Contadina's Blog

Living the contadini life among the olive groves

You say tomato, I say potato July 16, 2011

Filed under: Garden,Italian life,Recipes — contadina @ 6:09 pm

It's too bloomin hot

You’ll have to forgive my slackness on the blog-front but it has been seriously hot here for the past couple of weeks. We’ve had several days in the mid-40s while most days have been in the upper 30s. With nightly temperatures never dropping below 25˚ C it’s left us feeling pretty lethargic.  The only ones with any energy around here are the cicadas who are beginning their enthusiastic chatter at 5am, and that’s too damn chirpy for me.

Lots of lovely tomatoes

The heatwave has meant that we’ve managed to start jarring passata earlier than usual. Yesterday we made 26 bottles from around 40 kilos of tomato. You may think this doesn’t sound like a good return of tomato to sauce ratio; but the trick to making good tomato sauce/passata is to lay the tomatoes out for a couple of days before processing them, so their flavour intensifies and they aren’t too watery.

After cooking them a little to break them down, it’s also best to scoop them out with a really large slotted spoon or colander before running them through a passata mill. By not including any watery juice, you can be assured of lovely thick sauce, which is intensively flavoured.  For further details, you can check out last year’s passata-making blog.

I’m hoping to make at least 150 jars to last us the year, so we’ll be buying a couple of 20-kilo crates every few days. We’ve quite a few helpxchangers coming over the next month, so I shan’t be short of passata-making assistants. We’ll still add our own tomatoes, but at €8 a crate, this saves our precious water supply. You may have noticed that I seem to up the amount I make each year, but homemade passata is infinitely better than any you can buy in a supermarket.

We sampled the leftover passata with spaghetti, french beans and cacioricotta. Just boil the beans with the spaghetti, drain and then mix some cacioricotta and then sauce in before eating. Cacioricotta is a southern Italian speciality and is made from a mixture of ricotta and either sheep or goats cheese or a mixture of both. It’s quite salty and strongly flavoured but imparts a wonderful creaminess to pasta dishes. If you ever see some for sale I seriously recommend you buy some as it works really well with any tomato-based sauce.

Fagiolini con pomodoro e cacioricotta

We dug up the Spunta potatoes a few weeks back and I can report that they have a really good flavour and consistency. So far I’ve only used them for potato salad and pasta alla Genovese and they worked well in both recipes. We didn’t get any monster-sized spuds and it was an average yield, but we pretty much just stuck them in the ground and left them to their own devices owing to focussing all our time and energies to repairing the front walls. We’ll definitely grow them next year, only with lots of manure and see if we can’t get a bumper crop of monster-sized potatoes.


Living in Limboland February 26, 2011

Filed under: Italian life — contadina @ 11:50 am

Italian bureaucracy is renowned and it takes a while for us Anglo/Saxons living here to let go of our need for “just in time” results.

You get used to the need to visit any official offices with folders stuffed full of documents; sometimes required, other times not, depending on who’s sat at the desk. You soon realise that a trip to the post office or indeed any sort of office will take at least a morning. In these situations it’s certainly better to go with the flow – best to grab your ticket and then a coffee, read a book and chat to the rest of the queue rather than get wound up by the ensuing chaos.

We’ve survived the trials of becoming residents, obtaining an Italian driving licence and all manner of other significant milestones, such as electricity and Internet connections, and the subsequent drama of paying their bills.

Slowness is compounded by different interpretations of the rules by almost everyone you meet. Having been previously warned by countless expats that obtaining your residency was a Kafkaesque nightmare, we were pleasantly surprised it only took a couple of hours and we didn’t have to jump though any of the hoops we’d previously been informed about. A rather agitated Nordic-sounding chap, however, was told he’d have to return for a third time the following week owing to some spurious sounding reason. Moral…be pleasant and polite at all times when dealing with Italian officialdom.

When we bought our house everyone present advised me that I couldn’t use my married name, even though this was on my passport. Since then I’ve encountered all manner of problems, which only stopped when a kindly soul in the tax office bucked the trend and changed both my tax identification number (partita IVA) and national insurance (codice fiscale) number from my maiden name to my married one.

