Thursday, January 31, 2013

Birds in Winter

a bird ballet

starling (sturnus vulgaris) planning today's choreography

Two winters ago I was in the parking lot in Greve in Chianti towards dusk. A loud chirping and rush of wings made me look up at the darkening sky. Thousands of birds were streaming and wheeling above me, calling and settling on surrounding trees then rising again. I stood there fascinated, surprised that no one else seemed to bother with this scene. On asking a passerby what the birds were I was told "storni" which is starlings.Of course the locals see the birds every year, they are commonplace, like pigeons in the city. Still.

Just yesterday I was working near our vegie patch when a very sudden and loud gushing, whooshing noise from a little higher up the hill startled me. My first thought was of a mass of water released from a dam or pool. Of course we have no such thing, but that was precisely what it sounded like.

Seconds later a host of starlings rose into the air from behind a stand of trees. There must have been hundreds. As they wheeled and turned in the sky their wings whirred and almost sang.

Just today on the Italian paper il Corriere della Sera, this film was published, which I have tracked to YouTube. It doesn't reproduce the sounds I heard but it does record the extraordinary annual dance of the starlings.
Here is a reference from the International Business Times 
which explains more ... 

"...breathtaking phenomenon called murmurations. This is when a huge flock of birds that are in migration form a magical shape-shifting flight pattern in the sky. The birds tend to flock together for protection and can reach speeds of up to 20 mph/32kph...Scientists aren't sure how the starlings do their complex dance...the birds have a quicksilver reaction time of under 100 milliseconds, which prevents them from colliding with each other in the air."

This is another clip which apparently has gone 'viral'; it includes some scientific explanations of the starlings' startling steering abilities.

Here instead is a curiosity regarding one starling and Mozart. It appears that the birds are excellent mimics: 


First signs?

winter aconite - eranthus hyemalis - pie' di gallina

Is it too soon to hope? The winter aconites would seem to say no. The weather has been sunny and mild, yet it is only the end of January....According to my (extensive) records, they usually appear in February, so are indeed a little early this year. Delightful, bright blooms to cheer us in the latter half of winter. The Italian name means hen's foot: quite descriptive really.

Monday, January 28, 2013


Reflections on Pruning

well-pruned mulberry

can be a pleasing activity:
removing the dead stems, 
the leaves that might spread infection, 
cutting the shrub or tree back to its bare essentials, 
anticipating, through the exercise, 
an abundant leafing and flowering in spring.
It is a complex art, since each species or variety 
can react differently to the cut,
and weighty decisions must be taken.
Although I plan to buy an electric hedge trimmer,
since forty lavender bushes, 
numerous shrubs 
and burgeoning hedges
exact much labour,
I am aware that some of that fine pleasure will be lost.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Jack Frost

Jack Frost is back

newly planted, frosted laurel

The scene at 8am this morning

 It was minus 2 on our hill and minus 5 in the valley...

Friday, January 25, 2013


Hedging our bets

new laurel hedge with pruned mulberry

The best sort of hedge fund is surely the one you establish yourself. Today, fifty laurel ('bay laurel - Laurus nobilis, of the plant family Lauraceae, also known as sweet bay, bay tree, true laurel, Grecian laurel, laurel tree, or simply laurel' - Wikipedia), were planted around our current vegie patch. The plan is to create one day a hortus conclusus, an enclosed or medieval-style garden within the laurel walls. For now our rose bushes have taken cover there from the dreadful deer and we grow tomatoes, parsnips, asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries. The clematis, honeysuckle and other climbers will continue to twine and bloom around the perimeter. In the future we shall plant medieval flowers and the mulberry tree will shade a bench, where people can sit and read or think (cf.'sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits') and contemplate the hills. Now that seems a good investment.

hedge from aia/threshing floor

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Olive Oil 1

Liquid Gold

for more on olive oil see the 2013 post
from December

How could I forget a post about olive oil? It arrived in late November and early December and here we are in late January.
I don't like to think we're starting to take it for granted, but after five years of living in Chianti we certainly assume it's a natural part of life.

newly-arrived oil at its cloudy best - and full of bite
 When fresh, the oil is cloudy, a most wonderful golden green and with a particular, peppery bite. For oil conoscitori the bite is the thing.

oil today, starting to settle and mellow

The best way to store it is in a dark container or failing that, a dark pantry. The green bottles are best for daily use. The friends we acquire our oil from use either bottles or tins. Note the special spout on the green bottle; it helps regulate the flow and save precious drops.

the proof of the pudding...

 The true colour has not been well-reproduced in this shot: it's much greener in reality. This is 'la morte sua'* as they say here: poured on Tuscan (unsalted) bread and eaten fresh, maybe with a sprinkle of salt. Needless to say we do not use this oil for cooking, just raw.
*'Its proper death.'

