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.

Renovations Are Coming

And all of a sudden, the pace of our Olive Hill Life is changing.

Scott has three weeks left in the office, then we will spend Christmas at home in the UK with our family.  Upon our return, the renovations will begin, and our casa campagna will be redesigned, renovated, remodelled, refurbished, reconfigured, revived, redecorated and reinvigorated.

The house is not actually that old, originally having been built in the early 1970s, in its day, it was probably TIMG_20180622_182504084.jpghe Most Stylish House in the village.

That day is long gone, however, and so we currently live in something of a shrine to a life long since left behind.  So long since, in fact, that some of our design features are apparently once again in fashion, thanks to a concept which I believe is called “seventies modern”.

I have no real idea what seventies modern is, to be honest, but if our current bath tub is “de rigeur”, I think that I’d prefer the “modern” to the “seventies”.

 

That said, trying to decide how to upgrade a house which is basically habitable is proving something of a struggle, albeit a vital one, as I have no plan to continue with our current level of “luxury” any longer than is absolutely necessary.

And yes, as you can see, after a long day outside, we do use the bath tub!

After the bath, top of the list of things to be changed, is the one and only modern appliance in the house: the three year old boiler, or furnace.  Oh, how I HATE the blooming thing.  On the one hand, it is wood fired, which is a good thing, as we have a lot of wood to burn.

On the other hand:

  • The wood that it consumes in a day takes an hour to bring into the house, then a second hour to clean up all the mess that you made taking ash out of, and wood in to the house.  Then a third hour to lie down, exhausted, and recover from the exertion that the last two hours took.
  • It burns at two speeds, either smouldering gently and producing no heat at all, or burning so hot that it boils all the water in the system, causing noxious fumes of burning paint in the boiler room, melting the thermostat, and creating the (hopefully) illusion that it is about to explode.
  • It needs to be stoked up with kindling, or great big lumps of wood approximately every thirty seconds, depending on whether it is smouldering or boiling the water.
  • Whichever you stoke it with, it will either go from smouldering to burning the paint, or vice versa.  There is no in between.
  • Before you leave the house for longer than ten minutes, it must also be stoked, causing it to either boil the water, or go out, leaving one in a constant state of anxiety about what will be found when one arrives home.
  • Likewise, it must be stoked up before bed, causing sleepless nights in case the blessed thing explodes while you are in bed.
  • It never, ever stays alight when you leave the house or go to bed.

The situation with the boiler leaves us very glad to have seen a couple of seasons through before deciding exactly what to do with the house, as it was not even on our “to do list” back in August, when all we were thinking about was air conditioning and a pool.

Just like the land, the house must earn its keep, so we will be incorporating a self contained letting bedroom into the design, as well as allowing for guest bedrooms upstairs.  This is where the renovations become rather more exciting for me, as I dream my way through magazines, glossy brochures and websites filled with gorgeous images of free standing baths, rain water shower heads and glamourous kitchens with eye watering price tags.  Scott is equally content making plans for solar roof panels, a bio gas plant in the basement, and a rain water harvesting system.

We must, however, start to become interested in each other’s ideas pretty soon now, as Giorgio the Geometra is starting to become concerned about getting our plans agreed by the commune in time to start work, in order to meet our self imposed deadline of the 1st June opening for the bed and breakfast unit.

GeeGee has already rained on our “glamping” parade, as apparently we will face a million bureaucratic hurdles to install our log cabins, so now we are trying desperately to add words like “yurt” and “hobbit hole” to his vocabulary, in the hope that they will involve less bureaucracy.  It’s true to say that glamping is not really a part of your average Italian’s vocabulary when it comes to holiday concepts.

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Of course, despite the change in the season, work outside never stops.  To Bella and Holly’s delight, our Proper Agricultural Workers have been busily felling trees (to improve the view from the bed and breakfast room), carting wood up for the boiler, and have now commenced cleaning up the vineyard, in readiness to start pruning back the vines at leaf fall.  All of these activities are The Most Exciting Things For Dogs Ever, apparently.

