In Italy, cielo really is heaven.

We had a clear clear blue sky here in Maine the other day. And Kiki says it is just blue skies and clear sailing, seventy degrees in Italy every day. She sends pictures of the roses doing their blooming best. As did our fiend Dily. She sends pictures of the roses Plus a sunset sky full of rondini (swallows.)

fotoWhich reminds me. . . when we were just there in Panicale we may not have deserved it but, we were treated to day after day of early April clear blue skies. It just got in that pattern and stayed there. Thank heavens. And speaking of heavens I’ve always been interested in the fact that Italians call sky and heaven the same thing: Cielo (chee ay low). So when, for example, Sant Franicis says “Ave, Maria, piena di grazia, il Signore è con Te Lodatelo, cielo e terra …” of course he’s talking about heaven and earth.

But when you run into a friend and point up in to the clear blue we can rave about heaven or sky. And can say “Che cielo!” and not be far wrong. But, if it really is one of those spotless blue sky days there is a way to take it up a notch. And standing by the fountain the other day on such a day, Lorena wanted to know what it was. We’d already done the “Che bella giornato.” and other pleasantries. And now, she tipped her head down a bit and looking up at me. Fixing me to the spot . . . ? OMG. Yes, wait wait I know this. She and Simone taught me this a year or two ago. Hard fought knowledge it was. And now, Simone’s stopped what he was doing and leaned back and crossed his arms, waiting to see how this will play out. They are both looking at me expectantly. Neurons misfiring left and drawing blanks to the right, the spot light sun bearing down on me, was I sweating like this when I got here a minute ago? Where can you hide in the middle of a sundrenched piazza? Cielo, cielo, something obscure, that I made even harder . . . foto1Cielo TERSO!

Grazie a Dio di nuovo. We all sigh a big sigh of relief. I wicked didn’t want to let them down, remembering how they had to almost beat it into me the first time. How do you say slow learner in Italian: Sytoo? In my defense, it isn’t hard, just subtle. TerSo is, well was, a word I had never heard of. TerZo sounds, to this American, exactly the same. Ok, ok, bit more of a “t” sound to the “z” of course. But in that same spot in the same piazza a year or so ago I just couldn’t get past terZo. Which, means third and I figured if we could say Seventh Heaven, maybe they were saying “Third Heaven?” Ma, no. TerSo means cleaned, polished, spotless. And when it is truly perfect, that is what you call Heaven. Cielo Terso.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Just a bit of nostalgia if you don’t mind

We own our house in Italy with our friend Kiki. Our favorite thing is when all three of us can go there at the same time. Second choice is either of us being there. And making the left behinds jealous. Which we got to do to Kiki in March. And now it is her turn. She just wrote saying she was in the garden, bathed in late afternoon sun, listening the swallows swooping and the tower bells ringing while having nibbles of pecorino cheese under a pergola of yellow Lady Banks roses.

It is the best time of year. I’ll be there in daydreams and in the meantime will be happy with memories and photos.

Here is a video of what Kiki is suffering thru there in the garden. From this exact moment last year.

And its not just all about our garden. The whole countryside is the Garden of Eden as we speak as evidenced by this video shot on May Day at Spannocchia last year. With thanks to our buddy Steve Callen of Panicale and Australia for his magical music and editing. Speaking of Spannocchia, they are the 1,000 acre agricultural tenuta outside Siena, but they are also sponsors of the Italian Life Expo coming up in Portland, Maine next month. See, if we can’t get ourselves to Italy in June, we’ll bring the whole county to US. If you are going to be near Portland’s harbor the 9th – the 11th, come get your daily requirement of Italy there.

ok, see you in Italy (or see you in Portland, June 9-11)

Stew Vreeland

PERENNIAL FAVORITES: The Umbrian plant ladies and I

“Baa BEAR ahhh” “Baa BEAR ahhh”

Who IS she calling? I am at a drive-by Piante e Fiore garden center place along the lake for the third time this trip. Every time we drive this direction for food or furniture odds and ends I stop for a couple more flats of plants. I was here a week ago and had loaded our Fiat Panda rentacar up with flats and yet more flats of happy spring additions to our garden. But that time, due to too many previous stops, that we were euro-challenged. Sigh. And then I found out – at the cash register – that they take only Bancomat cards (that normal Italians have) and not Credit cards that look just like them (that I have.) My credit cards work AT the Bancomat, when we use them for getting cash. I’m explaining that to the sympathetic-eyed man at the cash register. (Like the foreigner that I was born to be, and obviously ever will be. Allora.)

