Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The last sunset of 2008 with Wilf and Digby centre stage

Off to get ready from the Hogmanay in exile celebrations. Part of me misses Scotland on a night like this but then I look at the blue skies and crimson sunset.

A happy,prosperous,peaceful and above all healthy New Year to one and all when it comes.

Getting ready for the New Year

In Britain the weather is always a topic of conversation - largely because it is so changeable and unpredictable and perhaps even more so because it is entirely uncontroversial. In Italy food is the catchall conversational gambit. On today's Radio Subasio early morning breakfast phone-in caller after caller was spelling out in great detail exactly what they would be eating to welcome in the New Year and how exactly it would be prepared. Their descriptions were met with squeals of delight and approbation on the part of the studio presenters. With the possible exception of football nothing,but nothing excites the Italian imagination and verbal passion as much as food. All the local restaurants and hotels are open this evening with special menus priced in the region of E75 per head. There was an article in today's paper saying that more Italians are planning to celebrate at home this year because of the recession but in this part of Umbria everything is booked solid. We shall be entertaining at home having taken delivery of a batch of fresh langoustine from the fish market in Ancona.

Waiting for the day to start

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Naps it's time for a biscuit!

Digby and Wilf: Exhausted Polish Lowland Sheepdog brothers after a thirty minute walk in the olive groves

The boyz went wild chasing the wild boar and deer scents in the olive groves. They have now retired exhausted and happy to a shady corner and it looks as though we won't see or hear much from either of them for a couple of hours.

Orvieto was humming

Orvieto was crowded with Italian visitors enjoying the bright weather after the recent snow. Didn't hear any foreign accents apart from a couple of college kids from California. I love this town. You walk through all these twisting medieval streets and then there rising up majestically in front of you is the cathedral. On a morning like this it positively glows in the winter sunshine. To a northerner its highly decorated exterior is about as exotic as architecture in mainland Europe can be. There is an excellent restaurant right in front of the cathedral called Giglio d'Oro. Over a relaxed lunch you can watch the priests, nuns and assorted worshipers rushing in for a service. Good food and even better people watching. Orvieto's problem is that so few people take the time to get to know it. The town is on the A1 highway from Rome and also on the high speed train line. As a result it tends to get day visitors spending three or four hours seeing the duomo en route for another destination.

Got the ball. I'm happy.

Beautiful morning. Off to Orvieto to buy wine and look at the cathedral. Will post pictures on return. Boyz both exhausted after a run across the hills this morning.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Foligno and an excellent restaurant Villa Roncalli

Back from Foligno. The town is a sprawling post-industrial kind of place , a bit like Buffalo or one of those upstate places in New York along the Hudson. The differences are that 1) you can get a really good cup of coffee 2) the town has a 11th century cathedral and 3) you won't hear English spoken anywhere. We like Foligno . It's clearly seen better days but the municipality is doing everything it can to stop decline by investing in the towns infrastructure. From a tourists point of view Foligno sports a cathedral which has a romanesque doorway which incorporates the only known example from the period of the islamic crescent moon symbol and some rather good late 1930's Mussolini era architecture.
Most importantly there is Villa Roncalli. a simply excellent restaurant run by a lady chef whose husband runs Vissani outside Orvieto on Lake Corbara-reportedly one of Italy's top three restaurants.Villa Roncalli has a stunning wine list with a low markup and a menu that chanes every day . A meal in Villa Roncalli will cost you 50 Euros a head all in whereas Vissani will probably set you back three or four time that by the time a decent bottle of wine is included.With the pound hitting near parity with the Euro our trips to Vissani are likely to be limited!

Where's the snow gone ?

Seems hardly possible but in the space of an hour the sun has melted all the snow that fell over the last twenty four hours. It must be getting close to 16 degrees now and in the sun it's altogether rather pleasant. Italy is a country of microclimates - on the other side of the mountain the snow is still firmly in place.

Ball games in the snow ... heaven!

Shortly heading off to Foligno - an industrial town with an old centre that few tourists ever visit.Foligno is home to some very good restaurants and coffee bars. Will use the camera phone and blog about the trip later today. Blazing sunshine and the snow is beginning to melt.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Polish Lowland Sheepdogs enjoying the snow

Woke up to a version of Siberia with olive trees this morning . Having gone to bed with a cloudless sky found that overnight southern Umbria had been blanketed with snow. It's still snowing and the boyz are having the time of their lives - the scents thrown up by the sudden chill are keeping them outside exploring and doing other sheepdog type activities. Inside the floors are covered with blankets ready for their return for lunch - Polish Lowland Sheepdogs attract snow to their fur like iron to a magnet..

