Monday, 25 March 2013

Cinghiale, walls, fences and rain

Walls before..

We have a huge problem with wild boar (cinghiale in Italian) in this area. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of the big wild pigs and they use their snouts to root for food. Problem is in doing so they wreck the dry-stone walls that retain the manmade terracing that is such a feature of this area. Also, we can't really have them rampaging through our land when we have guests. How would you feel to be confronted by a 250kg boar with tusks when you step out of your holiday cottage? I know I would be stepping back in again, sharpish.

How can we stop them? This is a good question. Obviously in season you can shoot them and they do taste rather delicious in stew or sausages but that is not really a proper answer although I am sure Paul will give it a go. I have looked online at all sorts of contraptions from lion dung (yes - some American website was selling this but, as I have no idea what it looks like nor what it smells like, how would I know if I'm being fobbed off with just big doggie doo doos?) to metal cut outs with big shiny eyes to scare them off. As boars are have fairly poor eyesight I wasn't convinced by the latter solution either. The only way to keep them out is with a fence. Either a big, rufty tufty proper fence or a less obvious electric one. 

This brings me neatly on to walls. We have many kilometres of dry-stone walls on our farm, a good proportion of which need repairs or have collapsed altogether due to the bloomin' cinghiale so when the Ligurian region offered a grant for you to repair your own walls as an encouragement to farmers to keep them maintained, to stop the kind of disastrous landslides that affected the Cinque Terra area, we snapped their hand off.

Paul is from North Yorkshire and not unaccustomed to a dry-stone wall or two having worked with his father (who was a builder) renovating stone barns etc. and was more than happy to do the work. So for the last few months this is what he has been doing. He absolutely loves doing it. I practically have to tear him away from the blessed things. He is doing a rather fine job of it though and it will look so beautiful when they are finished.
Work in progress..
What we didn't count on, however, was Ruby's first year at nursery meaning we would be struck down with every cold, virus and flu bug known to man! Friends warned us but how bad could it be? Well, it was bloody awful and Paul missed weeks and weeks of work. Then there was the rain. We seem to have had one of the wettest winters on record and the one thing you can't do in the rain is dry-stone walling. It does wash the walls of nicely and make the soil lovely and soft for digging but proper walling is a no-no. Our deadline of 31st March is looming and we have taken the decision to ask for an extension due to the weather. It is rather a blow to moral but does take the pressure off Paul and means we can prune some trees before it gets too late in the season.

In the meantime, the Province of Imperia has issued a grant where they will pay 90% of the cost of an electric fence to keep the boar out. Hoorah!! It is a mightily expensive thing to put up when you have 4 acres of hilly terrain to do, so all help is gratefully received.
Paul's finished walls

Saturday, 23 March 2013


Our first harvest

Well what we knew about olives could have gone on a micro-dot - a postage stamp would be too big! We like to eat them, we like to use the oil but we weren't honestly too keen on the local variety Taggiasca. The oil had no taste and was just flimsy.

We thought we would have a bash at at least getting some oil out of our trees this first year so we knew a little more and had a bench mark to compare other years to. We bought a strimmer. This was pretty vital as without using it you couldn't see the huge boulders and ankle-breaking stones on our broken down terraces. We bought a few nets and a friend lent us some old ones. We bought some sacks and some crates and some oil containers. There were already big sticks on the farm so off we went.

First discovery is that olives are actually fairly firmly attached to the trees. Second discovery is that whacking the tree with a stick requires a lot more technique that it would first seem. The obvious fact was also that he trees had not been trimmed in twenty or more years and so we just couldn't reach the tops of them to get to the olives. Oh well, this was our first year so we weren't aiming for perfection, just the experience of it and the taste of our own oil. 

After nearly a week (it rained during our mini harvest) we finally had as much as we were going to be able to gather without the remainder spoiling so we were ready for the mill. We had done the sum total of nine treees out of two hundred. Don't laugh! The mill owner certainly didn't when we turned up with our titchy quintale (100kg) of olives. She almost said she couldn't press them as there wasn't enough. She eventually did it and we had to pay a little extra. It was worth it. When we picked up our containers with eighteen litres of our own bright green olive oil we were ecstatic. Now for the taste test.

All I can say is we must have been buying engine oil or lamp oil labelled as Taggiasca. The first taste of our oil was a shock. It was peppery and spicy an hit the back of the throat. What on earth was that greasy insipid stuff we had tasted before? You didn't so much drink our oil as eat it. It is so flavoursome and hearty. We were hooked! It was stunningly delicious and seemed to go with everything. We now know that is the secret of the Taggiasca oil. It suits every type of dish. I now also know that good olive oil should hit you in the throat, especially when it is first pressed. It mellows with age a bit and changes colour from a scary bright, almost luminous green to a straw yellow now four months on.

I am now a convert. I would even go so far as to call myself an evangelical convert. I find myself reading everything I can get my hands on about olives, oil and milling. We have attended tree-cutting courses and next year I plan to do an olive oil tasting course to become a qualified taster. 

If this blog does one thing I hope it will spread the message that the majority of what you buy in supermarkets is that same insipid greasy muck I first tasted. Sometimes it is even coloured to make it look more authentic. If you want good oil, buy it from the producer. There are pelnty of us out there. If you want to know more about good oil and the misleading labelling in the olive oil industry I strongly recommend this book: Extra Virginity - The sublime and scandolous world of olive oil.

Life in Bordighera

We were just so excited when we first got here. It made me remember my first few months in Italy back in 2004 when I was full of hope and an exciting new life lay ahead of me.

