Picking One’s Olives

It’s that time again in our part of the world: olive-picking time. In Longoio we are near the top height for growing olives (and vines) – 1750 feet. This year for the very first time we’ve got something worth picking in our miniscule grove of twenty-odd trees. The afternoon was gorgeously autumnal and two of my cats, Cheekie and grand master Napoleon came down with me.

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There was a surprising lot of berries to pick.

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As my cats love climbing up trees I had a wild idea of training them to ascent up the olive trees and help the precious fruits drop. After all, more technically advanced people have a machine which, with a rubber band attached, shakes the tree so that the olives drop down into a net.

But my cats seemed uninterested in learning this skill and just lay in the dazzling sun and watched or played in chasing phantom fiends across the lush grass.

My system was a little more primitive I have to say, Most  of the olives aren’t very tall so I just picked them by hand or used a rake to reach the top-most branches.

Then it was back home for the three of us. I’ll be back tomorrow to my orto to see if I can glean more olives from my maturing trees.

If those of you living in northern climes think all this is irrelevant think again. There are now olive groves in southern England (see http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-kent-18551076 ) and, indeed, some London streets are lined with them (ever been down Islington’s Fife terrace?). Whether the fruit will be as succulent as that coming from the deep south of Europe is another matter of course…

Plant you own little olive tree and wait and see. The olive is a sacred tree redolent of peace and harmony and everything that can be said to be positive in our disquieting human nature.

Yufeng and its Five-Hundred Year Old Camellia

Insectarians would find Lijiang a treat. How about some fried cockroaches and maggots for a snack?

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Unfortunately we never acquired a taste for these members of the animal kingdom and stuck to a mixture of European and Chinese breakfast which includes delicious dumplings and a lot of soup. One thing is certain we were never spoilt for choice in our cuisine and discovered how truly limited many so-called Chinese restaurants in the west are.

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Here were our first views on stepping outside our hotel in Lijiang. First, however, we joined a trip to explore the surrounding country around a town first made famous last century by those mythical travellers, British Bruce Chatwin. Russian Peter Goullart and American Joseph Rock.

Some roadside sights were very familiar to anyone who has lived in our part of the Lucchesia for some time.

We headed for a remote temple which has the oldest Camelia tree in the world.

As you’ll know tea is a species of camellia. We love the camellia festival in the Compitese area of the Pisan hills and regularly attend it. (For more on that see my posts at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/the-ravishing-camellias-of-compitese/ and https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/la-traviatas-favourite-flower/  and https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/one-hundred-roman-farms-and-one-thousand-camellias/ and https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/thankyou-camellia/ .

We’ve even inherited our own camellia tree when we bought our little house in 2005. We were thus very keen to visit the ancient lamasery of Yufeng. We were now in a border country where Confucianism, animism, and both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism coexist. Indeed, the ethnic minorities of this area count well over twenty different groups. The Yufeng lamasery belongs to the Scarlet sect (as distinct from the yellow hat – more of that when we enter Tibet) and dates back to 1756 (the year of Mozart’s birth…) during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (Qing dynasty).

We were welcomed by a chorus of Nakhi grandmothers:

It’s a miracle that this temple, like so many others we visited in the orient, has survived one of the three great misdirected vicissitudes (yes, today the Chinese government recognizes the fact that they were indeed misdirected…) namely the great famine, the great leap forwards and the Cultural Revolution.

It was thanks to a wonderful Nakhi man, Nadu Lama that the ancient camellia tree was saved from the destructive forces of the country’s equivalent of what’s still happening to the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq. Sadly, we were too late to meet Nadu as he died last year but we regard him as one of the great unsung heroes of modern-day China.

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My knowledge of architectural styles in this part of the world is sorely lacking but I gather Yufeng temple is an amalgam of Han (majority Chinese), Tibetan, Taoist and the local Nakhi (or Naxi) Dingba animist religion.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the wrong time of year to enjoy the wonderful blossoms of the camellia which are best appreciated in the spring and early summer.

The intimate atmosphere, the incredible convolutions of the camellia and the wonderful views, however, more than compensated for that and we did see a photograph of a blossoming shrub which has changed not only Chinese drinking habits but that of so many other countries including, of course, our own UK and has extended well into politics as well.