Gain shall take the place of loss (part 4) Towards Socapism and a W shaped recession

Musings on the economy - Towards Socapism and a W shaped recession

So Japanese output of automobiles is down 40% in four months.These are levels of manufacturing contraction not seen since the late 1920's. Production will probably stabilize and then bounce back by mid next year but the impact on industrial investment plans in 2009 and the first half of 2010 will be dire. Replicate Japan's economic woes in the automotive and consumer sectors in Europe and the US and it becomes clear that 2009 will be a humdinger of a contraction.

There seems to be one overridingly positive piece of news as we enter the New Year. Governments have saved the banking system. That isn't to say there won't be more pain to come in the next two years as credit card, mortgage and consumer loan defaults sky rocket - but the system has survived. What has emerged is that the landscape of banking has changed as a result of the government involvement, perhaps for ever. Nor is the process over. As the severe economic cycle works its destructive way through consumers balance sheets the British government and others in Europe and Asia will probably have to fully nationalize some of the banks they have taken a stake in this year. We may be entering a new era of 'socapism' where social concerns and capitalist practice are wedded together through directed lending to deserving industrial and consumer causes. The thinking of society at large seems to be moving in this direction - Deutsche Banks Chairman found himself embroiled in a public dispute with a German Bishop this week over excessive greed in the banking system. The problem is that the scope for corruption in a politically managed finance system is huge - too many party donors may find access to capital easy while political opponents of the government find it impossible. For a good example of this process in action look to Russia.

It is the larger economy that remains troubled. Very low interest rates and a fall in the price of gas at the pump are putting money back into consumers pockets in the short term. This may make the initial recessionary fall shorter and less severe than it might have been. At the same time it's easy for governments to print money to revitalize economic activity. It's more than likely that markets will breath a huge collective sigh of relief when President Obama unveils his $1 trillion stimulus package , but then what? When it comes time to take this vast amount of fresh cash out of the market interest rates will have to rise,sharply,otherwise we may face hyper-inflationary forces within two or three years. In the US and the UK the huge budget deficits that have been run up will soon drive borrowing costs higher bringing a close to the refinancing boom and driving housing markets lower again. Commodity prices will likely surge again as emerging markets gear up for what seems set to be a brief recovery. As rates rise the companies that have been kept afloat by low borrowing costs are going to find that the lean times have returned.This is when the second, and more painful leg of the downturn kicks in as part of a W shaped recession.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Learning about blogging

I've been trying to use the camera on the mobile phone to take all the pictures posted on the blog. Using the mobile to take pictures is really easy and keeps the news flow current but at the risk of becoming too familiar or pedestrian. - but there again isn't that part and parcel of blogging ? This is a view from the house towards Todi taken this morning and I have to say the quality doesn't seem that different from using the Leica digital even for long shots like this. The Sony Ericsson phone I use in Italy has a pretty good lens but after each snap I have to go back to the menu and reset the photo option which takes time and can be really annoying. When I was back in the UK last week I took lots of pictures on the UK Nokia phone but these can only be downloaded by wireless and the UK and Italian operating systems are compatible at some level beyond my technical understanding.Hence the absence of pictures from London and Brighton.Looking back at the last six weeks worth of blogs it's also apparent that by downloading from the phone I'm probably swamping the blog with pictures of the boyz. It might be better to restrict them to just one a day. I'm finding the map showing geographic spread of visitors to be really interesting - the pattern seems to be entirely random. When I take the time to become more proficient I'll see whether people want a blog about the boyz, about Italy, or about a broader range of topics.

Todi's Roman amphitheatre.

Drove into Todi earlier today for a coffee and some grocery shopping. What a glorious day -blue sky and sun but still with the bitter northerly wind. On the walk into town took a side turning and came across the old Roman amphitheatre with houses in an oval pattern where the stands stood and a church built into the centre of the arena. The gate was locked but I'll find out when it's open and take some pictures. Typical of Italy, things that would be tourist magnets anywhere else, are simply ignored and left unsignposted.

