Gardening 101 – new student

Twelve months in my Abruzzese palace and we are ringing up the changes, both to the house and to life. The local comune has granted me residency, and I just had a visit confirming I live here permanently by the sweetest policeman. I feel more relaxed than I’ve done in years, and am now enjoying myself, now Italy feels more like home.

I’ve also passed my probation period with the female neighbours, who have realised that I’m not a fly by night tourist, and are starting to come up to the house and introduce themselves. Once She Who Must Be Obeyed gives me the OK, it’s deemed safe for the hubby to drop in with gifts of crisp fava beans and other freshly picked goodies. I’m still a straniere (foreigner) but I’m now their straniere, to be looked after and protected.

I’m still struggling with the language, but what I do understand is (and it’s the first question I’m always asked): “Do I have a husband?”, followed by slight looks of concern when I say no, it’s just me and the two cats.  Oh Mio Dio, am I one of those dangerous cougars they have seen on TV, here solely to steal their husbands away? Well, relax ladies, have no fear on that score. Firstly, because that’s not my style; secondly, I’m not so much a sleek cougar, more a very overfed, lazy tabby cat of dubious heritage; and thirdly, because I really don’t fancy spending my twilight years being tied to the kitchen sink, making meals and cleaning up after your pasta baby tummy menfolk all day long! I don’t even clean up after myself most of the time.

However, the palazzo is currently looking very spic and span, thanks to a recent guest who took it upon herself to scrub floors and ovens. I love guests like that! The endless dust from the rewiring a few months ago has finally gone, and the kitchen is finished, just a few last little bits to sort out.

Outside is still a tip work in progress, but this morning I planted my first Italian orto (garden) in pots. Describe me to friends as having a green thumb and they will snort their tea down the wrong way, because it’s well documented that I usually manage to kill plants off with just a glance. Over watering, under watering, simple neglect leading to homicide – guilty as charged. But it’s impossible to ignore the potential of the gorgeous May sunshine here, so Mr B and I went shopping for plants and compost, and he also bravely gave me loads of seedlings – all now safely planted in pots provided by another lovely friend.  Watermelon, butternut, tomatoes, parsley, basil, mint, peppers, chillis and raspberries are all soaking up the rays – and all hoping that a miracle happens and I remember to water them.

Add to that the recent gifts of huge, juicy strawberries, asparagus, peonies and roses from the always munificent Lia and Desiree, and the palazzo looks like a beautiful organic market stall. Now if I can just avoid pizza for a while I might be able to lose some weight – but Mr B came up trumps again with watermelon and mint raita left over from a delicious north-south polenta and spicy sausage fusion lunch yesterday. I just had the raita blended with strawberries and it was LUSH. How wonderful to have something yummy and know it’s about 10 calories – so the same is planned for the rest of the week!

Celebrations and reflections

Crazy to think I’ve been in Abruzzo for a year now. Signal corks going off and confetti falling from the sky across the nation!

When I think back to my working life in London, the predominant memories are of being constantly stressed and harried. Some lovely bosses, some hateful, but always filtered around the constant drum of office politics, mind boggling deadlines and beeping traffic…ugh! Of course I still get a bit stressed here, particularly when the power or water go off, or the boiler decides not to work because it’s a Tuesday. Being snowed in for three weeks was something I don’t fancy repeating in a hurry. But the deadlines and bosses are gone, the traffic is non existent most of the time, and what’s left is a sense of quiet contentment at what has been achieved so far. Am doing my usual prevarication re online Italian lessons, but a few words are slowly sinking in to the old grey matter. The house is starting to look great, and when things do go wrong, I have a bit of a screaming session and then chill, knowing it will all get sorted. Oh how my blood pressure is thanking me.

So, on this, my first anniversary, what are my observations on Abruzzo Dreaming solo style?

1. Make as many friends as you can. Expats can be a funny (strange) lot and just because they are from ‘home’ and speak English doesn’t mean you’d be friends with them there. Remember your first weeks at a new school? The same. And you almost certainly won’t end up with the same friends you started with. You need to separate the wheat from the chaff, to know who you can rely on in a crisis and whose company you just really enjoy. When you’re doing something like this on your own, it’s good to know someone has your back – at least, until I can teach the cats how to fix the boiler.

2. Be brave. Explore. Talk to people, even if it’s just to ask where the loo is. I still struggle with talking to my neighbours because I’m embarrassed that I won’t understand them. Not many people speak English here – and why should they? But at least you’re breaking the ice, and they know you’re trying to be part of the community, even if you are a bit odd.

