Contadina's Blog

Living the contadini life among the olive groves

The great wall of Ceglie June 26, 2011

Filed under: diy,dry stone walling,Garden — contadina @ 9:26 am

We (royal we being used here as it was all Jeremy’s hard work) have finished the front wall repairs, complete with new fence; built some pillars and added our wombled gates.

The front wall in all its glory

The gates still need a good clean, some anti-rust treatment and a lick of paint, as well as some bolts to the ground and we still need to add a course of blocks and something to top the gateposts; but our land is secure at the front and the dogs can’t chase cars going up the lane anymore and we’re one step closer to being able to keep livestock.

Work began on January 2nd, when an obliging neighbour shared his dry-stone walling skills with Jeremy. After almost six months dry-stone walling (not continuously I might add) I thought I’d share some of the tricks of the trade learnt on the job.

As I blogged back in January dry-stone walling is like a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle, where you start out with large flat-faced rocks on the outside, graduating to medium-sized rounded rocks as you build inwards, filling any gaps with smaller rocks.

Big stones, preferably ones with a flat face on at least one side, make up the outside faces of the wall on either side.  They often need slivers of stone to hold them in position and many need chipping to size. Then the inside of the wall is filled with medium-sized stones or larger stones which don’t have a flat-ish side.  Smaller pebbles are put between the in-fill and the faces as further support.  It is quite important that some of the facing stones extend back into the in-fill to tie the whole structure together.  As we needed a fence on top of the walls, Jeremy put a layer of cement on top of the wall.  This also helps bond the wall together.

Flat-faced stones on the outside

As he was building much of the wall in winter and spring, however every morning he spent laying the cement, seemed to attract rain or snow in the afternoon.  Not such a problem for the cement per se, but it left the top of the cement resembling a gravel path, so when it was all dried out, he had to paint the top of the cement with what’s called a slip – just water and cement – to seal it.  The slip has the added benefit of filling any little cracks in the cement that would otherwise hold water, which in a frost would expand and break up the cement bond.

Repairing the front wall was a mammoth undertaking and Jeremy’s going to continue to begin working on the side walls up as a far as the house and then take a long deserved break from breaking rocks in the hot sun.

Stone-walled chicken run

He’s definitely got the dry-stone walling bug though, as he’s just built a new chicken run using a dry-stone wall base, with the very able assistance of our recent Ozzie helpxchangers (thanks Kate, Ross and Tali). In this particular instance dry-stone walls were preferable to using blocks as they allowed us to compensate for a slant in the land. I think it looks mighty fine too, and it rather puts the adjacent run to shame, so we’ll have to give that a dry-stone makeover once we finish repairing the rest of the walls around our property. Ho-hum, only around another 800-metres or so to go!

And just because I can, here’s one last shot looking down the drive at one of the walls. We were a bit worried the fencing would spoil the walls but it hasn’t altered our panorama any and it looks rather grand.

Pretty as a picture


Stone Free January 16, 2011

Filed under: diy,dry stone walling,Garden — contadina @ 1:57 pm

Puglia, like much of the upland areas of Britain and Ireland and other parts of the Mediterranean, has rocky terrain, so it’s no surprise that dry stone walls have left their mark on the landscape in all these locations.

The rocky arid terrain of Puglia looks more Greek than Italian and dry stone walls are everywhere, marking out boundaries and terraces amongst the olive groves and vineyards.

As I mentioned in my last blog we’ve decided its time to restore our dry stone walls and so here’s a progress report on the repair of the front walls. Our front walls measure around 90-metres long and as you can see from the picture in the previous blog, they were a mixture of collapsed rubble and swollen rocks.

Work began on the first morning at around 7am and Giuseppe and Jeremy pulled a fair few rocks off the top of the wall to create a level, which they could follow. Posts were stuck in the ground and string used as a guide for the direction of the wall.

Once they got going the wall evened out to around one metre high on the garden-side, two-metres high on the roadside and around two metres wide. I was surprised that thereafter everything was done by eye, so the walls have the odd kink but are basically straight and solid now.