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The camellia itself was planted by Emperor Chenghua of the Ming dynasty over five hundred years ago. It’s thus rather older than the temple itself. The flowers bloom for around a hundred days and the tree has over twenty thousand (!) blossoms). Incredibly, it’s two camellias in one: the pink camellia and the white. They seem to have bonded together like passionate lovers.

No wonder Nadu Lama devoted his entire life to protecting this one plant. Would you risk your life to protect one of earth’s natural glories in such a devoted fashion?

The whole area is indescribably beautiful but be warned, after recent rains, the temple steps (each temple must have its, usually steep, steps as it’s built on a hill, and you have to pay a little penance to get to its holy of holies) can get a little slippery!

PS In case your knowledge of Chinese dynasties is slim (as is mine) here is a chart to help you along when I describe later episodes in our eastern odyssey:

Dynasty Rulers Ruling house or clan of houses From To Length
Name Chinese Meaning
Confederacy dynasties
Xia dynasty Xià Tribe name (list) Sì (姒) 2070 BC 1600 BC 470 years
Shang dynasty Shāng Toponym (list) Zǐ (子) 1600 BC 1046 BC 554 years
Western Zhou dynasty 西周 Xī Zhōu Toponym (list) (姬) 1046 BC 771 BC 275 years
Eastern Zhou dynasty 東周 / 东周 Dōng Zhōu Toponym (list) (姬) 770 BC 256 BC 515 years
Spring and Autumn period 春秋 Chūn Qiū As English 770 BC 476 BC 295 years
Warring States period 戰國 / 战国 Zhàn Guó As English 476 BC 221 BC 255 years
Imperial dynasties
Qin dynasty Qín Toponym (list) Yíng (嬴) 221 BC 206 BC 15 years
Western Han dynasty 西漢 / 西汉 Xī Hàn Toponym (list) Liú (劉) 206 BC or 202 BC 9 AD 215 years
Xin dynasty Xīn “New” (list) Wáng (王) 9 AD 23 AD 14 years
Eastern Han dynasty 東漢 / 东汉 Dōng Hàn Toponym (list) Liú (劉) 25 AD 220 AD 195 years
Three Kingdoms 三國 / 三国 Sān Guó As English (list) Cáo (曹)
Liú (劉 / 刘)
Sūn (孫 / 孙)
220 AD 280 AD 60 years
Western Jin dynasty 西晉 / 西晋 Xī Jìn Toponym (list) Sīmǎ (司馬) 265 AD 317 AD 52 years
Eastern Jin dynasty 東晉 / 东晋 Dōng Jìn Toponym (list) Sīmǎ (司馬) 317 AD 420 AD 103 years
Southern and Northern dynasties 南北朝 Nán Běi Cháo As English (list) various 420 AD 589 AD 169 years
Sui dynasty Suí Ducal title
(随 homophone)
(list) Yáng (楊) 581 AD 618 AD 37 years
Tang dynasty Táng Ducal title (list) (李) 618 AD 907 AD 289 years
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms 五代十國

/ 五代十国

Wǔ Dài Shí Guó As English (list) various 907 AD 960 AD 53 years
Kingdom of Dali 大理國

/ 大理国

Dà Lǐ Guó Toponym (list) Duan (段) 937 AD 1253 AD 316 years
Northern Song dynasty 北宋 Běi Sòng Toponym (list) Zhào (趙) 960 AD 1127 AD 167 years
Southern Song dynasty 南宋 Nán Sòng Toponym (list) Zhào (趙) 1127 AD 1279 AD 152 years
Liao dynasty 遼 / 辽 Liáo “Vast” or “Iron”
(Khitan homophone)
(list) Yelü (; 耶律) 907 AD or 916 AD 1125 AD 209 years
Jin dynasty Jīn “Gold” (list) Wanggiya
(; 完顏)
1115 AD 1234 AD 119 years
Western Xia 西夏 Xī Xià Toponym (list) Li (𘝾; 李) 1038 AD 1227 AD 189 years
Western Liao 西遼 Xī Liáo “Vast” or “Iron”
(Khitan homophone)
(list) Yelü (; 耶律) 1124 AD 1218 AD 94 years
Yuan dynasty Yuán “Great” or “Primacy” (list) Borjigin
(ᠪᠣᠷᠵᠢᠭᠢᠨ; 孛兒只斤)
1271 AD 1368 AD 97 years
Ming dynasty Míng “Bright” (list) Zhū (朱) 1368 AD 1644 AD or 1662 AD 276 years
Qing dynasty Qīng “Pure” (list) Aisin Gioro
( ᠠᡳᠰᡳᠨ ᡤᡳᠣᡵᠣ; 愛新覺羅)
1636 AD or 1644 AD 1912 AD 268 years

PPS Don’t worry if you can’t place them as easily as such terms as ‘mediaeval,’, ‘renaissance’, ‘rococo, or even ‘baroque’. The most important dynasties to remember are clearly the last two: the Ming and Qing.

