Plans And Plants

I love this time of year, there’s so much to look forward to, sunshine, days at the beach and a riot of colour in the garden. Being in Italy means I can start off my seed sowing earlier than if I was in the UK, but first I like to be organised and have a plan: some would say it’s OCD, but whatever, it works for me.

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The best time is when I have sorted the seeds and decided what I’ll be growing and at the end of January out of storage comes the electric propagator. Seeds trays are washed and disinfected and two trays of compost are popped in to warm overnight.

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Not everything works here in Italy though, some plants just don’t thrive in the summer heat, but it’s fun trying different ones. Despite being native to Sicily, Sweet Peas have failed every year for me and this year is my last attempt, so I started them off in November so they’ll be bigger and stronger when they go outside: I have some outside already in a pot which I can bring in if we get a forecast of snow.

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Space is limited in the propagator and with marble windowsills that can be too cold for seeds once they’ve been removed. I had to come up with a way to keep the seeds insulated. So I started to save polystyrene food trays and I drop the young seedling into these to keep them warmer. I’ve found it works really well and promotes good root growth.

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I also enjoy the preparation that seed sowing and gardening brings, above is one of my sunflower trays. I scrounged the polystyrene trays from the local butcher and the growing pods are toilet rolls cut in half. This system keeps the roots contained and can be planted direct into the ground once the plants are large enough. It helps when you’re planning on sowing 70+ sunflowers.

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Finally, the joy of pricking out. Above is a tray of 15 Coreopsis, I only want six plants for the garden so this means there’ll be nine left over to donate to friends. I’ll no doubt during the summer be sharing photographs of the garden with my readers here. Until then, happy gardening everyone.

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Power Of Attorney Explained

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So you’ve decided to go ahead and buy a holiday home in Italy but it’s not possible for you get over to sign the contracts at the final act. What can you do?

Set up a power of Attorney to give another person the chance to close the deal for you. Sounds simple and I’m often asked how this is achieved. So here’s a post to answer questions about using a PoA to buy or sell a property in Italy.

What is a power of attorney?
A Power of Attorney is a written permission given by you ‘the donor’ to a third party known as ‘the attorney’ which legally authorises the attorney to carry out certain acts on your behalf.
Most people grant the Power of Attorney to their legal representative, but it need not be a lawyer, you can give the power to a friend, your agent or a relative; the only stipulation in Italy is that the person acting upon your behalf must be an Italian resident.

Is it risky?
As you are essentially giving someone the legal right to act on your behalf it does involve an element of risk. It is vital that whoever you instruct to act upon your behalf is reliable and reputable as you are ultimately responsible for all acts that your attorney does on your behalf  as if you had done these yourself, (provided they are within the scope of the Power of Attorney). In the case of signing the documents for your property purchase the risk is low as you are in effect only giving them the power to sign the final act in your absence and nothing more.

How do you arrange a Power of Attorney?
You can set this up after your viewing trip before you leave Italy. Your overseas lawyer will prepare a bilingual Power of Attorney document, this must then be signed by you in the presence of a notary here in Italy.

If the power is signed in the UK it will need to be signed in the presence of an appropriate notary. A quick call to the Italian consulate should tell you where the nearest notary is to you. (Remember to take your passport and other documents of identification). After the document has been signed in the UK you’ll need it to be legalised with a Hague Convention Apostille by the Legalisation Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in order to be valid for use in Italy.

How much does it cost?
English notary charges are between £100 and £150 per document, but do check the fees in advance and shop around you may get a better price from another notary. The fee for the apostille is currently £30 per document if paid for online and slightly more if paid by another method.

Pallotte Cace E Ove

Pallotte cace e ove sometimes called pallotte cacio e uova are an Abruzzese traditional food coming from leaner times, now referred to as, cucina povera. I’ve eaten these many times at many different places but until today I never tried to make my own. So with the rain making the day a dull one what can be better than something warm and comforting.

For this recipe which makes 16 good sized pallotte (balls) the ingredients are:

4 eggs. 100g parmesan cheese. 250g pecorino cheese.* 2 slices of bread. 1 teaspoon of garlic powder, salt, pepper and a small bunch of parsley.

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The bread should be at least 2 or 3 days old, soak it in a little water for a few seconds and squeeze it dry and crumble it into the eggs, add the cheese, chopped parsley, garlic powder (or a fresh clove finely chopped), season with a little salt and pepper and mix together. It’s best to do this with your hands, if the mixture feels too crumbly add some more bread. Once well mixed portion out into 16 evenly sized balls.

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You can then choose to shallow fry or deep fry, I chose to deep fry in batches of 4 until golden coloured, this takes about 5 minutes each batch. You don’t need to cook them all the way through as they will be cooked again in the tomato sauce. Take care as they will stick so you need to keep them moving in the oil. I chose soya oil as this has virtually no flavour.

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These cheese and egg balls are very filling so I’d recommend three per person as a starter, so you can freeze any extra to use at a later date. Now it’s time to think about the sauce, I make my own passata and you’ll find the method here: Sauce for the Year If you’re not inclined to make your own tomato sauce then a good quality shop bought one will suffice.

