Thursday, December 07, 2017

O Magnum Mysterium

This was the first piece of sacred polyphony I ever sang in a choir.

Doing this, you forget everything earthly. For just a moment, no worldly thing matters. No worldly thing even exists.


Monday, December 04, 2017

You don't have to garden like they tell you

Here's an article by a guy who turned his front garden into a little wildflower paradise. He lives in one of those villages in England where everyone told him to pave over his front garden to create "extra parking". They literally think it's a good idea to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

So many people see front gardens as a utility area. How many front gardens really are 'gardens' any more?

Drive through villages, towns and especially cities, and you will more than likely be greeted by row after row of paved over, gravelled over, or even tarmac covered unattractive car parks, resembling the complete opposite of a true garden.

Despite the fact that many of us now have several cars per household, meaning that extra space for a vehicle on the front comes in handy, we need to view front gardens as we used to; a space that is green and nice to look at, catches rainwater and boosts wildlife habitat in the places we live.

For five years, at my previous home, I jumped at the chance of creating a show piece wildlife garden at the front of the property, knowing full well how many heads it would turn in a village where people keep things 'neat and tidy'.

You don't have to live like they tell you. And you don't have to garden that way either.

I've been slowly - bucketful by bucketful - building raised flower and veg beds on the Big Dry Patch since the weather turned. The soil here is really heavy, sticky clay that has serious drainage and compaction issues, so each bed gets dug out, bordered by upright terracotta roofing tiles that we have a mountain of, and filled in with a combination of Annamaria's beautiful, black composted earth, a bit of the clay soil and buckets full of half-composted material from my own compost heap. Then they get planted it with various bibs and bobs as each one gets finished, then the whole thing sprinkled generously with white clover seed, and topped with leaf mulch. I've bought several tins of white clover as a ground cover to help inject some nitrogen into the soil and provide a "green manure" to till back into the soil in the spring.

I bought about 30 daffodil bulbs, since they're far and away my favourite flower. In the beds are red onions, little white spring onions and about 20 garlic plants, as well as a couple of little starter bedding plants of thyme (one regular and one lemon) and a lavender, and I moved my day lilies from the balcony into the bed where they can spread (but I liked them on the terrace outside the kitchen window so much I might have to go find some more). I'm happy to say that the cime di rapa, coriander and other brassicas I put in in September have laughed derisively at the attempts of the frosts to kill them.

But best of all, I've got a whole box full of various wildflower seeds I mostly collected on my stomps around Norcia. When the beds are ready all you have to do is sprinkle them on the surface and cover with leaf mulch. One of the abandoned farm houses (yes, it's a thing in Italy and there are lots of them) is surrounded by hollyhocks that were very prolific, so I've got several jars of these lovelies. Others are blue Nigella Damascena, white and red campion, sunflowers, poppies and wild chamomile and all manner of lovely things.

It's going to be a flowery spring.


Sunday, December 03, 2017

Buona Domenica, Tutti!

Did your Mass sound like this today?


Thursday, November 30, 2017

"Nine children in this bed, and then she died there."

You don't have to live like they tell you.

This was fascinating, an ancient way of living that died - perhaps appropriately - only in 1965. The man doing this restoration is only a single generation away from a way of life that is thousands of years old, as though the great vast ocean of the past - that for most of us is a long lost memory - is lapping right at his very heels.

Did you notice the picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall? I had no idea Icelanders were Catholics. I would have thought that being essentially offshoots of Norway they would have been lapsed Lutherans.

We don't know how much we have lost until we take a close look at how people lived in the past. This Icelandic homestead was an extension of the way Norwegians and many northern people lived for thousands of years. Possibly since the ice first receded from Europe. We look at the idea of ten or fifteen people all living in essentially one room together and think only of ourselves, our privacy that would vanish, our sense of self, even our personal identity.

We wouldn't last a week in a situation like that. But for them it was natural. It was how you were supposed to live and if they were alone, as we all are, they would have gone mad with loneliness and a loss of the identity that way of life gave them.

But I think while we no longer know this life, even in the reduced form it took in the Anglo nations since the Industrial Revolution, we have a kind of visceral memory of it. Perhaps a cultural memory. It's why at this time of year we all try so frantically to reproduce it in some way, buying turkeys and trying to get what's left of our atomised families to come and eat it, or even our friends to come and play the role of family-replacements.

We are alone and scattered and most of us - even older people - remember no other way of living. But it's still there because we know on some level that this way is not natural to us. That it must be restored somehow or we will simply die out, either culturally or physically.


Friday, November 24, 2017

Braised cabbage and winter veg.

Braised cabbage and winter veg.

1 whole cabbage head - red is best
two large carrots
an onion - red is best
2 bulbs finocchio
two beets
a leek
stick of celery
handful of chopped walnuts

3 cloves garlic
1/2 + cup of rendered goose fat
3+ cups vegetable stock
apple cider vinegar
blob of tomato paste/concentrate
favourite autumn herbs like sage or thyme

Cut the cabbage in half and then into wedges about two inches wide. Make sure you include the tough inner core, which won't be tough once you're done. Grease a deep roasting pan or baking dish or Dutch oven with goose fat and place the cabbage wedges in, layering them a bit. Chop up the remaining veg and nuts and sprinkle over top. I just used a bunch of stuff I had in the fridge that needed using up.

