Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Itinerants

Home and Away

Itinerant tradesmen and merchants in the past in Chianti

onion sellers

When older locals talk about the past, they often mention the itinerant workers and merchants who travelled through the area on foot or via infrequent buses. The ritual January killing of the pig occurred when the norcino pork butcher arrived carrying two satchels across his chest, one filled with spices and the other with the equipment to do the job. The norcino passed from one house to the next, staying overnight at each, working with the farm households to prepare the salami, hams and the various cuts of meat. At the end of the day everyone would celebrate with a special meal.

norcino's produce

Old people also talk about how a spice seller from Siena used to bring the mixed spices to the villages so that cooks could bake cavallucci, migliaccio and other native Sienese treats in the wood-fired oven after making the bread.


Once when Cappelli the Greve blacksmith (who does wonders with wrought iron) visited Le Ripe he told me how he and his grandfather (whom he called mio povero nonno, my poor grandfather), walked from Greve every year with their nanny goat to have her impregnated by the billy goat at Le Ripe....They walked the 14 kilometres to Le Ripe with the nanny goat, returned home on the bus, came back a week later and walked home again....That was simply how it was done.

billy goat

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Water IV

The Supply at Le Ripe

Our drinking, washing, and for now, irrigating water (more on this in a later post on Water) all comes from an 80 metre-deep well drilled in 2006 which is situated on the hill about 50 metres above the house. When the engineer who oversaw our works asked us to choose between a water diviner and a geologist we opted for the latter. He got it right. Apparently there is a lot of water in our hill (there's water in them thar hills) so either option would probably have come up with the goods, as long as they dug deep enough.

well drilling project
The well is not the attractive, ding dong dell pussy's in the well, built-in-stone sort, but an entirely utilitarian concrete one with a heavy manhole-type lid; the water is drawn up by an electric pump. The first pump died after about only two years. When we tried to replace it we realized that the cyinder you can see in the project above encasing the water pipe was in fact a series of metal cylinders screwed one into the other. To pull out the pump this contraption had to be removed using a crane, so that the heavy cylinders could be unscrewed one by one. The man who installed the pump was not available at the time, but luckily our builders and their crane were still with us, and we took the opportunity to replace the metal cylinders with a more modern, flexible rubber one which can be removed easily while the pump is pulled out.

Le Ripe's unpicturesque concrete well, one cistus plant to right
Each year we have the well water analysed chemically and bacteriologically. The results tell us that our water is sound from both points of view even though it is very hard water (alkaline, with a lot of lime). This is good for bones of course but not so good for kidneys. More on our drinking water later.

We have attempted to conceal the well with cistus bushes but for some reason they are painfully slow to grow: however over this last season they showed more oomph...In any case the well and the compost bin are hidden to some extent by the vegie patch fence and creepers. 

white cistus which should one day conceal the well - we live in hope...

 ...content by De Rerum Natura

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Oh dear the deer

The Beautiful Ratbags

roe doe in late October; note canny cage on right, protecting olive
They are graceful, fleet of foot, soft-eyed and timid. Yet they pose a dilemma.

At first it appears that Dama dama or fallow deer are not indigenous to our region, for they were not in Chianti during the childhoods of older people alive today, when, I have been assured, the only large mammals were hare, fox and badger. Even the porcupine was introduced relatively recently; hence the current dearth of giaggioli, common irises, which used to fill the surrounding countryside, for porcupines adore tubers. 

Fallow deer, rather, were introduced or probably re-introduced, or perhaps returned for lack of predators (see below) since Wikipedia tells us they were native to most of Europe during the last Interglacial, while at the beginning of the Holocene they inhabited the Middle East and some parts of the Mediterranean. We have to blame the Romans for bringing them back to central Europe. Precisely where Chianti stands in this scheme of things is unclear. But these deer have certainly been around a lot longer than we like to think. 

As for the roe deer, Capreolus capreolus, which are stronger and even more agile than fallow deer, jumping higher and faster despite being considerably smaller, they seem to be pretty well indigenous to Eurasia (with the exception of Ireland and smaller islands). However I note: "in the Mediterranean region [they are] largely confined to mountainous regions, and [are] absent or rare at low levels". Our part of Chianti is not mountainous, it is hilly (Le Ripe stands at 330m above sea level), so why have the deer descended below their usual terrain to bother us?

roe deer fawn (roe is the original Bambi) hidden in undergrowth by doe - this location is surprisingly close to our house

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Spring signs

Galanthus Nivalis

literally the first buds

Galanthus Nivalis flowers in winter but it presages the end of that season. It has three other appealing characteristics: it will poke up undeterred through snow, it spreads over time creating carpets of nodding white flowers, and perhaps best of all: the deer do not like it. I am not sure it is native here but even if not, it seems to be naturalising.

