Another piece in the jigsaw

While we might not quite be in the starting blocks, we are at least warming up on the track. We have recently been granted permission to demolish the crumbling pigsty behind the house that currently serves as Mr Blue-Shirt’s workshop and replace it with a modest holiday cottage for visitors. As one might expect in a place where wrapping things in red tape is practically an art form – I even had to provide my codice fiscale (analogous to my NI number in the UK) at Ikea the other day just to claim my €15 token for having brought our Christmas tree back for composting – it had been a protracted process.

One of the many features that originally attracted us to the house was that it came with an outbuilding which in turn came with planning permission (permesso di costruire) to convert it – into an art studio, admittedly, but one man’s art studio is surely another’s open plan holiday cottage. By the time the house was ours, though, the clock was running down, so getting the planning permission extended became a priority since if it lapsed, we would have to begin the whole application process from scratch: something we wanted to avoid if at all possible. Our solicitor Giovanna got straight on the case, and was soon able to reassure us that our anxiety was unwarranted. The vendors’ architect had submitted a confirmation of the commencement of works a year earlier, and this had automatically extended the planning permission by a further two years. Now you might be a tad surprised that we were unaware that building work had begun. You might be less surprised, however, if I explained that in order to secure a confirmation of commencement of works certificate, it is necessary to do no more than stick a shovel in the ground and, ideally, erect a few metres of orange plastic netting.  And indeed, some prickly tramping around in the sprawling thicket of brambles behind the pigsty did indeed reveal a few tatty fragments of sun-bleached orange plastic. No matter: it gave us a year’s grace.

The vendors’ plans were not significantly different from what we wanted to build, but there were certain features that would need to be changed to create living accommodation rather than a studio. So it should now just have been a matter of applying to make the required changes, right?  Oh no: far too straightforward; far too Anglo-Saxon. The first hurdle was that while the property had automatically been transferred into our names on completion of the purchase, this did not mean that the planning permission had. So, before our architect, Silvano, could move anything forward, we had to get the planning permission transferred into our names. Which naturally involved putting together another bundle of copies of every conceivable document that proved that we were who we said we were and owned what we said we owned. In duplicate. Obviously.

Silvano presented us with the freshly-issued document – now in our names – a few weeks later when he came round to go through the changes that we wanted to make, with a view to him producing formal drawings to submit to the planning department. He’d long been aware of the type of changes we had wanted to make, and while sorting out the transfer of the permission into our names, he had discussed them informally with the planners.
“They reckon it will be better to let the current permit lapse and make a new application,” he informed us.
“But we spent ages making sure that the permission wasn’t about to lapse precisely so we didn’t have to make a new application!” I exclaimed.
“I know. I’m as surprised as you.  They say it’s because you want to create living space and the existing permission is for a studio.”
“But the footprint is exactly the same. We only want to change the internal layout and add a couple of windows.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s ‘residential’ so different rules apply. They have to think about pressure on local services and so on.”
“But it’s a holiday cottage – not for ‘residents’, for visitors!…”
“It still counts as residential, though.”
“…Visitors who will spend money here!”
“Planners aren’t interested in that. Look, I know it’s mad, but it’s part of a new law that’s just come in…” He shrugged apologetically and raised his hands as if in surrender.
“So why have we just gone to the trouble of transferring the existing planning permission into our names?” asked Mr Blue-Shirt.
“Well, I’m not entirely sure myself,” said Silvano. He looked slightly sheepish: he is a real stickler for detail and process (very un-Italian, but very comforting for us) and also knows our local planners quite well having successfully navigated the planning process for the conversion of the property from derelict farmhouse to a generous four-bedroom home. “But I think it is something to do with keeping the file open so there is some kind of planning timeline. They said it would help, though.”

So it was back to the drawing board – literally. Over the next couple of weeks, Mr Blue-Shirt upgraded his concept sketches to dimensioned drawings, and there then followed a slew of decisions on building materials, utilities, finishes and so on that would enable Silvano to draw up the definitive plans containing every last detail required by the planners.

In autumn, we had a meeting with Silvano to sign off the final drawings he would submit with our application.  We were excited to see the ideas we’d been throwing around for months crystallised into this composition of lines, figures, and elevations that bridged the gap between imagination and reality.  “How long do you think it will take,” Mr Blue-Shirt asked as we re-folded the bundle of drawings. Silvano checked the date on his watch. “I don’t think it will be before Christmas,” he said. A good ten weeks, then – assuming it all went through smoothly. Now well-versed in the glacial workings of Italian bureaucracy and having long since got out of our systems the urge to cry “But in the UK….” when presented with such timescales, we merely shrugged. After all, it was not as if we could realistically start work in winter anyway. In fact, if permission was granted towards the end of the year, then this would give us winter-proper to get quotes for the works and select a contractor in time for ground to be broken in spring. We just had to hope they wouldn’t have any queries or objections…

As it turned out, Silvano’s prediction was pretty well spot. In early January we received notification that permission would be granted – and thanks to Silvano’s thoroughness, with no amendments or conditions. This only left one more visit to the planning department before we reached the finishing line: to pay another round of fees (naturally) and get a couple of tax stamps from the newsagent across the square, all of which Mr Blue-Shirt achieved without incident. And in return for his efforts he was duly rewarded with our formal Permesso de Costruire. In duplicate. Obviously.

Felice Anno Nuovo!