For the sauce: mince the garlic very fine, and chop any herbs you're going to use. Sage, savoury and thyme are ideal. Put all in a nice heavy bottomed pan, and add in the big blob of goose fat, the stock & tomato paste and bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until the flavours start to blend.

(I threw in the left over sweet/sour spicy pickling juice I used to make the fig pickles. That was basically a simple sugar syrup with cloves, allspice, cinnamon, ginepro and whatnot. I had about 250 ml. left in a jar in the fridge.)
Once the sauce is more or less blended, pour over the veg. Cover tightly with a lid (if Dutch oven) or tinfoil and bake in a 250 degree oven for an hour. Turn the cabbage pieces and bake for a further 1/2 hour or until very tender.


For a Friday meal, I fudged a little with the goose fat. Don't worry, I consulted my theological expert, and he said it was OK since we are still in the weeks after Pentecost and not in Advent yet. But it needs some fat, so if you're going strict on this for Lent or Advent, you could substitute a little butter, which I think is OK as long as you're not an Ortho.

The cabbage is VERY locally sourced; Annamaria turned up one morning with two huge beautiful cabbages for me from her orto. The walnuts came from the garden too, as did the finocchio.


How to render goose fat.

When you roast a goose, you will have to prick the skin all over to allow the fat to run out. This will be about the best cooking fat you have ever used and it is NOT to be thrown away (!!). Collect the fat in a jar from the roasting, but also you will have had to cut off a bunch of extra fatty bits before you put him in the oven. Save these. When you've got half an hour, take the bits, skin and all, and put them in a pan of water over a low heat and simmer. Let it go 30 minutes or more, making sure the water doesn't boil off. Then you can either strain the solid bits out (and give them to the kitties who will love you forever) or you can just pick them out with chopsticks as I did. then pour the water and fat together into a bread pan and put in the fridge. Goose fat liquefies at a pretty low temp and it won't solidify nearly as hard as beef or pig fat, so it's not much use as a sealant for potted meats, but as a cooking fat there's none like it. When your bread pan of fat is solid and completely white on top. take the pan and very carefully pour off the water, and scoop the fat into the jar you saved the other stuff in. Keep in the fridge. It should be fine indefinitely.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Beet greens and kitties

Just learned that beet greens are probably the best source of vitamin K you can find. And fortunately for me, they're in season, and are really extremely tasty.

Friday dinner: sauted beet greens w. herbs. (Beet greens are in the same family as swiss chard and spinach and these can be substituted.)


The greens of three beets (w. stems)
half an apple
four cloves garlic
a stick of celery
sprig each of fresh basil, sage, parsley
two green onions

Chop the greens and stems very large. Bring a pot of water to a boil and parboil the greens for no more than two minutes.

Mince garlic and apple, chop herbs & onion quite fine.
Strain the greens in a colander and set aside.

Saute the garlic, onions, apple, celery and herbs together in a pan with olive oil and/or a tablespoon of butter until they are getting soft and transparent. Season to taste with salt. Cook just long enough for the apple & garlic to start releasing juices.

Add beet greens and stir gently until the whole thing is coated. Allow to cook undisturbed no more than a couple of minutes.

Serve and eat, adding a sprinkle of parmesan.

Out in the garden this afternoon, carefully watched over by little Bertie in the pear tree.

Put in more daffodils, two whole bulbs of garlic and a bunch of the little white spring onions. Went for a walk up the farm track to the place where there is a lot of borage growing wild and dug some up to transplant. They're self-seeding and apparently make the best companion-plants for tomatoes and a bunch of other things.

The garden is coming together, slowly, slowly, a little bit at a time.


Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Making choices

You don't have to live like they tell you.

I was in the SCA for 20 years. I grew up in it, starting from age 11. And I can tell you, these people are not alone by any means. There are lots and lots of people who - while they might not want to get rid of their phones or fridges, really aren't that happy with how Modernia works. There's this thing in the SCA that people talk about but rarely do: "living the dream", which means doing the SCA thing full time. Re-enactors are a funny bunch, and not all alike, but we've all got this bee in our bonnets, that things didn't go quite the way they should have, that people may be more comfortable now but something essential has been taken away from them.


Sunday, November 05, 2017

And all things go to one place: of earth they were made, and into earth they return together.

Terrace garden this afternoon, after a bit of rain. 

Nearest neighbours, two fields over. Fields planted with winter cover crops. Monte Subasio in the far distance. 

It's November, it's grey and the leaves are falling, it's raining and thundering, and you're feeling melancholy, and all that is perfectly OK.

My little orto, a row of Romanesco broccoli, white cauliflower, red cabbage, red onions and cime di rapa, and a couple of rows of cilantro. 

For us melancholic introverts a day like this is just about the perfect day.

