Monday, December 31, 2018

Rosehip liqueur for Epiphany

On the road up to the old monastery in Norcia, February 2, 2015.

Well, I've finally figured out what to do with rosehips. I've just made a big batch of rosehip liqueur.

The problem with them is that they're difficult to process and incredibly acidic. You can't make them into jelly or jam since the pectin just won't work with that level of acidity. You can use them to flavour crabapple jelly, but you have to be pretty sparing with the juice. All my efforts have only ever produced rosehip syrup, but of course, there's nothing whatever wrong with that. I tried rosehip wine - the ancient Romans loved it! - but just couldn't get the yeast to not die. And the end result was too acidic to drink without adding a dollop of honey. But they remain one of my favourite fruits - I think I just can't resist their beautiful colour. So, this evening I tried again, and I think I've got it figured.

They're delicious, and amazingly good for you. Dog roses, that is, wild roses, have a fruit with the highest concentration of Vitamin C of any fruit we know about in the western world. But they're a pain to process. The scrapes and scratches you can't help getting picking them is only the beginning. The fruit encloses a little pill of hard seeds that are each covered in extremely fine, but very unpalatable hairs, like extremely fine cactus hairs. They are very unpleasant to get in your skin, and even worse to get in your mouth. The leathery case of the hip is the fruit part that you want, but they're difficult to separate from their seeds. So you have to boil them and then strain out the bits you don't want.

The best time is late December, last week before January 1. They've had all summer and autumn to ripen - and this was a particularly good year with a good balance of heat and rain - and then the first frosts have softened them. By the last week of December (in Norcia, which means only a couple of weeks of steady hard frosts) most of the fruits are still red, though by the beginning of the first week of January they will all have turned black, and there won't be any more until next year.

By that time, they're wonderful straight off the bush. You choose the ones with the best colour, brilliant scarlet, and nice smooth skin with no sign of wrinkling or discolouring.

Pick it carefully off the stem which should come away from the fruit leaving a little hole in the skin. You squeeze them gently between thumb and forefinger and this red pasty stuff comes out the hole like toothpaste out of a tube. This is the fruit and it's absolutely delicious at this point just to eat straight. Three or four is vitamin C for a week.

If you're picking them for cooking, bring along a long-handled umbrella with a hook on the end to pull the higher canes down, since the plants on the hedgerows often get ten feet in height. They're usually most abundant on the upper parts of the plant, and the parts that get the most sun in the day (though in a hot country like Italy this can mean smaller and harder fruits, since the sun can be hot enough in the summers to blight the fruit.)

The soft late season fruits can be pretty squishy, so make sure you bring a big zip lock freezer bag, something sturdy. Not a shopping back, since they tear too easily. Collect them most easily with a pair of kitchen scissors, and a plastic bag that has a handle you can slip over one wrist. The fruits grow in little clusters of two or three or sometimes four; take these gently in your left hand and use the scissors to cut the stems all at once, and drop them into the bag.

Don't try to pull the thorny canes or move them aside; just use the scissors to cut away any pointy bits that are between your hand and the fruit. Don't reach into a big bunch of thorny canes or twigs to get the fruit. Just cut away and clear a path for your hand, and use the scissors to toss away the cut canes and twigs; don't grab them with your fingers. Don't worry about the plant; the rose family loves to be pruned and the more you cut in December the more fruit there will be next year.

I picked about 1.5 kg and just tossed them in the freezer when I got home. Tonight I took it out and put the whole thing frozen into the 9L pressure cooker with about 4 L of water. Cooked them for 2 hours, which was enough to liquefy the fruit and separate the skins, seeds and bits of stem. Mashing with a potato masher helps too. Then you do the first strain through a colander for the big stuff. Next is with cheese cloth over a strainer. This takes some patience because this is when you are straining out the hairs that form a thick paste. So you have to pour carefully and stir gently and slowly to get as much juice out of the paste as possible.

When this was done, I rinsed the cheese cloth and ran it through again, but probably didn't need to. I did up a good thick sugar syrup and poured it in, let it blend, and then added two bottles of vodka. Sugar is a personal taste thing, but you really do have to have it. Rosehips' claim to fame is the incredible content of Vitamin C - and that's also called Ascorbic acid. The liquor is more acidic by a long way than straight lemon juice, so yeah. Sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.

Give it a little stir and jar or bottle it. With that much acid, sugar and alcohol that stuff is NEVEr going to go off.


The finished product. About 6 L. A kilo or so of rosehips boiled for 2 hours in a pressure cooker with 3 L of water, a full kilo of sugar and 1.5 L vodka + as little water as possible added to the sugar just to make a syrup.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Not what you think.

I love this country so much!


Friday, November 16, 2018

"In Front" - Civilisational gridlock explained

Years and years ago, I developed a theory of traffic dynamics based on a single assumption that nearly everyone shares in our society: we must all be "In Front".

It doesn't matter if that means you are simply the first person at the stop light, as long as you are in front of everyone else at the stop light. It also doesn't matter if, once you have become In Front of your immediate opponent you are now Behind the next person in the queue. This should merely spur your efforts to be In Front of those guys. Those guys don't deserve to be In Front any more than all the other people you just passed.

Apply the theory of In Front to all of modern life and you have found the source of most of our misery.


Thursday, November 15, 2018

You don't have to live like they tell you: mountain hermit edition

Eremitical life is pretty strong in Italy. There are quite a lot of official, diocesan hermits and a whole bunch more unofficial, unrecognised, hidden "lay" hermits and semi-hermits.