Interesting article on the quality of olive oil from the New York Times of April 18th 2013: World's Olive Oils 

Which has prompted some sound advice from a friend who grows her own olives and makes her own oil in the heart of Chianti not far from Panzano:

Olives should be half green, half dark but better to harvest them a little early for flavour and sacrifice a little on percentage yield.  The gist of the NYT article on filtering is largely correct.  Many oils are processed in dirty conditions and stored incorrectly. For the small producer, it's important to eliminate the sludge by transferring the oil to clean containers a few months after pressing. Those not in the know and many large scale producers who sell their oil immediately do not transfer the oil to clean containers and/or filter.  If the oil sits on the shelf for too long or is inappropriately stored (too much heat and dirt, for instance), the quality will deteriorate quickly..  If I were buying oil retail, yes, I would look for the words " filtered" as well as "extra virgin" and where and date bottled. 

The best oil comes from the small producer who cares about the trees, harvests with minimal damage to the olives, presses the olives quickly at a spotless, cold press frantoio, cleans his containers thoroughly, and transfers his oil into newly clean containers after six months. Filtering eliminates dirt and, therefore, helps.  Even some of the vaunted producers that sell oil in the U.S. at DOCG prices cannot even approach the small producers here in quality.  The best oil is local, and it does not leave the area because those who care about it consume it. 

Never buy oil from commercial producers if possible. It's not worth saving the money, and the industry is notoriously corrupt (a friend worked for a commercial producer and has witnessed trucks unload other oleaginous substances and colouring agents for blending at the factory).

Speaking of precious drops
We once visited a museum of peasant culture in Bassa Campania, southern Italy, in a tiny, forgotten hill village called Ortodonico. The enthusiastic museum curator was full of information and stories about the life and work of his ancestors. 

One story he told has since been corroborated by the sons of other peasants, even in our part of the country. Since time immemorial the fattore, or farm manager and the padrone, or owner (usually a noble of some sort) were the only ones to oversee the pressing of the olive oil.

In recent decades, since the tenant farmer system (mezzadria) was abolished and the nobles gradually sold off their estates, it was discovered that underneath the olive press was a tiny channel, carved beneath the stone or brick paving which fed directly into the owner's own supply of oil. In other words the owner was stealing a proportion of the common oil shared 50/50, in theory, with the peasant in payment for his labours.  

Extraordinary but true. If a peasant had been found doing any such thing he would have been banished from the property (cf. Ermanno Olmi's 'Tree of the Wooden Clogs'), if not worse.

Images from the museum of peasant culture in Ortodonico: Ortodonico museum
And for those who can follow the Italian, here is an excerpt on YouTube from a film dealing with this very issue, filmed in the museum itself: Noi Credevamo film clip

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Winter Meal

It's the wild boar and polenta time of year

When we hear the hunters in the woods we know that sooner or later a couple of them will turn up, all smiles, with a bag of wild boar meat for us. 
It is a way of thanking us for letting them wander around our hill, even though historically and legally they have every right to do so.

The meat has to be soaked in wine, vinegar or water or a mixture of the three for several days, changing the liquid daily, to get rid of the gamey taste and smell.Then we put it in a pot with a bottle of Chianti, chopped onion and garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves, rosemary and our own juniper berries. It cooks for hours until tender and is delicious with polenta or mashed potatoes. Hearty and very tasty on a cold winter's day.

wild boar stew with polenta

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Objects of Interest

not just any old iron

An iron cauldron once used for laundry, 
like the old 'copper' in Australia,
for rendering the pork fat in winter,
and no doubt for many other tasks.
It now sits in a prominent position 
sporting irises or Chianti 'giaggioli' in summer.


This barrel was used to crush the first grapes off the vine at harvest time, to reduce their bulk, so that more grapes could be carried in the wagon. The inside of the barrel is deepest red and smells wonderful. 

A local basket made of fine strips of wood

Friday, January 18, 2013

Our Visitors

Le Ripe birds

Here is a gallery of some of the birds that visited our bird tables last season, hopefully soon to return!

blue tit - parus caeruleus - cinciarella

chaffinch - fringilla coelebs - fringuello

blackcap - sylvia atricapilla - capinera
This one looks a bit of a rascal

collared dove - streptopelia decaocto - tortora dal collare orientale

greenfinch - carduelis chloris - verdone

nuthatch - sitta europea - picchio muratore
love that Egyptian eye shadow

redstart - phoenicurus phoenicurus - codirosso

Thanks to the internet for the photos....

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Where are the birds?