The repaired first front wall

We have three types of limestone and observing the seams in each rock dictates where it will be placed in the wall.  Rocks with grains in them can be split dead clean enabling you to shape them like bricks. Other rocks are really holey and larva-like, and I suspect they were the result of ancient volcanic eruptions. Giuseppe took one particularly holey rock to use in his presepe next Christmas, and he’s planning to put lighting behind the rock so it can shine though the holes for dramatic effect. We’ve no lights, but I love how the holey rocks look in the wall. Finally, there are smooth, pebble-like stones, which seem to contain more iron. These get used in the middle.

Incredibly, between them, the boys managed to repair around 10-metres a day, working through to about 2.30 in the afternoon. Some bits were worse than others and had to be completely rebuilt. It was quite thrilling to see a wall emerge from the rubble with just hammers and metal poker. The hammers were used to push back swollen areas in the wall and chip stones to size, while the poker helped pull out rocks where the wall had collapsed on itself.

It's just like doing a 3-D jigsaw puzzle

Jeremy likens dry stone walling to doing a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, where you use little wedges of stone to fill gaps and the two outside walls get filled with rubble. All rocks that were pulled off provide material to repair other parts, so you need to be able to spot one on the ground that will work in a space, chipping it to size if necessary. Picking up stones only to return them to the ground because they don’t fit is a waste of both time and effort.

Having enjoyed a slothful Christmas he was pleased to be able to do some physically hard work and I reckon he must have been shifting several tonnes of rocks each day, which should help shift a few mince pies. Any rocks not used in the walls were wheel-barrowed to where we will need them next.

They disturbed a few lizards sleeping in the gaps of the walls but were extremely relieved not to find any snakes hibernating there. When he found out how much I enjoy wild asparagus Giuseppe was genuinely concerned that I would not see any growing alongside the wall for at least three years.  As we’ve over a kilometre of wall to repair, however, I suspect that I’ll always have some asparagus to keep me going.

awaiting a fence on top

Before repairing the adjoining walls Jeremy needs to build some columns for the gates. Once these are in place we’ll remove the entrance walls made out of cement blocks and continue curving the dry stone wall round until it is flush with the columns. The plan is then to cement poles into the top so we can run some chain-link fencing along the top of the wall. We can then turn our attentions to the side and back walls.

Our back wall forms part of the boundary wall between the towns of Ostuni and Ceglie and is some five metres wide and 10-metres high. It’s probably been there for hundreds of years and has a number of oak trees growing out of it just to add to the difficulty factor.

The sidewalls are really patchy by comparison and were probably formed by contadini working the land removing stones as they ploughed their fields. I suspect these became walls rather than just piles of rocks  following the land reform in the 1950s which saw land redistributed to tenant farmers who had previously been forced to share all their crops with their landowners.

Having learnt the basics of dry stone walling we’re also planning on redoing our terraced walls between our upper and lower land levels, making some steps between levels and building an orangery. As all the rocks all come from our land, moreover, all it will cost us is time. It will take at least a couple of years to repair all of the walls as working on them during the height of summer is out of the question.

With ongoing repairs they will hopefully last several hundred years longer.


Portafortuna December 31, 2010

Filed under: diy — contadina @ 12:21 pm

With the end of year fast approaching, it’s time to take stock and look forward to the next one. I don’t know about you but 2010, as a number, has never really stuck for me, so I’m rather hoping that 2011 will quickly become firmly embedded in my mind and become a year to remember.

Our major achievement of the year was getting double-glazed doors made for the kitchen. To get new doors meant we had to remove the old rusty metal garage doors and Jeremy had to build a new wall to fit the new doors.

Can you guess what it is yet?

We knew timing would be crucial, so spent a lot of time liaising with Pablo, the carpenter who was making them for us. What neither he, nor we planned for however was a problem elsewhere within the supply chain and a hold-up at the glaziers meant we had a gapping hole for three weeks. Getting new doors at the start of August. What were we thinking?

The light and insulation the new doors provide has made a huge difference in both summer and winter. The old garage doors were too hot to touch and turned the kitchen into a furnace, and that’s before the pizza dragon arrived. As a sign of their effectiveness the kitchen floor has become the favoured place for the dogs to find respite from soaring temperatures during the summer.

