Our First Olive Harvest Il Nostro Primo Raccolto delle Olive

Picking olives in Italy

An ongoing part of my Italian fantasy has revolved around having olive trees, harvesting the olives and making oil. In fact, during the house search process there were at least a couple of candidates that were rejected due to lack of olive trees (or space to plant them).

Our land came with a few trees but had space to add a few more, which we have done. We started with 14 trees, added 6 more good-sized ones in the fall of 2018 and another 10 very young ones in 2019 (though one didn’t make it). So we now have a total of 29 olive trees. Although we have had the house since 2018 we haven’t been here to harvest our olives due to work and school schedules, Covid, etc. This year I was determined to change that.

Since we had neither the know-how nor the equipment to undertake this project, we asked our wonderful gardeners, Pippo and Marco, to help us out. Ideally we would be doing this in November but we needed to get it done before we head back to the States in a couple of days. They advised us that an early harvest would likely mean a lower yield in terms of oil, but higher quality.

We only had ten trees with fruit this year. None of our new trees had produced, likely due to the stress of being transplanted. So it was estimated to be a one day harvest. Pippo and Marco arrived bright and early on a cool but sunny day and started laying the net around the first tree.

Then we got to work using small rakes and an electric device with vibrating prongs that shake the olives from the tree. Some of the trees were on a steep slope, adding to the challenge and requiring some tree climbing to get at some of the fruit. It took all day, with a two hour break for lunch, and we ended up with four large crates of olives from our ten trees.

We had an appointment at the frantoio (olive press) at 2:30 the next day. We thought maybe they were going to throw our olives into a bigger batch for pressing, but they weighed them and started a separate batch just for us, labeled on the press as “America.”

The first step was to clean the twigs and leaves from the olives, then put them through a water bath. After that they grind them up in two stages and finally it is pressed and the bright green oil comes out.

We had 136 kg of olives, which made 18.5 liters of oil. Not a ton but plenty for us and a few friends!

We couldn’t wait to get home and try our new oil on toasted bread.

We recorded our whole experience in this little video. Enjoy!



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Boar Watch Cingiali Sightings

wild boarPhoto: Michal Renčo

Where we live it is unbelievably quiet. Most of the time the only things you can hear are the humming of the bees on the flowers, the occasional call of a magpie or a tractor plowing a field across the valley. But at night it is absolutely silent.

Except for this September. Every evening after we arrived we could hear someone, or something, crashing around in the woods on the other side of the field from our house. Our daughter, who had come with us for a few days, was sleeping under the stars on our roof deck. She reported that the crashing went on most of the night and was accompanied by loud crunching, grunting and snorting. She said the sound was so loud she thought that whatever it was was right below her in our garden.

We began to suspect that what we were hearing was wild boar. The woods near our house is actually a walnut grove, and the crunching we were hearing was the boar chowing down on the nuts. Which also explains why we had never heard them in the spring or summer.

I was determined to see them with my own eyes to confirm our suspicion. The problem is that boar are nocturnal creatures so it is unusual to see them in the daytime. I stationed myself by our fence at dusk and was rewarded with a sighting of six or seven cinghiali of various sizes roaming the field at the edge of the walnut grove. What a thrill for this nature girl!

We haven’t heard them lately so we assume they have polished off the walnuts and moved on to greener pastures. We’ll look forward to their visit next fall.

After seeing the boar up close I was inspired to read up on them, and learned some interesting stuff:

There are over 2 million wild boar in Italy, They are ubiquitous to the point that they are considered invasive in some areas. I stumbled across a wild video of a woman being accosted by a family of boar who steal her groceries in the parking lot of a Rome supermarket.

Adult boar are large: males can weigh up to 375 lbs., while females are 175 lbs. or more. They have bad eyesight and short legs but they are fast runners and good swimmers. Lifespan is between 15 and 20 years.

They are omnivorous like their domestic pig cousins, eating mostly plants, fruit, nuts and berries, as well as worms, slugs, small reptiles and even carrion.

The females live in small groups, called sounders, with their piglets. Males are solitary except during breeding season (November-January) when they go looking for females with whom to mate. They use their sharp tusks to do battle with their rivals in the mating game. There are usually 4-6 piglets in a litter and they are adorable, with reddish brown coloring and creamy stripes. They become independent at around 7 months.

Other than humans, who can hunt boar from November to May, the boar’s only natural predator is the wolf, who typically preys on the piglets.

