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The seasons of La Castellina
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The seasons of La Castellina
La Castellina is most often visited in the high summer, when the fierce sun and spectacular, sleepy landscape make padding around the pool with an icy glass all that a human could wish.
Yet the unfailing popularity of summer is a little surprising since, from July to August, Tuscany is neither quite itself nor at its best.
Autumn, winter and spring: each has its devotees. Few people long for the Tuscan midsummer once they have tried the verdant, gentler warmth of spring or seen the tawny grapes trampled in autumn. Outside summer, moreover, one can avoid the crowds. Tuscany once again seems full of Tuscans –– the proudest people in Italy and rightly so.
Spring (March – May)
Devotees of sun-bathing are most likely to be weaned off August by spring, the season closest in character to summer.
Italian spring doesn’t begin, as its English cousin does, with a heroic push of leaves through freezing days and colder nights. Instead, Italian spring begins with heat.
In the last weeks of February, a strong sun (for which the English would be grateful in June) is applied to bare branches. One can eat outdoors immediately –– even breakfast by the pool –– wearing a sunhat beside the skeletal boughs. When one’s back is turned, blossom appears and the bees wake from their Arthurian winter sleep.
The rains, when they come, are short-lived and gratifyingly violent: to watch lightning from the Torre loggia with some cups of tea is one of life’s great treats.
March, as in Northern Europe, brings the new grass –– too green to be true, so that it looks artificial. Now is the time to walk from La Castellina in the noonday sun, down the river Pesa to Sambuca’s Roman bridge or up the facing hill to the rare steaks of Cantinetta di Rignana.
Now the cover comes off the swimming pool and, although it is too cold still to swim, it is nice to release its colour and to catch the house’s reflection there at dusk.
In April, since the nights are still crisp, sleep comes easily and deeply –– no need for fans or mosquito nets, or for a cold shower before bed. Instead (how much more civilised) the down duvets are thick and shutters are closed.
Now is a good time to devote oneself to art: Trecento, Quattrocento, Cinquecento. Spring Florence is still peaceful and fresh, the green Arno high, the steep Oltrarno gardens scenting the city and the sunny pavements of less busy piazze dotted with clumps of grass. Still more spectacular is the view from Siena, its steep, Y-shaped valley ablaze with blossom and wild-flowers.
In May, La Castellina is without doubt at its most lovely. Three sides of the house are radiant with climbing flowers; the white Banchsia in the lane is particularly good, weeping petals over the kitchen door. In the cypress trees are little purple stars and the sun, ever hotter, beats a thick scent from the herbs. The bees are out in force and, at noon, bare-footed humans seek the coolness of the pool.
Autumn (September – November)
After the summer heat, when you can fry eggs on the car bonnet and the ground cracks and only things that are watered grow, the gentle slackening of late September is a relief. The sun only dips from fierce to strong, however, and the pool is still required although the long summer has taken off its chill. La Castellina moves from Italian summer to, effectively, an English heatwave.
Yet this unfailing Indian summer is only one delight of the Italian September. Another is the harvest, that crucial week when every hillside vineyard comes alive with vine workers moving slowly down the rows, their straw hats leading the heaped trailers. Fretful winemakers, gambling a year’s crop, try and take their ripening vintage at the very last minute and pray against rain and frost. In the fattorie, the grapes are trampled with rustic aplomb and their discarded skins are placed between clear plastic sheets in the yard to cure in the sun for next year’s grappa.
Only in October do the nights begin to feel chillier, a damp breath that shuts La Castellina’s windows and fills the log basket in readiness for the rains. The rains, when they come, are drunk greedily by the land, thirsty after the long summer’s toil. The veins of the land are replenished as the rivers reappear from their dry beds, and green-coated Tuscans are to be met with baskets sniffing out porcini for their omelettes and griddle.
These kings of funghi, the royal cep or boletus, start to appear in the restaurants. Huge, plump and still cool from the soil, the waiters bring them around the tables in a great basket. Osteria La Piazza does them particularly well, a porcino griddled fiercely with much garlic and parsley to be eaten by itself: a meaty dish that would put a steak to shame.
The farms take little rest after the grapes are in. Plums and other fruit needs collecting and the hardware store is emptied of jars for homemade fruit preserves. The artichokes and chard begin to appear at market.
Then in November comes the olive harvest –– most laborious of all –– when the glossy black beads must be combed down onto nets without damage to the ancient branches. The olives are then weighed, washed and pressed, with great turbines agitating the paste to release the oil from the bitter flesh. The spicy new oil, luminous green and opaque, is tasted on fett’unta toast and poured raw on thick vegetable soup. It is a world away from regular golden olive oil, in which the short-lived chlorophyll has wasted and the taste is faint.
Winter (December – February)
After the new olive oil has been tasted in December, the fireplaces of La Castellina will be alight until February. The thick-walled house, like all Tuscan farms, is designed to be cool in summer and warm in winter –– even warmer now, with the new wood-burning stove in the upstairs sitting room. The kitchen tiles are warm underfoot and, after a wintry tramp on the ridges above Sicelle, one can have a hot bath then fireside tea in the Fienile under bronze Voltaire’s profile.
Unlike the gaunt English woods, Italian forestry never looks truly wintry because it is principally made of sessile oaks, which hold on to their dead leaves until the new buds appear behind them. Sometimes there is snow but not often; and the winter sun is not watery but strong enough to burn when it shows.
In the nearby Appuan Alps, beyond Lucca, however, the snow lies thick from November until February. The smart Lucchese and Florentines drive to resorts in the spiky Garfagnana there for an afternoon’s skiing: Careggine has gentler slopes and large lifts, while the higher Passo delle Radici has 8 km of Nordic tracks.
Winter is also a time of religious festival: Christmas Eve, Twelfth Night when the good witch La Befana distributes gifts, ending with the Carnivale in February. This is a Catholic phenomenon rather than a purely Venetian one, and indeed the parade at Viareggio (a few kilometres up the coast from Pisa) is second only to Venice’s. Bright floats topped with Spitting Image dolls enact a satirical history of the town’s past year, mixing truth with comic slander –– the spirit of carnival allows it. At the end of the parade, the Year reads his satirical “Last Will and Testament”, in which no mayor, councillor or even prime minister is handled gently. Then the effigy is burnt.
After Carnivale, and the Year’s official funeral, the sun begins to shine more strongly on the bare boughs and, behind one’s back, the blossom appears again.
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