 

Virgins in my Field

Our orto (allotment) may not have flourished too well this year because of the very wet start to June and then the weeks without any significant rain that followed (and are still with us…).

The cabbages seem a slightly sorry lot and the tomatoes would barely satisfy a handful of salads.

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However, the up-side is that our olive trees which range from three years to ten years of age are producing more fruit this year than ever before. The start of the olive harvest could be any time between the middle of October to November before the frosts start. It’s a sort of intuitive thing. What I like to do is to see when the other local olive growers pick theirs. After all they’ve had generations of experience.

Here are some of ours:

It’s not just the height of the olive grove – we’re at an altitude of 1745 feet which is exactly the height of Titterstone Clee Hill in Shropshire that tells one when to pick the fruit.

Normally, the olive fruit starts to accumulate virgin oil once its seed has reached the highest grade of hardness which normally happens here around mid-October. The olive skin colour turns from green to a red-violet colour and even goes to brown. The fruit can also be tested by seeing how hard it is. As it matures the olive softens to the touch. But beware of not letting it get too soft otherwise oxidisation can take place diminishing the quality of the olive. If the fruit is left too long on the tree then negative effects can occur – after all the olive is the flower of the tree and it can burst into bloom if left too late.

As with wine there are good years and not so good years for the olive. 2014 was a particularly bad year for this wonderful plant with 40% lost due to a parasite otherwise known as the olive fly (Bactrocera oleae). In 2012 I remember a terrible frost which had disastrous effects on olive groves in our area. The worst, however, which I can still recollect was that of 1985 which killed off nine out of every ten Tuscan olive trees.

I love my olive plants more than I can think of many humans. They are faithful; they are lovely with their silvery sheen now with their fruit ripening in the autumnal sunshine. They are as ravishing as the most beautiful women, and time spent in their company can never be wasted.

I am reminded of that wonderful poem on the olive tree by Federico Garcia Lorca:

Tree, tree
dry and green.

The girl with the pretty face
is out picking olives.
The wind, playboy of towers,
grabs her around the waist.

….

The girl with the pretty face
keeps on picking olives
with the grey arm of the wind
wrapped around her waist.
Tree, tree
dry and green.

 

I wonder when the day will come to pick them?

To say nothing yet of the other wonderful corners of our orto:

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Wine, Wine and Wine

The vendemmia (grape harvest) this year is reckoned to be a good one in our area of the Luccan hills. The wet start to June may have been a blessing after all and there was certainly plenty of sunshine afterwards! A couple of days of heavy rain a week ago did little to spoil the grape and it was all go at a friend’s vineyard the other day.

The men were picking and transporting the juicy products of what virtually defines the Mediterranean character. The women were stalking. (Not us, I hesitate to say but removing the grapes from their stalks, ready for the mulching machine which in this case was a piece of industrial archaeology manually driven as traditionally done).

I remember when rather young I was taken on holiday with my parents to Italy. I was particularly sad to return to a drizzly and grey UK. ‘Why does everyone look so glum in Britain after Italy?’ I asked in my childish philosophy. Before they could answer me I replied to myself ‘it must be the wine they have over there!.

Despite political and government strictures, every part of the world has their own consciousness expanding (or liberating?) products. Sadhus in India wouldn’t quite be sadhus without their ganja, South American Indians wouldn’t be quite the same with their coca leaves, Britain wouldn’t be Britain without its warm beers, and Italy certainly wouldn’t be Italy without its vino.

In all cases there is a social etiquette regarding these godly gifts. Like the ambrosia of ancient gods these substances should be taken in in company and in moderation. Italians seem to know the exact balance between enlightened joviality and drunken disorder – something certain northern European nations could learn from.

