Italy update: Introducing our label!

It has been a while since we posted something but we have been keeping busy plus we had some life drama to deal with.

Unfortunately, our mother suffered a broken leg the same day she was released from the hospital following knee-replacement surgery. That resulted in another operation and a long stay at the hospital. Making sure she was as comfortable as possible and visiting her on a daily basis took up a lot of our spare time. We happily report all is now well and she is back home!

In between our daily hospital visits, we have been focusing on details regarding our Italian escape. Having an amazing resource like mature olive trees is a treasure. Flip through any history book and witness how the past of Calabria is riddled with military exploits to control this fertile land.  Why not cultivate what the ancients fought over! Our dream has expanded beyond just escaping – it has evolved into a new reality. We aren’t just visiting, we have planted ourselves. Bringing our oil to market is part of that and we are quite literally watching our “baby” bloom.

First we imported a fifty litre drum of oil and offered it to friends.  We wanted objective opinions because its hard to be dispassionate when its your passion! We bottled it ourselves and that torturous endeavor required cool heads and steady hands. Steff is more of a Zen-master label applier and I was mostly banished to a more “supervisory” role. We all have our strengths hahaha!  The response has been amazing and we have now taken the formal step of setting up our label to meet government standards for retail sale.

After looking at thousands (no joke) of photos of olives and spending many hours strolling around shops and supermarkets in Toronto we drafted an idea for a label. We knew what sort of “look” we were going for and hired a local designer Kait Bos to help us with the finishing touches. Kait was great to work with and definitely helped us create a label we both love. The sisters proudly present:

Drum roll please ……da da dah dahhhh!

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CASA SORELLE EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL!

 Coming to a store near you!!

 

 

 

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The re-education of the sisters: Holiday special

Over the holidays we had the pleasure of staying with Mary and Anna in Swinford, County Mayo (Ireland) for our second round of “life on the farm” lessons. Our mother accompanied us and jumped on board to push herself beyond urban retirement and learn something new. Given that our mum is booked for knee replacement surgery in the coming weeks she was a trooper and an inspiration! Who says a dog of a certain age can’t learn new tricks! False! and we have photographic evidence to prove it!

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Turkeys taking an indoor stroll

Our flight out of Toronto to Dublin missed a massive ice storm by a matter of hours and weather avoidance was the re-occurring theme of our trip.  We were tucked in by the fire in Mary’s living room having a festive cocktail (another re-occurring theme) when we received a number of texts from friends in Toronto worried we were stuck in a travel vortex that only Heathrow can provide. Not the case this time and we were well on our way to another life changing trip. We also missed massive flooding in Galway when we spent the afternoon shopping for amazing hand knit sweaters. A couple of hours after we left the city limits, the area was flooded with sea water while once again we were enjoying a drink by the fire. Luck of the Irish definitely!

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The cliffs of Moher

As we were staying on the farm close to the holidays, we were geared up to help “harvest” Christmas dinner.  Knowing that Mary and Anna raise turkeys specifically for this time of year we really wanted to push ourselves to make sure we were up to scratch. Turkeys are surprisingly big when they are upright, never mind that they look like the cross between a lizard and a duvet. They are so much bigger than chickens and I don’t think Steff nor I had ever stood beside one up close. Maybe once on a school trip or when visiting the Royal Winter Fair but nothing in recent memory. They are not pretty but they are very gentle, lovely (and tasty) creatures and before anyone gets upset reading that they were also taking their last walk – they had an awesome, healthy, and well-fed life.

Mum plucking a turkey

Mum plucking a turkey

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Steffanie and Anna working hard!

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Laura a proud, newly skilled feather plucker !

It was another link completed in our quest. We dealt with the turkeys from start to finish, we dispatched them, plucked them, cleaned them and we cooked one for our festive dinner. The remarkable thing was the taste and quality. There was a layer of natural fat that kept the breast meat succulent beyond anything I had ever eaten before. Mary also showed us an amazing cooking tip and de-boned the legs. By doing this it avoids the dry-as-sawdust breast meat. By removing the legs then roasting the chest and de-boned leg meat in separate pieces, it balances out the cooking time. This way everything stays moist and delicious!  Will definitely do that at home from now on!

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Mary’s centre piece of local flowers and holly. Multi-talented lady!

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Yum! Great carving job Steff!

