I Fiori

After an hour pricking out sweet William seedlings and winter flowering pansies ready to take over from the summer bedding, I was thinking that this year’s display of flowers has been the best yet since moving to Abruzzo.

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Previous years have seen me pay more attention to the orto and raising vegetables, however this year apart from a few tomato and chilli plants and I’ve not bothered with veg growing and concentrated more on flowers.

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The sunflowers have been stunning and are definitely on the list for next year’s display.

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Choosing what to grow can be a case of suck it and see, things that do well in the UK can be horticultural disasters here in the heat of an Italian summer and I’ve had some failures. Sweet peas start off well but once the temperature climbs they fail to do the same, cornflowers get off to a good start but here the flowers seem to be somewhat smaller than in England.

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My greatest achievement is my hosta box, I love hostas and despite them preferring damp shady spots mine do well here. They only get full sun after 2:30 pm and take lots of looking after which means watering twice a day and a daily ritual of picking snails off the planter to stop the leaves becoming perforated by the greedy molluscs: This year we had only three holes in just two leaves.

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I’ve decided to add some flower beds in the rear garden and have already started to collect seeds in readiness for next year’s display, that I hope will be more dramatic than this year’s has been.

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Sagra

Throughout the summer months, posters adorn Italian walls with the word, ‘sagra’ clearly taking prominent position in the advertising, so what does this word mean?

The literal translation is, festival, but the definition of sagra is a local fair and celebration connected with food and local produce; for example on the 24th and 25th of August this year, the local town of Altino hosted its annual, ‘sagra del peperone dolce’, (festival of the sweet pepper). During the celebration the streets are filled with people dressed in medieval costume and Tables are set out to serve different dishes that must include peppers and chillies within the recipe. The dishes vary, so one stall may have a pot of pasta ribbons coated in a piquant sauce and the next one may have a chilli flavoured cheesecake. Once the eating of pepper infused dishes is over the evening culminates in a musical extravaganza.

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The village of Brecciaio, oddly calls their festa, Non é la sagra, (It’s not the festival) with the tag line, ‘but we eat, we drink and we dance’ and the longest local sagra must be the one hosted by the town of Pennapiedamonte, where their cinghiale (wild boar) festa goes on for 27 days.

Attending a sagra is the perfect way to immerse yourself in Italian country life, add to this the opportunity to sample local cuisine as you sit at long communal tables to eat with the local population and you get a real feel for how Italian’s come together to celebrate.

Finding out about a sagra is very straightforward as most of the posters follow a similar format, the main heading will tell you where the festival is held and the date; these are mostly in bold typeface and large enough to read from a passing vehicle. Once you’ve found one that interests you, the poster will give you the start time, destination and other events that will be staged.

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You don’t have to be a local to attend and most towns welcome outsiders and tourists to their celebrations, the lines of parked cars stretching out of the town will indicate that you have arrived at the right place, and those who arrive early are usually the last to leave due to the sheer volume of traffic attending. In fact some sagre (the plural of sagra) are so popular that the towns have a coach service to ferry people in and out of town to keep the streets clear for dancing.

Sagre take place throughout the year, with most taking place during the summer months. So next time you’re holiday in Italy, keep a keen eye on the local posters and find a local sagra, and for one evening become an honorary Italian and enjoy all the town’s hospitality has to offer.

Adapted from my article written for Italy Magazine, April 2014

Property Restoration Rules

Clients often ask me about the rules regarding property restoration, citing that there’s so much conflicting information in the public domain. Often they’ll turn to people on forums who moved to Abruzzo many years ago and although well-meaning; things change and these people may not have the up to date information.

One important thing to say is that the law changed back in April, (22nd to be exact), meaning it’s no longer necessary to obtain permission as long as the restoration you do to your property has no impact on the environment. For example building extensions or another storey will have an impact on the surroundings and will therefore require permission. 

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Below are the main works as listed in the ‘Infrastructure decree’ which you do not need to seek permission from the comune before undertaking:

Ordinary maintenance works:
• Installing, but also repairing or replacing, railing, security grilles or grates.
• Replacing external and internal flooring,
• Resurfacing internal and external plasterwork,
• Renovating gutters and downpipes.
• Changing doors, windows, stairways
• Installing an air-to-air heat pump, provided that it has a heat output of less than 12 kW. These appliances offer also a “green” alternative for air-conditioning houses as they use renewable energy such as air to heat or cool rooms.
• Installing (but also repairing or upgrading) lifts, but only inside buildings and provided that this doesn’t involve altering supporting structures.

