Saturday, February 24, 2018

Spring in Umbria

First sunny day in a couple of weeks here. I should have realised it was going to be nice when I heard the wind that has blown away all the clouds.

I've got some deadlines to chase today, but thought I'd share some pics of the garden, and a few ideas I'm working on for the spring. (That is apparently happening right the heck now!)

I've become enamoured of the idea of creating a medieval herb and flower garden in what I can really no longer call The Big Dry Patch. Building beds is rough work though.

Annamaria has pruned her olive grove and there's a small mountain of olive cuttings that aren't doing anything. I've already started wattle fence experiments.

Gathering data for a series of articles - haven't decided where I'm going to flog them - on the concept in medieval mysticism of the "Hortus Conclusus" - the "garden enclosed". It shows up starting in the mid-14th century in the manuscripts, where Mary is often depicted sitting (frequently on a "turf bench") in a lovely garden, surrounded by all manner of flowers and animals, and often accompanied by ladies in waiting like a courtly medieval queen, entertained by minstrels. There's a lot to unpack.

Also gathering garden ideas. I'd like everything to be documentable from primary sources. Fortunately, there's a LOT of stuff uploaded, and the medievals seemed to really love painting their gardens into the manuscripts.

The turf bench shows up again and again in the manuscripts, most often set in front of a trellis with red or red and white roses. Apparently one was supposed to put on one's best clothes and go out in the summer and weave little bonnets with the roses. All very symbolic. I'm working out how to do a turf bench with the materials at hand.

Here's my first trellis, taken a few weeks ago. The side supports are an old wooden ladder that's lost its rungs. The space behind it is just the right size for a melon and squash patch. I'm planning another trellis, made of much sturdier materials, that will be an a-frame for the viney plants to climb. This will create some shade for things that like a bit of shade like lettuces.

New beds, lots of mulch to treat the clay soil and keep the water in when it gets hot; in the background are rows of brassicas in the orto (and Henry, guarding his territory from the farm cats). I got about 25 nice Romanesco broccolis - now all packed away in the freezer for summer - and still have some cauliflower and red cabbage to go. I've planted lots and lots of garlic too, as well as red onions and a few white ones. 

Everything looking a bit grim and grey this time of year, of course, but it's perfect weather for getting out and digging and building. Couldn't do it in the heat. 

Unfortunately, after the very bad drought and unusually hot summer, the loquat tree decided that autumn was spring, and produced all its flowers in November, which were subsequently killed by the frost. A few of the flowers that were a bit sheltered survived and there will be a little fruit. But droughts are bad for so many reasons. 

New beds to protect the beginning grape vines, all planted around with garlics. I'm only about half way done. You can see the big stack of tufa stones in the background along the base of the jasmine hedge. Got plans for all that. In front is my first go at making an obelisk trellis out of bamboo uprights and olive branch twists. It's for sweet peas.

 Here it is in the bed, and the sweet peas are all planted.

That beautiful black soil all comes bucket-by-bucket from Annamaria's family compost heap. It's got to be at least a hundred years old, and covers an area the size of three parking spaces. She's said I can help myself to as much as I like.

Pippy loves to help in the garden.

The apricot in blossom.

My neighbour Franco's almond tree blossoming as it towers above my still-bare fig tree.

Magnificent botanical accuracy in a detail from one tiny corner of the great Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck. You can clearly identify every species. So much research to do.

Monday, February 12, 2018

It's no wonder that Italian politics is the way it is.

Nosing about today into the local history of Umbria in the Spoleto-Perugia area, the big horseshoe valley of the Tiber.

My local village church, San Martino, was rebuilt in 1815, as were most of the parish churches of this area. It's a really lovely building, and of course was built in the same spot as the older church from the 13th century. But I wondered why that particular date and why all the rebuilding around here, since all the churches up and down the country road here were all about the same date and by the same architect.

As it turns out, there's a very sound historical reason. Of course, I live in what was once the Papal States. And that's kind of where the problem begins.

The history of the Church in Italy is not a happy one, and of course has a lot to do with the 1000 year conflict between the Pope and the Emperor, that spilled over into various iterations through the ages, culminating in the catastrophe of the secularist/freemasonic revolt of 1870 and the disastrous farce of unification, an artificial construct that has little actual social reality.

