Monday, December 31, 2012

The Return of the Wolf I


The photo is not mine, but similar tracks were found in the village of Lucarelli below Le Ripe in the coldest part of last winter after it snowed heavily and stayed so cold that the snow lay on the ground for over a fortnight (a rarity here). The huge, unmistakeable paw prints were seen near our neighbours' smallholding, where sheep, cattle, pigs and geese are raised. 

We had heard that wolves (Canis lupus lupus) had returned to Tuscany, that pairs were sighted near Ferrone (about 10k north of here, towards Florence), that the packs are monitored with electronic tags; but we had not believed they would roam around our part of Chianti. When we did speculate about creatures like bears and wolves, the reaction was mixed: there were those of us who relished the thought of such wild and fierce animals in our woods; others were less sanguine.

In a fascinating article from the Economist (link below) about the return of the wolf in Western Europe - and beyond, we learn that young wolves will wander as far as 1000k in search of a mate; so what was Lucarelli to a lone wolf from the Ferrone pack? A doddle!

So we may have more sightings this winter, may hear them howl in our woods. The deer will have to reckon with them, but as the article points out, the deer have overrun this area; a natural predator is perhaps needed.

From the Economist: The wolf returns - Call of the wild After millennia spent exterminating them, humanity is protecting wolves. Numbers have risen again—and so have ancient resentments Dec 22nd 2012
quite a cutie really

Friday, December 28, 2012

Naples in Chianti

A Neapolitan Winter's Lunch in Chianti

Rich octopus ragoût or ragù, simmered for almost 6 hours, served with linguine

Rum baba or babà al rhum, served with custard or crema al limone

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Winter Treats

Golden bread pudding

fresh pandoro

Pandoro is a festive holiday cake in Italy. It is most often eaten on its own, and is more than satisfying. The following recipe might, therefore, be considered a case of gilding the lily... but if it's ever worth going all out, Christmas is probably the right season. Here, then, is our yeasty, citrus-y take on bread and butter pudding for the winter holidays.


1 pandoro (Italian Christmas yeast cake), sliced vertically, the bottom crust removed
3 eggs, beaten
a cup of full-cream milk or heavy/double cream (240 ml)
half a cup of white sugar (100 g) or less, to taste
half a cup of water
several spoonfuls of marmalade
4 tablespoons of dark rum
a few drops of vanilla essence
a capful of orange flower water, or a few drops of orange flower water essence


1. Set the oven to 150 degrees Celsius/300 Fahrenheit

2. Put the sugar in the water on a medium flame, dissolving the sugar and forming a caramel (3-5 mins.)

3. Spread a layer of marmalade on one side of each pandoro slice

4. Lay out the slices of pandoro in a greased rectangular baking tray, allowing them to overlap but forming a layer of roughly uniform height

5. Add the rum, orange water, molten sugar and vanilla to the milk (or cream)
6. Combine the eggs with the other liquid ingredients and pour over the pandoro slices
7. Allow to rest for ten minutes, so that the pandoro slices fully absorb the liquid

8. Place in the oven, and bake for twenty minutes. The top will turn golden-brown and the bottom will become a rich custard

Serve warm! - But also good cold.

Note: this can also be done with panettone, brioche bread or challah.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cypress Planting

Grow cyprus!

The planting of a baby cypress...found in a pot alongside a fruit tree, 
nursed and tended in ever larger pots until 
one day, three years later, the time was right....
for transplant in the open earth.
Grow little cypress, spread your roots!

We shall protect you from the nibbling deer...

Volpaia View

seen near Volpaia, on a sunny December afternoon

Japan in Chianti

 Japanese Christmas at Le Ripe

delicious Japanese confiseries 
from New York
make us feel quite cosmopolitan!

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Woodwork I




The before and after of one aspect of winter work here at Le Ripe: stacking wood. The arrival of the truck of wood is often eventful. Sometimes we only realize that Checchucci has come with his load when we hear the incredible thundering rattle as three tons/tonnes of seasoned wood clatters to the ground right outside the furnace room. On other occasions, Checchucci calls us for help to get up or down the access drive - which has two slopes.   