Last autumn/winter we began welcoming birds to Le Ripe in earnest, setting up three bird tables which we kept richly supplied with seeds, scraps, crumbs and water. And so many birds came to eat: robins, magpies, collared doves, redstarts, blackcaps, tits, greenfinches, chaffinches and the delightful nuthatches with their elegant Egyptian eye paint. 
Unfortunately we have very few photos of these birds: we never seem to have the time to watch and wait in order to capture good shots of them.  
blue tits feeding around the trough before it was restored

a redstart on the fence

magpies feeding at one of the bird tables

This winter, however, we have seen very few birds in general. I wonder if it is thanks to the milder weather keeping them in more northern territories, or because I have been rather slow to set out the bird food this year?
Today I decided to set matters right and bought several bags of feed from the shop locals call il Mugnaio, the Miller, in Panzano (once upon a time there was a working mill there). A couple of these products were new to me: panico, which turns out to be foxtail millet, to hang from tree branches, and something called Vigorpast whose ingredients resemble those of the bird puddings my children and I used to create for city birds when we lived in Milan. This sticky feed consists of goodies such as (and I quote): 

"fruits, backery products, vegetable by-products, oils and fats, cereals, vegetable proteins extracts, sugars, yeasts, seeds, mineral substances, natural flavourings.."

But the best part is what this energy bomb is going to do for the darling birds, according to the manufacturer (again I quote verbatim):

"Vigorpast is the best mash for insectivorous and frugivorous birds. The base of its formula is a high content in fruits. It is considered the food more similar to that free birds prefer. It is particularly desirable to BLACKBIRDS,THRUSHES,FIELDFARES, LARKS, NIGHTINGALES, GRAKLES and in general to all birds with thin beaks. 
It favours the general sense of vitality therefore stimulating the tendency to sing."

Now, isn't that charming?
If only we could all boost our vitality in such a way, thereby stimulating 
our tendency to sing.
No doubt the world would be a better place for it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


compare and contrast with an earlier post (18/08/12)

Coming soon?
The forecast is for snow over the next few days. Even at our altitude (330m).
This time last year, more or less, there was a heavy snowfall which did not thaw for 15 days. Power was out in the Siena area: some were without for 5 days; luckily for us we were in darkness for 'only' 36 hours. However when that happens at Le Ripe, nothing works except the gas for cooking and the fireplace for warmth. It was a lot of hard work to keep us warm and fed and functioning and made us appreciate (again) how difficult life was in the past for the country people. What I missed most was news bulletins. This year we have a radio that also works on batteries.

the enchanted fig-tree; the ice on the pond was 15cm thick - a miracle that the fish survived..

our poor snow-embattled cypress

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Local Archaeology

 The Roman Bridge

 About 500 metres, as the crow flies, from the western end of our property, beside the river Pesa, but easily accessed via a track leading off the 222 (Chiantigiana road) on the way to Castellina and Piazza, lies a little-known archaeological treat. In his interesting book , Chianti: the Land, the People and the Wine, Raymond Flower called it a Roman bridge and we are inclined to do likewise, although we have little scientific evidence to back us up. 

The Romans inhabited the area, established settlements at Panzano and Castellina and in between, so it is legitimate to imagine that they might have fashioned a  sturdy bridge over the unpredictable, ephemeral Pesa to carry goods, soldiers and arms. 

It is difficult to appreciate the size of the bridge from these photos, but it must have been at least three metres across. Only three sizeable  columns and one arch remain. The central part of the bridge may well have been built of wood. 
In any case, the course of the Pesa has no doubt changed over the centuries, as well as the height of the riverbed, so it is difficult to visualise the whole structure as it might once have been...
If any readers of this blog are familiar with Roman bridge-building techniques, maybe they could leave a comment?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Live Nativity Scene, Casole d'Elsa

Epiphany in Casole d'Elsa

This biennial Presepe Vivente or Live Nativity Scene has won
national prizes. It was touching to see that the 
whole town of Casole was involved in some way.
With 250 characters in costume, emergency personnel, people-movers, food and drink stalls etc it is quite an enterprise. 
The first section portrayed the Roman presence in Palestine within a kind of amphitheatre where richly dressed patricians lolled about, bought slaves and generally looked imperial and indolent...for added realism there were even a few 'lepers' begging in a corner...
After this was a delightful series of tableaux portraying 
the populace of Bethlehem with their animals, produce and crafts. This series epitomised the most characteristic aspects of the traditional Italian Presepe, live or not.  
The participants covered a range of age-groups from very young to very old with goats, donkeys, sheep and geese joining in.
The cheese stall; note the kid being held on the right.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


bees in January

This was the day, January 3rd 2013. 
Soaring blue sky, back-warming sunshine, 
high of 11,3 in the shade, so perhaps 14-15 in the sun?
The winter-flowering honeysuckle 
(lonicera fragrantissima
has been blooming the last few days.
Fragrantissima: the bees must have sensed it.
Today they were out in strength, plundering its blossoms.
A sweet treasure in the heart of winter.