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.

The Cost of Keeping Warm

Welcome to my first blog post of 2016. I had a couple of people message me to say that I hadn’t mentioned what music was shuffling on the iPod in my last few posts; one of whom was my stalker (I say in the nicest possible way) in New York – Those who’ve been following A Life on Shuffle for a while will probably remember him?) So to kick off,  il primo post di quest’anno, the first song playing, appropriately is an Italian one called, Piove by Giusy Ferreri.

Most people ask me what the comparison is between utilities in the UK and Italy and obviously I can only comment on my own experience. Electricity is on a par with England, however mains gas here is a little more expensive. We have no mains gas in our lane so last winter we used a portable gas heater and kept a record of the costs which during the coldest months totalled €365.00 (£268.50) which we think wasn’t bad considering we had a couple of weeks of deep snow.

Wood BurnerThis year we installed a wood burner, it’s a 9 kw that is capable of heating 190 m3 and so far we’ve been really happy with it.

We at first we assumed we’d have to buy a pallet of ready chopped wood, but then we thought about how the locals here sort out their winter fuel and we decided to do it the same way if we could.

At first I cut down some overgrown branches from our fig tree and left them over the summer to dry out.

We then had a friend who had 2 very small olive’s that he wanted to cut down and said if we cut them down we could have the wood, so that was the start of our wood pile for 2015. Then another friend had a rather unruly olive and we were allowed to cut down this one too.

There’s always lots of kindling around so there’s no need to store it as a 5 minute walk down the lane can supply this, however we had lots of off cuts of pine from the restoration and this was then chopped and added to our store.

A trip to the beach is finished off with a walk into the woods to collect a box of pine cones: Brilliant for resurrecting embers should you neglect the fire. Pine Cones


The olive harvest came and Mario asked us if we wanted his pruned branches for our fire. They are a little bit labour intensive as you have to strip them, but the larger pieces make great logs and the smaller branches are very good; as olive burns very well and doesn’t need to be left to season for a year. We very soon had several wheelbarrows full of extra wood.


Finally, we often take a trip to the coast as it’s only 15 minutes away, and we’ve now become seasoned driftwood scavengers, with each trip bringing us two large bags full of wood.


So when you look at it, the cost this year is minimal, a small amount in petrol (which we’d have used anyway going to walk on the beach) and a few cents on fire-lighters.

So we’re happy that the cost of keeping warm this year is considerably cheaper than buying gas bottles.

Stay warm folks and see you next time.

Earth Wind and Fire

Monday: I’ve been working on getting my orto (vegetable garden) sorted out, following the lands many years as a wilderness. With the eventual sorting out by, Seppe of the carnage that the previous builder and his digger driving friend Toto left behind I now have a fenced off little patch to grow my veggies in. It’s about an fifth of the size of my old allotment back in the UK, but as I wont need to have greenhouses in Italy, I’m sure I can cope with less space. That said I will have a much longer growing season, and also have to adapt to what will and will not grow over here.

I have a small portion of wall dividing my orto from the land owned by my neighbour, so my first job has been to set up a walled-bed and a path, in this bed I shall start they year off with my broad (fava) beans and they’re already getting off to a good start; three sowings have taken place, five weeks apart for, hopefully  a nice amount of beans during the harvesting season. Also beans add a good deal of nitrogen to the soil so they’ll be helping to condition the earth for the following year.



I planted a dozen garlic around the raised salad bed I built a few weeks ago and they’ve now pushed through and are growing well, taking advantage of the early sun we’ve been having.  My orto is south-west facing and after the sunrise gets the early morning sunshine and as that golden orb moves across the sky it gets the heat in the afternoon but none of the direct  sunlight, which will be ideal for water conservation and tomatoes and chillies that can split in direct sunlight.


