Monday, December 26, 2011
I never cease to be fascinated with the way the silver-green boughs and leaves catch fire in the light and flicker in the wind. Olives trees are evergreens, and perhaps the original Christmas tree. And an ancient symbol of peace. That's why our favorite gift to friends and loved ones during the holiday season is oil from our own olives handpicked with care. Peace to all.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Thursday, November 3, 2011
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Friday, September 2, 2011
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Sunday, August 7, 2011
I'm talking about grapes, of course. Vitus vinifera, the noble wine grape. Those of you who tuned in to the unfolding saga during our first growing season and vintage last year, are wondering how the vineyard is doing at this stage. You will remember my disastrous battle with the dreaded powdery mildew known to Italian winemakers as oidio. You will remember how we threw 80 to 90 percent of our grapes to the ground, rotten with blight, yet still managed to make some wine. Wine that is turning out to be better than I expected.
This year, there is oidio again. Turns out it is to be expected here in the micro-climate nooks and crannies where grapes grow best, places like our vineyard which has a perfect southern hillside exposure but is pinched between woods that cause the sun to hit it a bit late in the morning. The weather was strange in July, cooler than usual, but humid, which doesn't help. There is good news, however, we have only dropped about 20-30 percent of the crop so far, just about what I'd want to cull to increase the quality of the bunches on the heavy bearing vines anyway. Even better news is, veraison has begun and the grapes are turning red. This is good because the change in grape chemistry at this stage tends to keep the oidio away. I have sprayed the vineyard with copper sulfate (approved organic) for the last time this season. Unfortunately, about 30 minutes after I finished spraying, a thunderstorm drenched the vines. Apparently, enough of that spray stuck and is doing it's job. The grapes are looking good. The weather has improved. Sunny and dry. Cool nights. We have about a month to go. And for now, as the ancient Romans used to say, it's in the laps of the gods.
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
When I first met Giovanni, our neighbor farmer, four years ago, he told me there was a feral cat living in the old farm shack on our property. He advised me to feed it occasionally because it kept the vermin away. I've left it food for the last four years and caught glimpses of it now and then -- a beautiful tiger-striped silver-gray female with an almost oriental face.
This year when I returned to Tana Lepre, she did not show up, but this cat did. I am sure it is one of that older cat's kittens, Three years ago, I was walking down from the olive grove when I heard a strange sound from the bole of a hollow tree where the feral cat had given birth. She was presumably off hunting, when a tiny kitten had climbed out of the bole and fallen down the 4-foot earthen bank from which the tree juts. I picked the tiny thing up and put it back in the bole. There were two other kittens in there mewing away. Two were silver like their mother. One was a "quilty cat," which is what Sally and I call the ubiquitous patchwork feral cats of Tuscany.
Like mother like daughter ... except this cat is much less aloof, probably because she showed up as an adolescent. She has two ways of speaking, meowing and hissing. Mostly she meows, but she sometimes hisses at me when she's hungry. She especially seems to like the sound of Sally and me talking. It's taken 3 months for her to inch closer and not run away every time we move. She joins us for meals and gets all kinds of tasty snacks, including cat kibble. Lately, she's begun to eat right under us at the table, inside or out. And when she's still hungry after emptying her bowl, she tells me by running under me and rubbing my legs with her back and tail. I reach down and try to pet her sometimes as she eats, but she always starts and jumps. The first time I tried, she bolted into the woods, now she just pulls back and looks up at me like she's going to hiss.
This morning I woke up to find she had climbed up our roof, onto our balcony, come into our bedroom through our open french doors, and slept on the floor just below me. She still won't let us pet her but, like the fogs around here, she's creeping closer on little cat feet.
Her home is under our solar panels, which shelter her from sun and rain. The locals think it's funny when I call the panels a cat house in Italian. Here she is on "Cat-henge."
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Lettuce is a cool weather vegetable better suited to spring and fall than the blasting African heat of Tuscan summers. But I planted several varieties in the partial shade of the prune and fig trees lining our orto (kitchen garden) and we are still eating them. Like most things fresh from a garden, this lettuce is particularly sweet and "lettucy" tasting, not a hint of bitterness. Because enzymes start turning sugars and soft tissue to starch and cellulose the minute you pick ANYTHING, you can't get anything like this in ANY grocery store or market.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Monday, July 4, 2011
Monday, June 20, 2011
Friday, June 10, 2011
The loaner lambs from Podere Il Casale arrived last week. Fourteen, 6-month-old walking fertilizer factories. In one week they cleared the small field, now more a meadow, just below the house. Now they are up in the olive grove munching away and removing the fire hazard. I won’t have to pay to have the ground mowed or tilled this year, and this pleases me.
Unlike the claims of Hollywood western cowboys, sheep don’t eat everything down to nubs. They are very selective. And they aren’t noisy. OK, yeah, they’re a little stinky when they get wet in the rain, but that’s OK way out in the field.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Two posts ago, I said I like yeast and I meant it. Three months ago, I visited my good friends Eric Fischl and April Gornik at their Long Island home. Eric, ordinarily a renowned painter and founding curator of the American Now & Here show (which opened in Kansas City last month and will now travel around the US), had gotten into baking bread using wild homemade sourdough starter. The kind that has been used forever, by Romans, Frenchmen, and western pioneers, but has been replace in the last century by industrial yeast powder (the way real soup stock got replaced by boullion cubes). It’s also the gooey basis for bread therapy.
