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!
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 …
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The tractor broke down. Again.
- The trees need pruning. Again.
- We keep being invaded by our neighbour’s pigs.
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:
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.
- Time to mend the roof (especially as the sun is shining again).
- Time to sort ourselves out with a builder.
- Time to get a new boiler (see note two)
- We’ve already got the tractor fixed (maybe time to look for a new tractor?)
- We’ve started pruning.
- 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).
- Time to investigate on line English teaching instead of face to face lessons.
- 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.
And so can you.
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.
New Year at the Olive Hill means that we are here full time! No more packing up our chattels at the end of a working week, schlepping up the road and struggling to heat the house up from freezing, only to close everything up again two days later, and schlep down the road to work again.
Nope, that lifestyle is so 2018.
Which for Scott at least, means spending the first working morning of 2019 having a lesson in Italian bureaucracy at the local commune.
One of our major “worry beads” is now slightly less, um, worrying, as over the Christmas period, the Italian government announced that regardless of what type of Brexit happens this spring, they will continue to honour the residency rights of Brits who were already legally resident here before March 29th. Which means that “I am alright Jack”, as I’ve already gained residency (in Rome, for now), but clearly Scott must gain his residency as a matter of urgency. This is NOT a political blog, but whatever your views (or even lack of views) on Brexit, March the 29th is fast approaching, and we are very grateful that the Italian government has seen fit to provide us with some clarity for our future status here. Now, as the owners of a future tourism and olive oil business, we are eagerly awaiting some clarity as to how we will be able to run our business post Brexit. ‘Nuff said.
And so I’m here, at our beautiful inherited table (we bought the house fully furnished), looking over our neatly pruned olive trees (ok, so only half of the trees are neatly pruned, but they do make up most of the view), with a cup of freshly brewed coffee next to me, trying to work out how to describe how Darling Daughter and I made pasta for our New Year’s Eve meal.
Stringozzi are a local, traditional style of pasta, made with few, or even no eggs at all, and then worked by hand into shapes rather than rolled. Here on the Umbria Lazio border, this is worked with hands that are coated with olive oil, to prevent the layers from sticking together. Experience has shown us that the pasta is easier to work with at least some egg in the mixture, but it is possible to leave the egg out for a vegan version. What you do need to know is that making any fresh pasta takes AGES. MUCH longer than you think it will. Work out how long you think it will take, then double that time, and add an hour for the dough to rest. Basically, start making your pasta after lunch if you plan to eat it before midnight …
You can watch a professional making stringozzi in nearby Casperia here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cf-SMFHxW7c
Our version is simpler, but I still recommend watching the clip first!
Stringozzi al’ Olive Hill (Serves four)
For the pasta:
- 400g type 00 flour
- 1 free range egg
- water – approximately 250 ml
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
For the sauce:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1 chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped
- 150g mushrooms, chopped
- four high quality sausages, removed from their skins and cubed
- 100g of cubed pancetta
- 50g of black pitted olives, halved
- one can of chopped tomatoes
- good quality vegetable stock
- salt, pepper
To make the pasta:
Measure out your flour, and put it straight onto the surface which you plan to use for kneading. Make a hole in the centre, and break an egg into it. With a fork, gently beat the egg, and add a half of your water. With the fork, gently start to combine the flour into your liquid centre. Now it’s time to get your hands dirty. Roll up your sleeves, and get working the dough! Gradually combine all the ingredients, adding more water as necessary, until you have a soft dough. Knead until it becomes soft and elastic. This will take a good 10 minutes, and you will need to add water, and occasionally flour as necessary.
Once the dough is elastic and pliable, roll into a ball, wrap, and set aside to rest for at least an hour.
Cut your dough into four, evenly sized portions, then roll each into a ball. Coat your hands with olive oil. With your first dough ball, make a hole in the middle, so that it resembles a doughnut. Using a kneading and stretching motion (as per the youtube clip), gradually work your “doughnut” into something that vaguely resembles a deflated inner tube of a bicycle tyre. Place it back on the table and gently open it up, creating circular pasta that resembles shoe laces.
Repeat with the other three portions. Once complete, coat all of your “shoelaces” with flour, and if not cooking immediately, set aside, covered with a clean tea towel, until you are ready to cook.
For the sauce:
In a large pan, heat a couple of tablespoons of quality extra virgin olive oil. Add the onions and fry until translucent. Add the chilli and mushrooms, and fry until they soften. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the sausages to the pan, and fry for three to four minutes, then add the pancetta, and continue frying for a further three or four minutes. Put the vegetables back into the pan, then add the tomatoes, olives, salt and pepper, then bring to the boil.
Once boiling, add stock, and cover. Cook for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pan of well salted water to the boil. Add your stringozzi, and stir once. Boil for two to three minutes, then remove from the heat and drain well.
Serve immediately, and rather than parmesan cheese, try serving with grated pecorino cheese instead.
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 The 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.
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.
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 had 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!