This is a trend that is quite visible here, where Italians are still interested in the ancient things of the Faith. Mostly things they are emphatically NOT receiving from their parishes.

My rough translation:
TG2000: Alone among the immensity of the mountains, in the silence of creation, in a baita (mountain cabin) between rock and streams, Sr. Paola Biacino, lives like this on charity, after a marriage annulment and three daughters…

Suora Paola: Here you experience just that the holy spirit is something that goes beyond beyond us, that is, every word that comes out [from you] does not. It's never your perception. This is then reach for the other, reach for something bigger than myself.

So we are only instruments. We live and try to live in the time of God, not the time of man. It’s a seeking to live on the threshold of this experience and so it’s something beautiful.

TG 2000: We are under Monviso, the king of stone. The day of the hermit unfolds in the continuous conversation with God. As a Sister Paola another 300 in Italy witnesses that in the years of chaos the words, gestures, the eyes can write the days of God.

Every night she gets up at 3 am to pray and sing, then welcome those who come to look for hope.

Suora Paola: Try [search for] everything, look for someone that listens try to relearn praying. Try to understand why in a time of movement, solitude. [Why] a person seeks and chooses life of solitude and then look for a few. Sometimes they find and sometimes one [finds] stimulus to try even more.

TG 2000: The first day, 12 years ago, someone who knocked was a friar with lunch, and this brought tears of emotion.

Here's another:

Just watch it. Don't bother too much about the translations. (If you can follow a little Italian, it helps to click on the CC.)


Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Just before everything went completely to...

Late afternoon sun on the Tyrhennian, from the hills above S. Marinella 2014

Christmas eve hiking & running, enjoying my new hair.

Mike Matt and a few friends for dinner, Conclave week 2013

Winnie, before her illness. In fact, she was already showing signs, but I put it down to age. 

At home. 

The Abdicator's last day on the job: last Angelus

First sign something was wrong: it was too soon. Two days, 4 ballots. 

No s___, I was there. 

I keep thinking I should just move back to S. Marinella. But I guess you can't turn back time. 

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Eye-candy: some more catafalques from around about

Via Messa in Latino blog. If anyone knows the location, let me know.

At Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini, the FSSP parish in Rome this year.

Quite a change from the comparatively modest version in 2009.

And here's a little NLM article on how to build one in your own parish.


Saturday, November 03, 2018

Dies Irae dies illa...

Thanks long-time alert reader Louise Yvette for putting me on to this YT page. A link for which I think I'll save in the sidebar.

Here's a version of it with the words and the little squares, so you can learn it properly.

(Oh sure... it sounds great when you've got acoustics like THAT!)


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Chant and culture - Dies Irae = death and tragedy

There are quite a lot of things that we all recognise, at least at a sub or semi-conscious level, that come from medieval culture.

It shows up quite a lot in music.

You know it better than you think.

Here's the CBC's incredibly irritating Tom Allen explaining why.

And here's the whole thing.

And here's a thing so you can sing along.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Why is contemporary sacred art not very sacred? Ideal proportions and the perfections of heaven

So, I guess it shouldn't be surprising that the icon painters use the standard "canon" of idealised portraiture. I learned this in my study of Renaissance and Gothic Italian painting. The idea that there are mathematically precise measurements of the "ideal" human form is one of the key lessons of the great Renaissance masters. But of course they didn't invent it. Art historians will tell you that the ideals of Italian Renaissance painting didn't come from some lost Greek text rediscovered and sold to a Montefeltro or Medici noble, but developed slowly from Byzantine art, and through the Gothic adaptations. And the math of the human figure was one of those things that were considered great secrets of the trade.

How closely your face coincides with these mathematically ideal proportions is what makes us think it is beautiful or not. Of course, the beauty of a human face or form is about more than proportions (and involves a lot of historical, cultural and environmental factors) but it starts with math.

You don't have to have "perfect" proportions to be beautiful. Here's a photoshopping of Audrey Hepburn that makes her face fit more closely these classical "ideal" proportions, and it completely dulls her brilliance, makes her celebrated face totally uninteresting.

And it kind of depicts what I'm talking about. This idealised beauty, this kind of mathematical proportional perfection, is not intended to depict anything in this world; it's not supposed to look like a particular person. Applying it to a real person just dehumanises. This is why people who undertake plastic surgery either to try to preserve their youth or (even more scary) to remodel themselves after some artificial, cultural standard of beauty, always end up looking bizarre and frightening. Neither Fra Angelico's angels nor Barbie dolls are supposed to look like human beings, and human beings trying to make themselves look like them are really just trying to flee from their own real selves.

But at the same time, this is why it makes perfect sense for the canon of Byzantine and Gothic and early Renaissance sacred art to follow these ideal proportions very closely, since the art form is heavily symbolic. These idealised, mathematical proportions for the human form was a technique developed by the Greeks and Egyptians (and probably Babylonians) to help them depict their gods in painting and sculpture. Math and sacred art have always gone together, and have always been understood to depict some reality that isn't normally visible.

This is why these modern "sacred art" paintings that try to "humanise" sacred persons using modern visual standards fail as sacred art. This is a function of Modernism, both in its artistic and theological expressions; the urge to de-sacralise the subject by naturalising it. But naturalistic visual language has become so ubiquitous - the photograph is now the only visual standard - that modern viewers of sacred art, while they may be aware that these works fail to do what they're advertised to do, fail to do what the art of Fra Angelico did, they often do not understand why.

The point with sacred art is not to depict the subject - the Virgin Mary or an angel, for instance - as looking like a particular person, but to depict a completely different order of reality, one that "eye has not seen..." and which cannot ever be fully grasped by the human mind in this life.