I must say the olive loaf Eric shared was divine. It was based on the recipe from the Tartine Bread Book, written by Chad Robertson of the famous bay area bakery/cafe, where Eric and April had eaten a meal and become inspired. As a belated Christmas gift, they gave me a copy.
A few weeks later, Sally and I were visiting our friends Michael Pollan and Judith Belzer at their Berkley, California home. Michael was baking bread to research a chapter on fermented foods for his next book-n-progress. It happened to be sourdough. It happened to be reminiscent of the Tartine inspired loaves Eric pulled from his oven. When I mentioned the book I’d just been given, he pulled a flour-coated copy from the counter and said that’s what he’d been using (with a little mentoring from the author himself.) That night we tasted a loaf of actual Tartine bread beside a fresh loaf of Michael’s. Sorry Tartine, I liked Michael’s a tad better (more sour, like what I grew up with).
I made my first sourdough bread, from starter, when I was 14 and growing up in Folsom, California. But I gave up fermenting wheat when I began fermenting grapes into wine and concocting savory main courses to go with the result. There’s only so much time in the world. And I could get all the fresh San Francisco sourdough I wanted at the time.
But this is a blog about Tuscany, where there is nothing bland except one thing: its bread. It is, the blandest bread in the world, leavened or un-. No salt. Certainly no wild sourdough starter. Even the air holes have more flavor than the dough. It’s virtue, and its claim to fame, is that it is the perfect neutral base (think wallpaper paste) for respectfully and unintrusively soaking up sauces. One thing it decidedly is not is sandwich bread.
I like sandwiches. A lot.
So, pulling my Christmas gift Tartine book from my bag when I got back to Tana Lepre a month ago, I started a batch of starter [pictured above]. It is something like I made in my California youth, but with good wild Tuscan yeasts and bacteria doing their job on the fine, but bland, Italian flour. For 3 weeks I “trained” my starter, teaching it to rise and deflate on schedule with its daily feeding of new flour. Then I went to work.
There is nothing like a travertine dining table as a workbench for shaping loaves.
Here is the result. Thumpin’ good crust, yeasty perfume, chewy texture. Now I’m going to go make that sandwich!
[all loafs by Jack]
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
It kicks, bites, pulls, plows, balks, and handles like a mule. It takes all my upper body strength to start with a pull rope, but once that diesel is thumping, it can till all day without pause. It’s cantankerous on rough ground, a bear to turn corners, and can rip your arms off if you don’t pay attention. It’s the Italian invention that helped put Italian agriculture back on its feet after WWII. It’s the Bertolini walking tractor. I’ve always wanted one!
Actually, Ulisse loaned me his to prepare my garden soil, which I’m giving him half to use. This is our barter system. I give the land, water, attention to the crops, he plants what he wants on his half and harvests it when its ready. In return Sally and I get a melon and a tomato or two and the satisfaction of knowing our once defunct farm is producing even more in this world of dwindling resoursces and rampant population growth. It also just makes the place look tidier.
Before I tilled, I had to mow the tall grass with my trusty scythe. Here is what it looked like. before.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
This glass of wine is murky because this is what was left after I spent the morning racking (siphoning) our wines from the 2010 vintage – our very first! I don’t mind tasting a little yeast when it tells me things about the wine (and tastes a little like bread/beer, which I also like). If the wine tastes good with the yeast, it should taste even better without it!
It took until noon to rack the 46 gallons of wine that have been sitting quietly in the dark underground garage since we left in late December. Of the four different cuvee, in increasing order of extraction and intensity, the rosato (rose’ juice left on skins only a few hours), salasso (juice strained without before being put in the press after 5 days), free run (what ran freely from the press when juice and skins were ladled in after 7 days fermenting), and press wine (what came out of the press when pressure was applied to that), all were siphoned off the lees (yeast sludge) in the bottoms of their demijohns and into new ones on the shelf. No mishaps this time! No broken demijohns! No lost wine!
When I started the process around 8:00 o’clock this morning, I was concerned about the rotten egg smells of sulfur from the salasso demijohn and alarmed to find that Alesio, the kid who looked after the wines during the winter, had poured paraffin oil, not sterile sulfite water, into the fermentation lock (which he also broke) and also on top of the wine. What a mess! I had to be extra diligent and sanitary.
On tasting samples from each of the four different wines – each an experiment to see just what our grapes, vinified using various ancient techniques, would give me – I found them interesting and delicious in their own ways. Most happily, there was no sign of the dreaded “horse blanket “or “wet dog” taint associated with the dreaded oidio plague or with the brett infecting my neighbor Giovanni’s wine (which he doesn’t seem to notice).
The rosato was fruity and fresh and will be refreshing during the summer heat! The others exhibited graduated intensities of red fruit from a palette of raspberry, cherry, strawberry plum, rose, violet and spice, with balancing hints of the slightly meaty-mushroomy savoriness I associate with umame (and find in my favorite Rhone wines). More Burgundy/Beaujolais styled, rather than Bourdeax-Rhone, these wines should age nicely in the short run. And though this year I don’t think I will age any of them on wood, they should drink nicely for the next 4 or 5 years when bottled, with food and without it.
Encouraged so far, I may go for a “big red” this year.