Willing to say, it was a challenge to deal with an animal that is at least 14 kilos but Mary and Anna showed us a very quick and effective way to get them table ready. Sparing the gory details, the first one was a big step and we both had a long pause before the deed was done. While I can’t speak for my sister, my thoughts were wanting to make sure it was done properly and how I wanted to make sure that its sacrifice was not wasted.  I have never hunted in my life and until last year the only thing I killed was a house plant or two.  Now I think I have more insight when I hear hunters talking about the relationship and connection that they project when they track their target.

It was another life changing trip filled with new knowledge, confidence gained, reuniting with friends and mentors. Even better our mum was with us every step of the way and as we discovered was a naturally talented plucker of feathers – who knew! Guess those chin hairs were great practice!

tee-hee (going to get a smack for publishing that one!)

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Green fields of Ireland

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Mum looking more glamorous and out celebrating

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Italian Update: and the walls came tumbling down!

Our Italian farmhouse came with a barn. It survived the many years without feathery or furry occupants only by the hairs of its chinny-chin chin. It desperately needed emergency surgery and fast! During our last trip we noticed tiles had fallen in on the roof and knew that if we didn’t deal with the situation, it would only get worse and more expensive.  And before we could say “now what” –  Ralph (our Italian contact and frequent advisor) sorted a temporary situation out that is currently giving us enough time to come up with the best use for the space.

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The barn really needed help and fast!

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The reinforcement around foundation begins!

Basically, we have put a cement brace around the building and given it a new fancy roof. We didn’t start off with the brace as a solution but as we were having a cement post put in, the entire corner of the building fell off. When we got the text telling us the news of the wall collapsing there was a lot of reading and then re-reading the words because it didn’t really sink in.

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And then the wall fell down – winner of scariest text so far

“Does that really say – the wall collapsed, need to replace whole front wall”

“Yes”

That sort of communication exchange not only stirs up emotions of heart-fluttering fear but also of determination. It has not been the first time we were faced with making a decision spur of the moment about some aspect of the renovation. We knew the barn was in dire shape and having the front of the building fall off in the end was not entirely a surprise.

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The roof of the barn before

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Steel beam reinforcement for the new roof

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Almost done! What a difference!

We envision using one section as a guest cabin space with loft bedroom and one section as “office” whatever that will come to mean.

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Emergency surgery completed – now the final decisions can be made

At least it will continue standing upright while we decide. It’s been a fun time researching cabins, there are a lot of clever ideas and we are keeping files of things we like and can afford and possibly build ourselves.  I am currently obsessed with things you can make with pallet wood. It is another challenge and look forward to putting our woodworking skills to good use!

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Italian update: Life is a driveway

This summer the house renovations involved large rocks, small rocks, loud machinery, bureaucracy, pissing off the neighbours and dust – lots and lots of dust. A full arc of activity and emotions!

As our time in Italy can only be done in quick snippets during vacations, the big decisions need to be done well in advance. Luckily, we have the advice and wisdom of our indispensable director of operations Ralph Chiodo. We would be lost without him! Ralph has taken us under his wings and made so much of this life changing project happen without tears. Maybe a lot of sweat, dirt, endless hours of discussion and emails – but no tears so far. All hail Ralph!

Our latest adventure involved the upgrading of a driveway and dealing with the crumbling wall attached to it. The wall needed to be pulled down and replaced before the rains of autumn started. The driveway had been neglected for many years when the house was unoccupied and the wall was creating a perilous area next to the kitchen causing drainage issues and safety concerns.

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Wall along the driveway before

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Old wall and driveway view from above

We decided to replace the wall with armour stones (at a few tonnes each) instead of bricks and cement because we love the rustic feel to it and we will eventually plant lavender and other herbs between the boulders, giving us both colour and fragrance.

The first day of activity was incredibly loud. I have never stood beside a back hoe before and when they get all fired up – they make one hell of a racket! No wonder the neighbours gave us evil looks! I think we have decades of apologies coming our way in that regard.

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The wall being pulled down – its all very, very quiet!

By mid-morning, the retaining wall and fig trees were pulled down. It is unfortunate that we had to sacrifice a couple of trees however, we are offsetting the loss by planting more olive and fruit trees this autumn. It is also a relief to know that this rainy season, the wall will no longer heave with water threatening to burst at any moment – straight into our kitchen window! It is finally gone from everything except for the photos on my camera. And we are not the least bit sad about it!