The point of sacred art is to depict the idealised form of the person. Kind of like those videos of Korean girls making themselves look like Asian barbie dolls with face tape and nose putty... only less horrifying. In fact, those weird videos, and this strange thing of completely modifying your face or body to fit some odd cultural ideal of beauty that only exists in photoshopped magazine photos, or more appallingly in Manga cartoons, sort of illustrates what I'm talking about. These culturally-derived, arbitrary "ideals" - cf: foot-binding - have led to some pretty grotesque horrors. This is because there is a failure to understand the distinction between what the sacred artists depict as heavenly perfection -  meant to be "unattainable" in this life, as well as eternal - and ordinary, earthly human beauty that is necessarily fleeting.

The ideal perfection of the Sassoferrato Madonna is a good example. Every single thing about this painting is idealised; the face, the colours, the light, the pose the skin tone... everything. No one ever took a copy of this painting to a plastic surgeon and asked to be made to look like this. The purpose of this painting is not to show us what the Virgin "looked like" but what kind of person she is. It is intended to depict her spiritual perfections and glories.

It's understood that this is a heavenly reality, something to venerate, something to inspire to prayer and the pursuit of holiness and Christian perfection. It's intended, as all real sacred art is, to depict an entirely different kind of reality, one that people of Faith used to be able to recognise.

This is from the Ghent Altarpiece. It's a picture not of a mere human person, a pretty but rather overdressed young woman, reading a book in this world. It's a picture of life in heaven, eternal, unchanging, perfect and glorified. It is an attempt to depict a kind of reality that we will never see with our eyes in this life, at least, not until the Changing of the World.

Every single thing about it is symbolic. The flowers, the gold, the pearls, the book, the pose... everything. You don't just look at a painting like this, you read it. And to do that, you have to know the language.

But photography, that now guides all our tastes in pictorial art,  has caused us to forget the language of sacred art. Now we take a banal, earthly thing, a photograph of a pretty woman, and hold it up as some kind of ideal, and try to make ourselves look like it. Women who are older or fatter or less "even-featured" than the photograph don't feel uplifted by it; they feel intimidated and oppressed by the demand it makes.

The this-worldlinness of photography is what makes it completely inappropriate as a model for sacred art.

So, now instead of paintings like the ones above, modern "sacred artists" (I exclude here the ones who are merely mocking sacred art with postmodern "irony") are producing works founded on a totally earthly, this-worldly visual language.

And it ends up being trite, uninteresting and ultimately disappointing. You can't help but look at it and think, If this is what heaven is like, how are we supposed to spend our lives - and if necessary our deaths - trying to obtain it? How is it different from what we've got now?

How many jumps is it from this...

These aren't cherubs; they're just a couple of human kids.
That's not the Blessed Virgin; it's a studio model, a particular person, playing her.

... this?

The weirdness of the first one as a work of devotional art intended for a church altar, the reason it just sits oddly, is that its visual language is not that of classical sacred, devotional art, but of film. We're used to movies in which sacred persons are being played by actors, so in a sense we're accustomed to being lied to about their identity. It's OK for a movie because that's how that art form works. But these paintings use the same framework, and it fails, because film and sacred painting have completely different purposes. Having models "play" these people for paintings pushes back the depiction of heavenly glory that sacred art is intended for, into the mental framework of a film, in which the viewer is supposed to suspend his disbelief. He's supposed to watch a movie and just put into a mental cupboard the fact that Jesus is being played by Robert Powell or Jim Caveizel.

But that's not what sacred painting is supposed to do. Looking at a work of Fra Angelico depicting a "sacred conversation" is supposed to be like getting a little glimpse of heaven, as though we are peeking through a magical window. It's what Byzantine icons are intended to be; a window through which the sweet and wild winds of heaven blow.

But modern people are more used to watching movies at home about the life of Jesus than they are used to looking at a Fra Angelico or Pinturicchio altarpiece in their local parishes. This is why there has been such a wide acceptance of this kind of modernistic, photographically-informed painting, especially among "conservative" North American church-goers. And I'll admit it's a step up from the horrors of postmodern abstract "sacred art". (I mean horrors, for real.)

But sacred art and photography can really have very little to do with each other; their purposes are completely different. Whereas photography is a merely scientific rendering of physical objects in space, sacred art is intended to depict perfected, heavenly reality, one that we can never fully appropriate in this life, and for which mathematics is the only adequate earthly analogy.

Until modern Catholic painters trying to produce new sacred art understand the difference, and start learning the old, lost language of mathematically idealised forms, they're going to keep producing stuff that just looks ... well... modern, a naturalistic and essentially this-worldly, material reality.


Thursday, September 27, 2018

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Egg tempera

Trying to teach myself classical egg tempera technique.

Annigoni is an elder deity of the medium.

Egg tempera is being revived, and I think it's the answer to the difficulties I've had painting the kinds of things I want to do.

More on this later...


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

You don't have to live like they tell you - Tirol edition

How to make butter.

I don't know more than about five words of German, but this looks pretty good to me.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Why do we work?

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

I thought he made quite an important point. People don't want to quit mainstream city life because they fear they're going to be poor. But he said something quite interesting that will ring true for anyone who has lived - or tried to live - in a major modern city like London, New York, Toronto or Vancouver.

"I had a fairly normal life in London. Got up. Went to work. Socialized on the weekends. I felt like I didn't have enough time to do all the different things I wanted to do. The idea of working for like two-thirds of your life and having very little time tosocialize and do hobbies and just doesn't sit right. All the bills, mortgages, electric, water, internet, TV licenses, insurances just... I don't know. I earned good money but everything just went. Everyone had their hand in my pocket until there was nothing left."