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Works to create a comfortable living space outside your door:
• Installing barbecues, tool sheds, fountains, planters and benches, kennels for dogs and cats.
• Installing gazebos and pergolas within certain size limits and when not permanently fixed to the ground
• Create a garden play area for children
• Installing partition walls in the garden as long as they are not masonry walls

Home renewable energy systems:
• Installing, replacing or renovating solar and photovoltaic panels, wind turbines generators or parts of them

Architectonic barriers:
You can remove architectonic barriers, such as stairways and lifts, if they don’t alter the existing structure of the property.

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The only other advice I’d add is, if you’re unsure then ask. A trip to the comune only takes a short time and could put your mind at rest. Also feel free to copy and print out the above infrastructure decree to take with you just in case the person behind the desk has not been aware of the changes.

Buon lavoro.

Piles, the wooden variety

With daily temperatures in the thirties you’d expect the thought of cold winter nights to be furthest from anyone’s mind. But as the farmer’s around us continue to cut the grass for hay, the local population are preparing for winter by rebuilding their wood piles.

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Branches are being collected and stored beside houses, small pieces of wood are being chopped to make kindling and logs are being collected in readiness for the log store to be built.

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In town as in the countryside logs are being stored under cover in readiness for the forthcoming change in the seasons. Some of the log stores are so well constructed, they’re almost works of art.

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I’d like to say mine in previous years has been as tidy and organised as some of my neighbours, but sadly they’ve always been rather scruffy affairs. So dedicated to the art of log pile stacking are some people, that their wood stores are vast in comparison to their needs.

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Last week my friend Mario was chopping logs in the heat and told me it was time I started my wood collection. “Remember last year,” he says. “Many people ran out because the snow lasted longer than normal.”

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“I won’t be collecting wood this year.” I tell him. His brow furrows, he shakes his head and asks,  “Are you going to be away?”

“No,” I reply and tell him I’m having gas central heating fitted. Once again he shakes his head and his brow furrows before telling me that wood is free, so why would anyone want to pay for gas? I tell him it’s just easier.

“Sei pazzo straniero.” (You crazy foreigner). we laugh and I go to sit in the shade leaving him to his toil.

La Prima Comunione di Giulio

It’s Saturday 5 August 2018 and at 10:45 it’s already 32 degrees and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I’m in San Vito Chietino trying desperately to figure out how the new parking  machine works. Thankfully I’m not the only one as there’s about 30 people trying to work out how to use it. I look at my watch and see I have 15 minutes to get to the church before the first Holy Communion of my friend, Nicoletta’s son takes place. I make my way to another machine and a man explains that now you need to put in your number plate – brilliant, new car and I don’t know it yet. I decide to guess and follow the instructions and when I get back to the car alter the number on the ticket and write, ‘Mi dispiace, sono inglese’. (I’m sorry, I’m English) Having already been towed away previously, I hope this will placate any over enthusiastic parking attendant.

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The church is packed to the rafters with proud parents and so we stand outside and watch as the service takes place. The women in the congregation fan themselves, finding no respite from the heat within the cool walls, while the men step outside to shelter under trees.

The service concluded we head to a nearby agriturismo to begin celebrating with Giulio. The room is laid out with two long tables to accommodate us all and there’s water and wine already waiting for us. We all make our introductions, which take time as this is Italy and everyone wants to say hello, shake your hand and ask how you are; my response remains the same for everyone, ‘Sono bene ma fa caldo’ (I’m well, but it’s hot).

Food

Italian festivities are not known for being brief and at 13:15 we sit down to our first course, a traditional plate of anti pasti; cheeses and salumi. These are followed during the meal:

  • Fried spinach parcels
  • Ham roulade
  • fried mozzerella
  • stuffed courgettes (two ways)
  • Cacio e uova (cheese and egg balls)
  • Bean casserole
  • Wilted chicory
  • Courgette and ham lasagne
  • Chitarra pasta with meat ragu
  • Veal with potatoes
  • Grilled pork
  • Barbecued lamb with salad
  • Fresh fruit with ice cream

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During the dinner which lasted in total 7 hours with short breaks to aid digestion we were entertained by a superb band, who played a mix of traditional Italian songs and pop songs. During the afternoon, Nicoletta would join the band and with Albano and a few others would entertain us with renditions of Italian pop songs. The day was also Nicoletta and her husband’s 12th wedding anniversary, so we wished them well as they had a celebratory dance.

The party almost complete, we go outside for photographs and for Giulio to cut his cake. I don’t normally post photos of myself on my blog, but I will share this image of myself with my work colleagues. Thanks to Rocco Altobelli.

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We ended the day enjoying a slice of Giulio’s cake and a digestivo, my choice was limoncello as the traditional amaro isn’t to my taste.

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We had a superb day and were made to feel very welcome by everyone there; family and friends. It was a special day and we felt very honoured to be a part of it. Hospitality and great parties are something that the Italian’s do very well. Grazie a tutti voi.

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Thank you Giulio for sharing your special day with with us.

It’s all about food

Coming from Stoke on Trent in the UK I’ve discovered something that people from my town of birth have in common with the Italian people.

