utterly terrified (the Germans were singing and drinking in the osteria next door), and helping his equally terrified father to give them some food. After the shooting, his father was one of the villagers who helped to give the soldiers a decent burial. Tomasso was devastated to discover that these were the same soldiers he had given bread to, as his father recognised the ring that one of them was wearing.

We were transported up to the ceremony in a procession of four wheel drive vehicles. The walk from the village takes an hour, and the track is incredibly steep. During the ceremony, I stood next to Nello, and then translated as he told his story to our dear friend Jim after the ceremony. As a 13 year old boy, Nello was one of the villagers who buried the soldiers. He told us about the shock at seeing seven bodies in a row on the ground, and an eighth, who was apart from the group, and appeared to have been shot as he attempted to escape. Every year, Nello climbs the mountain, to say a prayer for those soldiers at the place where they died. The picture (top right, above) shows Tomasso telling his story at the post ceremony lunch, with Nello listening on.

Over lunch I got talking to Janet, the historian who had researched the story. I had rather assumed that atrocities like this had been very common (on both sides) as the war started to come to a close, but apparently this was not the case at all. Indeed, Janet is only aware of one other similar event. Our poor guys were discovered not by regular soldiers, but by the SS, and of course, this event took place a matter of weeks after “The Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III, after which Hitler apparently sanctioned executions, rather than trials for escapees. But still, Janet had no explanation for why these particular soldiers were executed on the spot. And so I introduced Janet to Nello.

The final character who I met over the weekend was 98 year old British veteran, and long time Italian resident, Harry Schindler. Harry had arrived on Friday evening, wearing a “Bollocks to Brexit” badge, and regaled us all with the tale of how he had come to take the British government to court over the disenfranchisement of British expats in the recent referendum. But holding the government to account is just a hobby for Harry. His real job is keeping the war alive in people’s memories, and doing whatever he can to prevent a third world war. Saturday morning, minus the badge, but wearing his own medals, Harry was bounced up the side of a mountain in a four by four with the rest of us for twenty, stomach lurching minutes. He then remained on his feet, bolt upright for the hour long service. During lunch, he delivered a ten minute long speech, in Italian, which had several people close to tears.

Here, you can watch Harry explain why his war is not over.

The families of eight young American men, who lived and died here, should know that their ancestors were looked after by the residents of Montebuono – in life and in death. They are still remembered and cherished. They played their part in liberating Italy from a dark period in history. Tomorrow is Liberation Day here in Italy, and I feel that I have a much greater understanding of what that means now. And for that I have Tomasso, Nello, and Harry to thank. And, of course, eight American soldiers.

Fresh Challenges, and Pastures New

Back in February, I wrote about how overwhelmed we were feeling with all that we had to achieve at Olive Hill, in this blog post. Having just reread it myself, I thought that now might be a good time to revisit some of the issues that we were facing back then.

I started my moany post by complaining about the weather, as it had been raining for days and days and days, inside and outside the house. We mended our leaking roof one day while the sun was shining, but we don’t know if the leak is fixed, as we’ve had no rain in the weeks since the repair. We’ll find out later today I suspect, as thunderstorms are forecast. Obviously, I’ve bravely run away to work, leaving Scott at home, armed with a mop and bucket. I’m feeling pretty confident that I, at least will stay dry for the afternoon!

As to the renovations, we’ve been far too busy outside to even think about making progress inside. The days are warm and sunny, so we don’t need central heating (although we have ordered a shiny new boiler, and a solar system for the hot water), and the tractor is working a dream, which means that Scott is now able to concentrate breaking other vital equipment instead. This week’s list of broken kit includes the flail mower (a wonderful grass cutter/ mulcher combo that sits behind the tractor), the chain saw, the pole chain saw, the smart car, and my favourite wheel barrow (which has had a flat tyre for the last six months or so).

And yes. That is hundreds of bottles of unopened wine behind the “in need of repair” pile.