The restaurant was already almost full when we arrived, pink-cheeked after the brisk 20-minute walk from home. Our table for two was tucked in between one with three young chaps dining together and one with two well-padded couples in their late sixties already attacking their antipasti. Mr Blue-Shirt had booked the table back in November, but we had no idea what the format for the evening would be. The staff clearly did, though. The second we were seated, bottles of water appeared and a pitcher brimming with red wine was plonked on the table, a few drops slopping onto the pristine white linen table cloth. We barely had time to fill our glasses and take in the fact that no menus were in evidence before our first course arrived. A generous plate of cured meats – the same as on the neighbouring tables. As it was well after 9pm we were really quite hungry, so soon cleared our plates, which subsequently transpired would be a major tactical error. We had worked out that it was a set meal. And this being a very traditional restaurant surely meant antipasti, primo, secondo and dolce, right? Wrong. So wrong…

Next up was a savoury pancake filled with a heavenly, mousse-light cheese sauce topped with flakes of earthy black truffle. Still labouring under the misapprehension that this would be the second of four courses, we again cleared our plates and Mr Blue-Shirt even accepted an offer of seconds – the fool.

So, we had had our antipasti and primo, albeit a slightly unorthodox one: while still carb-based, it wasn’t exactly pasta – which could mean only one thing. Next up would be the main course, and the star of the show: the new year classic, zampone con lenticche – pig’s trotter with lentils. Although we both consider ourselves to be pretty unfussy food-wise and will generally give most things a try, there are certain animal parts that for us cross a culinary line. When in Brunei, fish-head curry and grilled chicken’s feet were on the wrong side of that line, along with stewed parson’s noses and grilled ox vein skewers. Closer to home, what might be termed ‘advanced offal’ crosses, the line, as do animal extremities such as ears and tails. And trotters. We discussed how we might manage to avoid having to eat any of the meat without making it too obvious, and more importantly, without making a huge cultural gaff as well as insulting our hosts. The swing doors from the kitchen burst open and the team of five waiters processed into the restaurant, each bearing at shoulder height a platter of steaming something. Barbara, the chef’s daughter and head waiter approached our table with a determined look in her eye. We mentally rehearsed our “Just a little for me” and “No that’s plenty, thanks” as she presented her platter to us with an almost audible ‘ta-dah!’.  “Tagliatelle con ragù al cinghiale” announced Barbara. Tagliatelle with wild boar sauce?  Was this a second primo? Or a first secondo? But in that moment the distinction was immaterial. The main thing was that we had been given a stay of execution: still no zampone. And in our relief, we failed to say “basta così” – that’s enough, thanks – as Barbara coiled onto our plates great mounds of golden pasta laced with nuggets of dark tender meat in a deeply-flavoured sauce scented with juniper. Comfort food alla Marchigiana and one of our favourite dishes.

Our contented reverie was cut short as once more the doors from the kitchen swung open, and once more the procession of waiters entered the dining room, bearing their latest batch of steaming their platters aloft. We craned our necks to see what Barbara was serving to the other tables. Was it finally trotter time? “Tagliata di manzo” she announced. Wafer-thin strips of medium-rare char-grilled sirloin steak – and, in normal circumstances another of our regular choices. Here and there around us we could make out the occasional reluctant “ Mi dispiace, non posso” – sorry, I can’t – which made it slightly easier to ignore Barbara’s disappointed gaze as I also declined the slices of tender meat she gently gripped between her tongs. Mr Blue-Shirt restored her faith, though, but even he managed to say “un pochettino” – just a tiny bit – this time.

Several diners had already pushed their chairs away from the table, leaning back as if to ease the growing pressure on their waistbands. Others were tugging on coats, preparing to go for a cigarette in the starry cold and creating an unofficial interval before the second act. We speculated how this might play out as there was still over an hour to go before midnight, but since there was no sign of any kind of any dancing or live music, the only possible conclusion was that it would involve yet more food.

The interval over, the smokers returned to their tables, seats were pulled back in, red linen napkins returned to laps as the doors swung open and the procession of waiters took to their stage yet again. First up were lamb cutlets, and then came porchetta (rolled roast pork stuffed with herbs), both of which Mr Blue-Shirt naturally found impossible to resist, and then finally the blessed relief of something green: platters of grilled vegetables and bowls of tingling fresh salad, which I actually managed to pick at briefly. The clock was ticking down and the TV had been turned on to an outdoor New Year concert in Rome. Barbara and her team were now going from table to table offering “Spumante secco o dolce?” – dry or sweet fizz? “Secco,” we responded above the bustle and buzz of expectation that had suddenly filled the dining room. Our fellow diners were on their feet again, checking the time on watches and phones. We followed their lead and reached for the glasses and bottle of fizz that Barbara had plonked on the table. Someone had turned the volume up on the TV. “Dieci! Nove! Otto!…” Foil caps were removed, bottles held aloft…. “Tre! Due! Uno! BUON ANNO!” A volley of corks ricocheted around the dining room and within seconds, we were all clinking foaming glasses with one another, shaking hands and exchanging kisses.

Magically, amid the tangle of arms and raised glasses and bottles and hugs and impromptu dancing, the zampone con lenticche finally made their appearance. And remained largely untouched, except by a handful of elderly arch-traditionalists who gamely chewed away on the pink, rind-rimmed discs. So having wrestled with our cultural consciences all evening, it seemed that zampone may be to Italians what Brussels sprouts are to the British. And having forgone this classic dish, we had not made a gaff, but had in fact earned a cultural gold star. Not a bad way to start the new year.

