I just returned from a week in the South of France and Piedmont to see my family. It’s been a great occasion to catch up with loved ones and soak in the last heat of summer, and a fortunate choice for a Bank holiday which would have been quite wet if spent in London.
While in sunny Roquebrune, I took long evening walks marvelling at the stillness of the blue sea and at the warm light giving everything a golden tinge. I ate a mix of fruits of the land and bounty of the sea, gigantic sea bass simply roasted with fresh tomatoes and herbs, spaghetti with pesto freshly made with basil grown in the garden, or with mountains of clams with a touch of parsley, white wine and garlic.
My cousin just came back from a trip to Calabria and Puglia, and brought back bunches of sweet Tropea onions and strong tasting garlic, promptly used to make everything on the table even more appetising. I was left drooling by a Calabrian recipe of Tropea onions slowly sautéed with raisins, and marvelled at the taste of thick Piedmont peppers roasted with garlic.
I then traveled to see my father in Neive. Everything there is in a flurry of activity. Grapes are being picked and pressed everyday, together with hazelnuts being harvested repeatedly as they ripen and fall from their bushy trees. It was still very hot. I was shocked by how stoically men and women resisted the heat, filling basket after basket with huge bunches of grapes, stopping only when temperatures became unbearable around midday and starting again at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, when the air was deathlike still and the sun oppressive.
It’s been a great year for grape growing and I could see line after line of healthy looking bunches dangling heavily from vines. Eating Moscato d’Amburgo (a table grape variety) straight from the plant and still warm from the sun was a never forgotten childhood delight. Then we went to pick huge purple-tinted beef tomatoes and when home I marvelled at how much flesh was in this almost seedless variety. From our garden we picked large tough cicoria leaves, which make a tasty salad when chopped very finely. The only disappointment of my gathering expeditions was seeing all the ripe figs confined to inaccessible parts of trees, or already squashed on the ground. My mum told me the reason why fig trees dot country fields everywhere is that they were planted in order to provide farm labourers with a nutritious source of food, apart from refreshing shade. I hope the people picking our grapes took advantage of both fruits and shelter.
My father, with some help from my relatives, has also been busy restoring a big part of our cellars. It is a 300 year old building and some amazing discoveries have been made, including a huge dome shaped icehouse with one access – for the snow – in the courtyard, and another – for the goods – in the cellar. All the steel fermentation tanks have been transferred to a newer cellar a few years ago, and now all the big wood barrels and smaller barriques have been laid out better, with new lighting and a floor with better drainage.
Exhausted after such busy days, my dad really looked forward to an evening gin and tonic, his favourite aperitif, made with orange peel and fresh juniper berries. And we also had some great restaurant meals, including one at the new addition to Neive’s dining scene, La Donna Selvatica, with stunning sunset views over the Langhe valleys. We also found time to do some local tourism. We visited the recently restored Guarene castle, now a 5 star hotel and spa, open to the public for group visits, and we enjoyed the sweeping views from atop the Barbaresco tower.
Unfortunately, it all seems already ages away. Back in London, I am writing these lines while looking at the grey sky from my conservatory. I feel good however. Looking forward to a new gardening phase, with lots of cicoria and other salads planted where the hollyhocks stood.