Sunday, 28 July 2013

Apple tumble crumble rumble

Bertie Baggins is a naughty boy.

Bertie Baggins is cunning.

Bertie Baggins has stealth.

Bertie Baggins is a naughty, cunning, stealthy apple thief. Who plucks them out of the tree, twisting and breaking its branches. Not for him the patient wait for them to ripen and tumble at his feet.

I want my apples for crumble.  Not licked. Not pre-chewed. And definitely not distributed across the garden in pre-digested heaps.

Thus fences have been built, repaired and built again.

My first attempt at an apple-tree fence - temporary, so that he who bothers about the neatness of the parched grass can remove it, thereby enabling the trimming of any vegetation still clinging to a life-without-water - failed. Bertie Baggins nonchalantly stepped through it. Equally nonchalantly ripped an apple off the tree. And nonchalantly lay down to eat it. Knowing that he had just enough time to savour its bitter, crunchy, un-ripe flesh before I noticed, sprinted out of the kitchen and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and marched him first one way then another as I wondered how to get him out. Great fun. If you're a dog. Exasperating if you have two legs and can think of better things to do. And if you are a young labrador and driven by the rumbles in your tummy it's a game to be repeated many times a day. Many times an hour if you can get away with it.

Bertie Baggins: apple thief

So ... apple-fence number two. More string. Vertical strings to make the gaps smaller. And CDs to flash sunlight in doggy eyes, spin around worryingly and clank a bit.

Four-legged-friend: retired thief

The bets are on: I give Bertie Baggins half an hour ...

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Garden pests come in all shapes, sizes and colours

9 days in Italy
9 days of unattended garden
9 days of weeds and pests not having a holiday but instead having a lets-proliferate-and-create-merry-havoc party:

thistles in an unkempt bed

bindweed entangling a geranium

nettle - aaaalways nettle in our big bed

and ground elder carpet-colonising the ground.

However, not all pests are of the photosynthesizing, we-have-vacuoles-in-our-cells variety. Some are squishy, stripy, perpetually ravenous machines (I wonder what these will pupate into).

Others make the leaves contort and curl

But if there was a prize for most-pesty-pest in the garden, pests-weddy and pests-creepy-crawly would face fierce competition from pests-hairy -

apples ... nom-nom

red-currants ... nom-nom

geraniums ... nom-nom

weeds ... nom-nom

... Hmm - the nom-nom of weeds perhaps places them a rung or two down the ladder of pestiest-pest.

I think the weeds win. They always do.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Ice-cream, lizards and baby pigeons

Siena in the sunshine.

There are some things that the Italians do very well - architecture for one. Brunelleschi's dome atop the Duomo in Florence is a stunningly beautiful and awe-inspiring piece of engineering. Everywhere you go in Italy, from mediaeval hill-top settlement to city, the ego and status of the patrons of the mediaeval architects hits you in the face - why else are there numerous towers in San Gimignano - it was a case of 'My tower in bigger than yours. Because I have more money than you, my wealth can buy me status and power and I can assert my influence by building the biggest tower in the town.' Pope after Pope built cathedrals, each one more magnificent than the buildings of the Pope before. If he had to fight for power during his reign, he was determined to leave appropriate evidence of his munificence for future generations to venerate him by. Everywhere in Italy, if you walk around looking only at those shops (bikini hunting with daughters, yesterday) and streets at face height, you miss most of the splendour. Always look up.

The architecture in Siena is a fine example of this lofty tourism-

Littlest tired of being told to 'look up' and choosing instead to look down. Ideas for the patio at home?

Another thing that Italians are good at is ice-cream

And Italy has very good lizards. Littlest has spent much of the holiday making "nature pudding" for the lizards -

From lizards to pigeons and a question - do pigeon mums and dads shove the weaker chicks out of their nests? Human babies should maybe take note of nature - twice in our week here, there has been a desperate scrabbling in the guttering high above our apartment and fluttering of immature poorly coordinated wings followed by a sickening thwack as meat and bones impact concrete. Imagine that - eat the food in front of you, work hard, don't complain when mum and dad ask you to do the washing up, do well in your exams or ... it's a no return journey straight into a brick wall. Beats bribery!

But as an evening entertainment the Italian countryside could do better than bear witness to the hard-hearted euthanasia of pigeon chicks. 

Friday, 12 July 2013

Uh oh! I'm a bad mum

Dear, oh dear!