The only problem with that life - living to make money - was that he had to live in the city to do it. To make that money, just barely enough to sustain his life there cost him every penny he made. This meant that in effect he was living in order to keep working. How that differs from slavery is something that might be worth considering. If you make way less money, but have the ability to live on next to nothing, and live much better, how are you "poor"?

I make considerably less money now than I did in Toronto, and yet, I live a hundred times better and am ten thousand times happier. I think the sheer misery of life in the urban centre of Canada's financial capital was going to kill me if I stayed any longer. (Five years. And eleven in the gloomiest, darkest, wettest city in the world.) Even in terms of things I don't have to put up with. I don't have the hellish expense of maintaining a Toronto lifestyle, desperately struggling every month, from paycheque to paycheque, to get the bank balance up to the red line.

And I don't have to contend with the horrors of Toronto itself. I don't wake up every morning to the roar and screech of traffic; I don't have to commute on the GEEDEE Toronto Streetcars. I don't have to jam myself like a sweaty sardine onto the Toronto subway. (There are whole websites dedicated to how much everyone hates the TTC... don't get me started. It's like a damned post-apocalyptic dystopia on those things. Just thinking about it enough to have written those sentences is filling me with the old frustrated rage and existential despair...Dear God! The "short turn"... Oh, I'd managed to forget the Short Turn...)

Most important, I don't have to live with my soul turned down to the lowest possible level of sensitivity. That was probably the worst part: city life forces you to run your soul at the lowest possible level of consciousness. Why is city life so evil, so harmful, so corrosive to the human spirit? I think it's because in order to maintain it, you just have to shut down.

The essential meaninglessness of modern life, its circular, self-enclosed bubbleverse logic, is something that a lot of people are starting to think about: "I live (miserably) in the city so I can have a job so I can go on living in the city... miserably."

These questions: "How ought we to live?" are particularly piquant since so many of us of the post-Revolution generation never married and/or had children.

Meaning, purpose, authentic context, are huge issues for us. Many of the people raised by the Revolutionaries never went for the settled life at all, or found it extremely difficult to achieve, either practically or psychologically. Even when it wasn't financially out of reach (check out university tuition increases in the 2nd half of the 20th century, then compare it with the studies showing the real-world employability of university graduates ... it's some sobering stuff) it was often something we just couldn't conceive of for ourselves.

The two mental processes that are absolute requirements for accomplishment in life - curiosity and imagination - are precisely the two that absolutely must be shut off completely in an urban environment, simply to make it bearable.

This generation, and I think much of the generations that followed, really just doesn't have any confidence in the thing we've created that we call "normal life".  All the official revolutions since 1600 have been in different ways essentially anti-human. Since the Protestant/secularist Revolution, then the Industrial Revolution and then, after the horrors of the early 20th century, the Sexual Revolution, have combined one after the other to strip away the very core of those things that make us human.

I think it's significant that now a major focus for technology innovators, guys like Elon Musk and others less celebrated, is to figure out ways to make modern urban life less unbearable. But heavens! That seems like a pretty damn low bar to me. Less unbearable... Can't we hope for a little better than that?


Here's that hobbit house in real life, without the expensive BBC-level production values.

Still looks pretty good to me.

If page views are anything to go by, it seems like it looks pretty good to quite a lot of people.


Thursday, August 09, 2018

Good eats

I guess this is getting down to monthly posts. I know. I was always posting more before I got addicted to Facebook. It's Zuckerberg's fault. I used to toss everything up onto this site, and then there was FB and Twitter and all manner of distractions. Still, I haven't forgotten the Home Blog.


Made Pastizzi for lunch today. Much better this time than my other attempts. (Followed a recipe. That seems to work. Who knew?)

A VERy traditional Maltese treat: pea pastizzi.

1 cup of dried split peas
pinch salt/half porcini mushroom soup cube
1 onion, chopped v. fine
1 clove garlic, minced
handful of chopped fresh mint
tablespoon curry powder
olive oil

Prepared puff pastry (from the supermarket, cause I ain't an idjit)

Soak the peas overnight. Drain and rinse, then put in a pot with about double the volume of water simmer with the salt, very low until soft. Boil off remaining water (don't strain).

Saute the onion, mint & garlic with the olive oil. When starting to go transparent, add in the peas + a cup of water & curry powder. Simmer together until it's all a nice paste and the water is all gone. Be VERy careful not to let it burn; stir a lot and don't leave it alone,

Set the filling aside to cool.

Cut 8 cm rounds of puff pastry and form in your hands into a pocket. Fill with a tablespoon + of the filling, brush the edges with egg and seal. Bake at 200 for 15 minutes.


In Malta these are sold every morning at every coffee shop, best eaten still warm from the oven. It's one of those nice traditional things that hasn't changed; you can't get them at all after 12 o'clock. They are also to be had filled with ricotta but I like the peas better.


Hi Gerard! I like your bees. Lovely lovely lovely! How envious I am! To be able to live in Ireland in the country on your own land, and have monkish bees!

It makes me homesick.

Here are Gerard's piggies, hilariously named "Rashers" and "Sausages" + a nice long shot of his beautiful homestead garden in Ireland.


Popped over to the farm shop yesterday to pick up some bug spray for the morning glories (they ALWays get spidermites... v. annoying) and saw they're selling brassica seedlings. How the year does tick by, like a big clock with each place on the face marked by things to plant, things to sow, things to pick, seeds to collect, earth to turn over and all in their appointed time...