Whilst we live in Ostuni our house is considerably closer to Ceglie so this is where we conduct most of our affairs. Whilst we shall always pay our bills to Ostuni everyone told us that we would have no problem changing our residency to Ceglie. This sounded too good to be true but would have been useful, if only to be registered with a doctor a few kilometres away rather than 15.

Road to Nowhere

When we tried to change our residency, however, everyone, who had previously informed us that we could change, all said that it was impossible, and what were we thinking? When asked why they had previously told us that it was possible, they all now insisted that it was absolutely unattainable. This included changing doctors, although all advised that we should just visit the local A&E (pronto soccorso) rather than wasting our time visiting doctors.

Living on the boundary of two towns has created other difficulties. Last year recycling was introduced for the first time. Hurrah, we thought, before the farce of moving bins has left the countryside strewn with rubbish. Basically, as soon as someone complains about having communal recycling bins near their property the bins are moved elsewhere until the next person complains. There are currently no bins anywhere near our corner of the countryside and despite assurance from the local council (comune) that they would be returned, two weeks later we are still waiting.  As we are resident in another comune, moreover, we cannot register a complaint along with the rest of our neighbours.

As rubbish is foremost in our minds at the moment, this week we thought we’d investigate our lack of bills over the past couple of years. We’ve managed to pay twice before, but since then no bills have arrived. As with much of the countryside, we just have the name of a contrada (similar to a local parish, and in our case just one small lane) as an address, there are no numbers, but it’s not really an issue, as post is not delivered outside of towns. To get round this we have a mailbox in town. Having a mailbox in Ceglie, however, seems to be at the route of many of our problems, as Ostuni council don’t seem to have realised that post can be delivered to neighbouring towns.

So we spent a morning going round in circles, along the lines of, “but we can’t send a bill for Ostuni to Ceglie”.  To get round our lack of postal address on an actual postal route some buffoon at the council decided to give us an address in a totally different contrada. Confronting them with the logic that we are never going to receive a letter sent to a mythical address, was dismissed with a “but it is in Ostuni and the postman delivers there” response.

Having got one clerk to change the details to our proper contrada and for the billing address to our mailbox in Ceglie, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the next visit revealed that we were still listed at the mystery address made up by the council. We’ll keep going back, and who knows, maybe one day we won’t live in some forgotten limboland.


It’s that time of year again December 10, 2010

Filed under: Italian life — contadina @ 9:33 pm

I was surprised to read this week in the Italian press that the average spend for an Italian family this Christmas will be €1.377, down 1.2% on last year. At first I thought the decimal point must be in the wrong place, as €137.7 or even €13.77 seem more acceptable sums. As most of our Italian friends are either frugal contadini or hippies, I suspect we are just mixing in less consumerist circles.

A trip to an out of town shopping centre today proved there are a lot of Italians not unlike so many UK families, who get sucked into a buying frenzy this time of year. One impatient shopper tried repeatedly ramming his trolley into Jeremy despite the fact there was nowhere else to go owing to a lengthy queue. When Jeremy explained there was nowhere to go, the trolley-raged individual tried to take a swing at him. Three members of staff appeared from nowhere and jumped angry trolley-man, so I’m guessing it’s not the first time they’ve had to deal with seasonal psychos.

I had, perhaps through my rose-tinted specs, thought Italian’s celebrated the true meaning of Christmas, minus the consumerist trappings much loved in the UK. I should perhaps point out that I’m agnostic, but thoroughly approve of the goodwill to all men sentiment and the need to celebrate something during the depths of winter.

With that in mind, I began putting Christmas decorations up a couple of days ago, on the same day as most Italians. December, 8th (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) is a public holiday in Italy and throughout the day we could hear cannons calling the faithful to Mass.

My attempt at a crafty Christmas

Although Immaculata heralds the beginning of the festive period in Italy it should not be confused with Christ’s virgin birth, rather it refers to the fact that Mary was born without Original Sin. The Italian for stain is macchia, so Immaculata simply means unblemished or without stain.

Having wised up to the wastefulness of Christmas I’ve not bought any Christmas decorations for years, but Jeremy keeps digging up random toys and trinkets in the garden, which end up on our trusty old tree.