Since knocking a doorway through to the living room the cold from the kitchen was not something we wanted to experience for a second year in a row. Now, whether we’ve lit the range-style cooker in the kitchen or the wood burner in the living room, the warmth spreads through to both rooms.

It took a while but was worth the wait

As a stop-gap measure to improve the insulation of the rest of the doors and windows Jeremy finished adding panels of wood and insulation sheets to each one and I’ve hung some lined curtains.

We’re hoping to change a few windows this year, which should be a breeze as they’ll be the same size as the old ones. We also need to change the front room door (these metal doors with shutters are great for security but provide no insulation and they are brutal looking) but as wood is really expensive in Italy it will have to wait a while.  As it is, paying for the new kitchen doors meant we had to shelve many of the other plans we had for the year.

So looking forward to next year; in a few days time Jeremy’s going to begin repairing the stone walls at the front, add some fencing and some wombled gates. This is going to be an ongoing task, as we need to secure our land before we can ever think about getting livestock. We had hoped to just fence off small areas for livestock but wild dogs are too big a problem and we’re always worried about our own dogs being poisoned as far too many contadini spray weed-killers, so we’ve decided to enclose it all. After much searching we found someone who is willing to assist with the first section as every other muratore or stonewaller only build new rather than repair existing walls. If anyone wants to lend a hand dry stone walling before liming at da beach let us know.

A before shot of our neglected walls

Outstanding projects include building a pergola, a poly-tunnel and a rustic retreat (for me to write in when we have guests and to house HelpXchangers during the olive harvest).

We had some wonderful HelpXchangers last year and look forward to hosting more from April-onwards. Big thanks for all your help, good company and laughter to (in order of appearance) Richard, Matthias and Tanja, Chiahui, Andria and Chelsea and Silv and Steve. I wish them and you all a very happy New Year.


A slow day in contadina’s life November 20, 2010

Filed under: diy,Garden,knit and sew,Recipes — contadina @ 8:09 am

Thanks to the invitation from Pat and Rick over at Living the Dream Portugal I’ve chosen Wednesday 10th, November from a couple of weeks ago as my meme day as we’re currently in the middle of the olive harvest, and our days were a little more varied back then and besides you’ll be getting an olive harvest blog next. Just to explain, in science a meme is a self-propagating unit of thought that is spread from one host to another, so a perfect way to understand what makes fellow bloggers tick.

In the summer we generally awake with sunrise, but in the winter we rely on Gaia to awake us and the other two dogs. She’s got a finely tuned body clock so I’m being woken at around 6.30-7 in the mornings. I don’t know how she does it, but she begins pestering me at exactly 5pm for her supper too.

I arose at around 6am so that I could get some freelance work out of the way before the day started proper. At around 7.30, when Gaia’s nibbling my elbow trick got too insistent to ignore I fixed the dogs their breakfast (pasta, chicken and blitzed carrot and cabbage) and some porridge for myself. I also made some dough using a starter, which was already in the fridge and returned it all to the fridge for a slow rise.

The dogs then came out to help me feed the chickens and to distract the chickens whilst I cleaned their house I dive-bombed their run with pomegranates, which is their current favourite available fruit. Cleaning the chicken house out was unexpectedly aromatic as it is flanked by our nespola and lemon trees, which are both flowering at the moment and smell divine.

With the chickens sorted I thought it was time to turn my attentions to cleaning the wood burning stove and chimney, so Jeremy went up onto the roof with a besom broom head tied in the middle of a piece of string. He fed one rope end down to me at stove level and we both pushed and pulled our end of rope until the broom dislodged any soot, which had accumulated.

Govanne, Gaia and Piglet gang up on a lizard

Happy hounds a hunting

With the stove cleaned and ready for action, I turned my attentions to the garden and did a spot of weeding around the brassica patch. The dogs, meanwhile, occupied themselves with sniffing stuff,  whilst Jeremy completed some plastering around the new doorway he put between the living room and kitchen. We’ve had a big hole for so long now and I was really impressed to see how his plastering skills have improved so I stood admiring the doorway whilst enjoying a cup of tea.