With longer days and better weather, we have really started to get our trees in order. When we bought our olive hill, we were faced with 200 sick and abandoned trees, and another 200 overgrown and abandoned trees. With the help of our Proper Agricultural Workers, we cut the sick trees right back last year, and have already repruned them all this year, so most of them are starting to look pretty healthy. This spring’s task is the overgrown trees. Unfortunately, we haven’t had as much help from our PAWs as we had hoped for: spring is a busy time for everyone, and obviously, we are at the end of the queue when loyalties are tested. But we’ve got a good idea of how and what to prune now, so we are getting through them, albeit rather slowly, thanks to the list of broken equipment. In amongst the most abandoned section we found this tiny little tree, buried in undergrowth and debris left behind by a former “custodian” of the land. The pictures show the before and after shots of “Patrick” as the littlest tree is now named:

Late March is “bud burst” time in the vineyard. I now understand this term properly, as every day another apparently dead vine springs miraculously back to life. It’s truly exciting to walk the dogs at this time of year. Our Farmer Neighbour has sown pasture in the “fallow” (read abandoned) arable fields either side of the vineyard too, so it’s is all really quite neat and tidy down in that part of our hill.

Unfortunately, I think that this year we may also be looking after our own vegetable plot. Lovely Indispensable Neighbour has tended it for many, many years, including the year since we bought the place. She has always paid “rent” for the plot in the form of produce, an excellent arrangement that has suited all parties very well indeed. LIN is getting on in years though, and has had a couple of really nasty bouts of bronchitis this winter. She’s not at all sure if she’ll be fit to tend the plot this summer. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle, as although the plot belongs to us, we feel incredibly guilty at the idea of taking it back from her. But we also can’t judge if the plot is actually a burden to her and she’d genuinely rather be shot of it. So for now, we’ve offered to clear the ground and prepare the soil ourselves, and then have another chat in a week or two about the year ahead. I can’t help but feel that “guilt over using your own veg plot” is a uniquely British problem to have …

Talking of uniquely British problems, we are now as Brexit Proof as we can be, with residency obtained, and Italian driving licences applied for. We have been watching the daily soap opera known as The News with the same trepidation of many other Brits in Europe, I suspect.

And finally, (never start a sentence with a conjunction) I’ve got a new job! We had always been clear that I should continue to teach English midweek, in order to help with cashflow during the renovations, and also to prevent us from driving each other mad as Scott adjusts to life as a civilian. Commuting to and from Rome has been making for very long days away from the hill, however, so you can only imagine how delighted I am to have found a part time job in a nearby language school! The school is expanding, and finds itself in need of a teacher who can help it to develop and deliver new programs to an expanded client base. So (NEVER start a sentence with a conjunction!) I have swapped the train for the smart car, and now wind my way to work on the most beautiful commute imaginable.

La vita è bella.

Life is wonderful.

Lest We Forget – Montebuono, 13th April 1944

Today as I sit and type, I’m looking over the peaceful Sabina countryside that I love so much, and reflecting on how warmly we have been welcomed into this area, both by the local and the expat communities that we live among.
We learned of the story below after being included in a project led by the expat community, along with the Mayor of Montebuono, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the shooting of eight American servicemen who, in the spring of 1944, had been sheltered by partisans nearby after escaping from their captors.
The story of the massacre has been researched by local resident and historian Janet Dethick, with Mike Shanklin, John Murray, Scott and the mayor leading the way with plans to commemorate with local arrangements, fund raising and tracing descendants of the eight soldiers.
This post is a departure from the “a funny thing happened” blog that I normally write, but it’s worth reading. In retelling this story, I’m hoping that perhaps we can trace some living relatives of the servicemen whose names are listed below, and that perhaps you’ll be moved enough to contribute to the commemorative plaque that we are raising funds for. There is a link to the crowdfunding site at the end of the article, as well as to the booklet that Janet has written about the events that took place so close to our home.
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During the autumn and winter of 1943 to 1944, bitter fighting took place in Italy on the Gustav Line, fortifications that had been built by the Germans and Italians in order to block the Allies from entering Rome, famously centred on the monastery of Monte Cassino.
Mid-December 1943, eight captured American soldiers, amongst many others, were taken to a nearby prisoner of war camp. Subsequently, they found themselves in a transit camp in an old barracks at Fara Sabina. With the Nazis now in retreat, in January 1944, they were loaded into cattle trucks, and sent north by train to the Prisoner of War Camps in Germany, Poland and Austria.