I’ve also taken to making a few decorations. Now I’m no Martha Stewart, but a homemade wreath, even in my amateurish hands, is so much better than those awful plastic ones you can buy. I shall also probably decorate some oranges with cloves as they look both pretty and smell divine.

I had intended to photograph some of the nativity presepe figures for sale in town as they are rather wonderful, but the cold north wind is blowing and there’s snow on the way. Aside from the usual suspects presepe often include a selection of other figures, so you can create your own town. You can get ones making pasta, eating sausages, drinking beer and pretty much every trade and activity imaginable.

Presepe in Grottaglie

Angels with jugs!

Jeremy got chatting to an old fella he met at the fountain yesterday, who invited him round for a quick coffee. Well our new friend Giuseppe’s presepe consisted of a slab of turf he’d dug up from his garden and the figures were a mixture of lego people, toy soldiers and stones. For me, that’s the true spirit of Christmas, but for those of you who prefer something a little more classical, I’ve included some rather artier ones on display in Grottaglie (a Puglian town famous for ceramics).

Until next time, stay warm everyone.

Just like Piglet 🙂

Pig in blanket


Ali Ali Ali – it’s been raining olives again November 27, 2010

Filed under: Garden,Italian life,olives — contadina @ 9:14 am

With November not yet finished, you’ve no idea how chuffed we are to have two olive pressings under our belts. The weather has been kind to us, plus we’ve had help from a couple of friends. So a really big thanks to Silv and Steve – it wouldn’t have been the same without you.

Our first olives going to the mill for pressing

While my achy bones recover and I attempt to get some neglected housework out of the way, I thought I’d share our olive harvesting experience with you before we get back to it for, hopefully, another couple of pressings.

First off, here’s some information and observations about olive harvesting and pressing.
In Italy and the rest of Europe, the quality of olive oil is measured by the acidity.  The lower the acidity, the better the quality of the oil. Levels of less than 0.8% denote Extra Vergine oil, with oil between 0.8% and 2% being Vergine. We only sell oil of less than 0.5% acidity, typically 0.3%. Acidification is caused by olives coming in to contact with the soil, delays between harvesting and pressing and bruising; so we pick our olives carefully by hand and take them for pressing within two days of starting harvesting.

The mill, or frantoio, that we use is a cold press between our local town of Ceglie Messapica and Martina Franca. Here, the olives are crushed into a paste by three huge granite millstones, before being spread onto special fibre disks in layers to form a spindle. The spindles are gradually compressed over a three-hour period to release the juice. The oil is separated from the juice by means of a centrifuge.

Ooh I could crush an olive

The olives being cold-pressed by granite stones

We use cold presses to ensure that heat and chemicals do not alter the taste of the olives. This traditional pressing method helps reduce the release of oil oxidation enzymes, as hot water and steam are not used. Furthermore, it minimises the washing away of beneficial polyphenols. The higher temperatures and additional water used in modern decanter centrifugation results in reduced antioxidants, polyphenols and vitamins, and lower quality oils.

Spot the olive oil oozing from the stack

Compressed stacks of olive pulp

We have 170 old olive trees, with some dating back over 1,000 years. Our oil is pressed from a mix of Nardò, Ogliarola, Fasola, Cerasola. Menella and Leccino olives.

Olive fact lesson out of way, let’s get back to harvesting. We picked up Silv and Steve on Sunday from Ostuni train station. Only over dinner, with wine in hand did we let on quite how much hard work is involved in harvesting olives. They both said they were up to the task and promised to be up by 7am the next day to begin harvesting.

Net's down and time to start tickling

With everyone raring to go at 7am the next day, our first job was to cut up a new roll of nets, which were then placed under a few trees. We then seemed to fit into different roles as we began tickling the olives off with little rakes or rastrallini. Silv took the lower ones, I took the next ones up, whilst Steve took care of the inside of the trees and Jeremy took care of the really high ones.

The boys climbing trees

As most contadini generally leave olives on trees to fall and then sweep up, the height of trees is not a problem and the older trees are generally at least six metres high. As we’ve taken a decision to only harvest by hand onto nets height is more of an issue, even when we use telescopic poles and ladders. To get around this we’ve been pruning our trees into what is known as the Baresse shape, which encourages the branches to hang down rather than up and the few trees, which have been pruned this way were infinitely easier to harvest.