What can this be?

It’s food.

In Stoke people are always talking about food, you’ll often be asked what you had for breakfast, and even straight after dinner (we Stokies call lunch, dinner) you’ll be asked what you’re going to be having for your tea, (we Stokies call dinner, tea).

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The Italian people are passionate about food, mention that you’re going to the coast for a fish lunch and they’ll ask where will you be eating? What will you be having?  Talk about dinner the night before and they’ll ask how you prepared it and they are happy if you give them a step by step account of your cooking methods and ingredients.

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In Stoke the local delicacy is the oatcake, a soft savoury pancake made from oatmeal that’s served with breakfast ingredients like bacon, eggs, sausages etc. and local people are devoted to them.

In Abruzzo the local delicacy is arrosticini. Mutton skewers, more often than not, cooked out in the open and devoured with gusto with bread simply drizzled with olive oil and the local population love them.

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As summer brings in the warmer weather the one thing people from Italy and the UK have in common is eating outside. Italian’s like nothing better than meat cooked ‘sul braciere’ on the brazier, meaning over charcoal in the same way the Brits love their lamb chops and burgers cooked al fresco on the BBQ.

Maybe we’re not that different after all.

Fare La Scarpetta

While having lunch with friends this week, Steve said, one of the things he likes about Italy is that it’s socially acceptable to dip your bread into your sauce.This reminded me of an article I wrote for Italy Magazine when I wrote for them. So I’ll share it with you all, and some images of bell’abruzzo.

Fare la scarpetta is a phrase in the Italian language that’s close to the heart of everyone who has enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta with sauce. Meaning “make the little shoe,” it refers to the small piece of bread used to mop up the last of the sauce on your plate.

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This end to a meal ritual is vastly popular all over Italy; however, where it originates is still open to debate. There’s one theory that the practice began in Venice, though bread wasn’t usually served with pasta in northern Italy, whereas it was in the south of the country, therefore it is implausible to assume it originated there.

In his book about medieval eating habits, Fabrizio Vanni proposes that the act took place following the introduction of tomatoes to the Italian diet back in the late 16th century. Before this time sauces tended to be thicker and more robust; with the introduction of the tomato, sauces became lighter and therefore required mopping up. Another suggestion regarding the origin of la scarpetta is that back in a time when wasting food was frowned upon, the bread merely became a tool to be used much like cutlery.

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A Calabrese friend of mine who tells me the phrase has its origins in Southern dialect prefers to have a more romantic notion regarding la scarpetta. He is convinced it stems from the heart of cucina povera (poor cuisine), from a time when people were literally so hungry they’d have eaten the soles of their shoes. He says when you are unsure when you’ll eat next, it made sense to mop up every last drop of sauce.

As with many Italian expressions, the reasoning behind the phrase is visual: during the practice of sweeping the bread across the plate the finger becomes the leg that pushes the bread which becomes the shoe. It’s not only an essential part of an Italian meal, but it is seen as a way to extend the pleasure of the repast.

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This said there is a time when making the little shoe is frowned upon and Giovanni Della Casa explained it in Il Galateo, his guide to the rules of polite behaviour and etiquette: it is acceptable to engage in the practice during an informal meal, however, in a formal setting and in public, when making the little shoe you must use a fork and not your finger to move it across the plate.

Flavoursome Fuel

Cucina povera is an Italian phrase meaning the cuisine of the poor, or peasant cooking; the literal translation is, poor kitchen. The reason I mention this is because a few nights ago I was watching TV and I heard a chef say, food is fuel. I thought this was an odd thing for a professional to say, as most chefs want us to believe they are creating gastronomic masterpieces rather than just filling us up with the culinary equivalent to diesel.

The concept of cucina povera is becoming trendy with many chefs now serving up platters of rustic food. However ask any aged Italian about it and they’ll shrug at the concept, saying it’s a romantic notion to give the humble cooking they grew up with out of necessity a fancy name.

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You could say that peasant food could be classed as fuel, as traditionally it was served up solely to stave off hunger and to nourish the peasant farmers. The concept is to create meals from what you have, be it from the garden or the store cupboard. One of the staples of poor food is polenta and if made well it can be as comforting as a bowl of creamy mashed potato. So last night I grabbed a few items from the store cupboard and made a simple but satisfying supper.

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Polenta is cheap but commercially produced brands can be gritty, so I prefer to use a local brand that’s extra fine and results in a soft texture. I rehydrated some porcini mushrooms, made a tomato and sausage sauce and after cooking the polenta in home made chicken stock, I served it up and sat in front to the log burner enjoying a satisfying supper.

Luscious Lunch

My Gorgonzola and Mushroom Soup.