Tea finished and some footering on the computer out of the way I took the dogs for a walk. Wednesday is a hunting day so I tend to take them out when the hunters have gone home for lunch.

For lunch I had some homemade baked beans and marmite on toast with a couple of eggs on top. I’m making big batches of beans and freezing them, as they are such a good comfort food in the winter.

Homemade beans are best

I then got the sewing machine out and made some curtains for the new kitchen door along with a plastic bag holder for a neighbour who liked mine. I was hoping to make a couple of curtains to cover the storage area under the pizza oven and some draws but got distracted by the dogs wanting to play.

I had a run around with the dogs until a neighbour came to bring me some more pomegranates from his trees and some quince jam his grand-daughter made. He also asked if Jeremy would mind making him some shelves to fit a small cupboard. Italians are not big fans of DIY and are generally impressed by Jeremy’s efforts. I swear if he gets called maestro one more time his head may explode.

I then lit the stove in the kitchen and took the dough from the fridge, which I duly knocked back and shaped into a couple of loaves. Whilst waiting for the dough to rise and oven to reach temperature I roughly chopped some vegetables to make some stock. I chopped a squash a neighbour had brought round the day before, along with an onion and some chillies and popped them in the oven to roast to make soup with. I also made a chard quiche to have for lunch the following day, as we’ve a lot of wild chard growing.

Puttanesca or tart's pasta

For dinner we had puttanesca made with our own the freshly cured olives, home grown capers, oregano and  passata. Our chillies seem to have more heat than last year’s, so I just needed to add one to provide the necessary spice. If you are not aware, puttanesca is a colloquial name for a lady of the night so the dish is either so called because it’s hot and spicy or because, said ladies of the night, would entice men in by displaying steaming bowls of the stuff.

Thanks to the new doorway the oven took the slight chill from the air. Although the woodburner is ready to go it’s not really cold enough for us to light it yet. When it gets really cold we’ll light the oven during the day and the woodburner at night. We get more than enough wood to run both along with the pizza oven and barbeque from the prunings of our olive and almond trees. It’s lucky we didn’t decide to light the woodburner as the electricity went off at around 7pm, which would have caused problems as our woodburner has a back-boiler with an electric pump.

The electricity was off all evening so we settled down to playing trivial pursuits by candlelight. Normally we’d watch DVDs and I might knit or read, but it’s always nice to get games or cards out.  By around 10 we were both ready for bed and I happily snored my way through until morning.

I pass the challenge to write their own slow day account to Norm and the hard working hippy and look forward to sharing our olive tickling experiences with you in my next blog.


Here be dragons (and flowers) September 5, 2010

Filed under: diy — contadina @ 11:57 am

We’ve just had the first deluge of rain since April and put the summer duvet on the bed for the first time since May. It’s such a relief to see rain again and hear the cistern re-filling and I’m really looking forward to lighting the pizza oven and stove without melting.

This brings me rather neatly onto some murals we’ve just had painted by the lovely Chiahui, one of our HelpXchange visitors, who is a theatre set designer in her native Taiwan. Thanks to Chiahui we can now produce dragon-fired pizzas and have something warm and whimsical to break up the white walls in the living room.

A little warmth on the walls

A little warmth on the walls

We had been planning to do the murals for a while now but would have needed to use a projector to trace images onto the walls, and I’m pretty sure our efforts would not have been nearly as good.

Our very own fire-breathing dragon

Our very own fire-breathing dragon

Chiahui spent the first few days getting our wood-store ready for the winter before we discovered her talent and we feel very privileged that we now have some bespoke murals. It also helped us realise that we should find out where our HelpXchanger’s talents lie before setting them tasks when they come and stay.

It’s been a long-hot summer and having hosted a number of HelpXchangers water preservation has been a top priority. Most have been really good but we did have one chap who constantly let taps run, despite being told how precious water is here. To get round this problem we’ll build an outside shower, using a 20-litre solar shower bag, to help limit  water waste next year.

