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. After neighboor Franco finally arrives to plough the terraces, Cinzia (aka Cynthia) can start planting out her veg...
We’ve been away
from our new home in Italy for much of the spring; spending the first half of
March in Keswick for the Words by the
Water literature festival, and then rushing off to catch a flight for
Sicily to celebrate Cinzia’s birthday as soon as the festival was over. Then
April seemed to rush by with sequential visits from friends and relatives
interspersed with too many short visits back to the UK .
Words by the Water was better than ever this year, and I got the
chance to interview on stage the excellent and inspirational Raymond Blanc who
was kind enough to sign and dedicate a book with a special message to our
next-door neighbour Chantal, herself a great chef and, like Raymond, an exile
from Eastern France.
Cinzia’s birthday was great. We’re terrible speedy tourists. Most ‘travellers’
would be horrified that we ‘did’ most of Sicily’s Greek, Roman and Medieval
remains by tea-time on the day after we arrived, leaving us only the desire to eat
more fabulous Sicilian food and circumnavigate Mount Etna on Cinzia’s birthday
before we flew back to the UK to pick up our car to drive home.
the Marche at the time of the Spring equinox seemed very ‘northern’ when we got
back. Winter seems to have taken a long time to go this year, and the blossom
and first signs of Spring came later than we thought they should. Spring bulbs
are not common here and it took us a while to learn to look out for the first
flowers of ginestra as a sign of spring and, when the sun shone and we could get up the mountain, get immense
pleasure from walking among the carpets of wild crocus, and gentian and violets
that covered the higher meadows and the abundance of cyclamen, primrose and
violets that we found in the hedgerows throughout April.
Wood anemonies and gentians
horticultural year really began when Franco, our neighbour and good friend
announced in early April that he’d be coming subito to rotavate the area we’d cleared for the orto. Cinzia
immediately set-to with her zappa to
clear any remaining stones and half-buried antique household junk in the area
ear-marked for planting. Cinzia and Franco are kindred spirits about orto
business and I’ve learned that it’s my job to not make decisions, do what I’m
told to do and focus on cooking or sampling the produce. This leaves me free to
concentrate on the important business of clearing paths through the trees and
playing with power-tools. I love it.
lies on what might be termed the second terrace of our precipitous garden. The
top terrace, which is where we imagine ourselves artfully arranged in
comfortable chairs among exotic plants in giant pots, is still a builders yard
on a heap of rubble and may well continue to be for some time to come; but the
next terrace down has been cleared of trees during the late winter and an area
of about the size of a singles tennis court is now ‘the orto’ awaiting Franco
and his rotavator.
Subito is ‘soon’, but days passed and Cinzia did sometimes get a little
agitated that Franco was busying himself with all sorts of other important
tasks, but not arriving to turn over her orto. Franco himself was unperturbed.
‘Not ready. Not yet right. We must wait for the terre to be just so’ he’d tell her. Meanwhile, Cinzia was building
up a collection of seeds, seedlings and plug plants bought from local markets
and her enthusiasm for planting was growing by the day.
Then, ‘Domani’ announced Franco. But that night
it rained and tomorrow became ‘Doppo domani’ as the earliest possible
time we could rotavate. Cinzia spoke of turning over at least some of the
ground with her zappa, but instead
attacked a new area of near-vertical ground below the two-metre dry-stone walls
holding up our builder’s yard. She made mini-terraces of woven branches from
the weed trees we’d slaughtered and sifted the terre to make a series of raised beds in which she was able to
allay her frustration by planting herbs, salad leaves, vegetables and small,
low-growing fruits including rabarbaro
in which Franco was very interested; it would appear he doesn’t know what
rhubarb tastes like. Cinzia has promised him a rhubarb crumble once it has
beautiful April morning at 7.00am, we awoke to hear not just the familiar
early-morning throaty rumble of our builder’s lorry reversing on to the
top-terrace, but a deeper, seriously mascolino
throbbing sound from just below our bedroom windows.
arrived to ‘rotavate’ the orto.
blokes, I do like to play with power tools; but Franco’s Landini trattore is a serious piece of
horticultural machinery. I watched with joy and amazement as Franco ploughed
the heavily impacted earth and turned our orto-to-be into a beautiful ploughed
and levelled orto. He’d even managed to manoeuvre around the little bit of terre that impatient Cinzia had dug over
with her zappa and planted with
produce in the autumn.
off to do an errand in Pergola market one day in October while friends and I
were waiting for our lunch of pasta with wild boar sauce. She came back with
garlic, fava (broad beans) and peas
to plant. She was quite excited because she had never planted broad beans or
peas in October before in UK although we know some people do. Franco looked
askance – he doesn’t plant fava and piselli in the autumn. Apparently it was
ok to plant the garlic . So we planted peas, fava and three sorts of garlic
(red, white and French). And now, in the Spring, they were all growing strongly
and Cinzia is especially proud of her fava
because, as she proudly announces as she sticks her head over fences and
observes the plants of others, hers are bigger and have more flowers than every
other gardener’s around here. Franco recently admitted that his fava planted ‘at the proper time’ in
December have not yet flowered.
