Something Afoot in the Olive Grove

The cherry is still clad in burnished copper, the pomegranate’s golden orbs spill their jewelled seeds on the rain-softened ground and the persimmon still hang from their slender branches, like tiny lanterns glowing in the autumn dusk. But the pear, fig, plum, apple and walnut all stand naked, their fruit long gathered in, their work done for another year. And around them stand the olives in their year-round robes of silver-green, their branches stripped of fruit; all now resting until the spring.

But amid the hush of dormancy something stirs along the sloping northern edge. A muffled thumping one day, a rhythmic banging the next, then days of steady rasping. And finally, a huge crouching form rises from the sticky soil, cloaked in the morning mist: Mr Blue-Shirt’s latest project, his mighty woodstore. It has been a labour of love, a learning experience and – this being Italy – an exercise in patience.

A key part of ‘The Plan’ for Casa Girasole is replacing the crumbling pigsty that currently serves as Mr Blue-Shirt’s workshop with a modest single-storey holiday home whose living area and terrace will look out onto a section of the olive grove behind the house and down to the sea beyond. And also, unfortunately, straight onto the less than lovely above-ground workings of our eco-friendly waste-treatment system that are located bang in the middle of what will effectively become our guests’ garden. The thing is, these workings can be neither moved nor prettified, so hiding them (while still retaining access) was always going to be the only option, although what with was much less clear. One by one, walls, fences, hedges and even sheds were all rejected for one reason or another. But eventually Mr Blue-Shirt came up with the solution: a legnaia – a woodstore. Initially, I have to confess, I was not convinced. I did not dispute the need for one – by this time, after all, we already had probably two winters’ worth of firewood piled up behind the pigsty waiting to be chopped into logs. Surely putting it here, though, would risk simply hiding one ugly essential with another bigger one? But Mr Blue-Shirt had done his homework and prepared his case; made his measurements and done his drawings: this was going to be a decorative woodstore – and on an epic scale. Stretching down the olive grove for some nine metres, it would consist of a steel frame supporting sections of mesh shelving around three sides, onto which neatly cut logs would be artfully stacked. This would be topped with solid timber beams running from one end to the other that would support a felted roof finished with traditional Italian tiles, aka ‘coppi’. It would even feature a reclaimed period timber door at the far end to allow access to the water works. I was sold.

Phase one was the shelving. This was made to order by a metal fabricator we often used to work with when we ran the forge in Lincolnshire and came over with us from UK back in August. Once the intense heat of full summer had eased, Mr Blue-Shirt dug the holes for the uprights, a task that was easier said than done in the sun-hardened Le Marche clay. But at least this then made cementing them in place and bolting in the shelves much easier by comparison. Then – eventually – came the timber beams. Mr Blue-Shirt had had these and the cross-battens cut to order by a saw mill over in Amandola that had been recommended by the carpenter who had made our shutters for us. However, they were delayed for several weeks, initially thanks to the order getting lost and then being overtaken by more urgent jobs – both of which Mr Blue-Shirt was only told about once he had driven all the way over there on the previously specified date to pick them up. Cue some very Anglo-Saxon displays of irritation after these two wasted trips.  Anyway, so keen was Mr Blue-Shirt by this stage to crack on with the job that, despite their four-metre length, Mr Blue-Shirt managed to manhandle all four of the beams into position on his own while I was out at work. I was horrified by all the possible injuries he could have sustained in the process, but Mr Blue-Shirt was grinning from ear to ear as he showed me his handiwork. “Oh, stop fussing, will you?” he protested. “I’m as happy as a pig in muck. I’m having great fun!”

Another day while I was busy preparing lessons, he cut the twenty-five pine battens to length and screwed them in place between the beams. Heavy rain then stopped play for a few days, but a couple of days after that I came home from my afternoon classes in Recanati to find the battens completely covered with sheets of pinky-brown plywood that Mr Blue-Shirt had sourced from a family-run builder’s merchants that he had stumbled across down in Trodica. The woodstore had a roof!  And when I headed off a day or so later for a day’s teaching in Ancona and Castelfidardo, Mr Blue-Shirt was already hard at work, rolling out the greeny-grey bitumen-coated roofing felt that he had bought from the factory shop of yet another local supplier he had tracked down in the next village. Once this was nailed neatly in place – with specialist nails that he had had to find from somewhere else again – the roof was waterproof and ready for the coppi.

We are going to need about five hundred of these tiles, whose design has probably changed little since Roman times, and which can best be described as something like slightly tapering sections of guttering made from terracotta.  Cut side up, they are laid, slightly overlapping, in parallel rows that follow the slope of the roof. Then off-set parallel rows of slightly overlapping tiles are placed over the top, this time cut side down, thus covering the join between the rows below and making the whole thing watertight. The plan is to source these from a reclamation yard as old ones will match best with those on the house, which is bound to provide Mr Blue-Shirt with further opportunities for working on his Mediterranean mindset.  But since it will also involve exploring the trading estates of the area and expanding his fast-growing directory of specialist local suppliers, he will still – despite the occasional bout of Anglo-Saxon huffing and puffing – without doubt be as happy as a pig in muck.

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