It's the month of the Holy Souls; the month in which the Church actually encourages you to feel gloomy and autumnal, to consider mortality and brood about the passing of all things in this life. We are not made for this world that is passing away.

The Faith encompasses all possible human things; birth, joy and suffering, love, work, fruitfulness, old age and death, and the liturgical cycle is perfectly attuned to the natural annual cycle.

Embrace your inner melancholic.

Ecclesiastes 3

All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven. 
A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. 
A time to kill, and a time to heal. A time to destroy, and a time to build. 
A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance. 
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather. A time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces. 
A time to get, and a time to lose. A time to keep, and a time to cast away. 
A time to rend, and a time to sew. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. 
A time of love, and a time of hatred. A time of war, and a time of peace. 
What hath man more of his labour? 
I have seen the trouble, which God hath given the sons of men to be exercised in it. 
He hath made all things good in their time, and hath delivered the world to their consideration, so that man cannot find out the work which God hath made from the beginning to the end. 
And I have known that there was no better thing than to rejoice, and to do well in this life. 
For every man that eateth and drinketh, and seeth good of his labour, this is the gift of God. 
I have learned that all the works which God hath made, continue for ever: we cannot add any thing, nor take away from those things which God hath made that he may be feared. 
That which hath been made, the same continueth: the things that shall be, have already been: and God restoreth that which is past. 
I saw under the sun in the place of judgment wickedness, and in the place of justice iniquity.
And I said in my heart: God shall judge both the just and the wicked, and then shall be the time of every thing. 
I said in my heart concerning the sons of men, that God would prove them, and shew them to be like beasts. 
Therefore the death of man, and of beasts is one, and the condition of them both is equal: as man dieth, so they also die: all things breathe alike, and man hath nothing more than beast: all things are subject to vanity. 
And all things go to one place: of earth they were made, and into earth they return together.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Quake-a-versary coming up

I just came across this photo. To my right is Fr. Basil, to my left are a couple of friends. It was taken by some of the news people who were there that morning. It must have been about an hour after the quake.

It was still pretty early in the morning, judging from the position of the shadows, after the Poor Clares had come stumbling out of the rubble and dust cloud, the first time I'd ever seen any of them. One of their older members of the community, still in her fluffy slippers, had to be carried over the piles of rubble.

When we saw them come out the thought came into my mind, "This is it. It's over." We spent a total of about five hours in the piazza, mainly waiting for the firemen to clear enough of the main street so we could walk out. Eventually they brought in a small bulldozer and escorted us out in groups of ten or twenty.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A house in the country

You don't have to live like they tell you.

I like Wales. It's close to the Fam.

Maybe these nice hippies in Wales wouldn't mind a little Gregorian Chant or a little chapel...

(I wonder if you can do a vaulted ceiling and pointed arches in straw bales.)

I grew some wonderful squashes this summer. And I did the same thing, go out to the patch and give it a little encouraging pat and a pep talk.

It sort of seems like Wales is a place to live if you don't want to live like they tell you.


Saturday, October 07, 2017

Chant is good for you

Monks of the Desert in New Mexico

I had no idea they were using the Chant. And they seem pretty good at it. (Though I noticed at least one harrrrd American "arrr" in the Kyrie that jarrrrred a little...)

It does seem to be all the rage now to record monks chanting. There has been lots of commentary on the irony that though these chants are often still vigorously banned in churches with the word "Catholic" on the door, the CDs always shoot right to the top of the charts. The Le Barroux sisters have one, the Benedictines of Ephesus in Missouri have several. The Norcia monks did one. Every single one rockets to the top as people are desperately trying to fill the hole in their souls that Modernia inevitably burns, including Ecclesia Modernia.

This isn't a new thing, by any means. (The fad for chant recordings, I mean, not the chant itself, obviously.) When I was a kid my mother had an LP of chant that I used to listen to a lot. And of course Hildegarde of Bingen had a huge following in the 80s (nearly all New Age feminists, but still...) The Monks of Silos made an enormous splash in the pop music world in the early 80s, and it was suddenly all the rage to have "spooky medieval stuff" in your nightclub noise.

I know there are "studies" out there that show the chant has a positive material effect on your brain.

Dr. Alan Watkins, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London noted that “the musical structure of chant can have a significant and positive physiological impact,” and that chanting has actually been shown to “lower blood pressure, increase levels of DHEA and also reduce anxiety and depression.” Similar studies also suggest that Gregorian chant can aid in communications between the right and left hemispheres of the brain more effectively, therefore creating new neural brain pathways.

Benedictine nun, Ruth Stanley, head of the complementary medicine program at Minnesota’s St. Cloud Hospitals also says she’s had great success in easing the chronic pain of patients by having them listen to chant. “The body can move to a deeper level of its own inherent, innate healing ability when you play chant. It’s quite remarkable.” In a 1978 documentary called “Chant,” French audiologist, Dr. Alfred Tomatis, related how he was called upon to help the monks of a Benedictine monastery who suffered from fatigue, depression, and physical illness. He found that they usually took part in six to eight hours of chanting per day but due to a new edict, their chanting was halted. When Tomatis succeeded in re-establishing their daily chanting, the monks regained their well-being and were again full of life. His conclusion was that Gregorian chant is capable of charging the central nervous system along with the cortex of the brain thus having a direct effect on the monk’s overall happiness and health.