For our lunch today I put 600 ml of sauce into a saucepan, added 2 whole garlic cloves, salt, pepper and a sprinkle of dried oregano and finally a teaspoon of English mustard. I brought the sauce to the boil then turned down the heat to let it simmer for 10 minutes: You’ll see it start to thicken. Add to this the pallotte cace e ove and let them cook in the sauce for a further 10 ti 15 minutes until the balls are cooked in the middle.

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Serve and enjoy. * Any sheep or hard cheese will do, don’t stress about not being able to find an Abruzzese pecorino, after all this is cucina povera so any leftover cheese will suffice even a mature cheddar. Remember it’s all about the flavour, maybe I’ll try making them with a blue cheese next.

Pollo Cacciatore (Hunter’s Chicken)

November in Abruzzo can be confusing weather-wise. For example during the day it can be warm enough to eat outside: Three days ago the temperature was 20 degrees and I sat outside eating lobster at lunchtime. However when the evening comes the temperature drops and with no cloud cover it can be quite cold, so lunch is often light fare with evening dinner being warming dishes.

Yesterday my OH said “You’ve not made pollo cacciatore for a while, so I decided that, that would be this evening’s dinner. Now every Italian nonna has her version of this popular dish, and looking online many recipes vary with there being no definitive one. So I thought I’d share mine.

Ingredients: 6 chicken thighs, 200 ml stock, 2 onions, 4 garlic cloves, 25 g anchovies, 750 ml passata* 50g of sofritto** 150g pitted green olives 40 cl red wine and seasoning.

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First add the wine to a dish and add to this 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp garlic salt, 1 tsp black pepper and a sprig of rosemary. Add the chicken to the marinade and leave in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Next chop the onions and sauté in olive oil, add a pinch of salt to draw out the moisture; I find the salt stops the onions browning too quickly. When translucent add the garlic and sofritto and fry for a couple of minutes then add the stock. I use chicken stock, but a vegetable one is good. Add to this the passata and a good pinch of herbs of your choice; I add fresh rosemary from the lane and dried oregano. Bring to the boil them simmer for 10 minutes then set aside to cool.

After 2 of 3 hours remove the chicken from the marinade and dry it off and coat in flour. Add a splash of olive oil to a pan and fry the anchovies until they break up: these add natural saltiness but no fish flavour. Fry your chicken for a few minutes on both sides to seal it and add to the pot of cacciatore sauce. Add the remaining wine and the olives and reheat on the hob to start reducing the liquid. Let it simmer until you see one defined line of sauce on the edge of the dish. You can then set it aside until you’re ready to finish the cooking.

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It seems quite labour intensive, but as they say, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. The pot is finally put in the oven at 180 degrees (fan) for 45 minutes, remove the lid for the last 15 minutes of cooking and serve with vegetables of your choice. Tonight we’re having it with polenta to create that ultimate comfort food.

* I use my own home made passata but shop bought is okay.

** Sofritto in Italy is finely chopped onion, celery and carrot, I buy it frozen.

Olive Hiatus

It’s 07:00 on Sunday morning and I’m woken by the sound of tractors in the lane, raised voices in the olive groves and the hiss of portable generators. The olive harvest has started.

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Last year was a very good year with the bars filled with local farmers boasting about their yield and the excellent quality. Sadly it’s very different this year as many are telling me the amount of olives on the trees is low. With so few to collect every fruit is precious, I look from my kitchen window and Nicola is double-checking there’s no gaps in the nets laid beneath his tree before the olives are raked from its branches.

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Sunday is a good day to harvest, it’s warm and dry and the family continue on with their toil until mid-afternoon. Monday arrives and with it rain. Not gentle rain but heavy, leaden drops and it continues all day and into the night.

Tuesday we are welcomed to sunshine again, however the rain has forced many of the olives from their branches and the lane is strewn with them, they lie on the tarmac, many with their precious oil crushed from them by passing vehicles. Nicola tells we need two or three days of good weather as the ground needs to dry out before he can continue to harvest his crop. With so few to pick he’s hoping we don’t have any more rainy days until his olives are safely at the frantoio..

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Gli Abruzzese Non…

Living in another country will always mean your diet changes and that there’s some food from your country of origin that you’ll miss. Most of us have that certain something that we wish we could readily buy, but mostly we adapt and just get on with it. My two must haves are black pudding which I have posted to me vac-packed and it’s quickly opened, cut up and frozen and HP sauce: I get through a bottle a month. I can buy it here but it’s pricey at  €4.99 a bottle. I consider myself lucky that friends often bring me a couple of bottles when they fly over. This week Richard and Annie dropped by to deliver me 3 bottles, which are very much appreciated.

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It’s not just certain products that are lacking but the cuts of meat here in Italy are different to the British ones and it took a long time to get used to what I was buying and for which purpose. But there’s one thing you cannot get here and that’s kidneys. I’ve always liked a bit of offal. I was that weird kid in school that liked liver, I’m quite partial to a braised beef heart, sweetbreads are a treat, but my favourite has always been kidney – in a steak and kidney pie it was my preference to have a 60/40 mix in favour of the kidney.

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So yesterday while at the macelleria (butcher’s shop) I decided as I’ve never seen them available I’d ask for some. The look of shock on his face was priceless, this was followed by head shaking and a sharp intake of breath before he responded with, “The Abruzzese don’t eat kidneys, we leave that to the dirty Romans.”

Next week I’ll try to get a duck and see what his response will be.

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.

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.