The common name snowdrop first appeared in the 1633 edition of John Gerard's Great Herbal. Other British traditional names include February fairmaids, dingle-dangle, Candlemas bells, Mary's tapers and, in parts of Yorkshire, snow piercers like the French perce-neige or Italian bucaneveAdapted from Wikipedia.

many clusters are now springing up and spreading

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Feeding time in the orchard

Feeding the Trees

This is the time when you must feed the trees, before the growing season starts again. Last year and this I have supplemented my organic feed (compost and manure) with something stronger, called simply 'Gold' here. 
"Complete feed in every granule" so they say. It seems to work well.
Our fruit trees were sorely in need of extra help because our soil is stony and poor, winters harsh and summers hot. 
I feel like Florence Nightingale, wandering around the wards, offering succour to my ailing charges.
Now I trust their roots will stir and strengthen as they benefit from this extra care. Actually, the trees look happier already!
The next treatment will be copper sulphate and lime (bordeaux mixture) which I will spray on them, to ward off weevils, bugs and parasites.

early morning light
Responding to Explicit's comment below, (re bordeaux paste painted with a brush onto just the trunk of the fruit tree...): an excellent idea but what about the airborne bugs? In any case Explicit has kindly sent a photograph of this rather striking experiment. The trees are daubed in woad, like the Picts of old, ready to face Caesar and all other invaders. This reminds me of the much-beloved nectarine tree in Panzano which for a large part of the year is a glorious bright blue...

going native

Monday, February 11, 2013


Horizontal Snow

8am                                                                                                          10am

The snow is falling, or rather flying by, since the wind is carrying it horizontally. It must be rather wet as not much is sticking. But that always reminds me of the priceless moment in Fellini's Amarcord when someone says "It won't stick", "Non attacca mica" and the next day people are walking through tall walls of frozen snow...Have a look here where you can also watch the touching scene with the peacock:

Amarcord 'nevone' scene

They say that it will be raining by the afternoon, so I thought to record what we hope is a fleeting, sleeting snowstorm. Shall keep you posted....

1300: It is now raining heavily. No risk of an Amarcord scenario...

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Le Ripe Dreaming

Oh, to be in Tuscany
Now that spring is almost there,
Striding up the forest track,
Breathing sweet Chianti air.

For there is that hill to climb
Through dappled woods, home to boar,
Fallow deer, nightingales; while
Overhead, brown buzzards soar.

From its summit, opposite,
One spies beige towns perched on high
Above lingered lines of vines
And tree-shrouded homes nearby.

Below, unseen slopes descend
To an ancient Roman road,
A war-time patriots’ cave,
A dancing stream, slight-shadowed,

And local stone farm buildings,
With haughty cypress guardians:
All encompassed by Le Ripe,
A name as old as Ossian’s.

Agricola (Contributor)

Chocolate Tart Recipe

Anna's Chocolate Tart

Not truly a tart, which in my book requires some form of crust, this fine, moist chocolate cake still warrants the elegance of its name. It is something like a light (yet dark!) chocolate pudding baked and served thin with just a dusting of icing (confectioner's) sugar.

The recipe was invented by Anna Guarducci, the Panzano cook I have already mentioned in relation to Cenci. Before long she and a friend will be producing a book of local recipes in Italian and English. Watch this space.

As promised in preceding post, here is Anna's recipe:

200 g darkest chocolate
100 g butter
4 large eggs with whites separated from yolks
100 g sugar
2 tablespoons potato starch

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C.
2. In the microwave or on very low heat in double boiler (bain marie) over the stove,  melt the chocolate and butter.  Let cool.
3. Beat the egs whites until they form stiff peaks.
4. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until creamy, and add the lukewarm chocolate and potato starch. Beat all the ingredients until thoroughly blended.
5. Fold the egg whites into the batter until it is smooth.
6. Line a 10 inch fluted tart tin (removable bottom necessary) with oven parchment. Pour in the batter and bake for 30 minutes.  When the tart is done, cracks will appear on its surface.

Local Archaeology II

The long story of the other Roman bridge

What do gnocchi and chocolate cake have to do with Roman bridges?
Read on and you will find out.

