Saturday, 29 November 2008

Tonights view of Todi after the rain

Vestal Virgins and Moles

Lighting the fire in the drawing room was a chore this morning - for some reason it took forever to take hold. In Roman times the Vestal Virgins kept the sacred fire burning all year round in the brazier at the centre of the Temple of Vesta on the Via Sacra . In the era of safety matches keeping a fire lit would be an easy accomplishment but two thousand years ago a sudden rainstorm, damp wood or simply dozing off on the job could have doused the flame. Every Vestal wore a diadem like band of wool known as a fillet as a headress and as a sign of her virginity. Vestals who were tempted by matters of the flesh were buried alive in a tiny crypt as a deterent for others who might be tempted from their celibate fire tending condition. The crypt was equipped with a bed,an oil lamp, and enough oil,bread,water and milk for one meal. The poor woman was brought to the Crypt ( thought to be located under the steps of today's Ministry of Finance ) in a closed hearse with her mouth gagged with leather straps so that her cries could not be heard by the vast crowds that gathered on these occasions. She was then forced down a ladder into the crypt which was sealed and ten metres of sound deadening earth piled on top of it. Not surprisingly in eleven centuries there were less than twenty infractions reported.

The boyz who have never shown any interest in chasing wild animals ( after a rather traumatic encounter with a seal on the beach at Lunan Bay when they were puppies ) have taken to digging for moles. The combination of frenzied digging, freshly sown grass, a heavy clay soil, torrential rain, and white long haired dogs is not conducive to a relaxed lifestyle. Wilf, who is the major culprit in this new pastime of mole hunting , arrived at the door at ten last night caked solidly from nose to ears in thick , impenetrable mud. It took twenty minutes of washing and scrubbing in warm soapy water to get his fur clean - a process that he considered quite unnecessary and which he did his very best to resist. Naturally,despite the expenditure of huge amounts of canine energy in digging out the mole hills and replacing them with a series of waterlogged holes , neither of them gets anywhere near a mole. The unholy cacophony of howls, snorts and grunts that mark a sheepdog at work just seem to drive the moles deeper underground where they sit and plan what section of the lawn to visit next.

At the BA lounge at Gatwick I picked up a complimentary copy of the popular current affairs magazine ' Hello' with the intention of reading it on the two and a half hour journey back to Rome. On board my eye was drawn to an 'exclusive' interview with one Ms.Terry Seymour who was 'setting the record straight about her split with Simon Cowell ' ( a popular entertainment impressario). Amid various pictures of a perfectly coiffed Ms.Seymour emerging from the sea or posing langorously on various chaises longues one learns that Mr.Cowell touched her heart by presenting her with a toothbrush after a visit to the dentist and that she would have to think about making him godfather to any children she might have in the future.I must admit to finding this highly edited confection to be quite addictive.
Could it be that Chicken Maryland involved a fried banana fritter ? Surely I would have remembered something as saccharine as that - there again when you are eight years old likes and dislikes are very different from those formed
at a more advanced age. My elder brother claims that he had fled the nest before Chicken Maryland was added to the family repertoire but he does however remember the arrival of Coronation Chicken . This sophisticted concoction arrived on Bute in the early 1960's and involved chicken,mayonnaise, somethihn mildly curry like ( unheard of exoticism for the west coast at that time ) and possibly ( and here the memory falters ) pieces of apple. The curry powder arrived on the ferry from Glasgow being quite unavailable anywhere further west. At the time olive oil was only sold in small jars in the local chemist. Its sole use was for cleaning ears and any suggestion that it might be used for cooking would have been met with singular disbelief.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Back from London

Back from an unseasonably quiet London. At first glance everything seems as before but there are hints that the recession is beginning to bite. Dinner reservations in the more fashionable restaurants in St.James's and Mayfair suddenly seem much easier to come by and the aloof froideur that used to be the hallmark of many of these establishments seems to have been replaced by a refreshing bonhomie. Around Jermyn Street and Piccadilly it seemed that half of the tables were still empty at nine o'clock in the evening. Let's hope that it is just the hiatus before Christmas entertaining proper starts. I stayed at the Sofitel on Waterloo place and found the Roux Brothers excellent brasserie to be quite deserted on my first night there. Admittedly, it is slap bang in the middle of troubled hedge fund country but for a location which supplies such excellent food and service it must be dispiriting both for management and staff.