What happened next has been described as possibly the worst friendly fire incident of the entire war. As the packed train crossed the bridge at Allerona, North of Orvieto, twenty seven American B26 bombers were overhead, dropping their combined payload of 84 “thousand pounders” onto the bridge. The train was not their target, and the bombers were unaware that each of the 40 to 50 cattle trucks contained around 45 Allied Prisoners of War. The train received a direct hit, resulting in at least 500 deaths, many casualties, and numerous escapes from the wreckage.
In the ensuing chaos, our eight soldiers escaped, and eventually found their way to Montebuono. Assisted by the mayor, the local priest and by local partisans, they took shelter in the hermitage of San Benedetto, where they survived until the spring on 1944.
Early in the morning of 13 April 1944, the hermitage, in which the soldiers were sleeping, was surrounded by SS troops. The eight were pulled out of the dormitory, lined up and shot – the Nazis considered that as they were not in uniform they were spies, and so could be shot. The dormitory was then set on fire, and the hermitage was ransacked.

The bravery and kindness of the local partisans towards these Americans did not stop with the deaths of the soldiers however. At great personal risk to the Italians, the eight were blessed by the priest, and given a proper burial in the local cemetery. The details of each soldier were carefully recorded, and after liberation, were handed on to the American authorities, so that the eight could eventually be permanently interred – several were lain to rest in the US Military Cemetery at Nettuno, and others back in the country of their birth.
Seventy five years later, the Italian and expatriate community of Montebuono will commemorate the anniversary of this terrible event. The ceremony will take place in Montebuono on Saturday 13th April 2019, led by Father Robert Warren from All Saints Church in Rome. The United States Embassy from Rome, representatives of the Italian Armed Forces, and the NATO Defense College in Rome, as well as local dignitaries will attend.
In the lead up to the event, we are trying to trace any living relatives of these eight servicemen, in the hope that they can attend the commemoration, or at least be aware that it is taking place. As part of the commemoration, a new plaque, engraved in marble with the names of the soldiers (pictured above) will be unveiled.
If this story has moved you, please consider helping to fund the plaque. A crowdfunding appeal has been set up here:

Further information about the events can also be found here, in Janet’s very interesting and informative booklet:
I’d also ask you to share this post widely, in order that it reaches as large an audience as possible. Any connections of those involved in this event are kindly asked to contact me via this blog, or alternatively Mike Shanklin, via the GoFundMe page.
Non si perde la memoria.
Lest We Forget.

Spring is Springing

As usual, we’ve been rather busy of late, hence the lack of blog posts. And as is to be expected with Olive Hill, nothing is straightforward, and everything takes 15 times longer than one would reasonably expect!

So the house renovations have not actually started yet, even though the “six month project” should be completed by the end of June, in order that we can welcome guests into our Bed and Breakfast suite this summer. The log cabin project is also behind, as we need an agronomist to come out and declare that the farm business requires log cabins in order to be sustainable, before we can even apply to apply for planning permission.

Meanwhile, we’ve had a succession of builders, plumbers and electricians in and out of the house to give quotes. Or not to give quotes, with no explanation as to why they are not giving quotes. Luckily, everyone knows everybody else’s business here in our little village, so we are in no doubt that the missing quote (from the builder that we really want to use) has not been provided because the poor builder has “problems with his son”. Of course, he hasn’t told us this, but several neighbours and our plumber have told us, so I guess that we just wait for it patiently.

