March has been a month for working in the garden. There’s the gas tank enclosure to complete – the fence is up but I have yet to build and hang the gate. Other than that it’s plants that have been the main focus of activity. Early in the month I went on an Internet hunt for Poncirus Trifoliata, the Hardy – or Japanese Bitter – Orange. This shrub, closely related to the ancestor of modern oranges, has interested me for some time. Coming from China (notwithstanding the name) it’s hardy down to -22°F so it can be grown pretty well anywhere – certainly in England – and after producing highly scented flowers bears large numbers of two-inch bitter fruit ideal for making marmalade.
Now it’s true that real oranges can be grown here without problems, and indeed many streets throughout France and Italy are lined with oranges of the Seville variety – relatively hardy and bitter. At this time of year the fruit is fully mature and starting to drop off the trees; nobody collects it because Italians have little use for bitter oranges, marmalade being an English sort of thing. But my interest isn’t in the fruit, though that’s a bonus. Poncirus also bears some of the most impressive thorns of any plant outside the cactus world. In Venezuela it’s grown round zoo enclosures to prevent tigers from escaping, and elsewhere round prisons for a similar purpose. Yer actual briar bush of Brer Rabbit fame. My need is to keep things out; wild pigs to be specific, and a natural barrier that has pretty flowers, smells good and bears edible fruit seems ideal.
When I looked for Poncirus a few years ago I found a supplier in England selling plants for £12 each, but I need rather a lot of them so the cost even without postage would be prohibitive. However, I found a seed supplier in Oregon (http://seedrack.com) offering packs of ten seeds for $3.62, so I decided to try and grow them from seed. I have no idea how long it’ll take to get a plant big enough to keep out wild pigs, but at that price I have little to lose. I also discovered a host of other interesting-looking plants on the same site, so my order soon reached nearly 50 dollars. Little over a week later the seeds arrived; a pretty impressive service. So now an area of the garden is full of pots, and the seedlings should start to appear over the next month or so.
One of the regular night-time sounds is the croaking of frogs. Usually down the valley towards the river but occasionally close at hand from one or other of the olive trees near the house. The frogs can sometimes be heard in the daytime too, but up till now we’ve never been able to spot where they were as they fall quiet as soon as we approach. On this occasion, however, I saw this little fellow just outside our front door, hopping along the gravel on his way to or from a likely croaking venue. He’s about an inch and a half long and very shy about having his picture taken but I managed to snap him before he leapt away. We’re quite a long way from the nearest water so they can cover quite a lot of ground.
Every day the sun creeps further to the left for its dawn appearance, and peeps over Monte Bignone a little earlier each morning. This picture was taken on March 8 at 7.51am. Since then, the advance of dawn has accelerated and by the equinox on March 21 the sun was rising off the left-hand edge of the photo and about 45 minutes earlier than on the 8th.
When we bought this house I was initially unsure if an east-facing aspect was a good thing. Back in England I’d always go for west-facing so as to get the evening sun for as long as possible. But here people always tell you how hot it gets in summer so I figured it might be a blessing to lose the sun relatively early in the evening. So far we’ve only encountered an autumn and a winter and for me the predictability of sunrise is still a bit of a novelty. In winter it’s good to get the sun as early as possible so as to warm up the house for nothing and save on central heating. We found that on most sunny days we could manage without the radiators all day, which represents quite a saving on gas, then if we worked in the garden until it got dark at about five we could fire up the wood-burning stove and not use the radiators at all. So far I’d say east is best.
Last week the weather took a turn for the worse and we had several days of cool, cloudy days and nights with a touch of ground frost. All the trees that had started to bud simply stopped dead and waited for Spring to return. In the evenings we got through most of our remaining stock of firewood, mostly to avoid running the central heating. But it looks like the cold snap is over; the buds are turning to leaves and we can shed an outer garment or two. The unfortunate thing was that it didn’t actually rain properly during the cold spell. People round here are predicting a water shortage this summer, which is something of a cause for worry, both for the thought of managing without a daily shower and for the risk of forest fires.
Cold weather does at least confer the benefit of being able to do physical outdoor work without getting sweaty and uncomfortable. The area outside our front door felt a little aesthetically unbalanced; on one side is a seating area underneath steel bars that we cover with bamboo matting in summer to keep out the heat, but the other side was basically nothing, just an area of gravel. So we decided to build a pergola. The plan is to grow vines up the posts and over the top, to provide a shaded area for the hot days of summer (if they ever arrive). With help from our daughter and son-in-law, who were visiting us for the week, it all came together in just a few days with no major mistakes, loss of blood or broken tools, which may surprise those who know me as something of a bodger (Personal motto: Give me the job and I’ll finish the tools). It certainly surprised me that everything fitted with no pile of spares left at the end, so maybe there’s hope for me after all.
And finally a note on some local restaurants. Earlier this month we had lunch at il Giardino, a restaurant in the little village of Vallebona, just up the valley from Bordighera. This place has an awesome reputation for value for money so we’d been planning to go there some time, but then our neighbours asked us if we’d like to join them for a birthday celebration. The road leads out of Bordighera for a few miles through typically Mediterranean landscape of palm trees and whitewashed, red-tiled houses, then ends abruptly at the village piazza; a pleasant-looking collection of buildings one of which is the restaurant. It was a Saturday lunchtime and the four of us parked ourselves in a corner of the room; high-ceilinged and large enough to easily seat a hundred or more. There’s no menu; you place your trust in their ability to deliver a good meal, so fussy eaters should probably avoid it. We lost count of the courses; they just keep arriving one after another with only short gaps between. It was probably twelve or so. None are large but the entire process takes a couple of hours and you certainly don’t go away hungry. The traditional three stages of an Italian meal are antipasti (hors d’oevres), primi piatti (first courses, mainly pasta) and secondi piatti (second courses, essentially meat) and each were represented by three or four different dishes. I can’t remember if we had coffee at the end but I do recall two bottles of wine being part of the event. The most amazing thing, however, was the cost; €110 for all four of us, truly staggering value for such an excellent meal.
Less excellent value but still good is La Favorita, on the edge of Apricale and widely advertised over the area. Although not the classiest restaurant in the village (that honour is believed to belong to Apricale da Delio, the choice of Michael Winner) it offers good food at a sensible price and without the slightly over-the-top level of service encountered at da Delio.
Finally I should put in a good word for the Bar Tarrocchi, beside the road passing through Apricale. We went there for lunch with our daughter and son-in-law and can highly recommend it. A limited menu but inexpensive and of excellent quality. I’ve heard that service can be slow there but on this occasion it was quite acceptable.