In preparation for winter, we just had new doors fitted in the kitchen and it’s so nice to see the back of the rusty metal garage doors, which were there before. We’ll reuse the metal doors on a workshop sometime in the future but we’re currently basking in the flood of light the double-glazing lets into the kitchen as well as the ambient temperatures they help maintain.  Unfortunately wood is really expensive in Italy so we’ll only be able to change a door or a couple of windows at a time. Luckily, our carpenter friend, Pablo can make them to our specifications whenever we save up enough cash to pay for materials and his labour.

Jeremy had to build a couple of new walls to fit the size of the new doors, as they were garage-sized before, and we’d hoped to have a gap of just a few days without a door, but being Italy, of course this turned into three weeks. Not being able to lock the house meant we couldn’t leave the house together for most of August and zero trips to the beach meant cabin fever set in.

The doors were definitely worth the wait, however, and despite temperatures soaring, the kitchen has been the coolest room since they were installed. I’m quite excited about temperatures dropping so we can see how warm they’ll keep us now too, especially as our friend Herman just made us a forked-tongue handle out of copper for the pizza oven door. With our pizza dragon breathing fire and the new doors we are going to be well toasty this winter.


The Blue Peter Garden July 24, 2010

Filed under: diy,Garden — contadina @ 11:21 am

Today I’m going to show you how to make a lampshade from a ball of string, a balloon and glue and show you something interesting to do with a big old bucket and some worms. To make your very own groovy rustic lampshade, blow up a balloon to the required size/shape and tie a knot. Then cover the balloon in some petroleum jelly (that’s Vaseline in case you hadn’t guessed), although I’m not sure this is necessary, I just figured it would stop the glue from sticking to it.

Rustic lampshades made from string

Rustic lampshades made from string

Next, in true Blue Peter style, rub some clear, water-resistant glue to a ball of twine, wool or whatever you decide to use and randomly wrap it around the balloon to create the shape you want. We left gaps at the top (for the light fitting and one at the bottom for light to shine though) but you could cover the bottom for a more spherical looking shade. We hung our balloon on the washing line to dry but brought it in overnight. By morning the lampshade had hardened so we burst the balloon and created a hanger with some old wire, to which we hung the light fitting and a low energy light bulb.

We’ve hung a couple in an olive tree and they provide a rather romantic evening dining ambience. Jeremy’s currently building a pergola, and I think we’ll make several of these shades to hang inside it as they are both cheap, around €3 each for string and light fittings, and rather beautiful.

And now for something quite different: by adding a tap to an old bucket we made a not terribly stylish but completely functional wormery. Jeremy’s patented design includes a few inches of gravel at the bottom and a disc of rubber matting

A big bucket of worms
The DIY wormery

with holes drilled though to ensure good drainage. This is then covered in some rotted compost and some kitchen scraps, a generous handful of brandling/tiger worms from our neighbour Herman’s wormery, a layer of straw and a lid.

Depsite hanging it under the shade of a nespola tree, owing to the heat we need to splash a little water on the straw every other day to keep everything moist, and we’ll add kitchen waste under the straw, whenever the worms have finished eating previous scraps.

Soon the worms will provide us with a concentrated liquid feed and after a few months they will have turned the bin’s compost into vermicompost, or black gold, which is very high in nutrients. The worms will also reproduce, so we can hopefully build a bigger wormery in the future and Jeremy’s looking forward to taking some of them fishing.

Tune in next week to see what we can make with sticky-backed plastic and liquid bottles ☺

Can I have my Blue Peter badge now?


Making hay while the sun shines March 18, 2010

Filed under: bees,diy,Garden — contadina @ 9:37 am

We’ve enjoyed some proper spring weather for the past couple of weeks, so we’ve made the most of it and got stuck into some much needed work in the garden.

I’ve mostly busied myself with weeding the vegetable patch, in between writing some news articles. Weeding is definitely a good cure for writers block, it helps alleviate a desk-bound bottom and makes for a very welcome distraction.

Thanks to the manure we dug in prior to planting we’ve a really good crop of winter vegetables, it also means, however we’ve a healthy crop of weeds too. Up until now, the ground has been too wet to work, so it’s been quite hard going clearing the weeds, but I’ve declared war and I’m winning.