That's probably true. Those medievals really knew a thing or two about that integral, holistic human stuff. Other people talk about the relationship between Chant and Math, and this also doesn't surprise me, since the medievals knew some stuff about math too.

I use Chant. I find it's better than Xanax and of course, I think God prefers it. I have a week's worth of the daily psalter; Laudes, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers & Compline, downloaded onto my computer from Le Barroux. I got used to singing very quietly along with the monks in the Basilica and doing that at home is rather a solace in exile. (Even though they're the wrong monks, and the French accents sort of stand out.)

Next step will be buying an Antiphonale. Fr. Basil says that's the one to go with if you want to learn how to read the little squares.

This guy, who I presume is a Chant teacher, has a huge bunch of recordings of the major pieces one uses in the liturgy. There are a lot of Chant recordings out there that are recreational, but this one is the only page I've found set up for serious use to learn the Chant for a liturgical setting.

The problem with these recordings, of course, is that they're set up for male voices. (Buddy above has a few set for female voices, but not many, and nearly all the recordings are of monks and male choirs.) I absolutely can not sing in the tenor range. I can do baritone transposed up an octave perfectly. (Thank you, Stan Rogers.) But when singing along with the men in the highest notes my voice just stops functioning entirely. No sound comes out at all. But bring it down to the monks' lower range and I can't manage it except for the highest bits. (Which is why I say I always sang along with the monks very quietly.)

You have to transpose the whole thing down to the Alto range for me. Which is why I'm going to have to graduate from the recordings to the book eventually. This is a terrible recording but you can certainly hear the difference.

I do rather wish those Benedictine nuns in Missouri would do some serious, less entertainment-oriented, recordings of the Office chants. These nice little songs they do are lovely to listen to but not much use in a practical sense.


Thursday, October 05, 2017

Painting fruit

Enel, Italy's government-sponsored power monopoly... yay socialism! (Italy has the highest electricity costs In. The. World!) was "doing some work" near the house today so for the first half of the day I had no power, and of course no power means no water. So, not only no internet but no shower, no tea... Sounded to me basically like God instructing me to sit in the kitchen in my pajamas painting all morning.

Who am I to argue?

You can tell one thing for absolute suresies: I was taught properly how to draw, but really, really, super-duper NOT taught how to use watercolours.

The only painting instruction I ever had was in oils, so I instinctively try to do oils things with the paint, which mostly just doesn't work.

It's also very clear that a photo does not give the same information as your eye. This pic is actually quite different from what I'm looking at now. And of course, when the paint and paper have dried it will look even more different.

I think I've basically got the colours more or less matched. Cad yellow, burnt sienna, highlighted with a little bit of lemon yellow, greened up a little with a teeny dab of ultramarine (gouache) and the darker shadows in a bit of payne's grey.

But my watercolour technique is pretty much non-existent and it's hard to remember that you actually do a lot of things backwards with watercolours. You take paint off to make a highlight, instead of putting paint on top, for instance.

Well, for a first go I guess it's better than I was expecting. Now I let it dry completely and see if I can do some correcting. It's also funny how you can suddenly see things with a photo that you didn't notice just looking at it.

One of the things to learn: use the right kind of paper. This is just a page out of my sketchbook and it really would help not to be fighting the big puckers.

Now to walk away and come back later with a fresh eye.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Pies. In. Art!

This just appeared in my Twittface feed. I found myself trying to work out the recipe. It's obviously a boiled crust for a meat pie with gravy, but the filling...

Duck maybe, and turkey, plums and figs, walnuts and pinoli.

I might have to try it.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Buon Venerdi, and here's to the pope...

...whoever he may be.

A fun Friday rhyme to go with an old fashioned English dish, Stargazy pie, from Cornwall.

Yep, it's a pie with fish heads sticking out, looking straight at you.

The traditional fish is called Pilchards, a kind of sardine that English (protestant) fishermen used to catch and export to Catholic countries, where they were eaten on Fridays.

It goes with the traditional "Toast to Pilchards," which these days I think we can all agree on...

"Here's health to the Pope, may he live to repent
And add just six months to the term of his Lent
And tell all his vassals from Rome to the Poles,
There's nothing like pilchards for saving their souls!"

Here's the BBC's recipe, if you want to give it a try.