I built the big orto bed just in time this summer to get the cantaloupes into the ground to produce a little fruit. There are six that will almost certainly get to full size plus a couple more that might make it if the weather stays warm long enough. But they're only filling half the bed.

The other section isn't filled with earth yet, but I was planning on putting the Romanesco broccoli in it. It was the easiest of the brassicas to grow last year and happens also to be the one I like best, so we're going to go full out this year. But it means it's time to plant the autumn veg, and I have to build at least two more beds and fill them with earth.

The one I've got ready to fill now will take 20+ buckets of composted soil from the big pile, which is a job I'm not looking forward to doing in the blistering August heat. I've been tossing lots of cut weeds and other organics in that will be the start. I'm really happy with the way the hugelkultur beds have done in the summer, so there's going to be more of that. But it's a job of work, and no fun to do in the heat. Anyway, mustn't complain; once it's done it's done and doesn't have to be done again.

Building the beds is pretty easy - not complicated. It really just involves doggedly going back and forth with the tufa blocks. One at a time. The big bed took about 45. They weigh about 20 pounds each. It's actually pretty fun, but not something you want to do in August when it's still 32 degrees every day.

It might stil be hot but the plants know when the autumn is coming. Last year my romanesco broccoli did really well, and it's my favourite veg ever, freezes well and always tastes wonderful. I only did ten I think, but this year will skip the cauliflower & red cabbage and do a LOT more broc. I really could just live on the stuff.

But of course, it has to go in soon. I did mine Sept. 14th last year, almost a month after my landlady Annamaria did hers and she got much bigger and better results. (She's been gardening on this plot her whole life, so I always try to do what she tells me.) But it means a lot of prep, and doing that in this heat...


I love this old Irish poem. It's a kind of summation of what life is supposed to be.

God, bless Thou Thyself my reaping
Each ridge, and plain, and field,
Each sickle curved, shapely, hard,
Each ear and handful in the sheaf,
Each ear and handful in the sheaf.

Bless each maiden and youth,
Each woman and tender youngling,
Safeguard them beneath Thy shield of strength,
And guard them in the house of the saints,
Guard them in the house of the saints.

Encompass each goat, sheep and lamb,
Each cow and horse, and store,
Surround Thou the flocks and herds,
And tend them to a kindly fold,
Tend them to a kindly fold.

For the sake of Michael head of hosts,
Of Mary fair-skinned branch of grace,
Of Bride smooth-white of tingleted locks,
Of Columba of the graves and tombs,
Columba of the graves and tombs.


I once had a nice young Benedictine monk - Quebecois - start in horror and fear when I said I wanted to visit Le Barroux or Fontgombault. He jumped up and said, "But.... they are *integrists*!!!" as though he had said they were cannibals. I was rather shocked. I still am when people use the term "integrist" or "ingegralist" as a bad thing. I thought the whole point of Catholicism was to create a completely integrated civilisation, in which every aspect of life - even the most practical - is imbued with the sacred, one that blesses and sacralises and elevates us in every last detail of our lives.

I don't understand a Catholicism that holds up anything else, anything less, as an "ideal".


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

An early start

A month or so ago we went up to Norcia to see Br. Augustine make his final vows. On that joyful occasion, I chanced to meet a nice fellow who told me he was a hermit, living about a 100 km to the north. After we had chatted about this and that he said, "Oh, I know. I read your articles." This always throws me, since it means the person I'm talking to knows a great deal more about me than I do about him. (People never take this weirdness into account when they meet someone they think they "know" on the innernet. Remember, you might "know" them, but they don't know you.)

But Br. Hermit put me at my ease immediately when he said he liked the gardening posts. "More garden stuff!" was the last thing he said out the car window as we waved good bye. I am always rather sad to see that my End of the World apocalyptic writing gets a huge audience but hardly anyone reads the stuff I do about the things I actually care about personally. Oh well. We're an exclusive club, I guess. 


First view this morning, about five after six.

Bounced out of bed at six today, after a mostly recumbent and queasy day yesterday. Paused only to say three Aves and feed Little Pippin before rushing out to the garden to enjoy the first cool hours of the day. So lovely, with the sun glancing down and all the light golden and mixing with the reflections off the flowers. My second round of huge pink gladiolus are blooming.

Watered everything, trimmed some things, staked up a few more feral tomatoes, cut a bunch of sage to dry for the tea in the winter and collected a handful of squash flowers for lunch and pulled a couple of beets for soup. Was pretty great to have all the outdoor work done by eight am.

The lavender is constantly alive with bees and butterflies, and is a big favourite with the glorious little humming bird hawk moths. Found a gorgeous bright red beetle, and one incredible thing that looked like a living jewel; sort like a very tiny bee but brilliant iridescent green, orange and blue.

The new big tufa bed in the orto section. First of a planned total of five.

In my little walk around this morning I discovered one of the kitties had damaged one of my five cantaloupe plants, the only ones that started from about 20 seeds I tried, so I pulled it. Then discovered a feral cantaloupe putting forth a little fruit in the squash patch... That is, the official squash patch, not the accidental one. So that works out.

I think this winter one of our building projects will be to take the remaining small wood and build some little moveable fences, like mini-hurdles, just high enough to create separators in the beds, and to protect small plants from Pippin who thinks every new garden bed is there for him to either snooze in or pee in, depending on how much sun it gets.

The black plastic mulch around all the canteloupes is doing wonders to keep the moisture in the soil and the weeds away. But I'd like to add a row of late sunflowers and maybe try for a late crop of beet root, and it will be a bit of a trick keeping the little furry friends out of the bed until the plants are established.