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Wall being pulled down

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Wall being cleared of remaining trees and dirt

Once the wall came down, then came the gravel and the placement of the boulders. By lunch we were all nicely covered in a layer of dirt that would have made Pigpen of Charlie Brown fame brown with envy! The boulders were arranged with Ralph directing every centimeter. I have to give the back hoe driver credit for his nimble abilities and super sonic hearing over that engine. It was a delicate operation and we all love the final result!

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Good bye wall!

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A new wall begins!

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Things take shape!

Not so sure the neighbour agrees with it all. Besides the evils looks there was a complaint to our local municipal government about our driveway. Initially it was a bit scary having a series of officials debating in the shade of our Oleander trees several days running. There were lots of hand gestures and shoulder shrugging and speaking at verbal speeds that broke the sound barrier.  It was such rapid verbal staccato I think I understood only when they stopped long enough to inhale. My sister is much better at “excited” level Italian.  Everything was settled after a series of phone calls on our behalf as well as emails and the relief of us having all the required permits. We now have a friendly relationship with all the official car driving folks. Being Canadian and foreigners it is Ralph-approved wisdom to make sure all the paperwork is on hand and in triplicate just in case. This noisy enterprise will no doubt be the subject of discussion at the Bar Centrale when the topic is the foreign Amazons.

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smoothing things out both literally and metaphorically

Life is a driveway. It’s filled with noise, hand waiving, dirt, giving directions, taking directions, gossip for the neighbours and change whether you like it or not. Personally, we think it is fabulous!

Cheers to a job well done!

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Our new wall and driveway!

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View from the top of the new driveway!

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The re-education of the sisters: Bees

After our Massachusetts cheese safari, Steffanie and I along with Kathryn – our lifelong pal headed out to the rolling hills and chilly springtime lakes of Northern Ontario. To Restoule to be exact. Restoule is located about an hour and half away from North Bay Ontario, which is several hours drive north from Toronto.  Our destination was Board’s Honey Farm for a two day workshop learning beekeeping 101. I will absolutely admit beekeeping seemed a step well outside our comfort zone but we were all very intrigued about bees – especially with the growing alarm regarding their dying off in large numbers!

For our accommodation, we booked ourselves a self-catering cabin at Cedar Grove Camp. It was a really sweet find! Run by a friendly and accommodating young couple and their family, we had arrived fulled prepared even for the blackflies! For those of you who have never experienced blackflies in the spring and early summer, they are barely visible, flesh slicing, ________!(add your favourite swear word here) We suited ourselves up in these bug outfits used by hikers and other crazy people who refuse to give in to the swarms of these menaces. They are loose fitting netting that go over the clothing and while not 100% –  they are quite effective! Oh and you can drink though them as proven below!

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After a great night’s sleep (the crisp air off the lake with a fire was heavenly but made late nights impossible) we headed off to Board’s honey farm for our first day learning the art of the beekeeping.

Stef Board is a master beekeeper who makes it all seem perfectly easy to grasp because of his endless enthusiasm and love of these amazing creatures.When introduced to the yard, we learned Stef’s system – any hive with a stone standing up has a queen, the ones with the stone laying down have no queen and need attention! Simple.

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Within a few minutes in the bee yard Stef handed me a panel of bees when I had not yet put a net on or gloves or anything more protective than sunglasses and lip gloss. With no time to panic, all I could do was just to concentrate on not dropping them. I may be smiling but in my head was a totally, more swear-ridden story!

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It was an amazing experience! It was all very hands on and learning by doing and observing. Some new surprising facts:

  • Most honeybees are considered to be Italian. Beekeeping there goes back millennia and they are much calmer than the African varieties.
  • Bears actually want to eat the bee larva rather than the honey. Which would have made the Winnie the Pooh books very, very different I think!

Throughout the weekend we not only spent time working with bees, we also learned about the health benefits of honey, pollen and the incredible healing power of actual bee stings! Apparently, bee venom is a true life elixir and can be used to treat a variety of ailments.

Another amazing bee fact:

  • Bee pollen is so complete with protein and vitamins you could live on it! Wow!

Together we helped equalise the hives in the bee yard. This is done by introducing new queens to hives without one, and then adding bees to hives with too few. This ensures the bees have enough honey to thrive and enough space for new bees.

In order to accomplish this we learned to use smokers, hive tools and newspaper(!) Newspaper is used when introducing a new queen to the hive. This gives the hive time to adjust to the new queen’s scent as they chew through the paper to find her. Scent is how bees communicate with each other  – including a very distinct alarm scent that will send out the troops! cheese and bees 093

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After our time in the bee yard we then got a few lessons in using wax to make candles. A skill I am really woeful at and Steffanie definitely more of star in that regard.

