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.

Church

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.

Keeping it Local

One thing people often ask about coming to live here is, “Is it easy to fit in?” There’s no definitive answer to that question as I guess quite a lot depends upon how much you want to fit in, and also how much of an effort you’re prepared to make. I can say, don’t expect to assimilate in a matter of months. Becoming a part of any community takes give and take and what you need to remember is you’re trying to become part of an established population, so it’s mostly giving rather than taking.

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A lot of people who move here are retiring to enjoy the slower pace of life. One thing that we are lucky to have here is that the majority of Italians are welcoming of foreigners. They appreciate their buying of houses they’ll never be able to sell and understand that by coming here the local economy benefits.

One piece of advice I always give people is to use the small independent shops as often as you can, rather than the larger impersonal supermarkets. Yes the produce may be a few cents more expensive but the service you get is priceless. For example, we have a very good local independent supermarket just a 10 minute drive away. The gardens are always welcoming and well kept; even the mini roundabout in the car park is in full bloom continuously.

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People often say it’s more expensive, but here you find branded products rather than supermarket own brands and if like me you prefer your cooked meat to be freshly sliced rather than sat in a plastic packet, then here you’re in luck. My friend; yes she’s become that over the years of shopping there; will cut as many slices of good quality prosciutto cotto or spicy ventricina that you want. The weather is commented upon, we talk about work, we laugh and she’s always on hand to give advice on which product is the best: After years of eating mass produced supermarket polenta she pointed me in the right direction of a superb local brand.

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Here there’s more pasta than you ever imagined and all the top brands, wines and spirits and canned goods. Just by walking through the door you can purchase storage jars and soap powder through to shoe polish and spices. The staff are always happy to see you and everyone is greeted personally. But importantly it’s the customers that can help you in your quest to fit in with the local population.

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The independent shops do not have the same opening hours the supermarkets have, they’re mostly open until lunchtime then close for lunch and re-open in the early evening for a few more hours. Just getting into this rhythm is a step toward assimilation, as you meet your neighbours and it’s a chance to pass the time of day and often be told just how to cook that piece of meat you’ve chosen.

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And of course, with each visit you’re contributing to the local economy, you’re treated with respect and often get discounts or gifts for your continued custom, not to mention superb locally sourced produce. I know all the staff in my nearest independent store and always prefer to shop there, because it’s good to keep it local.

The Freezer Lottery

I’m normally very organised, I have a ‘to do’ do list. I keep a pencil and notebook close at all times and my music collection is stored in chronological order and cross referenced by genre. So you’d expect my freezer to be the same. Sadly no. 

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I’m always saying waste nothing, use everything and freeze for later, but do I mark what I’m storing for ease of recognition at a later date – not always. I did have a period where I used stickers, however today I went to retrieve something and noticed that all the stickers have either fallen off or the writing has disappeared.

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So now it’s a bit of a freezer lottery in our house, it’s a case of guess what’s in the pot or the bag and hope for the best.

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I can guess that if it’s in the top compartment that it’ll be stock, however guessing if it’s chicken, rabbit or goat will be the challenge.

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There are some things that don’t look remotely recognisable, and some that are easily identified, for example the sixty five, one litre bags of homemade passata. However working out if the orange bags contain roasted butternut squash or apricot puree will be interesting if I tip a bag into a stew on the hob.

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It’s not all bad though as one bag of apricot puree still has its sticker intact; so at least the cheesecake I’m planning to make will have a fruit rather than veg based topping.

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Now added to my list of things to do is a note reminding me to purchase a freezer pen for marking all future deposits.

Summer Season

Twelve weeks have slipped by since I last added to this blog and I apologise for neglecting it. I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been too busy with work, however that’d only be a half truth as I’ve also been busy eating out and enjoying the summer.

It’s eating out during the tourist season that I’m writing about today. Out of season the restaurants are very happy for the local population to patronise their establishments and are often more attentive. However as soon as the tourists arrive the attitude as well as the food changes.

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I was having a conversation with a friend about this a month or so back after we had visited a restaurant we’d visited many times before and had a terrible experience. The season was winding down and when we entered the almost empty dining room we noticed that parts of the bar were already being packed away, meaning the small eatery will probably close over the autumn and winter months. Fair enough, if there’s not the custom to make it worthwhile opening then it makes sense, but surely if they remain open to diners they can pack up later. The waitress (eventually) strolled over to take our order and everything we asked for off their menu was no longer available. Sorry no pizza, sorry no fries, sorry no vongole, sorry no white wine, sorry red wine either only rosé. We all decided that as there was nothing available that we wanted we’d leave. The final insult after many weeks of eating there was to hear the waitress moan to the owner about us being miserable English tourists. Suffice to say, despite your usually friendly staff and great food, we’ll not be back again.

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One thing we as stranieri, ex-pats, immigrants, or however we label ourselves have noticed is that when the area is full of tourists the food quality in some not all establishments drops from excellent to average and portion sizes shrink faster than a slimmer at Weightwatchers. Service becomes rushed and the waiters that out of season are pleased to see you become less attentive; I put that down to increased trade, but regular patrons and locals do seem to get a rum deal when the tourists are in town.

I’m sure this isn’t indicative of just our area, I’m sure it must go on all over the world where bars and restaurants cater to tourists – it’s just a shame that it can make you reconsider where you’ll be spending your euro the following summer.

Discover Nature’s Magic

We’re lucky here in Abruzzo, there’s always something to keep us occupied; treks into the national parks, a visit to one of the many places of historical interest or simply quiet contemplation beside the sea. This region of Italy is so diverse, making it a great place to immerse yourself and take time out to visit more than your average tourist haunt. Despite not being a tourist I still enjoy a day trip out and at the end of last month we found a unique gem of a place, a perfect place for families with children and anyone who has an interest in living as naturally as possible.