Recycling in Italy

recycling bins in Italy

One of the most perplexing things about living in Italy is how they handle trash and recycling. To say it’s not straightforward is an understatement.

Back in our hometown in the States recycling is a no-brainer. All recyclable materials go into one bin together: cans, bottles, plastic, paper, cardboard and aluminum foil. And recycling gets picked up the same day as the garbage, so you only have to think about it once a week.

Not so in Italy. Here you practically need a PhD to understand the rules for recycling. It’s so convoluted that they give you an eight page booklet to explain it.

First off, you need to sort your trash into several categories:

  1. Plastic and metal cans
  2. Paper, cardboard, aseptic packaging
  3. Bottles and glass
  4. Organic waste
  5. All other garbage

Each type of trash and recycling goes into its own color-coded bag and then into the designated bin at a roadside pick-up location. You pick up the bags at the comune offices: blue bags for plastic and metal cans, brown for paper and cardboard, white for organic waste (“umido”) and yellow for all other garbage. Glass doesn’t get a bag. It just gets dumped directly into the roadside bin, though of course you need a bag or bin to keep it in at your house until you take it to the collection bin.

Oh, and they don’t pick it all up on the same day, so you’re always trying to remember what gets collected on which day. In our comune Monday is garbage day, Tuesday is plastic and metal pick-up and Thursday is paper and cardboard collection day.  You can put glass in the roadside bin anytime. You can also put out the organic waste anytime but not every collection point has one for organic so you may have to drive to another one to leave your umido.

I shouldn’t complain. I read somewhere that Italy is #1 in the EU for waste recycling, so I guess it’s all for a good cause. Back home, where they make recycling so easy, I’m pretty sure a lot of it ends up in the landfill.

Total Immersion: Learning Italian in Montepulciano

Back in November I posted about my goal to become fluent in Italian in the next year and a half.

Once I put it out there, I began studying feverishly to make it happen, using all the tools and courses available on the internet.  I’ve found that you can make pretty good progress learning a language this way, if you are really committed.

By early January I had a couple thousand words under my belt, had learned three verb tenses and some other basic grammar, and could even understand a fair amount of spoken Italian.

However, I couldn’t speak Italian at all.

And I knew that to get to the next level, I was going to have to put myself in a situation where I was forced to speak. I needed to study in Italy.

With work commitments and kids at home, the most time I could get away was a week. With Ed’s blessing I started planning a trip.

front door of Il Sasso Italian schoolAfter researching language schools I chose to spend five days studying at Il Sasso Scuola di Italiano in Montepulciano, a lovely Tuscan town best known for its red wine.

To make the immersion complete, I also opted to stay with an Italian woman who speaks no English.

Fiorella is a widow in her 60s, has lived in Montepulciano all her life and hosts Il Sasso students for the very reasonable fee of 40 Euro/night, which includes breakfast and dinner.

If you study at Il Sasso you can also choose to stay in a furnished apartment (which the school will arrange) or a hotel. The hotel option was tempting, but I decided to go all in and make it a full immersion.

I flew into Florence via Munich and had the next morning to walk around Florence before catching the train to Chiusi. I’ve been to Florence a couple of times and seen all the must-see sights, so there wasn’t anything I needed to see or do. I just wanted to walk around and soak it all up. I was lucky enough to have a beautiful day. Sunny and clear, with very few tourists.

I arrived at the train station early, to make sure I didn’t screw up and end up on a train to Rome. To be on the safe side, I had bought my ticket online ahead of time, so all I had to do was board the train and go.

Just as the train was about to depart I heard an announcement that all passengers needed to have their tickets validated by the obliteratrice (validating machine) on the platform, or be fined 100 Euro. Afraid to get off and risk missing the train, I decided to stay put and plead ignorance when the conductor came around.

As it turns out, e-tickets are exempt from the validating requirement, so I was safe. I made a mental note to remember the obliteratrice when I bought my return ticket.

Enoteca Trattoria Porta

From Chiusi I had to take a 45 minute bus ride to Montepulciano. I was dropped at the bottom of the hill just before 5:00 pm. The town of Montepulciano is charming any time of day but in the twilight it was positively magical. The warm glow of lights in the clear crisp January air made me glad this was home for the next week.

I plugged Fiorella’s address into my phone and started the slog straight uphill into town, dragging my suitcase behind me and wishing I’d left my laptop at home. I finally found her house and was greeted by her dog, Gnauf (Nee-owf) as I hauled my stuff up the stairs.