Clearly, I'm a very bad mum. I have said the un-sayable. Admitted the un-admissable. Confirmed to my children that I have a favourite.

Yes! I told them that I knew who I would save from a charging run-away bus if I had to. Which I would grieve for more. Which has a firmer hold on my heart.

Which ... what? Dog, of course!


I'm an awful dog parent. I don't recall how we got onto the subject of favourite dogs - I think it was something to do with loving them. And perplexing Littlest with the additional and judging by her face appalling admission that I do not love Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins as much as I love her.

Ho hum ...

Both boys are beautiful, capable of devious thievery, faithful, have eyes that bleed unconditional love into your soul and would happily graze through every hour of every day. Which at this time of year in a garden filled with fruit dangling conveniently at muzzle height they do.

Which is my favourite?

I'm not saying - I don't want to risk upsetting you too!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Fine food, fine friends and finding inspiration

First, apologies to anyone dropping by for a spot of canine chatter in a dog-themed blog. 'Walking the dog' is on holiday and the boys are at their dog-themed holiday camp (aka kennels). To say it was a challenge coaxing Bertie Baggins into the car in order to get them there would be an understatement on the scale of 'I've had enough carrot cake' - all his recent journeys have been to destination-vet, where he has had vaccine squirted up his nose; needles jabbed into his back-side or surgery to lop his balls off. Bread didn't work. Following Four-legged-friend's calm hop into the passenger foot-well failed to settle him. In the end, it took two of us to manhandle him into the boot and he whimpered most of the way there. Note-to-self to take him on some fun journeys - destination-walkies, or collecting Littlest from school.

Once at destination-kennel and with both boys out of the car, I promptly turned into hapless, without-a-clue-how-to-handle-two-over-excited-dogs owner. We got through the frankly difficult to negotiate, secure, double-gate system and with wrists and ankles in a tangled knot of rope and chain, I wished not for the first time that my summer shoes had better grips. The boys responded to the incessant chorus of barking by lurching around at the ends of their leads until first Four-legged-friend and then Bertie Baggins slipped out of their collars and sprinted off to make friends.If the barking had been loud before, it now reached a crescendo of ear-splitting magnitude almost like an applause for the bare-necked audacity of the newcomers. Red-faced, with dogs rounded up and penned, I mumbled my way through the 'what do they eat' and 'are they happy to be in a sleeping crate together' questions before making a hasty retreat - if I had one, my tail would have been firmly between my legs. As I fumbled over the sliding bolts of the security gates, I avoided eye contact with the owner of two Westies who had patiently sat and watched the pantomime of the naughty boys' arrival.

Car full of dog hairs and suitcases to pack, I drove home slowly. Would the dogs mind that I had been too embarrassed to say goodbye?

And so to holiday... destination-Italy.

Think of Tuscany and if you have been there before, your mind will conjure up images of sun, hazy mornings, gentle breezes that carry the scent of rosemary, jasmine, basil and cigarette smoke, and memories of food that tastes like food should - that explosion of intense flavours that only comes from fresh food and amazing cured meats, washed down with a good chianti. Try eating an Italian olive and surprise your taste buds - 'that's what olives taste like,' not the salty, slightly bitter, remind-me-why-I-am-bothering-to-eat-this unpleasantness of something shoved in a bottle many months old, but a piquant mix of sweet and salt that starts subtle but swells to fill the entire mouth with the taste that reminds you exactly what you were looking for and missing in all those chilly days at home when you mistakenly thought that opening a jar of olives might bring a little bit of summer. For authentic you need fresh and for fresh you can't beat being in Italy. And having friends for whom all things culinary are a way of life, not a means to life. We have been treated -

- waiting for more pizza to come out of the oven

 and proper Chianti.

Then a day later from pizza to summer BBQ - ribs from Dario in Panzano (look him up!) 

Finally and in transit from visiting family and friends to our holiday apartment further south, we stop off in a favourite place to check facts and seek further inspiration for a book about war and wine and astronomy and mediaeval knights and waifs. 

Castellina: a good place to dream -

... loss of love with a death on the steps of the church

a shooting below the Rocca

a man called Alberico galloping down an ancient tunnel

and the face of a child in a lantern

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A little bit of rudeness goes a very long way

Why is rudeness so unsettling? And why when someone is rude to you is the natural English response to say "Sorry" - where does that come from? Is it really necessary to apologise to someone who has just been rude to you? Maybe it's a subtle way of pointing out to them that, even if they have none, you still have manners. And perhaps you are apologising on their behalf because the word sorry probably last passed their lips some time during their early childhood and they have forgotten how to form the particular muscular contortion of lips and tongue required to form the word. They need to be reminded what it looks and sounds like.