A trip to the deep south

Italy’s ‘instep’. Basilicata. Also still known locally by its Roman name, Lucania. The only one of Italy’s twenty regions with two separate coastlines: a few token kilometres on the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west and a slightly longer stretch on the Ionian Sea to the south. Still one of the country’s poorest, least developed regions – while also being the site of western Europe’s largest oil field. And where you will find what must count as one of Europe’s most remarkable cities: Matera.

We had never even heard of the place until last year when a student in one of my English classes mentioned that she came from there. “That’s the place with the cave houses, isn’t it” asked a fellow student. “Yes, that’s right,” replied Dora. “I moved away when I went to university, though….” The conversation moved on and I continued with my lesson – on giving directions, if memory serves – but a seed had been sown. And so having found out a bit more about this extraordinary place, we decided to make Matera (which is also 2019’s European Capital of Culture, incidentally) the destination for a New Year mini-break.

Described by the New York Times as ‘Italy’s best-kept secret’ and also known as the Underground City (la Città Sotterranea), Matera is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with evidence of human habitation since 7000 BC. Those early settlements – the sassi – took the form of caves dug into the side of the ravine at the city’s north-eastern edge. And until the late 19th century, the city’s residents continued to carve their homes into and out of the soft, almond-coloured rock, creating a vast honeycomb of caverns, tunnels, alleys and staircases – as well as several full-size churches, complete with Byzantine frescoes.

Gradually, however, the sassi – which had no power, sewerage or running water until well into the 20th century – became synonymous with poverty and disease, and in the 1950s the 15,000 residents of the sassi were forcibly relocated to purpose-built public housing in the modern upper town. It was not until the 1980s, though, that regeneration of the sassi finally got underway when the local government recognised the area’s cultural significance – as well as its potential to draw visitors to this isolated and remote corner of Italy. With the help of the Italian state, the European Union and UNESCO (which awarded them the status of World Heritage Site in 1993) the sassi have been rebuilt, restored, re-purposed, re-inhabited and re-invigorated, and today are enjoying a renaissance not only as private homes but also as shops, bars, restaurants and hotels.

We got to enjoy rather more time in our intimate little cave-hotel deep in the sassi than anticipated, mind you. Our arrival in the town coincided almost exactly with that of a vicious weather front blown down from the Baltic that brought with it unprecedented snowfall and sub-zero temperatures that paralysed the town for most of our stay. Closer to Africa than to Austria, snow is pretty rare this far south in Italy, so the town was simply not equipped to deal with the 20cm that fell in one evening and that made it all but impossible to navigate the winding staircases and steep slopes of its shiny cobbled streets. Happily, however, there were several fabulous restaurants within tottering distance of our cosy cave-room, so at least we were able to enjoy another little-known attraction of the region: its distinctive cuisine. Exceptionally for Italy – and much to Mr Blue-Shirt’s delight – this features a lot of lamb, and the peperoni cruschi (red peppers that have been dried in the sun to a deeply coloured, deeply flavoured crisp) were a deliciously moreish discovery, as was the amazingly flavoursome bread. What’s that saying about clouds and silver linings? And talking of which, the fact that snow stopped play means that we have the ideal excuse to make a return visit to this fascinating, unique city – only in slightly kinder weather…

* Photo taken the morning after the first night’s snowfall of a couple of centimetres, but before a further 20cm or so fell just while we were having dinner later that evening.

A Brief Guide to Christmas in Italy

Bearing in mind Italians’ reputation for flamboyance and passion, it came as quite a surprise to find that Christmas is celebrated in rather an understated manner in Italy. It remains first and foremost a religious festival, and although it is one of the church’s cheerier ones, it is still treated with a greater degree of reverence than in UK and hence is not subject to anywhere near the same level of rampant commercialism – thankfully.

First of all, there is barely a hint of the approach of Christmas until the feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December, which is when most families put up their Christmas trees and decorations and when town centres turn on their Christmas lights. No giant inflatable snowmen and rooftop reindeer, though, and no Blackpool-style illuminations either: it really is all very restrained and traditional with clear rather than coloured lights and masses of pine swags and wreaths – no holly, though. And although Father Christmas – aka Babbo Natale – plays a leading role in festivities, the star of the show is very much the baby in a manger. There will often be a nativity scene as well as a tree in the central piazza; museums and galleries put on exhibitions of nativity scenes, and starting from Santo Stefano (Boxing Day) many towns and villages put on a living nativity scene – presepe vivente – complete with ass if not the ox.

This relative restraint is also apparent when it comes to Christmas shopping. People exchange gifts in Italy in much the same way as in the UK and so the shops do get much busier in December, but there is certainly no ‘shop ‘til you drop’ mentality, and shops themselves don’t seem to rely on sales over the Christmas period for their very survival. Christmas ‘gift packs’, novelty goods and jokey stocking fillers are not ‘a thing’ here. Nor are Christmas cards, and advent calendars of any kind – even the more traditional variety, never mind those filled with cheap chocolates or toys – simply don’t exist, and Christmas wrapping paper, gift tags and ribbon are quite difficult to come by too. But since most shops beautifully gift-wrap even the smallest purchase for you – one of my purchases for Mr Blue-Shirt (a set of grappa glasses, since you ask) came extravagantly wrapped in chocolate-scented paper, for instance – this is not much of an issue.