3. Be prepared to take things slowly with your community. This is not a two week vacation on the Amalfi Coast where you become best friends with the hotelier over 12 glasses of red and just know you could live here for ever. It’s living day to day in a small town in Abruzzo, where people are working hard and where their entire focus is their families. An older-ish single woman with cats is not going to fit in to that lifestyle automatically, and can be viewed with suspicion, because the way you live will be very different to theirs. Some women here have never left the town in their entire lives, something I find quite gobsmacking – so just imagine how they see me. So, give it time. Think like Otter, rather than Toad of Toad Hole. Less toot toot, more “piano piano”!

4. Adapt to the local shops and find alternatives to the things you are used to buying in the UK. Of course there are exceptions – Italians don’t do tea, and I’m an extra strong tea gal myself. It’s a medical necessity, I am incapable of forming sentences without at least one mug of tannin heavy, teeth staining brew first thing, so I do buy that online – but for most other things, I’ve tried out local products and lived. And if you’re not a naturally patient person, then learn – because a trip to the post office to pay one bill may well take you an hour.

5. Have fun! But also try to get into a routine of sorts, and schedule lunches, errands and home jobs. Otherwise you’ll spend all your time sitting around in four day old sweat pants, dribbling vino and flicking through reruns of The Big Bang Theory. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it does seem a waste of perfectly good sunshine.

So there it is, folks – My Year in Abruzzo. None of this is new to people who already live here, just my own experiences. Can’t wait for what 2017 brings!

Sitting out storms

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The last four weeks of living La Dolce Vita have been a challenge on many, many levels. Snow, up to four feet deep in places around the house, meant the cats and I were snowed in for three weeks, for some of this time without power, heating or water. Twice we had thundersnow – an extraordinary mix of heavy snow AND thunder and lightning – and then the earthquakes started again in northern Abruzzo, causing yet more destruction. Tragically the Hotel Rigopiano in Farindola collapsed during an avalanche estimated to weigh between 40,000 and 60,000 tonnes; and 29 people lost their lives, including two people from my village.

But on a very small, personal level, we were fine here, thanks to some dear friends who rescued me twice to get essentials like wine and cat food. I needed the wine to keep warm (yes, really) and the cat food, because I really didn’t fancy being found with half my face gnawed off, come the thaw! I also realised I have happily inherited food hoarding from my mum and made some tasty enough meals out of ingredients that you might only see paired in foodie magazines – beetroot and celery pasta, anyone? Jamie Oliver eat your heart out. And why oh why did I have eight cans of chickpeas? So – we didn’t starve. Just waited it out, quietly reading books and trying not to go stir crazy – but I have to confess to a big blubby session when the power came back on.

When I did manage to get out in the car the weather had moved from snow to thick fog, a real pea souper, and I discovered something worse, much worse, than Italian drivers. Can it be possible, I hear you cry? Try playing dodgems with Italian drivers who are hurtling along roads at top speed in the fog, without their lights on, and overtaking on corners while talking on the phone. At one point I had to drive into a snow bank to avoid becoming roadkill, thanks to a particularly vicious lorry. Another excellent reason to reach for vino. Yes, really.

And now, just as things are slowly returning to normal, with some nice sunny days helping the snow disappear, I decide to have the house rewired. Of course. After all the cold white stuff, why not try the other extreme and see what it’s like living in a sandstorm! I’ve got fab workmen in but they are producing layers upon layers upon layers of dust on the floors, walls, benchtops and all other surfaces, which are fastidiously (as in, not by me) swept up and wiped clean every evening – yet these layers of dust disturbingly reappear the following morning, before work has even started again! They also took out the old non-functioning fireplace and chimney in the kitchen, and the ghastly broken mustardy coloured tiles in the living room have all come up, to reveal pretty, unbroken, perfectly serviceable grey and white ones. They’ll do nicely, thank you.

I’ve never been the best housekeeper in the world so I find myself happily able to turn a blind eye to most of the mess. After all, it’s short term pain for long term gain, with work due to finish in a couple of weeks – just in time for my first anniversary!

There’s no business like snow business!

My first Abruzzese Christmas and New Year have come and gone, and for the most part been a joyous experience. Christmas lunch was at a local restaurant, which served a miserly six courses. I said no to the brodo (soup) course, thinking I’d save room for the many desserts on offer, but to refuse food here is nearly a mortal sin and I swear the chef had tears in his eyes. But I held firm, focusing entirely on those 12 desserts – but sampled five before finally registering that my stomach was telling me, by way of various creaks and groans, that it was NOT in fact the size of an ocean. Not yet anyway. Luckily it was just a few short unsteady steps to the car, and from there to home and the sofa with my name on it.

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Boxing Day brought glorious 21 degree sunny skies, and lunch at Mr B’s, who had gone all out on a gorgeous roast with potatoes dripping in fat (the only way) and my favourite dish of all time, cheesy leeks. We all battled bravely with the trifle dessert but abandoned it after realising there was only enough room left for just one more glass of fizz. Not a hard decision to make.