This weekend, as well as viewing mobile homes (we’ll need a roof over our heads during the renovations) and finalising the plans with GeeGee for submission to the commune, we’ll be bottling up our first bottles of white wine, in readiness to take home for family and friends at Christmas.

If 2018 has been the year of doing “The Most Exciting Thing Ever” many, many times, I do actually think that bottling my own wine may just take the prize.

 

Six Months Later

We bought our little farm six months and one day ago, and now winter is coming. Today therefore seems like a good day to do a little reflecting …

If you have dreams of buying a property in Italy, you should already know that the bureaucratic processes involved in the purchase journey are long, complicated and tortuous.  But although you may know, you won’t actually KNOW.  Take it from me, buying a property in Italy is a roller coaster of epic proportions. As I reached the end of my tether, I wrote this blog post: How to Buy a Farm in Italy, in 50 Easy to Follow Steps … reading it again this morning, I laughed, but I remember only too well how writing the post helped to prevent me from tearing my hair out.  And then, finally, marvelously, the farm was ours, and we came up on a Saturday morning, to OUR farm, bringing along good friends who were staying with us, to attempt to watch the Royal Wedding, and to watch our first, stunning, Sabina sunset.  And it was all worth it: We Bought a Farm!

But, just in case you have read that second post and are wondering …

No.

I never want to buy an Italian property, ever again.

However!  Here we are six months later, and we have learnt so much!

  • We have learnt how to make nocino from green walnuts (hold on a minute, we have learnt that walnuts have a green stage!)
  • We have learnt how to look after our 400 olive trees, and that no matter how hard you work, they may or may not produce olives, according to many factors which are utterly out of your control.
  • We have learnt that even when citrus trees appear to be dead, they may not be.
  • We have learnt that making passata is fun, but probably not worth the effort – much better to simply bottle tomatoes.
  • We have learnt how to pick grapes, and how to make wine!!!
  • We have learnt words in Italian that we don’t even really know in English, like “terzo punto” and “trinciatore”
  • We have learnt (well, Scott has learnt) how to drive a crawler tractor, and a million different ways to fix it when it breaks.
  • We have learnt that wild boar are bigger and dangerous-er than we had ever believed.
  • We have learnt how to light a wood fired boiler, but not what to do when it overheats and starts to boil the water in the pipes …

But most of all, we have relearned that childish delight of being excited to jump out of bed of a morning, and throw open your windows, and be rewarded with a view like this:

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And, at the end of a long day doing manual labour outside, to sit on the balcony, wine in hand, and watch the most stunning sunset you will ever see … until tomorrow.

Yesterday, we went to Magliano Sabina to refill our various containers with diesel, in order that we can run our tractor for another week, and in celebration of the half year marker of farm ownership, we had a fabulous lunch in our new favourite restaurant, the Taverna Della Goliardi, , and counted ourselves as blessed to live the life we live.

And so.

Whatever part you have played in this bonkers journey of ours: whether you have unpacked boxes; de-woodwormed our furniture; picked grapes; cleared ivy; aimed our satellite dish in the correct direction; fed us; laughed with us; drank with us; read our blog; maybe even liked our blog: THANK YOU!

I have been blogging for almost exactly one year now, and am stunned to have discovered that my burblings have been read in no less than thirty eight countries! So, where ever you spend most of your life, if you ever find yourself in our little corner of heaven, do please pop in and say hello.

Emma

 

 

Enough of Oil That … Words Failed Me, and so did the olives

Friday was a “strike day” in Rome: a regular event in which the operators of public transport decide that they would prefer to take a long weekend over a day’s pay. This caused the Grande Raccordo Annulare to be even busier than normal, leading to various accidents, and grid lock. Eventually we gave up on trying to leave the capital, and resigned ourselves to a Friday night in Rome. Life is tough sometimes …

After our night of “hardship”, we were up bright and early for a meeting at The Olive Hill with our geometra, to discuss renovations and log cabins. But mostly, we discussed olives, because our geometra has a sideline as the owner of our frantoio, or olive mill.