Tuesday: I had meant to go and cut some canes from the bamboo that’s growing down from the orto today, but I think mother nature is having ‘that, time of the month. The month being February. The wind is whipping the bamboo and the dry canes sound like witchdoctors rattling bones as they curse the elements. February is a windy month here, some say its the sirocco; which I know they get across the Po plains up north. I’m not sure we get it so far down here, but as I don’t know I couldn’t say for sure. What I can say is they’re jolly blustery and I fear for the roof tiles. I’ve just spent an half hour collecting plant pots, dog toys and various other items that have been picked up by the wind and deposited elsewhere.

Wednesday: Today the wind has dropped, so as Time Bomb by Jamie Tracy plays on the iPod, I start to build a fire on the land at the side of the house. I love a good fire, as my friends on Facebook can verify as there’s always a photo of me with some bonfire throughout the year. My neighbour Domenico has pruned the two olive trees he owns next to my house and has stacked the trimmings neatly. I asked if he wanted them and he said no, so I thought I’d tidy up and burn them. Now I have never burned olive before, but as others around are burning their pruned branches I know the green wood burns… Oh boy does it burn, it goes up like someone has thrown petrol onto the flames. What is normally a gentle campfire becomes an inferno with the addition of olive wood. The smoke is noxious. black, choking stuff which surprises me, you’d expect it to smell nice like pine does when it burns. I guess the tree’s natural oils must be like throwing cooking oil onto a fire.


O.H. hands me a glass of fizz and the iPod shuffles and Toni Basil starts to sing, Time After Time as the latest addition of wood crackles, and sparks dance like malevolent imps in the evening air.

Bread and Wood Burning

It would be fair to say that today my senses have had an olfactory workout. First the kitchen is enveloped in the delicious smell of fresh baked bread, my olive and pepper loaf sits on a cooling rack as, Never Can Sat Goodbye  by Gloria Gaynor plays on the iPod.  I transferred the song from my sister’s original 7” vinyl single onto my hard-drive and formatted it for my Apple device many years ago. To be honest I always preferred the b-side of this classic, We Just Can’t Make It.

Compared to commercially made bread, I love homemade. There’s sense of satisfaction when you throw together a handful of ingredients and out comes something so delicious. I say, throw, as when I’ve finished making bread the kitchen is a mess and looks like a mad baker has had a fit during the kneading process. I’ve had no training in the kitchen, but my paternal grandfather was a baker, so maybe there’s a bit of flour in my genes. This past two-weeks I’ve produced a rosemary focaccia, a fennel and garlic ciabatta and a couple of crusty white loaves, so am feeling like I’m becoming a little more like a traditional Italian peasant farmer. I was chatting to my friend in the local independent supermarket a few days ago and commented that they don’t sell bread. “We sell flour and yeast, why should we sell bread?” was her reply. “Every Italian mother knows how to make bread, why waste money buying a loaf when it only costs cents to make it at home?” I agree with her, as for the cost of one loaf you can buy the ingredients to make three or four.


Later in the evening we decide it’s time we tested the wood burner. We purchased it two-years ago from a friend in Cellino Attanasio, and the cast iron burner took us nearly three hours to transport back as it weighed down my old Berlingo as we criss-crossed mountain tracks. The fire was laid and tentatively the paper was lit, I opened the windows expecting the room to be filled with smoke, but none came, it travelled up the chimney, as it was intended to do. The windows are closed and our living room is bathed in a red glow, twenty-minutes later the windows are opened again to let in some cool air, the room is stifling. Not having a handbook or instructions and being wood-burner virgins, we fiddle with vents and dampers and soon the heat is brought under control and a log glows seductively behind the glass-windowed door. Or fiddling has let the aroma of burning wood float into the air and it assaults the senses.

There are some smells that give pleasure more than others, and everyone has their favourites, be it freshly ground coffee or tarmac. It might be vanilla or even wet dog. But for me it has to be fresh bread or wood smoke, so today’s olfactory perception has been pleasurable on two counts. I just love days like this.