Keeping warm in winter

It’s now a week since I returned to Italy from Coventry. 29 months of sitting at a desk all day has suddenly been replaced by heavy manual labour – maintenance of half an acre of mountainside covered in olive trees, where practically nothing has been touched for over a decade. The biggest challenge is deciding where to start, but the overriding priority has to be fuel.

Here just as elsewhere heating a house get more expensive every year, so a bit of planning does no harm at all. Surrounding me are about 50 mature olive trees, mostly laden with olives – or what’s left of the crop after some ferocious winds on Christmas Day. Many of the trees are themselves surrounded by an impenetrable mass of brambles, so the usual practice of laying out nets is a non-starter as it will be impossible to lift them again. But the wood of the trees themselves – that’s a different matter. Olive is prime quality firewood but it takes several months after cutting before the bigger logs have dried out enough to be split with an axe. So it’s time to start preparing now for next winter.

In the meantime we have the pellet boiler/stove. This consumes up to two 15kg bags a day if the boiler is kept on all day. Some rough math; each bag is about €5; more in winter, less in summer especially if bought in bulk. So that’s €70/week or €280/month. Say €300/month just to be on the safe side. If the log burner in the living room is running the boiler has less work to do and of course everything depends on the weather, but we can expect three months – December to February – to be cold while November and March are much less so. And of course when the days are longer the heating isn’t needed so much.

I read recently that it costs £1500/year to heat and provide hot water for the average English house. So given that we have a fairly sizable space we’re not doing badly if we can stay within that figure. If we can replace a good part of the pellet component with firewood from our own garden (the boiler burns either) the cost falls dramatically, though there’s extra work in the daily cleaning out of the grate.

All of which puts a value of at least €1000 on a season’s firewood, which is way more than we could expect to get for this year’s olives. So forget the harvest; the cutting must begin, to ensure a good supply for next winter.

131231-1It’s quite amazing how much leaves and twiggy stuff are on an average tree. I started by trimming some bushes that were getting overgrown; the left picture is before, the right after and in the middle the pile of trimmings. Then I took off the upper branches of one olive tree. The resulting pile is now immense, covering most of the terrace, and will take a morning to dispose of in a bonfire. Such a shame we can’t burn the stuff to heat the house.

Another job was to finish the job that Walter started a couple of months ago. The other day I had a bonfire with all the stuff he’d trimmed, and finished off by clearing the steps of all the earth and trailing branches he hadn’t had time to do that day.

131231-2It may sound pathetic but in Coventry I didn’t have a social life for two years. This isn’t just because I’m an antisocial old git; I never expected to be there that long and didn’t want to get too embedded for when it was time to leave. All that changed with a bang a week ago; Christmas was a succession of invitations to people’s houses and it’s set to continue into the New Year. Naturally we’ll have to organise something here too before long. Some of the houses we visited had central heating. This may sound odd but it’s amazing how many people we know who seem to be immune to cold. We may be just off the Riviera but we get real winters here with night temperatures often only just above freezing, yet houses – seemingly built as though it’s year-round summer – have cold pockets in most rooms.

And with that I’ll wish my readers a happy – and warm – New Year.

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