Declaring himself most impressed with the work that our Proper Agricultural Workers img_20181013_102349304had done clearing and pruning the 150 or so trees nearest the house, we all agreed that the olives from these trees would, in a year or two, be of the “highest quality”. By the by, he agreed that the site we had chosen for the log cabin (part of our future agriturismo business) would provide guests with beautiful views of beautiful trees, beautiful hills and beautiful sunsets. I noted to myself at this point that we needed to find some more adjectives to describe the beauty of our surroundings.

But then we returned to olives. Slowly but surely, all conversations we have end up being about olives and wine …

Our latest calamity, and one that we have been fearing for months, is the arrival of The Dreaded Olive Fly, simply referred to as La Mosca, but always in hushed tones. This ghastly creature is a form of fruit fly (remember those drosophila from your biology lessons?) that feeds exclusively on olives. They are less than five millimetres long, but once in a grove, they wreak absolute havoc. Mummy fly makes a little hole in an olive (lots of olives, actually), and the egg becomes a pupa, which eats the olive. Best case scenario is that you will harvest before the egg hatches. In this case, all that will happen is that bacteria will colonise the hole in your olive, causing it, and consequently your oil, to taste rancid. Extra virgin olive oil is not permitted to taste rancid. Option two is that the pupa will eat your olive, hatch, become a fly, and lay its own eggs, thus infesting more olives. There is, of course also the option to leave your olives on the tree once infested, but then the fly will really go for it. Pupae will hatch, multiply and infest even more trees, and those olives that fall to the ground will provide the perfect habitat for pupae to survive the winter, so that they can come back in even greater numbers next year, in the hope of scoffing your entire crop.

Our geometra reminded us, not that we needed reminding, that even before the arrival of La Mosca, this had been a truly dreadful year for olive growers. The winter was long and wet, and then we were hit with temperatures of -14 degrees just as people had commenced the annual spring pruning.  Snow followed, then numerous storms with golf ball sized hail stones while the trees were in flower, and finally a mild, damp summer. La Mosca loves mild, damp summers. Our geomotra’s own crop had also been struck by La Mosca the previous week, and so he had opened the frantoio early and milled his own fruit immediately.  He urged us to harvest straight away, and under no circumstances to allow the fruit to hit the ground.

Thoughts of log cabins, en-suite bathrooms, and open plan kitchens were swiftly abandoned, and we went into Emergency Harvest Preparedness mode. With only thirty (yes, out of 400) trees bearing fruit, the afternoon was arduous, but we managed to get everything ready by dusk.

We climbed into bed exhausted.

Sunday morning, we limped into action, rakes in hand, ready to collect a minimum of 150kg of fruit to take to the mill. A decent crop to expect would be 20 or so kilos per tree, so we felt sure the task ahead would be easy enough, and perhaps even fun; after all we are literally on the cusp of quitting our jobs to be olive farmers… How hard could it be?

Tree number one provided us with around 1kg. Trees number two and three had entirely dropped their crop, which was lying on the ground being eaten by ants. Tree number four had a couple of olives left, but they looked awful. And so it went on. By early afternoon it was clear to even optimistic fools such as us, that we were not making any oil this year. Worse, we still needed to clear the entire crop, and remove it from the property, to prevent the dratted fly from getting an easy “in” to our olive hill next year.

What a day. And at the end of it, we were still prospective olive farmers, rather than actual olive farmers. But hey, at least we have learned about the fecklessness of the weather and about blighted crops, so I guess that we are one step closer to being proper farmers? And nobody said it would be easy.

So we will spend our winter making plans for bed and breakfast clients, and building a log cabin or three. And if you’ve read this to the end, maybe you’d like to book a holiday on our prospective farm, to benefit from all its beautiful views of beautiful trees and beautiful hills and beautiful sunsets, and maybe one day, to taste our beautiful extra virgin olive oil!

Our Grape Weekend – Part 2

And so we returned to the Olive Hill, laden down with 850kg of White Grapes of the Highest Quality.

