10 February 2012

I'm having some problems with gas...

Gina in her condo on the way to spend the night in our bathroom

I was hoping to have good news today after our first day in ten of sun and blue skies, but the Italian forecast was precise...blizzard was the word they used, and they were right on. We woke up to 15 cm of new snow and it hasn't stopped (5:00 pm right now).

Here in the countryside we use gas for heat, cooking, and hot water. The tank has a gauge on it that I have watched compulsively for 10 years. Fear of running out of gas, especially when the inn is full of guests, is a real fear... and it happened one Easter. Try to get a gas truck to come out on Easter Sunday! The Italian guests were calm, "beh, succede," it happens... others weren't as transcendental...

I stopped watching that gauge about a year ago when I signed up with a different gas company. My contract is for a tank sempre pieno, always full, a monthly service to top up the tank. What a relief to have that worry lifted from my already lengthy list.

The deliveries started coming automatically; I didn't even have to be home or sign for it. So is it any surprise that I didn't notice the truck's absence? Maybe the truck and gas strikes should have alerted me. My bad weather checklist included firewood, candles, fresh veggies and milk, but it never occurred to me that I should worry about the gas.

And then I smelled it. When the tank is nearly empty, the gas gets a strong gassy smell when you turn on the stove. I called the gas company and they confirmed that the last delivery was 3 months ago.
"Let's get on it," I said. "There's going to be a blizzard tomorrow."
"Sorry, Signora, our delivery truck is at the mechanic."
Silence on my side as I do some deep breathing.

You know, everybody loves to gripe about bad business practices... and I have to admit that after the third call I did ask for their fax number 'so my lawyer could advise them of their responsibility for damages as a result of non-delivery of my gas'... but what can they do now?
One look out the window and you can see that preparations need to be made.

More firewood to the front porch. A huge pot of water on the wood stove.
Extra rooms closed off.
The one electric heater we have, now plugged in.
That truck is not going to get here before Monday.

Just as I'm ready to post this blog entry, the phone rings. "This is the driver for the gas. I just don't think I can make it." It seems the company called in a truck from Rome to make the 2-hour drive to Poggio Etrusco. This warmed my heart (if not the rest of me). "Traffic is at a complete stop on the road; the police will not let us pass. I am so sorry."

I told him I had a room for him if he could make it, and I invited him for dinner.
"Magari! Sei molto gentile, Signora. Spero di vederla domani."

04 February 2012

Be careful what you wish for!

The first days of February have come in with a blast. A blast of icy Siberian air. Balmy was the word I was using to describe this winter up until last week. I love the snow, and it was in innocence that I wrote a post on Facebook, "I wish I could get snowed in," to which another friend wrote, "no, you don't" and I blithely responded "yes.I.do."

The beauty of the snow belies the gravity of the weather report, likening this storm to the devastating freeze of 1985. That was the year that temperatures stayed below freezing for an extended period, resulting in the loss of 80% of Tuscany's olive trees. The crisis actually brought about a lot of changes in the way we now produce olive oil, especially in the identification of the origin of the olives (some large producers were trying to get away with buying foreign olives and calling the oil Tuscan; some Tuscan olive oil had a percentage of other kinds of oil it).

I am worried about my olive trees.

The weight of the first wet snow is breaking
limbs. The freeze the night after turned the weight to ice and even the wind didn't shake it down. Now, more beautiful fluffy flakes adding volume to the already 50+ centimeters.

As for the family, we are well-supplied: firewood, flour to make pici, canned tomatoes from last summer's harvest, a good-sized piece of pecorino, an egg a day from the chicken (who has been sleeping in the bathroom these subzero nights), plenty of coffee, and the internet. Oh, and wine. The animals love the snow, even the horses, and there is no denying the absolute loveliness of it.

If it weren't for the tremors of the teenquakes, it would be pretty darned peaceful here. But, I'd like for this severe weather to end soon. Before the trees are harmed

Sorry, everyone, for wishing for this. I also wished for a million euros right afte
r, but based on my snow wish, now I'm worried that will come with all kinds of taxes and other burdens...

02 July 2011

Uova d'Oro

I love my new girls, Lina (Lina Gallina) and Penny (H.Penny)! They greet me with coos and clucks when I bring them out little treats of melon seeds and pulp, lettuce, or bread. They let me pet them...I won't say that they like it, but they let me. And they are so soft!

Everyone is surprised at how quickly they have acclimated to their new home. One of them gifted us with a perfect little brown egg the first day, and someone contributed again the second day. Today, Day Three, is no different... a little present awaited me this morning when we let them out of the coop. I am starting to amortize the costs of the coop, and right now the value of each egg is roughly Euro 100...Golden Eggs...keep working, girls.