But as Rome and the Papal States flipped back and forth between rule by France, rule by Naples/Sicily, rule by the pope, like an oscillating sprinkler, there were brief moments of peace. One of these was at the end of French rule in this area, the département Trasimène (prefecture of Spoleto) ended in 1814. I expect after Napoleon had finished imposing his weird ideas of religion and the relations between Church and State, there wasn't much in the way of Catholic life left around here, so rebuilding was a way of reviving Catholic culture. Look particularly at the dates 1815: Rome changed hands three times in a single year. Hardly surprising that steps were taken in the provinces to try to establish some kind of ecclesial order.

Later in the 19th century the secularist Italian rulers had another go at the Church, in much the same way and for much the same reason as the English Dissolution: a kind of national possession of odium fidei...

Here is a little blurb about the decree of the governor Gioacchino Pepoli of 1860 in which all the convents and monasteries in this area were stripped of their possessions.

The Italian Suppression in 1866

With regard to the religious suppression decreed by the Italian Government in 1866, there is no specific mention in the Records of the Convent.

It is known from other sources, though, that the first decree of expulsion was issued by the High Commissioner of the Government, Gioacchino Pepoli on November 1th, 1860, after the occupation of the regions of Marche and Umbria. Such decree contained a clause which stated that all mendicant friars could remain in their cloisters of residence, provided that they expressed their intention to do so. They then provided to do such request. The definitive decree arrived nonetheless on July 7th, 1866.

Leafing through the Provincial Records in S. Maria degli Angeli, we have found a historic document sent to the General Ministry by the Provincial B. Stefano from Castelplanio, in 1882: “S. Antonio of Paccian Vecchio”, diocese of Città della Pieve – The Friars were expelled from this Convent as well, on March 24th, 1864”. The Church remained closed, and the building as well as its surroundings were rented to third parties.

Who was this Pepoli guy, and how could he have had the power to just wipe out Catholic religious life with the stroke of a pen?

This was the period of the beginning of the great disaster that Italy is still suffering from today. This comes from the 1935 (Mussolini-period) Italian Encyclopaedia...

Note the little ting of approval...

"Well accepted to Napoleon III, he was among the most valid cooperators with him to make him benevolent to Italian politics, especially to the Piedmontese one. Liberate the Romagne (1859) and appointed governor of them L. Cipriani, the P. assumed the posts of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Finance, of which he was an expert connoisseur. Member of the Romagne assembly, governor of Umbria, when he was occupied (September 1860) by the Italian government, he administered the region with wisdom..."

The blurb comes from the historical notes of a former Franciscan convent that is now a swank agritourismo near Trasimeno (a common fate of many, many monasteries and convents in Italy, and increasingly so...)
The Convent of Sant’Antonio of Padua Pacciano Vecchio, situated in the diocese of Città della Pieve, dates back to 1496. Its construction was authorised on July 16 that year by Pope Alexander VI, addressing the inhabitants of Pacciano Vecchio and Panicale. He affirmed the importance of this authorization based on the need of the presence of priests who would spread God’s Word and celebrate the Holy Misteries. He therefore gave his permission to build the Convent (“which would have the indulgencies and privileges of all other churches”) with a Church -consecrated to Saint Antonio of Padua- a bell tower, the cemetery, a dormitory, a refectory, a cloister, vegetable gardens and the smithery.

There is a Memorial, found in the Parish Archives of Panicale which says: “The Convent of the Fathers of Sant’Antonio of Paccian Vecchio was founded at the expenses of people from Panicale and Pacciano in 1496, in the site of the prisons of the County of Pacciano Vecchio, granted by the Counts Baglioni”.

It's no wonder that Italian politics is the way it is. They've had hundreds of years of this or that foreign or domestic ideological power declaring itself to be the rulers of this country. It's not surprising that the ordinary people have developed their unique Italian form of mental stoicism, a kind of aggressive indifference to politics at the national and international level, and the instinct to simply ignore the larger issues and preserve the family and one's private holdings, to be concerned exclusively with the local area, to protect the local interests.

It is also enlightening to see where the current suppression of the Catholic Faith within the Church's own institutions came from. It was, of course, in part the work of Modernist and Neo-Modernist theologians mainly from northern Europe. But a study could be usefully made of how the anti-clerical and secularist suppressions of the 19th century affected the situation in Italy, France and Germany to generate a kind of episcopal hopelessness, a sort of culture of ecclesiastical despair in response to the apparently unending stream of catastrophes of the modern period in Europe.


