Category Archives: work life balance

Transitions

As those of you familiar with some of the best of Italy’s wines might expect, the drive from our house to Montalcino is populated by an exceptional number of vineyards. As we head down the hill, the patchwork of olive trees and vines of our panoramic view is gradually replaced by increasing numbers of perfectly pruned, immaculately kept vineyards, the precision rows of which appear to stand sentry, proud custodians of the finest Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello di Montalcino, makers of which smile benignly down on the Val d’Orcia inferiore: the Sangiovese grape grown where we live will apparently never be capable of producing such a taste.

 

I am coming to love this drive with its infantry of vines, a guard which seems laced in a fragile irony, its grapes at the mercy of the elements. As a friend of mine said to me yesterday, he is playing a waiting game heavy with nerves. It’s a protracted game, against a powerful and unpredictable opponent. The crop looks excitingly good, but until the grapes are ready, they cannot be harvested. And until they are harvested, anything is possible.

 

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Daily the drive is taking us longer, as more and more vineyards decide the time is most propitious and cars succumb to tractors and camions preparing for, or coming from vendemmia*. We slow down to a mild 20 miles per hour (mind you, we are still overtaken by those Italians insistent on taking the racing line and overtaking simultaneously, those who will not be slowed down by anyone’s vendemmia), and daily take stock of the status quo. At the week’s start, red crates appeared at intervals along the rows, anticipating the cutting of the grappa, hanging tantalizingly above. Today, driving home, many vineyards looked curiously barren and I realised how accustomed we have become over the last few months to turning our eyes subconsciously to bunch upon the bunch of purple grapes. The great cycle of life turns again; the end and the beginning and I feel supremely fortunate. This is what harvest means, this is what autumn signifies. Somehow my usual mixed September emotions, as I reluctantly let go of sultry summer days and yet revel in the burning beauty of autumnal richness, make more sense. The end and the beginning. The bringing together of a year’s labour, the excitement of the fruits yielded as the revolution is completed, only to start again.

P. conscientiously preparing to start school - his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

P. conscientiously preparing to start school – his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

It resonates particularly now as I consider how far we have come since September 2015. It resonates as I stand in the kitchen at dinner time and prepare dinner, while the children sit together, building coronets from tiny bricks, chattering away in their mother tongue, intermingled with Italian phrases aplenty. Last night, disturbed in my sleep as I often am with three children, I couldn’t help but smile – P., who so often talks in his sleep, was muttering in Italian, ‘non, lo facciamo cosi’!’. It resonates as I hear H. in the bedroom giving S. her own private tutorial, the result of which I experience shortly after, ‘Mamma?’, ‘Yes, S.’, I reply, ‘non, Mamma, say, “si”’, she insists. S. sat with me at lunchtime yesterday and picked up the lemon, ‘Dat, “limone”‘ she pointed out to me, in precision perfect accent.

 

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

It resonates as I pick up the phone to negotiate a deal on taking our own grapes to be pressed and take stock that I couldn’t have done that a year ago – neither in terms of owning the grapes, nor in terms of conducting the negotiation. This but one conversation in the many negotiations concerning our tiny casa rustica, standing on our hectare of olive trees and vineyards; conversations convoluted in Italian bureaucracy  which generally leave me exhausted less by translation and more by the absurd idiosyncrasies of those translations.

 

 

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Changes to our tiny casa rustica – gone are the rats and cobwebs…

 

It resonates personally as I stop for a caffe’ with our Italian neighbours and share a joke in Italian or as I feel the glorious delight of culture and communication when the owner of a local agriturismo comes over to chat to us at the village’s ‘Festa della Bruschetta dell’Olio Nuovo‘.

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Later, all five of us – la principessa included, eagerly taste the freshest green olive oil and all five of us give our opinions, coughing slightly on its coveted bitterness.