Exhausted, jet-lagged and hungry, all I wanted was to have a nice lie-down, but my immersion wouldn’t wait. Fiorella welcomed me enthusiastically (in Italian) and peppered me with questions about my trip, my family and why I wanted to study Italian.

There was no avoiding it. I had to start speaking Italian, since Fiorella speaks no English (or if she does, she didn’t let on). I sipped some of the local vino nobile and watched her throw together a delicious meal of homemade pici with ragu, followed by roast chicken and salad. Pici (pronounced peechee) is the typical pasta of that part of Tuscany. It’s made by rolling pieces of dough into long worms (like we used to do with Play-doh in kindergarten).

Pici al cinghiale

Fiorella has had lots of students stay with her, so she was patient with me as I bumbled along telling her about myself and asking her questions in Italian. Finally, sensing I needed a break, she turned on the TV to an Italian game show with a bizarre format that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out. By the end of the week, though, I started to get the gist.

Next morning I had to be at school by 8:30 to take a written and oral “placement test” to see what level I should be at. The written test started out with very basic questions and got progressively more difficult. I was only able to complete about two thirds of it.

The school day went from 9:00 -1:00 and was divided up into two parts, with Costanza teaching one part and Alberto teaching the other and a cappuccino break at a nearby bar.

Based on my evaluation they decided that I needed to work on the conditional tense followed by the present subjunctive and double pronouns.

There is no English spoken at the school…everything is explained in basic Italian and using a white board. They keep things moving along with various types of written and oral exercises, with heaviest emphasis on speaking and conversation.

We also spent time learning about the history, culture and cuisine of the region, which I found fascinating. For example, I learned that the reason the Tuscan landscape looks the way it does now is because of La Mezzadria. La Mezzadria was a medieval sharecropping system dating back to the 14th century and lasting until the 1960s.

The way the system worked was that a landowner (padrone) would divide up his property into numerous farms (podere) of 10-30 acres, to be worked by a farmer (contadino) and his family. Each farm was self-sufficient, with the contadino raising vegetables, wheat, chickens cows, olives and grapes on his plot of land. Each year he paid the landowner 50% of what he grew.

I had my afternoons free, which started with a relaxing lunch at one of the restaurants in town. My favorite was La Pentolaccia, a small place owned and run by two friendly sisters. The food was great and it was always full at lunchtime.

After lunch I spent a lot of time exploring the town. Given the time of year many of the shops were closed for the winter or only open limited hours. While I was disappointed not to have more opportunities to interact with the local merchants, the plus side was that I saved a lot of money I might otherwise have spent on leather goods.

I did attend a wine-tasting one afternoon and ended up buying a case of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to ship home to Ed. I spent another afternoon at the movies (no subtitles) where the plot was lost on me. Apparently my Italian has not progressed far enough that I can understand it spoken at normal speed.

The various levels of the hill town of Montepulciano are connected by narrow passageways and stairs.

Once home I tried to assess how much the week in Montepulciano helped me in my quest to become fluent and whether it was worth it to travel all the way to Italy to study for a week. I learned some new grammar, to be sure, and Costanza and Alberto were VERY good teachers. But the big benefit was that I got an opportunity to speak…a lot, which is what I wanted and needed. I had extensive conversations on a whole range of subjects, both with my teachers and with Fiorella. This is something you normally don’t get to do as a tourist because your interactions tend to be limited to ordering in a restaurant or buying something in a shop.

So I’d say my immersion week was definitely worthwhile. I only wish I could have stayed longer and I hope I can do it again because there’s only so much you can accomplish in a week of class. Whether I will go back to Il Sasso or try a different school (maybe closer to our home in Le Marche) is something to ponder.

I’m curious. Who else has studied at an Italian language school in Italy? How did it go? Would you recommend it?

How I Plan to Become Fluent in Italian in 18 Months (While Living in the U.S.)

18 month challenge

It’s time to get serious about learning Italian.

Eighteen months from now Emma will graduate from high school and leave home for college. At that point we are going to sell our house in Chicago and spend as much time in Italy as possible.

I don’t plan on being one of those Americans who relies on everyone else to speak my language. After all, a huge part of Our Big Italian Adventure is enjoying the people, and you can’t exactly do that if you can’t talk to them.

Ed is already way ahead of me. He has been studying Italian on his own for a couple of years now. He is disciplined about learning grammar and verb conjugations, which I am not. Also, he does Skype lessons twice a week with his Italian teacher on italki. It’s a great deal. He spends one hour talking with a native Italian speaker for only $15. I plan to do this, too, once I can string together more than one sentence.