This year the slope up towards the house had been soaked by days of rain. It churned to mud as soon as he tried to drive up, so he had to back down again and asked for bundles of twigs to spread over the mud and provide some purchase. All we had was my bundles of denuded lavender twigs, thriftily preserved for light kindling. The lavender saved the day and a delightful perfume rose about, a whiff of summer, as Checchucci's truck lurched and shuddered back up the slope... 

For an amusing - and informative - article about the Norwegians' fascination with firewood see here

Winter Solstice

Days of 'little sun'

It is almost the winter solstice...
The sun is at its lowest point of the year 
and has moved from the east to the south: 
it has gone well past Radda 
and this morning rose from behind the hillside to our south. 
Tomorrow is the turning point, when the sun hesitates 
and then begins its return towards east once more.

The first photo was taken about half an hour before the sun appeared. 
Radda can be seen on the skyline to the left

Friday, December 7, 2012

Darling Buds


"Rough winds do shake the darling buds of December..."

The selfsame Nahema (see a few posts down) has come up trumps even this late in the season - indeed, completely out of season...I think I have rescued them just in time...
Along with an ugly brute of a parsnip and a fat bunch of parsley, I believe that's it for the 2012 harvest.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

First Frosts

This is how cold it has become: these photos were taken in the northern meadow near the river, where the sun shines only a few hours each day. 
If there's sun. 
We are not in the depths of winter, but we are getting close to the winter solstice, so the sun is almost at its lowest point of the solar year. 
In these parts of the meadow the frost may linger 
for a long time.

Olive Harvest

our olive harvest
only four trees of eighteen had fruit
- we shall add to our neighbours' haul and imagine that our olives 
gave a small but important contribution to their oil
- they have 700 trees and it took them one month 
to harvest
- it took me 10 minutes

Monday, December 3, 2012

Olives for Oil

Olive harvest

This year's olives. Our friends who actually make oil from their own olives tell me that it has been an excellent year. There were few olives: perhaps as a consequence, the oil is very good. 
I can't wait to try it. 

Meanwhile, I admire our own shiny black olives. I shall gather them and maybe they will contribute to our neighbours' oil. They are good only for oil: we cannot preserve them for antipasti.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Looking on the bright side....
we also came back to this.
Although we missed most of the autumn colours,
 the virginia creeper is still looking brilliant...

Storm in Chianti

 The Rainbomb

The day before we came back to Le Ripe there was an extremely violent storm which dumped massive quantities of water in only about 30 minutes. In Firenze they called it a ‘rainbomb’....Our local restaurant was flooded out momentarily and other houses were flooded from the hill behind. Le Ripe buildings and surrounds were fine, but our road and drive suffered...
This is the first stream upon entering our drive: see how the road has eroded dramatically on the right: the pipe was blocked by very heavy stones washed down by the torrential rain; all the water was flowing over the drive, like a river.
The second photo is of the road below our neighbours' cypresses: there is now a deep furrow and a good part of the road material has been washed down the hill or to the side...The metal channels we had put in would have been insufficient in such a downpour although most of them were clear.
Such rainstorms are rare but they happen...and maybe they will be more frequent thanks to climate change etc...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Not Le Ripe!

The scene changes radically.
This is not Le Ripe, not Tuscany nor even any other part of Italy.
I write from Australia, from another landscape and another season.
flowering gum
Here it is spring, there are swallows, wrens, honeyeaters, lorikeets, magpies, cockatoos, willy wagtails and sacred ibis
nesting, feeding, soaring, singing, darting and hopping everywhere.
Butterflies on the native shrubs, bees on the lavender, blossom on the trees.
How lucky to enjoy a breath of spring before winter arrives in the north...
rainbow lorikeets

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Nahema Roses

It is the 25th of October and there was this beauty in the garden. 
Or rather, in the vegie patch, since the roses have had to take refuge there from the deer. 
They are mostly Nahema with its glorious lemon-apricot perfume. I rarely pick the roses, but it is the end of the season and it may soon rain and spoil them...
Such a joy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Boring Boars

 Grubbing around
They're at it again. The first sign is holes in the grass or furrows in the earth, but this year they've outdone themselves. They have re-ploughed stretches of our neighbours' lawn, re-dug the water channel along our road and excavated the river banks. 