The winner of the truly indestructible dog toy award is ...

Over the years we must have spent a small fortune on toys for the boyz. Most of these have been a total waste of money as they are destroyed within five minutes by the incredible pressures exerted by a healthy Polish Lowland Sheepdogs back jaws. Toys can also be a real danger. In the space of two unsupervised minutes Wilf managed to chew a plastic toy hedgehog swallowing the pieces that he tore off and digesting the squeaker. As a result he developed severe colitis - a canine ailment that no dog owner ever wishes to face. Faced with a sick dog we have spent a considerable amount of time and effort tracking down toys that are safe,indestructible and fun. Both products that we've come across are available from the Harrods pet shop in the UK but are much more widely available at toy stores throughout the US. Sadly, as with the Zymox ear product there don't seem to be any mainland European retailers.
In the top picture Wilf is seen getting up close and personal with 'Real Mad Cow'. Produced by a company called FAT CAT. inc these toys are made out of really robust sail cloth and are excellent for tug of war games. They do have a slightly oriental aspect to their design which makes me think they must be produced by a labour force in the Pearl River Delta with no comprehension of the end use of their product. However, they are more than up to the job. We bought the first one two years ago and with the exception of some small holes where canine incisors have been working hard it has remained intact.
My favourite however is seen being modelled by Wilf in the second photo. This is a snow goose made by Best Friends Pet Products. These toys are smaller than the FAT CAT ones and are made of a soft, fluffy material. Their great advantage is that they fit perfectly in the mouth of a Polish Lowland and will be carried around all day by a heartily contented dog.The boyz love them and have played contentedly with the latest acquisition over Christmas with no sign of distress apart from a build up of saliva on the body of the toy !
The only design flaw, in both products, is that the squeaker on the inside quickly gets destroyed. From an owners perspective the absence of the irritating squeak may not be that much of a negative.

At the presepe Digby the Polish Lowland Sheepdog meets a camel - and doesn't like it.

The bitter alpine wind is still blowing but the sun is out and the air is crystal clear. Yesterday we went to the little town of Massa Martana to look at the Italian presepe exhibition. The whole of the centre is given over the displays of regional nativity scenes and there is a magical feel to the old medieval heart of the place with the music, the crowds and the bonfires. The presepe showing St.Peter's was the most impressive although some in our party were more impressed with the life sized nativity scene carved out of ice and shown in a refrigerated shop window.
At this time of the year the village of Marcellano is given over for a week to a presepe vivente or living enactment of the nativity. Many of the townsfolk take an active part in the affair ( a sense of community and civic pride is still alive and thriving in Italy ) dressing up in costumes, cooking at outside tables and shepherding the flocks of tourists who come to see the event. This is a big affair by Umbrian standards and realism is enhanced by the presence of a real ox, ass and camel. When not performing the camel is billeted on the local sports ground. This morning on our early morning ramble with the boyz we stopped off in Marcellano to see what it looks like the morning after. All was going well until we turned a corner and came face to face with the aforementioned camel wandering across the football field. Wilf was as usual oblivious to everything - but his little brother was petrified at the sight of this large hairy, fierce looking , and doubtless very smelly dromedary bearing down on him from between the goal posts . He became frozen to the spot and the stunned look on his face seemed to say 'yikes! they don't have dogs that big in Scotland - get me away from this place - now! '. No amount of coaxing would spur him on so in the face of fearful PON obstinacy we retreated to the safety of the car and home. What a brave dog!

Friday, 26 December 2008

Polish Lowland Sheepdogs in a gale : The aerodynamic qualities become apparent.

The gale has been blowing hard all day. These winds usually last for three days but the strength of today's storm simply can't last.The cypress trees down the drive are bending at a twenty degree angle. Tonight we are going to see the national presepi collection in Massa Martana and then may drive onto another village nearby where they have a presepe vivante - or living enactment of the nativity scene. We went presepe vivante three years ago but were too late for the action - we did however find ourselves having a drink in the local bar with the wise men and the shepherds.

Cold. What cold ?