Jeremy’s been rotivating a patch of earth ready for planting our chitted potatoes. He says the areas where we’ve been adding ash (including burnt bones from the dog’s dinners) have been much easier to work. Areas we haven’t added ash to remain really boggy, with clogs of earth sticking to the rotivator’s tines.

He’s also been getting on with some pruning, while I’ve been busy sewing seeds in old toilet rolls. I’m leaving these in our old Panda, which has found new life as a mobile (if we push it) nursery. We’ve also marked out where our new pergola will sit and Jeremy’s began removing soil by the barrowful in preparation for its foundations.

Although we’ve had a really mild winter it feels so good to be working outside again. The lizards are waking up and the garden is alive with bees and butterflies. Our bees have been hard at work pollinating the almond trees and I’ve spotted them on borage, calendula and rosemary too.

It’s not just the flora and fauna coming to life though, all of our neighbours are out working the land during the day. Everyone, ourselves included, is filled with optimism that spring has finally arrived. I can’t imagine what its arrival will feel like for the parts of Europe who have suffered one of the severest winters on record.

Since beginning writing this, the winds have picked up and we have a cold snap heading this way. Luckily, we’ve still got some plastering and a cupboard to finish in the kitchen. Jeremy just finished making this one though,

cupboard love

complete with magnetic, removable kick-board. My husband, the master cabinetmaker!

Facendo  il fieno, mentre il sole splende

Ci é piaciuto il tempo di primavera vero delle ultime due settimane, quindi ne abbiamo trattoil meglio e abbiamo cominciato alcune facendo che hanno molto bisogno in giardino. Mi sono occupato maggiormente con il diserbo delli l’orto, tra la scrittura di alcuni articoli di notizie. Il diserbo è sicuramente una buona cura per il blocco dello scrittore, aiuta ad alleviare un culo intorpidito e una distrazione molto gradita.

Grazie al letame, che abbiamo scavato prima di essere piantare, abbiamo un raccolto veramente buono di verdure invernali, significa che, però, abbiamo anche un sano raccolto di erbacce. Fino ad oggi, il terreno è stato troppo bagnato per lavorare, quindi è stato abbastanza duro strappare le erbacce, ma io ho dichiarato la guerra e io sono vincente.

Jeremy ha arato un pezzo di terra, pronto per piantare le nostre patate. Lui dice che le aree in cui abbiamo aggiunto le ceneri (comprese le ossa bruciate dalle cene del cane) sono state molto più facili da lavorare. Le zone dove non abbiamo aggiunto le ceneri sono rimaste veramente fangose, con zolle di terra si invischiano nel motozàppa.

Lui ha anche iniziato  qualche potatura, mentre io sto mettendo i semi in vecchi rotoli di carta igienica. Li sto  lasciando nella nostra vecchia Panda, che ha trovato nuova vita come un vivaio  (se vogliamo spingere) mobile. Abbiamo anche segnato dove sará il nostro nuovo pergolato e Jeremy ha iniziato la rimozione del suolo con una carriola in preparazione delle sue  fondamenta.

Anche se abbiamo avuto un inverno molto mite ci si sente così bene a lavorare
fuori di nuovo. Le lucertole si svegliano e il giardino è vivo con le api e le farfalle. Le nostre api sono state al duro lavoro di impollinazione dei mandorli e le ho viste sulla borragine, la calendula, il rosmarino e su i fiori di cime di rapa.

È non è solo la flora e la fauna che si risvegliano alla vita, tutti i nostri vicini sono fuori lavorare la terra durante il giorno. Tutti, noi compresi, siamo pieni di ottimismo la primavera è finalmente arrivata. Non riesco a immaginare ciò che
l’arrivo della primavera significa per le parti d’Europa che hanno subito uno degli inverni più severi mai registrati.

Dal momento che inizio a scrivere questo, i venti forti ha tornano indietro, e abbiamo una ondata di freddo che si dirige verso noi. Per fortuna abbiamo ancora alcuni intonaci e un armadio, della cucina da finire. Jeremy ha appena finito di fare questo armadio, peró, completo di magnetico e battiscópa rimovibile . Mio marito, il maestro ebanista.