New Year was the complete opposite, a very quiet affair and – can you believe it – without any fireworks! Italians love a good firework display and New Year is normally when they really let loose, not starting until midnight and then going crazy until the early hours. But not this year. I was in bed by 10 – life in the fat lane – and didn’t get woken by a bang of any description.

Now we’re all now battening down the hatches for a few days of snow. Some expats have been wringing their hands and muttering about power cuts and frozen pipes, so I’ve got candles and bottled water aplenty (One simply must be able to flush One’s loo, dahling), gallons of gin and lots of duvets, just in case. It’s quite exciting not to know what’s going to happen next. Fine for me, not so good if you live in Aleppo.

What a year. 2016 has seen some incredibly sad farewells to celebrities who passed away, either quietly and without fuss, or unexpectedly. Saddest of all was a tearful goodbye yesterday to my Auntie Shirley, the little Kiwi sparrow who married her tall, handsome GI called Hank, and who brought joy and light to everyone who met her.

An early Christmas present

I can’t believe I’ve been an Italian for nine months! Some things are familiar now, but it’s my first Abruzzo winter, so radiators have been flushed, the electric blanket is on the bed and the soup maker is dusted off and ready for action.

The seasons are so much more vivid and defined here than in London. Right now it’s mostly clear blue skies with green rolling fields and, off in the distance, the Gran Sasso (after the Alps, the highest mountain in Italy) is dusted with snow. Grapes have been harvested over the last few months and magicked into lovely Montepulciano rosso; but after a poor growing season for olives this year, what there is has been taken off to be pressed and farmers are busy cutting back the trees. I love having the window down a bit when I’m driving home at night to breathe in the sweet smell of burning olive wood drifting across the valleys.

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It gets dark by 5.30pm and temperatures drop rapidly in this old, un-insulated house of mine, so the zoo and I tend to stay in the living room with the radiator on and doors closed. Because it’s not just me and Orbit Cat to keep warm any more – we’ve been adopted by a little black one year old cat, now named Stella. There are lots (lots!) of stray and farm cats round here, thanks mostly to a very cavalier, “sink or swim” attitude to animals, and neutering in particular. Most shy away from the house, but this little one shouted to be let in from the moment I saw her and has now become a member of the family. As a friend commented: “What a sweet early Christmas present”. Alas, Orbit is well miffed. She thinks she’s been usurped as Supreme Ruler of the Household, despite me spoiling her rotten with attention and treats. Stella will win her round though, I’m sure. She is a poppet, although moving a little gingerly at the moment, having just been spayed. The vet thinks she was abandoned, as she was already litter trained and very cuddly – or maybe she’s just a fast learner! Both are sound asleep right now, so peace reigns and I chat with a friend about what to have for dinner.

Anywhere in Italy, at any time, the main theme of any conversation is food. What you had for dinner last night, what you’re having today and what you’ll buy for tomorrow’s meals. Food shopping is dictated by what’s fresh, rather than what’s been flown in from all over the world and put in deep freeze storage. When I first arrived I’d feel slightly peeved that some things just weren’t available to buy here, as opposed to any UK supermarket, where consumers demand lots of everything, despite them not being in season. However, I’ve learned to go with the flow and enjoy fruit and vegetables as and when they are grown. So, on the menu tonight is cime di rape, a slightly bitter cross between spinach and broccoli, which I’ll toss in butter and serve with piquant locally made, rusk and filler free sausages. Home grown pumpkins are also being offered to all and sundry before they grow to the size of Cinderella’s coach, and tomorrow I’m meeting a friend to relieve her of a couple, which will be headed for the freezer as pumpkin soup and chunks, ready for slow cooker curries after the inevitable Christmas excess.

Happily, Christmas is only just making a retail appearance here – such a relief after a UK mate reported Christmas decorations on sale there. In August. After the obvious religious significance, again an Abruzzese Christmas is mostly about the food. At dinner last night the hostess produced fried scrippelle, which are only made in November and December. They originated in Teramo, another province of Abruzzo, but their version is very thin crepes made from flour, eggs and water. Here in the Chieti region, fried scrippelle is made from bread or pizza dough, fried in olive oil or seed oil, seasoned with salt or sugar and served hot. It was love at first bite, and my low carb diet is seriously in danger!

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Feeling good from my head…tomatoes!

September already. Everything is still as green as ever but the temperature has dropped (a bit) so the aircon is no longer needed, duvets are back on beds and sweatshirts go on in the evening. This month also heralds The Annual Tomato Glut, so neighbours and friends are currently getting stuck in making gallons of gorgeous passata. These are big social occasions and all the extended family members, from kids to grannies and everyone in between, work hard to produce hundreds of jars of red magic to see them all through the winter months.