Woke up this morning to a blast of bitter arctic air sweeping down from the alps. It has blown away all the clouds leaving wonderful views across into Tuscany and east into the Marche, but boy is it cold. The fires and heating are racing away in the house which doesn't do much for our carbon footprint but is a necessity today. Hilltop living is wonderful but for two or three days a year we are exposed to the full force of the storms rushing down the Tiber valley. Naturally, while we are complaining about the cold the two boyz are lapping it up and having the time of their lives. If you have doubled layer thick fur this is your element - the more severe the cold and the stronger the wind all the better !

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Eve in Todi

Christmas Eve is celebrated here with La Vigilia - a meal of multiple courses. Some say there should be seven courses for the seven sacraments, others say nine for the Trinity multiplied by itself, while most commonly around here people say there should be thirteen courses representing the twelve disciples and Jesus.Thankfully most of the courses are small so this is not the weight gathering exercise it sounds. This year we have decided to be lazy and farm out the preparation of the meal to the local fish and pasta shops. The fish shop is producing a variety of fried and roasted seafood courses including sea bass, halibut and the ever present fried baccala while the pasta lady is making the local ravioli and lasagne dishes. All in all it sounds like a very upmarket takeaway. The only downside is that none of this will be ready for collection until eight o'clock, so allowing for Italian time keeping it will probably be nine thirty before we get it all home.

The day has seen a host of visitors come past to wish us seasons greetings. Just before lunch the cleaning lady came along with her husband and children, then Enrico the gardener with his cousin, then the the local farmer with some bright orange cachi - these we think are persimmons but have absolutely no idea what to do with them as they are unheard of in Scotland. Perhaps most surprisingly of all the local hunters who traipse across the fields showed up with a cooked rabbit .We disapprove of hunting but the cacciatore are part and parcel of Italian life and brave is the landowner who tries to stop them crossing their land. All visitors have had a glass of prosecco and the children have been given packs of British sweets (how exotic bars of Cadbury's Turkish Delight can appear in Umbria) and crackers to take home.

Tomorrow snow is forecast but if the road is clear we shall probably head off to the cathedral in Orvieto and then take in some of the presepe in the villages on the way back.The Turkey and pudding will be on the table by four.

Polish Lowland Sheepdogs : Washed,groomed and dishevelled again with 10 minutes

Digby discovers edible Christmas cards

What will people think of next? The boyz have each been sent an edible Christmas card which they are contentedly demolishing on the lawn. Wilf has jaws that can power through anything and managed to finish his off within ten minutes. Digby by contrast is an altogether gentler soul and the card has kept his attention for more than half and hour and he's still gnawing at it.Why you may wonder are they having a Christmas treat today? This mornings walk turned out to be a journey into thick mud with the boyz undercarriages emerging coated in gelatinous ooze from front to back. The cards were handed out as a treat after the pups had to suffer a bath and a grooming in order to return them to something approaching a recognizable state. The drier is now working at full power with a load of towels.
I know nothing about Portugese music - indeed I know little about Portugal having only been to Lisbon once. However, last night we heard the most enchanting piece of organ music 'Glosas sobre el canto llano de la Immaculada Concepcion' by Francisco Correa de Arauxo. I would guess that it's sixteenth century but could be quite wrong. It has an exuberance and vivacity that is quite alien to anyone brought up in the Presbyterian tradition. One of the great joys of living in Europe is that new canons of experience and discovery are just there for the asking.
The most important Christmas task is now accomplished - the buying of the wine and champagne. This year we are trying the rose and brut made by Cantina Novelli. This is the first year they have branched out into the field and I shall try a bottle at the first opportunity. This morning I asked the manager if they had installed a new line for the sparkling wines.He said that they ship the freshly pressed juice to a vineyard in Alsace who then bottle and ferment it before transporting it back.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Snow is on the way

Fortnum's delivered at four thirty this afternoon - why do deliveries never ever come first thing in the morning? We now have everything needed for an expats Christmas. The mince pies proved too tempting and have already been sampled. Although the trip to Assisi had to be delayed I did just have time to visit the florist in the local village this evening for some roses.Every single rose in the shop had been augmented with copious amounts of spray on glitter . My request for plain roses was met with incomprehension - why have plain when you can have sparkle? I came out with some rather fetching lilies - blue ! Tomorrows priority is a trip to the local cantina to buy enough Franciacorta to last until the end of the week. Snow is forecast for Christmas day.