Rudeness is a deliberate and malicious display of disrespect. Our encounter with it occurred at lunch-time yesterday: actually, at Littlest's lunch-time-plus-an-hour and she was flagging - more steps, more dust, more wasps, more sun-exposure and another mediaeval town that interested her about as much as a book on the astrophysics of quasars might. Thunder rumbled above. The air was heavy with humidity. And on the umbrella'd piazza outside a pizzeria the waitress - angular features, small dark eyes, black hair in loosely falling ringlets and narrow pale lips - waved her notepad at us and gesticulated wildly while refusing to let us put two small and empty tables together.

"Where shall I pass? I cannot come and go! How can I serve?"

The father of a family on a table for six kindly said that they were about to leave, but sympathised when we said we wouldn't dream of staying. - he had observed the waitress 'being like that' with other customers!

We walked back to the other restaurant, the one nearest to the old stone gateway with its toothless sockets where once a portcullis might have repelled all those who sought to bring distemper inside its quiet walls.There we had a very fine meal - simply served but full of the aromas of Italy. My "Flakes" with a sauce of pears, leeks and cheese was a delicious pasta - those small pinch-closed parcels, like fortune cookies. I have no idea what they were stuffed with but my Italian was lacking in superlatives, "Molto buono!" was far from good enough. The boys had a wild boar and olive casserole with potato and artichoke side dishes; two of the girls had tagliatelle with wonderful pesto and the other had caprese (deep red tomatoes and plump mozarella salad). All of this brought to us with a smile. The rain stayed away, the thunder rolled off into the distance to trample another town, taking with it our frustration and leaving behind an indifferent sense of pity.

Therein lies the truth that rudeness is unforgivable and leads to pity. And however you package pity, whether saying 'what a pity!' or 'I pity you,' it is not a comfortable sentiment to receive. It should shame and bring about remorse but I suspect our raven-eyed vixen would bat it away angrily into the face of another hapless customer. Thankfully, in our experience, her rudeness makes her a very atypical Italian. Smiles cost nothing. But bigger smiles mean better service and the better the service, the bigger the tip.

View from the polite restaurant

Friday, 5 July 2013

Of felonious friends, lists, fulfilling lists and future lists.

I am a writer of lists. Like my father, who probably still writes lists, I get bogged down in the detail of the day ahead, panic at the imbalance between jobs to do and time in which to do them and attempt to calm my inner turbulence by writing down all the things I hope to achieve in a list.

And subsequently fail to achieve much at all.

 A good day will be a 'two-er' - one in which two items on the list are scored through. 'One-ers' are pretty acceptable too. Far too many days though, end in a self-inflicted debate over whether I can justify a hashed line through a task partially completed. And I often write "make list" on my list for the following day, thus perpetuating the rolling disappointment and failure.

Some occasions are associated with more frantic list making than others. I am currently in the frenetic period pre-holiday-departure which has to be up there, with pre-wedding, at the top of the list making league. I make lists, then sub-lists to clarify the 'tidy garden' item and sub-list sub-lists to ensure that not only do I clear the bed above the wall of weeds, but that I also water the new plants in the afore-listed bed above the wall.

Then I lose the list, or sub-list. This used to result in recriminations directed against self by self, but these are pointless and serve only to make one's self esteem shrink. Now I shrug. And smile benignly and suggest to myself that it is quite probable that most of the items in the misplaced sub-list have been achieved already anyway and it's time to pat oneself on the back. It is best not to tell oneself that one has found the lost list later. And it is very bad practice indeed to read the list that was previously unaccounted for. Because there is absolutely no way that you are going to have the time to do all the things you had forgotten were on 'that' list.

On my penultimate pre-holiday-departure list for tomorrow, I had written construct 'cage' for red and white currant bushes (following the demise of my Heath Robinson fruit cage, which lasted eight years so can't have been too Heath in the Robinson department). However, my friends alerted me to the very near ripeness and deliciousness of the rapidly disappearing fruit and in doing so have turned the task of currant-protection into one of harvesting-to-freeze.

Currant thieves! Led astray, one felonious friend

by another