Anyway, enough of moralizing. La vendemmia is a great social event and, with a fine day before us, we started in the cool September morning gradually heating up to a lunchtime climax when the work was virtually finished. Just the time to gather round the table, wipe off the sweat and de-hydrate with, of course, a glass of vino which in my friend’s vineyard has improved by leaps and bounds since he first started on his venture of creating the human equivalent of heavenly drink not those too many years ago.

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PS I hope you are making your elderberry wine in those parts of Europe not blest by the grape!

 

Goodbye Lio!

The grapes are clustered juicily on their stem. The vines are ready for their vendemmia but the hands that tended them for so many years will never pick them again. Those hands have gone to another vineyard, God’s own.

Lio Lucchesi, long-term resident of Longoio, after a short illness died on the 15th of this month. I attended his funeral yesterday.

The smaller the community the greater the impact of that fate we must all attend at the end of our lives – the one-way journey to a land so distant that no face-to-face meeting can possibly be attempted while we who remain have their legs still firmly on this earth.

Lio was one of the first locals I’d met when I arrived in Longoio and I found him a convivial person with a very racy sense of humour. Often this humour was, I feel, used to disguise a rather more serious person. It was perhaps a mask for covering some of the pain in his life. One aspect of this may have been his batchelorhood. I was surprised at this since Lio had an endearing way of getting along with women of all ages. I just wonder why he never found the right companion or whether he never had the certainty of choosing the right one. He would have made a very good father.

With Lio I embarked on several organised coach journeys covering different areas of Italy and often lasting some days. I was keen to discover new parts of the country, especially when I decided to settle here permanently here over eleven years ago.

One of the journeys I remember was to the north-east part of Italy and beyond.  We visited Trieste where this photograph of Lio was taken on the waterfront of that wonderful mittel-european city:

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We also visited the battlefields and war graves on the eastern front. This was taken in the bar near the monumental Redipuglia First World War memorial.

This one shows a somewhat dubious Lio on the little train that rushes at break-neck speed through the immense caves of Postumia, formerly Italian but now in Slovenia.

There are doubtless other photographs, including some of a trip to Naples and the royal palace of Caserta but I’ll have to spend more time looking through the photographs I have.

My wife and I last spoke to Lio last summer when he was resting from his labours on his beloved vines. He spoke cordially to us and especially thanked us for having time to talk to him. The jokey sense had been somewhat diluted and I felt that a shadow had already fallen on him. Lio had previously jested that he’d sold his vineyard but I’m glad he still kept onto his passion until the very end. For some days Lio was confined to his bed in Longoio’s Piazza dell’Amicizia. Relatives then took him to ‘la Vigna’ (appropriately translated as, ‘the vineyard’), a large house a little distance outside Longoio towards La Serra.

Around 6 am on the 15th of this month Lio’s condition worsened and a Misericordia ambulance was called. Shortly after ten on the same day he’d left us for ever at ‘la Vigna’

The funeral was well-attended with many relatives and friends being able to be present. (Italian funerals occur rarely more than three days after the death of a person because Italian undertakers do not embalm the body). Something I found strange, however, and which our local parish priest, Don Franco, also noted, was that there were quite a few people waiting outside the church where there were still many seats available. I recognised two of them as being Jehovah’s Witnesses, for which attendance outside a Catholic church is normal in the case of funerals, but I couldn’t believe everyone waiting outside the church was of that persuasion. Never mind. At least they were near Lio for his last journey.

Goodbye Lio old boy! You’re another one of that traditional country-man stock which is literally fast-dying out of our part of the world taking away some of the history of this part of the world for ever. We’ll truly miss seeing you again and we’ll always wish we’d recorded some of the traditional songs you used to sing in the piazza of Longoio – those improvised ‘stornelli’, for example, which you would sing and make up with delicious gusto.

For how long will your chair remain empty now and for how long will your grapes have to wait for devoted hands to pick them now that you are in the hands of God himself? God only knows, dear Lio!

 

 

 

No Sour Grapes Here

It’s that time of year again here in still very sunny (and hot) Tuscany. La Vendemmia, or the grape harvest, isn’t just an important horticultural operation, it’s a big social event where families call in their relatives and friends to help out with the picking and all join together for a big harvest lunch.