Sublime with toasted country bread, drizzled with my organic extra-virgin, and sprinkled with my Tuscan Herb Salt, a blend of parsley/rosemary/thyme from the organic kitchen garden.
It really doesn't get better than this.

Lui has been dubbed by one of our guests as
'the dog who stares at chickens,'
it's just hilarious how fixated he is on them!

29 June 2011

Hen Party, short story long

It only took ten years to get this Hen Party started.
The stopping point was finding time to build a coop. Recently, while browsing Italian eBay (yes, it's indispensable!), I came across a kit for a precious little pollaio (chicken coop). I took the measurements outside to my potential chicken zone and decided it would be perfect. To be honest, it didn't register just how big (or small) it would actually be...
Once I saw the actual size, I began to define what I really might be able to do. Two or three chickens at the most! This called for careful selection. First, to consider the breed of said hens. And, yes, only girls. The nearest neighbor's rooster offers plenty of farm ambience without another one chiming in from under my bedroom window! And hens will produce eggs without a guy, that much I knew.

I started researching local antique breeds and found several interesting varieties, including the Razza Valdarno from the Chiana valley just below us. However, with more in-depth reading, I learned that this is a breed prized for its meat more than its eggs. Stop. We're simply not going to eat our pets (just their unfertilized embryos...).

I found a charming association of people interested in special breeds of poultry, Il Pollaio del Re, in Grosseto. I hope to visit there at some point, but as time is short during this busy season, that will have to wait. I did find several resources for these nice old breeds, hearty stock with good eggs, but most, with good reason, wanted me to buy a breeding pair to keep the breed thriving. Stop. No boys allowed at our Hen Party...
My Italian friends asked me every day, when will you get your chickens? This was taking me a bit longer than necessary due to my obsessively detailed decision-making process. I still needed to find organic feed! When our guests see the intense color of egg yolks here, they are always surprised. In Italian the word for yolk is tuorlo, but is also called the 'rosso,' or red, for the intensity of color (actually more of a dark orange, to my eye...). This is really determined by the feed, and carotene from carrots and corn give it that color push. But, as we know, corn is the probably the most manipulated food products on the planet, and if I'm to follow the rules for my organic certification (if I want to eventually sell eggs), the regualr corn on the market will not be acceptable. Clearly, if I want to use corn, I'll need to head up to visit my friends in Garfagnana for some of that nice Otto File corn that is still the original variety that was brought from America hundreds of years ago.
In the meantime, I bought some good cracked seeds and grain from the miller in our village (with some regular corn in it), just to get started.

Back to the breed decision, I had become a bit infatuated with the Araucana breed, originally from Chile (or at least South America), but quite well-settled in Italy. Their eggs have a pastel green to blue shell, and I thought it would be fun to have those in our breakfast room. Several breeders were willing to ship me eggs, but that required an incubator and...well... time...

Eventually I decided that I would get a couple of nice hens who, once they started laying, might not notice a little blue or green egg under them waiting to hatch (would solve some broodiness as well). But, then my brilliant daughter pointed out that the eggs could turn out to be males. Stop. The idea of just getting a couple of nice hens was sticking, though, and I was getting a bit tired of my own dawdling...

"Just get them at the Thursday market," everyone said. And, I knew this. For ten years I've been looking at those poor birds and wondering if I could save some of them, henpecked and scrawny and crowded in a stinky box. Everyone knows I am a Rescuer, but this time I wanted something healthy and clean to start my new chicken environment. I remembered that early in this adventure, a friend with an organic property offered me a hen or two from her abundant flock, and I suddenly realized this was exactly what I wanted.
So, yesterday I set out in the little Fiat for my friend's place in Montisi, about 30 kms from home. Putt...putt... it's slow going in this little car, but finally I arrived, snagged two little ladies and put them in the wicker basket I use to take the cats to the vet (imagine the next ride for the cats with the strange and wonderful smell of chickens inside). They sat on the seat next to me, cooing and calm, for what turned out to be quite an eventful ride with an unexpected thunderstorm and an even more unexpected loss of brakes. We arrived home (very slowly, hand on the emergency brake) to a downpour and got the settled in their new home with fresh water and their kibble.
This morning, I could see that they slept in their nests, but didn't leave any treasures.
They surely need some time to acclimate.

When we let them out into their fenced area we noticed that they have a personal guard...
I hope to have some egg news soon!!