This being Italy, however, what there is definitely an abundance of is food and family-based feasting. Fish is traditional on Christmas Eve, and while there is no single dish that is typical, fish in some form or another will almost certainly feature among the antipasti, in the primo and in the secondo – all of which will be cooked from scratch. Mr Blue-Shirt observed this tradition, by the way, and rustled us up a truly yummy dish of lobster poached in a shellfish bisque served on homemade linguini.  Then on Christmas Day, meat takes centre stage, although once again, no single dish is typical in any one region, never mind nationally. Roast turkey is eaten, but just as common are goose, pheasant, partridge and duck, or, in Le Marche at least, a large joint of porchetta – roast pork. We went English this time, though, and opted for turkey with all the trimmings – except for roast parsnips, which are unheard of here.

While there is no equivalent of British-style Christmas pudding or mince pies, dried fruit, nuts and spices in various combinations are the key ingredients in most desserts. Frustingo, for instance, is a Marchigian speciality made from a deliciously squidgy mix of dried figs, almonds, pine nuts, raisins, chestnuts and candied peel flavoured with coffee, chocolate, rum and mosto cotto (a syrupy reduction of the leftovers of the wine-making process – and much tastier than it sounds). Probably about the only truly national favourite – and one of the very few dishes that are mass-produced rather than homemade – is panettone, the large, domed, brioche-like cake studded with sultanas and citrus peel that is fast becoming as popular in the UK as here in Italy.

Being none the wiser, we followed English culinary custom on Boxing Day – Santo Stefano – with a meal of cold turkey and bubble and squeak. But it was while I out for a conscience-easing run along the seafront at Civitanova Marche, that I discovered that this is the day on which Italian families typically go out for lunch. Most of the town’s beachfront restaurants had come out of hibernation for the festive period and every single one of them was crammed with multi-generational groups of ten, twelve or more, all tucking in to steaming bowls of saffron-scented brodetto (fish stew), huge pans of silky pasta mixed with locally caught shellfish and platters piled high with crispy fritto misto (mixed fried fish). Note to self for next year…

Which only leaves New Year’s Eve still to go.  Exceptionally for an ‘Eve’, meat rather than fish is traditional.  And just as exceptionally, it is the same dish all over Italy – zampone: slowly simmered pig’s trotter (I jest not) stuffed with seasoned sausage meat. In fact, so ubiquitous is this dish, which actually originated in Modena, that it is now mass-produced in a kind of quick-cook, vacuum-packed kit. The tall thin blue boxes with all-too vivid illustrations of their contents have probably been in the supermarkets longer than any other seasonal speciality apart from the green lentils – a symbol of prosperity – that typically accompany the zampone. We are seeing the New Year in at a favourite haunt of ours, a cosy, family-run restaurant that is just a short walk away. As well as being very well-established and very popular, it is also very traditional. So we are hoping they will be generous with the lentils…

Felice Anno Nuovo a tutti!

Back story

We stared with incredulity at the sum scrawled in Mauro’s flamboyant hand across the corner of the drawing that covered his glass-topped desk. Mr Blue-Shirt tapped out sums on his calculator while I tried to follow Mauro’s rapid-fire explanation of the figures he had just presented us with. It felt as if we had just been shoved off a cliff and were now free-falling into an abyss. As the sheer cliff-face streaked up past us and the sky shrank to a narrow blue slot, our brains struggled to process the implications of what we had just heard. A couple of seconds later we hit the ground with the unyielding thud of realisation.  It was no longer viable to build a house on our plot of land.

We were sitting in the small but trendily minimal office of the architect we had been about to instruct to oversee the building of the house we had been planning for the five years since we had bought a quartet of crumbling ruins and a few dozen straggly olive trees on a plot of land tucked in an achingly beautiful corner of Le Marche’s interior. It was where our brief but intense search had concluded soon after we had decided that this was definitely where we wanted to make our home.  We had formally viewed very few places – although we had informally clambered and scrabbled over dozens of similar wrecks ‘in need of complete restoration’ that we had come across on our travels in the area – but we knew almost instantly: this was The One. We were absolutely sure of it. It filled every one of our ‘hard’ criteria in terms of proximity to various amenities, but just as importantly, it also offered the tantalising promise of our vision of La Dolce Vita. It had plenty of olive trees, and the buildings – such as they were – offered the potential to achieve our aim of creating two income streams, a holiday cottage and a forge, and in whichever direction we looked, receding folds of softly curving hills covered with a mosaic of greens and golds faded into infinity.  And because this magical spot tugged so irresistibly at our hearts, the fact that all four ruins on the plot were well beyond any kind of salvation was neither here nor there: we would simply re-build rather than restore. Until that point we had never even entertained the notion of building, but suddenly it seemed the most natural thing in the world.  Then, without the constraints of awkward spaces, odd layouts or antiquated services to work round, our imaginations ran free. Within minutes we could picture ourselves living there. And not just where we would place this, that or the other piece of furniture and how it would all look, but how we would actually lead our lives. All our comings and goings, our favourite spots, and the locations for the myriad activities that would form the warp and weft of our daily lives. We had mentally and emotionally moved in before we had even finished the viewing.

