Friday, August 31, 2012

Rain at last


Rain! At last, after two months of drought, we were regaled with a substantial rainfall this morning, complete with marvellous rumbles of thunder.

Everyone in the valley, probably in the whole of Tuscany, is relieved. The forecasts promise more and today after it cleared I pulled out my first weeds of the rainy season. 
I have had my eye on them for weeks; but it is pointless weeding a dry garden.

The animals in the woods will be relieved too: maybe the predatory deer and marauding wild boar will be distracted by puddles and newly-succulent greenery...we live in hope!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Southern Bounty

part of the tomato plantation 2012

No, this is not Le Ripe, this is my sister in law's farm in southern Italy. We visited them last week and witnessed the incredibly labour-intensive job of making bottled tomato passata with their wonderful Rio Grande tomatoes. Here are just a glimpse of their organic tomato plantation and one moment of the 'procedura' as they call the entire process once the tomatoes have been harvested.
cooking the washed, selected tomatoes
First the tomatoes are washed, chopped both for quicker cooking and to check that they are sound inside (this does not happen in industrial processes) and set to cook in enormous saucepans. They boil at least two hours until they have reduced and softened. Salt is added at the end. This is for taste and to help preserve the sauce. Then the hot pulp is poured through a small machine which mashes the tomatoes, discarding the seeds and skins. This is the only mechanized aspect. The 'passata' - so-called because it has been 'passed' through the filter and become a rich red sauce - is immediately bottled with some leaves of basil. The bottles are piled in large saucepans filled with water and boil for about two hours; they are then left to cool overnight.

This year my sister in law, who is a real hero, will make 3000 half-kilo bottles of passata sauce with a handful of helpers. If anyone is interested in buying this wonderful, fresh, natural, organic tomato sauce they can have a look at this blog which also shows images of the 'procedura'.

The best use for the passata sauce (which can of course be adapted to countless recipes) is to simply pour it over a dish of freshly-cooked 'al dente' pasta, add some good olive oil and maybe parmesan and fresh basil. 

fruit of earth and sun

It is fruit of the earth and the sun, 
the best of the best!

If you would like to find out more about my sister in law's produce, have a look at their site.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Plums and Fowl

Summer Sunday Roast

A recipe for when plums are in season. Guinea fowl (evocatively named faraona, or she-pharaoh, in Italian) has less fat than chicken and more flavour.


1 guinea fowl (for 2-3 people)
dark plums (pitted and diced)
pancetta (cubed)
red onions (diced)
rosemary or thyme
olive oil; salt and pepper

1. Clean the guinea fowl (or buy without giblets)
2. Combine all the other ingredients in a mixing bowl; use olive oil to add moisture and amalgamate
3. Slide stuffing into cavity of the guinea fowl; insert some under the breast skin to protect meat
4. Season the bird with olive oil, salt and pepper
5. Cover top with foil and place in an oven at low heat (160 degrees C or 320 F) for 1 hour and 30 minutes

Two guinea fowl serve four with enough for left-overs. Serve with roast vegetables or a green salad.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Threshing Floor

the aia in 2003
similar view in 2012
The first photo is how we saw the 'aia' (threshing floor) and dry stone wall next to the fienile or barn at Le Ripe. The wall was masked by creepers and ivy, the aia hidden beneath earth and perhaps 50 years' growth of grass and weeds.
The second photo is a recent view of the restored 'aia' and the old dry stone wall. The 'aia' has been enlarged but we found a portion of its paving stones beneath the brambles and earth. The farmers used to fill the gaps between the paving stones with broken crockery, pottery, any other refuse (which was very little: you didn't waste anything in those days) and manure mixed with straw, which compacted and dried very nicely. What effect it had on the threshed wheat is anyone's guess. The engineer who oversaw our works at Le Ripe wanted to demolish the wall, so that the main house would be more visible. "Over my dead body," was my reply. There are many other dry stone walls on the property, mostly crumbling or covered with earth after decades of neglect. We would love to restore them gradually; the irony is that it is hard to find a builder willing to do the job. Perhaps because it takes longer, because it's a dying skill, or because they really believe that cement lasts longer, as they claim. My response is that the Egyptian pyramids are dry stone and they seem to have lasted pretty well.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Indigenous Herbs

Lavender and other fragrances
There was so much lavender this year from our 40 plus bushes that I had to dry it on the floor on top of sheets. Soon I shall thresh it, so to speak. Lavender is happy in these hills although I have not yet found it growing wild.