Here's the other end of that big bed, built over the place that my onions came out of, and where I'd planted all my brassicas last winter. You can see the piles of organics - just woody bits and pulled weeds, trimmings etc. The heavy clay soil just won't do root veg, and I like carrots. The red onions did well, but the white ones struggled, and the carrots I did from seed directly into the native earth were a complete fail. I'm letting them go to seed now so we can try again in the raised bed with the amended soil.

Built the whole thing - I think it came to 48 tufa blocks - in two days. I had checked our weather forecast and those were the last two days of our mild early-summer weather. After that it was going to shoot up to the more normal low 30s, and I had to have a place for those poor canteloupes that had waited so patiently on the terrace all spring. So I divided it in half and will wait to fill the other half for the cool September rain. Meanwhile it's convenient to toss in the waste material. So successful have the other raised beds been, I'll probably just keep building these until I run out of tufa blocks.

To build this, I pulled all my garlic. (Yes, that's my very messy shed. I love my shed. Annamaria's dad built it in the 1950s, by hand, out of tufa blocks.) You have to cure garlic, which mostly means hanging it up in a dry, dark place for a few weeks. I've kept the leaves on because I want to try braiding a few. I don't know how but I bet there's a Youtube video.

From the new bed-behind-the-shed, where it gets full sun all day... This was a couple of weeks ago.

I sowed a row of morning glories in the back, nearly all from the seeds I'd collected off the ones on the terrace last summer, and built what turned out to be a wholly inadequate trellis out of canes. Then put in a bunch of gladiolus bulbs of different sorts, sprinkled about quite a lot of borage seeds which all leaped up with great enthusiasm, and these sunflowers - three varieties. In addition I sprinkled quite a lot of mystery seeds either from packets of "mixed" or from the jars of random seeds I'd collected on walks over the last couple of years.

Sorry about the annoying shadows. The trouble with morning glories is that by the time the light has moved around to allow you to, take better pics the flowers have all closed up for the day. Morning light is terrible for photos, but this at least gives an idea. This was a few weeks ago, before the obelisks of morning glories had reached their current towering height of eight or so feet. Their tops are now well above the level of the shed roof.

It turns out that quite a lot of what I'd sown was zinnias. I didn't even know I liked zinnias until now. So I've actually bought a few more when I saw them in the vivaio where they were getting ready to throw them out.

I also picked up a rather ragged looking pair of delphiniums, which as you can see, are doing just fine now. This was today. The pointy thing on top is a flower spike.

When I brought it all home all I did was snip off the dead stuff and the spent flowers, and they've all bounced back magnificently. I've tried to do delphiniums from seed in the past but they're one of those things with seeds like flour granules, so tiny you can barely see them, and that are horribly fussy about germinating.

These were on sale because I think they had finished doing their first batch of flowers, but the vivaio lady - whose hobby, apparently, is languages and whose English is almost native - said they're just fine. Nothing wrong with them, but most people aren't real gardeners so they only buy flowers while they're blooming and then pull them up and toss them when they finish! Extraordinary! (What is wrong with modern people anyway?) I put one in at each end of the bed and they're doing fine. No idea how to look after them, so I'll have to do some delphinium reading. All I know is they're tall, blue, very pretty and perennial.

I love before and after pics, so here's the bed as it was when I built it in the winter. I didn't take a pic but before I did this there was a whole bunch of stuff to clear away - just old tomato canes, bits of wood, bricks and tiles and a dead bicycle. The spot had been used to store old woody material for a very long time it seems, because the soil was noticeably more organic-y than the rest. I filled it up with more organic stuff and then a dozen buckets of compost soil. I figured it would do well. (You can see little bits of snow in this pic. I think this was February when we had a cold snap.)

 Strawbs doing wonderfully in this wattle bed. They're so good I think next year I'm going to do the whole thing in nothing but strawberries.

 Here's peppers, beets and clover in an experimental round wattle bed. The soil is fantastic, a foundation of a big pile of pulled weeds, covered in a good seven inches of compost soil. When I planted out the peppers there were so many worms I had trouble clearing a space. But the wattle doesn't retain water very well, and the peppers don't like to compete with the clover.

The peppers in the beds with the solid sides, made of terra cotta roofing tiles, are doing dramatically better. The beets seem to like the wattle just fine though, so that's OK; it's all about the learning.

 Little visitor. I think he's moved in and built a house under the pile of dead sticks by the south wall. He was almost completely unafraid of me. I came right up and gently (carefully) petted him with one finger. (Yes, there's something wrong with his eye. It's a rough and tumble life, being a hedgehog.)

 A month ago, when it was at its very height. Strawberries, california poppy, some red thing I haven't identified and a big mass of second-growth chamomile, with sweet peas in the corner climbing up my obelisk. In front are pansies that I put in the planters back in February but which, astonishingly, are still going now, even in the hot weather. I think it's because everything else is providing them with some shade.

Was so happy to see these little nigella sativa flowers come up. I collected the seeds for them in Norcia ages ago. These have finished now and are producing beautiful seed pods. Worthy of a botanical drawing by themselves. Certainly one of our prettiest wildflowers.

Day lillies also did well this year. Finished now. Here they are at their height June 15. Hoping now that they've settled into their new bed they'll start to really spread out. I found them on the side of the road in Norcia, dug them up and put them in a pot. They were among the few survivors of the move.

Second batch of glads coming into bloom in the Big Round Bed in the Middle. Just noticed the pic is a bit out of focus. I'll see if I can get a better one when the sun is a bit less harsh.