The constant looking up and the inability to reach big clumps of olives hanging just out of reach is frustrating though and Steve believes it’s about time someone invented a hover board as they’d be perfect for olive harvesting.

Steve takes care of the middle hanging olives

Look no hands

Jeremy takes care of the high olives

As each tree was harvested we collected the nets and poured the olives into buckets which were then poured into a machine, known locally as ticka tacka, as this is the sound it makes as you slide it back and fourth and the olives tumble though it’s grates and into a sack. The machine helps get rid of excess leaves and twigs, so that crates are then filled with relatively debris-free olives.

After two days we managed to harvest 303 kilos. We’re getting better at judging the amount we harvest, as we’ve been woefully short in the past and the ideal weight for a cold pressing is 300 kilos. You can press less, but you pay the same, so it makes sense to try and get at least 250 kilos for each pressing.

We took the olives to the frantoio, only to discover there was trouble at t’mill. Two of their presses were not working, which had caused a huge backlog during the day. With promises that they’d press our olives during the night we were sent home with a bottle of the owner’s freshly pressed oil, so we could enjoy some bruschetta that evening, as is the tradition round these parts.

The next day we were very pleasantly surprised to find out that our olives made 45 litres of oil, at 0.2% acidity. With our trusty helpers we managed to press a further 250 kilos of olives a couple of days later, which gave us a further 45 litres of oil, also at 0.2%.

Here it comes...cold pressed olive oil

The end result - green gold

We’d been warned by neighbours that olives being pressed at the moment were only producing around 10% of oil, so we were pretty chuffed to receive around 18% back, which is pretty good for this time of the year – 90 litres of oil in a week is also pretty good going.

Choosing the best time to harvest olives can make all the difference as far as yield, organoleptic characteristics, shelf life, and colour. Many contadini harvest their olives around Christmas time as the olives are more mature then and the olives contain more oil.

The best time to harvest them is when the olives turn from red to purple to produce robust fruity oil, retaining maximum goodness and a long shelf life. See the Olive source for a more detailed explanation.

We harvest our olives around this time but there will still be around 10% green olives and some black ones in the mix as olives mature at different rates. Oil produced now is a vibrant green colour, which will mellow over time. It will keep for a couple of years as opposed to just the one-year for oil made with matured olives and retains a good balance of anti-oxidants and flavour.


Vino di contadini October 1, 2010

Filed under: Italian life,Recipes — contadina @ 10:25 am

September is the month when most contadini make their wine for the following year. Although some still tend their own vines, owing to the fastidious nature of growing them, many visit commercial vineyards to buy grapes.

Annoyingly there were once 800 vines on our land but these were ripped out by the previous owners father around 20-years ago as they were too much work.

This has meant that we get to join the merry band of contadini filling the roads with their Ape’s, vans and trailers groaning under the weight of several hundred kilos of grapes.

Wine stomping the old-fashioned way

Wine stomping the old-fashioned way

We bought a second-hand wine press the first year we were here and under the tutelage of the irrepressible Angelo we made a drinkable but decidedly pear-tasting wine using the traditional foot-stomping method.

Having sampled all of our neighbours wine, we decided we liked that made by Pasquale and his son Thomaso the best, so we have followed their instruction ever since and have learnt how to make surprisingly quaffable wine.

Normally we head off at around 5.30am with Pasquale’s extended family to a vineyard in a neighbouring town. As we didn’t have the cash when our neighbours picked grapes last week, however, we had to wait until yesterday to pick ours. I forgot my camera yesterday though, so you’ll have to make do with pictures from a couple of years ago.

Thanks to long hot summers winemaking in Italy is a relatively simple affair and there’s no need to add chemicals, water, sugar, nor yeast. The grapes we pick are Montepulciano – which is normally branded up as ‘di Abruzzo’. It makes a smoky-flavoured, robust red. As there’s nothing added other than grapes, moreover, it produces a strong yet, hangover-free wine. In the interest of science, I’ve put this to the test many times and can confirm it gets you very drunk indeed, but neither of us has suffered unduly the next day.