A couple of
days later Franco returned with his rotavator and turned over the ground again
leaving it almost ready for planting. As soon as she was allowed to do so
Cinzia finished off everything by going over the whole area with her zappa and making paths between where all
her plantings were going to be.
ready with tomatoes (six varieties), aubergine, courgettes, peppers, potatoes
for weeks now. Melons too.
Keeping an eye
on the weather during this uncertain Spring she asked Franco ‘When can we
plant? ‘Not yet’ he said, ‘You must wait for the moon to be ready’.
So we waited,
and waited. It rained and rained and we continued to wait. We gave up hope.
Then Franco appeared – the terre was
right, the moon was right. Plant the potatoes he said – he dug a trench in the
heavy clodded soil and stuck them in. We couldn’t believe he was planting in
such uncultivated earth but we did as he instructed. A week later he arrived
with chick peas. Would Cinzia like to plant them? Of course – another trench
was dug and the chick peas buried.
In early May
Franco gave permission to plant our 36 tomatoes in the orto, and without
permission we have planted melone,
zucchini, melanzane, and pepperoni
. Franco appears to have been correct as the cocombre looks particularly unwell although the others are
surviving. The nights can still be cold and Franco has advised us to cover the
more delicate plants.
and Franco have been waiting to plant the orto, I’ve been clearing space at the
other end of the terrace for an open area of grass where, until the builders
have finished with the top terrace, we can put a dining table and have
comfortable seating. Cinzia’s been busy collecting sample wild-flowers from the
wilderness gardens of friends and wants to make a small wild-flower garden here
too. The terre here was full of
household rubbish and fallen-down stones from the dry-stone walling too, so
many April hours have been spent picking out the rubbish, digging up the roots
of brambles and nettles and preparing the soil for seeding.
April has not
been a sunny month here but it has been warm enough for plant growth, so we
decided to sow the grass and, between visitors and visits to the UK, try and
keep it moist enough for germination so that we might, by the end of May or
June, have some grass in which we could wriggle our toes. So we seeded and we
watered and we watched. Cinzia, one morning, on one of those rare occasions
where she decided that watching the grass grow was exactly what she wanted to
do, was surprised to see the grass seeds moving in an orderly fashion across
One of our many
colonies of ants were delighted that we’d given them so much to eat and were
busy moving the seeds to a nice easy distance outside one of the entrances to
their nest. We grabbed back what we could and damped down more frequently after
that and now, in early May, we’ve got inch-high grass.
to get our first produce from Cinzia’s mini-terraces with the woven walls,
which look as though they’re a success. We have salad leaves ready and the
herbs look as though they’re very happy in this location.
Herbs and salad leaves ready to eat.
brought the frequent pleasure of visiting friends and family. One of our
domestic delights is that our children all make the effort to come and see us,
even though the house is chaotic at all times and we never know how many rooms
are going to be usable or needed for urgent attention by builders, plumbers or
electricians. Paul and Helen have brought their brand-new baby for his first
visit to Italy and their bigger kids provide all the excitement and stimulation
we need when they’re here. We’ve got our residency status now and Cinzia
surprised me with a brand-new Vespa for my birthday. It’s the colour of
This week we’ve
got Holly and Andrew here, though Andrew’s been renamed Angelo by our neighbour
Rita and it looks as though he’s going to have to be Angelo all the time now.
have gone home, and Cinzia, Holly and Angelo are on ant-duty watching the grass
grow. I’m in the house by myself and I’ve tuned the radio to my favourite music
channel while cooking supper and heard the first strummed chords of a favourite
but half-forgotten song from thirty years ago. I just felt a little shiver.
That one that older blokes get in the knees and the shoulders and that might
actually be a little dance. Only for a second, but it felt good.
We’ll eat supper
on the terrace, under the White Mulberry tree where the fruit is just beginning
to show with its branches laden with lights made as a birthday treat by Holly
and Angelo, and Cinzia has just given me the first fava bean of the season – a good luck charm here. Perfetto.
Charles Mitchell, May 2011