Hatchards had on their shelves two of H.V. Mortons long lost classics - ' A traveller in Rome' and 'A traveller in Italy'. I snatched both up hardly believing that such a politically incorrect wordsmith could still be in print. Written in the mid-1950's his description of journeys the length and breadth of the peninsula are full of serious and humorous insights that taken together give him the mantle of a real eccentric. Despite a somewhat raffish reputation he could at times surprise with his generosity of spirit not least when he fulsomely described someone as ' always alert to the beauty in women, charm in young men and dignity in the elderly'. Writing about the the American presence around the Via Veneto in Rome he talks of ' an area where you can find quick-lunch bars and American restaurants which specialize in club sandwiches, Chicken Maryland, apple pie, canned peaches, hamburgers and American coffee. These haters of colonialism have indeed created a barefaced colony where they feel safe and at home, and into which they can return, as into a fortress,after raids into foreign territory!'. Having read this I cannot take my mind off Chicken Maryland. My mother used to serve this when I was a child but for the life of me I cannot remember what went alongside the chcken apart from bacon and corn - was it pineapple fritter?.

On the plane on the way back to Rome I bumped into a former colleague that I hadn't seen in 14 years - my first reaction was delight at seeing him again to be followed a split second later by the by the rather mean thought ' I hope I haven't aged that much'. It is wonderful to meet old acquaintances again but it comes as a shock to the system to see how quickly time races along.

Monday, 24 November 2008

First day with the heating on

Woke up to black skies,temperatures of 6 degrees, and a piercing northerly wind. The storms that have ravaged the north are now making their way down over the Alps to us. Even the boyz are perturbed by the change in the weather - this morning rather than rush out of the house they chose to sit in the hallway eyeing the open door with one of those ' who do you think you're kidding ' looks.

The more I look at this planned reduction in VAT to 15% , the less I understand it. My inbox is bombarded every day with special offers and 20% discount promotions by retailers. British Airways is offering 'airmiles' flights at 50% off their posted rates and the London hotel I'm staying at is 30% cheaper than it was at this time last year. If everyone is slashing prices by 10%, 20% or more what difference to spending patterns will an extra 2.5% off VAT make ? Surely all the government is doing is paying for some of the discounting that was going to occur anyway. The proposed increase in top rate tax to 45% may also be politically equitable but it's not going to raise very much more than £1.4 billion - a sum that barely makes a dent in the increased borrowing. Surely, there must be a more efficient way of stimulating the economy that doesn't mortgage away the future? If this downturn lasts much more than 12 months the banks will need another helping hand and the governments capacity to borrow will be severely stretched.

Sunday, 23 November 2008


The view of tonights sunset from the pool was beautiful. It has been another stunning day without a cloud in the sky. However, there is a storm heading down from the north and temperatures are plummeting , it is reported that it will fall to freezing tonight. The forecasters are still talking about snow on Tuesday of this week.
Have started reading A.N.Wilson's new book 'Our Times'. It contains some marvellous vignettes such as Phillip Larkin's remark that he knew the end of England had come when croissants reached Beverley in Yorkshire. My favourite is perhaps the observation that Sid James bore an incongrous resemblance to Benjamin Britten whose operas,the greatest works of music of our times, were contemporaneous with Hancock's Half Hour. I've also learnt that when Karl Marx's 'Das Kapital' was first translated into English , lumpenproletariat was rendered as tatterdemalion.

Took the two boyz for a walk this afternoon at 4.30 having cooked and eaten lunch, cleared up, brought up wood for the fire, read the papers, and generally done all the things that a Sunday afternoon requires. When passing through the local village en route to the dogs favouirite haunt I found the square packed solid with at least sixty vehicles lined up around the church and the bar. The reason for this weekly traffic congestion in what is an otherwise remote corner of Umbria is the presence in the village of a delightful family run restaurant that adheres to the old Umbrian traditions of five course lunches married to what can politely be described as extremely leisurely service. Promptly at eleven every Sunday morning the square fills up, the women head off to mass, the men to the bar. At noon the sexes are reunited outside the church and the throng makes its way slowly, very slowly to the restaurant. This weekly combination of church, food and a kitchen devoid of time constraints allows the Italian family to eat, talk, gesticulate, play with the children, go outside for a cigarette, gossip with the neighbours, disparage the residents of the next town and generally pass time in a way that is quite alien to anyone from the northern reaches of the continent. Certainly in Scotland any thought of enjoyment on the Lords Day was considered a sin in itself and lunch was something to be dealt with quickly and treated seriously - and hour and a half maximum and no getting up in the middle of the meal to wander off for a chat and a ciggie.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Umbria gets cold in the winter

The extended stretch of mild weather has made us extremely late in doing all the things that need to be done around the house and in the garden before the onset of winter. The weather forecast in this mornings Corriera points to snow flurries on Monday and Tuesday and close to freezing temperatures tonight so we've spent the better part of the morning hastily painting the woodwork that needs refreshing , putting away all the garden furniture, and setting the fire. Thankfully, the olive harvest is now collected,pressed, and off to the bottlers. Wilf made the harvesting lengthier than usual by developing a new habit of positioning himself in the centre of the collecting nets. We've also discovered that over the summer the fieldmice have managed to find their way into the storage room by the pool and have made their nests in the boxes containing the Christmas decorations.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Villa La Massa