The wild boar are in a feeding frenzy. It must be grubs and roots they're after. They've dug virtual ditches along the road and tossed earth all over the place.

Not my own photo: thank-you internet!

We live alongside the wild boar. They're not native to Chianti, but then neither are we. Introduced from game reserves and then crossed with a Hungarian variety, they are huge. Trundling around in the woods in their family groups (mothers and piglets) looking for food, they don't bother us. I've learnt to recognise the cracking and rustling of their passage through the undergrowth, but hardly ever see them. 

In summer when the wild plums ripen it's fun to go out at night and hear them crunching up the plums, stones and all. In autumn they hoover up berries, tubers, grubs. In winter they thrive on acorns and chestnuts. 

When we first arrived at Le Ripe we had the future orchard ploughed, in a manner of speaking, by the builder's digger. Then we sowed beans and peas to enrich the earth. I only hope they had time to enrich the earth because no sooner did the peapods sprout, the plants disappeared. I actually spied the Sus Scrofa family enjoying its picnic of tender peas. What a treat!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Peculiar Pig

More about pigs
Further down the blog is a post about Tuscan pigs. 
But yesterday in Panzano we saw a little girl walking a pig on a lead. 
The girl was very small and the pig was even smaller. It was not a cinta senese, although the markings were similar, but some dwarf breed. 
The little girl was unhappy about being photographed,
but the pig seemed quite relaxed.
An unusual sight in Panzano.



We are not talking about Beethoven's Eroica but a bike race with a difference. Every first Sunday in October cyclists from all over Europe come to Chianti to take part in L' Eroica

The condition for participation is that bike models used should date from 1986 or earlier.  Many cyclists even wear the old gear, and carry spare tires slung over their shoulders. The race for the keenest is 205 kilometres long while the shortest is 35 kilometres. 

Either way the cyclists have to deal with hilly terrain and some unsealed roads, as well as older bike technology. 

We were at Panzano for the Festa Aprilante, the monthly food and crafts fair, and managed to see quite a few brave souls pedal past. 

Cecchini, our famous local butcher, was on hand as usual to offer refreshments. We were amused to see the cyclists scoffing wine and bread smeared with Cecchini's herbed lard!

Useful calories I suppose.

There were quite a few vintage cars around too as well as this two-wheeled vintage interloper...

Apparently 5,000 cyclists took part in L'Eroica this year: che eroi!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


First signs
Autumn has come to the hills, very gently. The first signs are wisps of mist, dew on grass and leaves in the early morning, colours starting to turn. When I passed the orchard this morning I noticed the branches of the quince tree bending low. The quinces were large and heavy, pleading to be harvested. 

Although they are not quite 
ripe, they can be kept on a windowsill inside to ripen slowly and perfume the room. The ones that were addled I cut and cooked with a little sugar into a thick puree which will be preserved in jars to eat with cheese, roasted meat and Greek yogurt...

The quince is a fascinating fruit, with a venerable ancestry. It originated in Asia Minor and was brought to Europe by the Greeks and Romans and was cultivated in medieval gardens. Quince comfits, cubes of sweet quince paste, are still made and eaten in southern Europe to this day. When my husband went to school in Naples, his mother often gave him quince comfits, or cotognata for a treat. A far cry from a Mars bar!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Fabulous Figs

A little seasonal bounty
It's the figs I want to talk about. We have several good trees but luckily the best one is near the house. Its figs mature in September, are greenish yellow without and mostly deep, glistening red within. When they are ripe it's like eating jam. This year the other trees bore little fruit, possibly because the summer was so dry. But since I water around the house tree in any case, its crop was abundant this year as well. Every other day you can be sure of a basketful.

In good years we don't know what to do with them all. This year, and thanks to a series of house-guests, they have all been eaten fresh from the tree. Last year I made fig jam (you need very little sugar) and bottled the puree, without sugar, for eating with cheese and meats:very good! Single peeled figs wrapped in a thin leaf of prosciutto crudo is a very delicious appetizer; quartered but left to stand on a bed of leaves with pieces of fresh pecorino (sheep's milk) cheese and a little thyme, some honey drizzled on top, is another lovely way to go, taught me by an Australian friend who visited recently.