There's more coming. A friend came over for a nice long weekend a couple of weeks ago, and we put in all the rest of the bulbs. Annamaria said they probably won't flower this year. Maybe not. But you never know. They're already sprouting though.

For some reason, it had not occurred to me that acanthus would produce seeds. It was silly of course, since it produces these lovely flower spikes.

Not really knowing how to compost properly has really paid off. The hugelkultur beds that I top-dressed with my own half-finished compost back in March, I think, all sprouted feral pumpkin and tomato plants, and a lot of rain in the spring and early summer has provided me with a bumper crop. I'm picking them green and small and eating them (see below). So sweet!

Here's the official squash bed, a hugel berm with a lot of buried woody material and green compostables. I didn't finish it until early May, and used it for all the squash I'd bought and started on purpose from seed. Since then I have top dressed it with my famous feral-seed dense home made compost, and all manner of feral things have popped up.

Including, apparently, a completely unexpected canteloupe, that is so far the only one with any sign of fruit.

The yellow zucchinis were a great purchase, one of the few veg seedlings I bought this year. Beautiful fruit and very sweet. And lots of it. I've picked at least one a day since it started.

The grape and morning glory arbour is the part of the garden I'm most pleased with, I think. I had the idea in January to build this trellis and put it behind the bench. I planned to sow one side with morning glories and the sunny side with climbing beans. Then behind the grape vine I built a little trellis out of small wood, just by sinking the sticks directly into the soft earth. I figured it would dry and that would cement the sticks in good and proper, and when the vine got bigger I could use that as a base and add to it as needed.

Turns out it was sort of needed...

More fun before n' after pics:

Here's the first trellis and the bench in January.

Here it is in May, from the sunny side, with the beans coming up and the little morning glories just starting. In the lower right corner you can just see the hugel berm, the "official" squash bed.

You can see from this pic that I had dug this out as a trench and buried a lot of organics, starting with wood. Hugelkultur is definitely the way to go with the clay soil. Later, a few bricks  along the edge hold in the top dressing I put on later when it was obvious the clover wasn't going to take. The bricks also hold the water in the bed.

After the season is finished, I'm going to build up the sides a bit higher and pile in more un-composted greens and bury these with compost soil, doing a "lasagna" bed to add nutrients and organics. No-dig and buried organics - it's making a huge difference in soil fertility, worm-sign, water retention, aeration and friability. It's the only way to go with heavy clay soil.

This was a month ago, taken from the other end, and showing the squash berm on the lower left. In the background on the left you can see the early stages of the second grape trellis.

In front of the beans there was just enough room to fit the last of my red peppers - all of which I bought as seedlings.

Here's the little grape trellis with the vines just starting, in May, that forms the corner of the "house," the square of the enclosed garden.

Behind this you can see my big grey bucket, and behind that you can see the other, slightly less prolific, grape vine getting started.

This is a month later. You can see where I've started to build on to the whole thing, and started to connect it all up with the other beds and trellises. Had to remember to include two little "gates".

From inside the "house," June 15.

This is the same spot this morning. It doesn't show much in this photo, but the whole thing that makes the arch is leaning ominously in towards the centre. It's a good thing these trellises have all been built with new, green material I cut myself this year or the whole thing would be too brittle to handle the weight, and come crashing inwards. This winter is obviously going to be spent building some very substantial trellises.

Here it all is from the sunny side. On the left is the second grape vine growing upwards, a different variety, that I trellised up quite a bit later, as it wasn't growing quite so madly. But it's all linking together now, like green rooms of a house. On the lower right is the squash berm, and in the upper  middle is the bean side of the trellis. (Which, disappointingly, is producing very few actual beans thus far... Never mind...)

The angled wooden bits are the start of a new, lean-to trellis I'm going to start this evening to give the squash something to climb, since it's getting to the viney stage too. I was testing the strength of the uprights of the original trellis - that were two sides of an ancient, hand-made wooden ladder. It all started to lean inwards, so I've propped it up with more tufa blocks on the other side and it looks much happier.

All this really reminds me of how valuable it is to let children build forts. All of this is just my old fort-building hobby coming back.

I keep going back and looking at the photos I took of the Big Dry Patch a few days after I moved here. This is what years and years of rototilling heavy clay does. Moonscape. This was April 18th or so, it should at least have been a riot of weeds. Don't rototill clay! Just don't do it.

~ * ~

I'm getting used to the climate.

My old British Columbian friends will be horrified when I say that this summer has been MUCH better because it has been "only down" in the low thirties after a very mild May and June - mainly in the mid-twenties. But this is a huge improvement over last summer when the temps shot up to 35 in mid-May and climbed a bit higher every day for the next 16 weeks - and not a single drop of rain. We had a lot of days between 38 and 43. (You'll have to Google the conversions. I can't do Farenheit in my head anymore.)

The summer of 2017 was a record, highest temps and longest drought in 150 years. The Italian agriculture industry lost 2 billion Euros by the end of June. We got no soft fruits here other than the figs, no pears, plums, peaches or apricots, and my cherry tree died after the heat triggered a blackfly infestation. A nasty cold snap in April killed all the grapes and then the heat got everything else. Following the earthquakes the summer before it was loudly wondered if this was God punishing Italy for its loss of the Faith. I personally think this apocalyptic mood influenced the subsequent election.

I've mostly acclimated, and the climate in Umbria is drier than the coast, so we don't have that horrible humidity. But you have a system for things, and you organise your life according to the heat. In fact, it's more like you organise the heat. 