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The place we discovered is situated in the L’Aquila region and is called, Fattoria Valle Magica (Magic Valley Farm). The farm may sit in a valley with awe-inspiring views of the rugged wilderness surrounding it, but what is more inspiring is the concept and ethos of the farm which is the brainchild of Ralph and Ninke.

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Our visit started with a warm welcome from Ralph and his family before he began to explain the vision for the farm. He explained that fed up with the stress of modern living and checking labels to see what his 4 children were eating, the family purchased the house and land and in the spring of 2015 began transforming a wild and neglected terrain into a place where they could raise rare breeds organically and live as naturally as possible.

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While we looked at the sheep and goats Ralph explained that the farm focuses on breeding and conserving rare and traditional Italian breeds that are no longer used in modern commercial farming. Using organic sensibilities these breeds may take longer to mature but the emphasis swings closer to the welfare of the animal rather than the profit margins. A quick call summoned a deluge of happy pigs that ran towards us from where they’d been foraging and we could see for ourselves how the group enjoyed living life as nature intended.

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We took a tour of the farm seeing the immense amount of work that had gone on to fence areas to protect the livestock from the local wolves: Ralph dug and sited around 700 fence posts by hand. We met the chickens, rabbits, turkeys and his collection of hives before heading back to the BBQ area for a glass of wine and to sample some home reared lonza (cured pork loin).

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The farm has plans to open an education centre and to welcome people for visits where they can purchase produce to take home or to cook al fresco in the BBQ area. We enjoyed our visit very much and found it both educational and thought provoking.

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If you’re visiting Abruzzo and looking for something different then I recommend you give Magic Valley Farm a visit, who knows you may even be lucky to help out with feeding the contented animals that reside there. The address for visits is, Località Ponte Amaro, 67020 Carapelle Calvisio AQ, Italy. But please note as this is a working farm and all bookings must be made in advance, to make a booking or for more information click this Website link

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Our day came to a close with us purchasing the produce we had originally ordered and we left Ralph to settle in his newly arrived native Abruzzese black pigs.

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As a postscript I can confirm that the quality of the produce we purchased surpassed anything we have previously bought from supermarkets and commercially farmed butchers.

North to South Sauce

I was thinking about polenta the other day, it’s something I hated until I had it made by an Italian. My first moment of having a good dish was during a Christmas lunch at a local hotel in Fara San Martino. It tasted comforting and rustic, perfect for a chilly December day. I’ve since had it many times in restaurants, but rarely cook it at home. I did once try making it with porcini mushrooms, using the water they’d been rehydrated in. It looked like brown sludge and was consigned to the bin.

In the north of Italy polenta is served with many things but the most famous dish is polenta and sausages, served on vast wooden boards, where the diners all share the meal. I was thinking about having a go at making this when I remembered a friend of mine from Calabria loves sausages. Like all Calabrese they have to be hot spicy ones. So the cogs within my mind began to turn, synapses and neurotransmitters did whatever they’re supposed to do and an idea formed. What if I made a fusion of northern and southern Italian food?

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First I would need something to serve with the polenta so I started to devise a sauce taking in traits from the north. I wanted a homage to Bologna, so a typical Bolognese made like they do up north with good beef mince would be the base, and just like a true Bolognese there’d be no tinned tomatoes or passata, and it has be finished properly with a dash of cream. Now I needed the Calabrese element, so in came the sausages and some sweet fresh Datterini tomatoes and for the heat, chilli and some spicy salami.

So with my idea fully formed I needed to find a victim friend to test it upon, so I called Susie who writes the Abruzzo Dreaming blog and invited her to lunch.

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For my north and south sauce you’ll need:

1 carrot, 1 medium onion and a stick of celery to make the soffritto (I used 200g of frozen pre-packed soffritto from the local supermarket). 1 large red chilli. 12 datterini tomatoes cut into quarters (cherry will do if you can’t get these). 200 ml beef stock (again out of my freezer). 3 garlic cloves. 100g beef mince 100g pork sausage meat 3 slices salami picante (Ventricina is good and is becoming popular in the UK). 2 tablespoons of cream. Couple of sprigs of fresh thyme and salt and pepper to season.

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To start add a little olive oil (not extra virgin) to a pan and add a knob of unsalted butter. Add the garlic cloves whole but slightly crushed as we just want their aroma. Fry the soffritto, tomatoes and chilli and cook until the mixture is soft, then add a splash of Italian bitters, like aperol or bitterol, if you can’t get this, use Campari or a strong red wine. Let the alcohol diffuse then put the mixture to one side.

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To the still hot pan add the sausage meat, mince and spicy salami cut into thin strips and fry without any extra oil, keep making sure you get those caramelised bits from the bottom of the pan incorporated into the mixture.

Season with salt and pepper and then remove the garlic cloves from the cooled soffritto mix, add to this a tablespoon of tomato puree and add to the cooked meat. Stir well and then add the beef stock and bring to the boil. Once boiling turn down the heat and let it simmer for 35 minutes as the liquid reduces.

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During the last five minutes finish with the thyme, which is a nod towards the herby northern cuisine and stir through the cream.

Make polenta as normal using either a vegetable or a beef stock and serve in bowls and tuck in. This recipe could easily feed four people so half was packed away into a plastic carton and stowed away in my trusty freezer for another day when I’m feeling like uniting the north with the south once again.

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It was lovely, and I made a watermelon raita just in case it was too spicy, but the balance was good, so Susie was given the raita to take home.