In the past, I am told, the bottom of the burgeoning figs would be painted with a little donkey urine to keep away insects and blight; although our figs receive no such treatment we still cut off the base before eating. I'm not sure if it's because there might be insects, or because we're worried someone might have treated them on the sly!

The Italians have an elegant way of eating figs: since they generally avoid eating the skin, they hold the fig by its stem, cut through the base to divide the fruit almost in quarters; the result is an opening flower. They then bite off each quarter, peeling it off the skin as they go. The skin is discarded.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Cinta Senese

Historical Pigs 
The cinta senese is a handsome pig, bred in these parts for centuries. The distinctive white band tends to include the forelegs.  This pig lives in the oak and chestnut wooded hills around Siena and is prized for the sausages, hams and salame it provides. There is a small farm of cinta senese beside the unsealed road on the ridge east of Le Ripe.

The internet will tell you that the British saddleback, which resembles the cinta, is a 20th century breed, but there is documented proof of the Sienese cinta's antiquity.

detail from wall depicting effects of good government

Visit the Palazzo del Popolo in Siena, as you must,
and you will find the breed enshrined in a glorious fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Hall of the Nine, the council chamber where the nine city councillors of the day would meet.
wall depicting allegory of good government

The fresco dates back to
1340 and on two large walls, depicts the Allegory and Effects of Good Government, a concept refreshing still today and surprising for its solid, secular awareness almost 700 years ago. It is interesting that the Judge is surrounded by female figures: Peace, reclining on her bench; Justice on her throne with Virtue at her feet; Wisdom floating above her head as well as many others.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Apes in Tuscany

What does an ape have to do with Tuscany, you might ask. Not much, on the surface. But a recent story in the news about the discovery of this wonderful 'new' ape in the Congo, the Cercopithecus lomamiensis, prompts a look at some of Tuscany's recent and ancient local history.

If you drive to Radda along the valley road from Le Ripe, about halfway along you will see a sign indicating the 'Fonte di Selvolina' which is the spring of Selvolina, an ancient spring where locals would come to fill their bottles or barrels with good water and where travellers could refresh themselves and their beasts of burden. The spring today emerges in a rather battered stone trough right by the side of the road.

One day not so long ago, passersby were amazed to see a monkey perched on the trough. A small, thirsty monkey who had found a welcome place to have a drink. It was thought the monkey had escaped from some private zoo. I don't know whether the monkey was caught or whether it survived for a while in the Chianti hills, living off berries and grapes; certainly it has no natural predators in this area, if you don't count humans.

But the story does not finish there. It appears that in the ancient past, in prehistoric times, apes did roam through western Tuscany, when this land was a tropical island. The remains of a curious primate, the Oreopithecus Bambolii (named after Montebamboli, one of the sites where it was found) have led scientists to infer that this ape may have walked on two legs at times, and was capable of manual dexterity like humans. All of which is rather extraordinary and thought-provoking. 

For more information, have a look at these links.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sky Show

Today was a day of moving skies, 
the wind whipping white and grey clouds 
across an elusive blue. 
The photo was taken just before sunset, 
a magical time of day when our hill is already shadowed, 
but the hills opposite are lit up, golden.
On a day like this you really should just 
stay outside and watch the show.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Selva Oscura

from Gustave Doré's Inferno
  Dark Woods

 Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
  Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough 
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring... (trans. Pinsky)

Not exactly a jolly post, but not without a point either. Dante Alighieri, who wrote these immortal lines, lived and breathed the air of this land in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. At Le Ripe we have such a 'dark wood' on our property, where we do not like to roam: it is north-facing, dank and the trees have been abandoned to themselves to grow tall and fall in storms. Yet it is a fragment of wilderness where porcupines, deer, boar and all the other creatures find refuge.
Dante is using the dark wood as a metaphor for a difficult moment in his life and these lines are the opening to his masterpiece La Divina Commedia. I studied Dante's Commedia many years ago; amongst other things it introduced me to the marvels of medieval Tuscany, echoes of which linger in our hills to this day.

All this was brought to mind by a delightful entry in our Visitors' Book, which I quote in part:

Midway through the potholes on the steep way
Where the straight path is lost in darkling woods
We longed to see the lights of Le Ripe
Promising cheer and warmth and other goods
Books, talk, food and suites....