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For years, the thought of making my own passata featured heavily in my technicolour “living in Italy” dream, and I couldn’t wait to join in, albeit not on the same scale. I’d even bought a hand turned passata machine with me from the UK and was primed and ready to go. Big mistake. Passata production is a serious business, as is the machinery that goes with it, and my excitement soon faded when I realised that my passata machine was completely and utterly NOT up to the job.

This particular model in red plastic (you know who you are) is supposed to stay put on the worktop via a suction cup. Mine decided this was no fun and, unlike my first boyfriend, gave up any pretence at suction and conga’ed its way across the bench, splattering tomato juice everywhere. Two weeks later and I’m still finding little drops here and there. But the lack of suction was just the beginning of this massive technical fail. The feeder tube is too small to put a healthy amount of toms in at once; and the separate chutes for passata and rejected skins are too close together, so the two get mixed up. The final straw was belatedly finding out that the parts are melded together and don’t come apart for easy cleaning, so it’s impossible to remove all the skins and seeds. Just imagine pushing fresh tomatoes through, only to find a slightly mouldy tomato skin from the previous turning. Bleurgh, no thanks.

It is yet another truth universally acknowledged that I can find any excuse to buy a new kitchen gadget – but I did persevere with this sad excuse for a passata machine, I really did. However, after a rather magnificent tantrum inspired by the third tomato skin hide and seek mission fail, I chucked the lot in the recycling bin and have instead bought an Italian electric passapomodoro. They range in price from not bad to ouch, so I went the lower end of not bad. It might not be able to cope with passata production at industrial levels, but will be perfect for just me and the occasional guest. In just a few days I’ll be able to make ragu from lovely heart-healthy tomato passata, full of lycopene, antioxidants, niacin, potassium and vitamins A, B6, C, E and K. A gallon glass or two of red wine and said guest and I will be glowing with fine fettle-ness.

I’ve also been consulting friends on the best way to prepare the tomatoes. Some cut them into chunks and soften them; others roast. Some add basil or chilli before pouring into the jars; others add those later, depending on the meal. So far, my preferred method is roasting – cut the tomatoes in half and arrange upright on a large oven tray, spray with olive oil and pop in the oven at 180 degrees for 20-30 minutes – but keep an eye on them so they don’t burn. Allow to cool and then push the mix once or twice through a (functioning) passapomodoro and the result is rich, thick passata, ready to pour into a freezer bag.

Of course, once I get into it in earnest, all this passata will have to be stored somewhere and the fridge freezer is already full. A vertical freezer is definitely needed as part of my “nothing gets wasted” programme. I’ve been trying hard not to waste food for years, even more so after working with the lovely peeps at FareShare UK, and now there’s so much fresh, cheap food available, I really get to put it into practice. Vegetables become soup, fruit gets added to home made yogurt for ice cream and a gigantic pumpkin courtesy of Mr B has been chopped into chunks and popped in freezer bags, ready for slow cooker curries for when there’s too much snow to go out.

The aim is to live primarily on locally grown, healthy simple meals – no salt, no preservatives…and with special magical qualities that will offset the high calorie pasta, pizza, focaccia bread, cheeses and other yummy items which have somehow made their way into the kitchen at Pioneer Woman HQ!

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Making friends

I’d heard from many expats about how friendly the locals are in my corner of Paradise, and after a few months I have realised how true that is – if you make sure you shake off the London reserve and introduce yourself wherever you go.

Crossing the road to the post office this morning, I hear my name shouted out. It’s Betty from Elena’s, a bar down the road. I went in there for the first time a couple of days ago to pay a bill, but now we’re waving merrily at each other in the street. Toni, who runs the bar where I buy my ciggies, greets me like an old friend every time I go in, and I toot cheerily at the old blokes outside yet another bar when driving through downtown Castel Frentano. They all know my car now and the ones who are awake wave back with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

This afternoon’s encounter however was a tad on the embarrassing side. I’d just got back from the fortnightly Eurospin shop, roasting in 31 degree heat, and thought it would be a good idea to take off my sweaty shirt and cool down under my new awning in the shade. It’s behind some trees and no one can see me from the street, so it was the perfect private spot to sit in my no longer white M&S Minimizer and pick up some of the lovely breeze coming off the valley.

Did I say private? Suddenly and without warning, Giorgio the postman zooms up the drive in top gear, and there’s me in full half naked view – nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. I shoot indoors and grab my shirt, then head back outside red faced to find him grinning his head off and telling me, “Don’t worry, I see all sorts down at the beach”. At least, I think that’s what he said…

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Somehow I have the feeling that it will be all round the village in no time that the new donna Inglese walks round her garden completely naked, which will no doubt increase the number of oldies who sit and chat all afternoon at the bus stop across the road every day while they wait for something exciting to happen. Maybe I should put out a collection box to go towards a new white bra?