This is the rhythm of the summer days, a life lived without artificial cooling systems: 

Up at six is a good idea. Five-thirty is better for praying a bit of Office over your coffee. It's a lovely, breezy 18 degrees out and this time of year the birds are starting about 5 am. By nine the sun is blaring down and its time to retreat indoors. By noon you have to go around the house closing the windows, and at three you have to close all the shutters on the south-west side of the house as the sun comes roaring around the corner.

On really hot days, you hang opaque cloth over the metal shutters, which the afternoon sun turns into barbecue grills - I have a bunch of cotton hall runners I bought at the dollar store that fit quite nicely over the shutters, held in place with clothes pegs - and you make sure everything stays tightly battened down. Any breeze coming in will be like the open door of an oven. The house between 4 pm and 7:30 is like a tomb, but lovely and cool and very restful. The walls are 20 inch thick stone, so any heat getting in is coming through the windows. In fact, if you close the shutters and windows in the afternoon and put your hand on the glass you can feel the heat. Without the cloths it can be like turning the radiators on.

You eat your pranzo between one and three, and then you have a rest or you do quiet things indoors. At six or so you go back outside to do whatever needs doing in the garden, feed whatever animals need feeding, and then go socialise outside with your neighbours. This is the hour of the Aperitivo and the Passeggiata - the time to go to town and stroll up and down the main street with family, greeting friends, have a nice drink at the bar between five and seven. (I don't usually do this, being a bit more keen on quiet solitude, but in Norcia it's a very big deal, the time when the whole community is together.)

At about quarter to eight you open everything up again in the house, and at about 9:15 - a little later every day until June 21 and then a minute or two earlier until December - the Night Bell rings from San Fortunato up on the hill, letting all the farm workers know that the day is done and it's time to go have dinner.

This is the agricultural time table that has created Italian culture. It is this, possibly more than any other thing, that has helped preserve the Italian way of life. It is still observed in the country, and is the reason for the odd shop opening hours that drive tourists to distraction. One does not keep one's shop open in the afternoon. That's when you're supposed to be snoozing away the hottest part of the day.

So, now it's 1:30 and I'm inside...

Anna told me to pick as many pears as I like. The tree was very fruitful this year. The pears are small, and you have to pick them green or they fall and then the ants get them. But they do ripen very nicely on the kitchen sideboard, and they are just heavenly when they're ready.

(Lots of figs this year too, but ripening much later than last year.)

Cut and hung up a bit of sage, towards the winter sage jar. Quite a lot more to come. Sage and mint tea in the winter is a staple pick-me-up. On the right is dill, from the feral seeds in the terrace pots.

Harvest of the last couple of days. I didn't do aubergines or cukes this year, but Annamaria always has extra and often drops by with a handful of lovely things. I don't think I've bought a single vegetable other than a few onions and some mushrooms in over a year. The freezer's still more or less full up, mainly with brassicas and pomodori.

My odd gardening habits, with mixed raised beds, flowers and veg all bunched in together, seem very strange and chaotic to the locals. But they are farmers and I'm not. They traditionally concentrate on growing as much food as possible in the season to stock up, and are often either feeding an extended family or selling produce locally. They plant directly into the soil after tilling out an orto patch, irrigate twice a day, and plant in rows to produce as efficiently possible.

For just me though, producing a little bit here and a little bit there is enough. I'm not really doing this to prepare for the Apocalypse (not yet, at any rate) and if I want carrots I can just go to the shop and buy them. This garden is much more for growing me. It's the "Labora" part of my Ora et Labora. My work has me looking at a screen all day; if I didn't have something to do with my muscles out of doors, I'd just turn into a blob, my brain would melt and my soul wither.

And even so, I have more than I really know what to do with. So, I've been having a bit of fun deep frying things lately...

Just a little bit of snacks for elevensies. These are the male flowers. You just pinch them off early in the morning when they open. Slice them in half lengthwise...

...roll them thoroughly in a bit of egg and milk mixture... (yes, that's an ice cream tub)...

... dredge in a little flour seasoned with salt and pepper, and pop them in the hot oil.

I did them with a few slices of green pumpkin and they all pair nicely with some mint, lemon balm and Darjeeling tea.


Last but not least...

Obligatory kitty pics:

Trimmed the fig tree and put the leaves on the old door to dry in the sun. No nicer place for a snooze, Henry thinks...

Bertie knows perfectly well that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun, and he is neither of those.

Nothing from Pippy today; the last time I saw him he was shooting out of the house an hour ago with what looked like a house sparrow in his mouth. I made no further inquiries.


Gertie and I getting ready to take our friend back to the village to catch her bus back down to Rome.


btw: I've just discovered the best online second hand book shop in the whole world. World of Books. It's amazing. Books for three and four pounds, and a flat rate international shipping rate of 2 £.

And they take PayPal

I'm doomed.

It's been ages since I've bought books as a regular thing. I'm catching up. They've been arriving every couple of days.

I've been looking for a good 1st year Botany text for ages, but they were all ranging about 60+ Euros. This was £4 or so. And I realised I haven't had the full set of the Narnia books at home for decades.


I leave you with the Office, since it's time for None.

(Couldn't find a nice version of the None ferial hymn on YT, so Terce will have to do...)

From the Office Hymn for Terce (ferial)

Rector potens, verax Deus
Qui temperas rerun vices,
Splendore mane instruis,
Et ignibus meridiem.

Extingue flammas litium
Aufer calorem noxium,
Conver salutem corporum,
Veramque pacem cordium.

Praesta Pater Piisime,
Patrique compar unice,
Cum Spiritu Paraclito,
Regnans per omne saeculum...


Ad te levavi oculos meos, qui habitas in caelis...