Lots of lovely grapes

Lots of lovely grapes

We picked around 250 kilos of grapes, which will make about 160 litres of wine. We’re debating whether this will be enough for the year and whether we should pick some more at the weekend.

Decent red wine is relatively cheap in Puglia. You can pick up quaffable wine for just €1.20 a litre in most enotecas, so long as you provide the bottles for them to fill. By making it at home it works out at about 60cents a litre; so it’s not only cheaper but, in my opinion, better as you can guarantee no nasties have been added.

Following a leisurely drive back home with a trailer-load of grapes, Jeremy and a friend ran bunches of grapes through the carrollo (a mechanical version of the foot stomping method given to us by a friendly neighbour who now has an electric version) which squishes them into a giant bucket.

We then pulled out the majority of stalks as they make the wine too acidic. The remaining liquid stays in the bucket, covered with netting to protect it from fruit flies, for several days for primary fermentation. While in the bucket the grapes get a good stir a few times a day to keep the grapes submerged to ensure a dark red coloured wine.

The press in action

The press in action

Then the grapes go through the winepress and into the demijohns, for secondary fermentation.

The wine will stay in the demijohns until the Festa di San Martino on November 15th (or thereabouts depending on humidity conditions) when the wine will get transferred into different demijohns.

Four green bottles sitting on a wall

Four green bottles sitting on a wall

The wind plays a major role in when you transfer the wine. The sirocco is humid and comes laden with sand so it’s recommended you transfer wine when the cleaner and colder tramontana is blowing from the north.

The wine will need racking off two further times before bottling and drinking sometime around the end of March.



Piaggio and passata August 1, 2010

Filed under: Garden,Italian life,Recipes — contadina @ 4:16 pm

The Piaggio Ape, the Italian three-wheeled light vehicle with a scooter engine, is the perfect means of transport for making deliveries and impromptu roadside market stalls for contadini to sell any surplus fruit and vegetables. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on prices on these mini mobile markets, as they are often cheaper than the market stalls and their stock is usually fresher as it’s often picked that morning.

Don't worry it's just a neighbour entertaining some of our smaller visitors :)

Contadino sells surplus children off back of Ape shocker

Tomatoes are currently 50cents a kilo off the back of most of the Ape stalls in town, which is my magic number for passata-making, so I’ve been picking a 20 kilo crate up every time we’re in town to add to our own tomatoes to fill the pantry with jars of sauce to keep us going through winter and springtime.

To preserve tomatoes this way it’s best to leave your tomatoes in a single layer for a couple of days to both sweeten and make them less watery. In the past, I’ve laid them out on nets in the trullo, but this takes up too much space, so this year I decided to stack them in single layers in olive crates.  This has worked really well as air can circulate around the tomatoes so there’s been minimal spoilage and they’ve only taken up the space of a single crate.

Tomatoes are then washed and cut in half (cut out any blemished or overly ripe parts) and then heated so they soften a little before running them through a passata machine. Some of my neighbours gave me their old passata machine as they now have an electric one.  It really is a beast and happily mills 30 or 40 kilos of tomatoes at any one time to make the most wonderful passata. As you can see, as if by magic all the skins and pips are separated, leaving you with a thick, pulpy sauce.

You need never skin a tomato ever again

Passapomodoro - the mighty passata machine

Once milled, the sauce is then retuned to the hob, to reheat and salt is added for both taste and preservation before jarring in sterilised bottles.  When I asked my neighbours about adding citric acid or lemon juice to each jar to avoid botulism (as advised on all US-based canning information websites) they all gave me the raised eyebrow, why on earth would you do that look and questioned what Americans know about making passata.

So long as you ensure the bottles and lids are sterilised, you leave a ¼ inch headspace in each one and you process them for the right amount of time there’s no reason why botulism should be allowed to contaminate your sauce.

Once all your jars are filled and the lids put on not too tightly they should be wrapped in something to stop them from hitting each other when you boil them in a water bath. I wrap mine in tea towels and put one in the bottom of the pan. Hot water is then added to cover the bottles and once the water is boiled a rolling boil is maintained for 30 minutes.

After this time, leave the bottles and water to cool over night before taking the jars of sauce out. You’ll probably hear quite a few of the jars pop during the evening as the lids become concave, forming a seal. If any jars have not sealed then you can either reprocess them,  store them in the fridge to use within the week, or pour them into a plastic container and freeze them.