Life became a wonderful summer of beach, cold beers at the beach and making new friends. OK so there were evil mosquitos and a flat like a sauna in summer but still we were loving life again after the stress and trauma of the past couple of years. The one joy had been the birth of Ruby but when that happens at the ages of 42 and 47 it is a shock to the system. A wonderful, tiring one.

We found a great nursery for Ruby that would allow Paul to rejoin the world of work after being house-husband for the last couple of years. She would be at the Catholic nursery where she would be taught in Italian, obviously. I was very worried how it would work out but we were keen she should learn Italian at the same time as her English. She took to it like a duck to water. We now have a happy, bouncy, confident little girl who speak Italish! Paul was so worried she would be better than him already at Italian he even went to college to learn it properly. When she comes home speaking the local impenetrable Apricalese patois we will stand no chance though!

Bordighera is a strange mix of the truly elegant architecture of a seaside town for the rich and famous in times gone by (the last Queen of Italy had a summer palace here) and a retirement village. It is mostly populated by the wealthy elderly who I suspect bought their appartments when prices here were not as extortionate as today and once they retired came here for the sub-tropical micro-climate that means mild winters and plenty of sunshine. You see them even in winter lounging like exotic lizards in fur coats trying to soak up a little bit of sun to hopefully turn their skin an even darker shade of mahogany and probably add a wrinkle or two to the collection.

We have made good friends here (there are young people too!) and our time in Bordighera is now coming to an end. In September we move to a rented flat in Apricale while we start the renovations. Ruby will start at the state nursery there where the whole school only has 13 pupils. How can we finally afford it? We finally have a buyer for the house in Le Marche!! It is at a much reduced price but I am just grateful to have a buyer at all and now to have the opportunity to start the next phase of the journey. We will just have to take it slowly and do the majority of the work ourselves.

Getting here - 2011 & 2012


Deciding to buy it was the easy bit. We just had to sell our house in Le Marche and even if we couldn't, we could finance the purchase via a mortgage or so we thought. Well, that proved to be not so easy in a worldwide recession and there followed a very stressful 18 months of trying to raise the funds. I blame pregnancy hormones giving me false hope - not sure what Paul's excuse was! So we set off begging, borowing and scraping money together. Our house still hadn't sold. In the meantime there were three funerals in what was a pretty small family anyway. It rather felt like things were never going to get better.  

Eventually with much blood sweat and tears we managed to do it. We had agreed a long completion but no-one, least of all us, had expected it to be quite as long as it was. That meant we had taken 28 months from first viewing to finally buying the place. I asked my estate agent friend if it was a record. She admitted to only knowing of one that had taken longer. Without her perseverance and dilligent attention to detail we would never have got there at all. Without the help of family and friends we would have lost our deposit which would have been everything Paul had ever worked for so pretty devastating. We are blessed to have such good friends and family. 

We only finally signed the deed on 23rd May 2012 - not even a year ago. Not before two of the ten owners had sadly died (one in Spain to complicate matters further) and we had to wait for the legal inheritance to go through. Don't they say nothing worth having is ever easy?

We moved to Bordighera in April 2012, still with our house in Le Marche on the market, to a rented flat at the beach. That was a great big sigh of relief from us both. We finally felt like we were moving on. OK we hadn't sold the house so money was very tight and we couldn't actually do much on the farm without the money from the house but we were here at last.

The beginning - 2010

I was pregnant and we thought hard about where we wanted to bring our daughter up and what we wanted for her future. We'd been in Le Marche in central Italy for 6 years and whilst it was very beautiful it was also very, very quiet. Great if you're retiring or trying to escape from the rat-race but we could hardly claim either of those.  

A part of our farm
We had visited Liguria for the day during a trip to Lucca the year previously. I fell in love instantly. Paul had been driving for hours and was tired and grumpy and didn't. Whenever I mentioned it afterwards he growled about it. His dream was always that picture-perfect Tuscan countryside and nothing else would really push his buttons. Something had happened to me when I had strolled under the ancient olive trees in Liguria on that trip. I can't really explain to other than to say I felt a peace I have never felt elsewhere.

We did our usual trawl of the internet in search of pastures new and saw an old olive farm with several buildings and Paul was instantly captivated. "That's it - let's go!" he said in that crazy impulsive way he has. I was 3 months pregnant and on strict instructions to do nothing from the doctor so he would have to go on his own as it is a 750km journey. We made the arrangements and off he went to look at this and one other property. This really was nothing like either of us. We had looked at over 80 houses before buying in Le Marche so impulsive house buyers we were not!

He called me all the time. I could hardly stay awake as I was still at that falling asleep stage of pregnancy. He described it all in great detail - we were so excited. He loved it. He came back and we made plans to go and see it again when I was further along in the pregnancy. It would be a great place to bring up our daughter. Quiet inland with a bustling coastline, near to Nice, Monte Carlo and the big Italian cities sof Milan and Turn plus no distance from Sanremo which has everything you need for everyday life.

We had a little holiday in Liguria in the April and our daughter Ruby was born in August. Just before she arrived we decided to buy it. We loved it. Everything about it was perfect. There were two larger properties that could become houses (one to let and one to live in) and three outbuildings that could become more accommodation - perfect for our plans for an agriturismo (or farm-holiday business). It had water and electricity nearby plus telephone. The road was not too steep nor too windy and there were plans to concrete the final part practically to our house so access wouldn't be a problem. Most exciting for both of us was the plot itself. It had beauitful views of the hilltop town of Perinaldo and the other olive groves and was all south-facing and gorgeously sunny. As we now know it is always Spring up there, even in mid-winter!

Our new adventure had begun. We didn't expect it to take quite as long to get here as it did but then this is Italy and nothing ever happens when you expect it to here.