Last year, Charles Mitchell and Cynthia Fletcher retired from Cumbria to the region of Marche in Italy. Leaving behind busy schedules, their new life revolves around their old farm house and the creation of their garden, their orto. Charles takes up the story....
We didn't expect
there to be so much snow, though perhaps we should have guessed when our new
neighbours talked to us enthusiastically about the attractions of the village festa, held each year in early August,
and the only time that the church opens its doors to celebrate our village
Madonna. The festa celebrates the Madonna of the Snows.
Snow we've had,
in skipfuls. We hibernated for about three days and then, when there was no
sign of the deep white stuff disappearing, enlisted the help of good neighbours
Franco, with his snow shovel, and then Gianni, with his snow-blower, to dig us
out. A snow-blower! Now there's a boy's toy worth having. Both Franco and
Gianni are smallholders, and they've assured us as we dug and blew that snow
this deep is an unusual occurrence around here. So why has Gianni got a snow
blower then? Ah, he used to be a train driver; and he's got the biggest tractor
around here too.
a small hamlet situated 1500’ above sea level in the Marche region of Italy.
We’re near the top of a small mountain in the foothills of the Apennines and we
look out towards the Adriatic Sea in one direction and towards some seriously
high and sublime mountains in the other. The seriously high mountains are still
covered in snow, but as I write this in late February, the snow has just about
gone from all parts of our garden, though it still lingers in the hedgerows
that don’t get any sun.
We've moved from
a five acre garden in North Cumbria to a precipitous jungle of about an acre.
We've swapped full-time working in big organisations for doing the work that we
want to do. We've swapped Wordsworth and Coleridge for Petrarch and Dante.
Quite literally, because our bathroom window faces the glorious Monte Catria,
said to be the model for Dante's 'hump' in The
Today, now that
we can move about again, we’re clearing weed trees so that we can make an orto. Not all trees are good – and few
of ours seem to be any good at all. This jungle was impenetrable throughout the
late summer and autumn of last year when we first moved into the house; but
now, with all the brambles, nettles and other stuff that scratches and clings
lovingly to my legs as I try to get through it to find some trees that we might
actually want to keep, we can, with the help of machete, loppers, wire-cutters
and bow-saw, start to see what sort of garden we’ve got and what we can do
about making our orto.
So what's an orto? It's a vegetable garden. It's the
place where we intend to grow everything that wants to grow so that we can eat
it. In Cumbria we kept peafowl, guineafowl and chickens that reverted to jungle
fowl over several generations and our vegetable gardens were a battlefield
where we never won. Here, we'll keep no animals ourselves, but we'll need to
keep an eye on the deer, porcupine and wild boar who all subscribe the 'what's
yours is mine' principle.
It's a bit early
yet to consider what we're going to grow, though we're already having fantasies
about all the red, yellow, purple and green stuff that's going to be dropping
into our hands and leaping into our arms in about three or four months time.
Besides, we've got to return to Cumbria in March for the Words by the Water literature festival, so actions now are all
about ground clearance so that we can dig, prepare and then plant when we
Though not so
well-known as our northern regional neighbour Emilia Romagna, Le Marche is
renowned in Italy for its food and its wines, especially the subtle and crisp
white Verdicchio and the powerful and full-bodied red Conero (supposedly drunk
by Hannibal's men and elephants on their way to victories over Rome). High
quality cheeses, fruit, olives and olive oil, vegetables and meat are all
passionately produced and argued about in the markets, the kitchens and over
tables. Especially renowned immediately around our comune are the fungi and truffles and all the local towns have a sagra del tartufo in the autumn where
the prices of walnut sized white truffles and the readiness of local people to
buy them make our jaws drop. We were honoured by Gianni last month who gave us
a jam jar containing three black truffles he'd hunted and Franco, appearing
with a wicker basket filled with more than twenty different types of mushroom,
has promised to teach us to collect fungi ourselves in the woods higher up the
mountain next year.
neighbours are already asking about our intentions for the garden and we'll do
our best to build on their advice and experience of the local terre and meteo. Everybody in the village seems to be a smallholder and
nearly all of them make enough of their own wine to keep them going through the
year. The local towns and markets showcase the produce of local artisan growers
and just around the mountain from us is a farm where they proclaim on the sign
at their gate that 'everything we produce is bio'.
I needed Cynthia
to translate that because my Italian's not good enough yet. Cynthia? She's the
other half of 'we'. A hard-working, creative, sensible and funny woman who is
now known as Cinzia because none of our new neighbours and friends can
pronounce 'th'; so her name is pronounced the Italian way with a long, long
‘Chin’ and a ‘zia’ that rhymes with dear, and it’s a very popular and
sexy name around here. Just right.
We have now been
told that after months spent trying to get approval from the comune for the restoration work and the
changes we want to make to our house, the building work may start next week. So
we have to clear the cantina (a store
like a pantry, in our case the entire ground floor, once the home of animals -
and before that, nuns!) and the first floor rooms we're going to consolidate
into a big open space of all the 'stuff' that filled eighteen rooms, outhouses
and a bank barn in Cumbria. I think we're going to be living in one room for a
little while to come while every other room that's not going to be made-over is
piled floor to ceiling with the too many beds and sofas and junk we've brought
sheds at the end of the house look as though they're going to be really quite
useful. Cinzia has swept them out and they are dry and can now house the bikes,
other stuff that's too big to have in the house and all the tools. The chicken coop has
become the wood shed. Cinzia's already talking about it becoming our bread
Follow Charles and Cinzia's story - next installment in the May-June issue of Artisan-food e-magazine.