What an eye opening, challenging weekend! All three of us despite our anxiety of swarms of angry, flying, stinging insects fell in love with these amazing creatures! I would urge all those who read this blog to please read the label on all of your gardening fertilizers and avoid any with neo-nicotinoids. This class of chemical has been banned in Europe and I hope Canada will follow suit.  Neo-nicotinoids destroy not only the brain chemistry in bees making it impossible for them to navigate but also seriously harms birds and other wildlife!

We need the bees as much as the bees need us. Please do your part and look after them where you can and ban neo-nicotinoids!

Long live the bee!

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The re-education of the sisters: Cheese

As part of a gift from our dear mother, we headed off to the wilds of Massachusetts to attend a cheese making seminar given by the Queen of Cheese – Riki Carroll of the New England Cheese Making Company. The three of us embarked on a family road trip and were looking forward to seeing a part of the USA we had never been before and of course learning something new. We were staying in the quite breathtaking Berkshire mountains and as a bonus were greeted by cherry blossoms in bloom.  They were a welcomed sight after arriving from a cold and chilly Toronto.cheese and bees 001

The next morning after a butter-sodden lobster dinner and thick creamy Boston chowder, we headed for another dairy explosion – a full day of cheese! There wasn’t an empty chair in the classroom and the people were from all walks of life. It was reassuring that so many different people are interested in this sort of food adventure.

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During the course of the day each table was responsible for making a wheel of farmhouse cheddar. This sort of cheese isn’t difficult to make (at least with supervision) but it is definitely fiddly and has a list of steps that must be followed. But work shared is work halved and our table was quite pleased with the look of our end results despite not getting to try it. As cheddar must age, we had to suffice with sampling the previous class’s efforts. Riki walked us through each step as well as demonstrations of making several different types of cheese and yoghurt.

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The yoghurt was a revelation to be honest – it has been a long time since I have eaten yoghurt that didn’t have a gelatinous texture to it. Instead, we were treated to creamy deliciousness made right in front of us – in an instant. As I shake my fist to the sky like Scarlett O’ Hara…I swear, I will never buy store yoghurt again!

Riki also showed us how to make queso blanco, ricotta, mozzarella and two types of soft cheese.  It was dairy information overload but with the delicious lunch served with the newly made cheeses, it was inspiration enough to put our new skills to work!

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Many thanks to Riki for an excellent day out and for those looking to venture into the grand world of dairy, I recommend paying a visit to the New England Cheese Company.  Trust me, the next day you will start wondering where to find someone with a cow! Or perhaps a goat…

The New England Cheese Company website:

http://www.cheesemaking.com/

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The re-education of the sisters: This time its BYOC (bring your own chair)!

For her birthday I bought Steffanie a reupholstery course that was highly recommended. (restylestudiotoronto.com)  The course offers beginners a unique space to learn the art and skills of reupholstery.    Along with instruction, the studio provides the necessary materials to get you started. Students bring their own fabric for the final stages and of course you need to bring your own chair! BYOC darlings!

The course covered everything right from how to strip the piece down to the framework, how to put in new springs and finally, how to  add the final  flourishes that make it your own. Having recovered a casual dining set (currently residing in rejuvenated style in la casa di Laura) Steffanie decided to take on a much bigger project.

Enter a 1960’s tub chair that had been calling out for help. The chair had been recovered for a second time in the 1980’s with a shiny, geometric pattern and the fabric quite literately disintegrated into dust. Ah the eighties, design horrors of epic and dusty proportions! I think it was ambitious to take on such a large chair however, Steffanie is a brave one and attacked it like a pack of wolves.

Although the course was one weekend long, the chair proved to be a larger task. A couple of extra studio days were needed but the end result is quite impressive – Well done sister! To add to the mystery, Steffanie kept the final fabric and design a secret until the big reveal. No amount of wealsely or sly questions could get any sort of meaningful detail out of her. When the last touches were completed we had a bit of a party in the chair’s honour and Steffanie got to show off her masterpiece in style.

Steffanie brought the chair into the modern day and she also gained new passions for air compressors and staple guns!  Next step will be my sofa and I get to be the apprentice. That should prove entertaining at the very least.ImageImage

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on with the new!

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