Guard duty

The owl family returned in force last night and sat hooting on the bedroom shutters from two til four. They breed in the water pipes in the courtyard wall and in the autumn the gardens are covered in the skeletons of shrews and voles that the parents have brought back to sate the appetite of the chicks. They seem quite fearless with the little ones scurrying around on the terrace in full sight of us and the boyz. Wilf is intrigued by them but Digby affords them a healthy respect and retreats under the nearest piece of garden furniture if they venture towards him. I had always thought that owls were solitary creatures,but judging by the numbers and the din they make, the house must provide a perfect social vantage point when hunting for small furry mammals .

After a restless, owl serenaded night, woke to a bright pink sky flooding into the house. Fog had settled with the top of the clouds twenty or thirty feet above us. By breakfast time the rising sun was colouring the fog the most stunning crimson.I had always thought that Scottish light with its clarity and softness was without comparison but the hill light here with its Mediterranean tones is equally compelling.

Hope to go to Assisi today but we are still waiting for Fortnums to deliver the Christmas cake and pudding. A terribly nice man from their packing department phoned to say they had tracked down the parcel and it would definitely be delivered today. We shall see. Better late than never.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Did you say sausages ?

Italian wine - the bible of guides?

Now that we're living here it seems as if Italy produces a near infinite varieties of wine - many of which never seem to leave their native land. Some of these wines are justifiably best left undiscovered while others are absolute gems. We've found the Gambero Rosso Slow Food guide to Italian wines to be absolutely indispensable when it comes to chosing what to buy. Until recently it was almost impossible to find a copy of this eloquent guide outside Italy but in the last couple of months I've noticed a copy in Hatchards in London and Brentano's ( I think ) in New York.

It was in the Gambero Rosso guide that we first came across the wines of Josko Gravener. Produced in Friuli these wines are aged in amphorae , as they would have been thousands of years ago ,and are a conscious attempt at reproducing natural wine as it would have been. Only 39.000 bottles are produced a year - a very low yield from the 18 hectares under production. Romes' best fish restaurant serves it as does Villa La Massa outside Florence - otherwise it remains largely unknown. When living in Scotland we were able to order it through a merchant in St.Andrews who was importing Italian wines directly.

The language in the guide is distinguished - I could spend all day reading the description of the vineyards up and down the country. Our local wine is Sagrantino and the Perticaia cantina produces one of the best. Writing about the Perticaia Montefalco Sagrantino 2004 the guide says : " the variety is stunning for its bouquet, packed with blackberry tightly wrapped in pungent,balsam-like medicinal herbs and lush spices. The palate fulfils that promise : spacious and deep,dense packed yet dynamic, with an ultra-luxe skein of tannins. Still young of course, it will reveal its true soul down the years ". Wonderful wine , glorious description.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Red sky at night - another cloudless day forecast tomorrow

Spoleto - the perfect hill town? Part 2

Umbria is rich in cathedrals. Assisi with its basilica and Orvieto with its Signorelli chapel are perhaps the best known and attract hoardes of visitors in the summer. By contrast Spoleto's cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta sits nestled and relatively undiscovered at the foot of steps and a stone-paved square in the centre of town. At this time of the year the square and the cathedral are deserted save for a few townsfolk heading off to mass or enjoying a quiet stroll. In the summer its a very different picture as the square is used for a series of popular evening concerts and set out with chairs. Much of what we can see in the cathedral today was built in the late 12th century particularly the campanile and the facade with its colourful Byzantine style mosaic. Both were begun in or around 1175 to replace earlier structures destroyed when the Emperor Frederick Barbarosa sacked the town. What a luxury it is to be able to saunter through the town in the absence of crowds - this is what the grand tour must have been like for previous generations visiting Italy.
Our favourite restaurant in Spoleto is the Apollinare located in a 12th century monastery facing the ruins of the roman amphitheatre.The food there is some of the best to be found in this part of Umbria and the wine list although short has some interesting choices. A good alternative is the family run restaurant on the market square. This is well worth a visit in summer amid the hustle and bustle of the market stalls and shops. Friends have stayed in the Villa Milani on the outskirts of town which has the benefits of commanding views of Spoleto and ( a must in the summer ) cool terraces and carefully maintained gardens but it is a twenty minute walk from the sights and the shops. In the centre of town there seems to be a dearth of anywhere memorable to stay but we've heard from someone who stayed there last summer that the Hotel Palazzo Leti is interesting.

PON's enjoying the winter sun