26 June 2011



Walnut Liqueur

The best nocino I have ever tasted comes from my friend Maura in Modena. Her secret is aging it in small oak barrels that are handmade by her barrel-maker husband, Francesco Renzi. The walnuts are picked on June 25, the holy day of San Giovanni. It is the moment when the pulp is still green and the walnut forming inside has not hardened. Once cut and exposed to the air, the green walnut and everything it touches turns dark brown, including your hands. Work on a surface that won’t stain, and consider wearing gloves. Your nocino should be ready to drink by Christmas.

3 litres grain alcohol (190 proof or 95%)

6 cups sugar

5 dozen green walnuts

3 cinnamon sticks

In a large bowl, stir together the alcohol and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside. Quarter the nuts with a heavy bladed knife or cleaver. Place in a jar and cover with the alcohol. Add the cinnamon sticks and cover the jar tightly. Place it in a warm, dark place for forty days, stirring it every two or three days.

Strain out the walnuts and discard. Then, using a coffee filter, strain out the sediment and put the nocino into bottles (or a small oak barrel, if you are so inclined), and age for at least six months.

Makes 3 litres

22 June 2011

Summer has arrived, and to finish an absolutely wonderful spring, I made the best of the abundance of roses that pepper my property, from the ones at the end of the vineyard rows, to the small rose garden in front of my house. I'm not sure what variety these are, but the pink ones remind me of the Charlotte Armstrong of my childhood. Fragrant and long-lasting, and free of pesticides, they are perfect for the rose petal syrup or rose liqueur I make every year. A spoonful is heavenly in a glass of prosecco or drizzled over aged cheese. I also use the rose petal syrup to make a sinfully aromatic rose petal sorbet in my Gelato! book.

All of the color you see in the bottle above is natural from the roses themselves; red or pink work the best. This year I used only pink.

Rose Petal Syrup

175 grams (6 oz) of fresh, fragrant rose petals (pink or red)

7 cups granulated sugar

Juice of one lemon , including the seeds and some pulp

Pick the rose petals from an unsprayed rose bush in the morning when they are most fragrant. Grasp the tips of the rose and cut near the center, removing only the colored petals, not the white tip at the base or the base itself.

Place in a non-reactive bowl and toss with 1 ¾ cup of the sugar to macerate. Coat well, squeezing the petals to bruise slightly. Cover with plastic film and let stand in a cool place overnight.

Next day, in a large saucepan, combine 3 ½ cups spring water and the remaining 5 ¼ cups sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the lemon juice and macerated rose petals with their sugary liquid to the pan and return to a boil.

Reduce to a high simmer and cook for 30 minutes, until a candy thermometer reads 100° C (212°F).

Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Strain, removing the rose petals and lemon seeds.

Place in sterilized bottles.

07 June 2011


Tuscan Primavera 2011, our tenth spring in Tuscany, has been the most luxurious and enduring spring that we have had in a while. It seems the last few years have gone directly from winter to summer, but this year has been truly exceptional. I always think of April as the purple month with lilacs, wistaria, and irises making their debut. May turns red with poppies and yellow with ginestra (scotch broom). Soon we are hauling the potted flowers out of their winter shelter and turning up the garden.

For me, the real joy is in my orto (my kitchen garden), as the buds and seedlings start to pop out. I can hardly resist eating the first flowers on the acacia tree, and then the elderberry tree. See my recipe below.

flowering quince...........................sage..................................garlic chives

Here is a recipe from my new cookbook,
Cucina Povera, Tuscan Peasant Cooking
which will be released September 2011

Frittura di Primavera

Battered and fried spring flowers and vegetables ©

We make this appetizer year round. In the fall and winter we use fuzzy sage leaves and sliced potatoes; in the spring we have elderberry flowers and acacia flowers; in the summer zucchini and their flowers. The important thing is to get the oil as hot as possible without letting it smoke (at least 375°). The hotter the oil is the less absorption in the food. We use olive oil because we have it, and it is delicious, but vegetable oils can be used. Fry in small batches so as large quantities will reduce the temperature of the oil.

4 clusters of unsprayed elderberry flowers (or your local edible flower), rinsed and spun dry

12 Sage leaves, rinsed and patted dry

2 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons sparkling water (or beer or Prosecco)

Extra-virgin olive oil for frying

Salt to taste

Whisk ingredients together until smooth.

Heat the olive oil. Dip the prepared flowers and leaves in the batter, shaking to remove excess, and place in the hot oil. Cook for 1 minute, until golden brown, turn once, then remove to drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve warm.

Serves 4

Take a walk with me in our garden on a morning in late April...