A ‘mastery’, for want of a better word, of some sort of the language is fundamental to my autumn harvest, all the richer because I know this is but the beginning: the bounty of language is endless. But harvest this year feels rich beyond language and beyond words. It cuts to my heart with that beautiful pain reserved for the most precious of bonds when I look at the children and remember where we were a year ago. I think about the ‘salto nel buio’ we took in coming here. A leap into the dark which was, on reflection, fairly brazen in its naivety and from which we are now reaping our harvests. As with all harvests – particularly of farmers with a variety of crops – there will be fruit which we would rather not keep. It is, naturally, far from perfect but it is plentiful and, right now, as the winegrowers of Montalcino revel in their purple grapes, I too am taking a moment, to pause, to reflect and to appreciate. To feel fortunate and to thank – whoever and whatever we believe in – the freedom we had to choose and the choice we made. I want to bottle the richness of this harvest, I want to lay it down with the best ‘riserva’, to be brought out in that intangible future, when memories will give succour to tired minds.

*vendemmia – the grape harvest

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Time for Bread

Today, I made bread. Correction: Today, I Made Bread. As in, Proper Bread. Bread that takes time. The sort of time for the little things that are actually quite big things, which are so often pushed to the side in our all too hectic, pressure-crazy, fast-fast, quick-quick, SMART-criteria lives.

The first bake – helping the Master Baker

Sourdough bread is the ubiquitous hot love of the SMART-crazy commuters inhabiting many a chichi up-and-come-d hot spot in London. To eat sourdough is to care about what you are putting into your bodies and to have enough money to be able to pay the smart London premium demanded for it. Sourdough is being appropriated, in much the same way as have been blueberries, pomegranates, avocados and countless other ‘superfoods’, as a trendy requirement of the money rich and time poor; the sourdough irony is that flying by the local deli to grab a loaf of sourdough to fuel a body fatigued by its frenetic lifestyle slightly misses its point.

My solo bake

My solo bake

Setting out on my own over the last week, keeping an eye on my starter and preparing for Dough Making D-Day, I realised that making sourdough wasn’t nearly as tricky as I might have been led to believe. Using the basics from my master class, (under the tuition of a young couple, bakers ‘extraordinaire’, who are ‘WWoof’-ing their way round Italy and France and whom I invited to stay at casa mia for a few days,) over the past seven days, I have thrown a little flour and water at my starter, chucked the odd spoonful away when I felt it was smelling a bit too sour, stirred it and checked on its bubbles. Today, transforming my boozy-smelling starter into a loaf of bread, I was a little less precise and a little more haphazard with flour types and folding techniques than might have been my ‘tutor’. Guided by the basic instructions, I ‘watched the dough, not the clock’, followed my instincts and the good news is that my bread was delicious. It tasted of bread. It was chewy, flavoursome and it had texture. Proper Bread. Real Bread. Bread worth making and bread worth eating.

So here’s the thing. At the risk of being a bit English teacher-y about it all, it’s something of a metaphor, isn’t it? Bread and life and all that. I was around for my bread today: I checked up on it, added salt, folded it, let it rest, folded it again… folded it again… and left it on the worksurface (the posh phrase for this is giving it ‘the bench rest’), put it in the rising basket so it could do its thing for a bit, then baked it.

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To make sourdough is not to commit oneself to weeks of drudgery keeping the precious starter alive and then to a day of intensive, hands-on kneading time. It’s to commit oneself to being around, to being present. To having time for the things in life that matter and working other things around it. Bread matters because to feed oneself decent food matters – mens sana in corpore sano. And the things in life that matter need time. Perhaps, if the bread-life metaphor is precise, I should rephrase that: life needs time. It’s a bit of a paradox, that, but I think it’s the crux of the matter. Life is time but paradoxically it needs time and only we can give it to ourselves. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. This is it: here and now. It’s my life and it’s my little people’s lives: they need the kind of time that means being present, being around. Being here. The little people who matter don’t need the helicopter parenting of guilt-ridden adults trying to micro-manage their children’s lives – vicariously or otherwise – in the way they would work their way through a dreaded spreadsheet of checks and balances. They don’t need the constant feeding and kneading of test-driven schooling deified increasingly in the UK and the USA. They need a bit of attention and plenty of space in between – they might be taking the bench rest, they might be playing – to work it out for themselves. They need someone around to love them, to notice if something isn’t quite right, (if there are no bubbles in your sourdough starter, you definitely won’t get a loaf of bread out of it), and to care about the end product. Making sourdough is about being around, about being present. For me and for them.

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