Yes, we should have gotten yet more euros. Since we merrily shopped our way thru the first batch earlier in the day. But, weirdly, the nursery didn’t care a bit. Money? No money? Apparently all the same to them. My saleslady just waved me off and said “next time you’re going by” To a total stranger like me, 44 euros of product? I said oh, no and started pulling things out of the car and she more or less physically stopped me, really wouldn’t hear of it. Not only did she insist we make off with their merchandise, but she topped off my pile of plants with a big pot of complimentary parsley. A gift to go with everything we’d “bought.”

It’s an hour round trip so, on one hand, I’d almost rather have a few less plants than come back. But on the other hand, in the big scheme of things, that kind of blind faith, do-unto-others attitude is in short supply in the world and really should be encouraged. So, here I am on a return trip, euro/cash in hand. “My” sales lady was effusive and laughing as she made me change, at the register. Happy she had taken a chance on me and been proved right.

In the confusion of my previous daring daylight raid on them, I hadn’t caught the names of some of the plants I’d bought, so I thought this would be a good chance to ask. My lady had tried to tell me the name of one of the plants was “Perennial.” Yes, that’s nice to know, but maybe what kind of perennial?

Beyond perennial, she’s not sure. So, that is why we’re standing outside the shop door and singing “Baa BEAR ahhh” “Baa BEAR ahhh”
The way she’s doing it is sounds so fun, so musical, I can’t help joining in the chorus while shading my eyes and trying to see where we are aiming our collective voices. At a certain point, my eyes adjust to the sun and HOLY SHOOT, BATMAN! Is that a supermodel watering a rack of plants off to the side of the parking lot? In one, slow, motion, she swings her black mane over her right shoulder, cocks an eyebrow at us, turns, and and and starts walking toward us. And walking towards us. Where was I? Italy. Good, good. Plants. Yes! Plants! Something . . . about a plant. Yes, yes, that is it! “Can you tell me the name of this plant?”

Just for the record, we do not get this Hollywood Look at the nurseries I frequent in Maine. I’m pretty sure we do not. Now, I’ve got a plant lady on each side of me. I’m putting on writing glasses, balancing plants, note book, pencil. My blonde sales lady, to my right, is still spelling “Perenni” ok, ok, got that. The brunette, to my left, in the OMG chocolate brown sweater knew what I meant and began patiently pronouncing and spelling the long, long two part Latin name. “C.A.M.P.A.N.U.L.A. C.A.R.P.A.T.I.C.A. . . . C.A.M.P.A.N.U.L.A. C.A.R.P.A.T.I.C.A.” See? Just like it sounds.

You know that thing Italians do? Where they pronounce their written letter “e” like we would pronounce our letter “A?” And when they say “eEE” – at some academic level – we know they mean the letter we would write as an “i” but it still is swirling around in our head as our English letter “e?” Well, I had some that going for me, but with all the other distractions here . . . . allora.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Always, always pay your bills. You will be rewarded in heaven. And sometimes, right here on earth.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

the pomegranates tale
PANICALE, Umbria– True Confession: I was raised on a farm in Iowa. You could tell I wasn’t a native Umbrian? What gave me away? Oh, that accent thing. I’m WORKING on it. But imagine this farm boy’s surprise to find himself watching a big John Deere tractor going back and forth in the distance on a lazy fall afternoon. It is far enough away that I can’t hear its distinctive putt-putting but I know John Deere green and yellow when I see it, even at this distance. But how strange and disorienting. Instead of watching the tractor from a back stoop in Conrad, Iowa, at its level across a wide, flat plain – we’re looking down on the fields and the tractor. We see the Deere almost like a bird would see it from high up in our pocket garden’s terrace.