With the prospect of a Hard Brexit looming, we’ve also been quite busy trying to sort out our residency here in Sabina. Scott is almost there, after the nice policeman (the same chap who came last year to certify that our compost heap was in regola) came out again to check that Scott actually lives in the house with the legally compliant compost heap. The nice policeman visited several weeks ago, so now we’re just waiting for the paperwork to reach the very busy ladies in the comune, so that they can press the button on the computer. My paperwork will take a little longer, because before the nice policeman can potter up our track for a third time to certify that the signora with last year’s legally compliant compost heap, who answered the door on the day that he was required to certify Scott’s residence at the property, we need to wait 30 days. To be precise, we have to wait 30 days from the date on which Scott received a letter giving him 30 days to place a formal objection to his wife moving into the house in which he is resident. Of course, he popped into the comune to state that he did not object, but the very busy ladies do not have a button to press on their computer to register this, only a button to press once the 30 days have expired.

We also need Italian driving licences before a hard Brexit, so first we need residency, then we need three photos, then we need a medical (on Tuesday afternoons at 3pm) then we need to part with several hundred Euros, and our current driving licences, wait a couple of weeks, and voilà! We will be Brexit proof.

Outside, we are busy pruning, aided by Lou and Jou, our proper agricultural workers. Everybody else is also pruning, so they can only spare us one morning a week at the moment, but it is really wonderful to see order creeping in to previously untouched parts of the grove.

The vineyard is pruned and ready to go, and the two areas of scrubland either side of it have been cleared, prepped and seeded by “Eddie Grundy”, our neighbour at the bottom of the hill, who will take a hay crop later this year.

And, of course, the blossom is absolutely stunning this year, after being killed off by the frosts last spring, that also carried away several citrus trees and all of our soft fruit crop. As well as doing the lion’s share of the pruning, mowing, strimming, log cutting, bonfire burning, dog walking, cooking, cleaning and gardening, Scott is also pruning back the fruit trees, paying close attention to my instructions (as I head out to a day’s teaching in Rome most days) to wear his safety equipment, and to keep his feet firmly on the ground … I hope!

All in all, we are working hard, playing hard (first set of spring visitors have already been and gone), and we’ve made some real progress taming the wilderness, even if we haven’t renovated the house yet!

I promise to try harder with the blog updates, but I do a better job with Facebook and Instagram, so do please follow us there if you’d like more frequent news!

My Grandmother, and Kryptonite

I am the grand daughter of a truly amazing woman. A woman with an incredible super power.

My grandmother was born in Manchester, North West England, and lived a humdrum life until she was about seven years old, when she contracted tuberculosis, which led to the amputation of her knee cap. In the days before the National Health Service, she spent the most of her subsequent childhood in some sort of sanitorium several hours away from home, with little contact with the outside world, including her parents. Then came the war. In her telling, she learnt to dance, and then she married my grandfather.

Despite her “gammy leg” as she called it, she and my grandfather led a charmed life.  They had two children, and lived in various countries including (to name a few) Libya, Sudan, Kenya, Kuala Lumpur, Kenya, India, Iraq, and Barbados.  Eventually they retired to North Yorkshire, and lived a contented life surrounded by friends and families.  They threw many a great party, and their “curry lunches” were legendary.

Her super power? The unshakeable belief in two little words …

I

Can.

Now well into her nineties, she is a little bewildered, but living happily in a care home in Yorkshire, where her naughty sense of humour, kindness and all round Joie de Vivre make her adored by everyone. All was going extremely well in the care home until last autumn, when she was involved in a “three lady pile up” and broke her gammy leg. She was hospitalised, and her leg was encased in a plaster cast. This cast turned out to be my grandmother’s Kryptonite, although we didn’t realise it until much, much later. We actually thought that we were going to lose her. Just in time for her ninety-sixth birthday, the cast was removed, and slowly but surely, her super power returned. Once again she is holding court, the battiest, bravest woman on the planet.

I like to think that I have inherited my grandmother’s can do attitude to life.