For the mustard sauce

For the pie

  1. For the mustard sauce, bring the stock to the boil in a non-reactive saucepan. Whisk in the crème fraîche, mustard, salt, mustard powder and lemon juice until well combined. Bring back to the simmer.
  2. Pass the sauce through a fine sieve into a jug and set aside.
  3. For the pie, cook the bacon in boiling water for 20 minutes. Drain, then allow to cool slightly before chopping into lardons.
  4. Bring another pan of water to the boil and cook the baby onions for 6-7 minutes, or until tender. Drain and refresh in cold water, then slice each onion in half. Set aside.
  5. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.
  6. Roll out the puff pastry until 3-4mm thick, then cut into 4 equal-sized squares. Using a small circular pastry cutter the size of a golf ball, cut out 2 holes in each pastry square.
  7. Place each square on a baking tray and brush with the beaten egg yolk. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.
  8. Bake the pastry squares in the oven for 18-20 minutes, or until golden-brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and set aside.
  9. Turn the grill on to high.
  10. Place the sardine fillets, heads and tails on a solid grill tray, brush with the oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Grill for 2-3 minutes, or until golden-brown and just cooked through (the fish should be opaque all the way through and flake easily).
  11. Heat a frying pan until medium hot, add the butter and bacon lardons and fry gently for 3-4 minutes, or until golden-brown. Add the onions and stir in enough sauce to coat all the ingredients in the pan. Reserve the remaining sauce and keep warm.
  12. Bring a small pan of water to the boil, add the vinegar and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to a simmer.
  13. Crack the quail's eggs into a small bowl of iced water, then pour off any excess (there should only be just enough water to cover the eggs). Swirl the simmering water with a wooden spoon to create a whirlpool effect, then gently pour the quails' eggs into the centre of the whirlpool. Poach for about 1-2 minutes, or until the egg whites have set and the yolk is still runny. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
  14. To serve, divide the onion and bacon mixture between 4 serving plates. Arrange the sardine fillets on top, then place four poached quails' eggs around the fillet. Using a stick blender, blend the remaining sauce until frothy. Spoon the froth over the top of the sardines and eggs. Top each pile with the puff pastry squares, then place the sardine heads and tails through each hole in the pastry. Serve immediately.


Sunday, September 10, 2017


Ok, it's raining.

Good work, guys.


Saturday, September 09, 2017

A little old fashioned English cookery... not going to hurt you...

Crumpets for your tea.

People don't remember what they're supposed to be like. Americans think they're the same thing as "English muffins" and English people think they're those little white rubbery things that look like hockey pucks with holes in that you get in plastic packets at Tesco's.

But try this:


about 2 teaspoons of fresh yeast
cup of warm water
splash of milk
tablespoon of sugar
pinch of salt
2 cups flour
2 tablespoons oil or melted butter

Soften the yeast in the warm water with the milk and the sugar dissolved in it. Wait until it's getting nice and foamy (ten mins or so). Stir it down a bit and add in the flour a bit at a time while whisking briskly. Whisk in the oil and maybe a bit more milk until the consistency is like thickish pancake batter.

Nice and fluffy.
Allow the batter to rest while you prepare the ring and the pan. It will get fluffier and start showing little bubbles... this is a Good Thing. It means the yeast is working and you will get the proper consistency and those nice little holes to catch the honey when you're done.

Just right.

Prepare a ring. If you don't want to buy crumpet rings (which come in silicone nowadays I hear) you can just take the top and bottom off a tuna tin. I found it works just fine. Gently oil the inside of the ring with your finger.

Warm a griddle or skillet. Be very careful not to let it get too hot. Melt a pat of butter. You will know if your pan is too hot if the butter starts to burn or smoke. If the pan is too hot, the bottom of the crumpet will scorch and it will be raw inside. Which is gross. The pan should be just warm enough to make the butter start to bubble a bit. Butter has a lot of water in it, so this is just the water boiling off and leaving the fat.

Place the ring in the pan, scooping up most of the butter so it sits in the bottom of the ring. Let the ring warm up for a minute or so.

Give your batter one quick whisk and gently scoop enough into the ring to bring it to a depth of about half an inch. Be careful not to let any drip down the sides of the ring or into the pan. Now leave it alone. if it's a cool day, put the lid on the skillet pan, but leave a bit of space for steam to escape.

On the left, I think the batter had not been allowed to sit and develop long enough, and I poured just a little too much batter into the ring. The one with the holes was a little thinner, and the batter had got really fluffy. Timing and precise control of the temperature in the pan is essential. I think they would be quite difficult to do on an electric burner.
The crumpet is done when it has risen in the ring and the top surface has formed the famous little holes. If you gently tap the top surface with a finger, no batter should stick to your finger tip.

Nice and toasted, golden brown, on the bottom. Firm and smooth top surface. 
Lift the whole thing out of the pan with a pancake flipper, ring and all. Shake the crumpet out of the ring and onto a plate with a cloth or paper towel to catch the butter. It should be toasty, crisp and golden brown on the bottom, springy and spongey on top and have the little tunnels all through. Timing and temperature control are everything.

Keep the heat low, but not so low that it comes out pallid or too soft on the bottom. Practice makes perfect. If it's a little under done, just pop it back into the hot pan for a few minutes.

When you go to make the next one, wash the ring thoroughly with a bit of soap to make sure there's no residue left, or the next one will stick.