Even more surprising, it is late October and we’re still in short sleeved shirts and lounging around on lounges we thought had long been put away for the season. The sun is trying to dry some clothes on the line but first it has to work its way through the big fig tree at the end of the garden. FIGS! Can you imagine? I led such a sheltered life that I’m not sure I’d ever seen or tasted a fig outside a Newton, until we found we had a tree full of them in our own yard here. We missed them this year as they are more of a September sort of fruit. They have long since taken that final suicide dive from their high branches, splatting their gooey selves all over the stone terrace there and long since been cleaned up by long-suffering Anna. I do hope she took a few bushels home with her as a preemptive defensive move ahead of the purple rain of fruit. Look at us. We’re half complacent about figs. Yawn, oh, figs. Didn’t we always have a fig?

pomegranate on the bush in umbrian gardenHERE’S A NEW CROP TO SELL AT OUR ITALIAN FARM STAND?

Right next to the fig is this year’s big surprise. Our pomegranate. How the heck did that get there? Is it a bush? Could it be a tree? It is higher than my head and wider than it is high, bent over with heavy, dense, baseball-sized, fruit on every side. I cut the fig back to give the pomegranate some sun last year and the greedy little booger filled that space and more and went on a crazy fruit-making spree. Every day the fruit gets redder and the leaves yellower. Getting closer to the way La Foce’s pommes looked the week before. I know they get more winter sun than we do.

Back to my original question? Where do pomegranates come from, Mommy? One of the best things that has ever happened to us is that Elida knew Nico. And she knew he was an architect and a sculptor and a plant lover. And she further knew he had designs on our garden. In typical matchmaker fashion she threw a dinner party to introduce us and we said Heck Yes, Design Away. He did us a selection of the most wonderful plans I’ve ever been privileged to see. Pure genius what he had in mind for this long, skinny, curved terrace hung between two tiny Umbrian streets. It was hard, but we chose one and said do it just like that. Almost. We took out one sculptural rock – too Zen for us I guess and we took out a single plant. The pomegranate. But yet, we have a pomegranate, don’t we?

box of italian pomegranatesNico objected to both deviations to the plan, but we won him over eventually and proceeded with out those two items. For a couple months. Our frequent guests and long longtime friends, the Traveling Lambarts, arrived about that time. What great houseguests! They even weed! Nico joined them for weeding and pruning a few times that spring when the garden was so young. And before they left they wanted to surprise us with a gift for the garden. They consulted the maestro and who appeared to think about the idea for a minute and then said, You know, I think a pomegranate would look great. Right about here. Under the fig. Of course he was right. It is perfect. Thank you, Nico. Thank you, Lamberts. Thank you, Elida. It took a village. But we got pomegranates.

All the pomegranates in the photos here were grown and photographed in our Umbrian Garden of Eatin’. We ate the one in the title right on the spot. Some friends were over we had some wine and cheese and what the heck will you have some fruit with that? Why yes, we will. And did. The rest of the “harvest” is in that box you see here and hopefully drying out to become guilded Christmas decorations another year. Is that just too Martha Stewart? Thats what I thought, too, but we’re trying it anyway.

Our goal for ’07: to keep thinking warm holiday thoughts all year round!

See you in Italy,



PANICALE, Umbria – A hour in the garden, a walk in the clouds. Work, work, work. Garden, garden, garden. A phone rings. Oh no, Paulette can’t come. While I am talking to her on the phone, I see Steve and family in person waving down at me from above the garden wall. Goodbye Paulette, hello Steve. As soon as we get inside Midge is coming in the other door. An hour later, with the door to Via del Filatoio open to let Steve and family out, Elida and Guenter are coming in. Too fun. Our first evening is shaping up nicely. And tomorrow? We have a plan. And that is where the raves began.
La Foce outside Monteciello in Tuscany


MONTECCHIELLO, Tuscany – Hard not to rave and rave about this lovely side trip we launched into our first full day on the ground. How have we missed this jewel? We’ve read all the books about it. Its right in our neighborhood. 20 minutes away? Past CianocianoTerme near Montepulciano.