At the tail end of the summer we decided to try Villa La Massa some 10 kilometres or so outside Florence as an alternative to staying in the frenetic centre of town. Although the suburbs of Florence would not rank high on anyones list of 'must sees', the hotel itself is a beautiful Medici era villa set in well maintained gardens on the banks of the Arno. The restaurant serves some of the best food in Italy and manages to provide that rare combination of first class local ingredients cooked with great care and attention. The location by the river makes a perfect setting for alfresco dining particularly if you want to avoid the oppressive heat . If staying we would suggest booking a room in the main building away from the noise and bustle of the stable wing that houses the kitchen. Although not cheap the Villa really does reflect Italy at its best.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

A lovely Thursday

They are setting up the Christmas decorations in the local villages around here. Even the smallest hamlet seems to have the council workers out stringing the fairy lights from one side of the road to the other. It all seems a bit strange as the sun is beating down from a cloudless sky. At the hypermarket in Perugia they have taken to playing an Italian take on Bing Crosby's favourite Christmas songs over the loudspeakers.

On the television news yesterday a chairman of one of the big 3 Detroit car makers said that sales of new cars in the US would fall to 11 million units next year. He went on to say that 1) sales could be 13.5 million but the dealerships couldn't get the credit for the additional car loans from the banks and 2) as a ratio of sales to the size of the American population 2009 will be the worst year since WWII. US consumer confidence is at a 40 year low. It now looks as if the banks have stopped any new loans this year and are waving prepayment penalties in order to get their customers to pay off existing loans. Here in Italy there are few signs so far of economic malaise although last week an old family run store that has been going for 100 years in the centre of Perugia shut its doors for lack of custom. I have a feeling that there will be much more to follow early next year.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Market psychology :Talking ourselves into a severe recession

  • Could it be that we are talking our way into a recession that is deeper and longer than it need be? The advent of real time economic data on the web and on satellite broadcasts is bringing home to a wide audience the impact of an economic slowdown much more quickly and with greater personal immediacy than in prior downturns. In the market setbacks of the mid-70's and late 90's the pace of newsflows was set by the comparatively gentle rythmn of the print media or terrestial broadcasting. Consumers had time to observe the impact of an economic contraction over a period of weeks or months. A news story here about falling exports in the car industry another there about layoffs in the midlands unfolded gently. Personal spending patterns evolved gradually as the extent of the malaise evolved.

    Today, anyone with a computer or a satellite television subscription can follow the excessive gyrations of the equity and bond markets as they happen. Could it be that this immediacy that has helped spawn an apocalyptic view of the economic world? There is now little or no time for measured response, views and opinions have to be provided on the spot and the resulting language seems to be ever less temperate. It could be that the sharp falls in retail sales is in some measure a reaction to the wave of information that now reaches the consumer. Will it spawn an expansion of degrees in the psychology of finance? Faced with an apparent apocalypse one local American lady is talking about uprooting her ornamental trees and replacing them with productive fruit trees.

    Trying to make sense of all of this it would seem that :
    Stockmarkets are reflecting an unholy combination of a buyers strike and panic selling depressing valuations
    The dollar is strong because America's problems are relatively containable in comparison with the UK and Europe's
    The stockmarkets in the BRIC's and N10's have discounted the slowdown but their currencies haven't yet
    We are seeing an unravelling of the post 2001 growth that was entirely fuelled by excessive credit
    Q4 2008 GDP will be horrible ( why not -5% ) and Q1 2009 will be as bad if not worse
    Summing up it's not a depression but a purging.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

A wonderful summer brings a bumper olive harvest

It has been a simply glorious summer and autumn here in the hills outside Todi. August temperatures climbed into the mid-30's but every evening,as regular as clockwork,a gentle breeze sprang up from the west that drove away the humidity and kept the nights comfortable. This protracted run of dry,mild weather lasted until the beginning of November and has enabled the trees to set with the most wonderful heavy crop of large oil rich olives. After recording miserable crops over the last three years it looks as if the 2008 vintage will be olive oils equivalent of the 2005 Bordeaux.

As always happens, the onset of the first rains over the weekend caught us by surprise and had us running around madly trying to get in the olive harvest. In between downpours we collected two hundredweight from the trees in the courtyard on Monday morning and were delighted to get the frantoia to cold press them same day .The colour is a clean zestful green and the taste a delight with slight hints of pepper. Commercially,this years yield of 15% by weight handsomely beats the mean of 12% we've achieved so far. The final tally will be known later today - the groves on the hill have taken four days of constant picking by the local farmer and his team and should be finished today if the storms sweeping down from Milan hold off.