I tried it this morning and I'm amazed at how very exactly they are like the ones I remember. Ideally you eat them hot out of the pan or off the griddle with a pot of good strong tea. No need to toast them. You only toast the ones that come rubbery and deflated like sad little balloons in plastic Tesco's packets.

Tea time. Darjeeling, for the afternoon.


Sweet Pickled Figs

I did this one late last night and was a bit tired, so didn't take pics of the process, but it's not very difficult. Nothing like as finicky as crumpets.

2 pounds of fresh figs
1.5 cups of apple cider vinegar
1.5 cups water
6 cups sugar
Pinch + of salt.

Wash the figs and put them in a bowl. Boil some water and pour it still very hot over the figs to cover and allow them to sit.

Put the water, vinegar and sugar in a large pot and bring slowly to just under the boiling point.

In a mortar grind, then combine, to taste, the following spices
fresh ginger minced fine
whole allspice beads
whole cinnamon
(a very small quantity of) cloves
coriander seeds
cardamom pods
Ginepro beads

Grind these fairly coarse, each separately, then combine and stir and add them to the sugar/vinegar/water mixture. Bring all to a low simmer, and while stirring, add in the figs, being careful to stir very gently so as not to bruise the fruit.

Turn the heat down as low as it will go and simmer 30 minutes.

Place a small quantity of the syrup in jars and add the figs gently one at a time. Fill up the remaining space in the jars with liquid and plenty of the spices. Lid the jars, finger tight, and prepare a water bath in a large pot. Place each jar in the water bath and boil ten minutes. Remove the jar and allow to cool. The jars should seal.

They're ready in about 4 weeks, but of course get better the longer you leave them.

And I have just learned that I am sorely in need of one of these. Scalded my fingers a couple of times last night trying to get the jars out of the pot. I ended up just holding them in with the lid and pouring the water off. 


Now, if you all would be so kind, pray for an end to the Italian drought. The temperatures have come down, but the promised rain has still not arrived. 

I realize this is an Advent hymn, but it seems apropos.

In your infinite mercy, O Lord, have pity on your nation Italy and send us rain.
Save us, Lord, for we are perishing...

Deus, in quo vívimus, movémur et sumus, plúviam nobis tríbue congruéntem, ut, præséntibus subsídiis sufficiénter adiúti, sempitérna fiduciálius appetámus.
Per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum, Filium tuum: qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017


I've learned that we are living and gardening in Zone 9. This has helped a great deal in working out what sort of things to plant, when to harvest etc.

But some things are pretty obvious. The big fig tree on my patch - at least 50 years old - is fruiting quite abundantly.

You can tell easily when it's time to pick them because they turn quite dramatically from green to dark purple, and are ready when they've started to soften and droop downwards.

I asked Annamaria for advice on picking, and instead of lending me a ladder she showed me her trick for making a fig-picker.

You cut the bulbous top part off a water bottle and stick it on the end of a broom pole.

It can be a bit tricky to get the knack of it, but you sort of use the sharp edge of the plastic cup part to cut through the stem, and the little blob of goodness plops down into the bowl.

The first big fig harvest a couple of weeks ago.

Found the wasp nests in the rosemary bushes under the fig tree. They must only use them for rasing their young because just a couple of weeks before this I'd seen them full of wasps, all snoozing in the mid-day heat. Just a short time later the nests are empty and abandoned.

I'm extra proud of this zucca. It's starting to turn orange now and has quite a hard shell. Must weigh at least 15 lbs. I go out and give it a friendly pat every day to encourage it.

I transplanted the seedlings after they just sprouted up spontaneously from one of the pots we rescued from the garden in Norcia. I started them from seeds I saved from a bit of zucca I bought in the produce shop there. So this is the second generation. Now the plants are enormous, covering ten meters of ground. It produced a few fruits, but this one is the best.

The weather finally broke last week and the temps are down to a more seasonally normal 80 F. or so. We haven't had the promised rain though. The forecast is for more tomorrow. Keeping up the prayers for an end to the drought, and still saving dish water for the terrace pots.

Some of the pumpkins and a young version of the big zucca. Very sweet and dense flesh, and of course very good for you. The pumpkins turned out well but all quite small because of the heat.

In the background you can see the two pots of sweet potatoes - that likes it as hot and sunny as possible, and the basil that also likes a sunny spot.

The flowers and herbs on the terrace are doing OK, but the heat has been very hard on the flowering plants. The rose - the last survivor of the six I had in  Norcia - produced three flowers that immediately dried up.

I found an acanthus spinosus, a beautiful flowering plant that I've always wanted in the garden, but they like cooler temps and shade, so it produced a beautiful flower spike which was lovely, but after the heat got started in earnest it more or less gave up. I've cut off the dead stuff now and am happy that it seems to be bouncing back. But it's getting moved into a shady spot in the garden proper when we've turned it over and finished preparing the beds.

The morning glories are doing much better now that the heat is going down a bit,

and the passion flowers - another survivor of the quakes that I started from seed - have begun to produce more buds that I hope will flower soon.

Lots of vines and quite a few buds, but a lot of them just dried up in the terrible heat and never opened, no matter how much I watered the pot.