We are just such Philistines that despite entreaties from left and right we had not ever been to La Foce. Have you been there? If you have you know the Iris Origo connection. And most importantly, have you stopped to eat on your way to La Foce at La Porta? Add in a summery summery end of autumn day and good friends and you have the ingredients for quite a day. We loved every sun-drenched minute.

We felt we knew the Villa La Foce a bit because it is annotated and documented in several books. One book related to it would spin us off into another and it’s a very rich and interested combination of stories. We’d read Iris Origo books including The Merchant of Prato, and War in the Val d’Orcia and we have the big coffee table photo books of it, so it is strange we hadn’t hopped over there. But it was high on this trip’s list and we made it happen Day One.
La Foce gardens
The story of how this massive, landscaped fantasyland villa and more than 10,000 acres of farm can to be is well told in all the books about Iris’s life. And what a life she had. She was half English, half American and pretty much all Rich. Her mother owned the most important Medici villa in Florence and Iris rebelled a bit against that and went Back to Nature in this farm life she chose for herself. Sort of. It was a farm but a fairly gilded farm. The gardens and grounds were spared no expense and are palatial at least. Every color plant and tree frames views that were embellished and enhanced and perfected over the years off into the distance as far as you can see. Which they could do because they owned from the villa to infinity. And beyond.

One of the lame reasons we hadn’t seen La Foce is that it is only open for two showings a week. 3 pm Wednesday, followed by 4 pm Wednesday. 10 euro ticket and worth 10 and the price of a plane ticket from wherever you may be.

But IF you need more motivation, treat yourself to lunch at La Porta before La Foce. No, really. Go ahead. You deserve it. Like the name implies it is right at the village gate. Montecchiello’s gate. We were outside bonding with the sweeping views of the Sienese crete from the terrace overlooking the valley. The stone terrace itself seems carved out of the old old city gate. Most excellent position and it was wonderful to have sunglasses and or floppy hats almost required by the brilliance of the sun. But the food outshone even this. Paulette had gone on and on about it to us our first night. So when Steve, reading from a scrap of paper, said “Aldo wrote this name here . . . some place named La Porta. . . ?” we said Heck yes, lets get there already. Complete out of body experience. The staff was so cool they let us sample around and really enjoy it all. We ordered all three of the antipasta specials they mentioned and they brought us each a small plate and we dived in. Really and truly have no idea what the names of all the cheeses were but lets just call them Most Excellent Cheeses. One was a super fresh new cheese, almost cottage cheese consistency (Steve later set me straight: burrata is its name and it is a “young” mozzarella). There was a big plate of that surrounded by diced red tomatos. Too good to be true. Another plate was all fresh greens and bits of a glorious something cheese and the last plate was warmed pecorino morbida and Cinta Sienese proscutto. The ham from that white belted black pig is legendary in this region and totally will put you off all others. They did the sheep cheese here like brie and spread it on bread and we fought ever so politely over the scraps and crumbs on every plate.
La Porta restaurant outside La Foce
And the staff here at La Porta didn’t bat an eye when we said we wanted pasta samplers as well as mix and match anti pastas. So all of us got plates that included pici and duck, pici and cinghiale (they were so embarrassed. This was to be on papparadelle) and ravioli stuffed with artichokes.


One of my favorite meals in decades of eating in Italy. The day and the company and the location had something to do with it but this was some fine recreational dining. The local white wine was off the chart as well. I saw Steve look up from some stellar food, wash it down with the wine and look back at their glass and not wanting to interrupt a conversation in full swing at the other end of the table just mouth What IS this? I’ll ask him later if he remembers finding out the name of that heaven in a glass HEY STEVE. Ok, he doesn’t remember either. But what I call it is Mightyfine. Just like the whole day. Worth the whole trip. And we are just getting warmed up what with this being merely the first FULL day.