However, we’ve lately had a bit of a reality check at The Olive Hill, included, but not limited to the following:

  1. It’s been raining A LOT. Outside (obviously), but also inside, particularly in the bathroom, where the rain has been pouring in. The photo shows day one of the leak, the ceiling is now soaked through.
  2. We haven’t yet found a builder for the renovations. The first was too expensive, the second was too incomprehensible, and the third (so far) has been too, um, uncontactable.
  3. As well as leaking water, the house leaks icy cold air. Most days, poor Scott spends several hours bringing wood into the house for the fire, and the blooming boiler.
  4. The tractor broke down. Again.
  5. The trees need pruning. Again.
  6. We keep being invaded by our neighbour’s pigs.

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7.  My commuting in and out of Rome has been subject to so many delays. I’m on a train now that is only running eight minutes late, but my record for the year (and it’s the first week of February) is over two hours.

8.  Our to do list just keeps getting longer and longer.

And this has all led me to the discovery of my own Kryptonite. And mine is not a plaster cast, mine is a “word” that I was NEVER allowed to use in my younger days:

C

A

N

T

Thirty years ago, I was lucky enough to meet a young man with the same can do super power as my grandmother. We will never have the adventures that she did, but we’ve had more than our fair share, and now is no time to become can’t doers instead of can doers.

So.

  1. Time to mend the roof (especially as the sun is shining again).
  2. Time to sort ourselves out with a builder.
  3. Time to get a new boiler (see note two)
  4. We’ve already got the tractor fixed (maybe time to look for a new tractor?)
  5. We’ve started pruning.
  6. We called the neighbours.  They fixed the pig fence, and brought us round a huge bag of wild boar meat by way of an apology (time to make a casserole).
  7. Time to investigate on line English teaching instead of face to face lessons.
  8. Time to point out to myself that I’ve just knocked several items off the to do list.

I realised I was suffering from Kryptonite poisoning yesterday, when I almost cancelled a much anticipated day out with friends because the car needed servicing.

So enough. I would like to publicly apologise to my grandmother, and tell her that I promise to sort myself out. And now I’m going to run to the bus stop, because the train is pulling into the station.

I can

I can

I can.

And so can you.

Winter, Schwinter

Like most people, I have always found January a rather depressing month. The days are short, the skies are dark, it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s miserable, and spring seems a million miles away. To add into all of this misery, we’re all supposed to be doing Dry January, Veganuary, joining gyms, giving up caffeine,and generally Changing Our Lives For The Better.

This time last year was a little different, in that I was deeply immersed in a quagmire of Italian bureaucracy (you can read about that here). Having recently (finally) obtained residency, I was doing the weekly three hour round trip to Rieti, in my attempt to become a registered farmer, and to then buy the farm.

We made several visits to the farm during January 2018, and each time we felt calm and relaxed, knowing that all our future plants were fast asleep, dormant for the winter months. Of course, winters are short here, and this January I am a real farmer, not a future farmer.

So, this January, we are farming. The vineyard needs its “leaf fall” clear out and prune to be completed by the end of the month. And we’re nearly there! Every sunny day (which is practically every day), we put on layers and layers of clothes, and yomp down the hill to the vineyard, armed with machetes, pruning shears and (in Scott’s case) a drone. Yup. A drone. Moving on … We should also take our strimmer, but it’s broken, hence the machetes.

Because the vineyard has been abandoned for a couple of years, it was a bit of a jungle until we managed to mow between the vines.

Now that we can see our way, we begin by “strimming”, ie getting on our hands and knees and cutting down the weeds (above) that the mower couldn’t reach:

It feels how it looks: hard, rewarding graft under the gentle January sun. We entertain ourselves by listening to the birds, and just this last week, the lambs in our neighbour’s fields. Bliss.

Then we prune. This is my favourite bit, partly because I am no longer on my hands and knees, but also because I am no longer risking accidental amputation of a much loved limb with a rather sharp machete:

At the end of a morning, we yomp back up the hill for lunch, and this Wednesday, after lunch I hopped on the little train to Rome. Within two hours of finishing in the vineyard, I was in the centre of Rome teaching. Amazing.

So this January, we are not doing any of the “Change Your Life For The Better” things that January is usually all about, because this January we really have Changed Our Lives For The Better. And we still have all our limbs. Result.