While we were still running the forge, we planned and sketched as if possessed and soon knew under exactly which olive tree we would sip our aperitivi on a summer’s evening, what the fireplace would look like that we would curl up in front of as the nights drew in, how the generous kitchen would be filled with the laughter of the constant stream of friends who would gather for boozy suppers around the big battered dining table. But now it was never going to happen. The cicadas in the olive trees had suddenly fallen silent, the hearth grown cold, and the laughter was now just an echo in our empty dreams. The simple fact of the matter was that we could no longer afford to build. Since we had owned the plot building costs had risen sharply, with construction companies for some reason choosing to compete in a post-crisis market by increasing their prices. At the same time, the price of finished properties had fallen as a result of the financial crash, and in an attempt to release cash, many owners had put their properties on the market, thereby creating an over-supply. It was a perfect storm. Even if we could have afforded to build the house we had planned down to the last detail, it would have cost far more than buying an equivalent finished property. And if we tried reduced costs by building something more modest than we had already envisaged (which by any measure was hardly extravagant), we still could have bought its ready-built equivalent more cheaply. No matter which way we looked at it, no matter how many sums we did or options we considered, building just made no sense. Our dream was dead.

The sense of loss was enormous, and the heartbreak left us paralysed for months, during which we just buried ourselves in our business. It gradually dawned on us, however, that we were not prepared to give up on our dream; we just needed to develop a Plan B. But before we could do that, we had to dismantle Plan A, a plan that had been our driving force for nearly five years. It was a slow and painful process, though, as we had to un-draw all the drawings, un-hope all the hopes and un-dream all the dreams. We needed time to grieve for a life we could never have. However, little by little Plan B did emerge from the dense fog of disappointment. First, since the economics had told us to buy not build, we decided that was what we would do. Then, in order to avoid leaping from the fire of building into the frying pan of restoration, we also decided we would buy somewhere fully restored. Finally, we concluded that we still wanted to live in the same area, whose towns and villages we were already familiar with, where we had already made some friends, and which we had already started to think of as home. We had our Plan B.  And so almost a year after that meeting with Mauro, the new search was on.

Taking Stock

We were quite clear when we started looking for properties back in the autumn of 2015: finished places only. We weren’t in the market for anywhere ‘partially restored’, and anywhere that required ‘full restoration’ was given very short shrift. No Grand Designs for us. As the search continued into 2016, we maintained our resolve, even though we came across dozens of places with, for instance, vaulted ceilings but no stairs, or with grand fireplaces but no mains water, or with fabulous views but no windows, that all could be fantastic. But no: ‘could be’ was out. ‘Is’ was what we were after. Tempered with realism, of course. We were open to doing some decorating, some tweaking and tidying, a bit of finishing off – aka ‘putting our own stamp on things’, to coin the cliché much beloved by property programmes. And when we first viewed it in late 2016, that is the category that what has become Casa Girasole fell into.

The heavy lifting of the restoration work proper had been carried out by the vendors, leaving mainly cosmetic works still to be completed. We were in Goldilocks territory: not so much work it put us off, and not so little it offered no scope for personalisation, but just enough for Mr Blue-Shirt to flex his ‘getting his hands dirty’ muscles. We could move straight in and immediately live there comfortably, without recourse to camp stoves or strip-washes. It therefore comes as quite a surprise at the end of our first year in permanent residence just how much work we have done, either through choice or necessity. And there was – inevitably, in hindsight – a clutch of unforeseen (but ultimately probably foreseeable) necessities to see to. Replacing the boiler, for instance had not been on the list, but after a winter of taking turns to pad out to the boiler room in the dark, early morning chill to try and coax the wheezing, cantankerous beast back into life so it could breathe some warmth into the radiators and we could have a hot shower, we finally decided we needed a new one. And since the cause of death was limescale build-up, we added a water softener too. Then, of course, came the series of jobs that stemmed from this, including repairing two furred up loos and replacing a third as well as sorting out both showers.

Alongside these was the handful of jobs that were upgraded from choice to necessity. We knew we wanted to replace the windowless tongue and groove front and back doors with something that let natural daylight in. However, once it became clear just how much of our hard-won heat leaked out through the gaps round the frames, that job swiftly moved to the top of the list. It was a similar story with the patio doors whose windows were set so high that from the sofa it was impossible to see any more of the ‘to die for’ view down the valley to the sea than a small patch of sky, and maybe, on a particularly breezy day, the uppermost branches of our tallest and most unkempt olive trees. But winter soon revealed more serious shortcomings: their single-glazed windows streamed with condensation every morning, and drafts like icy knives sliced in through the gaps around the frame that were wide enough to stuff with newspaper. And several ruined batches of bread eventually convinced us to replace the burner in the overly needy oven that refused to stay alight without constant attention.

On the other hand, it is also reassuring to find how little we’ve actually had to do: how far what is already here suits our taste, and how well it all meets our needs.  While the kitchen has had quite a makeover, with sink, tap and tiles renewed, handmade pan drawers, cupboard doors, shelves, a bookcase and dishwasher fitted, and pantry and cupboard built in to the under-stairs space, the rest of the rustic yet modern interior has remained largely untouched. Apart from the admittedly quite major jobs of installing the fire insert and wood burning stove, which involved smashing a dinner-plate-sized hole through the outside wall of the house and erecting a 3m tall stainless-steel chimney, it has otherwise been a matter of changing a few light fittings here, adding curtain poles there; installing new power sockets and moving some light switches. And although the outside jobs have been quite substantial – adding shutters, re-doing the render and painting the house, removing redundant fencing, installing the irrigation system and building the wood-store – they have all fallen squarely into either the ‘looks nicer’ or ‘want to’ category.

All of which goes to confirm what we knew on that first viewing: that this was The One, the house with that indefinable ‘something’ that instantly made us feel as if we had come home – much like when you meet the person who is The One: the person who makes you feel as if you’ve known them all your life. And just as with that person, if they truly are The One, then it is on the basis not of who you wish they could become, but of who they already are, and then enabling them to blossom.