When the weather refuses to warm up and there’s more dampness around than that from a slavering dog at a banquet, what better way is there to face the day than, light the log burner, close the doors and make something warm and nourishing for lunch. Today while the valley was obscured by fog and the ground underfoot resembled a sponge I decided to make my Gorgonzola and mushroom soup for lunch, and thought I’d share the recipe with you all.

Many people seem wary of making mushroom soup for fear of it becoming a slimy tasteless mess. But there’s no need to be with this recipe, it’s so easy a complete kitchen novice could make it. The ingredients are:

35 g Unsalted butter. 250 g mushrooms. 50 g Gorgonzola. 400 ml stock. 1 medium white onion.     2 garlic cloves. 1tsp salt. 2tbs paprika. 3tbs flour. Sprig of fresh thyme. A splash of both lemon juice and whole milk.

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Chop the onion; not too fine this is a rustic hearty soup. Peel and chop the garlic and then set aside. Melt the butter over a medium heat and sweat off the onions for 5 minutes, adding the salt to them (this helps them to release their moisture and prevents early browning). after 5 minutes add the garlic and continue to sweat for a further 2 minutes before adding the mushrooms. Stir the mixture into the butter and then add the paprika. The mix may seem dry at this point but don’t worry, as after the mushrooms take on the colour of the paprika add a good splash of lemon juice. (Shop bought from a plastic lemon is fine for this recipe.)

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Stir for a minute or two then add a sprig of fresh thyme and the stock. (Vegetable stock is good, but I tend to use homemade chicken stock as I always have some in the freezer made up from the carcass of a roasted bird.) Simmer for 5 or 6 minutes and then add a splash of whole or semi-skimmed milk*.

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* For a splash I added around 3tbs of milk. You can use cream but there’s no need to as the cheese will make the soup creamy.

Crumble in the Gorgonzola and remove from the heat for a few minutes and let it slowly melt into the soup, when you’re ready to serve place back on the heat and stir for a couple of minutes and serve instantly in warmed bowls. Today I served it with small panini all’olio and prosciutto. (Soft bread rolls with ham).

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And we followed it with home made hazelnut and almond salted butterscotch tart and ice cream. Delicious.

Boun appetito a tutti…

January Generosity

The embers of 2017 have now faded into ash and we’re welcoming 2018 into our hearts. The comparison between last year in Abruzzo and this year is the skies are a cobalt blue and the sun is doing its best to warm the earth. In 2017 we had the worst snowfall for many years, so this warm weather is very welcome. The days however may be warm but as soon as the sun goes down the cloudless skies mean the temperature drops and it’s time to light the log burner and snuggle down for the evening. It’s the need for wood to burn that’s prompted this blog post.

Were just a handful of days into the new year and so far I’ve experienced several acts of generosity. On Thursday morning I was just finishing my breakfast when there was a knock at the door, reluctantly I left my eggs and bacon and shuffled to open it. The door opened to the smiling face of my neighbour Mario who was clutching a bottle of fresh, cloudy olive oil. “Come va?” was his cheerful opening to the English man stood before him still dressed in night attire. I told him I was well and he thrust the bottle towards me telling me it was from the November harvest and a gift for me for my help and my friendship.

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He tells me it’s an exceptional taste this year. Later I decant it into dark coloured glass bottles to preserve its flavour. Sampled simply upon bread the flavour is fruity and fresh and reminiscent of the previous summer.

Saturday, I’m coming home from a trip to the shop when another neighbour, Franco stops me. He’s cutting a tree down that has been made unsafe by the recent winds that took half of the tiles off my roof: that’s a post I forgot to write. “Nice day today,” he says as the chainsaw buzzes away at the tree’s trunk. “You have a wood burner?” he asks, I respond saying yes and he tells me to help myself to as much of the kindling that I want. We open the back of the car and promptly load it up with around a months supply that’ll save us using our store. I thank him and wish him happy new year and drive away as he continues on with his labour.

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The still Sunday air is punctuated by the mechanical chugging of an ancient tractor and another neighbour comes into view over the brow of the hill. “Hello English,” he calls to me, his usual greeting. He’s as ancient as his machinery and has a moustache you could hide kittens in; we’ve never exchanged names, our conversations are mostly, hello, nice day and a wave of the hand. Behind his tractor is a trailer laden with olive branches that have been stripped of their leaves. “Buon lavoro,” I say indicating towards his load with a nod of the head. “Grazie,” is his reply, good for burning, he says indicating to his olive wood with a nod of his head. I tell him that I agree and he says, take some. He pulls the tractor over and jumps down and grabbing a handful he starts to load my arms up, saying he’s more than he’ll need this year. With arms straining under the weight, I say thank you as he climbs aboard his mechanical steed, he bids me buon anno and disappears down the lane.

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I spend the remainder of the morning cutting the olive wood into lengths that fit the burner and wonder at the generosity of my neighbours.