We had heard that at Ponte agli Stolli, on the way to Figline Valdarno, there was a Roman bridge worth seeing. So on a dull day, after a delicious meal of home-made gnocchi and chocolate tart (my friends' idea of a light, easy lunch: recipes following) to explore for ourselves.

Ponte agli Stolli, reached from Greve in Chianti after a pleasant drive through wooded and farm land with many delightful views of restored farmhouses, drystone walls and sloping fields of olives and grapevines, turns out to be a fascinating jumble of a village perched around and over a ravine of rushing water, which eventually flows into the Arno at Figline. But the Roman bridge is not in the village.
The passageway which takes you over the village bridge upon which buildings have been constructed.
Inside the passageway we found this lovely old door, protected by a glass pane. A small enamelled sign on the door reads: Mugnaio Numero 1, Miller Number 1.

Once upon a time this building housed the village flour mill.

And on the other side we found the mill race.

A view of the bridge of Ponte agli Stolli from further on.

But still we had not found the Roman bridge.


Water III

the river Pesa as it flows below Le Ripe

       In the valley the Pesa flows past Le Ripe, creating a natural boundary and the actual boundary of our property. Some of the river-border is inaccessible thanks to tall banks and thickets, but some runs alongside two meadows. Of these two meadows, one was used for fodder and an orchard, the other for summer corn. We call them, rather unimaginatively, the first meadow and the second meadow. The old names were il campo di sotto (the field below) and il campo della raia (the field of the raia - meaning uncertain). The first meadow has easy access to the river although we have yet to 'lounge with friends in the soft grass' (see below) down there...
 Lucretius also describes the beauty of nature 
on the banks or "ripe" of rivers

           "...ergo corpoream ad naturam pauca videmus               
esse opus omnino: quae demant cumque dolorem,
delicias quoque uti multas substernere possint
gratius inter dum, neque natura ipsa requirit,
si non aurea sunt iuvenum simulacra per aedes
lampadas igniferas manibus retinentia dextris,             

lumina nocturnis epulis ut suppeditentur,
nec domus argento fulget auroque renidet
nec citharae reboant laqueata aurataque templa,
cum tamen inter se prostrati in gramine molli
propter aquae rivum sub ramis arboris altae             

non magnis opibus iucunde corpora curant,
praesertim cum tempestas adridet et anni
tempora conspergunt viridantis floribus herbas."

Therefore we see that our corporeal life
Needs little, altogether, and only such
As takes the pain away, and can besides
Strew underneath some number of delights.
More grateful 'tis at times (for Nature craves
No artifice nor luxury), if forsooth
There be no golden images of boys
Along the halls, with right hands holding out
The lamps ablaze, the lights for evening feasts,
And if the house doth glitter not with gold
Nor gleam with silver, and to the lyre resound
No fretted and gilded ceilings overhead,
Yet still to lounge with friends in the soft grass
Beside a river of water, underneath
A big tree's boughs, and merrily to refresh
Our frames, with no vast outlay- most of all
If the weather is laughing and the times of the year
Besprinkle the green of the grass around with flowers.

Lucretius De Rerum Natura   Book II  verses 20-33
trans. William Ellery Leonard 

river bank by our first meadow with violets

flowers besprinkling the green of the grass

...content by De Rerum Natura

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Primula or Polyanthus,
Primula Hortensis,

Your native cousins primula vulgaris or primroses will be appearing before too long beside the streams and in the woods at Le Ripe, but I am impatient and couldn't resist your splash of cheering colour on a winter's day.

Chianina Cattle

A Noble Bovine Breed


 Whenever I glimpsed the Chianina cattle,  indigenous to central Italy, in old photos, occasionally at country fairs and rarely at pasture, I was always struck by their massive yet elegant build. A quick search on internet reveals that they are in fact the largest cattle breed in the world. The average Chianina cow stands 150-160 cm at the withers and weighs 800-1,000 kg, while the bull measures 160-175 cm, weighing 1,150-1,280 kg. Massive.

And elegant: they are near-white, long-legged and have beautifully-shaped heads, large eyes and long lashes which stand out against the white. 

It is also amongst the oldest breeds of cattle in the world, probably originating in ancient Roman times. Formerly used as a draught breed, (apparently at one time at Le Ripe there were two 'bovi' or oxen, as they called them), now they are bred almost exclusively for meat. The bistecca alla fiorentina is traditionally theirs.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to visit a nearby farm which breeds Chianina for the market. This was the setting, in the famous conca d'oro or 'golden basin' of Panzano. The day was overcast, but the scene is beautiful nonetheless.