The one thing I have going for me is that I (used to) speak Spanish. So many of the words are similar that I can understand a fair amount if someone is speaking slowly. Where the wheels come off is when I try to speak Italian. I open my mouth and Spanish is all that comes out.

So, I’ve given myself a challenge: I will be able to speak Italian by June 2019. Other than a trip or two to Italy between now and then, I will have to accomplish it while living and working in the U.S.

Here’s the plan:

Take a class:

I am taking a weekly Italian class at the local adult ed program. I didn’t sign up for the absolute beginner level because I didn’t want to spend the next six months learning to say, “My name is Anne. I am a woman.” So, with a little trepidation I signed up for level 2.

I’ve actually been to about four classes so far and I’m no worse than most of the people in the class. I enjoy it but have concluded that I’m not going to get very far by only taking this class. It’s not immersive or demanding or frequent enough. What it has done is give me a much-needed nudge to get started, and it’s given some structure to my study. Plus I really like the people in the class and our teacher provides lots of great insight on the history and culture, as well as the language.

Add an online course:

The one I am trying is Duolingo. It’s free and it’s kind of fun and addictive because it’s structured like a game. Every time you give a correct answer it plays a little trumpet fanfare sound. As you complete a section you earn “Lingots”, though I am not exactly sure what you’re supposed to do with them. It also tracks how much you learn and how long your streak is (days studying in a row without missing a day). You translate words and phrases from Italian to English and vice versa and it repeats them until you get them right. For me it’s a good supplement to the other things I’m doing, but it wouldn’t be enough on its own.

The other online course I tried is Italianpod 101.  I found it kind of annoying for a couple of reasons: first, because the dialogues are too short and there’s too much focus on English translation. Second, the two people who do the dialogues keep up kind of a goofy banter (in English). I guess it’s to keep things light and fun, but I could do without it. Plus every lesson starts with about 30 seconds of opera music before the dialogue. I don’t like having to sit through that.

Increase my vocabulary:

Ed turned me on to an awesome app called Anki. Anki is a spaced repetition system that helps you memorize things. It’s like flashcards on steroids. If the word comes easily to you it doesn’t show you the word again for a while. If you have difficulty, it will keep showing it to you every few minutes or days until it has driven that word deep into your brain. I love it. I have learned hundreds of new words in the last couple of weeks just by using Anki 10-15 minutes a day.

Another tool I use is Word Reference, which is an online Italian-English dictionary. I keep the site open on my computer so I can quickly look up words with all their various meanings and usage.

Train my ear:

I need to develop my ear for the language, so I listen to all kinds of things in Italian, usually when I am driving around or waiting in the carpool line. One of the first things I’ve tried is “Teach Yourself Italian” by Vittoria Bowles. I like the no-nonsense approach to learning the basics. I don’t have the book she references. I just listen to the dialogues and repeat as instructed.

News in Slow Italian is a weekly podcast about world news. The site has lots of other tools for learning the language and there is a subscription fee, but I listen to the news podcast on my phone and that doesn’t seem to cost anything.  It’s challenging to understand everything but they do speak slowly enough for someone at the intermediate level to follow along.

I also found a TV show called “A Good Season” on Acorn TV about a family of winemakers in the Trentino region. It’s in Italian with English subtitles. I tried to watch it without looking at the subtitles, but at this point I can barely understand anything. They talk way too fast. The great thing, though, is that I can keep watching the same episode over and over and then maybe I’ll start to get it.

Acorn TV is a subscription service like Netflix but with foreign shows and movies. It costs $5.00/month but there’s a free trial available. There are some great shows from England, Australia and other countries. If you liked “Downtown Abbey”, you should check out “A Place to Call Home.” But I digress.

Practice reading and writing:

At this point I am mostly using the exercises in the textbook from my class to practice reading and writing. I am on the lookout for some easy texts to read.

Take a week of full immersion:

I am considering going over to Italy for a week in January just to take a course. I will go by myself and take four hours of group lessons and one hour of private instruction each day. I may even be able to stay with an Italian family to make the immersion complete. My Italian teacher has recommended that I not go to a big city where most people speak English.  In smaller towns fewer people know English and they are much more patient with Americans practicing their Italian.

So, that’s my plan. If I can sustain all of this I should be able to make decent progress toward my goal. I think the key will be to do something every day, even if only for 15 minutes.

Have you tried learning Italian in 18 months or less? How did you do it?