In other news, I was very happy to be able to join the Italian SSPX's annual pilgrimage for the feast of St. Pius X. They walk every year from Bevagna to Assisi, with an overnight stop in Foligno and a Mass in beautiful Spello on the way. It was the first time I got to meet the nice sisters from Narni face to face, and we got on famously. They reiterated their invitation to come down to stay over on Saturday evenings to attend the Mass on Sundays. This will be much more doable now that the bus and train service out of San Martino has started again.

This is the Mass on Sunday morning in the church of San Andrea in Spello. I took the train down to Foligno and stayed over in a B&B and joined the pilgrimage to walk between Foligno and Spello, but that was as far as I was going to make it. The group all carried on to Assisi, but I had to go home and rest.

This church has a Pinturicchio altarpiece in the right hand transept. I tried to get a few photos, but the picture is so huge and the space so small you can't get it all in, and the light reflects onto the surface no matter where you stand. It's a pity because this photo from Wiki does absolutely no justice to it whatever.

Having discovered Pinturicchio recently on a trip to Spello with a friend in June, I think I've found my new favourite Italian painter. Even greater than Filippino Lippi, in my opinion. And it's just sitting there, above a neglected transept altar, usually in the dark, in an all but abandoned church in one of those hill towns that has been turned almost entirely into a theme park. As soon as the Mass was over and everyone gone off to the next leg of the pilgrimage, it lapsed instantly back into being a rather shabby and neglected little museum where a few tired tourists wandered now and then. But I think maybe this winter I'll go do a little art-pilgrimage of my own and just go and look at it for a while.


The figs reminded a friend of mine about this little meditation from the late great Cardinal Bacci, one of the few at V-2 who tried to stop the train going over the cliff.

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
1. Today’s subject for meditation is the parable of the barren fig tree in the Gospel of St. Luke. “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit thereon and found none. And he said to the vine-dresser, ‘Behold, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down, therefore; why does it still encumber the ground?’ But he answered him and said, ‘Sir, let it alone this year too, till I dig around it and manure it. Perhaps it may bear fruit, but if not, then afterwards thou shalt cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)

Perhaps Jesus has come many times to us also looking for the fruit of our good works, and has found none. Perhaps He has continued to bestow favours and blessings upon us, and perhaps He has waited many years for us to correspond with His grace by performing acts of penance and of expiation.

We may have made good resolutions many times; but what became of them? Temptations of various kinds may have caused us to neglect these resolutions, which remained like branches without any fruit. We must remember that although God is infinitely good and merciful, He is also infinitely just. The day could come when He might say: “Cut it down. Why does it still encumber the ground?” In that case what would become of us?

An episode described in the Gospel of St. Mark should induce serious reflection. Jesus was walking from Bethany to Jerusalem and grew hungry on the way. He saw a fig tree beside the road but on inspection found that it was barren. “And He said to it ‘May no fruit ever come from thee henceforth forever!’ “And immediately the fig tree withered up.” His disciples, we are told, were amazed when they saw this happening. (Cf. Mt. 21:18-20)
How terrible if God should ever pronounce this severe condemnation upon us.

2. One morning after they had fished in vain throughout the night, the Apostles saw Jesus appear on the shore of the lake. “He said to them, ‘Cast your nets to the right of the boat.’” (Cf. John 21:6-11) They obeyed and caught so many fish that the net was in danger of breaking.

While the Apostles were working without the help of Jesus, they caught nothing. When they worked under the direction of Our Lord they caught a miraculous draught of fishes. In the Garden of Gethsemane, however, the Apostles could not summon the strength to watch and pray with Jesus for even an hour. As a result, they abandoned and denied Him.

For love of gain the Apostles worked throughout the entire night; for love of Jesus, however, they were not able to watch and pray for even an hour, and so they fell miserably.

3. We should learn two lessons from this meditation. We should work always for Jesus and with Jesus. If we stray away from Him Who is the way, the truth and the life, we shall get lost, and our efforts will have no value for eternity. Without Jesus, our spiritual life will grow dry. As long as we are with Jesus, everything will be good and holy, even humiliation and sorrow, and all our actions will gain merit for us in Heaven. Furthermore, we must take care not to make the same mistake as the Apostles, who spent the whole night working for material gain but could not watch and pray for even one hour with Jesus. We should consider it our most important obligation in life to work always with Jesus and for Jesus. Only in this way shall we find contentment in this life and happiness in the next.


Saturday, August 19, 2017


So, Annamaria has very kindly offered to help me rototill the entire Big Dry Patch. I'm going to do it in beds around the trees so they're like pools of green. In between the plan is to lay down some wood chip mulch or maybe use some of the broken bits of tile around to make paths between the big round beds. In the beds the plan is for mostly aromatics and flowers but for some part of it to be a dedicated orto. (She said she's going to be renting the bit I used this year to her daughter for some for-profit project, so we're making my patch into a proper orto.)