Thankfully, our googling of the previous day had not been in vain, and we knew that we had a machine for every job that lay ahead of us, and a vague idea of how to use each of them:

Step One:

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Chuck a bin full of grapes into the Very Loud Machine that de-stalks the grapes, and transports the sludgy mess to the grape press by means of a hose.  Watch helplessly as the hose shoots out of the press, spraying the entire cantina with grape sludge.

Clean up.

Employ father to hold hose VERY FIRMLY inside the press.

 

 

 

 

Step Two:

Chuck another bin of grapes into the machine.  Turn Very Loud Machine on.  Experience a power outage.  Run up the hill to the house to reset circuit breakers.  Run down the hill and turn VLM on again.  Run up hill.  Reset power.  Run down hill and repeat.

Step Three:

Discover that the electric pump that takes the grape juice from the press to the fermentation vat is causing the power outages.  Substitute hoses and pump that you spent hours cleaning yesterday, for an old laundry bin, that had mysteriously been left next to the hose and pump by the Previous Wine Maker.

Step Four:

Successfully get de-stalked grapes through the press (thanks dad) and into the old laundry bin.  Fill laundry bin with grape juice.  Carry this (spilling only a little) across the cantina, climb onto Wonky Old Plastic Chair (again, thoughtfully left in position by Previous Wine Maker).  Pour contents of bin into the top of the rather large vat, and straight out of the tap at the bottom, onto the floor of the cantina.

Clean up.

Close the tap.

Step Five:

Establish a cheerful little production line.

Help husband to lift grape bin, in order to chuck contents into VLM.  Wash bin as dad holds hose in press. Carry grape juice to vat.  Pour into said vat.  Repeat for an hour or so, until the wine press is full of sludgy grape skins.

Scratch heads, and discuss.

Step Six:

Discover that various bits of wood that you cleaned yesterday fit neatly inside the press, so that the grapes can be squeezed by means of pistons and the bits of wood, and lots of pressure.

Discover that the pistons are broken.

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Climb onto the wine press, and stand on bits of wood.

Feel immensely smug, as you are told off for not being heavy enough to do the job.

Get joined by Husband, and jump up and down on the press, with father as Safety Man, holding everything steady.

Make enough room in the press to finish all 850 kg of grapes.

 

 

 

Step Seven:

Go inside to make a delicious meal to thank father and DD for all their hard work, leaving husband to finish up.  Hear raised voices in the cantina.  Ignore, and enjoy a gin and tonic with father and DD, even though you have to shout to make yourself heard over the voices in the cantina.

Run down hill to cantina, and find Lovely Indispensable Neighbour sweeping sludgy grapes off the floor, which is suddenly literally inches deep in them.  Realise that the shouting is her husband and my husband, involved in a major altercation over the press.  As they shout and swear in languages various, discover that the pump was broken by the Previous Wine Maker, but that husband of LIN knows how to make it work, and if we had only asked, he would have shown us.  He has now fixed the pump, no thanks to us, and to demonstrate how well it is now working, he yells “POMPA POMPA” at my husband.  Or possibly “BOMBA BOMBA”, I’m not sure.  But every time “sufficient pressure” is applied, grape sludge is fired several metres into the cantina,  splatting all over my husband, who is by now, catatonic with rage.

Of course, we have been here before with Husband of LIN, when he explained that there was a dirty pump “pompa sporca”, or possibly a dirty bomb “bomba sporca” in our tractor, which was why it had broken down at the bottom of our hill.  But now, he seemed to have successfully converted our clean press into a dirty bomb…

Finally, we manage to get the blessed thing working, the floor, ceiling and walls (relatively) clean, and friendships are revived.

Until I ask the question “so do we add the wine yeast tonight or tomorrow?”

Now it’s my turn for a tongue lashing, as it is explained in no uncertain terms that Previous Wine Maker  was a cretin who made wine that sent you straight to the doctor’s surgery, so full of chemicals was it.  With mounting rage, he lists various dangerous and unnecessary chemicals: sulphites, yeast, anti-oxidants etc etc, and then explains, calmly(ish) that all you need is the wild yeast in the air, grapes of the highest quality, and patience.

And so we are making raw wine, just as nature intended.

And if you are wondering what raw wine is, you’ll need to read my next post …