I’ve made around 60 jars of sauce so far and I’ll hopefully make the same again as you can’t beat the taste of homemade passata. I was going to write about making tomato concentrate too, but a certain someone decided to use power tools to cut some stone for a new doorway and my almost ready concentrate which was drying in the sun got covered in stone dust, so you’ll just have to wait until next time.

Before I go, I’d also like to thank Matthias and Tanja, our HelpXchangers who managed to work during a mini heatwave. To keep in the shade they did a wonderful job in some of our oldest olive trees pruning all the vertical suckers, as well as several other much appreciated jobs in the garden. We’ve a Taiwanese chap coming next week to assist Jeremy with the building of our long awaited pergola, so I’m hoping it stays as cool and breezy as it has for the past couple of weeks.


Christmas is coming – Natale sta arrivando December 14, 2009

Filed under: Italian life — contadina @ 7:23 am

Christmas is definitely just around the corner as we are already turning down invites from Italian friends to join them for Christmas lunch at a restaurant. Eating out at Christmas is far more common in Italy and our decision to stay at home on Christmas day is met with a mixture of confusion and pity.

Bad SantaAlthough, it is becoming more commercial over here every year, Christmas is definitely more religious and less shopping orientated than the UK. Decorations usually go up after Immaculate Conception day on the 8th of December. Nativity displays or presepi (often with live animals) appear everywhere and provide a reminder of the true meaning of the season.

It’s not all good taste and religious contemplation though as giant inflatable Santa’s are quite common and I really don’t want to know what Santa’s doing to poor Rudolph.

It’s common not to eat meat on Christmas Eve so fish is usually eaten. Down here in the south the Feast of the Seven Fishes is quite common. On Christmas Day meat is eaten and the type of meat varies around the country. Down south it’s usually lamb or kid.

On New Year’s Eve lentils are eaten to bring good luck, which gives me an opportunity to make a really big pan of dhal. Pork dishes, such as zampone or cotechino are also eaten to represent the richness of life.

Gifts are usually given on January 6th when a friendly witch leaves them for good children, while naughty ones are given charcoal or bags of ashes. The legend of La Befana is that she couldn’t find Jesus when he was born which is why she leaves gifts for all other children. How wonderfully Italian that the legend revolves around her lateness.

Natale è sicuramente subito dietro l’angolo, visto che già stiamo rifiutando invita da amici italiani a raggiungerli per il pranzo di Natale in un ristorante. Mangiare al ristorante a Natale è più comune in Italia e la nostra decisione di rimanere a casa il giorno di Natale ha incontrato un misto di confusione e di pietà.

Anche se, è sempre più commerciale qui ogni anno, il Natale è  s i c u r am e n t e più religioso e meno orientato verso il consumo rispetto alla Gran Bretagna. Le decorazioni di solito salire dopo il giorno dell’Immacolata Concezione l’otto dicembre. Le scene di natività o presepi (spesso presepi viventi) appaiono dappertutto e forniscono un promemoria del vero significato della stagione. Non è tutto buon gusto e contemplazione religiosa visto che giganti Babbi Natale gonfiabile sono abbastanza comuni e davvero non voglio sapere che cosa Santa sta facendo al povero Rudolph.

Non è comune mangiare carne alla vigilia di Natale cosi il pesci è di solito mangiato. Qui nel sud la Festa dei Sette Pesci è davvero comune. Il giorno di Natale si mangia carne ma il tipo di carne varia in tutto il paese. Al sud di solito agnello o capretto.

La notte di Capodanno si mangiano lenticchie per portare fortuna, che mi dà
l’opportunità di fare una grande pentola di dhal (una zuppa Indiana). Piatti di carne di maiale, come ad esempio lo zampone o cotechino si mangiano anche a rappresentare la ricchezza della vita.

I regali sono di solito dati il sei gennaio, quando una strega simpatica li lascia per i bambini buoni, mentre a quelli cattivi viene dato il carbone o sacchetti di cenere. La leggenda della Befana è che lei non riusciva a trovare Gesù, quando è nato, e cosi lei lascia i regali per tutti gli altri bambini.