One Year On

This time last year I was like a cat on hot bricks. Mr Blue-Shirt was on his way home. Not just for a quick weekend visit this time; for good. My three months alone (apart from those hasty chances to re-connect) were finally coming to an end. Three months which had been among the loneliest in my life. All the excitement of a new home in a new country and the fulfilment of a long-cherished dream, yes. But also, for the weeks before I started work, the emptiness of solitude and the limited sense of purpose that barely extended beyond ‘holding the fort’ and ‘keeping the home fires burning’. I’d done that many times before, of course, back in the ‘90s in Germany when Mr Blue-Shirt had been away with the army on six-month tours during the Balkans Conflict or on three-month exercises in Canada. But I also had a stimulating job, a social circle and a ready-made community to take part in. Here though, in those early days when everything was so very new and alien, when nothing yet came easily or smoothly, seeking out new friendships and plunging into community life with far from fluent Italian simply felt like one new thing too many when the familiarity of home was, in the absence of my soulmate, what I most craved. A home that over summer had gradually filled with our things, our memories, our ways: all collected over more than thirty years of ‘us’-ness.

On top of that, creating a life here together had been a shared dream built over many years, so we wanted to make new friends as a couple and discover new places together, meaning suddenly starting to go solo just didn’t sit right with me. This possibly misguided means of keeping the faith came at a price, however. The delay in starting work nibbled away at my self-esteem and the despondency of self-imposed solitude, perversely, made me actively shy away from being among people. Seeing other couples, families and friends out and about and enjoying each other’s company only made the loneliness more painful than ever and left me feeling like a penniless hungry child with her face pressed against the window of a brightly lit sweet shop. Even worse, though, was coming home to a silent, empty house that was exactly as I had left it, with no one else there to leave a mug on the table, a sweater over a chair, or to leave the imprint of their body on a cushion. A house which became part fortress, part prison. I spent those long weeks tottering on the edge of a black hole and only those precious flying visits stopped me from falling into its melancholic depths.

Not that Mr Blue-Shirt had had it any easier. He had single-handedly had to pack up the forge, workshop and office and finish clearing the house while also carrying out a handover of the business to the young blacksmith who had bought the place – and, of course, completing the sale of the house and business itself. The pressure was immense and it seemed there simply weren’t going to be enough hours in the day to get everything done in time. He did it, though, of course. But his total exhaustion made me fearful for his safety on the long drive home, although having Mimi with him for company along the way gave me some reassurance. Her placid manner and unquestioning affection, her gentle purr and warm white fur had done so much in those final weeks to provide some comfort and ease the stress.  All that was now finally coming to an end, though. The sale had gone through, the keys handed over, the last boxes loaded and my travelling companion was on his way home for good to join me on our Italian adventure.

I had a map of Europe spread out on the dining room table so I could plot his progress from UK and over the Channel to Calais, then across France and Belgium to Aachen for his first overnight stop, although fatigue left him impervious to the attractions of its famous Christmas market. Then down through Germany the next day, snow showers briefly slowing his progress. Every couple of hours I calculated where he was likely to be, willing him to take a break as he had promised, to give me a call and let me know that all was well. In between these brief exchanges, I passed from room to room, repeatedly checking that everything was looking as homely and welcoming as possible. At last, as dusk thickened into night, the phone squawked into life one more time: “Hi! It’s me! I got here a few minutes ago.” I sensed the relief in his voice. “All safely parked up and checked in and Mimi is already curled up on the bed!”  He had made it safely to Füssen at the northern edge of the snow-sprinkled Bavarian Alps for his final overnight stop. “I’m off for a shower, some food, a beer – then bed!”

The next morning it was on into Austria, as white and twinkly as a Christmas card, and the long ascent to the Brenner Pass – while I eased my restlessness with a run to the village and back in the clear winter air. Then finally down into Italy and the welcoming sight of southern sunshine as I showered and changed and dried my hair. “I’m well past Verona and am now somewhere between Modena and Bologna” crackled Mr Blue-Shirt’s voice over his hands-free gadget a couple of hours later. In the meantime, I fetched wood, filled Mimi’s food bowl and sorted out her litter tray. Nesting instincts at full throttle, I primped and tidied and cooked and at last the call came through. “I’m just having a coffee at Rimini, then it’s onto the Adriatica!” I could hear the anticipation in his voice – that first glimpse of the sea always lifted the spirits on the long trek south – and I punched the air. He was nearly at the Autostrada del Sole, the motorway that hugs the coast as far as Bari – and that leads to within twenty minutes of our door. As the sun dipped behind the mountains in a riot of red and crimson, I finally folded the map, its job now done. I turned the lights on in every room, but this time left the shutters open so the house itself could beam in greeting. I checked my watch and peered out into the dying embers of the day. Not long now. The oven was on, the table set, the fizz was in the fridge. I washed the pans and plumped the cushions and peered out into the gathering dusk and checked my watch. I fiddled and paced, turned on the music and lit the candles and lit the fire and…

“Hellooo! I’m home!”

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.

