We were expecting them. We were worried about not seeing them again. The swallows have come back.
Like last year, they nest under the awning of the balcony of the room which overlooks the plain of the river. Every morning, we visit them, tilting our heads from the corner of the window, trying not to frighten them. We see them, they see can us, but they continue their back and forth as if nothing had happened.
The arrival of spring is always a time of great happiness. Even the farmers who have lived through countless springs stop for a moment, to contemplate the awakening of nature.
As soon as you open the windows, after a chilly night, an air of promise floats over the countryside. The joy you feel comes from a feeling where strength and lightness are curiously mixed. Everything seems so fragile yet and yet already so strong.
March. The time of pruning olive trees. What emotion.
Even if it is still cold in the morning, the temperatures rise during the day: 14, 15, 16 sometimes 20°. The first birdsongs fills the olive groves and accompanies the “click, click” of the shears.
Like all those who were not born in the Italian countryside, I initially only knew of Italian landscapes through painters. For me, it was the “Galerie des Italiens” at the Louvre, before discovering the Academy of Venice, the Vatican Museum or the Uffizi of Florence…
A year is coming to an end. As another one begins, the first narcissus start to bloom. In February, the almond trees will be covered in delicate, white flowers; then, in March, it will be the wild pear trees, which can then be grafted with other varieties of pears...
As surprising as it may seem, bitterness is one of the taste qualities of olive oil. At first glance, bitter flavours tend to be associated with what we want to discard. Young children reject bitter-tasting foods, preferring sweeter things. Even animals tend to stay away from plants with bitter flavors.
“We have to start picking the olives. Without delay.” said Andrea, our agronomist, one day after having visited our olive groves.
We all feel a little excited. Of course, we had been waiting for this moment for several weeks. We had prepared the olive groves: trimmed the grass and removed the branches at the bottom of the trees to be able to spread the nets correctly. Nevertheless, we were impatiently looking forward to this moment.
The tradition of the Palio is alive in Tuscany, not only in Siena but also in many medieval villages. The Palio of Campagnatico, a few kilometers away from Villa Ambretta, is held every year in September along the thousand-year-old walls.
Behind the folklore of the race in which several riders compete, each representing a district of the city, there is the life of the Contrada. Originally, the Contrada was a neighborhood that had to provide and maintain a company of soldiers for the defense of the city. Each Contrada had its coat of arms, its colours, its costumes, its symbol, its hymn and a place where the members met.
"Listen to the silence", says Michael.
As we lean against the railing of the terrace of the Villa Ombrone, our eyes are lost in the vast panorama illuminated by the setting sun. The eyes follow the green meanders of the trees that run along the river, then get lost in the multicolored puzzle of the fields, and then follow the rows of olive groves that go up the already blue hills.
"This silence" he says again.
Summer in Tuscany comes with long, warm days that surround the Villa Ambretta in a soft slumber.
From the early hours of the morning, the blinds open onto a strong sun that no cloud in the blue sky will be able to hide. In the shade, the terrace smells of coffee and dry, hot grass. Another hot summer day; soon, the morning birdsongs will be replaced by the repetitive chirping of the cicadas.
When people see Tuscany for the first time, they are immediately struck by the beauty of the landscape, which has been sculpted by its inhabitants for centuries.
Then, as they get to know the region, the diversity of the lines becomes more apparent. The empty and colour-changing slopes of the San Gimignano region, the orderly Chianti vines, the soft, bronze-coloured hills of the Senese, the cypress alleys of the Val d'Orcia, and the pines along the coast are only some examples of this Tuscan diversity.
During the height of winter, when the sun sets early, it is difficult to imagine the warmth of the month of June and the long summer evenings spent outside.
But at last, here we are. June has come, bringing with it those wonderful nights.
Spring tends to creep up on city dwellers from Northern Europe. One day, they notice an avenue whose trees are suddenly covered in leaves. The next day, the prunus trees on the squares are wrapped up in pink flowers. As they leave the city, they start to see small colourful spring flowers sprinkled on the hills.
At the beginning of May, sitting at the terrace of a cafe, it hits them – spring is here, in all its might, like the earthy rhythms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
The word "Tuscany" immediately makes people think of sunny fields, with lined-up cypress trees contrasting against the blue skies, soft green hills, sometimes yellow after the harvest, and beautiful beaches surrounded by elegant pine trees.
All of this is, however, only made possible thanks to the rain.
As the fear of nightly frosts fades, the olive fields start buzzing with people, equipped with pruning shears and saws. Ladders appear on the trees. Tractors gather twigs and branches in a pile. Here and there, fires are lit up, and their smoke rises towards the sky. It is time to trim the olive trees.
But why do we need to trim the trees?
The months of January and February are the coldest season on the coastal side of Tuscany. It is, however, a relatively pleasant cold, as it is often dry and comes with bright blue skies. During cloudless nights, the thermometer often goes below zero - but during the day, it can reach about 15 degrees.
Frost is dangerous for the olives; temperatures below -5 to -10 are usually a threat to the harvest, depending on the variety of olive trees. But low temperatures, especially during the night, remain important for the farming of olive trees and the production of a high quality olive oil.
Every morning, when we open the blinds, our eyes naturally wonder towards the Monte Amiata, made more visible in the winter by its snowy silhouette that contrasts with the blue of the sky.
My wife, Muriel, often tells me that it reminds her of Hokusai’s painting of the Mount Fuji.
December is the first month of winter, but in Maremma it is full of wonders and surprises.
At night, the thermometre can drop below zero, and we sometimes wake up to beautiful white patterns of frost in the fields. But as soon as the first rays of the sun light up the vally, the fog dissipates and the air warms up. The temperature often reaches above 15 degrees, and towards the end of the morning it is more than warm enough to enjoy a coffee at the terrace of one of the Corso Carducci cafés in Grosseto. Even on Christmas day, we are usually able to have lunch outside!
Few people are aware of this, but olive oil makers value the taste of their oil just as much as winemakers value the flavour of their wine. Similarly to wine, olive oil also has its own sommeliers.
We can taste oil the same way we taste wine… every time with renewed interest.
The quality of olive oil depends on a number of different variables. The most central one is, of course, the olives, as each variety produces an oil with a distinct flavour profile. In our olive fields, we cultivate five different varieties of olive trees, which all have the "PGI - Tuscany" certification.
It is then time for the harvest. It is carried out when the green olives start to darken and take on a lovely brownish-purple colour. Olive oils that have been harvested at the right time will be flavourful and have a slight spicy aftertaste, and can have a delicately bitter finish.
Living in Maremma, at the Villa Ambretta, allows us to enjoy the beauty of everyday events and things – this blog seeks to share this renewed joy with you.