A funny thing today when I found an old rental ad on the internet for my apartment, and got the actual dimensions. It said that the garden is 200 sq/m! Which is certainly the biggest bit of land I've ever had to play with. I can hardly wait to get going. Nothing can really be done until the weather eases off and the rain starts softening things up. Anna said that rototilling the ground as it is would be like trying to break through concrete. But it should be fine in the autumn, which is when you plant things anyway.

I just had a late dinner. Chopped up a bunch of stuff that needed finishing in the fridge and threw in some strips of turkey breast I had thawed for dinner on Thursday but turned out to be too big a package for one meal. All the veg was from the orto, either mine or stuff that Anna has given me: pumpkin, zucchini, tomatoes, a yellow peach, an onion, sweet red and green bell pepper and a little bit of minced hot peppers (which I didn't know until I started picking them were actually Scotch Bonnets!!!... the kind you have to be very careful with when you're cutting them not to get any juice under your fingernails or absent-mindedly brush your face with your fingers). I just sort of stewed everything together cooked in some butter and a bit of sesame oil, with a handful of basil (from the pot on the terrace) garlic, sesame, coriander and cumin seeds ground up, and all cooked together for about 20 minutes and then the sauce thickened with a handful of almond flour.

It occurred to me that very nearly everything in it except the meat and the mushrooms came from 20 yards away. Some of it came from plants I started from seeds I saved. I bought the pumpkin's parent in the produce shop in Norcia.

I've got a routine now. I get up just after dawn and feed the kitties, put on a pot of coffee and sit on the terrace under the sunshade umbrellas while I do a bit of reading ("Lectio," I'm working on a book about Benedictine liturgical spirituality by Cecile Bruyere) and drink my coffee and iced tea chaser. Then when it's too hot to stay on the east-facing terrace, I usually go inside to sing the Office along with the Le Barroux chant mp3 (which makes me homesick). (I'm thinking of maybe splashing out on an Antiphonale from Solesmes. Our friend Peter K said that it's the only way to go after you've got the general gist of the Monastic Office from the Diurnal. I figure listening to the chants, getting used to the Latin phrasing and pronunciation, the next logical step would be to have the book to follow along with the Little Squares so that starts sinking into the brain too.)

After that's done, it's work of various kinds; housework, writing, digging... Today I needed to do some internet things and didn't really want to stay in the house and felt the need for a bit of exercise, so I rode the bike to the village and just sat in the Why Not Cafe, the nice little bar in the centre of town that has air conditioning and wifi, and a barman/owner who speaks pretty good English and is very friendly. On the way home about 90 minutes later, I stopped to pick some blackberries that are really coming just perfect now (the survivors that is; there are a lot that were just fried by the heat). It's the second half of August and there just aren't many people around; those who are around aren't doing anything but snoozing and barbequing. The kids in the house next door spend a lot of time in their raised pool.

Obligatory photo of Pippy and Bertie curled up snoozing together. At precisely 8pm every day, they all wake up and start demanding their dinner. After that it's outside all night to chase small creatures. 
In the late afternoon the sun comes blasting around the other side of the house so I go around closing all the windows and shutters. Lately I've been hanging opaque cloth covers on the metal shutters that the afternoon sun turns into barbeque grills. The walls are 20 inch thick stone, so no heat gets through at all, but the windows, even with the shutters closed, can actually get hot to the touch. So the second half of the days in late summer are spent in a cool dark room, which is good for writing, with the kitties draped all over, sound asleep stretched out their full length. The humming fan and the dead quiet, the heat and the cave-like gloom can make it hard to stay awake. I'm still in the Mad Dogs and Englishmen school and don't usually take an afternoon riposo, but I might be cracking soon.

Once the sun has definitively gone behind the mountain and the evening breeze picks up, you have to open all the windows and shutters again to get the air flowing. It actually gets cool enough to need a little cover for sleeping, and the sound of owls can be heard in the woodsy bits behind the house. When you go out on the terrace in the evenings, before it gets full dark, you can see dozens of bats flittering silently around. Catching mosquitoes and moths.

The other day I got a nice note by email from some SSPX nuns who have a monastery near here, down in Narni, about an hour's drive at the other end of the Tiber Valley. There's a little train that goes straight there several times a day. They said that of course they don't cancel the Mass in the summer and I was welcome to come down to stay over night on Saturday to attend the Sunday Mass there. (Of course, they have Mass there every day but it's at seven am.) She said there are some Americans in the community so there would be someone there to chat with. I've got aaaaalmost enough money socked away to buy the Ah-pay, so transport will be less of a problem. I'll see if I can do that next week and give a report.

On the whole, I think things are working out, settling down. Or at least, so I fervently hope. I do hope my brain calms down. I know I'm not the only terremotata who has experienced some long-term effects. We had 50+ earthquakes a day, 24/7 for three months. I guess that's going to have an effect, though at the time I didn't really think much about it. I find I am still having strange, unexpected bursts of anxiety. But things are settling down now externally, and that can't help but help. We'll see what comes next. Maybe it'll be peace. Wouldn't it be funny if I found peace just as the world was losing its collective mind.