A Night at the Opera

A survey in 1868 listed one hundred and thirteen of them in Le Marche, of which more than one hundred are still in regular use today. One for almost every other ‘comune’ in the region. And roughly four times as many per head of population as in the UK*. I’m talking about theatres. Yes, that’s right: theatres. Remarkable, isn’t it. Of course, I’m not talking about theatres on the scale of The London Palladium or as distinguished as Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre. No, the theatres of Le Marche are much more modest affairs. These tiny auditoria can usually be found tucked in between (or even within) other civic buildings that are often barely noticeable from the outside: Montelupone’s Teatro degli Angeli, for instance, forms part of the Palazzo Comunale (town hall). But their ambitions were far from modest: mostly built in the late 18th or early 19th centuries during a period of vigorous urbanisation, these delightful confections were conceived as symbols of civic pride and aspiration and very much designed as places for ‘the great and the good’ in the town to see and be seen. As a consequence, they typically feature several tiers of boxes and galleries that are richly decorated in masses of gilded plasterwork and velvet swags, with only a small number of seats in the stalls. In fact, all this embellishment, coupled with the lofty proportions, rather gives the impression of being inside a giant wedding cake. Although many fell into disrepair during the first half of the last century or were badly converted into cinemas, an extensive programme of works has seen nearly all of these tiny jewels restored to their former glory over the last thirty years or so.

With just ninety-nine seats, the Teatro Flora in Penna San Giovanni – a village of barely a thousand souls perched on a hill at the edge of the Sibillini Mountains – holds the record as the smallest of all. Others (such as Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Recanati, Teatro Feronia in San Severino Marche, Teatro La Rondinella in Montefano, Teatro Filippo Marchetti in Camerino or Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Pollenza) seat a couple of hundred, but it is only those in the bigger towns such as Jesi, Ascoli Piceno or Fermo that seat six hundred or more. And it was at Il Teatro dell’Aquila in the last of these that Mr Blue-Shirt and I recently attended a performance of Mozart’s comic masterpiece, Così Fan Tutte.

We first went to see this work so early on in our Italy travels that not only were we still camping in our faithful green ridge tent, but we had only just graduated from blue roll-up Karrimats to the luxury of an airbed. And it was thanks to the few centimetres of extra elevation that our brand-new airbed gave us that we avoided getting all our bedding soaked when a violent thunderstorm ripped through San Gimignano, flooding the campsite we were staying in and raining off the outdoor performance of Così Fan Tutte we had gone to before the end of the first act. So, some twenty-five years later, we thought it really was high time we saw the whole thing.

Fermo is a gracefully proportioned town with far-reaching views from its elevated position down to the Adriatic coast some three hundred metres below.  Although we had been there a several times before – in summer it holds a weekly night market that sells all sorts of crafts and collectables – we had no idea where the theatre was. Despite being one of the region’s larger theatres, it nonetheless turned out to be one of the ‘tucked in’ ones: squidged down a narrow side street on the edge of the ramparts with its only entrance almost hidden down an alley to the side. But as it was also just a couple of hundred metres from the town centre and the colonnaded Piazza del Popolo, we decided to enjoy a quick aperitivo in one of the many lively bars that line its elegant colonnades before curtain-up at nine o’clock.  Well, that’s what it said on the tickets, but this being Italy, such timings are effectively ‘for guidance purposes only’: when we peered down into the auditorium from our cosy little box on the third floor at ten to nine (having been unable to drop our Anglo-Saxon approach to time-keeping in favour of something more Mediterranean), the place was still almost empty. At least it gave us the chance to drink in our lavish surroundings: the five-tiers of boxes hugging the stage, the enormous brass chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling with its exotic frescoes, the deep red velvet upholstery trimmed with gold braid and fringes set off by the rich cream paintwork. And, looking at the occupants of the other boxes as they gradually filled up (just as the original architect, Cosimo Morelli, had intended), it also allowed us to confirm that putting on our glad rags had been the right call.  Sitting in the bar earlier we had felt distinctly over-dressed, but in these surrounding my LBD and heels were spot on. In fact, during the interval, Mr Blue-Shirt (in jacket and tie as well as blue shirt) said he’d even seen a few couples in black tie and evening gowns.  And best of all, this fabulous setting provided the perfect backdrop to a top-notch performance that glittered and sparkled from start to finish.  So although we waited over twenty five years to see the second act of Così Fan Tutte, it was undoubtedly worth the wait.  And we didn’t have to crawl into a soggy tent afterwards, either. Even if it did have an airbed.


* According to my research, Le Marche has about 113 theatres and a population of roughly 1.5 million, which means 1 theatre for every 13,200 people. By contrast, the UK has a population of 66.57 million and ‘only’ 1,300 theatres – ie 1 for every 51,000 people.


“God, I’m knackered,” I said as we slumped into the armchairs in the snug, easing our shoes off and picking leaves and twigs from our sweaters.
“I think I’m going to feel that in the morning,” said Mr Blue-Shirt, rubbing his back. “It’s not a very physically demanding job in itself, but when you do it for the whole weekend…”
Dusk was gathering and Mr Blue-Shirt and I had just completed this year’s olive harvest. We had been um-ing and ah-ing about when to start for some time, keeping an eye on what our neighbours were doing as a signal for when would be the right time. Over the preceding week or so one or other of us would come in and report that “Maurizio and Flavia have started.” Or “There were stacks of crates outside the place with the goats.” Or “They’ve got nets out next door to the baker’s on the hill.” With each new sighting, Mr Blue-Shirt retrieved another piece of our harvesting equipment from the workshop: first the bright green nylon floor nets, then the russet-coloured storage crates (ingeniously designed so that they can either stack on top of, or, if turned round the other way, slot inside each other), and finally the orange plastic rakes about the size of a child’s toy that can be fitted onto poles of varying lengths. And then, Mr Blue-Shirt being Mr Blue-Shirt, both chainsaws, the leaf-blower, the long-reach secateurs, the bolt-croppers, and the decorator’s ladder.