Friday, January 19, 2018

Christus mansionem benedicat

Monache Agostiniane d'Urbino

Yes, sorry. I know I've been away a long time. Just found this lovely little video from Italian TV series "I passi del silenzio" - Footsteps of silence. It's a series of one hour videos showing a single day in the life of a monastery, with interviews. Beautifully shot, and if you have even a little Italian, very uplifting. I was surprised to hear them chanting the Magnificat at Vespers in Latin using the Chant.

I actually went up to Norcia for the Christmas weekend. It turned into five days in all, and was wonderful, though at first very painful and difficult. It was the first time I've been up since going to the house to fetch out my belongings, and the first time since the quake that I've been there just to be there, and not for "business" reasons. I wanted to make a proper retreat of it, and the monks very kindly allowed me to attend many of the Offices, including the whole thing on Christmas eve. From 1st Vespers then a break for a quick bit of dinner and a couple of good stout coffees to fuel the marathon, to Matins that started at 8pm and went straight through to Midnight Mass, then Laudes afterwards. We few who made it all the way through were there until 2:30 am.

The glorious experience of the Christmas Eve liturgy also cemented something in my soul. I feel as though my lines had finally been re-secured, to use a nautical image, that had been flapping wildly in a storm for over a year. This was the thing that remains deep in my heart after everything; that particular form of intimate communication with God in the liturgy of the Office. At once so intimidating and so enticing, a paradox. The incredible intensity of joy and the enormity of the silence, the not-about-you-ness of it is something close to terrifying.

After I got home, the innernet was off for a week or so, and I was happy to let it stay off for a bit and have a little in-house retreat. I've been given Isaiah to read along with the Office, and it's dense and intense, like 70% dark chocolate. You have to read very, very slowly, and something strange starts to happen when you do. Your perceptions of things alters in ways that are hard to describe. After a week or ten days of not much more than Isaiah, the Psalms and some sewing and housework, the din and clamour of the world - especially the frantic yammering of the internet - seems to become mostly irrelevant. It was hard to put it back on again.

Suddenly being face to face with the Living God without distractions, made me start to understand why people often flee from their vocations. We like our lives to be trivial & superficial, unchallenging and "normal". But we are no judge at all of what "normal" really is.

This world, and this life, is what we know. It's what we imagine we can control & understand. But only because of how small and limited we are. That whole vasty reality of God's is something we just don't want in our little house. We fear He won't fit, like a lion whose nose barely makes it into the door and whose shoulders could shake apart the whole house. The merest whisper of this titanic reality is more than we can bear. So we retreat and run.

It's a terrible thing, but it's the reason why I would prefer to watch Big Bang Theory and Star Wars videos on YouTube than be alone with the Lord God of Hosts. Thank God He never gives up chasing us, no matter how hard we try to avoid Him.

O Lord, increase my faith in You.

Some Norcia holiday pics.

Dolcezze, everyone's favourite pastry shop, re-opened in time for Christmas after months of renovation. One of only about 30 businesses still open or re-opened in Norcia.

... including the blessed Norcia pizza take-away. Best I've ever had, and an immensely cheering and encouraging sight to see when almost nothing else in the centro was open.

Norcia cows.

From the agritourismo on the hill next to the monastery, looking down to town and toward the valley entrance. Weather was very changeable, sunny, foggy, raining, brilliant clear nights and some wind. Never dull.

There were mornings, especially in November, when you would look out the window and see the fog settled into the valley looking like a huge bowl of milk.

They don't see many people that high up on the mountain at this time of year. All eyes were on us on our little hikes.

The trail leading up to the road from the Tana dei Lupi agritourismo. Fun early in the morning, but too dangerous at night. Fallen oak leaves covering big loose stones, but also at night lots of wolves, wild boar and other night hunters and gatherers. Good fun early in the beautiful mornings though.

On the way to Terce, a good stiff climb first thing in the morning.

The new chapel in monte.

The monks' presepio on Christmas morning.

What "crollate" means. This was one of the fanciest houses in town, next door to the monastery on the hill.

For just a few minutes before I had to go get on the bus, it was nice to feel normal again. Thank God the Seneca was not damaged.

And back at home, Pippy enjoying the wood stove in the kitchen in his inimitable way.

And over the front door. I've never done it before. Thanks Jamie for such a good explanation.

Christus mansionem benedicat.



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.