It’s a fitting conclusion to the summer season and takes place at slightly different times depending on where one lives. Yesterday I visited friends who have a vineyard in the Compitese area south of Lucca but those closer to Bagni di Lucca will have to wait another week before their vendemmia starts because not only are they in a more northern latitude but also because their vineyards are at a higher altitude.

Other factors in deciding when to vendemmiare is the grape variety. It’s better to collect white grapes slightly earlier than red ones and also to decide whether to have a passito wine i.e. a wine made with over-ripened grapes with higher sugar content.

I love vendemmiare. All one needs is pair of secateurs (always remember where you put (or lose) them) and a hat to protect oneself against the often fierce noon-day sun. Then take a row of vines and start snipping away. Don’t forget, bunches of grapes have a funny way of hiding themselves behind vine leaves so always return a second time and, sure enough, you find some that you’ve missed.

The next stage is to carry the bunches of grapes filling the bins or ex-supermarket bags to the mulcher. A wheelbarrow is useful here as bags of grapes can become quite heavy!

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It’s very important to keep the white grapes separated from the red for obvious reasons.

The mulcher I used was a grand little machine which automatically separated the stalks from the grapes themselves. The juicy liquid was collected into a large tray which was then lifted over into the fermenting vat. No dancing around in a large vat with one’s unsocked feet here! Such practices are now considered old-fashioned.

When it’s too hot to work then it’s surely lunchtime which we had in a traditional open-sided barn. Although very tempting, it’s useful not to drink too much wine at this stage. There’s an afternoon shift too!

The general opinion was that, despite the heavy rains at the start of June, this has been very good year for the Vendemmia. True, since we haven’t had any proper rain for weeks some of the grapes appeared ‘passite’, or shrivelled but it is from such grapes that, in Pantelleria, the famous ‘passito’ wine is made since the passito grape has a much higher sugar content for its size. Furthermore, rain at this time of year just as the vendemmia starts could cause serious problems of mould on this god-like fruit which has given joy to so much of humankind since earliest times.

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(An ancient Roman Vendemmia – not too much seems to have changed)

What better way to experience Italian (and international) friendship than joining in a Vendemmia. I’m sure, if you’re in Italy, you’ll find one to join in with. It’s truly a highlight of this country’s September which, in Lucca, is full of good things. (Just check out the city’s site at http://www.comune.lucca.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/IT/IDPagina/16116 to see how much happens in September including, of course the unmissable Holy Cross procession on the evening of the 13th of this month, one of Italy’s truly great pageants).

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Who knows? Perhaps one good thing that might emerge through of global warming is that the Vendemmia may become a regular social event in Sussex or Kent, as hop-picking (as described so specifically by George Orwell) once was.

Your Path to the Paradise Garden

Today’s the last day you’ll be able to visit this year’s Lucca’s ‘Murabilia’ garden festival. It’s open from 9.30 am to 6.30 pm and is quite unmissable if you happen to love flowers and gardening and, of course, if you happen to be in Lucca too!

Together with springtime’s ‘Verdemura’ it is one of the two premier Lucchesi events dealing with horticulture and gardening. ‘Murabilia’ takes place on the ramparts and bulwarks on the south side of the city near the station and ‘Verdemura’ takes place on the northern walls close to where one enters into the city from Bagni di Lucca.

Both locations are superb with wonderful views over the Lucchesia and the opportunity to explore the underground passages of the city walls where several interesting exhibitions take place.

This year’s Murabilia theme is ‘seeds, the origin of life’ and the entry ticket (7 euros but only 3 for under fourteens and over sixty-fives.) includes admission to many interesting talks and shows. Full details are at the event’s web site at www.murabilia.com

There are flowers, seeds and bulbs to buy to suit all tastes:

Murabilia is not just about flowers although it’s possible to come back with cartloads of varieties as special trolleys are provided. Garden machinery and craft stalls abound and there are also competitions.

As an added bonus entry to the botanical gardens is free. For the festival, appropriately, there’s an exhibition showing how seed collection became a mania in the eighteenth century, particularly with such luminaries as Sir Joseph Banks who did so much to establish London’s Kew gardens as one of the world’s major seed banks.

I was quite attracted to the stall set up by secondary school children demonstrating how to make polyhedrons (structures fundamental to nature). They clearly had a very good maths teacher and I managed to make my own seven-pointed star.

‘Let Nature be your teacher’ as Billy Wordsworth so acurately wrote!