Many aromatic plants do well here, both because they love the conditions and because they survive the deer who hate anything aromatic.

Some time after arriving at Le Ripe we found nine recognizable, indigenous herbs. Perhaps some were originally planted by the farmers  (the mint and the lemon balm?).

Here's the list:

wormwood (artemisia vulgaris), one of the main components of absinthe and a strange aroma, not to everyone's liking.The locals used to wear it under their clothes against worms;
catmint (nepeta cataria) which when trodden on releases a delicious scent;
thyme, not sure of variety, but it has dark pink flowers and turns red in winter and spreads beautifully;
wild fennel, which grows very tall; uncharacteristically, there was only one specimen which was eventually bulldozed over by the builders, so I collected some seeds elsewhere and planted it in our little herb patch where it is flourishing. I hope it spreads elsewhere;
curry plant (helichrysum italicum) has a lovely spicy smell;
camomile, a very prolific daisy: it was already growing wild in the field but when a farmer brought us a load of manure, so many camomile flowers sprouted in the vegie patch in spring that I used to grumble that instead of manure he had brought me a field of daisies;
lemon balm (melissa officinalis): it took some time to realize what it was, but the lemony fragrance is unmistakeable once you crush the leaves;
origano - seems to grow wild only in the lower meadow but we now have it in the herb patch as well;
peppermint (menta piperita), found growing wild in one place only, so perhaps planted by the farmers originally...

In addition, the herb patch and garden boast sage and rosemary (like the lavender wonderful plants for our conditions, but I have yet to find them growing wild), tarragon (two sorts: the spectacular but tasteless Russian variety and the more modest fragrant one); lemon thyme; santolina which is a hardy, silvery shrub but whose yellow flowers are frankly stinky for a couple of weeks in the year; and savory which resembles thyme but has another fragrance and blooms gloriously in May.  

ps We 'threshed' the lavender in the photo above  and it came to about 7 kilos of dried flower heads! Now we have to decide what to do with it. Perhaps I shall start a cottage industry in lavender bags...

Thursday, August 9, 2012


This baby hedgehog paid us a visit for a few days.
It was scrabbling around in the bushes outside our front door, probably confused - looking for its ma?
I had heard that you can feed them cat food and had a little tin set by for just such an occasion.
What a delight when the tiny creature, attracted by the smell, approached the tin, and also obligingly let me take photos.
As it ate it made tiny chewing noises, almost slurping.
I was so charmed by this diminutive visitor. Sadly, it did not return, even though I left out more food.

I guess it's better for it not to get too used to free lunches...
But still...

Summer Bloomings

Flower notes
The zinnias are a new entry; I'm very pleased with them: lovely colours, long-lasting and reflowering, plus they love the position on the sunny aia. Next year I hope to plant many more.

The agapanthus came all the way from Australia, brought by my mother in her suitcase, like the family jewels. They were in our garden in Melbourne so it is good to have a little bit of our old garden at Le Ripe. They do quite well here - this is their first year in tubs - but do not flourish as they do through Australia's mild winters. Each year they die back and have to start all over again in the spring, so the incremental growth is slow.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Curious Moth

Sphinx moth
This fascinating diurnal moth had me really puzzled when I was first alerted to it by its loud humming. I was convinced it might be a tiny, rare (rarissimo!) European hummingbird. A little research revealed that it is called called the sphinx, hawk or - hummingbird moth! Its wings are practically invisible as it hovers, indeed Su, the guest who took this photo, has done a miraculous job capturing the wings. This hummingbird moth is feeding from a flower of nepeta grandiflora or catmint but seems to frequent many different blooms. I once found one stuck inside a flower of dipladenia boliviensis. It's a joy to watch it dart amongst the flowers, humming non-stop.