“It’s such a pity that we seem to have so little to show for all that effort, though.” said Mr Blue-Shirt, getting up again to put the kettle on the stove.
“So annoying. Especially as the trees had been absolutely laden,” I agreed. “There was so much fruit on those tall trees on the eastern side you could see it from our bedroom window. Hundreds and hundreds of little black beads shining in the sun like fairy lights made of jet.”
“I know. I had a look around after that first weekend of storms and although the winds had brought some down, I still thought we’d get a good crop, even without the trees damaged by ‘the east from the east’ back in February.” The kettle wailed into life. “Earl Grey or mint?”
“Earl Grey, please. The following weekend, though, was when there were all the storms that caused the flooding in Venice. It was absolutely howling even here. There was loads of debris on the road when I went to work on the Monday, so I suppose it’s not surprising that it brought our olives down too.”
“I hadn’t realised just how many had come down until I started to spread the nets out under the first couple of trees. The ground was absolutely carpeted with them. I could have cried.”
“So annoying,” I repeated, reaching out an olive-stained hand to take my mug of tea. “Mind you, we wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near the amount we did just with our plastic rakes. They’re fine for the lower branches and if the fruit is quite dense as just a vigorous yank will bring the fruit raining down. And there is something almost romantic about the simplicity of using a technology that has hardly changed for centuries.” I took a sip of tea. “But if you really need to get right to the top of the tree and comb through every branch to make sure you’ve got them all…. ”
“Then you need a gadget!” declared Mr Blue-Shirt, raising his mug in a triumphant toast to technology.

I rolled my eyes in mock boredom as he had been banging on about – sorry: extolling the virtues of  – his latest gadget all weekend. But he was right: his abbacchiatoro elettrico (the birthday present he had been waiting to use since June) had saved the day. This car-battery-powered device consists of a telescopic pole on the end of which is a pair of lightly interlocking rakes that jiggle back and forth like a pair of rapidly clapping hands and tease the olives from the tree as you pass it along the branches.
“It certainly earned its keep,” I agreed. “There was fruit pinging everywhere! Even from trees that initially looked almost bare.”
“Yes, as well as the reach, it’s the speed that makes it so efficient. It would have taken twice as long to get the quantity we did otherwise.”
“Which would have been just too depressing.”

Even with the appliance of science we had only managed to fill four-and-a-bit crates: little over a hundred kilos. The previous year we’d got almost the same amount from just five or six of our thirty-eight trees using just our trusty orange plastic rakes.
“And we don’t know what the yield is going to be like yet either as there’s quite a high proportion of unripe, green fruit,” said Mr Blue-Shirt, reaching for the kindling to light the wood burner. “I’m going to the oleificio to get them pressed first thing tomorrow as I don’t want the fruit that we have got to deteriorate at all.”
“Are you going to the one that Enrico mentioned the other day?” Mr Blue-Shirt had asked for a recommendation from our neighbour while he was ploughing at the edge of our land. The previous year we had gone to an oleificio almost down in Civitanova Alta, but were sure there must be a closer one.
“Yes – as long as I can find it. Enrico’s directions were a bit vague.” He clanged the door of the wood burner shut and sat back to admire the flames now dancing merrily in the grate.

But he did find it: a small set-up in the corner of a sprawling but immaculately kept olive farm down a lane on the way to Macerata. “Rodolfo the owner was really friendly and really knowledgeable,” said Mr Blue-Shirt over dinner the next evening. “He confirmed that it had been a really bad year for everyone. I was lucky to catch him, in fact, as he said he had pretty well given up for the season.  I think ours must have been his last pressing.”
“Yes, Jo at work said today that her neighbours apparently hadn’t even bothered harvesting this year. And a friend of Pat’s claimed that they’ve got precisely five olives off their twenty-seven trees this year.”
“I suppose that’s some comfort.  And Rodolfo said that our fruit was really good quality, too. You know that all green fruit? He reckoned that was good enough to preserve as eating olives, which obviously have to be top notch.”
“Hmmm. Something to think about for next year. Did he say whether they would give a good yield, though?”
“No. He said it’s not really possible to tell in advance. We’ll only find out when we go to pick it up tomorrow afternoon.”

“Twenty-five litres?!” I exclaimed as Mr-Blue-Shirt and Rodolfo lifted our gleaming stainless steel flagon onto the scales whose electric-blue digits had just flickered round to 25:08 kg. “Wow, that’s miles better than I expected!”
É buono,” said Rodolfo, nodding appreciatively.
“And actually a better yield than last year,” observed Mr Blue-Shirt.
After a bit more olive chit-chat, we swung the satisfyingly heavy flagon into the boot, handed Rodolfo his €25.00 pressing fee, bade him farewell until next year – “Ci vediamo l’anno prossimo!” – and trundled back up the hill towards home.

Down in the musty gloom of the cellar Mr Blue-Shirt unscrewed the lid of the flagon, which we had carefully placed back on its stand, and shone a torch in through its wide neck. As the beam illuminated the fragrant greeny-gold oil that half-filled the flagon it occurred to us: this really was our oil. For anything under about two hundred and fifty kilos of fruit, it’s not normally possible to get a ‘single estate’ pressing. Smaller amounts are usually pooled and you get a pro-rata quantity of the resulting oil.  But because Rodolfo had been just about to shut up shop and had effectively pressed our meagre one hundred kilos on its own as a favour, this modest haul of liquid gold was our very first, pure Casa Girasole oil!

Which suddenly made it very much worth all that effort after all.

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